By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest. — Confucius

I’m sure some of you love this time of year — driving by neighborhoods where all the houses are lit up at night, searching for the perfect something for someone you love, the familiar smells and songs that remain steady in a quick-spinning life.

Thoreau's quote near his cabin site, Walden Pond.

Image via Wikipedia

If the spirit hasn’t moved you, the winter holidays can be like an exercise in faking it, holding it all together (and in) with a plastered smile trying to keep up appearances.

These festivals of light is meant to help us to connect to the light during the period of darkness. But many of us feel bad that we feel the darkness when of course it’s natural that we do, especially this time of year when the physical world reflects that. We’re just sensitive!

It’s taking me longer than I expected to recover from the flu.  Intellectually, I know that when my physical energy feels low, I’m more apt to feel psychologically low.  Usually, I try to up my self-care at these times.  But it’s interesting to observe that a part of me gets really tired of taking care of myself, and I get lazy.  Not very wise, especially this dark time  of year.

Henry David Thoreau said that “a characteristic of wisdom [is] not to do desperate things.”

Would he include pretending everything is okay as “desperate?”

Wisdom is not easy to define, but we know it when we see it in action. Researchers in the field of positive psychology have defined wisdom as the coordination of “knowledge and experience” and “its deliberate use to improve well being.”  A person’s wisdom can be measured using the following criteria:

  • A wise person has self-knowledge.
  • A wise person knows what is most important in life and how to get it.
  • A wise person seems sincere and direct with others.
  • Others ask wise people for advice.
  • A wise person’s actions are consistent with his/her ethical beliefs.
  • A wise person uses his knowledge and experience for the common good.

The research suggests that wisdom is more important to your sense of well-being and happiness than almost any other factor in your life or environment.  And that challenging life situations help us gain wisdom, but only up to a certain point.  Maybe the wise person knows when to face her fears, and when not to put herself into yet another hard work environment or relationship.

So, what are the practices that lead to wisdom?

In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in any given field.  Part of what Gladwell calls mastery is not unlike the Buddhist definition of wisdom, which is based on direct observation and experience.  What you’re learning about through witness and deep reflection is how things really are (including true nature of suffering, impermanence, and the self).  The Heart Sutra talks about doing wisdom, which indicates that it’s a way of being and acting as well as a quality of mind. It takes a while to develop wisdom but you can start right now, with a few simple practices:

  1. Be with things as they are.  Feeling bad (guilty, angry, ashamed) because you feel bad is just adding another layer of misery.  A meditation practice of bringing “bare attention” to whatever you’re experiencing, without analyzing it, making up stories about it, or pretending that it isn’t happening. I find it most helpful to do this practice seated with my eyes close.  Take a few deep breaths and then notice what you notice — the the areas of physical tightness, how you feel, what you think about what you feel.  Come back to the breath, or to a place in your body every few breaths.
  2. Do less things that drain your energy and more that give you energy. Take a blank piece of paper and draw a vertical line through the middle. On one side write “People, places, activities, beliefs that suck me dry” and on the other side right “People, places, activities and beliefs that makes me feel awesome after I make contact with them.” Set a timer for 15 minutes and start your brain dump.  If you think you’re done before the bell goes off, just sit there quietly; often this is when the good stuff comes out. When I coach people, I help them strategize how to integrate more of the energy boosts into their everyday life, and vice versa.  Just starting with one thing from each column might make you feel a bit more clear this season.
  3. Spend some time on forgiveness practices. Much easier said than done, but so much of our energy is occupied in the woulda-coulda-shoulda.  Begin with forgiveness of your own shortcomings; forgiving others can follow.  I find that as I unblock areas of anger and resentment, I naturally open up to feeling even just a wee bit better. One good place to start your practice is with this talk by Tara Brach.
  4. Move your body.  Best way of shaking up the bad juju. Plus we all eat a bit more when it’s cold outside and we can work on converting that extra love into muscle.  But don’t force it — something you love like dancing or yoga or woods-walking with your favorite pooch.  (And don’t worry about that extra –according to Ayuvedic wisdom, winter is the time for tonifying, or building tissue. Spring is the time for purifying.  So eat up AND move!)
  5. Question everything.  Especially when they’re pushing you toward consumption and not creation.  Better to DIY and while you’re at it, move your hard-earned money to a credit union if you’re still with a commercial bank.  In fact, look at where your money is being spent — do you like the values and investments of where you spend your money on auto assistance, insurance, utilities, food? Small things are the big things.
  6. Practice patience and compassion. This too shall pass.  I’ll leave you with wisdom from the ages:
Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?
The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.
Not seeking, not expecting,
she is present, and can welcome all things.
– Lao Tsu
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