Slow Wisdom

Knowledge and understanding about our world come to us in many forms. Most often we learn new information through the fastest methods, which are words and demonstrations. Reading the description of a thing is often not as helpful as seeing someone else do that thing, and combining the two can give us a pretty good impression about what we want to know.

Humans, as creative colliders, use what we “know” to iterate new ideas into existence. When we learn new things we give ourselves more options from which to pull when combining ideas. What we “know”, however, and the reason I am putting it into quotes, is often the most basic version of information about a thing.

Words and demonstrations can only teach us so much. It is often quite a different thing to actually put what we think we know into practice. Take woodworking, for instance, in which I can watch a training video about how to turn wood on a lathe, and receive a very solid perspective on the steps and techniques required to accomplish what I need.

I could even transmit this knowledge to someone else as I have heard it, or throw it together with something new. If this how one turns wood on a lathes, then it seems reasonable that the same technique could be used to for turning other similar materials.

As soon as I attempt to put this knowledge into use, however, the limitations of that information come into full force. Even if I use the exact same materials and tools my demonstration, the actual feel of the materials and how it reacts, the muscle quality needed or the steadiness of the hand, the information about how imperfections in the material affect the process…all of these come into play and demonstrate how limited my perspective was.

This is certainly not to decry learning new things from videos, it is mostly to point out that truly understanding something, and truly “knowing” about something comes only through time spent doing that thing. This is because so much of what we call knowledge actually comes to us through our bodies. Through the memories we develop about how we handled previous versions of this activity. True knowledge lives not just in our minds but in our bones and muscles and nervous systems.

This is a large part of the reason why many trades required apprenticeship and hours or repetition. Only through actually performing the act over and over can one develop a broad understanding of what is going on, not just in the mind, but in the body as well.

What does it mean that humans are eager and clever and pass on information so readily through the simplest method possible? It means that we like shiny new things and have a short attention span. It means that we are eager to take new information, combine it into something (or take from it assumptions based on our beliefs) and then spread that second iteration out into the world.

Working in my current job, which is a painting shop environment requiring manual labor, I have come to see how my initial impressions are often misguided or flat out wrong. When I approach something new I develop many perspectives immediately, and part of my job is to think about ways to improve and adapt these processes by thinking of new solutions or adaptations. I often find myself suspending those initial ideas once I have begun actually practicing the process. Often, in fact, every time that I think I understand how to make something better, I discover after putting in more hands on time with the situation that there were factors in play which I wouldn’t have thought to take into account.

The process of gaining first hand knowledge over time through practice might rightly be called wisdom. In fact, that is probably my favorite definition of the term I have come across.

Many situations in which we initially perceived “problems” are the way they are due to other factors, often ingrained in the nature of the system itself. It is only our surface level understanding which has led us to making assumptions.

Trying to leap in and “solve” “problems” without having put in hours of hands on experience no only leads to solutions which do not actually solve the issue, or leads to a whole host of new problems.

In my experience I have been shown many times that the “problem” I am encountering and trying to “fix” is actually a feature of the product I am working with.

As a painter I am constantly playing with different materials, substrates and colors. Many of these designs have been developed by people who have gone before me, and it has been my job to figure out how they did what they did so that our shop can continue to make those designs more consistently or better than before. What often starts out in my mind as the “problem” which we are having with the design slowly becomes the core element of the design. Instead of trying to remove the obstacle I begin trying to figure out how we can use that nature of the design and better incorporate it.

Without hands on experience in our world we are simply lacking depth of perspective, and there are several problems that come along with that. The first one, as already stated, is that we often end up “fixing” a “problem” that didn’t really exist, and that fix often causes more problems down the line.

Another interesting aspect of gaining wisdom, is that it is a process of relationship between yourself and something else. All of the materials in the world around us are the way they are because of the unique forces and events which went into shaping them. The unbelievable complexity of our living world is what leads to the need for this slow wisdom, this building up of a relationship with materials over time.

What does this mean for the digital world which we are building? If everything programmed has developed from human thought processes, then does it have any of the inherent complexity found in natural objects? Can one develop the same kind of hands on wisdom about spreadsheets or social media feeds? Certainly one can gain more skills, but it isn’t as if these programs have their own nature, they are simply following a program. It doesn’t feel to me like learning the nuances of a program, no matter how complex, will ever be the same as gaining wisdom about physical materials, social interactions, or forces of nature. Kandinsky, along with a slew of other philosphers, poets, writers and artists, noted the way we perceive some things in our world as adhering to their own inner nature, an internal necessity, a sense of having a “soul” or some kind of sovereignty in our world as being uniquely unto themselves.

I would argue that the need to gain hands on wisdom from our world is due to this internal necessity which exists in everything around us. It is the inherently alien nature of our world, the inhuman element, which piques our interest and curiosity, and which can teach us the most about how we can be a part of this world.

A digital life, derived from our human perspectives, can necessarily not reach beyond them. Humans cannot create anything inhuman with its own “soul” and sovereignty, yet. Without that, what are we able to learn from the meta world we are building? Aren’t we simply looking inwards, shielding ourselves from the inhuman perspective?

The final point which I would like to bring up about slow wisdom, is that these hands on encounters with our world are often challenging, as well as educational. We are an adaptive species, and our history has been one of learning how to continue on in the face of constant change and external pressure. At least, that is what it had been for most of our existence.

Now, however, we have developed so many tools for altering the world around us in order to suit our preferred living style, we seem to have shifted the focus of our adaptation. Now, we are focused quickly on identifying things which are no ideal, which stick out as opportunities to make things better. Our work is put into shaping our world, in shaving off the rough bits which cause us discomfort.

As I noted before, my work has shown me that my initial reactions are often wrong. Shown me that the things I wanted to “fix” at first are actually the valuable bits. In most cases the solution is not to change the thing I am working on, but to change myself, and my perspective. Instead of manipulating the material I learn how to work with it, or around it, which often means adjusting the usual way I approach things.

Adaptation used to be this way, as our only recourse. It used to be that we spent our energies learning how to shape ourselves, to work on ourselves, to reorient ourselves. We had no power over the world. I am pretty convinced that what the wisdom traditions like Buddhism, Taoism, Stoicism and the new mindfulness movements and yoga studios are trying to help us to do exactly this: to relearn the power of transforming ourselves rather than the world around us.