Searching for Wisdom in the 21st Century

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Climate change, wealth inequality, ideological polarization, terrorism, religious radicalization — these are some of the truly wicked problems of the world. And none of our most pressing global challenges can be navigated or overcome without a momentous leap of collective wisdom, as well as a commensurate increase in our ability to recognize and leverage that wisdom. But what exactly is this wisdom that so many of us are searching for? Where can we find it? How do we cultivate it in our own lives and make it available to more people?

Many years ago, Roger Walsh wrote his seminal book, Essential Spirituality, where he took an exhaustive look at the world’s spiritual traditions and compiled a list of the many ways these traditions overlap, offering a series of insights, practices, and qualities of consciousness shared by all these traditions. It was and continues to be a masterwork of spiritual synthesis, illuminating a simple and direct path leading to the very core of the spiritual life that is unburdened by outmoded beliefs and cultural idiosyncrasies.

Now Roger is taking a similar approach to the topic of wisdom, surveying the world’s pre-modern, modern, and postmodern literature in hope that wisdom can begin to claim a far more central place in Western culture, psychology, and academia, as it clearly deserves. Roger recently wrote a groundbreaking article, “What is Wisdom? Cross-Cultural and Cross-Disciplinary Syntheses”, published to the influential journal Review of General Psychology. The article, available here, explores “the nature of wisdom using an integrative cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary approach by drawing on contemporary research as well as the philosophical and contemplative disciplines of both East and West.”

The importance of Roger’s work cannot be understated. “Wisdom” is such an enormous and difficult concept, and its definition tends to be both deeply personal and greatly influenced by our surrounding culture. This one word, after all, can be used to describe knowing when the best time to plant crops will be, knowing how to counsel someone through personal struggles, or knowing the self-realizing, self-liberating nature of reality. These are three very different realms of knowing, each of which can be considered a different type of “wisdom”. As such, Roger has identified several different subtypes of wisdom — practical wisdom, intuitive wisdom, conceptual wisdom, and trans-conceptual wisdom — and suggests a basic overarching definition of “wisdom” that can be applied to each of these subtypes:

“A deep, accurate insight (practical, intuitive, conceptual, or trans-conceptual) into oneself and the central existential issues of life.”

We often say that one of the defining qualities of the 21st century is that, for the very first time, all of the world’s knowledge is available to us, resulting in an explosive growth of technology and communication over the last decade or so, as well as the emergence of a genuinely integrative wave of psycho-social development across the planet. However, as the knowledge quest continues to accelerate at a breakneck speed, our search for wisdom seems to be lagging quite a bit behind, pulling and stretching the fabric of civilization itself.

Astrophysicist Hubert Reeves once famously said that “Man is the most insane species. He worships an invisible God and destroys a visible Nature. Unaware that this Nature he’s destroying is this God he’s worshipping.” Only wisdom can help us bridge the divide between the visible and invisible worlds and help create a more sustainable path for the future of our species.

The power of our technology continues to grow at an exponential rate, sending us spiraling toward an entirely new geological epoch, the so-called “anthropocene” era, defined by our increasing inability to study natural systems without accounting for the impact human activity has upon those systems. Human behaviors cannot be adequately studied in isolation from their environment, and now our environment can no longer be studied in isolation from human behavior. Which means that our collective search for wisdom is quickly becoming a matter of life and death on a global scale.

Humanity is currently locked in a race between sagacity and catastrophe. And if we do not take our present challenges seriously, the perilous gap between our knowledge and our wisdom will continue to widen until it threatens to swallow our precious civilization in a single dystopian gulp.

But there’s still time, and there is still hope. Why? Because you’re here! By taking these perspectives in, allowing them to infuse and inform your life, and committing yourself to practice the ongoing cultivation of wisdom, you have the opportunity to become a unique transmitter of wisdom, kindness, and ethical discernment within your own sphere of influence. And we promise you, that sphere is FAR larger than you think it is.

The world needs you. All you need to do is show up as fully as you possibly can. Be a role model for the rest of us.

A Brief Note for Integral Lifers:

Knowledge is a tool, and requires wisdom in order to be wielded properly. Without this wisdom, even the most seemingly benevolent knowledge can quickly become dangerous. This is as true for something like “integral knowledge” as it is for splitting the atom. Even the most seemingly benign set of tools can be (and often are) seriously misused when our most advanced cognitive capacities are not fully grounded in wisdom, tempered by virtue, and guided by benevolence.

Only a commitment to embody and enact our deepest wisdom can help us avoid some of the most common integral traps — making objects out of other people’s subjects, using integral concepts to bludgeon others in exclusionary and elitist ways, allowing integral insight to further calcify and reify the ego, etc. An integral mind can quickly become brittle, anemic, and even abusive if it is not also plugged into an integral heart. This dialogue serves as a gentle but much-needed reminder for us all to remain grounded, centered, and rooted in our deepest source of wisdom as we live our daily lives, allowing us to be fully present in our interactions, to be fully available in our relationships (online and off), and to take the fullest possible responsibility for our behaviors and the countless ways our actions ripple through the world.

Roger Walsh

About Roger Walsh

Roger Walsh, M.D., Ph.D., has spent nearly a quarter century researching and practicing in the world's great spiritual traditions. His critically acclaimed book, Essential Spirituality, is a summary of that wisdom, outlining the seven spiritual practices common to the world's major religions.

Ken Wilber

About Ken Wilber

Ken Wilber is a preeminent scholar of the Integral stage of human development. He is an internationally acknowledged leader, founder of Integral Institute, and co-founder of Integral Life. Ken is the originator of arguably the first truly comprehensive or integrative world philosophy, aptly named “Integral Theory”.