“THE GREATEST OF ALL THE ACCOMPLISHMENTS OF 20TH-CENTURY SCIENCE has been the discovery of human ignorance.” Lewis Thomas, Lives of a Cell. “OUR IGNORANCE, OF COURSE, HAS ALWAYS BEEN WITH US, AND ALWAYS WILL BE. What is new is our awareness of it, our awakening to its fathomless dimensions, and it is this, more than anything else, that marks the coming of age of our species.” Timothy Ferris, Coming of Age in the Milky Way.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Way of Wonder

I had a very dear friend, Marilyn Myers, who had reached the last stanza of the poem of her life. Cancer was rapidly destroying her body. When I visited her just before her death, Marylyn asked her son and me to carry the coffin a friend had crafted for her into her bedroom so she could see it.
            “Ooh, it’s beautiful!” she said. “He did a great job.”
That’s the kind of person she was. Flowing with the River that carried her into birth and swept her on, into death. No angry thrashing, resisting the current. Well, maybe at times a little thrashing…
Old Man River, he just keeps rollin’. He don’t say nothin’.
Sometimes, when the pain got bad, she felt afraid.
But Old Man River, he just keeps rollin’ along.
Marilyn did tell me she wished she had lived all her days in the way she lived them toward the end. No time for pettiness. Why did she ever trouble with little things at all? No time left for anything but present astonishment at the living world.
How many times have you heard this very theme? Dozens of times—hundreds of times? Same here. Yet coming from Marilyn, it struck me anew. She had always been a wise, loving person with a wealth of humor and the ability to bring out the best in nearly everyone she met. She had already been living her life in a vital, intense way. This, even though she had broken her back in a toboggan accident twelve years earlier and had since been paralyzed from the waist down. But even such a brightly alive personality had learned to clarify and simplify her presence. Taste the whole ocean in the salty teardrop of this moment.
How can the rest of us go about doing this? Is there a teaching that can help awaken us in this day-to-day theater of life and open us to live it more freely and fully?
I believe there is. It is the teaching of Wonder.
The teaching of Wonder can be brought into focus with one simple question:

Do you know what anything is?

The question is so childlike that it is easy to miss its profundity. But honestly, my sisters and brothers, from the sky of your mind to the furnace of your belly: Do you know what anything is?
To help illumine this question, let me present some lines of dialogue from my first novel, Ember from the Sun. (read the Kindle edition) The characters speaking are Mike, a young, Anglo high school teacher; and Old Man, a Native American medicine man:
                The two sat in silence. Mike liked this beautiful old Quanoot, whether he understood him or not. It seemed to him that the shaman was wrapped in an invisible robe of peace, yet he did not seem monk-like, withdrawn. His eyes shined; his body was relaxed; Old Man was at home in the world.
                “Tell me how you got to be...you know...the way you are today,” Mike said.
                “Like all of us, I was born this way,” Old Man said. “But I soon forgot my nature and it took a while to return to it.
                “My father was an Anglican missionary, from London; my mother was one of his schoolgirls. He had a wife back in England, so my parents never wed, but he took a liking to me and made me his altar boy. He filled my head with Protestant dogma and English literature, while my grandmother filled my head with Quanoot‑cha and all her old tales.
                “In those days, when a boy reached his twelfth winter, it was time to go into the deep woods and wait for his guardian spirit to come. He would fast and wander, and bathe in the manner we did today, except in icy streams. After days and nights, he would fall into a delirium and a spirit would enter him in the form of a bird, or a wolf, or whatever, and teach him his own magic song and spirit dance, and give him guidance to learn the skills of canoe maker, hunter, or fisherman, when he returned to the village.”
                “Career counseling,” Mike said.
                Old Man nodded.
                “What spirit came to you?”
                “That first winter, nothing. My head was filled with conflicting beliefs. I almost died from hunger. My uncles came and found me and carried me home. So I decided to specialize. The second winter, I focused on Christianity and its teachings.”
