How Exciting is WONDER!
Do you ever feel that there should be something more to life? Does the world around you sometimes appear dull and uninteresting, a sort of black and white picture instead of vivid colour? Or perhaps you remember some of the wonder of discovery you experienced as a child and wish you could recapture it?
This text aims to help you re-discover some of that missing or lost dimension. Through the story of Stan and Bob we see how different outlooks on life can affect our happiness and contentment, and we look at some ways in which a sense of wonder and awe can be renewed. ‘We hope it will help you to see the world about you with a new intensity.
THE STORY OF STAN AND BOB
A few years ago I had the opportunity of visiting Stan, a friend of mine, who was working as a local doctor in North Africa. I was given a lift by Bob, an agricultural research worker who had some business that day in town anyway. Bob drove me twenty miles through the semi-deserts of the Northern Sahara to the fifty-hut establishment where Stan had planted his outdoor clinic.
‘Look at this God-forsaken country’, Bob growled as his car ploughed a way through sand and dust. ‘Heat, insects, dysentry. No water. Everything is dirty. Absolutely no life to speak of. I’ve been here hardly three months and I’m utterly fed up and bored.’
‘What about the local people?’, I asked.
‘As stupid and dull as you could get them’, he said. ‘I know we are told to be diplomatic and all that. But I find them awfully primitive. I’m looking forward to the day I’ll be back in England.’
He dropped me off at Stan’s house -which was no more than a glorified shack. Stan gave me a terrific welcome. He looked good, with his suntanned face as impetuous and his gestures as boisterous as they had been in college. ‘Welcome to the most fabulous place on earth!’, he said. ‘Not yet discovered by tourists, thanks be to God, or they’d be crawling all over the place with cameras and rucksacks!’
Stan gave me an unforgettable tour of the world he lived in.
We visited the homes of the farmers. He introduced me to them. He explained their many customs. Why their huts are built in a particular way, with doors facing one way and the main gate another. He made people dance for me and joined in their dance to their shrieking delight. He told me how young people are gradually prepared for life. He narrated their tales of wisdom and proverbs. ‘In some ways these people are far ahead of us’, he said. ‘There is a lot we can learn from them.’
I spent a wonderful afternoon with Stan visiting the bush, the ‘desert jungle’ as he called it. It was truly amazing to see the plants and animals specially evolved to survive in such a harsh climate. Stan had made the study of ants a hobby. He showed me the organization of a typical nest of black ants: the queen’s quarters heavily guarded by soldier ants; the burrow with eggs tended by nurses; the ‘stables’ where plant-lice are kept to be the ants’ ‘cows’. He pointed out a colony of warrior ants. He took me to the ant-hills of termites, built like slender towers up to ten feet high. ‘A form of air-conditioning’, he said.
But that evening, after a tin-and sweet potato supper, came the greatest surprise. ‘I’ll show you the most overpowering panorama ever seen by human eye’, he said. Carrying folding chairs we walked ten minutes up a hill with the help of a torch light. There we sat down. The torch was switched off. The night was pitch black. In all the surrounding countryside not a single light was to be seen.
But the cloudless sky above us was dotted with innumerable stars. I simply sat back and stared, overcome by the expanse and the beauty of it all. As my eyes got more and more used to the darkness, thousands more stars could be seen. The Milky Way brilliantly sweeping right across the sky, some stars twinkling brightly and changing colour, from red to green to blue, other stars as delicate dots, appearing and disappearing, or clustering in sprays of light. ‘And then to think they are thousands or millions of light years away’, Stan whispered to me. ‘Lord, my God, how wonderful is your name throughout the world!’
Stan and Bob . . . . a reflection
Reflecting on that experience of two people living in the same part of the world, I was able to compare the two different outlooks.
BOB – found his world God-forsaken, tiresome and boring. He is a product of the deforming influences of our Western, technological society. Probably he never learnt to discover things for himself. His mind was filled with the jargon of work, school, shopping and TV. His search for life was lost in the escape of super-din music and watching football. What should have been no more than a means to live, had become an end in themselves. He had become the victim of secular brainwashing.
