Gaining (and Maintaining) Wisdom From Life Experience

inline Wisdom_Post.jpegMy staff and I are quite close. Things stay busy these days, so there isn’t a lot of downtime, but I’ve worked with some of these folks for over a decade. We don’t discuss every grisly detail of our lives with each other. But we do share. We care about each other.

So when one of the Worker Bees mentioned he was having some potentially serious medical issues, I asked for details. Turns out he went to his doctor for a hard lump on his throat that was getting progressively bigger. Initial pokes and prods were inconclusive. An MRI led to a biopsy, which led to an email in the middle of the afternoon with the results and a hell of an opener: “This may be a cancer.” May helped. It wasn’t a sure thing yet.

For the next couple months, he continued getting tests to confirm one way or the other. A full body scan confirmed hypermetabolic activity in the lump, just like an active cancer would show. No other tissues showed up on the scan, meaning nothing had spread or originated elsewhere. No cancer confirmation, but his doctors were definitely leaning in that direction. He had meetings at the cancer center, filled out end-of-life directives, got a special parking pass. It was intense.

It wasn’t supposed to happen to a man like this. A wife, two kids, dogs, chickens, a new house, a job working in the health, fitness, and nutrition industry. Mid 30s. Fit, eats well, a strong foundation in Primal health principles. But happening it was.

Here’s what he said to me:

“Whatever happens, this has changed my perception of reality for the better (I think). I live in a different world now, rich with meaning and love and powerful emotions. It’s remarkable.”



As he put it, when you think you’re dying, the nonsense you’ve been perpetuating falls away to reveal the essentials. It just happens on its own, and you get a glimpse of what really living entails.

Hugging your kids. Kissing your wife. A stroll after dinner to watch the sun dip below the horizon. A hawk soaring overhead. All things you’ve done and watched before, only now it’s different. Everything becomes imminent. Your concepts of the world and space-time condense. There’s less time now, but instead of getting frantic about it, you slow down and savor the moments. You’re present. Things that might have ruined your day or mood just roll off your back.

He saw it as a rare gift, and I have to agree. For all intents and purposes, he was dying (he wasn’t, but his nervous system didn’t know the difference). He got to make all the amends, undergo the self-realization, think about all the dreams and regrets he had accumulated or almost accumulated, and view things he took for granted in a new light. He got to prepare for death.

And then, he got good news. Exploratory surgery with an immediate biopsy right there in the operating room revealed that it wasn’t cancer. It was a cyst. They removed it. He went home, none the worse for wear.

The trickiest part of his whole experience has been figuring out how to keep it fresh in his heart and mind. How can he take what originated as a visceral response to the perceived threat of dying young and make it established policy? Turn it into wisdom that persists even when the threat has gone? The lump’s gone, and it never actually was a real threat. Will the insights remain?

That’s the eternal battle raging inside us, isn’t it?

We have these massive epiphanies triggered by events large and small. They change us, make us see the world from a different perspective. The prospect of random cancer helped the Worker Bee realize what he was taking for granted and glossing over. But when the direct effects of the trigger wane, we tend to let ourselves go. We get sloppy, complacent, and return to our previous incarnation.

Figuring this out seems like the key to happiness, success, meaning, world peace, and everything else we claim to hold dear. If we could get a handle on that slippery aspect of human psychology—the tendency to let learned wisdom flit away because the initial trigger resolves—there’d be no limit to what we could do as individuals and a species.

As we near the halfway mark of 2018, I want you all to ruminate on this matter.

  • How can we keep the spark of learned wisdom alive?
  • How can we turn tragedies into sustained improvements?
  • Better yet, how can we turn the tragedies of others into fuel for our own enduring improvements and realizations?

Let me know what you think, what you’ve learned down below. We all have stories like this. Candid details welcome and encouraged.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care, be well, and next time you hug a loved one, feel that hug for the miracle it is.

Because it is.


About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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34 thoughts on “Gaining (and Maintaining) Wisdom From Life Experience”

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  1. This made me remember what the great Terence McKenna said when he was told he had only 4 months to live.

    “It makes life rich and poignant. When I first got this diagnoses, I could see the light of eternity, a la William Blake, shining through every leaf. I mean, a bug walking across the ground moved me to tears.”

    1. Film critic Roger Ebert’s writings after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and after years of treatment that left him without a jaw, were beautiful, transcendent, and inspirational.

  2. Amazing post. Thanks Mark.

    Though not exactly what you’re asking, I find the single habit that keeps me present, mindful, and “at peace” day to day is a gratitude journal. I write it first thing every morning – three things I feel thankful for, a paragraph on each (to really elaborate on the “why” and flesh out my thoughts), and I can’t use the same item more than once.

