On Wednesday, October 21, 2009, a group of Seven Pillars Guiding Voices met for one hour via conference call to discuss the topic:

What differentiates wisdom from other forms of knowledge?


On Wednesday, October 21, 2009, a group of Seven Pillars Guiding Voices met for one hour via conference call to discuss the topic:

What differentiates wisdom from other forms of knowledge?

Context for the conversation is first provided by Sousan Abadian and Christopher Bamford, who were co-presenters for Seven Pillars’ Wisdom House Architectonics weekend in September 2009.

Sousan Abadian: Hi, everyone, it’s such a pleasure to be on this call with you. Thanks for the opportunity to get the ball rolling as I think out loud with you on what differentiates wisdom from, say, knowledge or information or data. I just jotted down some thoughts before the call, and I’ll begin by comparing wisdom with knowledge.

One simple metaphor I was playing with is that if knowledge or information is akin to light, then wisdom can be thought of as light applied with love. And while knowledge might access the mind, wisdom appears to be more holistic and accesses the mind, the heart, the body and spirit.

So with this grounding, I just had some basic definitions I’d like to suggest: having knowledge is having awareness or understanding of facts, truths, or information; but having wisdom can be thought of as the capacity to apply knowledge with discernment and using insight — or another way of saying this might be applying knowledge as best as one can according to divine right action.

So already the words discernment, insight, divine or right action spring up around the notion of “wisdom” as distinct from, say, “knowledge.” So let’s just take a moment and focus on those words. Discernment and divine right action refer to several characteristics of wisdom that involve applying some moral or ethical code of conduct to discern right action, applying knowledge in accordance to some “right way.”

There’s another distinction to be made between human laws and sacred laws, between right action and divine right action. So with greater wisdom, perhaps one begins to discern between human and sacred laws, which certainly don’t always correspond, and so acting from a place of greater wisdom is not always acting in accordance with the human-devised rules of the game.

Now, loosened from the mooring of human-devised rules and laws, wisdom is context-driven and intuition based. Wise action in one context is unwise under similar circumstances but at a different time, for example. While we might think of knowledge not as context-driven, but more absolute and clear-cut in nature, wisdom is more context-driven. So with few rules or absolutes to give shape to wisdom or guide wise action, how do you discern how to maneuver over such a context-dependent terrain?

Wisdom uses insights, or “inner sight,” or “inner listening” — accessing the divine mind, which in turn requires a quiet mind, as free as possible from judgment or fear. So I’ll refine somewhat the definition I provided earlier and say, wisdom is the capacity to apply knowledge with discernment, and insight. So wisdom is the ever-growing capacity to apply knowing, not knowledge — and what I mean by that is that wisdom is not necessarily knowledge-dependent, it’s knowing-dependent.

This knowing comes from an inner dialogue, in other words it’s not necessarily so that the more knowledge you have, the more wisdom you have — they’re not necessarily correlated. In some cases perhaps great knowledge, if it’s accompanied by enhanced ego, can even interfere with greater wisdom. Which is why we notice that children, without much seeming knowledge, often have wisdom beyond their years. Or similarly, illiterates I’ve met on some of my journeys, with little access to knowledge, have more wisdom than many I’ve encountered at Harvard. So I’ll end with a poem by William Wordsworth called “The Tables Turned”:

Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you’ll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble? 

The sun above the mountain’s head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow. 

Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it. 

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher. 

She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless—
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness. 

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can. 

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:–
We murder to dissect. 

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

Sousan Abadian: With that, I thank you, and give the floor to our dear Christopher.

Christopher Bamford: Well, this is a privilege to speak to you all like this. And it’s kind of strange to do it on the telephone.

What I thought I’d do is say a few words out of the experience I had at our wisdom weekend, the Labor Day weekend at the Abode. I came to the Abode that weekend with a great deal of knowledge about wisdom and about our house without walls. For years I’ve studied wisdom literature, and I was proud to call myself a devotee of divine feminine wisdom.

