There’s Wisdom in Wonderment

In the Metaphysics, Aristotle wrote, “it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize.” This was towards the beginning of Western philosophy…

We’ve all had moments of wonder—or perhaps “wonderment” is a more precise word for what Aristotle was referring to, as in the “wow” that takes your breath away as the word comes out of your mouth.

We can experience wonderment in relation to literally anything in the universe, but often it comes in those extraordinary moments under the stars or in the presence of miracles.

And yet, we are quickly confronted by paradox, because the whole universe is miraculous. Existence is wonder-ful. It is amazing that anything exists at all, let alone this reality of such infinite complexity, so rich with potentials of experience, so overflowing with beauty, emotion, space, reactions, cognition, matter, song, silence; consciousness and self-consciousness.

Which raises the question, how is it that we are not in wonderment all the time?

What I notice about wonderment, as a state of consciousness, is that it has no concern for, no business with, all the things that our ego occupies itself with throughout the day. “Are things going my way?” “How can I make things go my way?” “What do they think of me?” “What do I think of me?” “Will I get what I want, will I get where I’m going?” “How can I distract me from myself?” …And onward marches the lovely narrative.

This leads me to believe that wonderment is a state outside, or transcendent of, ego-mind. If wonderment gives rise to philosophy, it’s no wonder! Philosophy endeavors—although it may not succeed—to consider truth objectively, without being biased by the concerns of the small self. We often philosophize using the intellect, primarily, and as Emerson said, “The intellect goes out of the individual, floats over its own personality, and regards it as a fact, and not as I and mine.”

I also notice that wonderment has something in common with gratitude—another “ego-free” state, since ego-mind operates from a sense of lack (a lack-consciousness), and gratitude is attentive to, and thankful for, what is already present. Wonderment and gratitude are both states of appreciation, and appreciation always concerns what already is. And usually gratitude, if it were put into words, takes the form, “I am so thankful for these blessings…” But often wonderment doesn’t even have an “I.” It’s just, “Wow… would you look at that?”

Wonderment, then, arises from our True Nature, deeper than ego-mind. Byron Katie, once interviewed, said that our Nature would be “fascinated by the drop of a pin.” I love that. To see nothing, to have nothing, but the experience of a pin dropping, and to wonder at that! I feel my heart stirred by just that act, because it’s so pure, so innocent.

Another master, Adyashanti, writes in one of his books that our Nature is the “Great Mystery of Being.” For no one knows the ultimate answers about why anything exists, and why what exists is so incredibly marvelous. At the deepest level, we are a Great Mystery exploring the possibilities of itself in the ever-changing, ever-creative flow of life. This Mystery remains mysterious even to itself (hence its name). And we come to know ourselves–our mysterious Being–not by obtaining a “final explanation” about ourselves, but just by having deeper, more intimate experiences of life.

Viewed in this light, wonderment is a movement of Mystery recognizing its own nature as marvelous, as worthy of admiring wonderment. It is Mystery taking delight in its manifestations, which appear as so many unique expressions, each beautiful in their own way; each wanting to be recognized for their splendor. As Shug says to Celie in Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple,

God love everything you love—and a mess of stuff you don’t. But more than anything else, God love admiration… I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it…. People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it [God] always trying to please us back. [God’s] always making little surprises and springing them on us when us least expect…. Everything want to be loved.

Later in the novel, Shug’s former husband muses on human life: “I think us here to wonder, myself. To wonder. To ast. And that in wondering bout the big things and asting bout the big things you learn about the little ones, almost by accident. But you never know noting more about the big things than you start out with. The more I wonder […] the more I love.”

The way  The Color Purple links wonder/wonderment and admiration to love reflects the truth, I think, of what is going on at a metaphysical level. Wonderment has qualities of a higher state of consciousness, but if Alice Walker is onto something, there is another aspect as well. It’s as if everything we wonder at is conscious and loves that it’s being recognized for what it truly is: wonderful.

* * *

When I was a kid, one of my earliest memories was waking up in the backseat of our car during a family trip to Colorado. First long car trip. When I woke up and looked out my window, I saw mountains for the first time. I probably didn’t even know the word “mountain.” I just saw these gigantic things coming right out of the earth, which had taken on a purple hue with the sun setting (or rising?) behind them.

That was one of the first times I experienced wonderment. There were no words for what I was experiencing—just awe and marvel and wooow for whatever the hell was outside my car windows.

Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time philosophizing and exploring spirituality, looking, in a way, for the source of that wonderment and subtle sense of ‘being home’ that comes with it. But the whole time I explore these different philosophies and spiritualities, I can’t shake the feeling, however much I like them, that they aren’t really IT–ya know? They may be pointing to IT, but their conceptual nature, and their way of coming into consciousness from outside (from someone else) tips me off that they are merely means to an end.

On top of that, we have a way of erasing wonderment, which is so natural to us, with our ideas. As soon as we think we know something, it seems less “magical.” But we only seem to know something by inventing a concept about it. Really, we do not penetrate to the true mystery of the thing in question.

And so it’s important to keep a place in our hearts for wonderment. It will erupt into consciousness when we are no longer pretending to know so much. When that happens, it’s possible to just stay with wonderment rather than go into analytic thinking (the “Aristotelian” route) and erase it.

It’s funny–we can be closer to our True Nature not knowing much at all, just inhabiting silent awe, than when we possess a bunch of spiritual knowledge–or knowledge of any kind. Concepts tend to weigh us down rather than enlighten. Accumulating and navigating a morass of conceptual landscape is not our authentic life. More than in all my seeking of Truth through conceptual knowledge, I was being authentic to my Nature as a little kid, still rubbing my eyes, still throwing off sleep, completely wonderstruck, not having learned a damn thing about “mountains.”

