Meditations on the Ten Pillars of Wisdom

With enough time and hardship--we arrive at a place in our lives when we must clearly examine our virtues, values, and beliefs. Although we may find ourselves lost in the traffic of modern life--it is crucial that we take the time to consider how we behave, how we speak to others, and the impact we have on those around us. The modern preoccupation with creating more artificiality (texting, VR, Ai, etc.) is evidence that there is a growing disparity among us. Many of are not ready yet to simply admit that is has become more difficult to simply connect to another human being. When does the individual, who is boggled by the mad mix of biology, artificiality, and material create time to reflect on their relationship to themselves and others?

When will we see the actual importance of how interconnected we are? When it is too late, and we have created dystopia and disharmony?

To quote Norman Mailer: “No sneeze is ever free of the leaf that fell on the other side of the hill…”

Along the journey I have taken in business and life, I discovered what I believe are ten essential pillars of wisdom--key things to understand as we shape our personal ethos. I have culled them from many different traditions and practices--so they will feel familiar to the reader. I am not telling you anything you do not already know. Mind you; these are “open concepts.” Open concepts are for you, the reader, to contemplate. They are not commandments or even suggestions. They are the material of inquiry into what is referred to by Zen Buddhists as, “the Great Matter of birth and death."

We confront the Great Matter every day, whether or not we are of sound enough mind to realize it. We come to terms with the strength of our core beliefs when we examine them in light of transience. I am talking about walking our talk, which far too few people do these days. Many people we encounter will show us persona and not the core of their being. Persona is devoted to appearances and supported by verbiage, and that is a shallow way to be. Dignity is derived from virtue--when we decide to practice what we preach, to live our values no matter what. We give up the persona and the false promises it makes.

I am obliged to be honest with the reader when I say that this kind of skillful activity stands in direct contrast to the "me, me, and more about me" world we live in today. Don't let anyone tell you that inner work is easy, or for the faint-hearted.

The Great Matter lives at the heart of all philosophical, spiritual and religious life. As much as humans differ in how they approach it, examining it remains a core responsibility of being alive and of sound mind. If we can say that life is about any one thing, we can say it is about the intractable reality of death in life--we cannot escape it, no matter what the technologists try and tell us, or sell us. We will never entirely resolve the Great Matter--that is not the goal. There is no goal--but to correct ourselves so we are more compassionate. If we cannot escape something, we may as well investigate it, and improve our understanding.

We can and will confront the reality of happiness, fear, self, limitation, responsibility, shadow, entitlement, intimacy, realism and gratitude each and every day we take a breath. In fact, when we become more conscious of that very simple process--that of the breath, we can contemplate the Great Matter with more clarity. That is, after all, meditation.

The evening chant at the end of the last sitting in a Zen temple echoes this sentiment beautifully:

Let me respectfully remind you, life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by, and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken. Take heed. Do not squander your life on anyone, nor anything.

I: Enlightenment

The truly wise know that enlightenment is not about being happy and blissed out all of the time. There is nothing monolithic about life, and sensible people do not expect to be happy all the time. Happiness is relatively easy to achieve, but hard to maintain. Plenty of simple, hard-working people are perfectly content with the ups and downs of life. They are not ecstatically happy--they are content. Seeing through the illusion, pain, and suffering is part of being a functional adult. You don't have to be a sage or a buddha to realize it either.

Enlightenment, a word that is used with far too much liberality, is not about happiness--it is about stripping out of the untruth in our lives. Seeing through the facade of 'happiness' in an increasingly commoditized and artificial world is a gift. The process of individuation that the wise embark on is towards the complete eradication of everything we imagine to be true (including almost all of our limiting beliefs and narratives). We do this with the sincere hope of replacing illusion with authenticity and realism. Wisdom helps us know the difference between dissatisfying, transitory happiness, and the freedom of self-actualization.

II: Fear

Wise people experience fear consciously. Fear makes you grab your kid’s hand from the stove, or keeps the leash a bit tighter on your dog when you are walking on the sidewalk. Fear keeps us safe, and safety is good. Fear makes you pay attention and take note of your surroundings. All of the offshoots of fear—anxiety, insecurity, doubt—also play a similar role. Some would suggest that the things we fear are illusions. However, to categorize all fearful thoughts and emotions as imaginary is delusional. Think of it this way: would you teach your kid NOT to be afraid if someone creepy approached them in the street? You teach your child to trust his fear and run to you or the police for a reason. Fear makes you stand still when you see a tiger and makes you run your ass off when a tornado is approaching. Fear keeps you from doing anything rash while someone is holding a gun to your head. Fear makes you hesitate. Fear is not something we can push out of our lives, ask anyone who has been in a war zone. Facing our fears is one of the hardest things in life to do--and we must embrace the lessons it bestows.