I knew that wisdom was immanent in the divine and the stars and nature, in us. I knew that wisdom’s path was one of active receptivity, of always being open to grace, of sacred hospitality, welcoming the stranger and so on. However, over our weekend, I learnt that this was only knowledge, but not wisdom herself, because wisdom itself is always in the moment, in the in-between, unpredictable, playful, always a mystery, and demanding not only receptivity and vulnerability, but always a kind of deep un-knowing. That’s to say — I learned that knowledge may be the fruit of insight, intuition, meditation; it may transform us, initiate us; I have certainly been changed by everything I knew about Sophia — but it’s not wisdom.

And wisdom isn’t present or experienced until she’s expressed, enacted, embodied in life and in the world, by the whole human being, the whole person, in every modality. For instance, it’s one thing to have knowledge of God, but another altogether to live in God. It’s one thing to be touched by God, but another to see all things in God, to live the reality that everything we encounter is a theophany, a divine play, a divine manifestation. In other words, it’s one thing to have knowledge of wisdom, but it’s another to live in wisdom, out of wisdom, which is always it seems to me, immanent in the moment. So I learned that wisdom goes beyond knowledge and intuitive understanding, and embraces and unites with all life in the moment that it appears, when it appears.

So I would say that from one point of view, wisdom is always immanent, it is embodied, it is lived, it is always relational, contextual, inter-subjective, practical, ethical, creative, and always in process, always on the way. And it became slowly apparent that the conversation, in a certain way, at least to a first approximation, was a perfect vessel or vehicle, a paradigm for the experience and the embodiment and the participatory embodiment of wisdom.

Now wisdom in this sense is similar to the ways we speak of the wisdom of nature, wisdom of the body; and from the wisdom point of view, creation herself is a great conversationalist. In other words, knowledge I can experience in the solitude of my self, but wisdom I experience in the web of relationships of which I am a part. And the experience of wisdom is the experience that the transcendent lives in and through this web of relationships in which the immanent is immanent. In other words I learned from this weekend that wisdom is the practice of wisdom, and that wisdom is not in us — we are in her, and she becomes available to us in the multidimensional spaces that open up between and among us, and between and among all I am with, in any or every context. And I learned from that weekend that as one opens wholly, body soul and spirit, to these relational spaces, and gradually lets go of all knowledges, previous insights, past experiences, all certainties, wisdom in a strange way becomes present.

This was a wisdom by which, I felt, all those participating in the experience become wiser, better, and in a sense more loving people. So what I’m saying is that from our weekend, I learned that wisdom goes beyond yes and no, it lives in the coincidence of opposites, it always lives beyond any paradox or mystery, irresoluble. I learned that wisdom has much to do with love, and perhaps in fact it’s the same thing. And with that I’ll just leave it there.

Deepa Patel: Wow. Thank you, Christopher. So are any of you called to respond to what’s been said?

Tamam Kahn: Christopher said we are all inside wisdom, I love that. And I think that one of the things that leads to wisdom might be the questions that we would ask being in there: “What is reality telling me? What is the lesson in this?” That wisdom comes through the process of self-inquiry.

Deepa Patel: If you were to apply that right now, in terms of what you’ve heard, what emerges?

Tamam Kahn: What I feel is the whole body of wisdom that we are inside, and I love that thought. That to me seemed really important, and how do we then respond, how do we connect with that, and I felt that it would be through inquiry.

Rabbi Shaya: This is Shaya, and the one thing I wanted to add is the way wisdom comes from our mistakes. The inquiry and also, yes, the intuition, the in-teaching, and a lot of the wonderful lofty things I heard, which I don’t disagree with. But also that sense of one of the reasons why wisdom is connected with the aging process is, there’s more time to learn from our mistakes.

Lee Irwin: I’d like to just add something, in terms of Christopher’s view about love. I certainly agree with that, and my own perception of wisdom is as a nurturing presence. The practice of that nurturing presence is to be open and receptive to the thoughts and feelings and awareness of others, in such a way that some newness and insight comes through. It takes overcoming my own preconceptions about what might emerge in a particular situation — like, who knows what might emerge in this particular situation? So being open is like calling forth or fostering that divine presence that brings inspiration and nurturance.

