Wisdom and the Rose-Apple Tree

I have spent a considerable amount of time speculating about whether we get wiser as we get older, and – if so – can that wisdom be communicated?  But what if the end of learning, of trying, of experience, is to simply realize what we knew in the beginning?  Stay with me.

After the future Buddha had pursued years of ascetic training and sacrifice, he was still not enlightened. He asked himself whether there might not be a better way.  Immediately he had the memory of sitting as a child under the shade of a rose-apple tree watching a ploughing ceremony his father was participating in.  He remembered the relaxed joy and communion his younger self felt with the world around him and immediately knew that this was the way to Enlightenment – back to that simple childhood awareness.

I recently came across this quote from a Japanese Zen master (thank you Tim Miller) who was writing just a few days before his death about how he had finally come to faith and resolution about life:

One might ask if it wasn’t just an accident that I came to faith after engagement in strenuous study, but I would say it was not an accident. It was essential that I should do it this way. My faith has within it a conviction that all my self-power efforts are futile. But in order to be convinced of this futility of self-power, it was necessary to exhaust all my intellectual resources and get to the point where they would not reassert themselves. This was a most strenuous business. Before I reached the end of it there were quite a few times when I thought I had acquired a religious faith. Yet, time and again my conclusions were shattered. As long as one tries to build up a religion on the basis of logic and intellectual study, one cannot escape this difficulty.

This idea that one only understands by “giving up” or looking back to what one knew before one started comes up again and again in wisdom literature.  We could recall the motto of Socrates:  “I know only one thing–that I know nothing.” One might think of Job, who tried to figure God out, only to be struck down in simple awe at the end.  Or Saint Teresa of Avila who entered joyful trances as a child by twirling around with her brother chanting “Forever, ever, ever” – a level of contemplative ecstasy she only came back to in later life. But it would seem that we must go through the process of trying to get there.  But (and this is one of those big buts), then, we must step back.  I have often talked about the value of quiet and reflection in old age, and maybe that is the purpose of such reflection.

Then there is my friend Spinoza.  Spinoza wrote an entire book (Ethics) trying to use the geometric/logical method to figure out the nature of man and the best way to live.  It is full of axioms, propositions, and postulates.  It is a great book.  But in the end, we get this: “The greatest striving of the mind, and its greatest virtue is understanding things by the third kind of knowledge.”  And what is the third kind of knowledge?   It is intuitive knowledge.    And yet, the last paragraph of the Ethics cautions us: “If the way I have shown to lead to these things now seems very hard, still, it can be found.  And of course, what is found so rarely must be hard.”  So it would seem that Spinoza agrees with my Japanese monk – study hard and then – step away?

One of my favorite pieces by Spinoza is the manifesto he wrote as he started out as a young man.  It delineates what he was looking for (“knowledge of the union existing between and mind and all of nature”) and how he is going to live and work as he gets there (great rules of life).  As far as I can tell (and I am no Spinoza scholar), he followed those rules and tried to find out how humankind fit into the scheme of things. He studied hard, thought much, and wrote it all down.  But he ends up by talking about intuition.

Here’s a story.  When I went back to piano lessons as an adult, I told my wonderful teacher that I loved to play but had no ear and was almost incapable of memorization.  After a few lessons, he told me I was mistaken – he had been watching me play and said I seldom looked at the music.  I did not believe him.  I believed – to some extent still believe – what I was told as a child.  You have no ear.  Maybe the trick is to clear away things we were told, not keep adding to the logjam of debris in our minds.  To let go.  Clear the decks.  Get back to the rose-apple tree.  It’s not easy though.

Fiction reading for this week is a new story, “Reflections,” which thinks about ways that our younger selves can (sometimes) pull us back to our centers.   It is about physical reflections and mental reflections. Enjoy.

Learning in Old Age – What Do You Say?

Learning is good, you say.  Our culture encourages old people to pick up new skills, new knowledge.  And there are countless “senior” universities and elder learning/travel programs to help us along.  OK.  But let’s think for a minute about what Seneca said (and Montaigne quoted in his wonderful essay, “All Things in Their Season”):  “An old man learning his ABC is a disgraceful and absurd object; the young man must store up, the old man must use.”  Seneca is commenting here on Cato’s learning Greek for the first time in his old age.  And Montaigne goes on to say “the greatest vice they [the wise] observe in us [old people] is that our desires incessantly grow young again; we are always re-beginning to live.”

The current popular opinion is it is never too late to learn something (if not everything) and this is a very American sentiment.  Here is Emerson at age sixty-nine writing in his journal:  “I thought to-day, in these rare seaside woods, that if absolute leisure were offered me, I should run to the college or the scientific school which offered [the] best lectures on Geology, Chemistry, Minerals, Botany, and seek to make the alphabets of those sciences clear to me.  How could leisure or labour be better employed?”  And so we go on educational cruises and enroll in sign language classes, spending our money and filling our time.  Me too.  There’s nothing really wrong with it, but it bears thinking about.  “The young man must store up, the old man must use.”  That phrase haunts me.

Maybe there is a middle way.  In an essay on reading the classics, Italo Calvino recommends:

There should therefore be a time in adult life devoted to revisiting the most important books of our youth.  Even if the books have remained the same… we have most certainly changed, and our encounter will be an entirely new thing…Every rereading of a classic is as much a voyage of discovery as the first reading.

Rediscovering what we already knew – and doing it ourselves without being told what the academy thinks it means.  For anyone interested in such an endeavor, I recommend finding a Great Books group (all the people in it will be old, I can assure you) in which you deal with the text and there are no experts or outside sources.  Similarly, I moved from taking piano lessons to meeting monthly with other amateurs like myself; we learn pieces to play for each other and discuss.   I participate in a neighborhood yoga group which is simply a group of willing participants.  In all these groups, we teach each other and we teach ourselves.

I am not denigrating classes and travel; I am trying to differentiate learning as a distraction from plumbing the depths of our experience to realize what, perhaps, we already know.  I want to distinguish between taking in regurgitated “professional” knowledge and developing our own capabilities, our own wisdom.  What did the fool say to Lear?  “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.”  Perhaps I will try to define wisdom in some future post, but I think we know what it feels like.

In a different essay, Seneca discusses people who are looking for gems as they read, wrapping up nuggets of learning to represent their effort – something that is fine for children, but the older person should be doing something else:

But for a man advanced in study to hunt such gems is disgraceful; he is using a handful of clichés for a prop and leaning on his memory; by now he should stand on his own two feet.  He should be producing bons mots, not remembering them.  It is disgraceful for an old man or one in sight of old age to be wise by the book.  “Zeno said this.”  What do you say?  “This Cleanthes said.”  What do you say?

What do you say?

Note: To preempt your justified criticism, I know I am guilty of relying on “nuggets of learning.”  Most of them come from notes and journals I have been keeping for decades, but I endeavor to contemplate them rather than “lean” on them!