Awaking to Wonder

Every now and then I am forced to remove myself from the apparent urgent demands of the “real” world and remind myself that there are more important issues than the ones that dominate the headlines every day. Of course I feel the injustice and suffering caused by conflict in the Middle East and Ukraine. And of course I feel pain and frustration by the rise of youth crime and the abrogation of parental responsibility. And no doubt you would have gleaned from my recent essays that I deplore the ideology of victimhood and the consequent demonisation of our Western heritage and ”woke” denigration of our history without portraying the countervailing narrative of the benefits that European settlement brought to Australia. And then there is of course the misguided and harmful scramble to flood our electrical network with renewable energy projects without due consideration for the cost and reliability of our electricity supply. It is easy to get wrapped up in these cause and many other such every day concerns.

When such issues seem to be overwhelming, I like occasionally to step back and put them in perspective. When in such a reflective mood I often remember Wordsworth’s famous sonnet The World is Too Much with Us, And oft times he is right. We allow the day to day exigencies of life to divert us from deeper and ultimately more important considerations.

We are all confronted with this dilemma of having to weigh up the relative importance of living in the material world whilst yearning for inner peace. Why do we experience our existence through the lens of such a dichotomy? I have explained all this before but for the sake of completeness let me do so again.

The defining characteristic of human existence seems to be our consciousness. Because of our consciousness we are compelled not only to deal with a world “out there” (an external world) but also a world “in here” (an internal world). Putting it bluntly we have to deal with an external materialist world, whilst at the same time being confronted with an inner psychic world.

We, like all animals, have to contend with a material world and to satisfy our material needs. But because we have a theatre of mind we have another set of needs, viz our spiritual needs – these needs drive us to seek meaning and purpose in our lives.

When we deal with the material world we are aided by rationality and methodical analysis. But these techniques are not so successful in dealing with the phenomena of mind.

For example the rational determinists have tried for many years to explain how consciousness might have arisen from homo sapiens’ increased brain size and complexity to little effect. The materialists, I believe, start from the wrong premise – that is that the essential “stuff” of the universe is matter and everything else is derived from matter. My belief is that the essential “stuff” of the universe is consciousness and matter is a subsequent manifestation of consciousness. But I’ll leave that debate for another time.

However it came to be, consciousness as we now know it, is a relatively recent development for humankind. But even if we don’t know how it originated, we do know how it has manifested itself.

It has been manifested in wonder, awe and mysticism. It has resulted in spiritual awakening and the development of the world’s religions. The religious writer, Karen Armstrong in her fine book The Great Transformation described how in the period she described as the Axial Age between 800BC and 300BC there was an explosion of religious and philosophical concepts.

But in the last couple of centuries, in the West at least, discoveries in the physical sciences have led more people to seek to understand life and the Universe at large via the rigours of reductionist materialism. As a result, to many, materialism is seen as the only metaphysics whilst the esoteric forms of spirituality are dismissed as invalid.

Certainly this Western obsession with materialism lies behind our Western obsession with things. It is our often unconscious belief that only matter truly exists that drive our urge to achieve material success. After all if there is only matter what other goals can there conceivably be in life other than the accumulation of material goods or the wherewithal to do so?

Now pervading this viewpoint emphasising materialism and determinism is the notion that the spirituality that developed as a result of our growing consciousness created a problem that needed to be rationally dealt with. A feature of spiritual experience is wonder. But wonder to rationality is seen as a failure to understand, which therefore means we must double down on our efforts to explain everything in terms of physical constructs. To any spiritual person, wonder is not the sign of an intellectual deficit but the natural reflection of the joy of realisation of Oneness.

The Gnostic Gospel of Matthias explains:

Wondering at the things that are before you is the first step to the deeper knowledge.

This sentiment was reflected by a Zen Master:

It is because I wondered deeply that I attained a penetrating realisation. If you do not reflect and examine, your whole life will be buried away.

Let me hasten to add that neither of these sages is suggesting you need to assuage your wonder by seeking a scientific explanation. Indeed even Einstein embraced wonder. He is reputed to have said:

The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as all serious endeavour in art and science. He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.

