Sweltering summer afternoons such as these inevitably remind me of my childhood – the still air, the unrelenting sun, and the silence only intermittently punctuated by the ratcheting sound of a grasshopper in mid hop, or the unanswered call of a field sparrow, or the sticking sound that automobile tires make as they accelerate down an almost melting asphalt road.
“How about we go fossil hunting?” I’d pose the question over the phone to my childhood friend, Charlie, or he to me.
“What time?” was the usual response, neither of us needing much in the way of convincing when it came to such suggestions.
“After lunch. One o’clock. Under the railroad trestle.”
And so we’d meet in the shade of the old wooden bridge and ride our bicycles along the dusty trail to where the new highway cut through the layers of a limestone undergirded hillside. Once there, we’d make our way slowly, almost wordlessly along the fractured strata, carefully overturning the loose rock, becoming more subtly in tune to the mysteries of their composition as we went. At first we tended toward seeing things that weren’t really there; so desirous, we were, of having first-hand knowledge of that “other” world; so easily fooled, we were, by the complexity of the Missouri limestone, embedded with concretions as it sometimes is, or riddled through with holes made by the percolating action of groundwater. After a time, though, we’d settle into our task of discerning that which had once been alive from that which had not. It was then that our discoveries became unmistakable: corals, worm tubes, brachiopods – the inhabitants of the ocean world on which our modern world was built. For some reason, though, perhaps because there were so many times that we only thought that we’d found one, my memory is rather fuzzy regarding whether or not we were ever actually successful in finding that most treasured of all specimens, at least for us, the trilobite.
When I think of my early fascination with fossils, I think of my wonder at being able to hold in my very hands something from a world so vastly different from the woodland habitat come sprawling suburb that I’d grown up in that it might well have come from an alien planet, a world so vastly distant in time as to be beyond human comprehension. And, yet, that world was still going on. I was holding it in my hands. It was my world!
Childhood was a time filled with such wonder – a time during which I felt more closely connected to nature more often than at any other time. In fact, the thought sometimes crosses my mind that all of my meditation practice since then, all of my efforts toward transcending the self, all of my attempts at seeing only that which is and nothing more, are doing nothing if not leading me back to that state that I was already intimate with as a child – a state of wonder, a state of awe, a state in which the feeling of being nestled in the palm of the universe was as real as that of holding that very same universe in the palm of my still young hand.
Zen practice is rife with such occurrences of wonder. When the mind becomes still – still enough to welcome everything while desiring nothing, still enough to see only that which is, without embellishment or detraction, still enough that the seer and the seen are no longer two – wonder invariably arises. It is at times such as these that the mind’s shell is cracked open by the simple sight of water dripping from the eaves after a rain shower – sending shadows darting sideways across the sundrenched wooden floor. It is at times such as these that the truest nature of light is to be realized in the brilliant and fleetingly perfect alignment of the sun, a piece of amber window glazing, the eye, and the mind. It is at times such as these that the taste of rich green tea from a coarsely fashioned cup amidst sparse surroundings could not possibly be improved upon. Such wonder can be known whenever we allow ourselves to be truly alive – whenever we allow ourselves to nestle in the palm of the universe, even as we hold it in the palm of our hand. It is at times such as these that the essence of “things” is most readily apparent – their luminosity, their suchness, their becoming, their interrelated and ever-changing nature. At this point the reader might enjoy begin sidetracked into reading the post entitled The Nature Of Things. Please also consider that the word ‘becoming’ is used here instead of ‘being’ in order to accentuate the non-static nature of reality.
Now, some people might wonder how it is that a spiritual practitioner such as me, without a sense of an overseeing God, without a sense of the existence of a soul that will either enjoy its karmic fruit in its next life or despair at its retribution, can possibly strive to live a moral, ethical, and other-focused existence. It is my contention that wonder is the key. If one can lead a life that never strays too far from wonder, then one will never be too far from guidance as to how one should behave.
Trilobite Fossil by DanielCD via:
Receptaculitid from the Kimmswick Limestone by Wilson44691 via:
Onniella, a brachiopod, by Dlloyd via:
Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank