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Cultivating wisdom in the age of AI
To thrive in the age of AI, we need to master something technology can't possess: wisdom.
Be empowered by the tool, but don’t let it use you
Can’t Google self-knowledge
Be your own guru
Electronic Sea - East Forest, Ram Dass, Stic.Man (Spotify)
When I step back and look at what I am doing with my life, when I consider what matters to me at this point, the thread that seems to connect different aspects of my existence seems to be the cultivation of wisdom.
I am decidedly not wise, and I don’t mean it in the socratic way of only knowing that I know nothing. I know even less than that. And this is precisely what compels me to look at wisdom as a direction of travel: forever unattainable, but always worth pursuing.
It’s a particularly imprecise and vague direction, though. Unlike wealth, intelligence, fame, knowledge or many other things people strive to attain, wisdom is hard to define and even harder to cultivate. There’s no single course in wisdom. Even Socrates, perhaps the most famous Western sage, never clearly defined what is it that he was teaching, if anything at all.
Yet, over the millennia, in various cultures and different geographies people engaged in the pursuit of wisdom, usually through an ecology of practices. This has to be a set of practices rather than a single one because the pursuit of wisdom is a complex, multifaceted endeavour that can’t be reduced to a single method.
The task of building the ecology of practices to cultivate wisdom falls on every individual, based on their own circumstances, personality and inclinations. There are common threads, but no single curriculum.
In this essay I’ll describe some of the things that I currently do, and how all of them support my interest in the cultivation of wisdom. I don’t claim that this is the right way of going about it, but this is how I am approaching it at this moment.
One lesson I took from this journey so far is that the deeper I go, the less I seem to know and the more mysterious reality becomes. If I feel I know something, it probably because I haven’t looked closely enough yet.
My primary practice is meditation. I first tried meditation about a decade ago to combat stress, but I really committed to the practice after a run-in with depression that was painful enough to compel me to learn how my mind works, so that I would never experience this pain again. I don’t think that’s a good way of preventing depression, but that was my entry point into meditation.
I originally started with concentration-oriented practices, but more recently have been working with non-dual approaches, aimed at recognising that there's ultimately no separation between me and the world, between a sense of a witness and what's being witnessed, between consciousness and the contents of consciousness.
Here’s an accessible, although long, intro into non-duality:
However wisdom is understood and defined, it is recognised by knowing yourself and responding deliberately (as opposed to reacting automatically) to our experience. Meditation, regardless of the technique, trains both skills.
Aletheia coaching training
I’m currently enrolled in Level 2 Advanced Coaching course with Aletheia. On the face of it, it’s about my professional development as a coach, but a deeper reason I’m taking this training (about 1.5 years for Level 1 and Level 2 courses) is that it’s designed to help me grow as a person, which incidentally is helping me be a better coach.
The course is never described by its authors as a course in wisdom, but with its deep focus on self-awareness (somatic, psychological and spiritual), I can’t help but include it in my ecology of practices.
The course is led by Steve March, the founder of the school, which offers a beautiful opportunity to learn directly from a wise person.
John Vervaeke is a professor of psychology and the author of YouTube courses Awakening from the Meaning Crisis and After Socrates. The first course explores why more and more people feel that their lives are meaningless and how to address this. It’s fascinating, but quite theoretical. After Socrates is a more practical course aimed at understanding what Socrates was about and how we can incorporate it into our lives. I’m currently going through After Socrates.
John comes across as a wise person to me. I listened to countless hours of his lectures and podcasts and by now I’m very comfortable learning from him. John understands the importance of building an ecology of practices to transform ourselves and our lives. Just listening to lectures about ancient sages is not enough: we’ve got to practice it, and John Vervaeke helps us understand how to do it.
I’m using repeated exposure here: following one thinker over the years as opposed to reading one book in a weekend. John is one of the few people I’m deliberately exposing myself to on a regular basis over the years to deeply internalise their worldview.
Not surprisingly, the first practice John suggests in After Socrates is meditation.
I’ve been doing regular therapy, once or twice a week, for a few years now (although I recently stopped and now need to find a new therapist). I worked with several different therapists and learned from them all. I see therapy as a regular practice of being in a special relationship with another human being who’s trained to help me learn more about myself and become more skilful in working with my mind and body.
Good therapy, like good relationships, I believe, both supports and challenges, giving enough safety to open up and enough provocation to support growth.
Somatic dimension is particularly important here. We’re often conditioned to see mind and body as separate and treat mental health as if it was somehow divorced from the body. Working somatically, learning to fully feel our bodies as we’re working with our minds allows us to make much faster progress compared to just talking about it.
My last therapist taught me TRE (tension & trauma release exercises), which helped me to get to know my body better. Doing this work myself in therapy and through Aletheia, helps me understand when and how bring somatic experience into my coaching work.
