Wisdom is Well-being
Years ago, a colleague who was the CEO of a large health care corporation started an informal retreat at a health leadership event we were co-facilitating by describing the experience of well-being across the life span we all could enjoy. To engage the conversation, he drew a diagram that looked like the one pictured above.
He explained his idea that as mind-body-spirits in harmony, we could grow into realizing our optimal experience of well-being on a steep upward trajectory through childhood, as we come to understand life and gain independence, then maintain it through most of our life with only a slight decline towards the end as we face the natural aging processes. And then, this phase of life as we know it simply ends. Or, he said, death could come at any time, but it would simply stop, not spoil, the trajectory of well-being.
Notice he is talking about the “experience of well-being,” not being a perfect physical specimen or even free from any physical defects or limitations. He made it clear that his definition of optimal well-being was internal, not related to life circumstances. He said it was loving and appreciating being alive, facing challenges with common sense and optimism, and living to the fullest of our potential, individually. He suggested we are born to thrive. So why, he asked, are there so few people who actually live and die this way? I raised the question of why, since we are talking about the experience of well-being, not about our physical state or external events, couldn’t we have an upward trajectory across all of life, until the very end? Don’t we all know people with physical limitations and even serious illnesses, with difficult life circumstances, who still live joyfully and explore peace ever more deeply as they move through life situations?
The group wanted to talk about the inevitability of pain and suffering and cynicism and discouragement. They wanted to talk about life being increasingly stressful, filled with hard knocks and tough lessons, disappointments and failures. We wanted to talk about transcending what we call pain and suffering, self-consciousness, fear. and all the things that we perceive as stressful. At first, the group was argumentative. But then someone within the group said, “Wait a minute! Why are we arguing for misery as if we knew we were born to be miserable? What if we have just come to accept unhappiness and negativity, so we never even ask ourselves if that is really the point of life?” There was sheepish laughter. Then silence.
That was the turning point. Common sense awakened in the room. Misery is not a choice anyone would make if they saw they had a choice. Deep down, no one wants to argue that stress and unhappiness, pain and suffering, are what we came into the world to experience.
It turned out to be an interesting day. The group of health care managers realized they had never thought much about health beyond its connection to medicine and illness. They had never wondered about their own sense of well-being: Where did it come from? How and why did it change? How much was it truly related to things beyond themselves? By the end, one participant described the event as “liberating”, and most in the group agreed. We asked what they meant by “liberating.” The answers amounted to freedom from the belief that people, things, circumstances, events could “make” them feel one way or the other because they were free to be at peace, even in turmoil.
What magic could create that kind of liberation in a day? The answer is the “magic” we are born with, cannot lose, and can always count on: innate wisdom. The magic accessible to every person, always, even though many people don’t often access it, or easily override it when they do. It is intrinsic to humanity, to life itself. Wisdom is spiritual, a quality of being alive, expressed through human beings via thinking. But those who study the universe, those who observe nature, those who love animals, recognize that wisdom is everywhere, expressed in infinite ways through the pulsing energy of diverse life. It is in the explosive activities of the most massive stars and the vibrations of the tiniest microscopic creatures. Wisdom is the music of the dance of the infinite universe, wondrous forms immense and minuscule connected in the harmony of forever through the intelligent energy of all things. We feel it when we know it. We feel it as calm, confidence, certainty, comfort, peace of mind, ease in our whole connection to life, knowing that the thought we are following will carry us gracefully through the dance.
Wisdom thrives in stillness. When our minds quiet, there it is, like the sweet song of birds heard when we turn off the roaring lawnmower. It was there all along; we were drowning it out with temporary noise.
In the meeting I described, the sudden “Wait a minute!” question quieted people’s habitual thinking about life. In that moment of silence, different thoughts came to mind. Wisdom bubbled to the surface. The participants started to ask different questions, have insights, see that their thinking belonged to them, not to things outside of them. Our job was to sustain the good feeling and guide the discussion towards wisdom if it started to move away from it. Their insights revealed their freedom to them. They felt liberated because they didn’t “learn” something; they “saw” something for themselves.
No one actually needs a retreat or a meeting to find wisdom. It is not lost. It is not something we acquire from others. We have it. It is the gift of life. It allows us to find our own trajectory through life, from within our own heart and soul. It’s up to us whether to cling to negative thoughts that pass through our mind, or let them pass and wait quietly for wisdom, always close at hand.
Sydney Banks put it this way (The Missing Link, p. 141):
“There are many ways to find the inner wisdom that will lead you to a healthier state of mind. You must exercise your freedom of choice to decide on your own individual path.
No matter which path you take, the wisdom you seek will always be found within the depths of your own consciousness.