David Spangler: I realize that I don’t think of wisdom as a form of knowledge; rather, wisdom, for me, is an engagement — more like life itself. I think of knowledge as the form that is my first encounter with the life that is wisdom — so I’m looking at my lamp, here in the living room, and I realize that I see its form and I can have knowledge about it, and the knowledge is how tall it is and how electricity works within it and so on, but none of that tells me about the life of the lamp, and its connection to my life and to everything else in the living room and beyond. But if I start with that shape, that knowledge, and I just say “take me deeper into you,” then I do come into touch with that life. And I don’t actually feel I know the lamp, I don’t feel I have knowledge of the lamp, until I’ve touched that life. What I’ve had before that is just a kind of perception. I’m not sure if that makes sense, but I’m trying to think experientially about what is the difference between knowledge and wisdom, and I realize I don’t think of wisdom as a species of knowledge at all, I think of it as an act of deep connection to life.

Janet Piedilato: David, I resonate with what you’re saying. Coming from the sciences, I guess I look at knowledge as the accumulation of information in an attempt to understand life and everything that’s around us. It’s not anything that really is stable, that we can really count on — it’s our feeble attempt to understand that which is really beyond much of our understanding.

What I may have learned in the 1970s is today completely discarded for new ideas. When I think of wisdom, the very idea of inquiry doesn’t enter into it — I inquire and I question and I form hypotheses when I’m looking for knowledge, when I’m making my feeble attempt to understand something. But to share again with Christopher, inside wisdom I have this vision of sitting inside the body of the Buddha, and inside there are no questions. We don’t need questions. It is a knowing, just a knowing, and I often tell students as I teach, “We have all these questions here, one of which is on top of many of our minds — why is there pain and suffering and wars?,” and my vision is, in the body of the Buddha, when you could ask any question, there is none to ask, because it is a place of wisdom, and those questions have no relevance anymore for they are to do with knowledge.

And again that knowledge is fleeting and my heroine, Barbara McClintock, who is the great scientist of the 1920s, I think said it best — her idea was, leave everything that you think you know behind and just let yourself feel. So like David and everything that’s been said before, knowledge is very limiting — it’s wonderful, I’m a perpetual student, and I enjoy learning new things—but wisdom is in the moment, it’s an inner knowing, that the way you’re acting and the way that you are moving within the being of the entire cosmos is right. There are no questions, it’s just — you see that person who needs help, you don’t think “do I help them, do I move toward it” — no, it’s just a natural move. So for me the difference is — the inquiry is about knowledge and the collection of facts which tomorrow are going to change, next year, next century, but wisdom is in the body of the Buddha, there’s no question. It’s just a knowing.

Lindy Hough: That was a good piece of information, Janet, and I did resonate with it. It does bring up the tussle of inquiry. I’m a creative artist, I’m a writer and basically look at this most of all through an artistic view, and I’ll say a few things from that perspective.

Without inquiry, both knowledge and wisdom are less available to us, and less creative. I think the engaged Buddhist practitioner, for instance, or engaged Muslim practitioner, is always very actively participating in bringing — and I think of this as a wonderful thing — bringing questions and thoughts and feelings from real life to the problems of either science, knowledge or wisdom, traditional sciences as well as the occult and esoterica.

I’ve been involved in psychic groups here in Maine that Richard Grossinger has been running, and it’s been quite amazing. It’s powerful to try to think of what the relationship is between the inner voice that is working much as Christopher describes, very creatively, and participating with others in generating a collective wisdom; where does psychic awareness fit into that? Psychic awareness even challenges some of my Buddhist certainties.

Certainly in the mix that I find in writing poetry or my novel or writing about Maine in a non-fiction book — all of this has to be worked on, much as it is in science. I do think of knowledge as pretty creative and exciting, and mutable — it’s always changing. I also bring what I thought about wisdom before we started, how it is informed by our traditions; I’ve always looked to indigenous traditions for wisdom, and that has to be a piece of it. Yes it can be in the now, and very relational and a present creative act for us now, but I’ve had huge comfort in the empirical wisdom of Sufism, or homeopathy or Native American shamanism, simply because it’s stood the test of time. It, in that way, resembles science.

