The human condition is a delicate balance between the emotional and rational. Some people strive too much towards the passionate and interpersonal, as if to please others instead of considering one’s own needs as well. Others lean only on rationality and the scientific, thinking they will be fulfilled purely by the mechanical and formulaic. But the middle path between these two is what Buddhism strives for (not exclusively, of course. There are other beliefs that value both of these in their own way as well, for instance). There are many ways to phrase the bifurcation of human experience, but I like the distinction of wisdom and compassion, wisdom being our reasoning and observant sector and compassion our sympathetic and relationship area. The two often seem to clash and this necessitates that we find a center between them, which is what I’ll try to elaborate on as we examine each of them separately and then begin to blend them together.
Wisdom might be better phrased as perception, since in our everyday vernacular wisdom is understood less as a matter of rationality and more something associated with religious virtues. While this is true to an extent, I would contend that wisdom, even in its older term, sophia in Greek, is not purely a matter of our mood or feelings, but does overlap with it in the form of intuition or instinct. There are things we experience day by day, knowledge we amass and nuances of rules that we discern through failure and discipline. All of this coalesces into a pool of information we possess: experiential, theoretical, etc. And in this way, as you begin to understand things in various ways, from differing perspectives and unify them, your actions start to be less deliberate and more a matter of impulse. This is not to say that you don’t think about things if you are unfamiliar with them, but the sort of familiarity you acquire with much experience is what gives you the capacity to act quicker and yet also more accurately without as much suffering for yourself or others. This is not to say this is always the case. If you are especially discerning, you may realize that regardless of what you do, the person you help or interact with will still suffer in some way now or in the future. But instead you will plant a seed that blooms in the person’s mind as they are faced with hopelessness in their life. Wisdom is fudnamentally multifaceted and doesn’t just focus on the theoretical, but the practical. Much like sophia and phronesis, which I spoke about partly in last week’s article “Eternal Knot and Essential Questions”, you can’t have one without the other or you are imbalanced even just in the pursuit of further knowledge without considering both benefits and risks. If you only focus on face value information, you fail to see how it affects everything related to it as you utilize it in various situations. But this is only one side of the issue. Even if you are able to find the medium between these two extremes, there is still another side to consider in the human psyche.
Something many friends of mine are much more adept at than myself as an Aspie, who has difficulty when it comes to matters of the heart, is compassion for other humans. This is the other half that is needed to be fully human. One can be incredibly wise or have the sympathy of a saint, but unless these are balanced each by the other, you are still incomplete. To have compassion is to be understanding of others, but not to the extent that you aren’t willing to advise them when they are in error or consider your own desires. But to discipline others harshly and not reflect a balance of both passive and active love, that of patience and correction respectively, is to lean towards love simply as a practical extension of wisdom instead of meeting it halfway. Love comes from a part of humanity that is both practical and puzzling. If we followed practicality strictly by benefits, love would not have the immediate results we would associate with pragmatic thought. Love has its own particular benefits one could perceive, but it should result first and foremost from the connection we have to fellow humans, an almost ineffable sort of realization. When you realize your own suffering matters, you see why you should be concerned also with the suffering of others. But to focus on others before yourself is the most stark example of compassion without wisdom. Wisdom dictates that a compassionate person should first work on themselves and become loving internally before trying to love externally. Any person jumping into a marriage should realize that they must be capable of both accepting and giving love genuinely instead of superficially. Love has a two sided aspect of experience both rationally and emotionally, just as wisdom has the dichotomy of theoretical and practical applications. To be compassionate is to understand the times when you must not give into emotional impulses, but is also to see when you should be a shoulder to cry on and the midway points of dialogue as well.
As with wisdom’s excess and deficit, intellectualism and tradition, there is an excess and deficit for compassion: sentimentality and duty. The fine edge we walk on both of these is such that we can cut to either side day by day, moment by moment, without even realizing it. One experience could make us think we shouldn’t be so focused on knowledge, or the inverse, thinking we are too focused on people. There is such a thing as these, but you should not abandon either entirely to focus on one. Some people have a talent for people, some have dispositions for knowledge. But both of these exemplars are not exempt from working on their weaknesses just as they naturally improve their natural skills. Neither wisdom nor compassion alone or great skill in one or the other will bring fulfillment or allows you to benefit your fellow human as much as the blend of them balanced together in your quest to aid yourself and others as much as possible. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.