Leigh Biddlecome

Nathan Vanderpool


Cohere+ Profile

WISDOM AS A SUBJECT OF PUBLIC DISCOURSE has been gaining advocates in recent years, much to my delight. Earlier this month Krista Tippett sent out a newsletter announcing a new season of programming for On Being which will be entirely focused on wisdom. With her characteristically poetic, clear language, she described wisdom in opposition to ‘mere knowledge or mere fact’:  ‘[Wisdom] doesn’t age so much as grow, gaining traction and vividness and a mysterious power to time travel in relevance.’

This month we are featuring a two part profile of Nathan Vanderpool, a part-time monastic, wisdom practitioner and convener, and musician based in Berlin. I first spoke to Nathan a few months ago online, then met him in person in March to continue the conversation in person and attend one of his meditation and chanting sessions which he runs in a local neighborhood church in Neukölln, Berlin as part of its open community spirituality programmes.

In this first part we’ll get to know Nathan’s work as a convener of Respond, a global network of practitioners and scholars developing ‘ecologies of practice’ for wisdom. What is compelling about Respond’s approach is their interest in developing a ‘meta-curriculum’ for wisdom that addresses transformation both on a personal and systemic level. Nathan writes, ‘Respond’s Theory of Wisdom is not a map to any destination,’ nor is it ‘simply another place for people to theorize and debate,’ or a piece of information that gets ‘nailed down.’ Instead, as you’ll read here, it takes the form of a harmonization process that one can engage with over time, particularly in dialogue with others. 

Check back here in a couple weeks for Part II of this profile, in which we’ll go more deeply into the relationship between Nathan’s music and wisdom practices, as well as the challenges to coherence that Respond has faced in recent months.

– Leigh Biddlecome

LB: Tell us about the origin story for the Respond network and how that is interwoven with your path in the ‘wisdom ecosystem’.

Nathan Vanderpool: Eight or so years ago I was working on a project called Human Systems that turned into the School for Social Design. We were looking at all forms of socializing as a game and asking, how can we redesign the game to make it easier to show up in ways that feel meaningful? 
So we had a whole system that we were trying to teach, and I was focusing on lowering the difficulty of the game. But even then, there was always this interest in me to go on the other side: as in, what would it mean to raise the ability of the players so even in a difficult game, they can show up well?

I then met Daniel Thorson when he took our class and over time this meeting led to a reinvigoration and deepening of my meditation practice. Eventually I went to spend time with him when he opened a new branch of his monastic academy in Canada, called Willow. After morning chanting, meditation, exercise and breakfast, you do work, and my job was events. But because I was there during the pandemic, I set up online courses and events.

One of the events we had was Daniel and Seishin Todorovic and John Vervaeke talking about the ‘Ecology of Practices’ that we were doing at Willow. And after that Gabriel Beebe reached out and offered to fund a conference on ecologies of practice.

What did you learn during the early stages of researching ecologies of practice for wisdom?

In the initial phase I was just interviewing everybody that I could talk to about what they understood wisdom to be and what would it look like to talk about ecologies of practice for wisdom. I recognized while interviewing that the systems that they were using to look at this were very subtle and complex and confusing to outsiders. So I thought – how can I make this accessible? The first six months of working on the project was just trying to find a way to talk about wisdom that was less esoteric. Zak Stein and I then hit on this idea of creating a metacurriculum to guide how you might teach about wisdom practice.

How did you then move from the idea of creating a metacurriculum for wisdom to more specific frameworks of how to practice wisdom?

To be clear, now I'd say you can practice the capacities that would make you wise, but you can't practice wisdom directly. But at the time, I was also wondering how do we practice wisdom? 

My thought was that we’d look at specific teachings and then go back to the principles behind these. To deepen this work, we created the first Respond gathering at Maple [sister monastic academy of Willow] in August of 2022 with nine ‘scholarchs’ — Bonnitta Roy was there, as well as Layman [Pascal], Zak [Stein], Soryu [Forall], Steve March, Beena Sharma, Kathryn Devaney, Rafe Kelly, and John Vervaeke. [ed note: ‘scholarch’ is a term from ancient Greek suggested by John Vervaeke, and refers to those with 1-2 decades of expertise in a domain.]

First Respond gathering, August 2022 at MAPLE, Vermont

We used a modified form of Forrest Landry’s ephemeral group process and eventually came out with the DIME framework: Dialogue - Imaginal - Mindfulness - Embodiment as the four ‘capacity conveners’, These are the areas of practice to become more wise:

Dialogue — how do I communicate about what's happening?
Imaginal — how do I play with my understanding?
Mindfulness — how do I step back and look at my understanding?
Embodiment — how do I feel into direct experience?

After we wrote this up, we all started to recognize that this has to happen in community, so then we built it up over a year and had a second retreat at the Life Itself Hub in Bergerac, France, where I gathered teachers mostly from Europe. At this retreat the focus was on collective wisdom — as in, what does it mean for groups to enter into states where they can become collectively more wise, and harmonize within a group?

What has developed out of that second retreat?

To be honest I think we’re still digesting this all into something useful, communicable, and that folks can use in their lives. In particular we want to develop some new tools that help people to recognize how groups can protect themselves while participating in these wisdom processes. Because so many of us default to wisdom from an individualistic view and that’s misleading. So we’re hoping to develop questions and principles which will be useful across the field instead of just stacking teaching on top of individual teaching — also because if you're the learner, this can be overwhelming.

Speaking of this sense of overwhelm — how should we talk about wisdom and collective wisdom in a way that bridges to a wider audience, and allows us to work with people at different stages of life?

Yeah, for example when we use language like ‘speculative cosmology of the transversal’ or like ‘experiment in intersubjective’.…whoa. This is all beautiful and true, but completely indecipherable to the average person. And that's what I find all over this space, people using words that are like very specific and very accurate in terms of what they want to talk about – but if you bring up intersubjective cosmopoiesis to somebody in a coffee shop, they might not get that. But if you ask, for example, ‘how can we use the space that comes between us when we interact to recognize beauty?’ they might say, ‘ok, I have a lived experience of that.’

The other issue is that obscure language also allows this possibility for people to bullshit, and not really understand what they're talking about. To be clear, the Respond scholarchs are not in this category — but many others are hiding behind jargon, and are not connecting to lived experience or everyday reality. And the consequence is that people are often afraid to question this language because they don’t want to look stupid. 

There's also a big debate raging amongst people that I’m in touch with about whether we should be talking about ‘wisdom’ — so I find that both a challenge and an invitation.
I’ve noticed that some people might not say they care about wisdom because of misconceptions of what it means — they think wisdom is just inherited tradition, things written in a holy book. But that’s not what we’re talking about. So if you can help people into a state of curiosity, then you can talk about wisdom as a process, not something you just ‘nail down’.
And more specifically, it helps to conceptualize it as a process of harmonization — harmonizing view, care, and action.

I want to ask more about this harmonization process more later when we speak about your music practices and how they relate to the wisdom work. For now though, let’s go deeper into the theory of wisdom that you and the others in Respond are developing.

It's a theory of wisdom rather than a definition. A definition would imply that there's a way to pin this down — instead wisdom is actually more like picking up on the patterns of goodness, truth, and beauty that are in the world. 

So when we live in accordance with that, we can pick up on the patterns and adjust ourselves so we're resonating with that. And over time, our capacities can be built to try to do that better.

With these capacities, you can start to recognize the real patterns and you can start to disentangle the distortions that you have from your emotional history and the cultural milieu: here are our false beliefs, distorted concepts, our self-destructive habits. 

So it’s not that you learn how to be wise, or that you learn all this, and then suddenly you're just, like, swimming in wisdom. You have to swim in life with all of this stuff, and the longer you've swum around in life, the more you can actually recognize, and say, ‘ah, ok, that’s a real pattern.’

Daniel Thorson and Nathan Vanderpool, Life Itself, (Bergerac, France) August 2023

You had this great phrase in one of the videos that I saw where you said, ‘what do we do to get this to touch the world?’ What are the challenges you’ve experienced around this?

What I encounter a lot is ‘I want to become more wise — now.’ And I’m, like, yeah, I mean, I can help you uncover the capacities that will help you tune into the wisdom that you already have. But you're not going to ingest this material and tomorrow your whole life is sagely turned around [laughs].

Similar to, for example, the idea that you can learn emotional literacy, but it doesn't mean that then you can just feel all your feelings and it's all fine.

You've got a lot of work to do if you want to really build this. So there's a gap between the possibility of teaching someone a framework that can be useful, and being very careful that they don't take that framework and reify it. Within that there’s a danger of teaching them the framework versus teaching them the capacities. 

When I think back to myself, starting on my journey of meditation, I was told it would take several years to learn and deepen the practice, and I was like — a few years? I can do this in a month. [laughs] 

It actually takes quite a bit of time to mature these capacities — perhaps your whole lifetime or, depending how you look at it, multiple lifetimes. Thinking of DIME, it takes a long time to become embodied and mindful and able to play with the imaginal and to communicate well. It’s not propositional, it's much more like procedural, perspectival, participatory – to use John’s [Vervaeke] language.

