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True Wisdom:
Getting Out Of Your Cave

Text by: Ben Schultz

When was the last time you were in a cave? Were you younger? Was it recent? Do you remember the damp air, the lack of light; the chilled air in your lungs, the dripping water, softly trickling down the rocky surfaces around you. Did you imagine the possibility of bats as you spelunked through the dark? Perhaps you remember the images created by reflected light from your flashlight that made shadows and silhouettes showing the Stalactites & Stalagmites. Do you remember the echoes of sound bouncing off the cave walls as you spoke?

I remember making a fire once, in a cave years ago with friends. We never considered how limited the oxygen is in a small cave with only a small exit for a hole. The fire created smoke, it sucked all the air in the room, and we were forced to make a quick exit to the outside air, coughing all the way. I still remember the shapes and shadows on the cave the fire made of our figures. When you are in the fire light, it casts a yellow shadow on those around you, it makes your eyes adjust and you forget what people really look like, you forget how ugly or beautiful people really are—their faces to you are different, sometimes seem only two-dimensional.

The light and images inside a cave are like a world of it's own; a simpler world that exists and is different from the outside world we usually encounter. One could say that what is seen and experienced in a cave, is almost a world of it's own. Shadows make monsters of shapes to children. Light and sound bend and bounce on walls creating a surreal world or existence. Plato, one of the brightest minds is considered a father of philosophy, who, thousands of years ago used an analogy of a cave as a comparison to the different levels of human intelligence and truth living.

Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher, was arguably one of the wisest persons that have ever lived, one of the fathers of philosophy. The Oracle at Delphi proclaimed Socrates to be the wisest man in all of Athens. This puzzled Socrates because he felt that he was not more intelligent when compared with others. As he questioned the supposedly wisest men of Athens, Socrates came to see that these men, who thought themselves very wise, knew nothing of their own ignorance. The wisest people realize their place in the universe and how small they are. To be wise, therefore, is to know how much one does not know.

Much of what we know of Socrates was written by Plato, a student of Socrates and likewise a father of philosophy. In a fictional conversation between Socrates and Plato's brother, Glaucon, Plato presents the Allegory of the Cave, in which he describes people and their knowledge and perception of the world around them. The cave is used as a comparison to the different levels of human intelligence and ability to live the truth.

Plato's analogy starts with a hypothetical situation of people being held as prisoners from birth, who are put in a cave. They are tied up so that they can only see the shadows of things going on behind them, not the actual things themselves. The light and images inside the cave become a world of their own—a simpler world that is different from the outside world one usually encounters. Shadows make twisted realities of shapes and figures. Light and sound bend and bounce on walls, creating a surreal existence. These prisoners are compared to people who live in the world (or our society) but don't take much notice of the more important meaning of life. They have a limited knowledge of reality, but their knowledge is limited, it is only an illusion of what it really is—a shadow cast by the truth. Perhaps this is someone who is in some way cut off from the world; perhaps they are illiterate or uneducated and live in a social survival mode, being unable to truly experience truth and knowledge.

Plato's Socrates then explains how if a prisoner were allowed to come out of the cave he would not be able to see the world around him for a time because his eyes would not be used to the bright light of the real world. He might have to squint through something or only gaze at the reflections in the water—an indirect view of the world—until his eyes were able to adjust and change. These people are more aware of the world, truth and life but still don't see the true meaning of life and the world around them. Perhaps this kind of person is educated, or has a background in higher education but has abandoned it for simple living or has given in to addictive behavior or disobeying the law. He sees only a reflection of the real world.

The question is then asked, "What if that prisoner we are speaking of, after some time, could go back down in the cave to tell the other prisoners, how different would his or her perception of reality be?" Wisdom comes from seeing the truth and the world around us—for what it really is—not just the as shadows, or illusion or reflections of the world.

When that prisoner returns to the surface for the second time, his eyes have adjusted to the light. He is able to really look at a tree and see its color and shape, not just a silhouette or a shape in a cave. They really see the world for what it is and beauty and truth it is and not just two dimensional shapes or merely reflections of what is.

People become wise by avoiding living lies or half-truths. We respect wise people because they help by teachings to us how to avoid certain pitfalls. Wisdom does not only know the truth; it is living it; it is acting on it. When we emerge out of the cave of ignorance, then we can really see the sun and stars and planets and world around us.

In life, we sometimes choose to hide out in caves constructed by our own selves or minds. Perhaps we create figurative caves as a refuge for our soul, but we are damning our mind. How often do we look at our bulging clothes and blame the shrinking cotton or dryer for the tight fit? How often do we criticize people or talk about them behind their back for things that we really just loathe in ourselves. We are content living with the truth if we are the only ones who know it. We hold ourselves captives of the truth about our life by blatantly ignoring or hiding it away in a place we think is safe.

The journey through life for all of us begins in a cave when we are children. We must learn to rise up and find our way out of the cave. We must begin to see truth for what it is, and not just as a reflection of truth. We must learn to live it—live by truth. Only then will we be wise, knowing how little we do know—being content and happy in this big, wide universe of truth.