One cannot help but be in awe when one contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, or of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.
Friends and fellow meditators, what happens when you bring mindful attention to your experience? Do you find just an impermanent and innately dissatisfied empty incarnation on its way from universal consciousness to universal consciousness? I don’t want to appear spiritually incorrect, and maybe I just don’t get it, but why would you want to see the glass as completely empty when you could see it as half full, at least? True, seeing the emptiness feels good in comparison to being deeply engaged in your suffering, but there is a different kind of enlightenment experience available to us. As Einstein said, “There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
You can easily arouse the miraculous, the awe inside. Next time you meditate, instead of paying attention to just the breath, or just the thoughts, you could bring your attention to this improbable, mysterious, pulsing, highly complex, sensate, conscious organism —you—or what the Buddha called “this precious human existence.” After all, here is a piece of the universe that can move itself around, know of itself, and even trace some of its origins in the universe. “Just this” is a very rare experience, at least in our neighborhood of the Milky Way, and that experience is especially available to people who have cleansed somewhat the doors of perception. You are the mystery of life itself, and when you meditate you can drink deeply at the fountain of amazement.
One of our finest capacities as human beings is to wonder at ourselves and the world, and meditation cultivates this ability. Conversely, evoking wonder or awe is a skillful means that can bring curiosity and vitality to our practice and our lives. Furthermore, when we can find wonder in what already exists, we won’t have to consume as much in a fruitless search for satisfaction.
Sometimes all it takes to arouse awe or wonder is a bit of simple reflection on the facts of life. I use an exercise I call “Be Here Wow!” which I consider a workout for your “awe muscle,” which is the muscle that makes your jaw drop open in amazement. If the exercise doesn’t work for you, that’s okay: sometimes you are just not in the mood to be amazed. But often a little reflection on, say, the simple facts of your beating heart—a muscle that automatically flexes a few billion times in an average human lifespan and pumps blood through a circulatory system that if laid end to end would stretch all the way around the Earth—can completely change your mood. Once Swami Muktananda said that he didn’t need to perform miracles; all he had to do was tell people to pay attention to the blood circulating through their body.
Be Here Wow also includes an existential musing on the rarity of life itself. So far we know of nothing like it anywhere in the vastness of the universe, except for right here on the surface of our planet. The odds against life as we know it happening (remember, we are talking about you and me here) are literally and figuratively “astronomical.” Multiple conditions had to come together in just the right mix, with the forces of electromagnetism and gravity set at precisely the right strength, every elemental particle having a certain spin and mass, all the ingredients in exactly the right proportion to each other, and so on.
For instance, the forces of the Big Bang produced just a little bit more matter than antimatter. Since particles of matter and antimatter cancel each other out, we could only have a universe like this one because there were more of the former matter than the latter matter. If the two had been equal, the Big Bang would have just fizzled out like a fireworks show, leaving nothing but the original emptiness in its wake.
If neutrons or protons were a fraction of a degree larger or smaller, or if the nuclear force holding atomic nuclei together or the electromagnetic force pulling them apart had been a tiny bit different, then atoms would have collapsed or flown apart—and no elements such as carbon or oxygen would have been created. Then where would you be, Mr. and Ms. Carbon-based Life Form? Or Mr. and Ms. Oxygen-breathing Life Form? It’s quite elementary, my dear Watsons.
And what shape are you in? You probably have arms and legs hanging off a torso. Then there’s that heavy head sitting up on the top of that long spine. Your identity includes membership in this phylum of beings, all having spinal columns and heads and limbs like yours. The fact that you are in this particular shape is because life on Earth kept adapting itself to ever-changing environments—continents bumping into each other, ice ages coming and going. Remember, there were no beings with legs until land arose to walk on. Nature is artist and we are the art!
An accessible source of wonder can be found inside of us, in the amazing complexity of our biological selves. For instance, if you turn your mind toward your brain, you will find an organ that processes approximately 11 million bits of information a second, filters it through multiple control centers, decides what is important for your survival, and then presents you with moment-to-moment conscious snapshots of so-called reality. And you hardly have to lift a finger!
