Practicing Wisdom by Mindfulness

Mindfulness is important for achieving wise outcomes according to wisdom scholar Patrick Williams, this month’s guest contributor.

When I began delving into wisdom research at the University of Chicago, I did a little ad-hoc survey of friends and family on Facebook to sample what might be a layperson’s conception of wisdom today. My uncle stated simply, “a loving application of knowledge.” A good friend from high school quoted British journalist, Miles Kington: “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing that a tomato doesn’t belong in a fruit salad.”

My favourite response came from my sister, a high school music teacher in California. She said, “this is a much more difficult question than it seems. I would take a stab by saying that wisdom is the application of knowledge or information in the appropriate context.”

If these answers provide partial and complementary perspectives that tend to be in line with ancient and contemporary views of wisdom, I was struck that none of the answers addressed the question “how does one become wise?”

There is a larger issue behind this: do we become wise simply by knowing what wisdom is or by practicing wisdom? In this blog, I want to offer some thoughts on wisdom as the result of practice, that is, as the actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method as opposed to theories about such application or use.

What does a practice of wisdom involve?

If it were possible to become wise by practicing wisdom, how would we do this? Let us consider how wise people think and behave. Wisdom involves cognition, reflection and affect (Ardelt, 2004). To this degree the development of wisdom includes a desire to get in touch with a deeper understanding of reality, at an interpersonal and intrapersonal level.

Through reflection and self-examination, the wise individual understands the positive and negative aspects of human nature, and is comfortable with ambiguity and the inherent limits of human knowledge. Our individual perspective is limited but we may broaden it by exploring multiple and possibly contrary perspectives to aid in decision-making. This is similar to what philanthropist John Templeton referred to as humility, which lends to the mind flexibility and openness to outside perspectives.

These concepts are also similar to the notion of eudaimonia or well-being, which Aristotle ascribed to acting with phronesis, continually exploring the world from different perspectives and challenging what we have heard from different angles.

Wisdom may also require empathy, which includes not only being able to recognize another person’s emotions and feelings as if they were our own (Decety, 2010), but also the ability to distance oneself enough to self-regulate emotions and to practice sound judgment. Empathy may allow deeper insight into the motivations behind one’s own and others’ behaviour. Furthermore, I have found in my recent research (Williams, 2013) that practicing empathy-based mindfulness meditation can in turn lead to positive, possibly wiser, outcomes in situations involving others.

We can look at all these components of wisdom as being part of a practice of wisdom, that is, one has to reflect, be humble, exercise empathy, etc. to be wise. So if a path to wisdom would involve the regular practice of these behaviors, I want to explore, briefly, one other specific practice that I have studied as a researcher.

The age of mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness meditation is a practice that has gained substantial scientific and real-world merit in the past decade. Used as a method to improve employee performance by corporations such as Google, eBay, Ford Motor Company, and Facebook, mindfulness has traditionally been practiced in Eastern contemplative practices as a means of acquiring wisdom.

It may be characterized as a state of broad awareness, in which the practitioner maintains focus on the present moment, and regulates emotion in the face of distress (Kabat-Zinn, 1990). It has been used as the basis for interventions aimed at decreasing general stress, depression, and substance abuse relapse (Baer, 2003; Marlett et al., 1984; Zgierska et al., 2009).

Does mindfulness result in wisdom?

Mindfulness appears to operate by retraining attentional skills, which in turn leads to positive health outcomes and well-being (Teper & Inzlicht, 2013; Moore, Gruber, Derose, & Malinowski, 2012). But does it lead to increased wisdom? Ongoing work in our lab suggests that this is the case. A survey of Buddhist and secular meditators indicates that experience with meditation may lead to increased wisdom, but that this relationship is strongly affected by an individual’s ability to cope with stress.

Past findings that improved cognitive capability and decreased anxiety result from mindfulness meditation and present research indicating a relationship between meditation and wisdom compliment ancient links between meditation and mindfulness.

