By Purnima Coontoor
Our ability to wonder is the magic key that unlocks the scintillating world of discovery, invention, knowledge, play, and finally self-realisation, says Purnima Coontoor.
One morning, a man started playing the violin standing outside a metro station in Washington DC. He played six famous masterpieces of great composers for about 45 minutes. It being the rush hour, hundreds of people went through the station. But barring a few who slowed down to listen for a while and throw a few coins into his hat, people hurried on their way to their destinations. Among the only attentive audience were children, who, tagging along their parents, stopped to listen to the violinist. But they were invariably forced to move along by the adults who were clearly in a hurry. The children kept looking back at him and straining to listen even as they were dragged away. In all, the violinist collected 32 dollars in 45 minutes, and when he stopped there was just one who walked up and spoke to him.
The violinist, apparently, was celebrated musician Joshua Bell, whose concert was sold out just three days earlier in a Boston theatre at approximately $100 a seat. This experiment in social behavior was set up by Washington Post to assess the perception, taste and priorities of people in contemporary times.
I read aloud this Whatsapp forward at the breakfast table that morning, and went on to list the implications of this experiment, most obviously the lack of time and inclination among most of us to recognise and appreciate beauty in commonplace situations. “So?” remarked my software engineer son dismissively, “Which idiot would expect a celebrity to perform incognito at a metro station, when people have a million things on their minds? There should be a time and place for everything. I hope this was one inference that was derived from this exercise.” My husband grunted in agreement, both left for work in a flurry of activity as I sighed in resignation.
That afternoon, I visited a handicrafts sale with a friend, and was smitten by the vibrant colours, fabrics and artifacts on sale. As I lingered admiringly over an intricate hand-woven basket, the salesman at the counter called out to me in exasperation, “Madamji, lena hai to jaldi lelo, nahin toh aage bado. Yeh museum thodi na hain…” (Buy it if you want, else leave. This isn’t a museum). Embarrassed, I mumbled a ‘sorry’ and left. I doubt if one is allowed to linger even in a museum these days, I fumed, the whole world seems to be in such a hurry all the time. “Time is of essence. Practicality and efficiency are the premium qualities of a successful person in contemporary times, my dear,” said my friend. Sure, but ‘What is life, if full of care, there is no time to stand and stare?’ This was poet Davies anguished cry in his celebrated poem Leisure way back in 1911, so this malady seemed to be an old one with the human race. I sighed again.
Twinkle twinkle little star
Determined to shake off the general feeling of despondence and disappointment with humanity that was dogging me through the day, I sat in my little patch of garden that night to enjoy the breeze and quiet and darkness. “Shut off the TV and come out and sit here for a while,” I called out to my husband, “It’s lovely out here.” No response was forthcoming, so I settled back deeply into my favourite chair and stared at the sky. Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are! My mind drifted to my childhood days when the entire family would often gather on the terrace, eat curd rice doled out by mother into our cupped palms, and count stars. Does anyone wonder about you anymore, little star? Do you matter at all in this smartphone age of apps and Google maps? Don’t you get bored with your life, like we humans do? Have you ever taken your twinkling for granted, like we have? How I wonder what you are, whoever you are! What’s your name, little star? Tara sounds good. How long have you been around, Tara? Will you talk to me or should I just Google you, huh?
As random thoughts went round and round in my head, my eyes grew heavy, the words died down and I was drifting away to sleep _ when I noticed that the star had grown larger. I sat up warily, and even as I watched in amazement, the star smiled at me. “Did you call?” she asked.
I was totally flustered. “I did, but it was just idle wonder, you know… are you real?”
“Well, seek, and ye shall find,” she said, “yad bhavam, tad bhavati _ as you think, so it shall be. If you wonder, you land up in Wonderland. Welcome, my dear.”
Wait a minute! Wonderland? Sounded fake, and so did a smiling and talking star. Most likely I was dreaming but it was too childish a fantasy for a grown-up me.
“Men grow too old for love, my love
Men grow too old for wine
But I shall not grow too old to see
Unearthly daylight shine…”
recited the star from Chesterton’s A Second Childhood with a broad grin! Now I was fully awake.
“Who are you?”
“You just gave me a name, didn’t you. I am Tara.” She sounded very much real, and I was intrigued.
“Interesting. I didn’t expect you to ‘talk’. Have you always been able to do that?”
“To the one who wonders, everything in the universe will talk.”
“Oh, like that is it!” I was getting comfortable and chatty now. “Wonderland, hmm? Thank you for your gracious invitation. Do you get many visitors? Is entry free? How long may one stay over here? Can one stand and stare? And what do you have here in your Wonderland?”
“Everything one has ever wondered about, and everyone who has ever wondered,” she said, and swept her hand in a flourish. A strange, ethereal world, sprinkled with stardust, appeared in front of me.
The filter of human mind
“Looks like a set straight out of Disneyland to me, or like Devlok, where I come from,” I said cheekily, looking around, “But much better.”
“Hmm. But then you wouldn’t know any better. How could you?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that you have been so used to giving a name and label to everything around you, that you cease to see anything beyond it. So the mystery eludes you completely,” explained Tara kindly, “You were quick to give me a name as well, rather unimaginative if I may say so.”
I was stung, but Tara didn’t give me any time to recover. “Right now you are looking at Wonderland through the filter of your mind which has impressions of the depiction of those places by some people in your world. But,” she looked at me intensely with twinkling eyes, “that’s not the way to look.”
“No?” I was startled by the earnestness in her voice.