                “It did not fit, and I realized for me it had never fit. So the third winter, I abandoned such notions and devoted myself only to Quanoot‑cha.”
                “What happened?”
                “I could not get past the feeling that it, too, did not fit. Quanoot-cha was in my ears, but not in my marrow. I had not been afraid the first two winters, not even when I was starving, but then I became terrified. I had nothing to believe in, not a jot of truth. I didn’t know the right way, and now I had lost the only ways I knew. Now I was nobody at all, a total failure.
                “How could I endure such hollowness?” Old Man said. “I decided to die, to fast until death, since I was already starving.
                “So I climbed over the top of a mountain ridge and followed a valley stream, until I overlooked a steep‑walled rock canyon, where a waterfall spilled into a deep green pool. I sat down on a large rock shelf. ‘A perfect place to die,’ I told myself, and I breathed out with my whole spirit, surrendering everything. I became so relaxed, I think I swayed like a leaf. 
                “A kingfisher rattled on a nearby perch. I saw the biggest trout I have ever seen leap out of the rapids below. The mist and blow from the falls chilled my face and ruffled my hair; and the air was lush with the smell of clear, cold water. Then the sun broke through the clouds and a rainbow arced through the spray. So far, dying was beautiful.
                “Next, I had to pee. So I stepped to the ledge and added my little stream to the roaring cascade.
                Old Man’s eyes crinkled into a smile.
                “All at once I understood the joke. And I started to laugh, and I laughed so hard I almost slipped off the ledge.”
                Mike chuckled. “The joke?”
                “The waterfall,” he said. “It was like the mighty, gushing flow of life itself, and my tiny stream seemed to me like the concepts that we add to it. We try to make meaning, a philosophy, something to believe in—because we’re afraid. We refuse to dive in. We know the mighty current will sweep us away and that will be the end of our little selves. I had been tormenting myself, trying to sum up everything, to turn life into a conclusion, and suddenly my struggle was laughable. It was a recoil from mystery, the river of life.”
                “It was plain that I did not know what anything is. That was the simple truth. The trees, the canyon, the crashing water, the cold mist—I had no way to interpret any of it. It was all naked wonder. And the feeling dissolved me with such force that I suddenly knew I really would die, for I had no way to hold on to the world or to myself.
                “The knot in my heart flew open and I passed beyond all knowing. And there I stood: stark, free...whole...breathing down to the tips of my toes.”
                Mike felt a tingling over his skin. Old Man’s joy was contagious. He seemed even now to be the teen-aged boy who had come unraveled in beauty. 
                “You’re saying, ‘Truth is within’,” Mike said.
                “That sounds like something Jesus said, not me.”
                “Then truth is in the things that you accomplish in this world? The good that you do?”
                “That sounds like Quanoot‑cha.”
                Mike knit his brow. “I don't get it.”
                “Neither do I get it. I have never grasped it.” Old Man waved his fingers and hands and arms in graceful, swirling waves. “There are no handholds in a waterfall. No footholds. I don’t own the life power, I go with it, wherever it takes me.”
                “And it guided you to become a shaman.”
                “Yes, and so I am, even still.”

Much of fiction, not surprisingly, is part autobiography, and, indeed a process very much like this actually happened to me when I was a teen-ager. In a timeless instant, I awakened, just as the old medicine man describes, into the open space of original nature—an awareness without center or bounds. I’ve been a devotee of that freedom ever since. Sometimes that makes me appear stupid, because nearly everyone else seems to know with certainty truths that I don’t know at all.
For example: Religious creationists know the truth of Genesis with self-assured conviction, while orthodox Darwinists come off as equally smug. Such self-satisfaction from both camps, it seems to me, lacks humility before mystery. As if there is not more to the living cosmos than is inked in the pages of any book: The Holy Bible or The Origin of Species. As if the horizonless ocean of existence can be reduced to some island speck of local, mortal experience.
“Vanity of vanities,” sayeth the preacher, “All is vanity.”
