Something to Wonder At...

Sometimes people believe that one cannot teach an old dog new tricks. Some believe that things are fixed and certain. We often create boxes for ourselves and those around us, limiting our true potential and essentially going through life like a horse with blinders on.

Why not approach life like a child: open, observant, nonjudgmental.

Forget what you think you know about something. Look at it again, free of preconceptions. What is really there?

I would like to share a short passage from Eknath Easwaran, talking about the Sankhya's explanation of matter and mind:

"Sankhya is not trying to describe physical reality; it is analyzing consciousness, knowledge, for the sole purpose of unraveling the human being's true identity. So it does not begin with the material universe as something different and separate from the mind that perceives it. It does not talk about sense objects outside of us and senses within and then try to get the two together. It begins with one world of experience. Sense objects and senses are not separate; they are two aspects of the same event. Mind, energy, and matter are a continuum, and the universe is not described as it might be in itself, but as it presents itself to the human mind. As they say in the 'new physics,' it is not just the observable universe but a participatory universe.

Let me illustrate. This morning I had a fresh mango for breakfast: a large, beautiful, fragrant one which had been allowed to ripen until just the right moment, when the skin was luminous with reds and oranges. You can see from that kind of description that I like mangoes. I must have eaten thousands of them when I was growing up, and I probably know most varieties intimately by their color, shape, flavor, fragrance and feel.

Sankhya would say that this mango I appreciated so much does not exist in the world outside--at least, not with the qualities I ascribed to it. The mango-in-itself, for example, is not red and orange; these are categories of a nervous system that can deal only with a narrow range of radiant energy. My dog Bogart would not see a luscious red and orange mango. He would see some gray mass with no distinguishing features, much less interesting to him than a piece of buttered toast. But my mind takes in messages from five senses and fits them into a precise mango-form in consciousness, and that form--nothing outside--is what I experience. Not that there is no 'real' mango! But what I experience, the objects of my sense perception and my 'knowing' are in consciousness, nowhere else. A brilliant neuroscientist I was reading recently says something similar in contemporary language: we never really encounter the world; all we experience is our own nervous system.

(...) If one idea is central to yoga psychology, it is that thoughts are real and have real, tangible consequences (...)

Sankhya describes thoughts as packets of potential energy, which grow more and more solid when favorable conditions are present and obstacles removed. They become desires, then habits, then ways of living with physical consequences. Those consequences may look no more like thoughts than an oak tree looks like an acorn, but the Gita says they are just as intimately related. Just as a seed can grow into only one kind of tree, thoughts can produce effects only of the same nature. Kindness to others, to take just one example, favors a nervous system that is kind to itself."

Bertrand Russel and St. Augustine have written similar material on how one perceives the world.

It is easy to get stuck in fixed ideas, thinking that this is the way things are, and this is how it has to be. But our thoughts are powerful. We can choose to take hold of the trajectory of our lives by changing how we see and react to the world.

Take learning a language, for example. One can believe that it's too difficult to learn a new language, or this language is too hard to understand. Or, one can say: this may be difficult now because I am unused to the sounds, but if I listen openly and I remember these sounds and in what contexts they are used, I will begin to understand. We often think that it is easier to learn a new language as a child, that children pick up languages more quickly. I would argue that this is not really true. A baby does not speak, and spends most of the first 18 months or more listening and observing, without the faculty of speech. Then, as the baby begins to use words, it makes mistakes, and stumbles over grammar and definitions and spelling. Later, we still stumble over intonations, and usage of speech and how to properly employ words to convey the meaning we hold in our minds. This happens over years. And we never really stop learning. Language is adaptive and evolving.

But the key to learning anything is the willingness to learn: to be open, observant, and nonjudgmental.

Language is a fascinating thing. Just imagine: I have a thought, and then I choose to give form to this thought using certain sounds, quite like musical notes. And these sounds will be passed onto another, who then receives them through their own filter, and derives some kind of meaning based on their own experience. How amazing is that? Language need not be a barrier to understanding, and there are so many languages in the world. Even in the silence of an animal's look, something is spoken and understood.

Here is a quote from St. Francis of Assisi, one that I find helps to open the door in any situation:

" Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life. "

One doesn't have to be religious to see the beauty and the sense of such a prayer, or aspiration. On the one hand, a door of possibilities is opened; on the other, the door is closed. Sometimes, recognizing one's limitations and being compassionate to them, a door remains closed until it is ready to be opened.