STAN – had the ability to see what Bob could not see. He discovered excitement and mystery everywhere. It reminded me of Jesus parable (Luke 11: 34). ‘Your eyes are like a lamp for the body. When your eyes are sound, your whole body is full of light. But when your eyes are no good, your whole body will be in darkness. Make certain, then, that the light in you is not darkness.’ Stan perceived the world in the way poets and mystics do, with enlightenment, because they master a higher and truer vision. Stan could see mystery where others only see black and white.
Which of these is the nearest to the way YOU see life?
The Lesson (from Selected Poems by Miroslav Holub, Penguin)
A tree enters and says with a bow: ‘I am a tree’. A black tear falls from the sky and says: ‘I am a bird’. Down a spider’s web something like love comes near and says: ‘I am silence’.
But by the blackboard sprawls
a national democratic
horse in his waistcoat
pricking his ears on every side,
repeats and repeats
‘I am the engine of history
the fighter’s wrath’.
Under the classroom door
a thin stream of blood.
For here begins
of the innocents.
The poem by Miroslav Holub expresses the view that it is the way we are taught and brought up that conditions us to see the world like Bob, as dull and uninteresting. This is referred to as the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’. Another author who has explained this is Eric Berne the founder of transactional psychology. In his book, ‘Games People Play‘ (Penguin), he has this description of it.
Awareness means the capacity to see a coffeepot and hear the birds sing in one’s own way, and not the way one was taught.
It may be assumed on good grounds that seeing and hearing have a different quality for infants than for grown-ups, and that they are more aesthetic and less intellectual in the first years of life.
A little boy sees and hears birds with delight Then his ‘good father’ comes along and feels he should ‘share’ the experience and help his son ‘develop’. He says: ‘That’s a jay, and this is a sparrow’. The moment the little boy is concerned with which is a jay and which is a sparrow, he can no longer see the birds or hear them sing. He has to see and hear them the way his father wants him to.
Father has good reasons on his side, since few people can afford to go through life listening to the birds sing, and the sooner the little boy starts his ‘education’ the better. Maybe he will be an ornithologist when he grows up.
A few people can still hear and see in the old way. Most members of the human race have lost the capacity to be painters, poets or musicians. They are not left the option of seeing and hearing directly even if they can afford to; they must get it second hand.
Recovering the ability to see with wonder, to allow colours and sounds to speak to us directly, to meet the mystery of life with an open mind, is a joyful task and a liberation. The world itself is not dull and boring. It is only so because we allowed our vision to be dulled. But fortunately more and more people in our machine-dominated society are throwing off the yoke and discovering, to their delight, that they are human!
So how do you see the world? Do you see wonder in nature, art, music? Are you one of the fortunate ones who have discovered that they are human?
RESTFUL NON-ACTIVITY may help us rediscover wonder
Restful non-activity is a state of mind which means we can see behind the appearances of things. It requires mental peace, freedom from worry or anxiety, time and freedom from hurry. Everyday work and concerns must be put out of mind; our concentration focuses on the beauty of colour and form as we peacefully reflect on the deeper values of life.
An example: Ikebana
For most of us flower arrangement means selecting flowers and putting them in a vase. We cut off a few leaves, push some flowers down and others up, until we are satisfied with the overall aesthetic impression. It does not take more than five to ten minutes. It is only a transitory action: what we are aiming at is the end result, the decoration embodied in the vase with flowers. Flower arrangement may be interesting work, and artistic to some extent; it remains work.
Ikebana is quite a different thing. It is a form of recreation, yes of silent observation and reflection. When someone decides to engage in it, he or she (let us stick to ‘she’ for simplicity’s sake) will free herself for a couple of hours. Mental peace is essential, so all hurry is avoided. After putting every-day work away and out of mind she will sit quietly, or walk silently in the garden, analysing her mood, or simply breathing in what nature is saying. Gradually a ‘theme’ emerges, a sentiment, an idea, a mood so to say. It could be ‘loveliness’, or ‘autumn gold’, or ‘desire to live’.
