I hope this has been an interesting and insightful journey so far. You might be curious, though, as to what you’ll be able to take back home with you once we’ve made it to our destination. Sure, you might be thinking, childhood is a magical and wonder-filled time for many, but yours was not so idyllic. Besides, we’re not children anymore. We’re grown up, and we’re fallen – with bills to pay, problems to solve, and sufferings to bear. How can this recollection of that which we already know be of any benefit to us at this point in our lives? And anyway, children can be darned selfish brats at times! Isn’t the world already buckling under the weight of all of our adult selfishness without our regressing to some idealized childhood state?
|Polished Lapis Lazuli|
Certainly these are valid questions and concerns, and this seems like the perfect time to address them. First of all, I’m well aware of the fact that my childhood was blessed in many regards. I had a safe and stable home life, and I had the Nursery in which to blossom forth. Sure enough, the long shadow of the Vietnam War did reach me even in my wooded paradise, but that is the nature of the soil in which I took root. I’m also very much aware that the soil in which you took root might have also been comprised of a real war taking place on your neighborhood street, or between loved ones within the confines of your very own home. Notwithstanding the potentially vast differences in our upbringing, I hope that each of you reading this has at least some recollection of those feelings of belonging, trust, and wonder that I’ve described – however brief or infrequent they may have been. If you can recall even one instant when you felt these things, then you can nurture it with the awareness that you presently possess. For those of you whose early childhood memories are tucked away somewhere beyond your conscious reach, please know that your reality, too, is respected. Perhaps your vicarious experience of the nature of the children in your life will allow the message contained in these pages to resonate with you all the same.
Regarding the selfishness of children: Indeed, they can be very selfish, regardless of how limited their self-awareness might be. But I doubt that there’s any disagreement that children do frequently exhibit the qualities that I’ve been discussing throughout this book – qualities that could benefit our broken world if only we would display them a bit more frequently. The key is to marry these finer childlike qualities with the self-awareness of our adult self. By doing so, we allow them to become a more regularly manifested aspect of our now fallen adult self, thereby facilitating our redemption, if you will.
Many of us are already going to great lengths to do just that via spiritual practices of one sort or another, without even realizing it. That’s the weakness of engaging in spiritual practice with a seeking mind. Since we don’t necessarily have a very good idea of what it is that we’re seeking, and how we’ll know it when we find it, our spiritual seeking can become a never-ending quest – not because we never find what we’re looking for, but because our heads can become so full of ideas and concepts related to what we’re trying to find that we don’t even recognize its reality when we do. And so we run headlong down this path or that path, seeking after God, peace, transcendence, enlightenment, nirvana, or what have you, without ever being satisfied. We never believe that we’ve really found it. Perhaps it seems too ordinary, or perhaps we think it only exists for those who’ve reached perfection, and, alas, we’re not quite good enough! Remember that?
One of a number of parables contained in the Lotus Sutra, a text revered by many Buddhists, is a story that some refer to as ‘the parable of the jewel in the robe.’ The story is told on the occasion of five hundred Buddhist saints being assured of their ultimate Buddhahood, whereas previously they’d thought that the mere extinction of human desire and the cessation of their cycle of death and rebirth was the most they could ever achieve. They rejoice, likening the Buddha to a wealthy friend who must go away on business for a time, but who, before his departure, sews an expensive jewel into the robe of one of his friends who has fallen asleep after drinking too much wine – so as to keep him in good stead while they are apart. The two friends lose touch with each other for a long time after that, during which the one with the jewel sewn into his robe experiences numerous travails. When next they meet, the one who’d sewn the jewel into the robe of the other can see that his friend has not had an easy life. He calls on his friend to take note of the jewel hidden inside of his robe, impressing upon him that he can now use it so as to never want for anything ever again.
