“The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.”
― Abraham Heschel
Wonder is a very interesting word. It has two meanings that are nearly, but not quite, opposites. First, it is a state of questioning – to wonder if… about something. In this usage, there is a state of not-knowing; it implies a lack of desired information. Then, in its second usage, the word can be used to represent a kind of knowing – not a knowing as in information, but a knowing as in the positive experience of mystery. In this usage, it is an intuitive connection with the deepest essence of an experience, without any need to dissect what is being experienced into information. There is a question implied here, but it is a question not really looking for an answer. The question is a positive experience of query into the deepest secrets of Life, with the questioner satisfied to live in the question. This is mystical wonder.
The Jewish mystic theologian Abraham Heschel is calling us to this mystical wonder as the essence of the spiritual experience, and as the source, the beginning place, of true peace, happiness and deep well-being. He is saying that wonder is essential to a meaningful life, noting mystical wonder as the sweetest of all experiences, and he seems to be saying that without this sweetness, life is merely our routines, and routines, even exciting or stimulating routines, cannot approach the peace, the bliss, the fullness of wonder. Religions are belief systems, and we can believe many things. It might be said we can believe anything if it’s sold properly, but wonder is the source of all that is transcendent and cannot be sold or preached, only touched, received, and known, like grace.
What is clear is that to activate this state of mystical wonder so essential to human fulfillment, we need to bring it out of the intellectual and into the dimension of pure and direct experience. So, it seems it is very important to ask – “What is this wonder and how do we find it?” Just as the word has two meanings, it could be understood that these meanings represent two very different dimensions of existence and experience.
The more conventional use of the word represents the utilitarian world of duality, of the reasoning mind of ego struggling with understanding and mastery. It is our everyday world of going about our business, where our understanding reaches its limit and we wonder how to proceed, or when we encounter something new and we wonder what it is and how it works. We experience wondering as our mind reaches in inquiry about that thing out there that is separate from us. The duality of the experience is clear. Yet, even in this dimension of duality, the more we engage this capacity for intellectual wondering, the richer, more complex, deep and fulfilling our life becomes, so this dimension of wondering is not to be dismissed; it is very important to cultivate. It is what a good education does and what a bad education drills out of us.
But how do we access mystical wonder? We must begin by understanding that it seems to be an alternative space to the realm of duality and practicality that we usually occupy, and from this space of duality, the world of non-duality seems like an unreachable dream. This is, of course, not true, for the world of duality exists within the world of non-duality Our vision is merely too narrowly focused into our experience of separateness, and so this separateness seems to be the only reality. Perhaps we can find our way if we remember that when we were small children we often visited this wondrous space, a place of magic where all care disappeared and love in its purest form was the air that we breathed, even if it was only for a caterpillar crawling across a leaf. This is not the wondering of the intellectual mind, it is the experience of having all sense of separateness dissolving into the space of play or exploration or reverie. This is an activity of the soul where we become this spacious place of wonder and all that appears within it. It is a tangible experience that we can recall, and it is the sweetest of childhood memories.
And then – the most dispiriting of childhood memories is being pulled out of the wondrous space and back into the business of being socialized, sometimes chastised into being a properly striving, obedient and practical person. In the language of the Harry Potter stories it was the difference between being in the world of magic and in the world of muggles. The loss of childlike innocence is in the gradual forgetting of the point of entry into the wondrous space, as we become increasingly lost in the struggle to become somebody. Paradise is lost. But is it?
As adults, we sometimes stumble into the paradise of wondrous space in those moments of sublime beauty with Nature, with art, in intimate relationship, anywhere, anytime where the sense of separate self falls away into the unity of the moment held in wonder, sometimes described as rapture. These are times when if we apply intellectual wondering to the mystical wonder, we might make a great discovery. If we were to ask ourselves “what is happening here and why?” we might notice how there is an expansion of the sense of the space of “me” from inside this separate body, and inside this mind striving to be somebody, into the magic of all sense of self dissolving into the space of the moment. The place of wonder is expansive, as if this little “me” inside this body expands to include the totality of an experience. Time stops and the moment is all there is. The senses are wide open, completely receptive and subtle in their perceptions, picking up detail and nuance of the moment; and another sense, one we seldom consider in our culture, the sense of intuition, of a silent knowing of something secret and beautiful hidden in the experience, whispers in its silent language to us. Ah! We do know our way back to the Garden!
Light and shadow dance with each other as the wind softly plays with the branches on the trees and we are the dance. The bird in the tree sings and we are the bird singing. A cloud passes overhead and we are the cloud. Music sweetly sounds and we are the sweet sound. The person sharing the moment with us speaks of their deep truth in word and look, and our deep truth is known and speaks and looks, or we play, and we are the playing. The wind whispers and we are the whisper. The river flows and we are the river flowing. The bird, the cloud, the music, the people, the wind, the river, and all that is – is who we are in the wondrous space. We might as well call it God’s space, for it is the space where All-that-is exists without a here or there, a past or future, only infinitely here and infinitely now.
True mystics live in this wondrous space, for, as Jesus instructed us to “be like the little children,” the spiritual realm is the wondrous space. It is also the realm of well-being and joy, of play and pure exploration. It is the space of worship without end, the home of the Sacred. The best art has this sense of wonder to it – the ineffable question suggested in the poetry, the painting, the dance, the music. We become lost, and that is the secret. You must lose yourself to find this place. Let go of holding onto this desperate self, seeking meaning and significance. The moment IS the meaning and significance. Plunge in like a fool. Let go completely. Dissolve into that old sweet place of wonder.
Zen is steeped in this world of wonder. It is what is being pointed toward when Zen speaks of “emptiness” of self, of “original nature,” and classical Zen poetry reflects this emptiness of all guile and sophistication. In Zen art we are pointed toward uncorrupted moments in life, simple, yet deep and resonant with meaning.
Temple bells die out.
The fragrant blossoms remain.
A perfect evening! – Basho (17th Cent.)
You must, as you did when you were a small child, leave behind the world of self-concern to wander aimlessly into THIS. The entryway is in the song of a bird, the clouds floating by, the flow of the river, the eyes of a loved one, the fragrant blossoms in the evening as the resonance of bells waft into eternity. You must be ready to love everyone and everything. You must be ready to be like a child in the wondrous space, to let go of your tether to practicality and self-absorption and to float away. You will know when you are there. The mystics’ skill is in staying in this expansive place, knowing their true self as the totality of the moment in unity – even while continuing with everyday life. It is found in living in quiet wonder, amazement and ecstasy in the midst of what seems ordinary, even dull, to those not sharing in the wondrous space that they once knew as a child – but have long since forgotten how to enter.