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Some Thoughts about Wonder

"Nevertheless, it means much to have loved, to have been happy, to have laid my hand on the living Garden, even for one day." - Jorge Luis Borges

Early in the career of the Hubble Space Telescope, one of the scientists in charge of the mission had the brilliant idea of pointing its sensitive lens at the darkest patch of the night time sky. For countless generations mankind has peered into that void and seen nothing. What was out their beyond our view?

NASA called this effort the “Ultra Deep Field Experiment.” Over a period of ten days, hundreds of images were taken of the same seemingly empty coordinates. Frame by frame, distant particles of light were captured and compiled. The final composite image was breathtaking; in fact, some call it the most important photographic image ever taken.

What did the picture reveal? Ten thousand galaxies.

One galaxy has approximately one hundred billion stars. Here, in one image, were one quadrillion stars. 1,000,000,000,000,000 stars inhabit the darkest corner of the night time sky!

Despite those staggering numbers, the image amounts to no more than a glimpse into one small corner of the known universe, a realm which modern physics suggests is just one of an endless series of universes.

How do we respond to this stunning reality if not with wonder, that enlivening mixture of curiosity, reverence and awe?

If not for a well developed capacity for wonder, the astonishing facts of the universe and the world around us could lead to despair. In her book, The Sacred Depths of Nature, the renowned biologist, Ursula Goodenough, wrote movingly about the “poignant nihilism” she experienced as a young adult looking up into the night time sky and contemplating the physical realities of its imposing scale and dispassionate cycle of explosions and destruction. Was there any real to point to the cosmos at all?

Goodenough overcame that wave of nihilism by making a “covenant” with mystery – by learning to stand in relationship to what is known and unknowable at the very same time. I believe the essential trait that made this covenant possible was her capacity for wonder – a wonder that has sustained her rich and varied career.

One need not peer off into the heavens to stand in relationship with the mystery of our existence. That mystery is unfolding around us continually in a countless variety of ways. Our task is to pay attention – to stand “with” means standing “ready” by keeping our eyes, hearts and minds open. Even the most ordinary of experiences has the capacity to change our lives.

During my high-school and college years I developed an intense interest in haiku poetry. These short seventeen syllable poems fascinated me because they seemed like perfect crystallizations of ordinary moments that echoed of the eternal. When I was a sophomore at college, I discovered a book about the spiritual roots of haiku and learned that they grew out of the Japanese tradition of Zen Buddhism. I dove into the book, but found Zen nearly incomprehensible – there was far too much talk about non-being and non-attainment for my poor grasping Western mind to understand.

One evening, I was reading a chapter of the book that dealt with Zen koans, the riddle like sayings that Zen masters used to help “awaken” their disciples. Koans are intended to force us to use our intuitions and leave behind logical assumptions, but, I have to admit that all that they were awakening within me was a headache. The most famous of these koans illustrates why I was so perplexed: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

One hand clapping? Ugh! My headache deepened with each nonsensical riddle.

Fortunately, I persevered, and towards the end of a long sampler list of koans, I came upon the following verse:

“The plum tree, dwindling, contains less of the spring; but the garden is wider, and holds more of the moon.”

I felt a shock of recognition and had the overwhelming sensation that the world around me had suddenly come into very sharp focus. The impact was like that of a great haiku – here was an ordinary scene that was conveying eternal truths.

The plum tree, dwindling, contains less of the spring. It is autumn – the fragrance of the delicate plum blossoms and the sweetness of the fruit are now distant memories. But, the garden is wider, and holds more of the moon. Yes, there is loss. The leaves are falling from the tree. But look, our pathway through the garden is illuminated by the moonlight.

There is a spring in every life; and an autumn too. Just as there is beauty in the innocence of spring – there is also beauty in the bare branches of autumn. Something elemental and crucial has been revealed – is always being revealed. Do not cling to your memories of the blossoms or you will miss the moonlight at your feet.

Reading that koan triggered what Zen practitioners call a “kensho” experience, meaning a little flash of self-awareness or enlightenment springing from an everyday occurrence. This wasn’t a sustained state of “nirvana”, but it was transformative. The insight achieved in that single moment has sustained me through many of my life’s more trying ordeals.

And who is a stranger to ordeal? We hunger after anything that will distract us from life’s inevitable losses, but the price of constantly averting our gaze cuts deep. Like Ursula Goodenough making her pact with mystery, we face a choice – will we respond to eternal cycles of life emboldened by wonder or unmoored by anxiety?

A life without wonder is a very cold affair. Like leaves scattered by the autumn wind, our stories are ephemeral. We leave tracks through the snow in a wandering line – and then? More snow falls and then another spring arrives... thirty, forty, fifty, sixty springs – one after the other, each season of renewal unfurling, ripening and then drifting away like so much stellar dust in the endless heavens.

We could look at our lives as nothing but a pointless series of losses and diminishing returns. I understand that temptation… friends and loved ones pass away; despite our exercises and elixirs our bodies wither and age. Our steps grow halting, and we feel lost amid the many shrill distractions that consume our attention.

Like all of us, my passage through the years has also been haunted by the memories of those times I have disappointed myself and those I love. Yet, I have managed to keep nihilism and despair at bay. I awake every morning grateful to have born witness to so much beauty. I have learned to trust the mystery that beckons from blossoms and bare branches. And, my days are encouraged by wonder still.