Yitzhak Buxbaum: If I could share a couple of thoughts. I went to the Torah to see about Wisdom building her house, setting up her seven pillars, I thought I might get some insight there. And I didn’t. But in looking at the Hebrew, subsequently I saw that Wisdom is plural in this case: “Wisdoms has built her house.”

First let me backtrack a step. I was disappointed that I went to an Ivy League college and didn’t learn that there’s such a thing as wisdom — all I learned was knowledge. Nobody told me that there was such a thing as wisdom. I had to go through four years of college, and only after I graduated did I learn that there’s such a thing as wisdom. As I see it, knowledge is objective, knowledge of the world. Wisdom is how to live. You don’t study that in college.

There are a few kinds of wisdom. There’s worldly wisdom, how to live successfully in a worldly way, and that’s exemplified often in folktales. I’m a Maggid and a storyteller among other things, and I see how folktales exemplify worldly wisdom, not religious wisdom. So for religious wisdom, I go to Hasidic tales, or Sufi tales. Then there’s godly wisdom, which is even higher than religious wisdom, because religious wisdom can be just the wisdom of a human, and godly wisdom is higher. But then, going to the Torah, Wisdom-Plural has built her house, may be even higher than godly wisdom, the wisdom of the seven pillars. So there are many wisdoms, there are different godly ways of looking at the world and how to live.

My last thought was that it says in the Torah that the fear of God is the beginning of Wisdom. Everybody’s heard that. And one of my long-standing observations is, in NYC I would often see, on the subway, little old African-American women reading the Bible. My thought was that a little old black woman reading the Bible may not have had much schooling in college, but may have more wisdom than some fancy professor who doesn’t know that there’s good, that there’s God. So for me, intelligence is character.

Deepa Patel: Thanks Yitzhak. There are of course some themes which are resonating from what people have been saying. I’m wondering about the people who haven’t spoken, what you’ve been struck by.

Pir Shabda Kahn: I feel that the question assumes that there is a difference between wisdom and knowledge, and we have to go about defining these two terms to find our difference. But now it seems like we’re asking ourselves the question “how do we move from observable knowledge, through experience, to direct knowing?” And it seems that knowledge probably comes from the word gan from Sanskrit, which also means direct knowing and, in our language we think of wisdom as Sophia.

And we can also go to the second turning of the wheel of Lord Buddha’s teaching, the Prajana Paramit Ridaya Sutra, sometimes miscalled the Heart Sutra, as it’s really translated the “Heart of Perfect Wisdom.” Prajana should be understood, like some people have spoken about, wisdom as a direct knowing. And in order for Prajana to arise, the sutra asks us to recognize both interdependence and the insubstantiality of every thing — that there is no thing. It doesn’t mean that the relative and the absolute are inseparable, it doesn’t deny the relative, it just says we’ve misunderstood it.

I feel that we have to overcome a false notion of a separate self, and let the whole have her way, which seems to be the purpose of this life. I think someone called this non-dual, someone called it experiential. And it seems like what would be valuable for us is to develop the methodology to move from how we describe the word knowledge as we understand it today, through experience, to actions which are purely beneficial and come from the essence coming through. It’s like the outer world with knowledge draws us to her, just like the story of Nasrudin when he’s looking for his keys under the light, and his friend comes to help and says, “Nasrudin, let me help you.” They look for a while and he says, “Nasrudin, are you sure you lost your keys here?” And he says, “No, I lost them over there, but there’s more light here.” So that seems to be what that worldly knowledge does to us, it distracts us from overcoming the thought of self which is blocking wisdom herself from having her way.

Gayan Macher: In addition to listening to the various things that people are saying and being stimulated by a lot of them, part of what I’m experiencing right now is my relationship to this encounter and this technology of being a large group of people who are talking over a conference call. And I’m struck, in working with this setup, with some of what Christopher was saying about the encounter between people, and conversation — and I’m seeing some of the difficulties, for me, with this technology, because it lends itself to a series of monologues, like we’re each speaking, and then when we finish our thought the next person says what they have to say. And I’m working myself with the relevance of this question to us, which is — can we find the alchemy of our coming together, our meeting? Can we hear something of the emerging meaning, and feel it among ourselves, beneath the concepts that we’re conveying? It’s when the exchange of ideas is like the exchange of the fluids of our hearts. So I’ve been aware of the process of trying to find my way into that kind of connection with you through this medium. I don’t know if others have a similar experience, and I don’t mean to cut off the content of what we’re talking about, but I wanted to say something about the process.

