How to get my wisdom score to 18?
March 10, 2006 1:26 PM   Subscribe

How to become more wise? How do you grow morally, ethically, and spiritually?

As you go along your life trying to become a better person, what speeds you on your way? What helps you move along the path toward being the person you want to be? What helps you discover personal blind spots or places you're "stuck"?

Do you have basic principles that are your key guides, that themselves help you become wiser? Certain activities or practices you do to develop these characteristics? Particular experiences that have taken you to another level?
posted by salvia to Religion & Philosophy (41 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Relentless self-reflection, combined with placing your self in situations outside your normal experience.

A few years ago I sold almost everything I owned and went off to wander around the world alone. Among other things, I eventually realized that with my social circle constantly changing, I could get up every morning and decide who I wanted to be that day. Freed of the day to day inertia, I experienced many physical, social, and particularly spirtual things that simply would never had happened in my home environment.

Which isn't to say that I am any wiser for it, but I do have a far clearer concept of who I am and what I want than I ever have before.
posted by tkolar at 1:34 PM on March 10, 2006

Make mistakes. Own them and rectify them, when possible. Get humbled, get your heart broken a few times.

Get old without acting your age. I am sorry to say, there are not any fucking shortcuts that I know of.

. . .and I lift my glass to the Awful Truth
which you can't reveal to the Ears of Youth
except to say it isn't worth a dime
-L. Cohen

posted by Danf at 1:35 PM on March 10, 2006

Suffering helps. Going through bad times, trying to learn from them. Alain de Botton covered the subject of suffering in a light hearted way in his book How Proust Can Change Your Life.
For me a turning point was the discovery that I carried the BRCA gene, which forced upon the inescapable reality of my inevitable death. It made me decide to be closer to my family, to focus on the people who truly love me, to be there for them and to try to be kind to them.
I also read something in a Lester Bangs essay about David Byrne that I've pretty much decided to adopt as my motto:
"To feel anxiety is to be blessed by the full wash of life at its ripest chancre- everything else is wax museums."
posted by Sara Anne at 1:43 PM on March 10, 2006

"How do I get to Carnegie Hall?"
"Years of practice, kid."

It's something like that, I think, combined with living an examined life.
posted by teece at 1:43 PM on March 10, 2006

Look to the people you admire and try to emulate them.
posted by billysumday at 1:51 PM on March 10, 2006

Response by poster: I'll throw out my own current favorite -- for about 6 months, I required myself to be 100% honest, without concessions to political correctness, white lies, making excuses for why I was late. Though I did return to telling white lies under certain circumstances, I am now much more aware when the instinct arises to avoid the trth.

Forcing honesty on small issues got me to be much more honest with myself on big issues. And it got me to to confront the difference between what I wanted to be able to say and what I could actually say.

Anyway, just curious what keeps people learning. I know my question invites very abstract responses, but my guess is that for every person, the answers may actually be quite specific.
posted by salvia at 1:57 PM on March 10, 2006

Salvia, this is an interesting question.

I guess there are a lot of paths to wisdom. I wouldn't say I'm actually wise, but it is important to me to gain wisdom. I'm not sure one really needs to set out with it as a project; any wisdom I've managed to develop has come from sheer life experience. I couldn't seem to avoid getting wiser. Some wisdom came from observing the experiences of others, and some from living through my own experiences. However, some people do seem to go through experiences without gaining much wisdom. For that reason, I'd say that the key predictor of becoming wise is paying attention. Don't just endure experience -- look, think, and reflect.

You've prompted me to compile a little list of ways of gaining wisdom, as I think about it.

Painful Experiences: Sadly, this one really comes first. Some of the things that have brought me the most wisdom are the toughest and most painful experiences. They are the challenging ones, and the ones that send you seeking.

Joyful Experiences: Wisdom comes from observing what joyful experiences are like, as well, and what it is that brings meaning and groundedness and value to daily life. Joy is an immense signal that tells us what we want and need and seek.

New and Unusual Experiences: I'm known for almost never turning any activity idea down. I'll try anything (within bounds of health and safety), from a demolition derby to the greased-pig-rassle at the state fair to opera to an Inipi ceremony to rigging climbing to drinking a cornmeal-based Cameroonian beverage to digging for sandworms to trapshooting or, honestly, whatever. Life offers so many chances to have odd and different and special experiences. I almost always say 'yes' to new things. In almost every case, when I try something new I learn something - whether it's just an observation about what others get out of it, or a new skill, or the existence of a physical thrill I couldn't have imagined before.

Challenging Yourself: Setting goals that seem impossible (run a marathon, write a book, quit smoking) or doing difficult things (social service work, achieving a certification, completing an academic program), or things that scare you (falling in love, climbing up high, being out in the dark at night) can all help you grow quite a bit. Most of us are capable of far, far more than we let ourselves believe. Challenging oneself is a great way of discovering your deep reserves of strength, and showing you that you might be more powerful than you guessed.

Other People: You don't have to undergo every experience yourself to gain wisdom from it. Other people are an immense source of wisdom. We often think of older people as wiser; sometimes they are, but I think wisdom is just a function of what and how much you've experienced, and how much you've processed that experience. Some young people who've been through a lot are very wise; some older people who have not accepted challenges lack wisdom. In any case, when you're able to talk with people about their experiences, you learn a lot. So interview people. Be someone who they can talk to. Ask about everything and what it was like -- becoming a parent, going to war, helping someone die, making choices about careers or finance, getting married, travelling -- whatever they've got to contribute. So much can be learned through others; then their experiences become part of your frame of reference.

Exposure to a Variety of Ways of Living: Try visiting, reading about, or researching people and places and cultures different from your own. This usually challenges our accepted ideas about what's normal and regular, and helps us identify what's universal vs. what's culture.

Reading: The more (and the more variety) people read, the more wise they seem to be. I don't just mean spiritual texts, although those are good. I mean novels, too, and nonfiction, and memoir. Again, you're learning from others, imagining yourself in another's shoes, or trying out a new way of seeing the world. I do love some spiritual texts, though. I love myths and legends, the King James Bible (particularly Matthew), the Tao Te Ching, the teachings of Buddha, etc. But I think I get equal value from really great works of poetry. literature, and song.

Tools and Systems: The other day I stumbled across a nifty "life coaching" website that had some good free content on it. I very much liked this secular, philosophical approach to the 12 steps. The 12 steps, in my view, are an excellent key to wisdom; I've never thought they should be solely used for purposes of addiction recovery. They're a road map for a journey that lets you really live a life you can be proud of, on life's terms. But they're not the only thing going, either. Lately I've been interested in cognitive behavioral therapy, which is based on presenting you with evidence about reality and helping you bring your thoughts into alignment with reality. Another MeFite turned me on to this very cool sort of workbook program called MoodGym that's provocative, interesting, and free. Then, there are also what people call the 'occult' -- just more tools for suggesting different ways of viewing a situation. I don't necessarily belive there's magical power in a Tarot card, a Ouija board, or the lines on my hand; but I do believe that someone interpreting those things with me may say something that causes me to think about life in a new way.

A long 2 cents on one of my favorite topics. Thanks for making me think about it.
posted by Miko at 2:05 PM on March 10, 2006 [24 favorites]

Nice question. I found I reaped insights during and after meditation. It takes practice until you can ignore the many thoughts flying through your head. At the beginning I found a little calm and afterwards I got creative thoughts that seem to come from nowhere. After practice thoughts came during and after.
posted by uni verse at 2:08 PM on March 10, 2006

Make mistakes. Own them and rectify them, when possible. Get humbled, get your heart broken a few times.

Excellent advice. I'd also add that you've got to learn from your mistakes -- decide not to keep doing the same thing again (or some variation on the theme) that keeps hurting yourself and hurting others.

My own recent epiphanies include:
- Try to believe the best of everyone. Try to understand that most people who are angry or otherwise hurtful are probably in pain of some sort.
- Choose whether to contribute to others' suffering, or to alleviate it.
- Realize and embrace the fact that life isn't fair. Understand that a life well-lived contains signifcant measures of both sorrow and joy.
- Take care of the present and the future will take care of itself.

(you know, I think I'm becoming a Buddhist...)
posted by scody at 2:09 PM on March 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

Age, humility, contemplation, the right environment, and intellectual and moral effort.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:12 PM on March 10, 2006

Learn how to learn.
posted by ozomatli at 2:21 PM on March 10, 2006

Response by poster: ozomatli, that's kinda what I'm trying to do. How? Or, what do you mean?
posted by salvia at 2:24 PM on March 10, 2006

Take a look at Gandhi's The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Salvia, he did exactly that kind of experimenting in his own life. He discusses, as many have above, the importance of trying out ways of thinking and conceiving the world. You don't become Mahatma overnight and not without much grief!
posted by lovejones at 2:25 PM on March 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

I play a game called "assume I'm wrong." Once a month or so, I list some of my cherished assumptions and assume they're wrong (the more sure I am that they are right, the more likely I am to play this game with them). Assuming they ARE wrong, I try to think in detail how this will change the world, my view of the world, and my life.

I'm an atheist. What if there IS a God? I love my wife. What if I didn't? I'm attracted to women. What if I was attracted to men? I'm middle class. What if I was rich? What if I was poor? I don't believe in the death penalty. Why is the death penalty good? I'm pro choice. Why is abortion wrong? "Citizen Kane" is a great film. How does it suck? I hate such-and-such Metafilter member because he's always berating me. Why is he right?

If any of these questions are painful, I take it as a sign that I am really on to something and push myself to explore it.

Another thing I do is to assume that everything is interesting -- including things that I find boring (this could be applied to people, too). Let's say I'm bored by Geography. Then I'll search for books on Geography and read reviews until I find that one book that elicits "I hated Geography until I read this book!"

I also think "What don't I understand?" Quantum Mechanics? Assembly Language Programming? Latin? Automechanics? Tantric Sex? Is there a good book on the subject? A web site? A video? Even if this isn't literally true, I pretend that I can understand anything and master anything and I try to do so.

I like to look at decisive issues and figure out how both sides are right. Why is abortion sometimes okay and sometimes wrong? Why are both the Israelis and the Palestinian's correct?

I read history. You learn two great lessons from history:

1) Everything old is new again.
2) This too shall pass.

For instance, if you think the whole RIAA vs. mp3-downloaders battle is a 21st Century phenomenon, you should read about the people who used to go to Gilbert & Sullivan operas, transcribe the music while they listened to it, and then sell "bootlegs" in the form of sheet music.

Oh, and eventually the Black Plague in Europe ended.
posted by grumblebee at 2:35 PM on March 10, 2006 [4 favorites]

Get out of your comfort zone. If a situation terrifies you, go and confront it, head on.

Personal reflection and living an examine life is excellent, but nothing quite beats the anxiety, terror, subsequent relief and rush of doing something you're afraid of. You'll realize things about yourself that you would have never suspected before.
posted by lemur at 2:37 PM on March 10, 2006

I guess what I am saying is learn how you can best teach yourself. I assume you have the desire to learn somethingm and that is THE most important first step. Next is to figure out how independantly learn something. Find something, anything and try to see how and why it does what it does, by yourself. Don't look it up. Investigate how your mind works and fine tune it. Connect what you just learned to something else you know. See why you connected them. Challenge something you think you know. Think that the sun is the center of the solar system? Prove it to yourself. Think of something contraversial you beleive in (something subjective like politics or art) and look at it from the other side. You can learn something about you and the world from every experience you ever have.
posted by ozomatli at 2:42 PM on March 10, 2006

Take yourself seriously enough to learn when it is appropriate to listen to your intuitions.

Criticize your own reasoning mercilessly. It is your intuition (or something along those lines) that decides which trains of thought are coherent or consonant, and which are to be rejected.

And read a lot!
posted by sonofsamiam at 2:43 PM on March 10, 2006

Don't use other people's knowledge as a crutch, us it as a ladder.
posted by ozomatli at 2:44 PM on March 10, 2006

I always think of Wm. Blake's

What is the price of experience? Do men buy it for a song?
Or wisdom for a dance in the street?
No, it is bought with the price
Of all a man hath, his house, his wife, his children.
posted by small_ruminant at 2:48 PM on March 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'm really enjoying hearing everyone's ideas! Thanks so much for your thoughtful responses!

I'll throw out another one I like for discovering blind spots -- to consider everything a mirror of my own head. The attribute of my friend that I'm most uncomfortable about, why can't I have patience for it? Usually because I'm really insecure or critical of myself in that area. One of my roommates realized (when watching Dr. Phil) that he had sympathy for people with messed up love lives, but disdain for people with messed up financial lives -- showing him he had financial fears. And I've realized a few times that when I want to ask "are you upset?" it's usually me who's upset.

It's kind of tricky to discern, but I'd guess about half of what I think about the world is actually something I'm thinking about myself.
posted by salvia at 2:55 PM on March 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

Not sure how to sum this up but words like Awe or Celebration or Engagement come to mind.

It is the first sunny warm Friday afternoon of the year here in Chicago and my heart is light with the joy of it. When I took a walk on my lunch today I found myself listening closer, noticing details, allowing myself to be awestruck by the mundanity of the city surrounding. I'm not real sure what wisdom is, but it felt wonderful to discover the shape of a knot on the oak I've passed countless times previously.

We always vacillate between accepting and dismissing input. This post felt real smart when I started it but I guess all I'm suggesting is that one of the ways I think I've become wiser is by trying to dismiss less, and accept more, glad to receive it.
posted by verysleeping at 2:55 PM on March 10, 2006

Oh, and messy trainwreck romantic relationships have taught a thing or two!
posted by verysleeping at 3:06 PM on March 10, 2006

Recognize and own your ignorance. As I get older (now in my mid-40s) I am more impressed by how much I don't know as opposed to how much I do. From an early age, people told me I was smart or clever, and I was labeled as a "gifted child." Much lot of good that did me...

It was really after adopting an attitude of humility that I felt that I started to replace "intelligence" with even the beginnings of wisdom.

Now, I strive to recognize and embrace mistakes -- it ain't easy -- because I think they're the best learning opportunities. I make mistakes. I try to fix them. I learn. I make new mistakes, and the cycle goes round again. At least -- I hope -- I don't keep making the same old ones over again.
posted by Robert Angelo at 6:32 PM on March 10, 2006

Having fewer opinions has helped me a lot. I've found that the less I think I know, the better I feel.

Being empirical has also helped a lot. Trying to figure out who I want to be has been a lot less productive than just trying different ways of living and observing the effects they have on me.

I suspect that ideas like "growth" and "wisdom" are dead ends, just another way of letting ambition stand in the way of actually living my life. Maybe you could try not wanting to be a better person for a while to see how it feels to just be yourself.
posted by fuzz at 6:44 PM on March 10, 2006

Never think you are great. Chances are you're probably okay at best.

Always realise that there are many, many people way smarter, kinder, prettier, more loving and generally better than you will ever be.

Realise that we are all scared, and that our fear tends to make us believe in nonsenses.

Don't believe in nonsenses. Try to be rational and brave, even though it may lead to frightening conclusions.

Don't hurt other people unless they are endangering you or your loved ones or other innocent people.
posted by Decani at 7:56 PM on March 10, 2006

My current basic principle is to use the "that's obvious" approach - the more obvious something appears to be, the more likely that it's an area in need of investigation. Perhaps this is because the smaller a problem is, the easier it is to deconstruct, whereas for larger questions - what is happiness? - we tend to gloss over by using blanket phrases like "well that's obvious."
So if I, or someone else, uses that phrase, I find that's a good time to start asking questions.
posted by forallmankind at 9:00 PM on March 10, 2006

You'll occasionally feel this urge to do something out of character that involves sacrifice. The more you follow it, the more you change. Usually it asks you to do things that are "good" but potentially embarassing or unpleasant.
posted by craniac at 9:53 PM on March 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

practice putting youself in someone else's shoes, looking at things from their point of view. do this especially when you dislike someone or something they are doing. do the very hard work of learning how to not judge people. every time you move from a position of judgment to a position of compassion, you have gained a bit of wisdom.

p.s. this doesn't mean you have to invite them into your home for tea. it's still ok to use discernment in your actions while practicing nonjudgment in your mind (soul, heart, whatever).
posted by lisaj32 at 10:31 PM on March 10, 2006

I agree with grumblebee that deep empathy with other points of view is essential. I'll go further and say that it's important not to confine that to imagination -- you have to actually talk and listen other people. Basically, you have to hear a lot of stories, and test what you already know against them.

All the raw data we're all bombarded with makes developing shorthands essential, but they too easily harden into prejudices. The only way I know to cut through that is by really listening to other people, especially people who seem to be nothing like you, with a combination of openness, logic, and sensitivity -- not just to their words, but to facial expression, to shifts in voice and gesture -- to subtext. It's about learning to hear not just the information conveyed, but how people ignore or omit information, assimilate it from their particular point of view, and assign it weight. The more raw knowledge you have of history, culture, and the basic physical facts of the world, the better context you develop for understanding other people, but raw knowledge is exactly that -- unrefined. It becomes refined through use, and testing, and encounters with other minds and ideas.

For instance, I learned so much about marital and parental love, surviving illness and war and deprivation and terrible loss, as well as more physical things like how to work with your hands, grow food, and take care of tools and repair things from my 70-year-old neighbor. He's a Korean war vet, caring for his slowly dying wife. He's a truly great gardener. (I have never smelled or eaten anything more delicious than the watermelons he grew a few summers ago. I wish I could taste them again.) He was a machinist for most of his working life. He'd lost both of his sons to muscular dystrophy. I knew a bit about many of those subjects from reading and my own life experience, but what I know now, from our conversations and from simply being in his presence as he worked and went about his daily life, is worlds deeper.

And here's another thing: he's not a saint. I learned from his flaws, too: he has a hardness, an impatience with people, and some pretty strong prejudices that are just wrong. But I learned from those to, from finding out what went into creating them. It's so easy to just be repulsed when you encounter profound failings in other people. It's so easy to feel morally superior because you know what they don't. However, you learn as much from the darkness and weakness everyone carries around inside themselves as you do from the best of what they are.

So, I think there are basic attitudes that make us open to gaining wisdom: learning, openness to new ideas and people, and a willingness to have old assumptions challenged. But without a collision with the real, actual world, with other people -- which is goddamn hard what with basic suspicion of the unknown and the desire to avoid being hurt or burdened by other people's problems and needs -- it's much harder to refine all the raw stuff you know about the world and deepen it into anything like wisdom. It's so much simpler to live in safe, reassuring fictions. So accepting pain is an essential part of wisdom, as is humility, and reflection, and yes, joy. Weird, complicated joy, but that's the only kind that comes from hard truth.
posted by melissa may at 12:35 AM on March 11, 2006 [5 favorites]

Pain and heartbreak.
posted by orthogonality at 1:32 AM on March 11, 2006

Saying this as the least wise, most angry member of MeFi: I think it boils down to dehumanization and abstraction, both being different facets of the same state of mind. I truly believe wisdom is ultimately the state of mind that does not focus on one's self to the exclusion of all else.

When we learn to understand other viewpoints, to understand other people, to break down in our own minds the tyranny of distance and disconnect... we begin to be wise in the ways of our fellow human creature. We no longer see everyone else automatons operating in our own personal theatrical production, but understand- and this is not to say without judgment or consequence- why people act the way they do and the unique yet common reasons why they are the way they are, and why we all are the way we are. Understanding our roles as chemical neural baths that operate with a conscious mind deluded into thinking its reactive patterns are in fact always "free will" opens the mind to understanding that often we are as simplistic as other animals, and you would no more beat a dog for acting like a dog as you would a human acting like a human.