More “wow” can be found by checking out your senses (see the rest of this Inquiring Mind). For a few moments listen to the sounds around you, and as you do, remember that the world outside your head is completely silent. What is registering on your eardrums are nothing but vibrations of air: actual “sound” is all created inside of your head. In order to aid in survival (the senses are built for that purpose) life has evolved this amazing Rube Goldberg–like sound system as a way for you to perceive the world. It starts with events that cause the movement of air to reverberate through the atmosphere (air element), and then vibrate against the drums in your ears, which in turn rattle three small bones (earth element) that press against a fluid (water element) that moves another membrane that moves some tiny hairs that trigger nerve cells that send electrical signals (fire element) to the auditory center of the brain, which produces what we call “sound.” (And the green grass grows all around, all around . . . )
Equal cause for wonder is the fact that no matter what we hear (human voices speaking, wind moving through trees, horns blowing), our brain not only turns these disturbances of air into “sound,” but it also identifies the source and translates it into useful information for us. Our sound system plucks meaning out of the air, quite literally, along with music and other delights. And again, you hardly have to lift a finger!
The sense of sight is even more amazing. See for yourself. Look around you right now and you will view a masterful work of three-dimensional art, painted by the greatest painter that ever lived—your eyes and brain. What you see from moment to moment, and right now, is actually a photocopy of what exists in the world. You don’t see the original: your eyes and brain are repainting a picture of reality for you in every moment. And remember, there is no “color” in the world. You are adding the pigments to the photons and filling in all the hues.
The eye itself is just a small piece of flesh, built entirely out of sugars, fats, water and a little protein, and yet it has millions of precisely calibrated moving parts. In the early human embryo, various groups of cells grow over time to arrange themselves in a coordinated fashion to create the eyeball, optic nerve and visual cortex of the brain, as if they had somehow met and agreed in advance on the design and construction of the most sophisticated sensing instrument ever devised. Even the scientists, with their cool objectivity, are astonished by the evolution of sight. As Charles Darwin wrote: “To suppose that the eye . . . could have been formed by natural selection seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.” The eye is an “instamatic” camera for dummies. It can change focus in a fraction of a second, all the while adjusting for light and movement. Researchers say that the different muscle groups around the eyeball make up to 10,000 adjustments every day, putting out the energy equivalent necessary to walk several miles.
As for the process of seeing, at this moment streams of photons are being projected onto the screen of your retina, which contains over 100 million receptors or “seeing elements.” If something moves across your field of vision, certain receptors will register its motion, others will register the object’s distance from you, while yet others are so specialized they will only be triggered by part of a human face. These receptors translate the beams of light into electrical pulses, which get sent along the million-fiber optic nerve to the primary visual cortex at the back of the brain, and from there to at least thirty other regions of the brain. What happens next is a brainwide conference call or group e-mail. Remember, during the process there is no “picture” being sent to the different regions of the brain, just electrical pulses. Some areas of the brain will translate those pulses into a recognizable object or scene, others will locate it in relation to you, others will gauge its intention and whether the object is friend or foe, while still other parts of the brain will begin preparing your response.
Remember that “you” don’t do any of this. As you look at these words on the page, the process I am describing is taking place automatically. You are not transforming the light into electrical pulses, or directing them to different parts of the brain, or turning them into meaningful information. And what you eventually see is not the original, but a moment-to-moment repainting of the panorama of light appearing before you.
What sensational things are happening at every moment inside of us! As Alfred North Whitehead wrote:
“The various qualities of the world are purely the creation of the mind. Nature always gets credit which should in truth be reserved for ourselves: the rose for its scent; the nightingale for its song; and the sun for its radiance. The poets are entirely mistaken. They should address their lyrics to themselves.”
There! All of our dreams of being artists have been fulfilled. We don’t need to go to art school or practice the piano for a million hours or knit our brow to find the right words of poesy. We are all artists, creating symphonies, improvised jazz and great painted masterpieces in every moment. (If you really want to build up your ego, go to the Sistine Chapel and realize that your brain is painting it for you.) As Walt Whitman says, “O to have my life henceforth my poem of joys!”
After engaging in some conscious reflections such as the ones above, I suggest a meditation session, where we can experience the mystery inside of ourselves: What is this warm, energized, self-regulating, self-knowing, pulsing, vibratory field of mystery? For a while at least, our innocence is restored and perception becomes laced with a sense of wonder: What is breath? Sentience? Consciousness? Aliveness? What is life? The questions are koans, skillful means, a way to be here, wow!