She will then gather some material for the arrangement, one or two flowers on their stems, a twig, a couple of leaves, a piece of stone perhaps. She will select a suitable container, say a flat dish, and look at the material in quiet observation. She allows the lines, the colours, the texture of the material to tell their own tale. She admires them, feels them, tries to identify with them. Ikebana has its own rules of form and language, so she takes these into account. Then gradually, lovingly I would almost say, she starts arranging them in a shape that is startlingly fresh. If she is not satisfied, she tries again, without hurry, until she feels the image does somehow correspond to the theme she had in mind.
During the whole process she has felt her worries melt away. While her eyes were probing colours and forms, her mind was peacefully reflecting on the deeper values of life. Or, perhaps, she was just enjoying the silence, the unspeakable peace that comes from wholeness of body and mind. At no time was she anxious about the end result. That was, somehow, immaterial. What mattered was the immersion in flower thinking itself, which Chinese philosophy would characterise as a form of ‘non-doing’. While arranging flowers she simply was herself.
In Western textbooks on Ikebana – which I do urge you to read if for no other reason than to enjoy the colours and forms! – one often finds that, again, the wrong aspects are stressed. Much space is devoted to explain terms and detailed techniques, to illustrate classical styles such as Moribana and Nageire, creating the impression that it is fidelity to the rules that counts. It reduces Ikebana once more to an activity, with a desired result. The element of wholeness, of reflection and meditation, is mentioned in passing. But this is precisely what we, blinded workaholics, are in need of!
TAKING AIM BY BEING – another tool in rediscovering wonder
This requires disinterestedness, stepping back from our frantic activities and relaxing. A peaceful, non-active holiday, or a retreat for a few days can be the means of doing this. Again it requires time and freedom from worry.
The Tao Te Ching is a Chinese classic which expresses some of the respect for nature and the need of reflective observation we encountered in Ikebana. Consider this gem of wisdom:
The softest thing in the universe overcomes the hardest thing in the universe (Tao Te Ching ch. 43).
The ‘softest thing’ referred to is water. We see how, in the course of time, it can erode rock; how, without trouble, it disappears into the earth. Water looks soft, but really is very strong. Because it is silent and unpretentious, seems to have ‘no substance’, it achieves its purpose. Non-action tries to imitate this approach. It aims at being, not at producing immediate results. It does not make claims. It is not worried about efficiency and profit. But eventually it is more successful than frantic work, because it is based on being.
Chuang Tzu (300 BC) who belonged to the same school of thought, had this to say:
When an archer is shooting for nothing he has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle he is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold he goes blind or sees two targets he is out of his mind!
His skill has not changed. But the prize divides him. He cares.
He thinks more of winning than of shooting
and the need to win
drains him of power (ch. 19,4).
In other words: clear vision demands disinterestedness. If we want to live fully and freely, if we want to live our own lives and achieve the purpose for which we exist, we have to step back from our frantic activities, and relax. Strangely enough we will then be more efficient, in a lasting sort of way. Because we have learned to ‘be’: and to see with new eyes.
How great is your name , O Lord our God,
through all the earth!
Your majesty is praised above the heavens,
on the lips pf children and of babes
you have found praise to foil your enemy,
to silence the foe and the rebel.
When I see the heavens, the work of your hands,
the moon and the stars which you arranged,
what is man that you should keep him in mind,
mortal man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him little less than a god;
with glory and honour you crowned him,
gave him power over the works of your hand,
put all things under his feet.
All of them, sheep and cattle,
yes, even he savage beasts,
birds of the air, and fish
that make their way through the waters.