            Therefore, regarding religious dogma: If your mind rejects reason, or if it has bought into a self-defining, closed system of pseudo-reason—what might be called “reasonable nonsense”—then you invent for yourself phony limitations. You lock the universe in a prison of your own design. Reject critical thinking and you are like a na├»ve child, exploitable by every kind of cult. You are blocking the power of knowledge that can free you from superstition. And all that you fear defines and controls you.
Also, regarding scientific dogma: If your life view is uncomfortable with the unknowable, afraid of the infinite—and you hurry to fill in glimpses of the abyss with facts and images from the latest grasp of science, then you invent for yourself phony limitations. You lock the universe in a prison of your own design. You are blocking the spiritual awakening that undermines the knower. And all that you fear defines and controls you.
In short, those who reject reason and science tend to be intellectually undeveloped, like little children; and those who reject mystery tend to be dry and rigid, like old fogies. Both personality types are stunted, incomplete. And their potential for love, wisdom and happiness is incomplete.
Therefore, the way of Wonder that I recommend does not support pre-rational and magical thinking—the stuff of the superstitions of the ages. Nor does it idolize the discursive mind and encyclopedic knowledge as the proper vehicles of truth. It encourages neither fools nor know-it-alls.
To further explain this way of Wonder—the path of the intuition of Mystery—I need to contrast its weak and strong aspects.
The Weak Wonder Principle (or what might be called “superficial wonder”) says: “Based on all the facts that we know about it, isn’t life amazing?” For example, knowing about atoms, molecules, proteins, cells, tissues, organs and organ systems, isn’t the human body wonderful?
Every reader will be familiar with the Weak Wonder Principle. It’s the force that drives our information cult, fueled by entertainment media, such as the Discovery Channel. “Hey, Mabel! Did you know that a giraffe has a blue tongue? And it’s a foot and a half long! And its tongue and lips are prehensile! Look at that! Like Mick Jagger!”
The Weak Wonder Principle is a lot of fun. It’s the feeling of, Wow! Whoda Thunk it! [1] This approach to life often sees the natural world as a treasure chest full of amazing material objects waiting to be discovered, sorted by name or number, and put to good use. All that we presently do not know has simply not yet been found out.
Follow the path of superficial wonder and you can become a walking storehouse of information—say, an Isaac Asimov—who at his death had written more than 470 books, surpassing any other Earthling. Great stuff. I’ve read a couple dozen of his books myself. But all that knowledge—while perhaps useful—won’t necessarily be transformative. Superficial wonder won’t take you beyond yourself as the knower of all this cool stuff. You will not transcend your scope of information, your particular frame of reference. And no matter how modern and up-to-date your box is, no matter its dimensions, it’s still a prison. Why? Because mere information is not, in itself, the realization of the nature of reality. Nor does information lead, necessarily, to the simplest change of heart.
Yet information (especially scientific knowledge) is the golden calf of modern culture. Indeed, a common misreading of science—an error too often propagated by scientists themselves—is that scientific inquiry offers an alternative to the Mystery of our existence. According to this view, our choice is to remain uninformed—and therefore, to regard the cosmos as fundamentally mysterious and beyond our control—or to find out what everything is, how it works and how it came to be (through the observational and analytical powers of modern science)—and thereby to get a handle on how to predict and control everything. Even the weather. Even death.
But it strikes me as odd when scientifically-inclined people are slow to grasp the punchline of quantum physics, which has shown that all knowledge and experience is localized and relative. Nobel-winning physicists, like Heisenberg and Bohr, and not just religious ecstatics like Meister Eckhart and Rumi, have proclaimed the same condition: that we cannot attain ultimate knowledge of the cosmos, or even a carrot.
            “There is no absolute knowledge,” wrote Jacob Bronowski, the late mathematician and author of The Ascent of Man. “All information is imperfect. We have to treat it with humility.”
            Bronowski asks us to consider that scientists are not mere scribes, copying down objective facts which lie hidden like Easter eggs, waiting to be found. Scientists are more akin to artists, describing and structuring the world as they see it. And what they see is not separable from what they bring to the observation.
