“He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.” ~ Albert Einstein
“The world will never starve for want of wonders, but for want of wonder.”
~G. K. Chesterton
“Anything looked at closely becomes more wonderful.” ~ A.R. Ammons
Maybe you’ve experienced this modern phenomenon? In a typical conversation when a question arises, or a statement is made, within seconds, smart phones are consulted, veracity and sources are confirmed or denied, and the truth is found. This rush to fast facts is what led a relative of mine to christen a prominent search engine company, “The Wonder Killer.” We rush to escape from the abyss of uncertainty and we can know anything in seconds. We can tell our friends the length of the Great Wall of China, where hummingbirds migrate to in the winter, and the life expectancy of a giraffe in rapid succession and without moving much except our fingers. This fast knowledge is akin to fast food that arrives quickly and can satisfy our immediate hunger, but is not always the best choice to nourish the deeper part of ourselves. When we get our information prepackaged and do not spend time with the process of wonder and discovery, there is a disconnect from the journey towards a felt sense of knowing. The quick knowledge from my smart phone is not wisdom from experience or observation, but a commodity. We see this extrapolated throughout the world. We don’t know where our bottled water comes from and where all the plastic ends up; we don’t see that there really is a living being who died to make those cute animal shaped nuggets we eat with a fun dipping sauce; we don’t bother to look at the landfills where all the inexpensive clothes we discard end up and investigate the true cost of fast fashion on the environment and the wellbeing of those who manufacture it. We are encouraged to live this way, with quick consumption and the constant refilling of our desires, so we don’t have time to question what’s beneath the packaging. Our growth economy depends on this constant fast turnover, but it has a big price tag. The relational aspect of observer and observed and wholeness is lost we get stuff fast and effortlessly.
I am not writing about this because I am some enlightened being who never uses her phone to find out answers, or never buys a new $5 tee-shirt, and despite my lectures, my partner still buys cases of bottled water. I am in the world. I do use my phone for quick answers—a lot and I wish I could be really disciplined and buy only ethically produced clothing, but it is more expensive and that $45 shirt will end up with a coffee stain the next day. So, I am not exempt, but I want to be awake when I make these choices and maybe buy one tee shirt, not five, or remember to bring a water bottle, so I don’t always have to get a new plastic one. A big realization I had is that when I do find out fast facts on the internet, they leave just as fast as I consume them. I haven’t earned the knowledge.
Recently, I’ve gotten more interested in the phenomenon of being with questions and the thought, feelings, and sensations that uncertainty creates. There is an ancient tradition of contemplation that encourages wonder and personal discovery. This is the idea of sitting with something and allowing it to unfold. We have questions called Koans which are contemplation topics that are designed to stop cognitive thought and open us up to experience this wonder in our mind and body. These questions are not something that we can answer quickly, or get insights from unless we have a relationship with them. Developing the ability to stay with wonder and not knowing is also the practice of building our capacity for uncertainty. When we rush to fast answers we create the inability to tolerate discomfort. There’s a cultural assumption that it isn’t OK to not know; it isn’t OK to feel uncertain. Even small discomfort can’t be tolerated and we see this in the rush to fill the moment with something better than this, something more satisfying. We check our social media, exercise, or consume so we won’t have to tolerate this moment, this unpleasantness of not-knowing.
For years I have had a koan at work and rest with me. I happened upon it in a book so long ago I can’t remember where it comes from and my Internet search couldn’t find it! It goes like this: You can’t go forward. You can’t go backwards. You can’t stay still. What do you do? At first, I tried to find a clever solution. Maybe you jump up? That’s neither still or forward or backward, but I knew that answer wasn’t right. I had irritation and discomfort with this koan, because it seemed like one of those puzzles that everyone could solve but me. I gave up and just let it be in the background. Today, after many years of not consciously looking at this, an insight appeared to me, when I thought of this question. My understanding had matured and ripened and it was like cracking an egg, a whole different world appeared out of the closed shell. My understanding is based on my mind and body knowledge and your understanding will be your own. This week I invite you to wonder, to stay with the question and watch what happens, to watch the intricate procession of ants to their nest, to behold the coming together and dissolution of clouds, or to sit with a deep question. Thich Nhat Hanh speaks about this in a dharma talk, “In Zen circles, sometimes they may give you a subject of meditation to ponder: ‘Tell me, novice, what did your face look like before your grandmother was born?’ That is a very nice invitation to go on a journey to find your true self, your true nature, the nature of no-birth and no-death.” This is an invitation to fall into wonder and slow wisdom. Allow yourself the true nourishment of being with a question. It’s OK not to know the answer today.
May we all trust our light,