Jose Antonio Cangco

When I was a young man and wet behind the ears, I applied for a sales job. As part of the qualifying process, the interviewer wanted to test our verbal skills. He told us to talk in front of the group and answer the question: Which is more important knowledge or wisdom?

That was a long time ago. I was not called to explicate my position, which was good, because for a deep topic like that I would have needed more time to come up with a good story why I thought wisdom is more important. There are several reasons why it is so, and one of them is it gives us insight.

Insight is defined as “the capacity to gain an accurate and deep intuitive understanding of a person or thing, the true nature of a situation.” When you have insight, you are able to solve a problem or see through a situation by a process or means you don’t normally use.

A classic example of insight is the story of Archimedes. Archimedes, a Greek mathematician and physicist, was asked by King Hiero to determine if the crown he had a goldsmith make contained pure gold or was mixed with silver. Archimedes was to take the crown, do his tests without damaging the crown, and do all these within a short period of time.

Archimedes pondered over the problem, inconvenienced also because he had only a day or two to solve it. The story goes on that as he was stepping into his bath, he noticed his body displaced an amount of water equal to the volume of his body that was already submerged. Knowing that silver weighs less than gold, he reasoned it would take a bigger quantity of silver to equal its weight in gold, hence, the crown would be bigger than it would have been had it been made of pure gold. Happy with his insight, he stepped out of the bath, crying, “Eureka!”

Not all insights arise because there is a pressing problem on hand; often they manifest themselves when you or your subconscious sees a chance to improve the current situation you are in. Besides knowing some basic information such as gold is more dense than silver, there must be something else beyond our skills and learning to help us cope effectively in a given situation.

Behind every man’s thought is wisdom. Wisdom is commonly defined as “the ability to discern what is right, true and lasting, having good judgment.” In eastern teachings, wisdom is defined in these two words: “cutting off.” It is the cutting off of undesirable thoughts, mismatched ideas, useless notions, or any other thoughts arising that would have no relevance or significance to what is currently on the mind. As the great Dr. Freud said, “Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.”

Ancient knowledge thrives on simplicity, and no matter how difficult the idea or complicated the situation is, the method of “cutting off” is basically the introduction and application of true or false and yes or no statements to whatever thoughts we may be thinking at the moment. It is impossible to watch in real time how our mind or subconscious works, so let us try to illustrate this with a decision box.

A decision box is formed with YES or NO components. The first box at the top of our diagram would contain the problem statement we want to answer. Below this box are the layers of option boxes: the YES box to the right and the NO box to the left. If the NO box is not relevant to the top box, then the trail on this side ends. We would now concentrate on the YES box, forming other YES/NO boxes beneath one another until we arrive at the right decision.

This is a very simplified way of illustrating how our subconscious works. Although you may refuse to believe or scoff at it, ancient knowledge is founded on the existence of opposites. Most people do not know that no matter how difficult an idea is or how challenging a situation is, the subconscious works through this process of simplification. (Did the inventors of the modern computer know about his? In a way, computers work this way, too, using a simple language of 0 and 1, represented by electrical switches in 2 positions, 0=OFF and 1=ON).

So, we are interested in how the subconscious works: creating, evaluating and voiding those decision boxes. Each decision box should be formulated in such a way that it is answerable only with a YES or NO; if there were a HOW, WHAT, WHY or WHEN, then we might be waylaid from the course we set out to follow.

To see how Archimedes would have tried to solve the problem, let us examine the process that he might have followed. The most likely and first question that would have popped out was: Is this crown made of pure gold? He might have also pondered if he knew of a process whereby he could determine the purity of the crown without doing any destructive tests, and then he might have wondered if there was another or new method, unknown to him at the moment, which he could try.

A weaker man faced with those questions would have given up hope. Only the existence of a fast, precise and non-destructive method might offer a light at the end of the tunnel for Archimedes, which for now, he could not see. He could not guess the purity of the crown with certainty, and although he knew the formulas for calculating the volume of a sphere, a pyramid, and a cube, he didn’t know any method that would give the volume of an irregularly shaped object.

There is, however, another way in which the subconscious can address this question, and that way is by tagging on hints, if any, are available. Although the subconscious has used decision boxes (answerable with either a YES or NO) it is not confined to these. While it is busy choosing among the decision boxes, it is capable of multi-tasking. In this case, it can play tag to any hint arising and then apply it to the problem.

Suffice to say that insight arises when our mind has caught on with the hint. In the case of Archimedes, the tip was in the form of the overflowing water his body displaced. In Newton, it was the falling apple. What I am sure though is Archimedes’ and Newton’s insights did not just come from the blue. They were already working on their problems for quite some time before the answers presented themselves.

The ancient way for us to develop a deeper insight is to understand that the subconscious does not work in a tortuous and roundabout way: when we have drawn the subconscious to go along with that simple process, then we are also setting it up to receive and tag any hint or topic that will pass by.

The situation or problem we are faced with need not be big or great for insight to arise. The situation can be as ordinary as a child learning how to tell time on his own, or it can be as noble as having a library cart for street children to learn and enjoy reading to keep them out of harm’s way.

An Irish blessing sums it all: “May you have the hindsight to know where you've been, the foresight to know where you are going, and the insight to know when you have gone too far.”

Copyright by the Author
(Published in the Philippine Panorama, December 1, 2013)

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