There’s also a sense in which it's very easy to get caught in this bubble where we're just talking to each other. And it’s very difficult to reach outside of that because most people just don’t see how this [wisdom work] is valuable and see it as ‘just’ something in a traditional religious context. The misconception is that wisdom is some kind of revealed truth that's inherited.

How does this wisdom process come alive in the realm of communication between those of differing opinions, especially within a civic society context?

What we’re working on is wisdom as a process that we're engaging in and we engage in with each other. In a practical sense these skills are key to communication and in disagreements in civic settings.

So if we’re locked in an argument, I could shift and ask — what's important to you in the way you're looking at it [this topic]? And you could consider what's important in the way I'm looking at it? And then, can we come to something other than an absolutist view here, in which the subtleties of what we each care about is taken into consideration? To recognize that there is something in what you're saying and what you care about.

At that point I'm going to take that seriously and try to understand. It doesn't mean that I'm going to just take on your view — but in that communication, we could actually come to some insight that allows us to see both sides at the same time, to account for both sides, and to recognize their importance and value.

And then reality will slap us back and throw us all kinds of exceptions and problems will emerge that we didn't see and we'll have to continue to do it. It's a process still — that’s the open society part.

Engaging in wisdom in that context is still about searching for the real patterns. None of us hold it alone. And we can come to see it more clearly through engaging in deep, good faith dialogue with each other, and then just living and allowing for time. 

You’ve mentioned that you’re part of a broader field of wisdom practitioners and researchers. Within the context of the Cohere+ project, I’m interested in whether you sense that the field feels itself as coherent, and also how you see challenges around competition over visibility and funding. 

That's another base problem. All these efforts have to locate themselves within a capitalist system because we have to pay the rent and get by. And even if people are not trying to get rich off of it or anything, but just trying to make a living, it's very difficult. It’s a small market and we are to some degree competing for people to participate in our courses. My sense is that we could change our perspective on this. For now I think for most folks, it’s about trying to be the biggest fish in this very small pond, and promoting their solution as the best one.

I’ve thought about this a lot – what would be much better would be increasing the pond. That is, getting more of the population to understand that wisdom practice might be of interest. That would be a different way of going about it that grows a movement and creates a lot more visibility where people can come together.

But it's very difficult. How do we get people who are already very busy to recognize this [wisdom practice] as not an extra thing, but as a fundamental thing that can inform all of their problems.

Right now folks come into this kind of work while in crisis — broken open and ready to listen. But this is also dangerous because then they’re vulnerable and can be taken advantage of. So another thing I'm trying to do with Respond is to create trustworthy places and to cultivate this arena of teachers and trainings that are grounded in integrity.

Nathan recording 'MIRACLE', 19 Nov 2021 in Berlin
We’ll have to speak another time more deeply about your work as a musician and the overlap with the wisdom ecosystem, but before we finish I want to make sure we at least touch on your music. How do you see the two in relation to each other, going back to your earlier mention of harmonization in the context of wisdom processes?

I see music as a potentially more accessible way into wisdom practice, getting beyond the competition and issues I mentioned above. I’m working on an album that will be coming out soon and my hope is that perhaps some people who might not necessarily be interested in a talk I gave on The Stoa, might instead be drawn to my music and then enter this way. You could hear the song and then want to go deeper, maybe become interested in the wisdom practices that have inspired the music. 

On the concept of harmonization and attunement — when I write music or compose or arrange, there are no notes that I ‘shouldn’t use’, but there are notes that might not work in this specific context. And then even then, in a group improvisation, like in jazz, sometimes there's a note that somebody will be playing or improvising and somebody else throws in something that's really strange. And that strangeness can be harmonized if we all respond to it. You might hear this strange note and think, oh, that’s out of the key — but we can shift into something where that [note] makes sense now where we're bringing it in. So we're harmonizing it. So for me this resonates with the idea of wisdom as ever evolving, ever changing, like a jazz improvisation.

Co-funded by the European Union, part of Cohere+

This is our second in a series of profiles as part of Emerge’s partnership in Cohere+, a European Union Erasmus+ funded project. The multi-year project focuses on the emerging field of social change agents and organizations throughout Europe, and is in collaboration with four other organizations, The Hague Center for Global Governance, Innovation and Emergence; the Institute for Integral Studies; Life Itself; and the Ekskäret Foundation. Ultimately the profiles will contribute to our understanding of the on-the-ground, human experience of change agents, their challenges, and how we might tackle developmental gaps within this field in order to develop learning innovations fit for 21st century change.

Words by Leigh Biddlecome
Leigh is an American writer and translator based in Italy.