In many ways you might contrast the approach of science and mysticism like this. The scientist too often when confronted with wonder will seek to explain it away. The mystic confronting wonder embraces it as the natural underpinning of the relationship between humankind and the Universe.

A little understood but inherent nature of the Universe is that it has aspects beyond human ken. However we look at it, the human mind is just a fragment of the Universal consciousness. It is impossible for a part to fully understand the whole. (We see manifestation of this problem in Goedel’s Incompleteness Theory in mathematics and in Physics, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Theorem.)

This is the great failing of materialism. Materialism seeks direct, quantifiable explanations.

Quantum theorist Werner Heisenberg understood this, when he said;

Quantum theory provides us with a striking illustration of the fact that we can fully understand a connection though we can speak of it only in images and parables.

It is no surprise then that the greatest sages have sought to impart wisdom to us via metaphor and parable. The fundamental truths of the Universe are not accessible to materialist reductionism.

Now one of the difficulties that we frequently confront is that many equate spirituality with conventional religion. In my mind religion (and particularly conventionally practised religion) is mostly a pale imitation of spirituality. At its very essence spirituality is what drives us to come to an understanding of the deep relationship between mind and life.

All the conventional religions (with perhaps the notable exceptions of Buddhism and Vedanta) rely on the notion of an external God whom we can turn to for guidance and comfort. We normally adhere to a concept of such a God not because we have independently come to that conclusion but because we assume automatically the religious beliefs of our family, significant others or because we belong to a community that espouses such beliefs.

In the beginning most religions viewed God as a very powerful tribal chieftain who possessed many human traits like jealousy, anger and pride. This is not surprising. The traditional belief would have us believe that God created man in his own image. It is much more likely that Humankind created their God in Man’s image. As someone said if horses had a God no doubt it would be cast in the image of a horse!

Philosophically however, as humans gained a better understanding of their consciousness, these primitive religious beliefs became less satisfactory in meeting their spiritual needs.

One of the key figures in this transition of thinking was the German American theologian, Paul Tillich. Tillich was critical of the prevailing view that God was a supernatural being. He felt that if God was a being he could not then properly be called the source of all being. Instead he proposed that there must be some sort of divine essence that stood above all being. He called this foundational principle the “Ground of Being”.

Tillich appreciated that any meaningful concept of God must be abstract and personal. These sentiments were echoed in Albert Einstein’s thoughts when he declared:

Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible concatenations there remains something subtle, intangible, and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion.

Historically we have had many religions competing to demonstrate how their beliefs were superior to other religions. Religions have sought to differentiate themselves from each other with a tendency to believe that the dogma they preached reflected a special truth that others could not emulate. Aldous Huxley questioned this concept in his book published in 1945, The Perennial Philosophy. The perennial philosophy is a perspective in philosophy and spirituality that views religious traditions as sharing a single, metaphysical truth or origin from which all esoteric and exoteric knowledge and doctrine has grown. In defence of his position Huxley quoted extensively from both Western and Eastern wisdom traditions. How perverse are the suffering and wars religions have inflicted on us arguing over what, in such a light, are inconsequential trifles?

But there is another, more important trap we have fallen into in our search for spiritual answers.

It is well illustrated by a Buddhist parable I remember reading many years ago. It went something like this.

A young man mounted on an ox went out into the world. He had a few adventures before coming across an old monk. As he passed the monk he stopped to pay the old man due respect.

“Well young fellow,” asked the monk, “What might you be doing out in the world?”

“Venerable father, I am searching for an ox.”

“How do you seek to find one?”

“I am looking for the tracks of an ox. Have you seen any?”

“Well actually I have,” said the old man.

“Oh! Please tell me where you saw them. Are they far from here? “asked the young man excitedly,

“No, not at all. They are really close by. Turn your head and you will see them on the ground right behind you.”

The young man did as he was bid and was startled to see the impressions on the ground of ox hooves. The prints of the ox hooves led right up to him! He finally realised he was astride the ox.

Now most of us spend our lives searching externally for the answers to the mysteries of spirituality, when all the time they lie within us.

