Thoughts on Wisdom
Ken Stewart, Ph.D.

 A  wiser view is a longer view, a broader view –

that encompasses more of a context –and the older

we get, if we get wiser, we take into account more

context.   We get out of the narrow view of just

the moment and its temptations and pain.  We see

the complexity and contradictions of the greater

context and come to understand and appreciate that complexity.  This appreciation of complexity buffers the impulsive conclusions we draw from unchecked assumptions.  We come to appreciate what we don’t know instead of just championing what we do know.  Taking a humble stance to what we know and don’t know helps us avoid the temptations of certainty and the temptations of power that follow from that certainty. 

We study, we do our homework, we ponder, and we study some more and never cease from learning, never cease from curiosity.  We take our curiosity and turn it into wonder, marveling in the microcosms of what’s under our nose and the macrocosms of what’s above our heads.  All of it – all of the world – is approached in wonder followed by an ardent desire to learn, and to never cease from exploring.  We explore, we travel the many worlds and cultures beyond our familiar boundaries.  We climb over the back fence and head into the woods out into the wide-open spaces. 

We can draw some conclusions and let other things go unnamed.  We can take comfort in what we can name, but even then we don’t know entirely how what we can name came to be what it is.  The processes are partially known, but the hundreds of decision points that result in the paths that are taken by our bodies and minds is not known, but is appreciated for it’s inherent complexity and beauty.

 Separating our ego from the results. I give advice and it may or not be taken and I am not attached to it.  I am willing to see others suffer and not rescue them, willing to witness others struggle and not provide the answer, willing to let others not see, not hear, and not provide the sights and sounds for them.  I can step back and witness struggle and smile; that slight smile of the long view, the long now.

Being present

A wiser view is a one that differentiates between being with someone – in their suffering and pain and not unnecessarily rescuing them when they fall on their face,  when they would better become curious about themselves lying there, and eventually figure out how to pick themselves up.  We hold that space between them and us in compassion and caring, but we do not invade that space.  Instead we are with them, along side them. We are there, with them moment to moment in their journey, patient and present.  
            - How do you stay centered in the presence of the suffering of others?
A wiser view lives in time differently.  A wiser view looks way back, many generations back, and looks forward with detachment and acceptance.  The long view back and forward puts a wider context on things and allows one to accumulate the wisdom found in those years.  But it also sees the importance of being utterly present, in the here and now, right now, this place – deeply embedded in the pinpoint of the moment and spread out throughout the universe – incarnate and transcendent.  And even this needs a balance. We can become too incarnate, too caught up in our own bodies, our own needs, our own points of view that we fail to see the other – or the world around us. And we can become too caught up in only the transcendent that we lose track of the here and now, buying the groceries, making the meals, and cleaning up.

            - When you have you become caught up in either of these extremes of awareness?

 The wisdom of unity and diversity

A wiser view embraces both the unity principle and the diversity principle.  The unity principle suggests that it’s good to have epiphanies when we can step back at times and see how things fit together.  We see the patterns that connect.  We see how the wife’s patterns of dealing with conflict complement the husband’s ways – the pursuer and the distancer, the explorer and the phobic partner, the socially connected and the disconnected partner, the virtuous and the dare devil, and so on.  We see the sequential patterns and the relational patterns that connect.  We see how things fit together and then things make sense to us. That’s the unity principle. However, if we think that only our way of seeing things is only way to make sense of our surroundings, our experiences, that’s absolutism.
But the patterns we see are not what someone else sees.  They have their own experiences; they see their own gestalts, their own unity experiences.  There are as many ways of unity experiences as there are people. And that is the diversity principle – and that’s good.  So we also embrace that there are many different ways to experience or see things, even standing right next to us, and that’s the diversity principle.  And that’s good.  But if we then believe that there can be no way of seeing how things fit together, no way of seeing the whole that makes sense, then that’s relativism.   We can have unity and diversity together.  That’s a healthy pluralism.  We appreciate our unity experiences and we respect the unity experiences of others.

-What have been your “unity” experiences – when you had an epiphany of seeing how things fit together?

It’s good to have new insights, even a delight.  I love “Aha” experiences when things suddenly make sense to me in my work as a psychotherapist.  I tell my students that I am more excited about my “Aha” experiences than whether my patients have them. When I have them it means that for me, some part of my patient’s lives are making sense to me.  I am starting to “get the picture” of their lives.  I am capable of greater empathy. 

