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I did an email survey in January 2002 of several dozen leaders in the movement to create a Wisdom Society. Most agreed to the publication of their answers. In the document below I have attempted to summarize and describe their views along with my own current sense of the nature of wisdom. -- Tom Atlee, June 14, 2002


Wisdom is engaged insight (or insightful engagement) characterized by
the openness, evolution, expansion, heightening, deepening, inclusiveness, far-sightedness, wholeness and integrity
of our
being, awareness, feelings, knowledge, visions, stories, caring, encounters, involvements, choices and actions --
individually and collectively --
vis a vis
ourselves, our relationships, and the larger world
in all their
interconnectedness, complexity, diversity, tragedy, wonder, and beauty.

The responsible discernment (judgment) we call wisdom arises from
spirit, inner knowing, reflection, experience, wisdom traditions, conversations and holistic knowledge about the world --
all of which are associated with individual or cultural maturity,
and all of which generate a certain appropriateness in our engagements with life
which usually looks (often in hindsight) like common sense.

Here are a few succinct summaries of wisdom from the survey responses:

"Wisdom is what comes of experience when it is processed with acuity, far-sightedness, integrity, love and compassion in a holistic context."

"Wisdom is applied knowledge for the good of the whole, expressed through nonviolent, loving, compassionate means."

"Wisdom involves understanding and rightness, but includes also a recognition of the relativity of rightness, deep responsibility for the consequences of one's thoughts and actions, a comfort with ultimate limits, and at least the intent to appreciate the full systemic complexity of questions one wishes to engage."

"Wisdom is intelligence about relationships."

"I see wisdom, in part, as collective best thinking about the whole and our relationship with it in all its parts."



Wisdom is many things to many people, with a lot of overlap among most people's sensibilities about it.

Some people have a bottom line or center of gravity that may not include others', creating a sense of mutual exclusivity.

However, I think most people would agree that the more of the things listed below that a person or culture has, or the more of these qualities a decision or action embodies, the more wisdom is present.

In general, wisdom is characterized by a certain wholeness (expansiveness, inclusiveness, depth) and/or spiritual presence in a person's or culture's engagement with life.


Major issues of life (not trivial or frivolous); questions that matter; where significance, meaning or consequence lie

Lived experience of overcoming struggles and barriers

The Basics: how to fulfill the real needs of people, and the real needs of life, in the context of a healthy world

Clear intent to serve life


EXPANSIVENESS: Expanded consciousness

  • Multiple ways of knowing -- especially heart, intuition, spiritual discernment; inspiration in addition to intellect. Wisdom engages our whole being.
  • A sense of the greater purposeful flow of reality, of which we are or can be a part.
  • Openness to guidance by spirit; inviting wisdom to emerge from our depths and our maturity.
  • Cosmic unity consciousness

WHOLENESS: More holistic perspective

  • Comprehending and protecting the integrity of whole living systems; seeing whatever happens as arising our of and affecting living systems.
  • Working with the dynamic unity of opposites.
  • Appreciating complexity and context.
  • Acceptance of inherent limitations, the relativity of rightness, that we must act with partial understanding.
  • Living within a longer time horizon -- deep time, extending into the deep past and the far future.
  • Appreciation of the selfhood (wholeness) of people and things -- their uniqueness, diversity and interiority. This includes the creative use of conflict that honors (and deepens) all parties involved.
  • Weaving our knowledge into dense webs of interrelated understandings, out of which subtle, relevant judgments can be drawn.
  • Wisdom may be always potentially present in its transcendently whole state and/or accumulated collective form, accessible through reflective thought, attunement and/or conversation.

INSIGHT: Deeper, fuller (including both light and shadow) and truer knowledge of, insight into, and being in touch with

  • ourselves and our humanness - our hearts, minds, histories/journeys, motivations, tendencies; self-reflection; the personal depth that's required for certain deep insights into life
  • each other, in all our diversity, nuance and depth
  • the way the world works -- "the dimensions, dynamics, drivers, depths, and drift of the ongoing construction of persons, communities and whole societies" (as well as of nature and all else)
  • our place in the universe
  • the consequences of choices and actions
  • what is emerging and what that asks of us
  • the nature of -- and requirements for -- life-serving relationships
    • among each other, within human society
    • between us and the natural world we live in

INTERCONNECTEDNESS: Increased awareness (and celebration and nurturance) of a "deep ecology" of relationship -- interconnection, interdependence, mutuality, co-evolution -- which has interior and exterior dimensions which interpenetrate each other. This web of relationship exists

  • among each other, within human society
  • between us and the world (our place in the world)
  • within nature


Note: Many of the following can be viewed as different dimensions of "openness."