    This doesn’t address some of the questions you ended your post with, but I think it has some of the same desired effects as a result. First, it helps me to put a positive spin on some things that in the moment feel like a disaster (i.e., turning negative experiences into positive ones). It’s also a great way to “reset” every day, and reach a healthy equilibrium, mentally and emotionally. After journaling, I find it easier to stay present and positive throughout the day, and not sweat the small stuff.

    It’s so easy nowadays to get wrapped up in the nonsense and minutiae of our busy lives. You blink and realize that years have gone by. Dedicating time each to day for reflection, introspection, and gratitude is critical to not losing sight of what really matters.

    1. Thank you for this beautiful explanation of a very beneficial practice. I’ve been slacking on my gratitude journal for months due to stress and having 2 toddlers, but really this is when it would benefit me the most. Thanks for the inspiration. 🙂

    2. Love this and I’m big on the gratitude journal. Sometimes it’s a list of 3-5 things and WHY I’m grateful for them. Other times I do a gratitude dump (sure there is a better word for this) where I just list a ton of things I’m grateful for.

  3. The latest area of research that supports this mindset or experience is in psychedelics. Please do check out Michael Pollan’s piece in the New Yorker or Tim Ferriss’ podcast with Michael Pollan. John’s Hopkins has been using psychedelics quite successfully to treat end of life care associated with cancer and other lethal diagnoses. It’s quite remarkable!

  4. I “office” on the same land that I get to “work” on so I’m always a stone’s throw away from family (that’s by design). Wife and boys stopped by on their way out to Ninja training. I hugged them extra hard, extra long, extra emotional… what a gift! Thank you for that.

    Form the desired habit until it’s an extension of you; however, if you try to hard, and if you do it to much, it loses its touch. Cultivate a culture of true trust, open hearts, open minds and deep bonds… you’ll always be ready to receive the moment.

  5. That’s really intense and provocative.
    I think the best I’ve experienced toward wisdom, not having had fear of impending death, is through meditation practice. Doing a series of sessions on gratitude really changed the way I looked at people and environment. And just quieting the mind enough every day lets various “deep sea creatures” show themselves. Knowing those monsters lets them swim away, brings better clarity.

  6. Beautiful, powerful post, Mark – thank you! When someone you love is dying (or might be), it suddenly gets very real.

    More generally, when things fall apart, I find profound solace in surrendering to something far more expansive than myself: Nature, the Universe, the ebb and flow…rise and fall of all that surrounds us…existing before and after us.

    My spiritual practice (rooted in yoga and taoism) becomes an anchor and a place of refuge more than at any other time. I go deeper. I tell myself: This is the REAL practice I’ve been preparing for over the years through daily practice. I also find myself more connected to others – even as an introvert. I feel connected in our vulnerability and our humanness.

    This past winter was a very, very difficult one for me – one of hardest I’ve known. AND I am grateful for the gifts it offered: going deeper into my spiritual practice, connecting more deeply with others, personal transformations that can never be taken away.

    One practice I started during those months and continue even now is keeping a daily journal of “little gifts” received. It’s full of all kinds of things: smiles, kind words, kind emails, eagle sightings, yoga practice, long walks, mountains, sky, my clients, my patients, my students, my loved ones. Even as the hard times have lifted, I maintain the journal as a form of remembrance for all that I touched into and learned.

    1. Love your idea of a “little gift” journal. I do something very similar. For years now I’ve been living in a state of things falling apart (mainly due to a close family member with a personality disorder). You learn to develop inner strength and the wisdom to know that sometimes you have to just let them fall apart. Those times it’s the little gifts that really make a difference.

  7. I think trying to maintain wisdom is actually the problem. Maintaining wisdom is always at the expense of paying attention to the present with an attitude of not really understanding what is going on. If you think you have some wisdom about the present, you can definitely try it out and see if it works. But my experience is that this approach often falls flat. What works the best is being present with no agenda and watching yourself “play” the present, as well as watching the present “play” you.

  8. Wow. I went through a similar experience in 2014: diagnosed with a brain tumor (at 55 years old); spent about 6 months learning to live with death on my doorstep; had a craniotomy to remove the tumor; and got the wonderful news that it was benign. I am left with just a few pieces of titanium in my skull.

    My wife (a social worker) suggested I keep a journal during that 6 month interregnum. She is wise. It was very useful to manage emotions during that time, and includes much of what your Worker Bee experienced: a whole new perspective on what’s important and what’s not.

    (I called the journal my MUD journal – Medical Unexpected Detour; not great grammar, but it captured my feelings at the time.)

    And bonus: when I need to be reminded of that perspective, I go back and read a few pages of my MUD journal. I haven’t gone back often, but during a few difficult times since I’ve re-read some of the journal, and it was an excellent reset for me, reminding me in stark terms what I believe is important in life.