The Wisdom of “Withness”

When we see how things fit together we have a deep sense of connection to what we see.  We are not set apart, we are instead with – along side the other.  We are not above the other, we are along side them. We are able to experience a sense of ‘withness’ – that John Shotter suggests that ‘withness’ is:[1]

 ‘Withness (dialogic)- thinking is a form of interaction that involves coming into living contact with an other’s living being, with their utterances, their bodily expressions, their words, their ‘works’
They both are touched, and the sense of a ‘touching’ or ‘moving difference’ emerges
In the interplay of living movement - new possibilities of relation are engendered, new interconnections are made, new ‘shapes’ of experience can emerge
The self is changed in such encounters
We become involved with, immersed in, the ‘inner life’ of the other or otherness
Everything we do is partly shaped by the other in being a response to what it might do
Rather than knowledge of its nature, we gain an orientation toward it, i.e., we grasp how to ‘go on’ with it
We never gain mastery over it – others can always surprise us, no matter how familiar to us they have become

How do get ‘with’ people? How do you become mindful to meet and be changed by the other?


A wiser view is the ability to look on yourself and have self-compassion.  In a way, when we meditate on self-compassion we “belong” ourselves; we welcome our selves in; we welcome ourselves home.  We belong ourselves. We are not alone. We embrace our broken, wounded selves.  We embrace our shame-filled selves.  We embrace our imperfection.  We can’t have full empathy or compassion for others unless we embrace our own imperfection, our own shame.  It is only through a thorough understanding and acceptance of our own imperfection, our own shame, our arrogance, our genuine entitlement, our misplaced, arrogant entitlement, our own fidelity and infidelity, our capacity for loyalty and our capacity for betrayal, our capacity of magnanimity and our capacity pettiness that we can connect to others. We come to see that in our journey, the mistakes we make are precious moments. We bring a compassionate mindfulness to our mistakes and wounds.  When we forgive ourselves our inner wounds begin to heal.  We come to terms with our brokenness and, in doing so, we better heal the brokenness of the other:  By our wounds they are healed.

 Write down a short list of your own brokenness, parts of you that are either too little or too much of a good thing.  Can you embrace these aspects of yourself without shame?

 Generosity and entitlement

Having wisdom is having the ability to shed what diminishes you and embrace what enhances you. And oddly, being too much in love with our own ego needs – the excesses of our entitlement – diminishes both the other and us.  Yes, we are entitled to have a voice, but not a voice that talks over the other.  Yes, we are entitled to have a point of view, but not a view that claims it’s the only view.  Yes, we are entitled to receive, but not to be just takers and not givers.  Yes, it’s good to love ourselves, but not to fall in love with our own reflection like Narcissus.   We can unwittingly co-produce excessive entitlement by being too generous to those already grasping for their own entitlement to the diminishment of ourselves.   I love being generous, but sometimes I unwittingly co-produce excessive entitlement in another and diminish myself in the process.  Then my generosity feels more like giving pieces of myself away leaving me without the joy I had hoped to find in the spirit of giving. I am left with sadness instead of joy, grief instead of fulfillment.

 When has your own generosity backfired on you? 

 Being tough and tender

The wisdom of tenderness is the capacity to be both tough and tender as you engage in that tough and tender dialogue known as psychotherapy.  We aren’t just brothers or sisters, we also need to be parents as well.  Sometimes in working with couples, it seems that they are just siblings squabbling with each other about what’s fair or unfair, what they are entitled or not entitled to.  We want to say to both of them, “Grow up.”  Whitaker said we have to always be parental.  And maybe remembering that is a good way to keep that boundary secure between our clients and us or our supervisees and us.  We may want to be collaborative and may want to appreciate the knowledges of our clients or supervisees, but we can’t forget our responsibilities: our professional or parental responsibilities.  Our tenderness is weakened without a toughness to balance it.  And our toughness can be too harsh without tenderness to counter the hard edges of our toughness. 

How do you remember to be tough and tender, parental and collaborative?

The practice of curiosity

The practice of wisdom is the practice of curiosity.  We can have curiosity about everything – about the structure of snow, the way sunlight glistens off the snow-covered branches on the tree in my front yard in the morning, the way the speakers connected to my computer make such pleasing sounds, the way that ink jet printers manage to make such amazingly sharp images from my photos in a 12 x 18 print, and do so in just a few minutes as the photo paper inches out of my printer.  Ink jet printers are magic.
          We can have curiosity about the etiology obsessive compulsive disorders, or the way that families with a phobic member manage to have in the same family or the same marriage members who are fearless explorers in the wide world, or how some families with a depressed member who has a sense of denied belonging and other members who seem to be at the center of things, that enjoy appreciated popularity in their social circles? 
             We learn how to ask questions and never run out of questions. We learn how to pose questions that invite further exploration, that offer invitations to go several layers down, well beyond the outside edges of observations and utterances.  We learn to have curiosity and are content to have only temporary certainty.  We have the tentative, exploratory certainty of the scientist, not the permanent certainty of the fundamentalist or the unquestioning disciple.  We tolerate doubt, but also believe nonetheless – in our core values of compassion and contextual understanding.  All things have a context, a deeper background story.  And we continually remind ourselves of this.  Paul said in the Romans, “Where sin did abound, grace did much more abound.” To paraphrase Paul:  Where the temptations of certainty abound, but wisdom of contextual curiosity even more abound. In other words, the temptations of certainty – to see the other as wholly knowable and visible, to believe we are above and apart from the other – is a constant temptation.  But our deeper values embrace the ways in which we are all connected in a larger web of relational being. There are no independent, individual beings. We are all relational beings. 

 How do you show curiosity, not just in therapy, but also in your life?

The wisdom of mindfulness

The practice of wisdom is the practices of mindfulness – the practice of being fully awake and in the moment.  We are aware of our breath, our being, in this body, this moment, this time, this space.  Thich Nhat Hanh tells the story of when he was a young novice in the monastery that he had all these dishes to do –all these rice bowls to wash, and all he had was cold water, cornhusks, and ashes for his task.  He said he  would rather be meditating, or having a cup of tea, or taking a walk.  He would think of these soothing activities and then task ahead of him seemed all the more onerous.  But these soothing activities were all something he could do –but unfortunately they were all up ahead, up in the future – in the next hour or later in the day.  He still had all these sticky rice bowls to wash. Then he had an epiphany:  he could do the dishes to just do the dishes.  He could just be present in the task at hand without wishing he was someplace else.  He could make doing the dishes a meditative act. He could do the dishes to just do the dishes, and that would be enough in that moment.  He would center himself in that task and just that task and it would bring him back to the simplicity and peace of the moment. “One should be completely aware that one is washing the dishes.  At first glance this may seem a little silly: why put so much stress on a simple thing?  But that’s precisely the point.  The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is just a wondrous reality. I’m being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions.” 

 What daily task might you use to practice being fully in the present and only aware of the moment?

What is missing and what is present

We appreciate what we have now, not what is missing, not what is painfully absent.  We can spend our whole lives unhappy with our fate, unhappy with what is missing from our lives, not having the life we wished we had, but the one we have.  Adam Phillips has written:  “All our stories are about what happens to our wishes.  About the world as we world like it to be, and the world as it happens to be, irrespective of our wishes and despite our hopes.  Our needs thwarted by the needs of others, our romances always threatened by tragedy, our jokes ruined by the people who don't get them.  The usual antagonism of daydream and reality”.[2] 

 He says that:  We fantasize about, what we long for, are the experiences, the things and the people are absent. It is the absence of what we need that makes us think, that makes us cross and sad.    … we can survive only if our appetites more or less work for us.  We pressure the world to be there for our benefit.  We quickly notice as children that our needs, like our wishes, are always potentially unmet. There is always what will turn out to be the life we led, and the life that accompanied it, the parallel life that never actually happened, that we lived in our minds, the wished-for life – the risk untaken, and the opportunities avoided or unprovided.    Tragedies are stories about people not getting what the want.  In tragedies people often discover that their wanting doesn’t work, and as the story unfolds they get less and less of what they thought they wanted.  Indeed, but what they want and how they go about wanting it wreaks havoc and ultimately destroys the so-called tragic hero – and his enemies and accomplices.  Tragedies expose what the unhappy ending of wanting something looks like. .[3] 
           We must come to accept what we have, not what is missing:  to be mindful and appreciative of what is under our noses, not what isn’t there, is tragically missing.

What is missing for you and how do you obsess about it? 