  • Mature
  • Humble; comfortable with the limitations of life; able to let go; take ourselves lightly; humorous
  • Caring, compassionate, loving, heartful, in service; clear intent to serve life
  • Presence; living in Spirit/light; connected to the deep Source of life and intelligence
  • Integrity; aligned with our deeper selves
  • Attentive, conscious, reflective, curious, questioning, learning, a spirit of discovery
  • Detached, objective, fair
  • Farsighted
  • Deeply appreciative, wondrous, awed, grateful, joyful
  • The deep gaze of seeing a larger picture
  • Silence
  • Trusting, peace of mind, centered, sitting in the eye of the storm
  • Courage
  • Attending to what is working, to where life and passion are


Deep responsibility and responsiveness: making choices and taking actions

  • that are effective through creative alignment with reality
  • that nourish life, serve the common good, create healthy possibilities, serve the whole
  • that are congruent with our deeper understanding and true to ourselves
  • that liberate the spirit, nurture self-realization by everyone
  • that accept reality and limitations, surrender to mystery, let go of outcome
  • that arise out of conscious conversations among unique, diverse selves around questions that matter
  • that recognize that actions in our time and domain will have impacts in other times and domains


WHAT'S NEEDED: Qualities of a Wisdom Society and Activities Towards It


New paradigm understanding, story, vision, values and purposes

  • holistic perspective
  • planetary perspective; care for the Earth
  • from isolation/control to participation/partnership
  • organic, ecological, systemic, cyclic understandings
  • embrace the sacred dimensions of life
  • multiple ways of knowing -- substantive, experiential, inner -- rational, emotive, intuitive
  • evolutionary, developmental, learningful
  • inclusive of diversity of all kinds
  • humane
  • affirms life; "a culture of life"

Wiser questions, inquiries and framings

Research and development to

  • identify ancient wisdom appropriate for the 21st century -- those perennial wisdoms and universals that are found in cultures worldwide
  • collect and develop new-paradigm wisdom
  • set up places that have the technologies to make wisdom creation easier
  • uncover human realities and capacities, including our subtle connections and our capacities of heart and consciousness
  • discover "how to come together and think and hear each other in order to touch, or be touched by, the intelligence we need"

New paradigm education

  • teaching ideas and skills related to wisdom and transformation
  • both educating the youth, and lifelong adult education
  • experiential and multi-modal learning
  • education to recognize humanity as a living system embedded within larger natural living systems, which are embedded, in turn, within a far greater and fundamentally spiritual reality, a conscious, creative force
  • learn about love; foster altruism and generosity of spirit

Precaution re "new paradigms": "It simply is not enough to replace one set of incomplete assumptions with another set of incomplete assumptions.... What's called for... is a whole new way of knowing/ being/ thinking/ mattering"


It's components include:

Group processes and conversations (official, face-to-face, online and via broadcast media) that generate or support the emergence of wisdom: more reflective conversation about questions that matter, real listening, circles, consensus, dynamic facilitation, nonviolent communication, conflict transformation, world cafe


  • inclusive institutions
  • diversity of perspectives, voices, values, stories and belief systems encouraged, included, and valued as sources of expanded perspective and creativity
  • intergenerational problem solving: get more grandmas and kids involved

Mindful grassroots power; direct democracy; all humans empowered to participate in

  • collective governance,
  • the conscious evolution and transformation of their communities and cultures and
  • the construction of a global civilization that works for all

Wiser leaders and leadership: leaders who appreciate past, present and future wisdom; distributed leadership; more mature relationship to leadership; wise guidance/ leadership that is embedded in the structures and processes of the society (not just coming from personal "leaders")

Decision-making methods and institutions that

  • can produce vastly improved solutions to the great issues we face, ones that support our highest humanity generations into the future, in harmony with the earth
  • are tied to learning, through feedback
  • are at least as grounded in positive, creative appreciation and co-evolution as in fixing and solving things
  • serve every aspect of our lives


New ways of living and being (social realities) that invite, inspire, engage, connect, filled with activities that are joyous or meaningful or both -- a strange attractor that more people freely choose to inhabit, including

  • people respect and value each other
  • fulfilling, happy relationships and community
  • sharing and caring -- especially sharing perception and attention
  • "throwing a better party" -- singing, dancing, music, poetry, new games
  • meaningful rituals, rites of passage, ceremonies and celebrations
  • travel, reaching out and engaging the "Other"
  • women and the feminine principle being empowered
  • slower pace (e.g., "slow food") which nurtures mindfulness, appreciation, reflection and healing; quality time in nature and in silence
  • lots of beauty, and following what we say "yes!" to
  • conversations in saunas and hot tubs together

Support for of human development

  • nurturing higher human capacities -- especially those that help people connect to, understand and live by their deepest selves, their deepest truths: meditation, yoga, Aikido, Tai Chi, dancing, etc.
  • encouraging everyone's unique developmental path; support networks and feedback space, gatherings for support and learning
  • recognition that co-creating a wisdom culture is necessarily transformative work -- personally, organizationally and societally

New economics

  • organic gardening/ permaculture
  • community-based economics; people and communities empowered to meet their own needs
  • "quality of life"-based incentives and success criteria
  • economic equity and sustainability: material well-being "scalable to all 6 billion of us" and to the Seventh Generation after us;
  • nonmaterial personal growth, creativity and relationship supported at least as much as material production and consumptions
  • business that serves life (= the Swedish business concept of "Narings Liv")
  • humanity in harmony with all other Earthly life

Media that nurtures and carries wisdom (requires better public influence on programming content)

Technology redesigned and reconceptualized to eliminate pollution, waste and environmental destruction without itself becoming a threat to Life.

Practices of peace, conflict resolution; no war or oppressive inequities


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