  9. I’m tired of working a 9-5 job in which it’s dealing with one issue after the other. I’m meant to do more than troubleshoot all day! Yet I get a paycheck every 2 weeks without fail. Anybody else relate? I just want the dash in between my birth and death to be meaningful and fulfilling.

    1. Millions of people can relate, Bobbi. It’s called “golden handcuffs.” Even if you can’t give up the paycheck to look for something more fulfilling, you still have quite a few hours in the day that you can call your own. Strive to make them as satisfying as possible.

  10. I love how you ended this article. So many people hug but don’t really *feel* the hug. My granny would hug very tightly for a very long time, and she always told me I gave the best hugs. Hugging my granny is a great memory I hold dear. ?

  11. About 13 years ago I was told I had ovarian cancer by my G.P. after a C.T. scan. My doctor sent me to a specialist who was very annoyed with my G.P. that he had told me that I had cancer.. He explained that the % was very low that I even had cancer. I had just become a Grandma and thought I would never see her grow up. It turned out to be a cyst but not cancer. I have just read The Power by Rhonda Byrne and she explains how if you believe you have any type of illness your body will pick up on this and probably not heal. She also has stories of people that decided they weren’t going to let the illness win and cured themselves through their thought patterns.
    The body is such a complex machine.

  12. I was recently rear-ended while driving home from a funeral (which is such an interesting confluence of events – this was also three days after my birthday). Not a hard hit, and such injuries as I’m noticing are very minor (a muscle strain in my shoulder, some tightness and aching in my neck). But for whatever reason, a few days later I had a major stress response to this. Hot spells, cold spells, uncontrollable shivering, deep feelings of dread, fight-or-flight responses. Last night I went to a restorative yoga class, where over the course of an hour we did maybe five poses in total, with lots of prop support and very long holds. Some of the poses made me cry, and sparked visions of an inner child in terror seeking solace. At the end of the practice I felt SO much better. I guess my point is that there are a lot of ways we experience intense stress, and also a lot of ways to give ourselves permission to own and process and ultimately come out the other side of those stressful experiences. The critical thing is that we remember to do it; that we give that permission, own our mortal terror in whatever form it takes, find a source of real comfort in which we can express what needs expressing, and get through it. I’m so glad your Worker Bee is well again! Best wishes to him and his family and all of you.

  13. My husband lost part of a leg in February. He is likely going to lose the other but first they start with the toes. Bit by bit they take another part of him. He is in end stage renal disease. He had coronary problems. He is staying strong and motivated. I could critique his diet. I could critique his lack of exercise. I could critique his choices. But he is approaching end of life quite a bit faster than I had hoped, and I am sure than he had expected. (He’s only 64.) As I watch him manage each hurdle, I can only be inspired by him.

    We make choices in life. All choices have consequences. Understanding the co sequences and facing them with full realization and ownership…instead of blaming God and the Universe? That’s ballsy.

  14. We may debate what the correct ratio of animals to plants should be in our diet, but facing our mortality and those of our loved ones is something we all have to grapple with in our own way. I seek to be filled with light, not darkness, with hope, not despair, with courage, not fear, with love, not hate, and to let the energy of the universe flow through me, more real than the physical realm which the wise ones throughout history have always known is an illusion. To be able to feel joy and pain, to love, dance, greet the sun and gaze at the stars at night is a wondrous gift, however fleeting.

  15. I lost my best friend of a lifetime (57 years) last November, after her 4 month battle with cancer.
    We communicated every day from the day of her diagnosis (such a vital person, only 60 years old, stage 4 lung cancer, never smoked, but drank. I tried so hard to persuade her to try keto/fasting, to no avail, she believed in the pharmaceutical model), to her death just those 4 short months later.

    One day I asked her if she was angry, was she cursing the gods because it’s just not fair? She replied no, it’s funny, not at all. Then she said this of the cancer:

    “Life is crystalline beautiful each day – more so than ever before. It is a gift.”

    I flew to my BFF’s home to care for her near the end, as we both desired, but missed her by less than an hour. I held her body. It was beyond heart wrenching for me and her family…there are no adequate words to describe.

    Her passing changed my life, in that I know at my core now that there are absolutely no guarantees, so enjoy every day, every moment, every relationship to the fullest. And I am.

  16. “Amazing post. Thanks, Mark.”

    I’ll second that; and thanks to the anonymous WB: Congratulations, Godspeed, and fair play to you.

    I’m reminded that the real purpose of this lifestyle is living fully, wholly, and well–not forever. There have always been “predators,” falling rocks, confluences of mutating cells, etc. Maybe the point is in how we meet them, and are prepared to.

  17. Having my newborn moves me in a similar way. New life and death moves us like nothing else in this world can.

  18. Some great comments above, some of you might find stoicism and particularly the practice of negative visualisation interesting (where you imagine being without something in your life), it is designed to help you maintenance the desire for what you have rather than gradually taking it for granted and moving on to the next desire. For those interested there is a great book called guide to the good life which outlines this and other practices.

    1. John, I couldn’t agree more. Read that book some years ago and did a couple of posts (1,2) on it actually. Thanks for mentioning it. It was a great read.

  19. Thank you Mark, for such a great article! And the comments
    There’s something really wrong when we stop feeling, everything feels repetitive and with a lack of passion…this tend to happen when we give up into the artificial world and led material things and money issues for example, take number one priority in our lives and put away the hunger for living. Definitely going to keep in mind those questions Mark mentioned at the end of the article.

  20. You’ve written a post about EMDR therapy. I am an EMDR therapist and use a resource instillation process to bring up a past memory, the positive feeling state, and anchor it within. That inner resource can then be pulled from when needed. This scenario would be a beautiful fit! Thank you for sharing it.

  21. I am most certainly a person who needs to prepare for the future and with that comes the habit of never living in the moment . Years of Financial diligence ….for later, years of food discipline and alcohol, restrictions ….for later.

    I never really am in the now …….

  22. Thanks Mark. This gave me even more hope. I too found a lump about 4 months ago. Initially, I freaked out. It was about 40 days after I lost my health coverage. Even though, I still haven’t delved into the medical side of this issue, I’m better mentally than I’ve ever been. I have analyzed this lump in many ways. Researched what it might be. I’m no longer freaked out about it. I take each day and make it the best. Hopefully soon, I can take this on medically and be on the road to physical health again. Awesome story

  23. “Initial pokes and prods were inconclusive.” This amused me as I know well enough that tends to happen, or if a poke or prod is considered conclusive, the doctor could be wrong or just plain lying to try to make a buck.
    Once when I was staying a few days in a short term crisis shelter, staff gave me the option of going to the hospital for a sprained ankle or getting kicked out of the shelter because they claimed to be responsible for my health.
    Here’s how I got the sprained ankle: it was winter, the day I’d just gotten out of jail after a month or so, where I did a practically negligible amount of walking around so I basically had to get used to it again, and then that night and the next day I walked something like a marathon distance through snow from one town to another because I wanted to pick up some stuff from my campsite there. I meant to make the whole trek at once but ended up becoming quite exhausted at night and slept in the back of some junk storage truck trailer without a door behind someone’s farm, with nothing other than my clothes and coat to keep me warm except for a couple little car carpets that were in there, and those were essentially unhelpful. I don’t know what the temperature was but it felt like a pretty cold night, made worse by the wind getting in the trailer, and the next morning, after a quite inadequate sleep, I resumed walking through the snow on very numb feet and ankles. I couldn’t feel if I was landing my steps properly and I guess I wasn’t, as I ended up with a painful, immobilizing sprain. I assume that’s how I got it, or a bit of running and monkeying around in the forest after I got to my campsite and got all excited after retrieving my stuff (half quarter or so of greens), or a mix of both, maybe just way too many awkwardly landed steps added up. It was about a couple days later when it got really swollen and painful.
    So anyway, these crisis shelter staff take me to the hospital where I tell the doctor my story and how I definitely just have some sort of sprain, then he simply pokes my ankle with a finger, says I have cellulitis, and writes a prescription for antibiotics. I told him that I knew he was lying just to try to get some sort of commission and asked how he could possibly diagnosis me with an infection of interior tissues with a simple finger poke. What’s next, doctors “Poking” you on Facebook and then emailing you a prescription? I had to argue with the shelter staff for a while because I refused to get the prescription filled (they were adamant that the doctor was being honest!) and they ended up saying if I didn’t start walking around better in a couple days I’d have to get the antibiotics or leave the shelter, lo and behold I was much better by then, just as I told them I would be. Only one staff in the shelter agreed with me how stupid the whole deal was.
    I hate being poked and prodded at hospitals (and in general, I don’t like when people get excessively touchy) especially when I already know what’s wrong with me. For example another time a bad fall resulted in a hurt / maybe fractured heel for me and some gnarly scrapes on my forehead and when I went to hospital for a cast the doctor started poking my stomach everywhere and actually got cross with me when I told him to stop. You could have internal bleeding in your core, he said, due to the shock of the fall. No doc, my stomach feels just fine, do you know how annoying it is to sit there while someone jabs their fingers at you for no reason and can I just get the cast? And no, I don’t want stitches, as they’re only good for sealing fairly tidy wounds and they’d be useless on the kind of abrasions I received from the pavement.
    There’s a lot more I could say critiquing that shelter and hospital and some stupid medical practices in general, but I’ll leave my tangent at that.