Mindfulness fosters a present-centered, non-judgmental awareness in which thoughts, feelings, and sensations are paid attention to, experienced, and then let go (Kabat-Zinn, 1990, 1998; Teasdale, 2000; Segal, et al., 2002). This dispassionate state of mind is thought to enable a reflective mental space between perception and response to sensation, which leads to increased thoughtful decision making, greater compassion and altruism, as well as increased insight.

These outcomes are all reminiscent of ancient Greek, Indian, and Chinese definitions of wisdom (Meeks, & Jeste, 2009). Given the association between definitions of wisdom and outcomes of mindfulness, it follows that regular mindfulness practice may provide one answer to the question of how we may cultivate wisdom. But how do we practice mindfulness? The most immediate answer is that we should practice mindfulness as it has been for centuries—through meditation.

Does experience lead to wisdom?

As I was completing this post, I checked back into Facebook to look at replies to my latest question, how does one become wise? As our lab is investigating the effect of different experiences on the development of wisdom, I felt that my cousin’s reply—which garnered the greatest number of ‘likes’—was highly appropriate. He quoted the late Randy Pausch: “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted,” and then added, “Wisdom is what you get after you get a lot of experience.”

This quote contains truth but reminds me that mindfulness may be contrasted against mindlessness, or the act of experiencing without awareness. It is not enough to simply experience life passively.

To truly gain wisdom, one must mindfully experience life with all its joys and suffering. Taken together, the bridge between theory and practice is not only in understanding what it means to be wise, but also in acting from a frame of mind of wisdom—one that cultivates humility, empathy and when necessary, dispassionate rationality.


Ardelt, M. (2004). Wisdom as expert knowledge system: A critical review of a contemporary operationalization of an ancient concept. Human Development, 47, 257-267.

Baer, R. A. (2003). Mindfulness training as a clinical intervention: A conceptual and empirical review. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10, 125-143.

Decety, J. (2010). The neurodevelopment of empathy in humans. Developmental Neuroscience, 32, 257-267.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness. Delta Trade Paperbacks: New York, Delacorte.

Marlatt, G.A., Pagano, R. R., Rose, R. M., & Marques, J. K. (1984). Effects of meditation and relaxation training upon alcohol use in male social drinkers. In: Shapiro, D. H., Walsh, R. N., eds. Meditation: Classic and Contemporary Perspectives. New York, NY: Aldine.

Meeks, T. W., & Jeste, D. V. (2009). Neurobiology of wisdom: A literature review. Archives of General Psychiatry, 66, 355-365.

Moore, A. W., Gruber, T., Derose, J., & Malinowski, P. (2012). Regular, brief mindfulness meditation practice improves electrophysiological markers of attentional control. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6, 18.

Segal, Z. V., Williams, J. M. G., & Teasdale, J. D. (2002). Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy for Depression: A New Approach to Preventing Relapse. Guilford Press; New York, NY.

Teasdale, J. D., Segal, Z. V., Williams, J. M. G., Ridgeway, V. A., Soulsby, J. M., & Lau, M. A. (2000). Prevention of relapse/recurrence in major depression by mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 68, 615-625.

Teper, R., & Inzlicht, M. (2013). Meditation, mindfulness and executive control: The importance of emotional acceptance and brain-based performance monitoring. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 8, 85-92.

Williams, P. B. (2013). The effect of compassion-based meditative practice on systems mediating cooperative behavior: Evidence linking physiology to behavior. (Doctoral dissertation). Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, CA.

Zgierska, A., Rabago, D., Chawla, N., Kushner, K., R., & Marlatt, A. (2009). Mindfulness meditation for substance use disorder: A systematic review. Substance Abuse, 30, 266-294.

About the author

Cognitive psychologist Patrick B. Williams, Ph.D., was a Postdoctoral Scholar at The University of Chicago, Wisdom Center for Practical Wisdom, when this paper was first published by the Wisdom Center.

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