Indeed Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “What lies before us and what lies behind us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”

The traditional gods of Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean were human like figures but with additional powers. When you envisaged such a god it would seem apparent that they would be found in the world “out there” ie external to you. They resided in physical places like Mount Olympus in Greek mythology or “heaven” in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

On the other hand the Eastern traditions promoted the notion that the essence of our spirituality lay internally, in our own minds.

In many ways those who adopted the mainstream Western religions were like that young man astride his ox going out in the world to find an ox. (That is not to say that there were no Christian, Muslim or Jewish mystics who saw through this paradox. There certainly were – but their beliefs were not mainstream and barely appreciated by the majority of adherents,)

Sometimes we are misled by our own reactions to spirituality.

For example you will no doubt have heard believers say such things as, “My beliefs were reinforced when I entered a famous cathedral and I experienced a sense of awe.” But the sense of awe was not in the cathedral, it was in the believer.

Or someone might say, “My belief in God was validated when I experienced great wonder by seeing the grandeur of Nature when I visited The Great Barrier Reef (The Grand Canyon, Uluru or whatever). But again you must realise that the feeling of wonder was inherent in you and did not emanate from the impressive edifice in the natural environment.

Spirituality is of huge importance to human beings, whether they realise it or not. Let me state what I believe. I believe that spirituality matters. It reflects a fundamental human need for meaning and purpose. The search for fundamental answers must inevitably cause us to look “in here” rather than “out there”. Yet whilst I don’t believe the fundamental answers lie in the external world, sometimes what we see in the external world inspires us to look within and that surely is a good thing.

But whilst we can often be led by religious dogma, sacred sites and symbols and the esoteric musings of the sages to question further, the ultimate experience of spirituality is revealed to us in the mind. It is reflected in our sense of wonder and no matter how hard we try it won’t be resolved by resorting to rationality and reason.

We are indeed like the young man astride the ox. We look far and wide for the secret to our spirituality until we finally understand that it was always there within us.

We seek for this secret in the world of time, but it is timeless. We seek for it in the world of space but is doesn’t reside in space. We seek for it in the material world but it is not an object and cannot be seen or grasped in the exterior world.

It cannot be apprehended in a world of separation and divisiveness for it is the essence of our commonality and connection to the sacred which is inherent in all of us. Awake to the wonder of our common Spirit.

4 Replies to “Awaking to Wonder”

  1. Thank you Ted, the world is indeed too much with us, Getting and spending we lay waste our powers……. Interesting you notice the explosion of philosophies between 800BC and 300BC, but of course that’s when writing was invented, the first phonetic “alpha-bet”, so there was an explosion of writing…. Sappho, Homer, Herodotus. There may or may not have been philosophies before this but we had no way of knowing until writing came along. And finally, before the Greeks came along, the Gods were mainly earthly animals, but the Greeks were the first to create their God in the image of themselves and to look upwards for that God. I wonder what happened to suddenly make a God be conceived as up and not down? Anyway, by the time that idea evolved into today’s God, the creator and created were reversed, as you point out….. Good work…. Yours Jack

  2. It’s always good to read your writings and your views. And I see you reference books that you referred me to many years ago.
    (As a side note: I’m back working for Downer. Come full circle!)
    I was wondering if you have written about the ethics of non human animals at the hands of humans.
    I was shocked, when reading Peter Singer’s work, to understand that Martin Seligman subjected monkeys to horrific and disturbing experiments in his research.
    I would be interest to read your views on the ethics of factory farming (from an animal suffering perspective and an environment one), vegetarianism and veganism.

    1. Well Matt, how nice it is to hear from you again. It is gratifying to know you still remember some of the references I gave you.

      I hope that Downer now appreciates it needs to hear from somebody with a different perspective which I assume you will bring to the table.

      I have not studied Peter Singer’s philosophy extensively, but what I have read it seems to me that he is a little obsessed with the rights of non-human animals. I think it is admirable to respect, care for and protect other animals but I don’t believe we should do so at the expense of human welfare.

      As for vegetarianism and veganism, I am sorry to tell you that I am the cook in our household and every Saturday night steak is on our menu.

      Please forgive my gastronomical errors!

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