What is Wisdom?

Wisdom is defined as the quality of having experience, knowledge, judgement, and using those three attributes to practical effect. Recently, I read a book called Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse. It’s a story about a boy pursuing wisdom and challenging these three attributes, particularly knowledge. It’s the story of the twisted and convoluted ways we seek wisdom, and how they hamper our attainment of true enlightenment.

Siddhartha is a promising young man in ancient India. Everyone in his village thinks he will go on to succeed in life, but he has a hole inside of him that tells him otherwise. He dutifully prays and obeys his father, but feels that neither he nor the men teaching him will reach enlightenment on the path they walk.

Siddhartha decides to leave his family to join a group of ascetics. He believes their way of life can help him achieve his goal. He learns to fast, wait, and think. All of his teachers and fellow ascetics believe he will become a holy man. Siddhartha still feels that hole, though.

He sees Gautama Buddha speak, immediately recognizing him as enlightened and holy. A chance one-on-one encounter gives Siddhartha the opportunity to explain to the Buddha why he cannot follow him despite recognizing the truth in his teachings. Siddhartha explains that if he followed Gautama he would not be able to reach true wisdom because Gautama, himself, achieved wisdom on his own.

Siddhartha abandons his life of asceticism. He falls in love with a beautiful and wealthy woman, Kamala, who tells him he must achieve a higher status than that of a raggedy ascetic to successfully court her. He becomes a wealthy businessman and learns how to love with Kamala. The years slip by as he lives in comfort with food, drink, fine clothes, aromatic oils, and beautiful women. He slowly realizes this path is a waste of time, leading him nowhere closer to his goal of enlightenment.

Siddhartha leaves his life of opulence and meets a ferryman. He envies the ferryman’s life and decides to join him in his simple living. He learns from the ferryman how to sit and listen to the river. He hears separate voices from the universe in the river. One day, the ferryman tells him to listen closer. As Siddhartha listens, all the voices of the universe blend into one unified Om. He feels a sense of enlightenment he never knew before.

In old age, a childhood friend visits him and questions him about his beliefs. Siddhartha seems very wise to his friend but offers no logical reasonings or dogmas. Instead, he states that he is wary of knowledge. He is wary of beliefs and truths. Sid believes he has gained wisdom, but that it is incommunicable. His friend is confused by his talk but recognizes his holiness. He heeds Sid’s call to kiss his forehead and the universe blooms in his mind, pluming into an expanse where time does not exist, and everything is one.

This synopsis does not do the book justice. Herman Hesse writes with deep wisdom of his own. A key message of the book is the limits of knowledge. Siddhartha learns that in his seeking for wisdom, in all his learning, he only muddied the waters. He struggled, yearned, and came no closer to his goal of enlightenment. It didn’t matter if he was a dutiful and promising youngster, a disciplined and impoverished ascetic, or a handsome and successful businessman.

Siddhartha only reaches enlightenment when he empties himself of all his accumulated knowledge, stops trying, and listens. He doesn’t convey his wisdom with words, either. Instead, he emanates wisdom. His old friend is confounded by his words, but when he looks at Siddhartha, he recognizes a holy man and feels a deep love for him.

Knowledge is not useless, however. Learning more isn’t a futile endeavor. The message of the book is not meant to discredit knowledge or struggle completely. Hesse just wants to temper the expectations of what learning and struggle can bring, and show that wisdom does not rely on either.

The story reminds me of another book: Drawing with the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards. She explains that there are two halves of the brain. The left side controls your rational thinking. It’s verbal, temporal (keeps track of time), literal, linear, and likes to label things. The right side is nonverbal, nontemporal, imaginative, spatial, and intuitive. Your two halves are constantly duking it out, and usually, the left side wins. In our Western culture, the left side is the heavy favorite. It’s a consequence of evolution, it’s extremely powerful, and it’s automatic. It can be difficult for the untrained mind to tap into the right side.

The right side is equally important, though. It’s the part that kicks in when you see something beautiful that stops you in your tracks. It transcends labels or rationality. You don’t need to struggle for it. It comes of its own accord. These instances are at the core of wisdom, and they don’t require any amount of reading or studying.

Wisdom is not something you need to seek out and attain. It’s within you already. It’s in the moments where you feel at one with everything. Keep living your life, gathering knowledge and experience, but every now and again, stop and listen to the river.

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