THE WISDOM BRIDGE SERIES
In September 2022, DAAJI released his latest book, The Wisdom Bridge, which is a bestseller. Throughout 2023, we’ll be sharing excerpts from the various chapters of this insightful book to give you a taste of the wisdom it offers. This month, Daaji focuses on Principle 2 – Be guided by wisdom. Seek it. Cultivate it. Share it.
Way finders, Shamans, and Grandparents: the Wisdom Bridge
Walking to the store with your grandfather and buying rock candy, licking the cake batter off grandmother’s baking bowl, or in the case of my three-year-old granddaughter, cuddling up in my lap and watching the night sky: grandparents and grandchildren share a connection that makes even the mundane memorable. In their togetherness, wisdom flows from one generation to another.
Sometimes I think about why the connection between grandparents and grandchildren feels so special. Is it familial love or is something else at play? There are many theories, and the one I find compelling is from the late American comedian and author Sam Levenson. I remember a joke which went like, “Grandparents and grandchildren get along so well because they share a common enemy.” Ha!
Jokes aside, according to anthropologists, what makes the connection between grandparents and grandchildren special goes back thousands of years, to our days as hunter-gatherers. In those times, when children were old enough to stay apart from their parents, grandparents, mainly the grandmothers, took care of the children. While parents hunted and foraged for food, the grandmothers taught the children how to spot water sources, how to make a fire and how to hunt; essentially, how to survive. Anthropologists believe that the care and nurturing by our grandparents is one of the reasons why the human race survived, while other species stronger and bigger than we are were wiped out.1
What makes the bond between grandparents and grandchildren
so special goes back thousands of years ago to our days as hunter-gatherers.
Fast forward to urban society, where forests and savannahs have made way for apartments and villas, parents forage in concrete jungles and server farms. And grandparents continue to do what they did. They teach the children life skills. No matter how little time the children may have spent with their grandparents, they would have learned something from them. It’s as if grandparents and grandchildren are hardwired in away that grandparents share knowledge, and grandchildren imbibe them.2
Thanks to this hardwiring, generational wisdom flows from one generation to another. From the basic skills like cooking, knitting, speaking, and reading to virtues like humility, compassion, and generosity, the term generational wisdom covers the gamut. In a family, the elders, mainly the grandparents, carry the mantle of transferring generational wisdom. For this reason, I refer to our elders as living wisdom bridges.
No matter how little time the children may have spent with their grandparents,
they would have learned something from them.
To understand a wisdom bridge, let’s first understand what a bridge is. In simplest terms, a bridge is a connection where a gap once lay, a path where once none existed. The Norse gods built the Bifrost, a celestial bridge, to connect the nine realms. Lord Rama built a bridge that connected what we know today as India and Sri Lanka. With regard to us mere mortals, we are bridge builders too. To connect with another person, we build an attention bridge. To allow the flow of ideas, we build an awareness bridge. To transfer wisdom, we build a wisdom bridge.
The elders are the living wisdom bridges in society. Close association with the elders enables children to imbibe their wisdom in a natural way. For example, a child can be taught morals – be kind, speak with love, judge not, and so on. But when a child is with the grandparents and sees their kindness in actions, feels the softness in their speech, and witnesses the calmness in their demeanor, the wisdom flows straight into the child’s heart. Parents too can teach all this, but they are busy. Grandparents have the time, and they love to share with the little ones.
Centuries from now, when future humanity studies modern-day society,
what will they find? Will they discover that we preserved wisdom?
If you are a parent, you know the smile the elders bring to your child’s face. You know the special place your children have in their hearts for their grandparents. In societies where generations are close-knit, the transfer of wisdom happens naturally. And what happens when generations are disconnected? You live in your little islands, cut off not only from wisdom but also from each other. Over time, each generation feels more disconnected than the previous one. Centuries from now, when future humanity studies our society, what will they find? Will they discover that we preserved wisdom? Or will they study us to learn what not to do?
Let me share with you stories from two ancient cultures that will help you understand the importance of generational wisdom. For centuries these cultures thrived, thanks to strong wisdom bridges, but today they are dying as the wisdom bridges collapse.
TWO ANCIENT CULTURES AND LESSONS IN GENERATIONAL WISDOM
History books tell us about the voyages of explorers such as Ferdinand Magellan and James Cook and their discovery of new islands in the Pacific Ocean. A lot has been written about their battles, conquests, mutinies and the sicknesses they brought with them. One aspect we don’t read about as much is how surprised the explorers were when they landed on the Pacific islands.
The Pacific islands are thousands of miles apart,3 and the explorers expected them to be uninhabited. Instead, they found a civilization of people with similar culture and values, thriving on island after island. What perplexed the explorers was that there was no navy or sophisticated sailing equipment on these islands.
“How shall we account for this Nation spreading itself so far over this vast ocean?” Captain Cook wrote in his journal during his third and final voyage in 1778.4 To give you an idea of the vastness Captain Cook refers to, he was referring to the Polynesian Triangle. In the South Pacific Ocean, the Polynesian Triangle covers an area of 10 million square miles.5 To put this in perspective, Europe and the United States together account for 8 million square miles. Captain Cook could not fathom how a nation without a navy was thriving across the islands that were thousands of miles apart.
Today, thanks to scientific evidence, we know that the Polynesians were masters of navigation. Centuries before the European explorers ventured out on expeditions, way finders from east Indonesia and the Philippines settled in Polynesia. The way finders travelled in simple canoes with sails. They had no special equipment, not even a compass. Yet, they conquered the seas centuries before the Europeans did.
When a wayfinder dies or a shaman passes on to
the other realm, a library burns down to the ground.
All the knowledge, all the wisdom passed down
for ages vanishes in an instant.
Across cultures, we are witnessing a mass
extinction of wisdom, which affects all of us.
The way finders’ genius lay in their generational wisdom. The wisdom bridges, spanning one generation to another, transferred the knowledge of navigation. Grandparents and grandchildren walked the wisdom bridges together. The elders, while catching fish with the children, taught them about ocean currents. While making sundials with seashells, they sang songs describing the movement of stars. Lying on the beach as they gazed at clouds, grandparents taught how to differentiate a storm cloud from three days earlier, which looked more like a flower, from those that had appeared recently. Way finders had an oral tradition, and the generational connection was crucial for their culture to thrive.
The responsibility of preserving the generational connection fell on the shoulders of the palus, the master navigators. The palus were among the respected village elders, and it was their duty to guide the people and mentor them. For the palu, the ocean was an extension of his being. While sailing, looking at the playful bounce of the water against the canoe, the palu could identify the islands that lay kilometers away. In the middle of a voyage, it wasn’t uncommon for a palu to lie down in the hull of the canoe. It wasn’t for a siesta, but to feel the vibrations of the waves against his body; that way, the palu identified the ocean currents. With the slightest shift in the cloud patterns, a palu could predict a storm three day sout. For most of us, it’s difficult to remember a handful of phone numbers. But a palu, if you can find one today, can still name hundreds of stars and plot their movement across the sky.6
Like the way finders, one more culture also has an oral tradition. To meet them we will have to travel to the lungs of the Earth, the tropical forests of the Amazon. There, the tree canopy is so thick that the forest floor is always covered in darkness. In these brooding forests live the enigmatic medicine men – the shamans of the Amazon. They have long been curing diseases ranging from simple fevers to even Bell’s palsy. They are the walking encyclopedias of the Amazon jungles.
The wayfinders’ genius lay in their generational wisdom.
The wisdom bridges, spanning one generation to another,
transferred the knowledge of navigation. Grandparents and
grandchildren walked the wisdom bridges together.
Ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin has dedicated his life top reserving the rainforests. In his popular TED talk from October2014, Mark shares his encounter with a shaman:
Now four years ago, I injured my foot in a climbing accident and I went to the doctor. She gave me heat, she gave me cold, aspirin, narcotic painkillers, anti-inflammatories, cortisone shots. It didn’t work.