“For order is not there for the mere looking,” he wrote. “There is no way of pointing a finger or a camera at it. Order must be discovered and, in a deep sense, it must be created.”
Bronowski points out that the portraits scientists create do not fix the world, they only explore it. Each new line may enhance the image, but never makes it final. He summarizes this idea poignantly: “We seek truth, but what we find is knowledge and what we fail to find is certainty.”
            So now we come to the Strong Wonder Principle—or what could rightly be called Deep Wonder: the revelation of Mystery that springs up as profound emotion, not from the “wowing” intellect but from the ocean floor of the feeling heart. Yet the religious ecstatics throughout history—those whose lives are on fire with Deep Wonder—have had relatively little to say about it. Not that they wouldn’t shout their epiphanies from the highest hilltops if only they could—but words and meanings have been permanently outdistanced by direct insight. The thinking mind capitulates; the independent knower is undone; the separate self melts into the whole bright sky of silence. In exasperation, the poor mystic, beside herself to communicate her joy, winds up talking about what the Mystery is not (“Not anything you can perceive with the bodily senses; not anything you can conceive with the thinking mind.”) because she cannot reduce to words what it IS! Deep Wonder belongs only to those who have broken through the multi-level Chinese boxes of all their knowledge and conditioning, to enter the freedom of perfect, original Mystery. [2]
The Chinese emperor asked the enlightened Buddhist sage, Bodhidharma, “Who are you?”
The sage replied, “I do not know.”
Deep Wonder outshines the limits of information, and communes with the universe at source and depth, as profound Mystery. This principle has the power to distill the mind to its own naked essence. The mind comes to rest in the Heart of Unknowing—what the Old Testament calls “the peace that surpasses understanding”—and from that orientation the newborn woman or man is able to freely live and die.
It is important to understand that nothing that I have said above should be interpreted as anti-intellectual. I am myself a huge fan of learning, and I certainly encourage everyone to pursue a lifelong education—sciences and humanities—and to learn how to think critically. Deep Wonder—the intuition of the inherent Mystery of our being—is not against knowledge, it is simply beyond knowledge: our Mystery is greater than all present and all possible information.
In my living room, I have a foot-tall bronze statue of Andreas Vesalius, the 16th-Century Flemish anatomist, who created the first accurate, detailed anatomy of the human body (and thereby dispelled a mountain of medieval nonsense taken from the Greek physician, Galen, which had been taught as medicine for 300 years). Vesalius represents to me the analytical-logical realm, the best of natural sciences, humanism, scholarship and critical thinking.
            I also have a bronze statue of Shakti, consort of Shiva. In Hindu mysticism, Shiva represents the irreducibly mysterious singularity of Consciousness itself—the Absolute. Shakti is the Goddess-Mother of eternal energy and delight, creatrix of all the worlds. These two are enfolded in eternal embrace—a timeless dialectic—which might be described as the Divine Logos (Spirit/Mind) making love with the Divine Eros (Nature/Body). For me, the Shakti statue represents the intuitive realm, the wellspring of dreams, music, art, poetry, religion, romance and ecstasy.
            It is not only possible, it is necessary for each of us to live a faith that engages body, mind and spirit; a lifeway that draws from worldly and transcendental wisdom.
            One can only fly on both wings.

1) There is even a Very Weak Wonder Principle, in which people need to resort to belief in UFOs, angel visitations, magic healing crystals, the Lost Continent of Atlantis, and so on, as evidence that life is wonderful. As if natural life—the perfume of a rose, the stink of shit—isn’t astounding enough.
2) Some other names for this inherent freedom are: don’t-know mind, beginner’s mind, no-mind (Zen), uncarved block, unbleached silk (Taoism), unknowing (Christian mystics), shunyata (Sanskrit = “void”), mosshoryo (Japanese = “unthinkable, unspeakable”), freedom from the known (Jiddu Krishnamurti), divine ignorance (Meister Eckhart and Da Avabhasa), the Open Secret (Rumi).

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