The Purple Iris: Symbol Of Wisdom

There are roughly 300 species and more than 50,000 varieties of the iris flower, beardless and bearded, the latter with a fuzzy petal that hangs down. They range from plants up to five feet tall and dwarfs of only eight inches. The bearded variety reproduces through swollen roots, while the beardless iris has a rhizome, a round tube that produces small bulbs. In the United States, irises that grow wild have blue or purple blossoms and are sometimes called “flags.” The petals that bend down have bright lines that serve as nectar guides directing pollinators into the blossom’s mouth. The blue and blue-violet colors have a pleasant smell. The plants bloom in May and June.

The name of this flower derives from the Greek for “rainbow,” “messenger,” and “eloquence,” each in their way referencing the goddess Iris who journeyed along rainbows to deliver messages from the gods, always in a very eloquent manner. Because one of her functions was to escort the deceased from earth to heaven, people planted  irises on the graves of loved ones as a call to her to come and escort them to a blessed place in the afterlife. Probably following the Greek mythology, the iris flower represented heaven for the Egyptians.

The Japanese revered the flower for its purifying properties. A common symbol found in kimoto fabrics, in paintings and spoken of in haiku poetry, the flower carries the idea of purifying evil and protecting those who wear the blossoms. Because iris petals easily dance in the wind, a prominent reference in Chinese art is “the dancing spirit of early summer.” Another is “the purple butterfly.” In the Victorian era, irises could represent faith, hope, courage, wisdom or admiration depending on the color. 

The Purple iris shown here, given as a gift, conveyed a message of wisdom and compliments. The blue blossoms spoke of hope and faith. Yellow represented passion and white symbolized purity, but irises of any color were exchanged as a sign of cherished friendship, including the promise of a loving relationship.

The iris is the floral emblem of Florence, Italy and France. In the 12th century, Louis VII adopted the yellow iris as a heraldric symbol that signified power, sovereignty, honor and loyalty.  Later on, it became a religious, political and dynastic symbol, perhaps to signify purity of soul and blood. In the United States, the bearded iris is the state flower of Tennessee.

Linda has cultivated purple irises in our garden ever since we moved in. When the research indicated that it represented “wisdom,” I decided to make it the focus of this posting. To begin I observe that we cast our net into the ocean of consciousness, selecting and depositing information, ideas and experiences into our knowledge bank—the human brain. Unlike a monetary bank where the inputs remain the same and are always assessable, the information deposited in the brain is dynamic and unreliable, at times difficult to make withdrawals. We consider those with large “holdings” to be intelligent, and we say others have a great memory when they can make information withdrawals readily. To characterizes wisdom properly, and considering that there’s a hierarchy of complexity as the brain transforms data into wisdom, some distinctions are in order.

Data consists of signs, symbols and signals—for example, the letters of the alphabet. When a brain/mind organizes these to form words, they become information. Whereas data is meaningless, information is meaningful. Through experience, perception, study and realization, information is compounded by certainty to form complex thoughts and ideas. These we regard as knowledge, understanding of how information fits together. Because the mind deals with  thoughts and perceptions, it believes that what is known is true. But with the advance of age and grace, we begin to realize that all perception, knowledge and understanding is relative, partial and limited. And this inclines us to consider all knowledge and beliefs to be tentative and provisional. Because the mind is ego-centric, it cannot be trusted to care about, understand or choose the greater good of larger living systems. 

The next step in the hierarchy of cognitive capacities is intelligence, the ability of the brain/mind to combine what is known to consider action. What can I do with what I know? It too is self-absorbed. By mainly focusing on survival and growth it becomes difficult to accept any information that challenges its self-perception. Also, the intelligent mind tends to be attached to what it knows and less open to much depth or breadth of learning except to validate and reinforce what’s known. Exceptions include those intent upon lifelong learning because it encourages open-mindedness, inquisitiveness and objectivity. 

Intuition comes next because it’s holistic, providing unbiased and clear perception, awareness and insight uncluttered by what we think we know, our beliefs, biases, prejudices, conditioning and habits. Because its concern is broader yet inclusive of the self, intuitive intelligence can be trusted. While ordinary intelligence is head-centered and developed through effort and experience, intuitive intelligence is heart-centered and has to be cultivated, allowed to emerge through the tempering of cognitive certainty and ego needs. This is accomplished by listening to the soul, responding to something higher and deeper than ordinary consciousness. 

Societal self-renewal is possible only if we develop the kind of collective consciousness, wisdom and social cultural intelligence that will empower us to guide science and technology so that they can serve all mankind.

N.A. Batra

Having identified the hierarchy of cognitive capacities, which was based on research, I observe that we utilize them all and at different times and circumstances, sometimes consciously, more often unconsciously. Knowledge, intelligence and intuition are the forerunners of wisdom. 

My research on wisdom—from Plato to modern philosophers—was unsatisfactory. So here I offer my current perspective: I see wisdom as intuition refined and in touch with the soul—which is perfectly realized in everyone, a depository of “grace” where goodwill for all resides. In the fishing analogy it represents the abundant ocean. We can dip our net into it or not. But when we do, the “catch” amounts to wisdom in the form of thoughts, ideas, visions and considered actions that are essentially good for the individual and the community, nation, planet, cosmos. Our ability to pull up, articulate and  apply our catch appears to be relative to and limited by the predominance of ego and how deeply we cast our net. In my experience, we can call out wisdom from others—and they can call it out from us—by asking them to share their deepest truth on a subject in the context of soul-to-soul communication. 

Since we are drowning in an ocean of information, the most precious commodity in modern society is wisdom. Without wisdom and insight, we are left to drift aimlessly and without purpose, with an empty, hollow feeling after the novelty of unlimited information wears off.

Isaac Asimov 

So far, humanity has used its storehouse of knowledge and intelligence to serve the interests of unbridled growth without regard to the quality of life concerns for individuals and the planet. Operating under the values of self-interest, unbridled capitalism, materialism, conspicuous consumption, wealth as the highest good, nationalism and violence as the most effective way to resolve conflicts, we have created self-centered social and national systems that are breaking down at a time when the ecological bill for wreckless destruction is coming due. 

As knowledge and experience accumulate, the mind envisions unending possibilities for feeding the ego. Intelligence then finds ways to manifest them. Whatever can be envisioned can now be built. In the past, entranced by the glamours of creativity, innovation and profit, and not wanting to be deverted from our course—couched as “progress”—we tended to not consider the consequences. Now, we’re beginning to see that this path is unsustainable in the near term and deadly for people and planet in the long run. What’s needed, in my view, is to temper the glamour of procress through the application of wisdom, which safeguards the integrity of the whole system through caring. Love, actually. “Yes, we can do it, but is it wise considering possible consequences for the community, nation and planet?”

Our friendship with everything larger than us opens us to the wisdom of source. This is the work of being. Our friendship with experience opens us to the wisdom of life on earth. This is the work of being human. And our friendship with each other opens us to the wisdom of care. This is the work of love.

Mark Nepo

We stand at a crossroad. Will we cast our net in shallow and polluted waters as a result of being guided by intelligence alone? Will we continue to speculate that technological innovations will save us from—or heal us after—worldwide disasters? Or will we engage both heart and head before feet and hands? Now, whenever I observe purple irises I will remember that they recommend wisdom as the best guide to action. 

To acquire knowledge, one must study; but to acquire wisdom, one must observe.

Marilyn Vos Savant

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