Similarly, this dehumanization of other lives can only happen by abstraction, when we say so shortsightedly that "this person is an idiot making bad choices", when we fail to see that they, like us, have had years of life to build upon- an often crooked and unstable foundation! Our own painful experiences therefore are a way of grounding us, and reminding us of our shared fragilities. When I was 14, I thought the libertarian hardline of an Ayn Rand made perfect sense in the Plato's cave I called an adolescent bedroom. By the time I was 21 and homeless, I so much better understood how foolish I really was...

The epitome of ending one's own tendencies of dehumanization would be the christ-like or buddhist openness, where one can see the lives of others as equally as one's own, and places no inherent value to life or judgment in the choices of others. Of course, if you ever achieve this state, as history has repeatedly shown, you will be most certainly killed by everyone else, because apparently no one likes a show off. :)
posted by hincandenza at 2:04 AM on March 11, 2006 [2 favorites]

Largely we humans(and all life) have evolved through a drawn out process of trial and error.
To seek the wisdom of life is to seek a method of avoiding errors.

One approach is empirical. Embrace experience, see the world and the full spectrum from misery to felicity. The catch is that we have a finite amount of time against an infinite possibility of experiences.

"Experience is the worst teacher. It gives the test before presenting the lesson."
--Vernon Law

Another approach is one of consideration and reflection upon experience, and can be a substitute for experience.

"Men are wise in proportion, not to their experience, but to their capacity for experience."
--James Boswell

What better reliance for avoiding error is there than the wisdom of our ancestors?

"The wise men of old have sent most of their morality down the stream of time in the light skiff of apothegm and epigram."
--Edwin Percy Whipple

I have gained much insight and inspiration by studying and saving quotations from various writers, thinkers and leaders from the past. It's kind of a hobby. And is well suited to those of us who are natural bookworms.
I recommend alt.quotations for regular perusal.
posted by archae at 3:27 AM on March 11, 2006

Someone mentioned that the MoodGym link I gave above was incorrect. Here is the correct link.
posted by Miko at 7:39 AM on March 11, 2006

Try to see the other person's point of view.
posted by deborah at 8:55 AM on March 11, 2006

hincandenza: that's a great post - reminds me of several Dostoevsky characters too.
posted by forallmankind at 9:03 AM on March 11, 2006

...the Plato's cave I called an adolescent bedroom...

Hincandenza wins!
posted by flabdablet at 9:27 AM on March 11, 2006

I know!!! I was really drunk last night when I posted that, so it was somewhat out of my usual character... :) but you'd never guess the surly embittered hatemonger of so many metafilter posts had it in him on the gold and green, eh?! :D
posted by hincandenza at 10:53 AM on March 11, 2006

Response by poster: Wow, thanks everyone. I'll keep checking back for new responses, but before the question slipped off the first page of posts, I wanted to appreciate all the thoughtful and creative ideas everyone has given. Thanks! :)
posted by salvia at 1:09 PM on March 11, 2006

Tried to post this back when but the site died:

I would have much to say on this subject, but Miko pretty much covered it. The only thing I will add is a comment that is either off-the-wall or cliche, depending on your perspective. I have noticed that a frequent side effect of infrequent marijuana use is to gain insight and perspective on past events, esp. those where some firmly held belief was blinding me to alternative ways of looking at a situation. An example of this would be an argument in which I found the other persons viewpoint completely irrational and inexplicable. After indulging, and then pondering the episode I'll have a sudden flash of insight where I see what the other person was trying to convey, and usually feel quite chagrined at my own stubbornness.

The ideal to strive for is to cultivate this ability to shift perspective, without the aid of a drug. It is, however, a useful shortcut to directly experience it. I should also note that addiction to anything reduces life to rote repetition, and that freeing oneself from addiction will also net you a bonus to the wisdom score.
posted by Manjusri at 5:49 PM on March 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

Brilliant question.

What helped me was being exposed to different people through travelling and working with them on projects. There are just SO MANY TYPES of people out there and the varieties are inexhaustible. Every interaction challenges or builds a part of yourself; it really is a growing experience.
posted by divabat at 4:43 AM on March 13, 2006

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