 The Tree of Sorrows

In the end of things, we need to ask ourselves – What is it we have?  Instead of complaining about or yearning for – what we don’t have.  This Hassidic tale is instructive:  “So it was that when the Hasidic pilgrims vied for those among them who had endured the most suffering, who was most entitled to complain, the Zaddik told them the story of the Sorrow Tree. On the Day of Judgment, each person will be allowed to hang one's unhappiness and sufferings on a branch of the great Tree of Sorrows. After all have found a limb from which their miseries may dangle, they may all walk slowly around the tree. Each person is to search for a set of sufferings that he or she would prefer to those he or she has hung on the tree. In the end, each one freely chooses to reclaim his or her own assortment of sorrows rather than those of another. Each person leaves the Tree of Sorrows wiser that when he or she arrived.” [4]

 The wisdom of gratitude

The practice of gratitude is a spiritual practice– constant gratitude – has been shown to be the key to happiness. A way to better ensure our happiness is the practice of gratitude for this moment, this life.  How can we take this moment as a moment for our edification – that it’s a gift, not a curse or unfulfilled longing for some other family, some other husband, some other wife, some other life. Instead we have gratitude for what is – this day, our friends, what we are doing, our partners, our kids, our parents.  There is humility in this kind of gratitude.  Again, we put our ego aside – that voice inside us that wails, “What about Me!”  and with humility we express our gratitude. 

David Steindl-Rast  in a recent TED talk said: 
“Every moment gives us an opportunity to be grateful.  Opportunity is the gift.  If we avail ourselves of the opportunity.  Every moment is a new gift – over and over.  We can avail ourselves of the opportunity or miss it.  

            We can’t be grateful for everything – for loss, unfaithfulness, for war, for violence. But we can be grateful in any given moment for the opportunity [to enjoy].  But sometimes something very difficult is given to us.  And then can learn something – maybe patience, or to stand up for our opinion.  When we avail ourselves of these opportunities, we are wise. 

            There are people who have a lot of misfortune and they are happy – because they are grateful.  When we experience something that is valuable to us – and it’s given to us –then we have gratefulness and happiness.   We can actually live gratefully – by becoming aware that every moment is a gift.  This moment has all opportunity.

            How can we find a method to live gratefully?  These three words:  Stop, look, go.  We must stop, be quiet, and be able to look.  We need stop signs in our life.  Then we open our eyes, our ears, our hearts – for opportunities to help others.  When we open our hearts to the opportunities the opportunities invite us to do something … we can do whatever life offers to you in any given moment.  Sometime it’s just to enjoy.  Sometime it’s more than that.
        This embracing of gratitude can change our world. If we are grateful we are not fearful. If we are not fearful, we are not violent. If we are grateful we act out of a sense of “enough”  - not scarcity. If we are grateful we enjoy the differences between people and we are respectful to everybody.  The future of the world will be a network, not a power pyramid.  We need a network of small groups of grateful people, joyful people.  You can be in a network of joyful living. 
          - What would it be like to have a gratitude journal in which we wrote about what we are grateful for every day?  How might it change us?  How might it change our relationships?  Our orientation toward the world?  How might it change what see – and then what we are grateful for, and then what we do?

 Heart-Focused Breathing

In the practice of calming our anxieties using the methods of Heart Math, we are asked to focus on the center of our chests, that area around our heart, and to gently imagine breathing through that space.  And, once we are breathing through that space around our heart, we are to imagine a time in our life when we had an experience of profound appreciation – or gratitude. And we are then to take that experience of appreciation or gratitude, and take that emotion and breathe it through and around our hearts.  Research at the Institute for Heart Math has shown that by doing this we actually can change the quality of our heart beats, so that our heart beats and smooth – like a sine wave, not jagged like a mountain profile.  And this smoothed  out heart rate will calm us down, take away our anxiety and fearfulness, and open us up to the world. 

Take a moment and try this now … breathe through the center of your chest, that area around your heart.  Now think of a moment of deep gratitude, deep appreciation. And then take the emotion of that moment and send it with your breath through and around your heart.  Nice and easy now.  That’s it.


As we grow wiser we learn to laugh more often; particularly at ourselves.  We can step back from those issues that we take so seriously and laugh at ourselves, at what is at times is the drama we create in our minds and step back and laugh at our anger, laugh at our frustration, laugh at not being appreciated or taken seriously.  This is not to dismiss the fact that it’s good to be acknowledged, to be seen and heard, to be appreciated and values.  Yes, that’s all-important and necessary for happiness.  But, when it doesn’t happen, when others can’t or won’t provide those courtesies, can we step back and – in seeing ourselves in pain … laugh?  Laugh at ourselves?  Perhaps we can’t laugh at all the indignities of our lives, or all the tragedy and pain.  But, is there something there we can laugh at?   We all do stupid things; we all make dumb mistakes, sometimes with serious consequences.  Can we laugh at some of them?  And in doing so, add to the list of things – our list of absurdities, our list of screw-ups, our list of self-centered obsessions? 
            -Take a moment now and think of the issues or incidents or indignities that currently bring you pain.  And try laughing at one or two of them. Laugh at your obsessions, your indignities, your frustrations – when you were not taken seriously, when you were insulted, when you were hurt – and your ego was stepped on and the offender walked away.  Try laughing at yourself – and the absurdity that you should be special. 

The Refusal to Mourn[5]

Finally, the wise words of Sheldon Kopp, a psychotherapist whose writings were instructive to me when I was starting out in the field 39 years ago has said:

“If we try to hold on to that past, insisting that it must not be lost to us, then we shall fall more quickly and more ignobly than did the gurus of the past whom we would preserve.  We may get what  we can from our present efforts to struggle with what human happiness  is all about, but only if we see that we too can develop nothing lasting.  We must give up what cannot last and what we cannot change, accepting out losses, if we are to have all that we might of present meanings and joys. 
            We must feel sad and helpless as we need to, and then we must go on.  Hasidism teach us:

   There are two kinds of sorrow… When a man broods over the misfortunes that have come upon him, when he cowers in a corner and despairs of help – that is a bad kind of sorrow. .. The other kind is the honest grief of a man whose house has burned down, who feels his need deep in his soul and begins to build anew.
         Psychotherapy is basically a difficult moral venture.  It is the attempt by the therapist to help the patient to come to live as a decent human being, no matter how hard a time he has had.  He must learn to live well, in the present, beginning with things as they are, and open to the many ambiguities of this mixed bag of a world as it is.  And all of this he must do in spite of the fact that he has been cheated, he has had to stand by helplessly while he was ignored, betrayed, undone;  he watched his hopes shattered, his most precious possessions lost, and his dreams unrealized.  What is more, if he refused to accept the misfortunes of the past as unalterable, then he does not get to keep the warm, loved feelings intact.  The joys of yesterday and of now will be open to being spoiled whenever he feels helpless about some new loss.
              All the patient can do now is to try to face how really bad he feels and how stuck he is with it.  Then he may turn to others in his life and try to be open enough so that they may get to know him. He can make his wishes known, and if they come through, fine. If not, if they know him but don’t love him, then there’s nothing to be done about it.  Perhaps someone will love him.  But in any case, no one can take anyone else’s place. It will never be made up to him.  He will just have to do without, like it or not, and face his losses and his helplessness to change them. He must weep, and mourn, and grieve them through. He must unhook from the past to make room for the present. 
                You find life arbitrary and yet take things as they are, bring to them what you can, and enjoy them as they stand. This is it; often unsatisfying, at times disappointing, always imperfect. But, it’s the only world we have. Can you live without illusions in a world where there is no appeal?  Can you love in the absence of illusions?
             Each of us is, in his own terms, vulnerable.  Each is as weak and as strong as the other, as tough and as tender, as capable of good and of evil, and consequently, each is as fully responsible for his actions as the other.   And too, it is very exciting and terribly hard to be a grown-up human being (perhaps almost as hard as it is to be a child).
             For the unhappy person who comes to psychotherapy for help, instead of God, there is the secular teacher whose healing powers are redemptive in the sense that they help return the patient to himself and to the world. It is not the therapist’s holiness and exemplary life, but rather his or her way of being with him or herself and with the other during the hour that mediates the patient’s recovery and growth.  I must try to be with my patient, to get to know him as another person, and to let him know me. I must trust my feeling over my knowledge and live with the truth rather than try to perceive it. I must be willing to tremble without retreating from the possibility of being personally vulnerable to him simply as another human being, of risking becoming truly important in my life.
[1] See John Shotter’s small book:  The Book of ‘Withness’-Thinking.  © KCCF 2005

[2] See Adam Phillips (1998):  The Beast in the Nursery: On curiosity and other appetites. New York:  Pantheon

[3] Note from Adam Phillips, 2012.  Missing Out: In praise of the unlived life.  New York:  Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

[4] See Brian Cavanaugh, T. O. R., The Sorrow Tree, The Sower’s Seeds

[5] Sheldon Kopp, 1971. Guru:  Metaphors from a psychotherapist.  Science and Behavior Books: New York