We are like that friend who had too much to drink and commenced to struggling for the rest of his life without realizing what he already possessed. We became intoxicated with our self-hood and forgot the wisdom of our childhood. Yes and even the “saints” in our midst frequently overlook the forest for the trees – busying themselves with the perfection of rituals and practices and prayers without ever realizing that those rituals and practices and prayers are intended to bring their awareness to that which they already know. So, in large part, what I want to convey with this book is the reality that we can imbue our existing spiritual practices with deeper meaning and intentionality, and a stronger sense of immediacy, by grounding them in our known experience rather than assuming that they are taking us to some heretofore unknown place. It is like orienting a map to the terrain. If we can see a landmark or two with our very own eyes and then point to their depictions on the map, then we gain confidence in the map’s ability to give us guidance. So let's consider these spiritual landmarks that we already know. Let’s bring them to conscious awareness so that we may cultivate them with greater success. Beginning with wonder, then, let's examine them in turn.
Wonder begins to fade or become co-opted as we grow older. When we are children, everything is new and unknown. But as we grow we begin to put layer upon layer of theory and explanation between “us” and the world of which we were once an integral part. How did the world begin? Why, God created it, of course. And so our wonder at the very existence of the world becomes curtailed. How did the world begin? The Big Bang started it, of course. And so our wonder becomes diminished one “explanation” at a time. We begin to separate from the world, and as that separation grows the world comes to be seen for its utility rather than as the very ground of our being.
Perhaps the child who once wondered grows up to be a scientist who makes a living trying to understand and explain – a very noble occupation, to be sure. Nonetheless, there is the inherent risk that her wonder might come to be co-opted for the sake of monetary gain or enhanced reputation within the scientific community. The pure wonder of her childhood years might come to be supplanted by the more “utilitarian wonder” that drives the research and development laboratories of corporations all over the world.
Perhaps we’ve grown so far removed from wonder that we’re now jaded and world-weary. We think we have the world all figured out – like some game that we’ve played so many times that the the only thing standing between us and hopeless boredom is the uncertainty of the next roll of the dice or turn of the card. On the other hand, we might fancy ourselves filled with wonder. After all, we lap up the latest scientific discoveries like cool water on a hot summer’s day. We gobble up facts about the world as if we were eating popcorn while watching a blockbuster movie. What we might not realize, though, is that such “pseudo wonder” has more to do with the edification or the reification of the self than its transcendence. The self always wants more and more. It can never quite be enough. And so our “pseudo wonder” will never amount to anything more than entertainment that keeps us from growing jaded and world-weary.
The wonder of children, however, is like a question with absolutely no expectation of an answer. It’s like a bright and plump and juicy piece of fruit that we gaze upon without the desire to consume it ever entering our mind. Consumption, after all, requires both a subject and an object, but the wonder of children is an example of the very transcendence of subject and object. More precisely, the wonder of children precedes the slicing and dicing of the world into bite-sized little pieces for our consumption in the first place.
How, then, are we adults to nurture the wonder of our childhood years? We can begin by making time to simply be still and watch what goes on around us and within us – without any desire to learn anything in particular, or see anything in particular, or feel anything in particular. No matter where we are we can be like that child that we once were, sitting still beside our very own pond – listening and watching.
Go and sit down on the grass somewhere. It will just seem like grass at first, but it will gradually reveal itself to be so much more over time. Maybe you'll find a variety of grasses, as well as clover, plantain, and weeds. But you need not try to name each one. Simply notice how they are different. Let your fingers find the earth in which they root. Perhaps you'll find something crawling in the shadows between the earth and the stalks and leaves. Lay back and look up at the sky, and the clouds, and everything that flies through and floats on the air. Can you detect the sun moving across the sky? Can you see the spots and squiggles that exist in the field of your imperfect vision? Feel the earth against your back and the breath inside your lungs. Wonder will arise – wordless, transcendent wonder.
Indeed, a natural place can be especially conducive to wonder, but you can find it anywhere. You can find it in an urban or industrial environment by closing your eyes and listening to the sounds. The rumblings and whirrings, the hissings and clunkings will begin to wash over you and through you. Don’t try to label them, or figure out their origins. Don’t try to determine whether the materials involved are stone or steel, rubber or wood. Simply listen to them, and marvel with them, and allow wonder to arise within you. You already know how to “see” in this way. Just make a little space in your life so that you can do it. You’ll wonder why it’s taken you so long!
I’ll be examining other spiritual landmarks as Chapter 8 continues. Thank you!
Lapis Lazuli by Adam Ognisty via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:
Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank