Original Wisdom is an unforgettable book. Like all humans, author Robert Wolff was born a wild animal, ready to enjoy a pleasant life, romping around in a tropical wilderness. He grew up in Sumatra, the son of Dutch parents. His father was a doctor. The young lad suffered the misfortune of being educated by the dominant culture. It trained him for an unnatural life of schedules, destinations, and anxiety. His wildness was paved over, and his consciousness became disconnected from All-That-Is.
Wolff was interested in healing, and hoped to become a doctor, but World War II interrupted his plans. After the war, he became a social psychologist, and worked on a number of government projects. Work included numerous visits to rural villages in Malaysia, where life was very laid back. The people were “soft, gentle, polite.” Villagers were the opposite of city people, who tended to be “crude, loud, insensitive.”
Oddly, the patients in Malaysian mental hospitals included whites, Indians, and many Chinese — but no Malays, who were half of the population. Malay villages had a healthy sense of community. They accepted the presence of people who were odd; there was never a thought of sending them away. Everyone knew the village thief, and no one reported him to the police, because he belonged where he was. Malays respected one another.
Wolff was grateful that he had learned to speak several languages, because this ability expanded his awareness. Languages are unique products of the cultures in which they evolve. Different cultures perceive reality in different ways, and many ideas cannot be accurately translated from one language to another. Consequently, it was clear to him that the Western worldview was not the one and only way of interpreting reality. Most Western people never learn this. Insanity seems perfectly normal to the inmates of the loony bin.
His career began in the 1950s, the dawn of the most horrific era in human history. Population grew explosively, as did the ecological blitzkrieg. Traditional cultures were being exterminated by a plague of bulldozers. Wolff worked hard to learn and record the knowledge of traditional healers. He believed that their skills were the time-proven results of thousands of years of trial and error. A tremendous treasure was on the verge of being lost forever.
He remembered the days before antibiotics, when Western doctors were little better than witch doctors. He detested modern healthcare, where doctors practiced medicine, not healing. They were highly skilled at temporarily postponing death via extremely expensive treatments — even if the additional weeks or months of existence were meaningless. Not long ago, most of those with fading spirits would simply have been allowed to pass to the other side in peace.
In his crusade to preserve ancient knowledge, he met a number of healers who had not been the apprentices of venerable elders. They acquired their skills via inner knowing. Intuition told them what herbs to use, and the way to prepare them. These healers told Wolff to relax; a treasure was not being lost. The wisdom was always accessible. When it was needed, someone would find it. This notion gives Western folks cramps, because they process reality via thinking.
One day, Wolff learned about a tribe of hunter-gatherers who lived in a remote mountain forest — the Sng’oi (or Senoi or Sakai). Meeting them opened the door to a series of life-changing experiences, a great healing. They were masters of intuition and inner knowing. They lived in a spiritual reality, “where things were known outside of thinking.”
Their camps were not close to the road. Whenever Wolff arrived unannounced for a visit, one of the Sng’oi would be waiting for him in the forest. The guide would stand up and, without a word, lead him to the village. This baffled Wolff. How did they know he was coming? When asked, they told him that they had no premonition of his arrival. They had experienced a feeling to go to a place and be there. When Wolff appeared, they understood why they were there.
They knew each other’s unspoken thoughts, communicating telepathically. Their shaman could sometimes foresee future events. In the mornings, the Sng’oi discussed their dreams. Once, Wolff described a dream. Its message, they told him, was that he was needed at home. He returned to his family, and learned that a child had had a medical emergency.
“They had an immense inner dignity, were happy, and content, and did not want anything.” They loved to laugh and joke. They were often singing and smiling. Angry voices were never heard. Each new day was a blank slate — no plans, no jobs, nothing that had to be done. They floated, inspired by feelings. Life in a tropical rainforest was not a tough job.
One evening, while sitting in a group, Wolff went into a trance, and spoke to the others, an experience he did not remember. A Sng’oi shaman recognized that Wolff had shamanic powers, and offered to open spiritual doors for him. His name was Ahmeed, and his job description was “to bring new knowledge to the People.” Wolff accepted his offer.
The learning process involved long, silent walks in the forest, with no food or water. Wolff was frustrated, because he was thinking like crazy. It was impossible to still his furiously roaring mind. He could not hear his inner voice. At the end of the walks, he was exhausted; his mind fried.
Eventually, his thinker got more and more flaccid, and he learned to pay attention. Some days, he could float away from his mind, and vividly experience the sounds and smells of the forest. Everything changed. The world became intensely alive. He ceased being an observer, and became a living part of All-That-Is.
After months of practice, he gradually remembered how to be a human being. “The all-ness was everywhere, and I was part of it. I cannot explain what went on inside me, but I knew that I had learned something unbelievably wonderful. I felt more alive than I had ever felt before. All of me was filled with being.” He felt great love for the people. The trees and mosquitoes were his family.
Back in the civilized world, Wolff was no longer the same person. Inner knowing could be painful, and sometimes had to be turned off. He could sense the feelings of the people around him, and this could be overwhelming. “It was frightening to discover how many people think nothing at all, but feel waves of anger, resentment, and bitterness — although they act as if they are deaf and blind to their own feelings.”
As the years passed, Wolff became whole and confident, as his humanness recovered. Being human was so much healthier than being civilized. That’s his message. Even adults can heal. It’s never too late to try. “Knowing inside is not something unusual; it is how we are. All humans can have that connection with All-That-Is. The connection is within us.” Cultures without the connection are on a bleak path.
Wolff, Robert, Original Wisdom — Stories of an Ancient Way of Knowing, Inner Traditions, Rochester, Vermont, 2001.