Can We Become Wiser?
Western investigators have concluded that wisdom doesn’t necessarily accrue with age. We all know older folks who, rather than growing wiser, cling more tightly to rigid defenses, blame their difficulties on others, and live ever more constricted lives. But then there are some who become lighter, more loving, more tolerant, and develop a “big picture” perspective on it all. Can we choose one path over the other for ourselves and our clients? If so, how?
Wisdom researcher Paul Baltes, who found that clinical psychologists are wiser than the population at large (which may not say much for the population at large), speculates that people who are intentionally introspective are likelier to become wise than those who aren’t. This raises concerns about trends in training that deemphasize personal development, including entering treatment ourselves. If our only focus is to learn and faithfully implement techniques, we may not become very wise therapists.
While I’ve seen considerable evidence in my friends and colleagues that deliberately taking up practices from wisdom traditions, such as mindfulness meditation, has made them wiser, I’ve also found that just thinking about wisdom can have its own dividends. For me, this has often taken the form of heightened awareness of my own foolishness—the hundreds of times in the course of a day when I become preoccupied with my comfort, self-image, or cherished ideas. Observing my repeated moments of posturing, striving, and chasing after pleasure while trying to avoid pain seemed to help me lighten up, notice that my foolishness wasn’t really helping me or anyone else, and, occasionally, act a little more wisely.
As we all know, therapists today face a lot of pressures that don’t support the pursuit of wisdom. We’re encouraged by payers to resolve symptoms quickly and cheaply and move on to the next client. While this can sometimes constitute wise, compassionate action, often it doesn’t. We aren’t afforded much time for introspection or metabolizing the feelings that come up in a session, not to mention time for supervision, reflection, meditation, or other supports for seeing the big picture. Our clients are themselves discouraged from introspection by the pharmaceutical industry, which offers images of unbalanced neurotransmitters to explain their difficulties (the ads neglect to list “may lead to an unexamined life” among possible side effects).
So what are we to do? Despite these pressures, we might still adopt increasing our own wisdom, and that of our clients, as daily goals. This need not necessarily involve time-consuming, esoteric practices, though these can certainly support our efforts. We might simply look for ways to help everyone develop concern for others; see the effects of our actions short and long term, near and far; remind ourselves to reflect before acting; hold our ideas more lightly; and appreciate that everything changes and the mind constantly creates suffering by wishing things would be other than they are. We might especially try to notice how all of our self-preoccupation, engrossing as it is, alienates us from one another and makes everyone unhappy.
Who knows, if each of us tried to do this every day, we might all suffer less and live more awakened, less lonely lives. Just don’t tell the managed care companies.
Ronald Siegel, Psy.D., an assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School/Cambridge Health Alliance, is the author of The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems, coeditor of Mindfulness and Psychotherapy, and coeditor of the new book Wisdom and Compassion in Psychotherapy: Deepening Mindfulness in Clinical Practice. Contact: www.mindfulness-solution.com.
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