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“Our modern world suffers from a severe wisdom shortage,” a friend of mine observed a few weeks ago. Do you agree?
It does sometimes seem like wisdom is in short supply these days. Many people would agree that our so-called leaders—whether corporate, spiritual or political—definitely have a wisdom deficit.
So I began to wonder—where does wisdom come from? How do we acquire it? How can we fix the wisdom shortage?
We used to pass it down from previous generations, or absorb it from our ancient religious and cultural traditions, but those wisdom-transmission mechanisms seem a little creaky at this point. Instead, many of us now search for wisdom or what passes for it online, seeking out information, facts or insightful spiritual quotes that resonate with us, committing them to memory and trying to practice that wisdom in our lives.
We live in the information age, so we all possess plenty of information, but we still have an innate hunger for insight—the ability to see beyond mere facts to the heart of the matter. Information isn’t wisdom, though. Sure, we can consult our smartphones and find an answer when a question comes up—but the mere answer to a factual question doesn’t give us much in the way of wisdom or insight:
wisˑdom, n. 1. the quality of being wise; good judgment. 2. learning, knowledge.
in-sight, n. 1. an instance of apprehending the true nature of a situation. 2. penetrating mental vision or discernment; faculty of seeing into inner character or underlying truth. – Webster’s Dictionary
Every human being longs for insight. We all want the ability, the wisdom and the good judgment to discover the true nature of a situation. We all desire the discernment, perceptiveness, awareness and clarity that lead to wisdom. In fact, the whole idea of insight—looking within to find the answer to a question or a problem—denotes intuitive intelligence, spiritual awareness and wise decision-making.
The Pali word for insight—vipassana—has even become the name of a type of Buddhist mindfulness meditation.
In the Baha’i teachings, Baha’u’llah describes the best path in life as one of wisdom and insight:
The straight path is the one which guideth man to the dayspring of perception and to the dawning-place of true understanding and leadeth him to that which will redound to glory, honour and greatness.
We cherish the hope that through the loving-kindness of the All-Wise, the All-Knowing, obscuring dust may be dispelled and the power of perception enhanced, that the people may discover the purpose for which they have been called into being. In this Day whatsoever serveth to reduce blindness and to increase vision is worthy of consideration. This vision acteth as the agent and guide for true knowledge. Indeed in the estimation of men of wisdom keenness of understanding is due to keenness of vision. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 34.
Reflect for a moment on what Baha’u’llah wrote: “… whatsoever serveth to reduce blindness and to increase vision … acteth as the agent and guide for true knowledge.” Here Baha’u’llah relates our keenness of vision—not only outer vision but the power of insight—to keenness of understanding.
We prize this kind of insight, understanding and wisdom in others because of its rarity. Not everyone develops insight. Age does not guarantee wisdom, nor do rank or position. Wisdom requires something deeper and more profound.
So how do we get to that deeper and more profound place? In contemporary psychology, the “dual process theory” has determined that people use two separate mental systems to solve life’s problems. For most of our lives, we use our normal logical, analytical thought processes. Based on reason, those processes make use of our cognitive brain circuits, relying on the facts we’ve gathered and the knowledge we’ve accumulated as we’ve grown and developed to rationally make our decisions and judgments.
The second system doesn’t rely on reason—instead, it involves less well-understood intuitive and automatic processes that arise out of our experience and our ability to mentally or emotionally link disparate kinds of information. You could call it common sense, street smarts or instinctive intelligence, but it basically refers to an inner wisdom. Some scientists call this more intuitive process the Eureka! experience or the Aha! moment, that sudden breakthrough when the solution to a previously insoluble puzzle quickly becomes obvious. The word epiphany also describes this level of sudden, revelatory insight and wisdom.
That word comes from the Christian festival of Epiphany, originally celebrated on January 6, commemorating the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles—which happened when the Christ child met the Magi, the Zoroastrian Persian priests drawn to the birthplace of Jesus by Zoroaster’s prophecies and the Star of Bethlehem. You can see those “three wise men” represented in statues and crèches every Christmas season.
The Koine Greek word epiphaneia means “manifestation”; which comes from the Ancient Greek word theophaneia, which means “vision of God.” The current secular and literary usage of that word now describes a sudden, intuitive perception, a profound and unexpectedly revealing look into the reality or inner meaning of something—a flash of insight. Have you ever had an epiphany?
If so, you’re likely to treasure it. Epiphanies, those breakthrough moments of insight, can change our entire lives. When they happen, a veil lifts, the clouds part and what was dark suddenly becomes light. We see anew, like the transcendentalist writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said, in a lecture he gave in 1838, “a fact is an Epiphany of God and on every fact of his life man should rear a temple of wonder and joy.”
Artists and mystics have always generated these sudden insights, these inductive leaps of awareness, which seem detached from the flow of rational everyday perception. In fact, for many people these instances represent the high points of human experience and the genesis of their art, their life principles and their deepest beliefs. When an epiphany happens, in that mystical moment of insight we can experience a sense of God, of the whole shape of the universe, of the unity of all created things.
This wonderful experience of deep insight sometimes occurs when we read a particularly profound or meaningful quote or saying or proverb or maxim. When that happens, we can often experience a wise, insightful person’s epiphany second-hand, and we can incorporate it into our thinking and our behavior, and make it a part of our soul.
From a Baha’i perspective, epiphanies happen when we draw inspiration and wisdom from the Word of God, revealed to us by the prophets and founders of the world’s great Faiths—the towering wisdom-bringers like Christ, Buddha, Moses, Muhammad and now, most recently, Baha’u’llah:
These Essences of Detachment, these resplendent Realities are the channels of God’s all-pervasive grace. Led by the light of unfailing guidance, and invested with supreme sovereignty, They are commissioned to use the inspiration of Their words, the effusions of Their infallible grace and the sanctifying breeze of Their Revelation for the cleansing of every longing heart and receptive spirit from the dross and dust of earthly cares and limitations. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 66.
If you want epiphanies, and you’d like to develop your own inner wisdom and insight, read the teachings of “the channels of God’s all-pervasive grace”—the prophets and founders of the world’s great Faiths.