Practical or Spiritual Wisdom: Which One Fits You Best

For some time now, the possibility of spiritual experience has captured my imagination.  But I’ve had a change of heart.  But the spiritual direction may have taken me off of my natural course: the pursuit of what might be called Practical Wisdom.  I’d like to tell you about my course change.

They say that wisdom generally comes with age.  There’s the perspective born of long experience, the interiority that follows a gradual withdrawal from immediate events and responsibilities, the reckoning with mortality, and the revolt against ageism and limitations.

Researchers confirm these cultural assumptions.  They tell us that “spiritual capacity gradually increases, especially with regards to self-acceptance and perceptions of one’s life having integrity.”  These experiences open “the mind/body/spirit to expansion and deeper sense of knowing”  and spiritual dimension gains prominence.”

There’s nothing new about these findings.  Confucius said that “at fifty I understood the Decree of Heaven.” 

That was in 479 BC.  In one way or another, all of our religious traditions concur.  So did many of the pioneers of the psychological era over 100 years ago.  Karl Jung, for example, talked of aging as the “afternoon of life,” a time when transcendence was finally possible.  And William James resuscitated “out of the ordinary experience” in his great book, The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Among researchers, there are two broad models of spiritual development.  The first focuses on growth in the later years.  It tells us that, until midlife at least, people are preoccupied with the worldly concerns of families, work, and civic responsibilities, natural constraints and misguided cultural ideals, such our desire for material success, block our access to wisdom.  With age, two things happen: Responsibilities decrease, and concerns with mortality increase.  The Hindu tradition, among others, is explicit on this.  At first you must fulfill your responsibilities, familial and economic; then, after midlife, you are free to pursue self realization.

Among religious traditions, self realization takes the form of extensive learning, but the learning runs counter to all we had learned before.  It requires us to let go of the logical, linear ideas that have governed our lives—the idea of establishing and working towards goals, for instance.  Instead, we are directed to the perplexing and paradoxical realities that lie below the linear surface.  We learn, for example, that we are neither good nor bad, but both.  Our best efforts to gain control of ourselves lead only to greater confusion.  Instead of stability and a desire to control our worlds, this spiritual masters pursuit ask us to surrender to an infinite universe that we can neither control nor fully understand.

Perhaps the most important thing we can’t control is our mortality. By spending so much effort trying to ward what is inevitable, our ideas about reality become distorted.  Only by accepting our mortality  and losing our fear of death, Buddhists say, can we, paradoxically, see the world as it is and come fully to life.  When our vision is unblinking, we relax, we come to peace, and we connect with all living things.

The second model tells us that adversity and constraints, not growth, push us, almost against our will, in a spiritual direction.  Atchley (1997), for example, suggests that “ageism and age discrimination push many older adults to spirituality, presumably by fostering disengagement and curtailing life choices. Further, physical aging, while restricting one’s mobility, creates opportunities to experience meditation and contemplative silence, and thus facilitates spiritual development.”

Whether spiritual development comes of growth or adversity, researchers tell us that it comes more easily to some than to others.  For instance women in the United States, who are more immersed in institutional religious communities, are more open to spiritual experience.  The same is true for psychologically minded people. That might be me.

I have often conflated wisdom and spiritual development, and, at least in my mind, there is great overlap.  But there is a school of wisdom that does not emphasize spirituality that seems very familiar and simpatico to me.  Reading Aristotle again after all these years and re-learning his notions of “practical wisdom” is partly what has led to my recent change of heart.

Aristotle preached the importance of kindness, self control, courage, fairness, gentleness, friendliness, honesty, open-mindedness, perseverance, loyalty, and other “virtues.”  And the exercise of these virtues depended on practical wisdom, which is the capacity for action, guided by reason.  In Reclaiming Virtue, John Bradshaw put it this way.  “Practical wisdom “is the ability to do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason.”

Though I have lately talked and thought more about spiritual wisdom, I have worked all of my life to achieve practical wisdom.  Looking back on almost fifty years of journal writing, it’s impossible to miss my focus on open-mindedness.  That’s the goal of my free writing, my effort to write without preconception until new understandings come to me, almost unbidden.  I urge myself towards judicious decision making and doing the right thing.  There are so many entries where I try to work through meaner impulses and into a kinder frame of mind.   I ask myself, almost like a mentor might standing outside me, to have the courage to be honest and the perseverance to pursue my ends.  From this perspective, my journal is like an athletic practice field where I work on myself until my understanding is clear and I am ready for action.

As I’ve written before, journal writing is immensely calming for me.  I have seen it as a form of meditation.  But I now sense something a little different: It seems to be a workbook in practical wisdom, which seems to hinge on what I might call a good or a right frame of mind, an alignment of mind and body, of ideas, and emotions.  Once established, that frame creates both a sense of inner calm and a readiness for action.

Now let’s return to the dueling interests of practical and spiritual wisdom.  Both are compelling.  Who isn’t intrigued by the possibility of self transcendence, inner peace, and the experience of awe that spiritual attainment promises?  Who wouldn’t appreciate the alignment of body and mind offered by practical wisdom?  But I have a feeling that it’s hard to tend to both pathways equally or at the same time.

It seems to me that seekers have to prioritize.  And it also seems to me that we would be smart to prioritize based, at least in part, on our psychological makeup.  For example, I’m a stable person.  I think a lot.  The learning, teaching, and mentoring I have done all my life depends on some combination of knowledge and an ability to communicate that knowledge.  And I treasure good judgment.  The people I trust most and am closest to are people of action, whose activities are based on knowledge, discipline, and careful judgment.  They aren’t stuffy people.  They reflect on their lives.  They are intuitive.  They also crave wholeness and calm.

There are others who I admire at a distance.  They are more capable of awe and transcendent experience than I am.  In my more judgmental moments, I think of them as flighty.  In my generous moments, I envy them and see that they have much greater access to spiritual experience than I do.  At all times, I know that they are not me.

I wonder if in getting older that envy has distorted my own journey towards wisdom.  Upon reflection, I’d have to say that age has caused me to rush, to think I had better try to reach the mythical spiritual places that I’ve read about and, on very rare occasions, sensed—now.  And by rushing, I may have ignored and undervalued a type of wisdom that I’ve been working at for half a century.  If I keep rushing, I will not be myself.  I will not bring my particular resources to bear on a search for greater wisdom.  I will miss a great opportunity in search of what might be a greater one in spiritual pursuits which, for me, what might be chimera.  In other words, I better hold steady on my own path.