How great is your name, O Lord our God,
through all the earth! (Psalm 8)
Contemporary Expressions of Human Longings
The past decades have seen the emergence of many new movements and fringe groups. They present a multicoloured spectacle of interests and concerns. From health foods and therapeutic dance to mind control and white magic. But underlying all these manifestations some definte trends can be discerned which indicate a true revolution of thought. They spring from reaction and opposition against a stulted, unnatural life; they express a deep hunger for higher values. Since some of these trends may exemplify and strengthen our own search, I will characterise them briefly.
1. The Natural Look
There is a new distaste for everything artificial, for hypocrisy and ‘white lies’. People want to feel and look natural in make-up and dress. They want to eat foods that are not contaminated with chemicals. Smoking, alcoholic drinks and drugs are rejected.
2. Environmental Ecology
Parks, farms, lakes, the countryside are appreciated more than ever. People would prefer to live physically close to nature, in the open, off the land. There is great concern regarding the environment. It should be maintained even at the expense of economic growth and technological advance. Animals and plants should be protected from further destruction.
3. Peace Movements
New forms of living together are sought. Co-operation, not competition is the main norm. Traditional organization, bureaucratic government and the violent enforcement of order are suspected if not resisted. There is a deep longing for international peace and brotherhood.
4. Body Language
Non-verbal forms of communication are valued: touch, silence and body language. Direct experience, participation and involvement are seen as means to arrive at truth. There is a renewed interest in self-knowledge, in the discovery of one’s natural self. In love and sexual relationships conventional norms are de-emphsized in favour of genuine intimacy.
5. The Mysterious Elements in Nature
The objectivity and detachment of science are questioned. Not Darwin’s principle of the ‘survival of the fittest’ but the interdependence of all species in nature is stressed. The cold analysis of the laboratory is replaced, or supplemented by celebration of all the unknown, the mystical and mysterious elements in nature. People are making time for prayer and meditation.
No doubt you will have recognized many if not most of the trends I outlined. You may have encountered them in exaggerated forms, while acknowledging that they have something valid to offer. The point I want to make is that we, too, can join this new search in our own way, without doing anything drastic. Also, that the new way of seeing described earlier is a necessary part of that search. What we are witnessing is a recovery of vision. a purification of the eyes.
The ideas I conveyed have, obviously, to be digested and absorbed by each person in his or her own way. This calls for reflection, silence, moments of wordless prayer. What matters is that we affirm our own search for the fulness of reality and that we take steps to clarify our own vision.
If you are not familiar with Ikebana, I suggest that you borrow one or two illustrated books on it from your local library. The Masters’ Book of Ikebana, by John March-Penney (Sampson Low 1976), is a delightful introduction.
I also strongly recommend that you read the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tsu. There are various editions. I prefer the illustrated translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English (Wildwood House, 1973). An example of this is the poem ‘Insight’ quoted earlier.
The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton ( New Directions paperback 1969) offers a unique selection of humerous and stimulating parables. It has the added advantage of providing brief introductions and explanations. ‘The Breath of Nature’ at the end of my text is an example taken from this, to whet your appetite and give you matter for further thought.
The Breath of Nature
When great Nature sighs, we hear the winds which, noiseless in themselves, awaken voices from other beings, blowing on them.
From every opening loud voices sound. Have you not heard this rush of tones?
There stands the overhanging wood on the steep mountain:
Old trees with holes and cracks like snouts, maws and ears, like beam-sockets, like goblets, grooves in the wood, hollows full of water.
You hear mooing and roaring, whistling, shouts of command, grumblings, deep drones, sad flutes.
One call awakens another in dialogue.
Gentle winds sing timidly, strong ones blast on without restraint.
Then the wind dies down. The openings empty out their last sound.
Have you not observed how all then trembles and subsides?
Yu replied: ‘I understand the music of earth sings through a thousand holes. The music of human beings is made on flutes and instruments. What makes the music of heaven?’
Master Ki said: ‘Something is blowing on a thousand different holes.
Some power stands behind all this and makes the sounds die down.
What is this Power?’
The Way of Chuang Tzu, by Thomas Merton, c. ii, 1, pp. 38 – 39.