III: Self-Knowledge

Compassion begins with a consideration of one's core self. We must differentiate between our ego and our being. Ego is limited, but essential, while being is dynamic, responsive and alive. Only you know your deep wisdom self.

If you live on this planet in a living body, you have an ego. Your ego gets you out of bed, reminds you to eat and go to the bathroom, and is probably why you are reading this right now. My ego is writing this, and you are reading with yours. Without a sense of “I-ness,” illusory or not, we would not do anything. The notion that you can eradicate or get rid of it is the epitome of spiritual bypass and delusion. You cannot destroy your deep sense of self, nor is there any compelling reason to do so. If you do, you will be a zombie. Wisdom is not possible without a reflective and sensitive part of self, your logical mind and unique personality. Consciousness, as far as we can tell arises from the biological phenomena of the brain, which is part of the body. The only way to get rid of your body is death, and the only way to diminish your ego is to either die or become someone who has no thoughts of her or his own.

Be careful when you find yourself listening to a bit too much to what others are telling you about you. Only you truly know yourself. The ego has negative aspects, such as excessive fear, competitiveness, arrogance, and the need to be right. Wisdom is less about obliterating these things (which is impossible)—and more about mastering or overcoming these traits so that you evolve into a whole human being.

IV: Limitations

The wise never sacrifice their integrity or values to appease others. I am fond of saying that dignity is non-negotiable. We must not trade it for anything, because once it is lost, we will very hard to get it back. Wise people know that their discernment is key to living their values, so they make judgments and create boundaries.

How often do we ask the question: Is this healthy or unhealthy for me? Every time we decide whether or not something, someone, or some situation is right or wrong for us, (whether or not we like them or the situation), we are discerning what is best for us. All of us make these decisions on a moment to moment basis. We should respect our own and other's boundaries as they reflect our own (and others’) values. We needn't agree with another person's values--but we must respect them. If these clash with our own--the answer is obvious, we create a boundary.

Boundaries are commonly misunderstood, so it's best to be simple. A person with no boundaries is essentially a person who has very little self-respect, and a person with huge ones is a person who is scared. Neither position is ideal. Without boundaries, you will feel like a doormat. On the other hand, a person who builds huge walls is likely to find themselves imprisoned for awhile and eventually, those walls fall onto them, not others. The lesson is that some nuts do not need nutcrackers--they fall apart all by themselves.

  • Get to know your values and if your judgment is sound or not. Don't worry so much about appearances- concern yourself with action. If you are not aligned in wisdom, and in equanimity--then it's time to move on.

V. Emotional Responsibility

We cannot escape emotional responsibility. If we are planning to be in a harmonious relationship, then we must first be emotionally responsible and receptive to others. Anyone who would isolate that responsibility to themselves alone is not in relationship no matter how admirable their autonomy might be. When you become a lover, a parent or a leader--you are responsible for how your emotions affect those you love. To deny that you affect others with your tone, words or attitude means you do not understand the fundamental beauty and power of healthy interaction. It means you are not prepared to be intimate.

Being honest and responsible is the best indication of how healthy we are with boundaries and assertiveness. For instance, calling a child-molesting priest disgusting and reprehensible does not make you disgusting and reprehensible; it makes you an honest and accurate descriptor of a sociopath with offensive behavior. When we are brave enough to point out when another person is mean-spirited, consistently abusive, addicted or intoxicated--we are identifying something unproductive and unhealthy that we do not wish to have in our lives. Summarily labeling a self-absorbed friend, "a narcissist" who does nothing but talk about themselves endlessly does not make you a narcissist, it means you are tired of being a passive audience or set prop in someone else's life.

You are responsible for speaking up--and accepting the limitations others may or may not have. An excellent measure of a person's demeanor is how well they accept criticism. The wise are especially careful not to see others as the problem and instead take a fair share of responsibility for the situation they are in. Brave, emotionally responsible people can absorb just about anything and respond with thoughtfulness and consideration. Toxic people cannot hear anything that counters their defended sense of self and instead choose to live in fear of being exposed.

VI: Shadows

Individuals who cannot face their demons often find themselves surrounded by shadows. Shadows, remember, are cast by the sun--a universal symbol of attention and awareness. Pay attention when you or people in your life cannot handle the truth. Every time we unskillfully manage and react to what we perceive as negativity, (the shadow), we limit our growth. Negativity and shadow are unavoidable parts of life. We must confront the shadow, experience it, absorb it, and move through it. The shadow, after all, is not real.

