Wisdom and Wonder
It can feel hard to know which direction to take sometimes. With so many choices and so many voices clamouring for our attention, finding the peace and clarity to recognise the next step can feel impossible. How do you know what to do, what to think, who to be?
For thousands of years, people have sought a clearer, more insightful eye to help guide them. From wise elders to deep scholars, to poets and philosophers, there are thousands who have carefully held the human experience in their hands. Through their words and actions, we can enjoy the fruits of that tender enquiry.
By tapping into their wisdom, whether it’s ancient or modern, we can reaffirm our sense that we’re not as alone as we may think we are. This, in itself, often brings rapid relief.
But what is wisdom, anyway?
It’s not enough to gain experience, or to reach a certain age. We can get older, but no wiser! The real “getting of wisdom” comes when we transform the raw data of experience into something which has balance, nuance and understanding; when we recognise the shades of grey in ourselves and in others, rather than seeing the world in purely black and white.
It can be difficult to define, but I’m pretty sure that you know someone - or know OF someone - who seems to embody this quality of wisdom. Its presence - or lack of it - can come into sharpest relief at times of decision-making (and who hasn’t made a choice in the heat of the moment that they regret later?)
But psychologists tend to agree that wisdom involves an integration of knowledge, experience, and deep understanding that incorporates tolerance for the uncertainties of life as well as its ups and downs. And it’s that ability to tolerate the ever-changing and unpredictable nature of life that’s a hallmark of resilience and strong mental health.
How can you access wisdom?
There are many ways for you to find wisdom. Experiment and see which you’re drawn to!
Googling inspiring quotes on a subject can lead you to someone who’s put your feelings into words. This is especially useful for ones you’re struggling to articulate.
Reading is always a great way to access wisdom! Ask for recommendations, find where your favourite quote is from, or check out our short reading list at the bottom of this post.
Talk to wise people! They may be a friend, an older relative, or in a professional role. Trust your gut and go to those who are good at holding space for others, who ask thoughtful questions, and who reserve making judgments.
And of course, you always carry a well of wisdom within you, if you’re quiet enough to hear it. By allowing your mind to become still through meditation, time in nature or a good walk, you can allow your “personal thinking” - the stories we tell ourselves about the world - to fall away. Through a quieter mind and more beautiful feeling, you can access a deeper, wider, richer wisdom and intelligence that can work through us at any time.
So what does wonder have to do with this?
Feeling wonder and awe is an amazing way to stop your mind’s chatter so you can access your inner wisdom!
Why? Because it’s hard to continue our internal story about how unfair the traffic was, or how anxious we are about this evening, when we’re in ‘the presence of something vast that we do not immediately comprehend’.
This can be as obvious as the wonders of the natural world, like the Grand Canyon, or as simple as witnessing acts of kindness between strangers.
Dacher Keltner, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, has studied the effects of awe. One of the results shows that it has a great benefit - it makes us kinder!
Participants first either looked up into the tall trees for one minute—long enough for them to report being filled with awe—or oriented 90 degrees away to look up at the facade of a large science building. They then encountered a person who stumbled, dropping a handful of pens into the dirt.
Sure enough, the participants who had been gazing up at the awe-inspiring trees picked up more pens. Experiencing awe seemed to make them more inclined to help someone in need. They also reported feeling less entitled and self-important than the other study participants did.
In subsequent studies, we have found that awe—more so than emotions like pride or amusement—leads people to cooperate, share resources, and sacrifice for others, all of which are requirements for our collective life.
And still other studies have explained the awe-altruism link: being in the presence of vast things calls forth a more modest, less narcissistic self, which enables greater kindness toward others.
And what can be wiser than learning to be kinder?
Action for July; Create space for wisdom and wonder!
Creating space for wisdom and wonder is easy with just a few tweaks to your existing routine. Here are a couple of ideas, and remember; it’s easier to keep habits if they’re obvious, attractive, easy and satisfying.
How can you make accessing wisdom really obvious to you? Can you change your phone wallpaper to a great quote you love? Can you pin words of inspiration up above your desk or on your bathroom mirror? Can you set a random reminder in your phone to seek out something that triggers wonder and awe?
How can you make this habit attractive? Can you share your favourite wisdom quotes or books with someone? Can you start a WhatsApp group or Instagram account to share what you’re reading or what’s triggered a feeling of wonder?
How can you make it easy? Can you listen to a thoughtful podcast or audio book when you’re at the gym or on the bus? Can you commit to reading just one page of an inspiring book as soon as you get into bed at night?
How can you make it satisfying? What is it that wisdom and wonder can support you with? Are you struggling to find balance, to feel less lonely, or to live your life with more meaning and purpose?
Remember that you always have a deep well of inner wisdom waiting for you, already inside yourself. To paraphrase a very wise person indeed, Buddhist nun and author Pema Chödrön: you are already the whole sky - your thoughts, feelings, fear and emotions are simply weather passing through it.
When I loved Myself Enough: Inspiring words to help you find happiness and Joy by Kim McMillen with Alison McMillen
The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle
Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh
When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön