My wife and I had a conversation a few days ago about wisdom. It’s not an easy question. How can you tell whether or when someone is wise? Is it something about them that hangs in there? My response was very pragmatic. Wisdom shows up after the fact in the assessment of whatever action, often involving some guidance to another, was taken. Did it fit the circumstances, beyond anything routine? Routines are the opposite of wise acts they always fit, by definition of the word routine. Wisdom only shows up when the going gets tough and our routines fail us.

The answer to the questions above might be found in this short passage by Thich Nhat Hanh, the recently deceased Buddhist monk and sage who taught us much about how life should be lived. He was a major contributor to the coming of meditation to the West. I came across this in weekly newsletter I subscribe to. I do not know its specific source in his writings.

It’s funny how much our surroundings influence our emotions. Our joys and sorrows, likes and dislikes are colored by our environment so much that often we just let our surroundings dictate our course. We go along with “public” feelings until we no longer even know our own true aspirations. We become a stranger to ourselves, molded entirely by society… Sometimes I feel caught between two opposing selves — the “false self” imposed by society and what I would call my “true self.” How often we confuse the two and assume society’s mold to be our true self. Battles between our two selves rarely result in a peaceful reconciliation. Our mind becomes a battlefield on which the Five Aggregates — the form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness of our being — are strewn about like debris in a hurricane. Trees topple, branches snap, houses crash.

Hanh, without knowing it, has described almost perfectly the consequences of the divided-brain-model of Iain McGilchrist. The two opposing selves that Hanh discussed correspond to the way one acts when one or the other hemisphere is in charge. The “false self” fits the behaviors produced when the left side is the master, while the “true self” matches behaviors under the wing of the right. The battlefield metaphor may be a bit strong because both sides are virtually always involved. The havoc Hanh ascribes to himself fits McGilchrist’s and my arguments that the dominance of the left hemispheres is responsible for the social and environmental debris cluttering the path toward what I call flourishing.

His words also give us a clue about the nature of wisdom. Wisdom is always creative, something only the right hemisphere is capable of. It is a negation of all the routines that someone, unwisely, might attempt to apply to the present moment. All of the routines that we have learned from life and have become stored in the left hemisphere either have not worked or are thought not to be able to work. Under most circumstances, everything would come to a screaming halt, like the toppling of the trees in Hanh’s words. That would be it. The kind of frustration so evident in this passage often follows such breakdowns.

Wisdom, then, is the ability to find creative solutions to problems that are intractable in terms of our usual, routine ways of doing things. A wise person is one who can keep the know-it-all left hemisphere at bay while the right side takes in the problematic present situation and creates response that fits in the sense of being able to remove the roadblocks and move forward. Wisdom, seen in that way, is simply a term for the ability to empower the right hemisphere sufficiently to overcome the limitations the left-hemisphere has in dealing with new circumstances that its historically derived content have as yet learned to cope with. The abstract knowledge it has acquired over time cannot produce any solutions.

Everyone has the ability to act wisely and most of us do from time to time, even without knowing it. We simply clap ourselves on the back for getting out of some deep hole, and move along. But occasionally we do come to know someone who is able to do this, more or less, on demand. It is not that they know more than we do. Their wisdom comes in being able to make the right hemisphere the master, something that Hanh points out is very hard to do in our age as we “just let our surroundings dictate our course.” McGilchrist would say that Hanh’s metaphor is pointing to the dominance of the left hemisphere in our modern cultures. It would be difficult to find another quote more evocative of the divided-brain-model.

2 Replies to “The Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh”

  1. Hi John,

    excellent piece with so many important and mind-opening points. The challenge of “stepping back” from the culture to re-set the mind properly being one, the ideas about wisdom vs. knowledge another. Splendid argument. One might just add that the “false self” seems to be when the LH is the master, and it is also misconstrued. Sometimes the model of the LH is in concurrence with reality, and could represent the “true self” for a certain amount of time. But it seems to be a slippery slope by nature, when the LH becomes self-contained. Thus the perennial warnings about Hubris and Intellectual Superbia.

    One day we might look back at the infancy of the internet and be horrified that most people were “online” every waking minute of the day. Like people once smoked 3 packs of sigarettes pr. day. There might, hopefully, be a growing awereness of how deeply the surroundings could be mis-shaped and how limited our capability is to dismiss it. It seems like one has to simply step back, and limit the exposure instead.

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