Deepa Patel: Actually, I was going to speak just before you said that, and in part that was the question that was coming up for me, because of what Christopher said, like, “what’s arising in this moment?” And yet, one of the things I was sort of relishing and one of the things that was sort of arising for me in this moment was actually the idea that I could take this hour to hear what’s being said, and know that not only in this conversation, but when I go away from this conversation, that I’m still in it — that there are things in it that keep resonating.

Gayan Macher: Are you saying, in other words, that in some ways this is kind of like the planting of seeds that ripple out over time?

Deepa Patel: It’s partially a planting of seeds. But the other thing I’d say about the process is I spend a lot of time on the telephone in this way, and I’m really struck by how my relationships change even though I’m not seeing people and may never meet some of the people in person. Christopher talked about, as a result of one conversation, coming away feeling wiser. But he also talked about connection, and I’m aware of that even though there is this process of people speaking one at a time. And I think that in a way, that’s what differentiates wisdom for me from other things — it’s an echoing of what others have said.

Lee Irwin: I’d like to add something to that. I do think that a respectful wisdom is really important, because it’s part of the way that you can really assimilate what other people say, but one thing I can take away from this conversation for sure is the sense of community. And I feel that very strongly — I feel a great resonance with everyone who has spoken. And for me, that’s a pretty profound affirmation of what the Guiding Voices project is about — to be in community. I can come away from this conversation feeling pretty strongly that, yes, there’s a lot of other people working on these issues, and they have a lot of insights, and those insights really nurture me and offer me inspiration, and it’s a wonderful affirmation for me. So I think the process is, maybe not perfect, but it’s pretty good!

Deepa Patel: I just wanted to come back to Christopher and Sousan, who started us off in our conversation, to see if you wanted to add something here. Christopher, would you like to go first?

Christopher Bamford: I don’t really have anything to add. I listened with great care and participated in all the contributions and I guess at the moment, what I’m feeling or what seems to be manifesting, is that this wisdom is always in process, it’s always flowing. In a sense it’s the Tao. From her own perspective, there are no mistakes. Because we learn from our mistakes, we learn from what we hear, but our mistakes are only steps to the next moment, our learning is inherent in the process and in a sense when we say mistake we sort of put a negative connotation around it. But I don’t think from wisdom’s point of view there is a negative or positive in that sense. As we’ve each responded to the call that these questions founded in us, I’ve been struck by the sense that, no matter how different and from different perspectives and using different languages and having different concerns, how the whole forms a kind of community, as Lee was saying, in which we’re all participating.

Sousan Abadian: I don’t have much to add to the wonderful offerings that have already been made. I’m just taking with me so much of the wisdom, and the image of sitting inside the body of the Buddha that is just so beautiful in my mind and my heart. Thank you.

Pir Zia Inayat-Khan: Yes. Thank you all for being part of this conversation, thank you all for being Guiding Voices for Seven Pillars. I look forward to the continuation of this conversation and many more such conversations. I would particularly like to thank Deepa for facilitating and organizing the call, and Christopher and Sousan for the beautiful openings that you offered.

I came to this conversation with some existing thoughts about what distinguishes wisdom, and these formed in my mind as four qualities or four aspects. Before I go into them I want to say that as I’ve been listening to all of you, I have felt that these aspects are filled in or elaborated or beautifully explicated in so much of what has been said, so I thought I would share with you these aspects as I see them and how I have heard them reaffirmed and illuminated in what you’ve shared.

The first aspect is that wisdom has a “heart quality” to it. A way that I further contemplated that is that wisdom is empathic, but it’s calm and centered. It’s not emotional in excess, and yet it’s deeply empathic and boundary-less in its ability to commune. And I heard that when Christopher said perhaps wisdom is really love after all; that emphasizes the aspect of empathy.

