The Path of Wonder
I was a student at Northfield Mount Hermon School when it happened. I had just finished watching a segment of Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth for literally the 34th time when the interviewer Bill Moyers asked Joseph Campbell the ultimate question: “What is the meaning of life?” To that Joseph Campbell replied “What is the meaning of life!? What is the meaning of a flee? Its just that it is there and you are there... and that that existence is the foreground of a wonder.” Now I had been very philosophically inclined for many years now, always with a deep curiosity for the “Truth” with a capital “T”. When what Joseph Campbell said entered my brain it planted a seed. I finished putting the videos away, which were VHS then, and I started walking outside, thinking about this concept of wonder. “Life is a wonder, yea I know that, that's old news right?” I thought to myself. Finally I walked outside on a beautiful sunny afternoon with this question ripening in my brain. That seed Joseph Campbell planted in my head just then started to germinate, cracking the layers of assumption, normalcy, and a sense that everything is ordinary. In that moment, I started to open up in a way I didn't see coming. If the world was a wonder, if it was a mystery, then everything was completely unexplained, totally free of all assumptions of ordinary. Everything was an Absolute Mystery, and therefore a Wonder. This wave of awakening to this reality came over me, and I looked at a tree and I saw it as if for the first time, “wow, that's a tree!” I thought. And a little squirrel was eating at the nuts of the tree, and I thought “wow, its a squirrel!” How idiotic I must have seemed to others passing by! But what struck me in that moment what a baffling, life changing realization, that nothing is ordinary, that nothing has a conceptual explanation for existing at all, and therefore everything is a Wonder. This was an infinite realization. This was for me the first taste of many experiences in my life that I would call “spiritual”, and it laid the foundation for a way of understanding the world that has never left me since, one which in this writing I intend to share.
The reason why I call it the Path of Wonder is because it is not just a special moment, its not just a passing enjoyment, it is as deep as any spiritual practice out there. This pertains to the infinite depth of life, which in turn is also about the infinite depths of your own mind. The Path of Wonder is a spiritual practice that can be done in collaboration with any other spiritual practice you do, or it can be done on its own. The Path of Wonder is intended to help people realize that they are magnificent manifestations, that life is a miracle, and that we all share this ride in the Wonder of life.
Wonder is not an old attitude. Everyone felt wonder when they were kids, looking at bugs on a leaf, or a bird in the yard, just awestruck at how amazing little things can be. However as we grew older and things became more commonplace, we started to glaze over everything around us with this layer of ordinary, that things are old information and therefore uninteresting. This glaze of ordinary is what blocks us from truly experiencing the vast meaning and vitality of everything in every new moment.
The Path of Wonder is something that jolts us, something that shakes us to our core, to realize that life is not ordinary, and that everything is truly a Wonder. When we realize this our ability to appreciate things and people becomes so vast it is like an endless ocean, like an infinite bliss that reveals itself as the forms around you. Of course the Path of Wonder can be a gradual practice, one you seek out to your own depth. However in my life it struck me like lightning, like something I will never forget for the rest of my life, The Path of Wonder has that power.
So let me further break down what the Path of Wonder actually is. It is a meditation.The Path of Wonder is a spiritual practice bringing about deep realization of the state of existence. It is based in a deep recognition of two main attributes: the Absolute Mystery of existence and the Wonder of existence.
The Absolute Mystery of existence is understood in recognizing that there is no conceptual explanation for why we exist at all. By conceptual explanation I mean something we can grasp, understand, have a concept of. God is not a conceptual explanation, since God is an infinite mystery as well and therefore beyond our thoughts. The Big Bang is not an explanation, since there is no explanation for it, and even now they consider multiple universes with multiple big bangs, all without an explanation. The universe is also thought to be infinite according to some theories, and there is no conceptual explanation for an infinite thing because we can't conceive of it. Even if there is a true explanation for existence, it is not a conceptual one. This lack of a true conceptual explanation for existence leads one to experience the world as a great mystery, as an unexplainable phenomenon. This not only applies to the world but also to one's self. This state of mind of being without explanation is the basis for practice, which can be a thought experiment or a true belief. If you truly believe your concepts cannot grasp why existence is at all you have the feeling.
However despite having no real grasp conceptually of why existence is at all, we experience a world anyway, in stark contrast to our expectation. And it is a meaningful world. Because we experience something without explanation, and yet it is meaningful, we experience Wonder. This is the Wonder of life. In realizing the Wonder of existence we feel a deep meaning, one that is truly as vast as an ocean, a meaning that is totally unexplained, and simultaneously fully experienced. It is like a miracle. All of existence is this miracle, this great Wonder. It is free of all conceptual explanations, it is an Absolute Mystery.
The mystery of existence is absolute because the mystery, or the lack of a conceptual explanation, applies all the way to the most profound level of existence. Imagine an ocean, with many waves on it stretching as far as the eye can see. Those waves could be in the shapes of houses, trees, squirrels, people and everything that is in the world. Those waves represent the relative world, the world of tall and short, high and low, this and that, mind and matter. The Ocean itself, which is all the water, is the Absolute, that which is the ultimate truth or the ultimate reality of existence. It applies to everything because it is the ground of everything. And yet it is transcendent of all things. That is the Absolute. What I am trying to say is that this realization of wonder applies not just to the houses and trees and squirrels, to the waves of reality, but also to the ocean itself, the Absolute. Even the ultimate reality, the Absolute level of existence, lacks a conceptual explanation. Therefore, the mystery of being is an Absolute Mystery.
Let me explain now the ways you may experience the Absolute Mystery and the Wonder. You may experience it existentially, meaning the very existence of an object in this present moment only is an Absolute Mystery and a Wonder. Also, you can understand it in terms of its causal story: this object that came about from these causes for this reason is an Absolute Mystery and a Wonder. The former celebrates its very existence here and now, whereas the latter celebrates its causal story as well where it came from, not just as a story of its physical causes, but also the meaning of its experiences or conditions in the past, like a family heirloom or a person.
This also can apply to yourself. You can recognize your mere existence here and now as being a Absolute Mystery and a Wonder, or you can also recognize your causal, meaningful story of your life and upbringing and everything as being an Absolute Mystery and a Wonder. You can apply it in the same way to existence itself, where existence itself is an Absolute Mystery and a Wonder and its causal story is an Absolute Mystery and a Wonder. This of course could also be applied to the future of what those things and people could become.
So how do you practice the Path of Wonder? The immediate answer is everywhere! There is no moment that is without the vastness of being, the Wonder of life, and so you can share in it everywhere. But it is also helpful to cultivate a regular sitting practice. To do this it is helpful to find a place you can be awestruck, like in a park or in nature or maybe on a crowded street. From there you can cultivate a realization of the Absolute Mystery and Wonder of life which includes everything you're observing as well as yourself. Let this soak in slowly, soak into your mind and heart. This is a good way to cultivate regularly. More than this, you can do sitting meditation practice in a chair or cross legged on the ground and reflect on Absolute Mystery and Wonder, allowing it to deepen and become beyond your ideas to give way to a profound feeling and intuition of this realization. The Absolute Mystery and the Wonder have no end, it deepens forever. You can continue to deepen your understanding of it till the day you die, and it will only get better. You can decide if you prefer a gradual path or a sudden deep realization, its just a matter of how squeamish or daring you are. If you have an intuition, then stick with that, it will expand over time. If you need a practice to follow in the beginning here is a guided meditation you can do on your own:
4x Breathing in I am here
Breathing out I am now
4x Breathing in there is no ordinary
Breathing out I exist in this moment
4x Breathing in this is an Absolute Mystery
Breathing out this is a Wonder.
Do this for as long as you want. In my experience the intuition you get from this is more important than the guided meditation. You can let it go if you want and focus on the intuition alone.
So what happens to you when you practice the Path of Wonder? Well, first of all, immediately you will feel a deep sense of appreciation for life, for all the magic that is in every moment. This is what I call realizing the vastness of the ordinary. Once you know the Wonder in a way that shakes your core, you never go back, you always know how meaningful each moment is, how meaningful everything is. Even something as small as a pebble on the sidewalk has infinite meaning, not just because of the causal flow that leads back to the formation of the planets and the stars and the galaxies and the universe, but that even more than all that, it is also participating in this Great Wonder of life, it too is an Absolute Mystery and therefore a Wonder. Secondly, if you go to deep levels of your practice with it, you can start to experience a deep spirituality. If you believe in God, you will know him or her better. If you believe in science and are atheist, you will know the meaning of life better and it will make you a better person. You will be happier, more loving, and more present with your life. You will look at the clouds at sunset and not just see beautiful forms, you will truly see the “brushstrokes of God”. And you will look into your child's eyes and see this little form you helped grow, that she is so precious and beautiful that I want to make more time for her. Finally if you take the practice seriously, it can bring you to some of the deepest levels of spiritual realization.
So what about all the suffering and bad things in the world? What about those who commit wrong actions? How do we incorporate those things in our practice of Wonder? Just because existence is a Wonder doesn't mean there is no work to do. On the contrary, the path of Wonder can empower us to see all the negative things in the world being embraced by a more fundamental truth, one that allows us to be open and offer our loving action where it is needed. The path of Wonder does not make things right when they were wrong, it does not make stealing not a crime, but what it does is offer an overarching perspective. Despite all the suffering and wrong in the world, it is still a part of the Wonder of life. They are all waves in the ocean, even if they are suffering. That means that those waves in the ocean of Wonder that are not in touch with it, not in touch with this meaningful and love-inspiring core of reality, can be led into harmful places in their minds. Teaching love, compassion, and the meaning of life can be a profound transformational tool.
I feel it incumbent upon me to list some potential pitfalls in this practice. Once you realize that life is an Absolute Mystery, that is not permission to just do whatever you want. Just because existence has no conceptual explanation doesn't mean love isn't meaningful or worth cultivating or practicing. You get what you give in this world, and even if you know the Absolute Mystery it doesn't make you immune. There are always consequences for our actions, that is certain. Also, it is definitely a scary thing for some to have an experience of the Absolute Mystery of being. We are programmed to fear the unknown. But if you let go, give in to this obvious truth of life, then you can release some baggage you didn't know you had, and true spiritual bliss can arise in its wake. It is utterly ecstasy to know the Absolute Mystery and the Wonder. If it feels bad you're not doing it right, just let things settle and start small: what is the wonder of a flower, the wonder of a butterfly? Just like that. Finally, just because you know something doesn't mean everyone you know has to also. Share what you can, but some people are just not ready for this kind of infinite depth, this vast realization. Let others be, and come from the great heart and love that comes with the practice and maybe they'll be interested some day.
I feel The Path of Wonder is a beautiful and meaningful ornament to any spiritual path or practice. It does not need to be an exclusive practice, since it is just a realization of the truth of existence. Whether you are a Christian, or a Muslim, or a Jew, or a Buddhist, or a Hindu or an atheist, the Path of Wonder will fill your life with meaning, or allow you to realize what has always been there so obviously but you hadn't seen it. I also believe that even if you do not think the world is ultimately a Wonder, to practice it for a time still causes a worthy liberation because it does something good to your heart. The Path of Wonder is a beautiful practice, one that I have been given and one I love to give to you. May it be a catalyst for great meaning to fill your heart, and brighten your life with the gift of Wonder.