Most of us have an innate sense of what wisdom is. We recognize it in others who are calm, collected and have a clear head. This is the reason I think of wisdom as going hand-in-hand with self-awareness.
“A smart person knows what to say. A wise person knows whether or not to say it.” – Anonymous
Without wisdom, we can say and do things that have destructive consequences. With wisdom, we avoid these outcomes by tempering our words and actions with forethought and a healthy degree of restraint. This is why the more we practice mindfulness, the more in touch with our wisdom we become.
In Buddhist thought, wisdom is about understanding things as they actually are, not as they appear to be. When we’re upset our perceptions can be wildly distorted, which is why learning to remain calm in stressful situations is essential to accessing the wisdom within us.
At its foundation, wisdom is about learning to restrain fear-based impulses. When our brain’s survival switch is tripped, chemicals flood our system urging us to fight, flee or freeze. This might present itself as chronic anger, anxiety or shutting down. When I’m aware I’ve been triggered, I take that as my cue to slow down and sit with my response before sharing or taking action on what I’m thinking.
If I make a point to connect with it, wisdom reminds me to question the validity of thoughts filling my head when I’m upset or anxious. This questioning is so important because when you are in a reactive state your thoughts will follow a familiar set of distortions. For example…
Every time I try something new, it all goes badly.
My (sibling, coworker, partner, parent, etc.) always has to sabotage everything I work towards.
I will never get this right!
But if you wait until you’ve calmed down, you’ll be able to see that these thoughts are colored by the extremes of your emotions. They aren’t actually true.
The Wisdom of the Pause
In a previous post, I talk about pressing “Pause” on the types of thoughts that contribute to anxiety. Pressing “Pause” on the story you tell yourself when you’re upset can be a very helpful strategy for giving you the space to engage with the part of you that knows to be wise. When you make an effort to engage with inner wisdom by challenging the validity of what you’re thinking, you’ll likely find that when you do tip out of power, there is a story with a common theme that keeps coming up. There might be variations on that theme, but it will still follow the same well-rehearsed lines.
So, when you recognize that your blood pressure is rising and your inner monologue is running:
- Take a moment to simply notice that you are upset.
- Press “Pause” on whatever your mind is telling you.
- Question the accuracy of what you’re thinking.
The sooner you are able to challenge the validity of your thoughts when you’re upset, the wiser you will be to the distortions in what you’re thinking. It won’t happen overnight, but if you keep pressing “Pause” to reset, you will get there.
How can pressing “Pause” reconnect you with your inner wisdom when you’re triggered?
The answer is: you then make a point to Breathe.
The simple act of repeatedly bringing your mind’s wandering thoughts back to your breath actually stimulates the part of your brain that can quiet down the stress response and give you access to wisdom. A few minutes is all it takes to bring increased blood flow and activity to your brain’s self-awareness and calm center. Here’s how it works:
Take a slow, deep breath. Drop those tense shoulders. Let them be heavy and relaxed on the inhale, sliding down toward your back pockets on the exhale. Continue the sequence for as long as you like, keeping your mind focused primarily on relaxing and releasing tension through the breath.
We make much better choices when we are willing to simply sit with the situation until we feel calm and clear about our best options. This is why it is so essential to slow down and recognize when your reactive emotions are still churning. Slowing down allows you to see that your best option under stress is to delay making a decision about what to do (or not do) until you’re calm.
When you support your well-being, you reduce your reactivity to stress and encourage self-compassion about your failures and mistakes. This creates the perfect conditions for accurate perception and self-awareness that enable you to cultivate your inner wisdom.
Take good care : )