Wisdom has to be embodied. Most of our knowledge is embodied, rather than purely intellectual. Our bodies are our interface to the world. When we live “above the neck”, lost in our thoughts, we ignore the vast majority of our experience and potential. Somatic therapy (and somatic coaching) can be very supportive on this journey.
One of the key reasons I coach is because to be a good coach, I have to grow myself. My personal and my professional journeys are very aligned, so I include my coaching practice in my ecology of practices.
In my experience, coaching is among the few vocations (leadership is another one) where to get really good you must become yourself. Becoming yourself, that is, getting to know yourself really well, being deeply comfortable in your own skin, understanding and accepting your light and shadow sides, gifts and vices, is at the heart of wisdom.
And this is precisely the reason why, as a coach, I’m less interested in learning about various coaching techniques and frameworks (although some are genuinely useful), and more interested in transforming myself, so that I could be a better person and a better coach.
Working with my coaching supervisor and coach Krish is also part of this. Pursuit of wisdom is not and cannot be a solitary endeavour. We need external perspective, feedback and challenge to see our own blind spots.
I include the relationship with my fiancée Egle in my ecology of practices, because nothing shows better where I’m stuck and need to grow than my personal life. As Ram Dass famously said, if you think you are enlightened, go spend a week with family.
I know from experience that it’s in my personal life that my deepest buttons get pushed, my most painful insecurities get triggered and my fears rage. I believe it’s the case for many, if not most, people.
Ram Dass called it "yoga of relationships". He said, “Relationships are the cutting edge of spiritual growth.” It’s easy to sit on the cushion and generate feelings of loving-kindness for the world. Feeling unconditional love when a part of me wants to smash a few plates is a bit harder.
As difficult as it might be on occasions, this provides valuable pointers for further work, reminding me where I’m still stuck, where I still need to learn and let go.
After all, what’s the point of meditating on the cushion and growing in self-awareness through therapy and coaching if we can’t apply it in daily life?
“Look, my dear Govinda, this is one of my thoughts, which I have found: wisdom cannot be passed on. Wisdom which a wise man tries to pass on to someone always sounds like foolishness."
"Are you kidding?" asked Govinda.
"I'm not kidding. I'm telling you what I've found. Knowledge can be conveyed, but not wisdom. It can be found, it can be lived, it is possible to be carried by it, miracles can be performed with it, but it cannot be expressed in words and taught.”
Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
Wisdom is not a theoretical concept. It’s foolish to try to express it in words or to teach, because the expression of wisdom is life itself. Whatever little wisdom we possess is demonstrated not in what we can explain, but in how we show up every second of our lives.
It’s really hard to put into words the lessons learned from working with plant medicine. My two retreats in Peru, where we had multiple ayahuasca ceremonies over two weeks under a guidance of a Buddhist meditation teacher Spring Washam, who was trained by Jack Kornfield, and a Peruvian shaman, helped me experience myself and the world in a fundamentally different way. On rare occasions, I organise psychedelic ceremonies for myself in Amsterdam, where psilocybin, a psychedelic, is legal.
Words truly fail to describe a shift in perspective that plant medicine can facilitate. While it showed me what’s possible, it also made it clear that I have to do my own old-fashioned work, starting with meditation, to train my mind. In a way, psychedelics aren’t an answer, but they can be an unrivaled inspiration to keep looking.
I include plant medicine among my ecology of practices because of its potential to help heal what needs healing and help see what’s possible, if only we learn to open our minds and hearts.
What I’m not doing yet
I’ve been incorporating yoga and qigong into my life, in fits and starts. These two specific practices would certainly enrich my ecology of practices, and yet I’m not doing them regularly yet.
Another practice that I’m really keen to add to this list is circling. I’ve heard about it so many times (including from John Vervaeke in After Socrates) that I just have to start practicing it at some point.
What does the age of AI have to do with it?
Cultivating wisdom started to feel even more urgent and important given the speed of progress of artificial intelligence. AI is widely expected to automate many cognitive tasks, making the kinds of questions that wisdom is concerned with — who am I? what do I know? what’s the right thing to pay attention to? what matters? — even more important to explore.
Competing with AI in being smart is going to be like competing with a car in being fast. You will lose. However, I’m not persuaded that existing AI technologies are on track to become wise themselves or necessarily help us become wise, unless we make an effort ourselves to use them wisely.
World’s wisdom traditions are incredibly diverse, from taoism to stoicism to Buddhism etc, but they all emphasise the importance of self-reflection, understanding the nature of reality, and living in harmony with the world around us. You can’t outsource this to AI, and it only becomes more important to have an ecology of practices to transform yourself when everything else can be done by AI.
What’s your ecology of practices?