Wisdom: What’s In a Name?

I came of spiritual age at the height of the New Age – a time when post-psychedelic, open-minded seekers began their in-depth search for meaning and purpose within humanity’s collective awareness. As a Western seeker, I traveled up and down what I called the Dharma Highway, a network of spiritual roads, esoteric bookstores, visiting teachers, and upward climbs to spiritual retreats. Along the way I attended workshops, channeling sessions, séances, book signings, satsangs, darshans, and meditations for peace. It was 1987, and we were all abuzz about the Harmonic Convergence, the world’s first globally synchronized meditation event. The long-awaited crack in the cosmic egg had appeared, and from it sprung as many modalities, mediums and mysteries as anyone could wish for.

Alternative wisdom, a tiny phrase we mostly take for granted today, was the code word we looked for in deciding who we would listen to and how far we would travel to do so. Alternative wisdom meant that we did not have to accept the status quo of mainstream religion without first comparing it to our personal experience.

Conventional wisdom was our primary source of wisdom back then, and in many ways, it still is. It was what our culture surrounded us with, what we were born into, and what we inherited from previous generations. Conventional wisdom consists of mainstream knowledge that everyone knows or should know. It confirms what we already know about our life, our selves and our world. It is presupposed, pre-packaged, and deeply embedded into our social conditioning.

Conventional wisdom is quotable and well circulated. It includes a body of ideas and explanations that are generally accepted as true by the public and promoted by experts in a given field. It is so deeply rooted that it rarely comes up for discussion. Arguments against conventional wisdom and those who promoted it were rare and quietly extinguished before their spark was seen. Unfortunately, conventional wisdom is not always true, and is sometimes an obstacle in the discovery of new information and helpful explanations. Mundane statements repeated over and over again, especially in the public domain, are often absorbed into conventional wisdom, regardless of whether or not they are true.

Conventional wisdom also has a close cousin, traditional wisdom. Traditional wisdom is the cornerstone for most of our beliefs, especially those that are acceptable and comfortable to a society. It has an inertia-like property that opposes the introduction of contrary information. This inertia is due to traditions being made of ideas that are convenient, appealing, and deeply assumed by the public long after they have been proven obsolete. Traditional wisdom once promoted the myth of a flat earth and endorsed the misconception that our solar system revolved around the earth. Conventional wisdom in 1950, even amongst educated doctors, was that smoking was not particularly harmful to our health. And today, climate change is still rejected by many within related fields of science. Institutions, governments, and science-only structures almost always have one thing in common – they typically follow traditional lines of commonly held wisdom until presented (or confronted) by potent reasons to do otherwise.

We usually stumble upon alternative wisdom on the way to somewhere familiar – a place we know so well that we could get there blindfolded. If we’re lucky, we’ll trip over alternative wisdom early on, but the majority of us crash into it when traditional, or conventional wisdom disappoints us. Alternative wisdom likes to play hide-and-seek – waiting until we are less concerned with the mundane and less obsessed with the magical – before revealing itself. It’s a good bet that when the lines of ordinary reality begin to feel cramped, blurred, and restrictive, the threshold to alternative reality is not far off.

Alternative wisdom is centered in the development of a personal philosophy – an evidence-based blend of principles, practice, and direct experience. It is what you find when you read between the lines, finish sentences with original thoughts, and disagree with established authorities and experts. New, or alternative ideas come to those who are curious enough to experiment with them. When approached with objectivity and care, alternative wisdom offers a greater understanding of people, events and situations; a life that includes more depth, awareness and purpose often follows.

A well-respected teacher once told me that real wisdom does not build character, teach morals, influence behavior or give us something soft to rest on. It does not seek to gain friends, find agreement, add believers or acquire followers. Alternatives in wisdom ask us not to be so sure of our thoughts and beliefs, or get too over-confident about our selves and our world – perhaps there is still much to learn. It invites us to rethink, unlearn and set aside the habits and limitations we have patterned ourselves around.

It has been over 30 years since the Harmonic Convergence. Although it seemed like a big deal at the time, it is just one among many milestones and thresholds we have crossed. These events have not ushered in the worldwide peace we all long for, create equality among genders and nations, end poverty and hunger, or a number of other ills that still plague our tiny planet. But we believed then, as we do today, that our emergent activities in alternative medicine, alternative sources of energy, alternative lifestyles, alternative forms of spirituality, and so many more, would make a notable difference in the world we all share.

Exploring alternatives continues to enrich our personal resources and deepen our connection to the earth and each other. Sir Isaac Newton once noted, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” As a visionary and alternative thinker, I owe a debt of gratitude to those who have raised questions and risked repercussions. I am equally indebted to my contemporaries and colleagues who do the same.

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