On Received, Intellectual and Experiential Wisdom
Interwoven with an exploration of denial, ignorance and naïveté — a cross-examination of Buddhist teachings and psychodynamic theory
I’ve been pondering a lot about the differences between denial, ignorance and naiveté, and how media popularization of the term “woke” in the last couple of years has, at least for me, undermined and downplayed my understanding and desire to understand some very complex, urgent and critical issues.
Looking back to just a few months ago, before I started the Integral Counseling Program at California Institute of Integral Studies, it’s hard to distinguish whether my lack of awareness in issues surrounding social justice, inequality, oppression, and the general “impact of the concept of culture on the concept of man ,” was a result of denial, ignorance or naïveté. It is most certainly, partially, a result of privilege.
Ignorance and naïveté — are somewhat easy to resolve. They imply a lack of knowledge, information or experience, whereas denial is an active refusal to acknowledge some truth or emotion, a powerful defense mechanism that’s much harder to break down and break through.
As in most things, my lack of “woke-ness” was most probably a combination of all three — denial, ignorance and naiveté, each perpetuating the other in an endless cycle of not having to acknowledge my own privilege, feel into my own experiences of and participation in injustice, and recognize how my own feigned neutrality and passivity are not benign as I had thought. Ignorance and naiveté can be overcome with education, but no amount of education can raze the battle-hardened walls of denial; for that requires experience buttressed by knowledge, in addition to a deep-rooted desire for transformation and truth.
These first few months of learning have opened my eyes, expanded my mind, moved my heart and stirred my spirit in ways only traveling to a foreign country in the past had. Many times over, the structurally, beautiful glass house I encased myself in as a protective fort from which to view the world has been shattered and reconstructed only to be shattered again. It’s hard to fathom this is only the beginning of my education — how I’ve only taken one bite of the appetizer in a plentiful and palatable multi-course meal.
This essay — along with the ones that will follow in the coming weeks — is my attempt to chew, swallow and metabolize the first course while savoring all its complex textures and flavors.
There have been many lessons gleaned from these first few months of “therapy school,” which I’ll be sharing in “courses” over the next few months, starting with Course One below.
Disclaimer: While I try to keep a critical eye on the fact that my education comes from a leftist, liberal kind of school in a city not thirty minutes away from where the free speech movement began, a city that has historically been the epicenter of many leftist movements, I think it’s important to disclose my own leanings towards more romantic, humanistic and transpersonal ideologies.
True learning is an activity of not just mind, but a transformation of one’s whole being.
Dozens of ideas from essays, books, mentors, in addition to personal experience have helped to lift the heavy veil continuously obstructing my clarity of sight, but it takes a precise recipe of one part learning via experience, one part learning through knowledge, and one part learning with my body, heart and spirit to overcome my naiveté, ignorance, and denial, respectively.
Years ago, I read Erich Fromm’s The Sane Society, which imparts a similar message expounded upon by J. Krishnamurti that “it is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” I found Fromm’s polemic illuminating, and yet his insights did not stick. I was challenged intellectually, and while his illuminations were likely responsible for planting the initial seeds of growth, those seeds, at the time, failed to germinate. They did not blossom into behavioral changes leading to action, nor did they result in any structural changes in my sense of self. In other words, they did not translate into true learning, or wisdom.
Theraveda Buddhism distinguishes between three types of wisdom, a word I like to think of as the product (or noun) of the action (or verb) of learning: (1) received wisdom, (2) intellectual wisdom, and (3) experiential wisdom .
I imagine these three types of wisdoms as living in concentric circles, with experiential wisdom at the core, intellectual wisdom in the middle and received wisdom as the outside circle encircling both.
Received wisdom is heard or borrowed wisdom from another source. It is low in engagement and participation, much like when a parent tells a child not to touch a hot stovetop because they’ll burn their hand, and the child unquestioningly obliges.
Intellectual wisdom goes one step beyond received wisdom. It occurs when one examines and reflects upon a piece of received wisdom, and considers whether the teaching is valid, rational, and useful. It is accepted as true if it passes the person’s cognitive frameworks. Intellectual learning is high in engagement and low in participation. To extend the previous example, the child, instead of unquestioningly obliging out of “blind faith, fear of or desire” to please the parent, tries to understand how and why a hot surface might lead to a burn, and upon reflection, accepts or rejects her parent’s teaching as true.
Experiential wisdom is as the name suggests, insight acquired from a “personal realization of truth ,” arguably the highest form of learning. It is high in engagement and participation. Using the same example, the child, with or without any prior information, touches the hot stovetop and burns her hand. The pain of the act teaches her something. It is an embodied experience. Without a parent telling her otherwise or needing to understand how or why this happens, the experience produces a structural change at the core of her being, and she learns to avoid touching hot stovetops from that moment on.
But, simply having an experience in and of itself is not enough to elicit true learning and transformation. That must be a concomitant of one’s epistemophilic instinct, the love and prioritization of Truth (with a capital T) above all else — before pleasure, before pain, before joy, before fear.
Another way to think about these three types of wisdom is through the lens of a Jungian analyst, Edward Edinger, and his theory on the relationship between the ego (or “I”) and Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s notion of self as wholeness, the organizing principle of the psyche — a God within us that both encompasses and transcends the ego.
“The self is not only the centre, but also the whole circumference which embraces both conscious and unconscious; it is the centre of this totality, just as the ego is the centre of consciousness .”
According to Edinger, healthy development occurs as a continuous and constant dialectic between ego-self identity (or union) and ego-self separation, in which the “integrity and stability of the ego depend in all stages of development on a living connection with the self .”
That living connection is known as the ego-self axis, as represented in Figures 2–4 below by the dotted line linking the center of the ego to the center of the self.
The ego cannot exist without the support of the self, and the self needs the ego to realize it. Therein lies a paradox.
What does all this have to do with the three types of Buddhist wisdom, or learning?
The ego-self axis is relevant here. Whenever we take in information or knowledge, for better or for worse, the ego begins to separate from the self, but in that separation lies a risk of damaging or severing the ego-self axis, leading to ego-self alienation. The intactness of the ego-self axis is necessary as a gateway between the conscious personality and the unconscious and numinous self. The ego needs a direct line of communication to the self in order to endure stress and further individuate.
When one limits themselves to received wisdom, I argue, the link in the ego-self axis is severed and ego-self alienation occurs. Only an unmoored ego absorbs information from the external world and blindly accepts it as truth. Further growth or development of the ego (as enjoined by the self) is under arrest.
With intellectual wisdom, the ego-self separation advances accordingly per Figure 2, where the majority of one’s knowing is still unconscious, but the self and ego are now in healthy dialectic, and the former impels the latter towards more and more consciousness.
With experiential wisdom, we arrive at Figure 3, where much still remains unconscious, but experience presses one to acknowledge and become aware of his or her ego in relation to the self, and thus recognizes how one’s reaction towards and experience of an event serves or abandons the self.
Whereas naïveté comes from a lack of experiential wisdom, ignorance from a lack of intellectual wisdom, and both naïveté and ignorance plagues the realm of received wisdom, denial finds its home in all three spheres. More often than not, denial is unconscious — a robust defense mechanism that keeps us emotionally safe in the reality and world we’re familiar with — and thus, is not easily overcome by knowledge or experience alone, though either could weaken its foundation.
In the outermost sphere of received wisdom, we are both ignorant and naïve, which is not necessarily negative, as it is often a starting point. The harm lies in when we stay stagnant in that space, and accept “stories,” “studies,” or “facts” as true without moving deeper towards the core of the circle.
This is further compounded by denial, when we disavow anything and everything that might challenge our existing groundless world view. Denial keeps us doggedly in place, with little-to-no movement between the three spheres.
Denial may trap us in intellectuality, as well as the innermost circle of experiential wisdom. I may have a paradigm-shifting experience, and yet, so long as I’m bound by the chains of denial — a sort of unconscious resistance — that experience will not translate into true learning or wisdom. In this case, I extend my hand out to touch the hot stove and burn my hand, but deny that the hot stove caused me any pain and continue to burn myself as time ticks on.
It’s worth noting that at the core of every morsel of received wisdom is someone’s intellectual and/or experiential wisdom.
Historically, our spheres of influence were much smaller and communication was much slower. The transfer of information and knowledge was limited to small tribes or villages where received wisdom was likely communicated directly from the person who had acquired true, experiential wisdom, or was at most separated by two degrees of connection —such as the family member of a friend or tribal elder.
In our post-modernist world, received wisdom (or information) permeates consciousness from all directions, all the time. It has been so far abstracted out that we can hardly pinpoint from whose knowledge and experience it originates. Rarely does the information come from someone we know personally, and just like in a game of telephone, so much knowledge is missed, manipulated or misrepresented.
We too often accept or parrot back a well-packaged sound bite of what an individual, or an institution, says, writes or shows in person and online, via social media, podcasts, news, blogs, books, films, and so on, without engaging in further critical reflection or having experienced it ourselves. This is made all the more harmful by the intrusion of smart algorithms feeding us that which only strengthens our existing viewpoints.
Received wisdom is necessary, and all humans are prone to it in various areas and at various points of life. After all, we have limited reserves of energy and time, and cannot possibly acquire all we need to survive and thrive without a healthy dose of received wisdom, especially in our early years of life.
This is why selectively choosing and having “prophets” — as my partner Jeff writes about— is so crucial. Prophets are our new-age tribal elders, the modern archetype of the old wise man or woman. They can help us parse what’s useful from what’s not, without our having to do much due diligence on our own, once we’ve invested the upfront cost of vetting them.
True learning requires us to move to-and-fro between all three spheres, to recognize when the battle-hardened walls of denial obstructs us from moving forward, and to destruct those walls with our epistemophilic instinct.
These few months of learning enrolled me to do just that. The school seems to understand transformative learning as a union between the critical, reflective activity of cognition and whole-hearted, visceral, bodily participation. The curriculum provided me ample opportunity to migrate freely between the three spheres of received, intellectual and experiential wisdom.
As one of my classmates once told another classmate, study and participate not just with your mind, but with your whole body and heart. The mind’s intelligence is venerated in Western society, whereas the body — whose intelligence has only recently come to light — is oft maligned.
When I first read about these three types of wisdom a couple of years ago, I understood them intuitively as I was able to retroactively apply them to experiences and learnings from my past. But this year was the first time I witnessed these three types of learning in action, operating interdependently. I was aware of exactly which sphere I was in at all times, and observed myself dancing back and forth between spheres and along their edges. I felt the foundational structures buttressing certain world views quaver, and watched as my dear friend and enemy Denial rushed in in defense to keep it all from crumbling down.
Course Two will build upon this one and explore my relationship — past and present — with culture. In each of the following essays, I intend to share the received wisdom I initially held, weaved in with some critical reflection (as relevant), followed by an anecdote of an experience that either shattered or strengthened my previous paradigms. I will also explore how this then inversely impacted my previous intellectual understandings as well as the received wisdom I now impart onto others, including you.
 Geertz, C. (2015). “The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man.”
 Hart, W. (1987). The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation: As Taught by S. N. Goenka.
 Jung, C. (1944). Collected Works of C.G. Jung: Volume 12.
 Edinger, E. (1960). The Ego-Self Paradox.