The English Romantic poet, William Wordsworth, wrote a sonnet with the great title The World is too much with us. And indeed far too often in our lives this seems to be the case. We forget about the great wonder and mystery of life and are overly concerned with paying the mortgage, our personal appearance, taking offence at every little slight, and a host of concerns about our material and psychological well-being.
We fall into depression because our child is not doing well at school or the doctor has just diagnosed us with high blood pressure or the bank manager has called us in to assess our overdraft.
Under such bombardments we tend to forget the astounding wonder of our lives and the unbelievable miracle of our existence. And accordingly we then forget also the wisdom of the sages who assure us that no matter how things may appear, essentially “All is well”!
It is not surprising that I begin this essay at Easter. I am not a Christian but I still resonate with some of the truths alluded to by the Easter myth. That mystery draws heavily on pagan parables about death and rebirth and our personal interpretation of the role of love and forgiveness in this enigmatic universe. These are more substantive things to get our minds around than how many “friends” we have on Facebook or which pop-singer we should give our allegiance to. And it is that mystery that has stimulated me to again not think about the mundane for a while and ponder something more mysterious.
It seems that many of us with a spiritual bent are seeking to better accommodate these mysteries within the compass of our understanding. We believe that there are things out there, facts that we need to discover, which will propel us into “enlightenment”, whatever that might mean. That is a futile quest.
Zen Master Daie, a thousand years ago wrote,
All the teachings the sages have expounded are no more than commentaries on the sudden cry …..Ah this!
Or the Zen Master who proclaimed that life before enlightenment was drawing water and chopping wood. And life after enlightenment was drawing water and chopping wood.
Indeed a wiseperson’s life is tremendously enriched by a sense of wonder.
The Gnostic Gospel of Matthias explains:
Wondering at the things that are before you is the first step to the deeper knowledge.
Those that attain the most penetrating realisations are those that wonder deeply. Without a sense of wonder life can easily pass us by without meaning and without a depth of understanding.
Socrates himself told us:
The feeling of wonder is the touchstone of the philosopher. Wonder is the only beginning of philosophy.
Or take Alfred North Whitehead who explained:
Philosophy begins in wonder. And at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains.
And no matter how much we learn about the universe that wonder will always remain. This mystery is not like our questioning of whether there is life on Mars. That is a mystery we will easily solve. It is inevitable that the extraordinary developments of physical science will ensure we will be able to definitively answer that question.
We would do well to recall the words of Albert Einstein who wrote:
As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality they are not certain, as far as they are certain they do not refer to reality.
Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.
The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.
But I suspect that no amount of scientific progress will answer the question, “Why is their life at all?” Nor do I think that the deterministic, reductionist deliberation of our scientists will ever answer the question, “What is consciousness?” These are the true mysteries that only intuition and faith can possibly answer.
And to my mind that is a good thing. But whether or not it is a good thing it is surely inevitable. It is beyond the ken of human consciousness to totally understand the universe. The artefacts that cosmologists have derived to further understand the universe are little more convincing to me than the creation myths of the various folk traditions. Humankind is destined to forever live with deep and enduring mystery.
But here again we encounter a wonderful paradox. When we are prepared to lose ourselves in this deep mystery, even without the application of logic and reason, we can still get to “know” things, and this unreasonable knowledge is the most precious of all our knowing.
Tim Freke is an internationally renowned authority on spirituality. He talks about such “knowing” in the following way:
In the Western spiritual tradition this ‘deep knowing’ is called ‘gnosis’. Gnosis is directly knowing the essence of things. It’s the big answer to the big questions of life. But this answer is not in the form of a collection of words. It is an immediate realisation, unmediated by concepts. It’s like having the most profound thought you’ve ever had……..only without the thought.
(If you search through the archives of my blog essays you will see I have previously written about the important concept of Gnosticism. Thus I won’t repeat that in this essay.)
Yet a sense of wonder can have disquieting impacts. Again paradoxically, when we view the world with a sense of wonder, we see things through new eyes.
The British Playwright, Dennis Potter, in a moving interview just before his death from cancer, said:
Things are both more trivial than they ever were and more important than they ever were, and the differences between the trivial and the important don’t seem to matter.
When we open ourselves up to the wonder of life we experience something more fantastic than any dream, any movie or any fantasy. Truly, despite any evidence to the contrary, life is wonderful!