Elizabeth Lindsey for CNN: Wisdom is found in our heritage, not our cell phones

March 20th, 2011

By Elizabeth Lindsey, Special to CNN
March 20, 2011 3:04 p.m. EDT
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Curating humanity’s heritage

Editor’s note: TED is a nonprofit dedicated to “Ideas worth spreading,” which it distributes through talks posted on its website. Elizabeth Kapu’uwailani Lindsey, Ph.D., the first female fellow of the National Geographic Society, is an award-winning filmmaker and anthropologist.

(CNN) — In an era of technological advancement, we’re bloated with information yet starved for wisdom.

From the boardroom to the bedroom we’re connected 24/7, yet loneliness is at an all-time high.

More people are reaching for mobile devices than for the hand of someone in need. Where did our humanity go?

Our current crises are a reflection of our internal turbulence, our own private torments.

The truth is we’re trying to find our way. But where do we turn for answers?

For centuries, cultures throughout the world have used indigenous technologies to navigate life’s complexities. From navigator-priests in Micronesia to mystics in India, vast sums of knowledge are available if we but recognize it.

We are living an illusion that calls itself reality. We track the every move of city dwellers in New York as if it’s breaking news while forsaking those with valuable insight. An African elder said, “You worship the jester, while the king stands in plain clothes.”

As a child I was raised by three old Hawaiian elders who planted and fished according to lunar cycles, who knew the names of the winds and rains, and who relished their intimate relationship with the natural world. They remain among the greatest environmentalists I’ve ever known.

Today such insight is marginalized if not altogether dismissed. I believe that when an elder dies, a library is burned, vast sums of wisdom and knowledge are lost. Throughout the world libraries are ablaze with scant attention.

My work is as an ethnographic rescuer, a conduit between past and future generations. The urgency of this effort cannot be overstated.

Two years ago, a 108-year-old Chi Kung grandmaster died in a cave where she’d gone into hiding when the Maoist regime came into power. Like many others, Master Wen’s knowledge, the sum total of generations before her, was lost.

Mau, who passed away six months ago, was descended from a lineage of navigators who sailed over 3 million square miles of open ocean without the use of instruments or maps.

They synthesized their data from patterns in nature such as the rising and setting of the stars, the sequence and direction of waves, even the slightest color of the underbelly of clouds and the flight patterns of certain birds. This was quite an accomplishment considering that it was during a time when most European thinkers believed the world was flat.

Fortunately, Mau’s life and wisdom were well-documented. Future generations now have access to a man whose intellectual and scientific achievements in their own way rival that of putting a man on the moon — his sea, our space; his canoe, our capsule.

As I write this, I am in India, where I have had the privilege to study with a mystic and a Brahmin priest, the descendant of 14 generations of the greatest classical musical artists in this country. And I am heading for Bhutan where I will travel to the rural countryside to be with sages.

For me, this is much more than a flirtation with adventure. It is a life-long love affair with humanity’s story.