Wisdom for Dummies

We're buying enlightenment everywhere. So why aren't we getting any wiser?

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In A Guide for the Perplexed , E.F. Schumacher’s great attempt at summarizing the collective wisdom of the premodern world and making its imperatives intelligible to modern readers, he wrote: “It may conceivably be possible to live without churches; but it is not possible to live without religion, that is, without systematic work to keep in contact with, and develop toward, Higher Levels than those of ‘ordinary life’ with all its pleasure or pain, sensation, gratification, refinement or crudity—whatever it may be. The modern experiment to live without religion has failed, and once we have understood this, we know what our ‘post modern’ tasks really are.”

The first among those tasks, Schumacher made clear, is to recover a series of genuine maps-for-transformed-living: maps that allow people today—especially young people—to change themselves in deep and lasting ways. Schumacher wrote A Guide for the Perplexed in the late ’70s, and since then the maps have been coming in hard and heavy. In fact, there are more floating around now than perhaps at any other point in history. Not only are modern—if questionable—masters of transformation in anything but short supply, but revamped versions of the transformative maps of times past are on hand in equal, and perhaps even greater, quantities.

From Nag Hammadi to Tikal, Tibetan tantra to Iranian Sufism, Japanese Zen to Amerindian shamanism, the deep, difficult, often obscure musings of long-vanished cultures on the true shape and purpose of human life have been coming back into circulation at an unprecedented rate, joined by the offerings of contemporary sages, both real and self-proclaimed.

Yet for all their wild profusion, and for all the talk of using these maps to blaze trails into new dimensions of understanding, the essential promise at the heart of the world’s wisdom traditions is often moribund today in a way that it never was before. Real wisdom—the kind that once held entire cultures together and told individuals who they were and what they might perhaps become—seems to be retreating from us at precisely the speed that so many people suggest it is approaching.

The first large-scale burst of such material did not occur until the early ’60s, right around the time I was born. In the late ’70s, the process was in full gear, and I was part of the first generation of confused teenagers to have this remarkable supermarket of exotic insights glistening out there, ready to help if I wanted it.

And want it I did.

Anyone who read as many wisdom books as I did noticed that a certain character appeared in many of them: a person unlike others. This person could be man or woman, but let’s say that it is a man. Unlike most people, who struggle and chafe against a world that is all too often at odds with their desires, this individual seems to have struck a secret agreement with life, as a result of which events just seem to go his way. Wanting next to nothing, he receives everything.

For much of my young adult life, I nurtured a private hope of actually bumping into one of these magical figures. The way I imagined it, I would be going about my business on a day like any other when I would suddenly find myself face to face with him. Somehow we would get to talking, and this man would explain things—things I had always wanted and needed to know, but that no one had ever offered to explain before.

The longer I waited to bump into this figure, the more important he grew. He became the absent center, the piece missing from the puzzle. Once I found him, and once he had taught me the things I really needed to know, my life, formerly so frustrating, formless, and vague, would begin to make sense at last.

I became, at about age 17, a full-fledged member of the cult of the popular wisdom manual—the slim, straight-talking paperback whose pages offered to tell me how to attain true, lasting escape from ordinary adulthood and all the humdrum disappointments that go along with it.

And I tried, in my haphazard teenage manner, to apply this material to my daily life. During study period, I practiced “sitting in oblivion,” the ancient Taoist practice of allowing one’s mind to become empty so that only the pure white static of the universe would flow through it, like snow on a television screen after the programs have left the air. Doing the dishes after dinner, I would ponder Alan Watts’ admonitions, borrowed from the Taoists and Zen masters and slightly reformulated, to be the dishes—to surrender to the revolutionary assertion that, at bottom, dish and self were one and the same.

To my surprise and disappointment, however, I never did actually change into one of those larger, wiser beings. I simply grew into someone with an insatiable appetite for more such books. Like many others, I became a consumer of wisdom recipes rather than an eater of the genuine, transformative foods that those recipes described with such eloquence. In love with a genre that promised to change me into an out-of-the-ordinary adult, I ended up being so sidetracked by that promise that it took me an extra-long time to grow into an ordinary one.

Why was this? Was it the fault of the books I read, of my way of reading them, or perhaps of some mysterious third factor?

I have come to suspect that my botched encounter with wisdom was part of a larger trend—the same trend I see at work today. I also suspect that the key problem created by our contemporary wisdom glut centers around risk and sacrifice: what we are prepared to give to wisdom in order to receive something back from it. All the circumcisions and subincisions, the enforced starvation and exhaustion, the piercings and tattooing, the blood and broken teeth that accompanied so many primitive wisdom-getting rituals are nothing if not an illustration of the fact that if we are to approach wisdom effectively, it is we who must tailor ourselves to it, and not the other way around. It is that call to unqualified investment—commitment to the full course of the wisdom-getting project—that has been lost in the modern wisdom smorgasbord.

A new battery of wisdom voices have replaced Watts, Castaneda, and their kin, and the hard, transformative words of the genuine wisdom traditions have given way to a soft, consoling purr—the lullabies of wisdom-as-product. This process is not without interesting side effects. As wisdom manuals turn into salves designed to soothe the delicate skin of our selfhood rather than irritants designed to drive us out of it, the urge toward deep, consequential change is showing up elsewhere, in unexpected places and sometimes unpleasant ways. If young people now devour blunt-edged books that say everything is OK, they are also hard on the lookout for messages with a sharper edge. When they're not lining up to see Scream and Nightmare on Elm Street, they are at the other end of the mall having their flesh pierced in an incoherent imitation of those initiatory destructions that accompanied getting wisdom in times past.

Those dark, hooded, knife-wielding characters who fill the movies young people love stand for the figure of the lost initiator—the adult from the fringes of the mundane world who arrives with the news that grown-up life isn’t complete after all, and that life’s other, hidden side might ask more of us than we had ever bargained for.

This message is one of uncompromising singularity and seriousness. The more we tailor it to suit our tastes, or multiply and manipulate it to suit our desperate need for novelty, the more we risk getting lost among the countless versions of genuine wisdom we’ve collected—and missing its promise altogether.

Ptolemy Tompkins is the author , a study of meso-American myth and ritual, and a memoir, . His new book (Avon), will be published in 2000. From(#9). Subscriptions: $15/yr. (3 issues) from 83 Spring St., New York, NY 10012.