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Original Wisdom: Stories of an Ancient Way…

Original Wisdom: Stories of an Ancient Way of Knowing (2001)

by Robert Wolff

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Summary: Robert Wolff was born and raised in Southeast Asia, and has spent his life living at the border of two cultures. As an adult, he returns to Malaysia and learns from the aboriginal Sng'oi people. The are jungle dwellers and hunter/gatherers, but more importantly, they lead lives of joy and community, and a sense of interconnection to the world around them, free from the anxiety, struggle, and alienation of the modern world. What Wolff learns from them, and shares with us, is not only their story and their way of life, but also their unique way of being fully human.

Review: It was obvious from fairly early on that this book was not written by someone who writes for a living. The prose is simple and uncomplicated throughout, which on the one hand makes it non-threatening and accessible for the layperson, but on the other hand tended to dilute the message - there are only so many ways to say "we don't have a good word for this in English" before it starts to look like a cop-out, especially when other authors have found good words for similar concepts.

The organization was also less polished than what I would expect from a more experienced author. About half of the chapters read as though they were written at very different periods, and although they were on similar themes, they didn't have much connection to what came before or after. This in and of itself wouldn't have been a problem; collections of essays are a-okay by me (although some editing for repetition was needed; I think we heard at least five or six times that raising one's voice is considered extremely rude in Malay culture.) However, the other half of the chapters were more connected, and told more of a story, leaving the book as a whole to feel a little somewhat discombobulated.

Maybe as a result of the piecemeal approach to the book, there were a few times when it felt like Wolff was being somewhat hypocritical. In one chapter, he's very down on anthropology and anthropological methods for missing the truth of the people they study, but then in the next, he takes off to conduct what essentially amounts to his own anthropological study. Similarly, in the beginning of the book, he's very critical of people who go off into the jungle, become shamans, and then come back and try to sell what they've learned to other people... and then he tells us about how he went off into the jungle, became a shaman, and oh, by the way, thanks for giving me money to read this book I wrote about it.

The thing was, despite all of the problems I had with its presentation, I actually appreciate and mostly agree with his message. I think that modern culture (Taker culture, in Daniel Quinn's parlance) does have the effect of completely alienating us from the rest of the community of Life. I absolutely do believe that the people with whom Wolff spent time live their lives full of joy, humanity, and a sense of Oneness the world around them, and I further believe that Wolff did learn to tap into that mindset, that "way of knowing." My problem is not with the message, it was with Wolff's means of conveying it. Wolff's story is interesting and his message important, but he doesn't ever bring it around to be practical for people who don't have a tiger-filled jungle available for their vision quest at a moment's notice, nor is the writing enough to really convey the power and the universality of the point he's trying to make. 3 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: It was certainly interesting, and not as New-Age-y woo-woo as I'd feared, but I think Daniel Quinn's The Story of B makes a lot of Wolff's same points but with a better use of the language. ( )
1 vote fyrefly98 | Sep 29, 2009 |
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Most of us were raised in the Empire of the First World, a world and culture steeped in literacy, certain of the fundamental truth that life's great goal is to find that niche where we can spend our days working to the larger enrichment of another person or corporation.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0892818662, Paperback)

The most trenchant wisdom can be found in some of the most primitive people on Earth, as Robert Wolff demonstrates in Original Wisdom. Wolff, once a government psychologist in Malaysia, fell in love with a Stone Age people called the Sng'oi, a people who "had no neuroses, no fears ... had an immense inner dignity, were happy and content, and did not want anything." But he was mystified by their seemingly superhuman powers of knowing. Finally, in an experience of what he calls "oneness," ordinary distinctions dropped away, and he learned that there was a way of knowing beyond thinking. Wolff also describes his encounters in Suriname, Indonesia, and the Pacific islands, demonstrating that far from being primitive, original tribal societies are the last bastions of true humanity. Wary of both anthropologists and shaman wannabes, Wolff follows a middle path of down-to-earth storytelling, making Original Wisdom an original find. --Brian Bruya

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:28 -0400)

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