Monday, May 26, 2008

The Love of Wisdom

Philosophy is one of those words we’re supposed to know the meaning of, but don’t. Most people think it simply means one’s point of view, as in “my philosophy of life”. For others it conjures up a memory of some awful philosophy class they had years ago in college where a kindly but uninspired professor droned on and on about ontology, phenomenology and the categorical imperative. For most everyone else, philosophy is just a vague abstraction they’d just as soon forget. I’ve been teaching philosophy for seventeen years to over 7000 students, and I’m still not sure what it is.

When I tell people what I do for a living they nod politely and ask “where” and “for how long” and things like that. I see by the look in their eyes they’re intrigued, but reticent. Part of me wants to launch into an introductory lecture that neither of us could endure and part of me just wants to hug them and tell them it’s alright to not know what philosophy is. Really, it’s O.K. Philosophy, by its very nature, is difficult to get a handle on. It’s thinking about thinking. It’s using the mind to try and understand the processes of the mind. It’s like trying to see your own eyes. Try it right now. Try to see your own eyes. You’ll go mad. Now you know why philosophy graduate students look so crazy.

Philosophy means the love of wisdom. (philo: love; sophia: wisdom) It is just the name of a longing that lies deep within us, a longing for what it true and real. Despite the best efforts of academic philosophers to render philosophy utterly incomprehensible to everyone but themselves – I know, that’s not what they’re trying to do, but that is the most evident result of their endless toil – philosophy is in essence a fundamentally innate universal human experience, like breathing or dreaming. It is not the sole purview of specialists – it is the birthright of every living, breathing, dreaming human being. It’s time to rescue philosophy from the philosophers.

If philosophy is the love of wisdom, then what is wisdom? Wisdom is different from practical knowledge (how to make an omelet) or theoretical knowledge (understanding the laws of thermonuclear physics or the causes of the Civil War). Being a master omelet maker, a thermonuclear physicist or a Civil War expert does not make one wise.

Wisdom is the ability to live a good life – a life of depth, of value, of purpose, of dignity, of kindness, of creativity, of beauty, of mastery, of humility, of joy. To be wise is to thrive in a state of well-being where one’s potentials are fully realized. This requires great risk taking – embodying the courage to grow beyond one’s fear-based and self-imposed limitations. Life is both staggeringly difficult and unspeakably beautiful. How are we to negotiate these treacherous twists and turns, not hurt our selves or others, and still enjoy the beauties of the way? That’s going to take some wisdom.

If philosophy is a yearning, then when do we feel that yearning most keenly? One has only to look at one’s own experience. Standing in a cemetery and watching a casket lowering into the ground. Feeling the grip of the tiny hand of a newborn child. Lying on the asphalt along the interstate with paramedics hovering over you, smoldering wreckage scattered for a quarter mile. Standing by a campfire on the bank of river and watching glowing embers soar up into the darkness of a desert sky, turning into stars. Sitting in a tiny doctor’s office and hearing the word “cancer”. It is in these moments that the trivia of life drops away leaving a startling clarity – a clarity that seems to transcend thought. We are now in the field of pure awareness, liberated from our incessant thought-stream. And from this perspective, usually quite fleeting, we see with new eyes the challenges and beauties of our lives. We shift back into our deeper awareness – a silent, still witness that is usually hidden behind the thicket of our incessant thoughts and we catch a glimpse of something grander, something wider than our work-a-day world with its ill-timed troubles and endless pursuits.

These moments of awakening are the bricks and mortar of philosophy for it is from these insights that we begin to build a path to truth. “The unexamined life is not worth living” said Socrates, and in these moments of nameless clarity we know just what he means. Life, as it is normally lived, is like a dream. Part of us is completely caught up in the dream, attached to the imagery and invested in the delusion. But our deeper nature knows there is something more, something lasting and precious beneath the shimmering surface of the perceptual field. Seeing through the illusory nature of surface consciousness and drawing sustenance from the eternal presence it conceals – this is the central lesson of the world’s wisdom traditions. But we haven’t been very good students.

Throughout history remarkable individuals have experienced wisdom and tried to teach it to others, with varying degrees of success. Most of them are lost and long forgotten. A few of them live on in the words and teachings they left behind and in the traditions that arose around those teachings. Each of these teachers used the imagery and context of their own cultures to illustrate the path to the timeless presence beneath the surface of our unexamined minds. Some personified it and called it God. Others split the infinite energy of the universe into pantheons of countless gods, in conflict with each other. Still others preferred to leave the source nameless, fearing that if we name it we will become attached to the name and forget the reality to which the name refers. And in the deeper, mystical currents within each of these wisdom traditions lies the same essential claim – that we are one with the source, that we are identical with the ground of Being. Only we don’t know it. We are caught, for now, in a dream of separateness, enslaved to our lower nature, gripped by fear and lost in illusory loneliness.

Wisdom then is the ability to navigate the boat of our lives through these waves and into the far harbor of our ancient home. There are many maps and charts. But each of us has an internal compass as well, and must chart a course of our own. “Truth is a pathless land”, said Krishnamurti, and indeed, we cannot simply mindlessly follow the path of another. Wisdom defies formulization. Doctrines and dogmas can point the way, but they must ultimately be left behind.

To study the history of philosophy then is to study the history of love. We humans are philosophical animals – we tirelessly seek the object of our love, namely, wisdom. Our mythologies, religions and philosophies are, at their best, attempts to close the gap between us and the ground of Being from which we and all things come. Religion comes from the word religio meaning “to bind together” or “to connect”. We are tired of feeling alienated, alone, cut off. We want to awaken to the eternal energy of life coursing through us and all things. We want to feel at home in our own skins. We want to transcend and leave behind our divisive ideologies and awaken from this dream of separateness. We want to overcome ignorance and illusion. We want fall at last into the arms of our beloved. That is why we study philosophy.