Wisdom for Dummies

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

| January-February 2000

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.