Several months later, I was in the northeast Amazon, walked into a village, and the shaman said, “You’re limping.” And I’ll never forget this as long as I live. He looked me in the face, and he said, “Take off your shoe and give me your machete.”
He walked over to a palm tree and carved off a fern, threw it in the fire, applied it to my foot, threw it in a pot of water and had me drink the tea.
The pain disappeared for seven months. When it came back, I went to see the shaman again. He gave me the same treatment, and I’ve been cured for three years now. Who would you rather be treated by?7
According to industry data, it takes $2.6 billion and, on average, fourteen years to develop a new drug.8 The failure rate in finding a new drug is as high as 95 percent.9 So then why aren’t TV studios streaming shaman specials or why aren’t Silicon Valley entrepreneurs clamoring to decode the ancient wisdom? Because these once-thriving cultures are now reduced to an endangered tribe. The cultures that worshipped the seas and revered the trees lost out to cultures that exploited the seas and axed the trees.
Why does it matter if a tribe vanishes? What do we lose if there are no way finders or shamans left? When a way finder dies or a shaman passes on to the other realm, a library burns down to the ground. All the knowledge, all the wisdom passed down for ages vanishes in an instant. Across cultures, we are witnessing a mass extinction of wisdom, which affects all of us. When we lose wisdom, human progress halts. There is a cliched but useful adage, “Don’t reinvent the wheel.” When we lose wisdom, we keep reinventing the wheel. Problems that were already solved will have to be solved all over again.
Your elders need not be way finders and shamans to make the case for generational wisdom and how it impacts your family. Our detour into the Pacific islands and the Amazon shows that the generations before us faced problems like we are facing today.
The elders in your family have life skills and learnings relevant to your family’s flourishing. They may not have all the answers, but you can learn from their successes and failures. You can blend wisdom and technology to create a lifestyle that helps your family thrive. There are many stories in this book that show how science and wisdom come together to improve your quality of life.
Be curious to learn more about age-old customs and practices. Instead of discarding them as superstitions and rituals, distil the essence behind the customs and take what is valuable. It will help you re-imagine the village as a place that brings technology and wisdom together for your children and your family.
Be curious to learn more about age-old customs and practices.
Instead of discarding them as superstitions and rituals,
distil the essence behind the customs and take what is valuable.
It will help you re-imagine the village as a place that brings technology
and wisdom together for your children and your family.
Also, you may not be a family elder or a grandparent yet, but one day you might become one. At that time, as an elder of the family, you will carry the mantle of passing on wisdom to the young ones. What kind of elder do you want to be? How do you want your grandchildren to remember you? Understanding the importance of generational wisdom today will prepare you for the future. What you share then will be the wisdom that your family’s future generations will carry forward.
AN IMPERFECT PAST AND A WORK-IN-PROGRESS PRESENT
I’m not a nostalgia merchant peddling wisdom ware to talk about the good old days and complain about how we have it all wrong today. Sometimes, we feel that we had it all figured out in the past, and as time went by, we lost our way. It’s important to remember that the past wasn’t perfect. When you read about the way finders and the Amazon tribes, you learn that prejudice, jealousy and greed affected their generations too. The fight for land, the rivalry between clans, the secrecy around knowledge, and the hunger for power were present in those cultures too. But a lot of good was passed down from one generation to another, and a lot of evil also made its way down. Just as precious ore is found after sifting through tons of gangue, it’s our responsibility to sift through what we receive and discern wisdom from waste. Your heart guides you in developing discernment.
The knowledge, experience and intuition of generations comes together to form wisdom. A life without wisdom is a life of ignorance. Wisdom helps you to avoid rookie mistakes and protects your families from unnecessary complications. The steadying hand that comes from generational wisdom is a positive influence in a child’s life.
The knowledge, experience and intuition of generations comes together
to form wisdom. A life without wisdom is a life of ignorance.
Wisdom helps you to avoid rookie mistakes and protects your families
from unnecessary complications. The steadying hand that comes from
generational wisdom is a positive influence in a child’s life.
The living wisdom bridges – our grandmothers, our grandfathers, and our elders – are the arteries through which life experiences have flowed. There are 1 billion people in the world today who are grandparents.10 It’s a demographic dividend that is glossed over in urban society. In the modern lifestyle, a world steeped in pace, the living wisdom bridges around us have slipped away into the shadows. Through this book I am shining the spotlight back on them.
The governments have reduced them to line items in welfare and healthcare budgets. Families agonize over how best to care for them. The elderly themselves struggle to find a voice, a final hurrah. They deserve better. We have to do better. And most importantly, our children need their wisdom. As the world population becomes grayer and older, our efforts to rebuild generational connections will help us all. We need to make wisdom relevant again in our lives, through the wise who can pour it into those hearts that can receive it.
The living wisdom bridges – our grandmothers, our grandfathers,
and our elders – are the arteries through which life experiences have flowed.
Q: My children love reading and listening to stories. Their grandfather, who lives in a different city, instilled the habit of reading in them, and of listening to the exciting stories he’d tell. They miss their grandfather. I would love to tell them stories, but they just tell me I’m not doing it as well as he did. What should I do?
Daaji: Most families today live far away from each other. So, we should use technology to bridge the gap. Set up a regular time for your children and their grandfather to speak. Your role as a parent is to set up the conversation so that they meet regularly. Fix the timings, use a good device, ensure the internet bandwidth is good, and so on. Try to remove the friction points that technology may cause. This will make it easier for the elders to use technology.
The elders are more comfortable in-person, and they find it easier to communicate this way. Initially, on a video call ore-meet, you may have to suggest some ideas, give some prompts to help them get into a flow. You only need to do this a few times here and there and then the conversation starts to flow. If you can, try and record some of these sessions. You will enjoy seeing them with the children when they grow up.
From Chapter 1 of The Wisdom Bridge.11
To be continued.
1 O’Connell, J.F. et al., 1999. “Grandmothering and the evolution of Homo erectus,” Journal of Human Evolution 36, no. 5:461–485, https://doi.org/10.1006/jhev.1998.0285.
3 Foster, S and J.F. West, 2020. “Pacific Islands,” Encyclopedia Britannica, November 17, 2020,https://www.britannica.com/place/Pacific-Islands.
4 Cook, J., 2003. The Journals of Captain Cook. Penguin Books, London, UK.
5 Hinz, E.R., 1999. Landfalls of Paradise: Cruising Guide to the Pacific Islands. University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu, U.S.A.
6 Thompson, C., 2019. “The Enduring Mysteries of How Polynesia was Settled,” Interview by J. Bologna and W.Wuthmann, Fresh Air, NPR, updated 29 March 2019, https://www.wbur.org/radioboston/2019/03/29/mysteries-polynesiasettled.
7 Plotkin, M., 2014. “What the people of the Amazon know that you don’t.” TED.com, https://www.ted.com/talks/mark_plotkin_what_the_people_of_the_amazon_know_that_you_don_t?language=en.
8 2015.“ Drug Development Costs Jump to $2.6 Billion,”Cancer Discovery 5, no. 2, DOI: 10.1158/2159-8290.CD-NB2014-188.
9 “About New Therapeutic Uses,” National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NIH), Accessed January 4, 2022, https://ncats.nih.gov/ntu/about.
10 Moore, S and D. Rosenthal, 2016. Grandparenting: Contemporary Perspectives. Routledge, UK.
11 Patel, K.D., 2022. The Wisdom Bridge: Nine Principles to a Life that Echoes in the Hearts of Your Loved Ones. Penguin, India.
Illustrations by JASMEE MUDGAL
Kamlesh Patel is known to many as Daaji. He is the Heartfulness Guide in a tradition of Yoga meditation that is over 100 years old, overseeing 14,000 certified Heartfulness trainers and many volunteers in over 160 countries. He is an innovator and researcher, equally at home in the fields of spirituality and science, blending the... Read more