the path to wisdom

19th November 2018

How do you know what is true for you?

I’ve been a bit fascinated by how we know what we know. Becasue the answers to the questions that stir our hearts, are simply not able to be Googled. We have dreams, hurts, shadows, unmet longings, and as poet David Whyte offers ‘questions that have no right to go away‘.

These ideas were swimming around me as I wrote my new programme, Compass. I wanted to create a process for you to listen to your own voice, to know your own heart, to begin to trust your own wisdom.

Becasue, it doesn’t seem to matter if we want to make a career change, heal a pattern of behaviour, or make decisions about what to do next in our lives, most of us just want the answers right now please (just me?).

We want to skip the messy, uncertain bit in the middle and just be the wiser, more knowing, more experienced us. In attempting to rush this process, we might believe that wisdom is simply a matter of finding the right teacher, practice, book or belief.

We might also be tempted to assume the lotus position on an Instagrammable cushion waiting for the epiphanies to arrive. It can be helpful to know that seeking out wisdom from others is a completely expected step in what’s known as our ‘epistemological development’.

Our ideas about how we can know, the evolution of our beliefs and assumptions, and the nature of wisdom itself are some the big, hairy concepts that kept Harvard psychologist William Perry up at night through most of last half of the 20th century.

The Perry Scheme as it came to be known, offers a useful way of exploring how we know what we know, and ultimately, how we become wise.

Most of us begin knowing a dualistic world; one where there are right and wrong answers, and there are people in authority in possession of these truths. But we inevitably discover that ‘experts’ are like us: flawed and full of their own blind spots who don’t always agree with each other.

It can be uncomfortable when we cleave our identity to a single philosophy, practice, school of thought or ideology (hello politics), only to find we inevitably bump up against the limits of any one source of wisdom.

It can be destabilising to acknowledge there are no absolute truths. This can be a confusing time, but if we can be with paradox and disagreement, we are rewarded with a new level of knowing where we begin to trust our own interpretations.

This is what Perry called ‘Multiplicity’ or ‘Subjective Knowledge’ – where we are invited to accept that all knowledge is contextual. We can see that someone from another culture has an equally valuable way of experiencing their identity: we see privilege and patriarchy, religion, race and gender as constructs of knowledge that exist on a spectrum of our experience.

This brings us to the next stage of knowing the world: one of ‘Relativism’ where we recognise multiple, conflicting versions of truth that are all legitimate because they are relative.

In order to hold a relativist view of the world, we must think critically: weighing evidence, examine arguments, and examining our own bias and assumptions.

Many of us are going through this waking up process now. We are seeing the institutions and systems we are part of as deeply flawed and inherently oppressive. And as we acknowledge how we are participating, we may be experiencing internal conflict, guilt and confusion. It is entirely natural to find ourselves returning to the knowledge of others (who look like us, who share our experiences) to feel safe.

But if we can be with this deeper level of uncertainty, we can engage in ‘Constructed Knowledge’ where we integrate our understanding of the world with what we have learned from others, alongside personal experience and reflections.

We learn that we are part of the construction of our own wisdom and this is an ongoing and evolving activity. We start to see that there are no ‘right’ answers, just choices we make, given the relative context we find ourselves in.

Depth psychologist Dr Carol Pearson, offers a final stage that did not emerge from Perry’s work, where we open ourselves to a wisdom beyond knowing.

This is a somewhat mystical experience of personal truth that comes from our dreams, imagination and intuition. Often there is a bodily ‘yes’ that indicates truth. Every now and then there is a synchronistic sign from some unseen source.

Sometimes, this intangible, inexplicable knowing is all that we have to be sure of what’s true for us.

How do you know what is true for you?

Further reading:

  • Persephone Rising’ by Dr Carol S. Pearson
  • ‘Becoming Wise’ by Krista Tippett
  • Women’s Ways of Knowledge: the development of Self, Voice and Mind’ by Mary Field-Belenky, Blythe McVicker-Clinchy, Nancy Rule-Goldberger and Jill Mattuck-Tarule

Please note, an edited version of this content first appeared in my monthly column for Inspired Coach magazine – a highly recommended read for Coaches, Mentors, Teachers and Therapists.



Hello, I'm Sas Petherick. I'm a self-doubt researcher, coach and podcaster who helps thinking humans transcend self-doubt. If you'd like to receive these posts in your inbox please subscribe here (with bonus info and first notice of opportunities to work with me). PS: I totallyInstagram - join me there?


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