Sousan spoke of wisdom as free of judgment and fear, and I understand that also in terms of this quality of empathy that is confident and goes beyond the anxious grasping experience of love into a serene, boundless, non-judgmental, hopeful domain of love. And Lee spoke of wisdom as a nurturing presence, and again that is a beautiful expression of the heart quality, the nurturing, empathic, beneficent quality of being. We have also talked about community as being relevant to wisdom, and certainly it seems to me that community has to do with the connections between hearts. So the heart aspect was important for me.

Another aspect that’s important for me I initially noted down as “experience and presence.” Wisdom is experiential, and presential. In the course of our conversation I started to distinguish these two, because some of the comments, it seemed to me, had to do with experience, but not necessarily presence in its pure form.

For example, when Rabbi Shaya said we learn wisdom by making mistakes and learning from them, to me that speaks to experience. And likewise when Maggid Yitzhak spoke of wisdom as how to live, and the development of character, those expressed to me life experience. But then one aspect of experience is presence, and I would differentiate presential knowledge from representational knowledge — representational knowledge being mediated by concepts and presence being a direct mode of sheer connection, ultimately a connection that goes beyond the duality of subject and object, so that there isn’t a knower and a known and the knowledge in between, but a simultaneity in the act of knowledge, the simplicity of direct communion.

And I think that relates to what Pir Shabda spoke of when he referred to the overcoming of selfhood, because in the moment of presence, self and other meld into pure sensing. And I also think this may be what David was speaking of when he distinguished between knowledge and life, and spoke of wisdom as a form of witnessing of life. That witnessing of life is what I understand as presence — direct, sheer, luminous presence.

The third aspect that I had noted down is the sense of mystery, awareness of an infinitude that outstrips comprehension. And I felt this was reaffirmed when Christopher referred to wisdom as “deep un-knowing.” I thought that was beautiful, because perhaps wisdom is not only the pinnacle of knowing, but also the pinnacle of ignorance — the knowledge of what is beyond knowledge. The sense of awe in the presence of mystery seemed important to me.

Finally, the fourth aspect of wisdom I had noted was that it unites polarities. For me, a purely transcendent celestial knowledge would be incomplete, as would a purely terrestrial practical, egoic sort of knowledge. Wisdom has to do with the encounter between, and some sort of juxtaposition or synthesis of, very different cognitive modes, from disembodied spiritual transcendence right down to the embodied individual consciousness. The ability to somehow hold all of this, to unite and reconcile the unreconcilables, has something essential to do with wisdom. And I heard this in what Christopher said when he spoke of “beyond yes and no,” and speaking of the coincidence of opposites.

So, as you can see I’ve been busily noting down comments throughout the hour, and the other thing that I noted down that didn’t fit neatly within these four categories, but just arose as a kind of tension within the conversation — and of course I view tension as a positive thing in a conversation like this because it brings out differing points of view where we can explore nuance that wouldn’t otherwise be apparent. What I noticed is that there were different views on the question of inquiry. Tamam raised the subject of self-inquiry, looking within at various points in one’s life experience to check in and pose a question to oneself, or at least that’s how I understood Tamam, and this was reinforced by Lindy. And Janet brought in another viewpoint, which is that at a certain level, wisdom occupies the space that is beyond questions — simple certainty, or the Buddha-mind. And so at the end of this discussion, I will take away that question, and I think it’s something each of us could individually and collectively consider: “What is the role of inquiry in wisdom, and when do we reach the moment when letting go of our questions is going to be the best basis to experience something that we can truly identify as wisdom?”

The conversation then continued via email.

Janet Piedilato: Your final notes on the call, capturing wisdom through a feeling of calm, serenity, a heart certain quality, fully resonate with the Wisdom experience that I refer to as being in the body of the Buddha. There is no fear, no anxiety, and for me, no need of questions, for in that presence there is complete being—at peace, at one, beyond all opposites, beyond the I and the other. It is a mysterious sense of being, for there in the heart of the unknowing is everything.

Perhaps I can best explain by giving an example: Over twenty-five years ago my firstborn and only daughter Janette was stricken with leukemia. She was a small child, just ready to begin school. While doctors said she had a very aggressive cancer and gave her a mere few months to live, Janette lived for five years before passing at the age of ten. It was a horrible time for all of us, a time filled with anxiety, with fear, with sadness. We pulled together as a family and fought the disease the best we could. Yet Janette relapsed and things quickly spiraled downward.

In the end I administered chemotherapy to Janette at four AM several times each week. We both hated the process yet it saved us from going to the hospital for it. As the chemo took about 45 minutes to go into Janette’s bloodstream, I needed to be ready to disconnect her IV line, so I needed to remain awake and alert at the end of the process. To accomplish this I would kneel on the cold wooden floor and say my Franciscan rosary, 15 decades.

Somewhere in the middle I would suddenly go someplace outside that room filled with dread, with fear, with sorrow. In the middle of the night, in cold January, I was in a space flooded with pure warmth, with radiant white light. I would be in a Presence which was beyond image and name. It was an undeniable Presence that I felt but did not see. Back then I called it a Beatific Vision. I would hear a voice telling me that Janette would die, that this was agreed upon. The voice would then ask if I remembered. I would always answer that I did and that it was all right. I understood. It was perfectly all right. I was in a space of love, of complete surrender to the Presence. I had no question that there was no mistake, that all was as it should be. It was mysterious as well as beyond all knowing, yet it filled me with complete certitude.

The serenity and the peace took me from that death bed to a space well beyond it where I was no longer bound by all the questions that haunted me as a mother of a dying child. In that space of Wisdom there was no need for questions. Back in the room, the cold dark death room, I would question how I, a mother, could give consent to a death sentence. Yet over and again the experience repeated. In the end, even in that room, even holding my precious child as she died in my arms, I knew, KNEW, that in spite of my pain and sorrow, it really was all right. That experience, what I called the Beatific Vision, what I would now call Wisdom, held me. It was all those things you spoke of—nurturing, peaceful, serene, sensing a Presence that filled one. Yet there was no Other, just mere pure communication, so pure there was no need for me to question it. It was a confrontation with the mysterious that wiped out questions, replacing all with a deep sense that every hair on every head is exactly as planned. All the pain, sorrow, anxiety, fear were gone. This for me is the experience of Wisdom.

Many times since then in my meditations, my shamanic waking visions, I find myself in the body of the Buddha and it is always the same. I go from waking reality with questions, with the burning inquiry, and yet once inside that golden light the questions no longer have meaning, for just being in the Presence wipes them all away.

When I think of inquiry in science, I differentiate between narrow and the wide focus inquiry. My heroine, Barbara McClintock had questions as to how genetics worked. But she did not go with specific questions narrowed by what she believed she knew. Rather she went with the humility that said she knew little and just wished to let the plants speak their truths. When I create a complementary formula for someone I spend hours upon hours with inquiries about every aspect of the disease as well as conventional chemo and my natural approach. I crisscross every which way, using all I think I know, questioning and working the puzzle the best I can from the knowledge I gather. Yet even the most well researched protocol never yields the same feeling of certitude evoked by an experience of Wisdom. For the waking study and waking knowledge always begets more questions! This is so unlike the Wisdom Presence where all questions are answered in such a manner that there are no questions, where is such certainty, such completeness, such surrender—even in the face of certain death with all its terrors, as illustrated by my experience with Janette.

Being in the Presence I call Wisdom is a specific experience. There are certainly other experiences of Wisdom in life. For example, the knowledge I gathered twenty, thirty years ago to earn my degrees is pretty worthless (amazing advances in cellular biology are dwarfing the old ideas), but a different form of wisdom gathered in the process is still with me. The patience, the discipline, the respect for my teachers, the gratitude for my opportunity to study and to learn, the delight in the entire process, this remains with me as the most important part of the training. Yet this form of wisdom, perhaps like learning from one’s mistakes, falls in a different category than my visionary experience of being in the Presence.

Lee Irwin continues the conversation here, with a short piece on wisdom.

A Seven Pillars Guiding Voices Dialogue



Wisdom vs Knowledge