  • Our “success” as humans is how well acquainted with ALL parts of the self we are and how well we have learned to harness both positive and negative energies to our benefit.

VII: Entitlement

Americans are notorious for believing that we are destined to do something great, something inspiring, incredible, and unique. Meanwhile, the rest of the planet is occupied with real work, life, and to some degree abject suffering. The majority of the world is populated by agricultural and menial labor workers, not office workers and millionaires. Lots of sagacious people sweat for a living doing backbreaking work. I met many of them in my travels around the globe. I spent time working with them, listening to them, feeling their lives. I realized very quickly that not everyone has a spectacular dharma to fulfill.

What is remarkable is that all of the collective dharma of the world, big and small is the same. Imagine, for a second that your life might boil down to the minute you save a child’s life or say the right thing at the right time to a friend who is hurting. Alternatively, it might not. Plenty of people shuffle off the mortal coil every single day without leaving the tiniest trace of themselves behind--and that is not a bad thing, either.

VIII: Intimacy

Wisdom teaches us that life is about precious moments with ordinary people.

Be leery of extraordinary individuals who bestow precious feelings on us on a whim, and then disappear. Nothing worth having is quick or convenient. When we learn to trust our intuition about others, and we are confident in ourselves, relationships are easier. When another person triggers fear, anxiety, inadequacy, or distrust in us, we are right to pause. We are right to question their intentions. We are right to correct our intentions. When we pay attention to what is going on internally and learn to ignore the spectacles of personality around us, (otherwise known as drama), we meet more natural and beautiful people and have more fulfilling moments. We will feel when we are being acknowledged, listened to, and appreciated. Validation of our shared humanity feels good. Actual intimacy-our ability to be receptive, ordinary, straightforward and vulnerable about ourselves and with another human being is rare.

When we have cultivated discernment within ourselves, the right people arrive. Be leery also of anyone who would tell you that discernment is easy--but it is worth it. Look for people who are ready to bare the souls fully and plainly--without the apparatus of exotic beliefs and vague spiritualism. Look for straight answers. We will not obscure or hide from anyone whom we love--and they will not hide from us. Our ability to connect with others at the deepest level ties all of the previous qualities together. Wise people do not settle for less than actual intimacy, no matter how challenging it might seem at times.

Wisdom is patience.

IX: Realism.

Many years ago on a retreat, my old Zen teacher gave me one piece of advice that has resonated since. "Be realistic", is all he said. Of course, it has taken me the better part of twenty years to listen to his advice.

There is truth in intentional living. If you stayed focused and activated with things that are realistically within your skill-set, they will most likely happen. That is not manifesting. That is called goal setting. Diligence with a degree of grace and good luck mixed is. There’s a catch in manifesting that I am going to guess your yoga teacher did not cover.

Whatever you can imagine at a given point in time, no matter how incredible it may be, does not allow for the infinite possibilities that exist already in the Universe. When we visualize something specific, we limit ourselves to what we “think” we want. While we are busy planning for the infinite, we are settling for the finite, which may be far less than the Universe has in store for us.

  • The truth is, it takes humility to see that we cannot know the reach of our lives with the information we have right now. We can only see what is right in front of us. It is better to be realistic in our goal setting and happier with whatever we get than to chase after things we might never have or need.

X: Gratitude

We serve others best by giving what we need most--to ourselves.

In other words, whatever we find ourselves lacking or desiring, we should offer freely to others without expectation. The wisest application of gratitude is not generic. Anyone can say "thank you" to someone who treats them well--though many do not. I am talking about being thankful for all the experiences we have, both good and bad.

The single most empowering thing we can do as humans--(and as business people), is to be thankful for adversity and challenge.

The people who trigger us the most--they are our truest teachers. The more intimate we are, the greater the lessons. Most of us are not quite ready for this last pillar--because it requires forgiveness. Gratitude for one's "enemy" allows an individual to both accept all of the other qualities in others, as they are expressed uniquely by another person. We may not always like what we see, what we hear, or what another person does, but if we have cultivated the preceding nine aspects of wisdom--it is only natural that we can internalize what we do not like about others as the very things we most need to work on. That does not mean we need to accept and interact with people whose ethics are questionable, or who would hurt us. How often we meet with the shadow in others is often directly related to shadow in us--the parts of ourselves we are obscuring. By accepting and being grateful for adversity as part of self-knowledge, we are to love others fully. Moving through an experience of learning to love what we hate both internally and externally is the most powerful pillar of them all.