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Thoreau on the Purpose of Life

When I was in college, Walden was a life-changing book. I was so enthused by its beauty and intricacy that I ended up not only reading it many times over but writing a long research paper which became a presentation for the Thoreau Society.

Yet there was one line that, until recently, I couldn’t quite figure out. When reading it before, I had the feeling that, “hey there’s something here I’m not getting,” but couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.

And this is the line: “For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it [life], whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to ‘glorify God and enjoy him forever.'”

The way I interpret this line now not only makes complete sense, to me, but at the same time brings out its great humour and profundity. This line actually suggests what, in Thoreau’s view, is the true purpose of life. But to arrive at that interpretation, we need to understand it in the context of Walden’s subject matter and intent, the role of the chapter in which it appears (chapter Two), and the interpretations available to Thoreau given his deep experiences of consciousness.

Walden is a book about enlightenment or self-realization. From the first sentence, the epigraph, in which Thoreau says he intends to wake his neighbors up, to the last sentence (“The sun is but a morning star”), with its subtle pun/allusion to Christ, Walden is about awakening consciousness and having a direct experience of reality. This is, after all, what Thoreau set out to do in the first place, by moving out to Walden pond: “…to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach.” As he says a little later, we must “work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance… till we come to a hard bottom and rock in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is.” Walden tells the story of Thoreau’s quest for reality, or the truth of life.

The whole book makes so much more sense in this light. Many things Thoreau describes are metaphors for inner phenomena experienced on the spiritual journey, just as the words he writes are merely metaphors for the actual world. The various metamorphoses that the “I” character undergoes throughout the book are metaphors for the way the ego shapeshifts in the mind. The chasing of the loon in “Brute Neighbors” is also a metaphor for his hunt of the ego, which keeps appearing on different places on the pond, and as soon as he gets to where it just was, it has then moved to some other place. The allusion to the phoenix mythos at the very end of the book represents the death of the false self and the rebirth of Thoreau’s authentic self, and our authentic self—enlightened consciousness—from the ashes.

There are many more examples, but the main point is that Walden, from beginning to end, intends to wake its readers up to reality. Then the question is: what is the reality we are waking up to? Well, Thoreau’s extensive use of metaphor and allusion, and his reluctance to ever say clearly what he means, suggests that it’s something that can’t really be put into words. It can only be hinted and cleverly pointed to, as if it were something subtle, ineffable, unable to be grasped by the mind.

The closest Thoreau comes to talking about reality is to say that it is ONE. He wrote in a letter to Horace Greeley that he was “born to be a pantheist,” that is, one who holds that everything—literally everything—is one divinity. At the beginning of the “Reading” chapter, he writes that “The oldest Egyptian or Hindoo philosopher raised a corner of the veil from the statue of divinity; and still the trembling robe remains raised, and I gaze upon as fresh a glory as he did, since it was I in him that was then so bold, and it is he in me that now reviews the vision. No dust has settled on that robe; no time has elapsed since that divinity was revealed.” In other words, We are One, and we are a divinity that is not bound by time.

The final piece of the puzzle is to understand the purpose of the second chapter in Walden, “Where I lived and What I Lived for.” The chapter title indicates that it will have to do with the purpose of life (or, at least, Thoreau’s life), and its placement after the first chapter, “Economy,” which had to do primarily with life at the material and physical level, suggests that this chapter will be about the spiritual or metaphysical level of life. Once we have attended to our physical needs and sustenance, we can turn to higher matters.

About halfway through this chapter, Thoreau tells us, in a now-famous line, why he went to live at Walden pond and what his goal was:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to ‘glorify God and enjoy him forever.'”

In the first part of this paragraph, Thoreau is basically saying, ‘I went to the woods to find out what is real.’ At the end of the paragraph, he appears to be criticizing the Church’s idea of the purpose of life, the “chief end of man.” But on another level, he’s surreptitiously giving his own view of the purpose of life, which ties the paragraph together. He does find what is real, and that discovery informs, of course, his view on the meaning and purpose of life.

If you can imagine Thoreau’s experience of life, he experiences the present moment and everything in it as the manifestation of divinity or God. It is a state of oneness, of great beauty, and, as Alan Hodder brings to light in his book (Thoreau’s Ecstatic Witness), a state of ecstasy. Everything is this amazing God appearing in tens of thousands of different forms, right now. As Thoreau says, “God himself culminates in the present moment.” And the direct experience of this God, he hints throughout Walden, is freedom.

So “God” is a word Thoreau enjoys using for the one reality, the divinity underlying all appearances. “Glorify God and enjoy him forever,” then, is an expression of the purpose of life, set apart in quotation marks for us. After all, what is there left to do after realizing God? Your life is going to be enjoyable because you know that what you are is essentially One with all that is, and the only thing that makes sense is to “glorify”–granted that “glorifying God” can take a number of different forms: admiring Nature, fighting injustice, writing Walden, etc.

The funny part is that Thoreau is actually borrowing the phrase (“glorify God and enjoy him forever”) from the Church and clergy, whose lives couldn’t look more different from his own. This is where the italics on “somewhat hastily” come into play. It’s as if Thoreau is saying, “you and I reached the same conclusion, but you reached for a definition of God a little too quickly!” The clergy took their definition of “God” from tradition, and imagines God removed from life, for the most part. Thoreau reaches his definition through his own experience, and he finds a God that is absolutely present and, indeed, reflected in the pond water.

. . . As we dive into the text of Walden, we are at the same time being invited to dive into the “waters,” the fluid reality, of life. Thoreau suggests that if you could just see one fact clearly, then you would “happily conclude your mortal career.” To see life clearly, we must give up our prejudices and be fully in the present moment. Walden is simply here to remind us, “It is never too late to give up our prejudices.”