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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