“No. ‘He who is certain that he knows the ending of things when he is only beginning them is either extremely wise or extremely foolish; no matter which is true, he is certainly an unhappy man, for he has put a knife in the heart of wonder’. Someone wise from your world said that. Do you know who?”
Deciding I was the ‘extremely wise’ one, I reached for the smartphone in the pocket of my dress and Googled for the info immediately. “Tad Williams, American author, TV and film personality. He apparently writes comic books as well. By the way, this place has excellent wifi connection. I didn’t know I’d get the signal here. Thanks,” I added, impressed.
“Why not, when a million satellites are up here?”
“A million?!” I cried, “No way. It’s more like…” I started to reach for my smartphone again.
“1300, and counting” said Tara. “See how you don’t allow yourselves to wonder and dwell on things anymore? Everything is reduced to facts and data, supplied instantly by...”
“Swami Googleananda. Yes, we do that quite a lot.”
“Thereby putting a knife in the heart of wonder, like Williams puts it so well.”
I was mortified, but ventured to defend myself somewhat. “But it is stupid not to make use of technology when it is so easily available these days. Why waste time and energy in reinventing the wheel?”
“Agreed, but what do you do with all that extra time and energy you are left with?”
What indeed? I had no sensible answer, except to say that people spent lots of time on Whatsapp and Facebook, but I didn’t dare.
“So you are allowing your mind to become dull, lazy and rust away by not allowing for the natural process of greasing and polishing of the mind and intellect, isn’t it?”
Wonder, not worry
I sighed yet again, for the nth time that day. “You are right. We are all buried in excessive technology these days. People are losing basic skills and instincts, take simple pleasures for granted, and get bored easily. And because they get bored they immediately immerse themselves in their virtual world. We are forgetting how to be alone, to be silent, to relax, to wonder… Kids can’t do basic math anymore, nor find their way about the neighbourhood by themselves. There will come a time when they will start using GPS to find their way from their bedroom to the dining room.” I was horrified by the imagined future. “We are staring at a world full of people with dull eyes and droopy shoulders, all bent over their smartphones and sleepwalking through life. It’s a wonder that anything gets done at all in their lives!” I added bleakly, “I think you’ll have to shut down Wonderland for lack of visitors, Tara. You’ll be out of a job soon!”
“On the contrary, I’ll probably become a corporate trainer and train people in their workplaces to practice wonderment,” laughed Tara, “Or open my own Wonder Academy; foundation course over four weeks via Whatsapp! How does that sound?”
“But why not? I thought online courses were a booming business down there. It’s wonderful, actually.”
She was right. With technology, education has become a lot more accessible in the world today.
“Don’t lose any opportunity to marvel at any and everything. Then you’ll always find a silver lining in every dark cloud. That, by the way, is the first lesson in the proposed course.” Tara said with a twinkle in her eye. “Your parents looked at wonder from their terraces when an airplane passed overhead. You got inside it and looked around in wonder. A tech geek of today would get into the cockpit and look at the control panel in wonder… so every generation wonders, and not necessarily at the same things that you wondered about. Simple evolution.”
“Yes. Technology is wonderful, but we abuse it rather than use it, like we do with all other resources on earth,” I persisted, “you implied it yourself.”
“I only pointed out the obvious so that you could rectify it. So relax, you are in Wonderland, not Worryland! Second lesson - to wonder is ‘to marvel’ and not ‘to worry’. Wonder keeps you rooted in the present, worry takes you to an imaginary future. Worry is destructive, wonder is constructive. Take care of the present and the future will take care of itself. Take care of yourself and the world will take care of itself. So don’t forget to wonder today to build a green world for tomorrow. Ting-tong…” she ended in a sing song voice, as if she were in an ad.
“Very funny,” I said, “but seriously, wonder and build a green world?!”
“Oh, wondering is very much environment friendly! The more people wonder about the universe, the more they will have the desire to understand it, and the less inclined they will be to destroy it. Thus, it’s wonder that makes the present exciting and the future secure. Can you see that?”
Mysterious, the source of discovery
I did indeed. “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious; it is the source of all true art and science,” said Einstein. Newton wondered about a falling apple, Fleming about bacteria, and the world was never the same again! What if Copernicus hadn’t wondered, or Columbus, wandered? What if Archimedes hadn’t had the Eureka moment? The world would be much poorer if Shakespeare hadn’t exclaimed, “O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is!” and let his imagination flow! It was wonder that transformed an illiterate simpleton into the great 5th century writer and dramatist of Sanskrit literature, Kalidasa, who, wonderstruck on beholding the beautiful form of Goddess Kali, spontaneously broke out in praise of her in lyrical Sanskrit. Philosophers wondered about God and theologies were born. Sages wondered about the universe and the scriptures were born. When asked by the Yaksha, ‘What is the greatest wonder?’ The Pandava Yudhishthira said he marveled at the foolishness of man who, though saw people die everyday, wished to live forever! Thus, for one who cares to pause and wonder, every being, every thought, every act and everything in the world is an object of wonder, a mystery to unravel, a puzzle to crack. Any path breaking invention, discovery or creative expression could only be a result of wonderment. Artists and scientists, doctors and magicians, technologists and industrialists, mystics and philosophers, kings and leaders _ all of them wondered _ and helped the world go round a little more merrily!
But these were extraordinary visionaries, and I, an idle wonderer without enough steam to erupt in creativity. Did I count in the cosmic scheme of things?
Wonder is for all
“Every generation has two sets of people _ the movers and shakers, and the rest. It’s not necessary for everyone to be a mover and shaker, but it’s imperative for everyone to be moved and shaken often, to get a broader perspective on everything and, thereby, become a little less self- centered _ lesson three” said Tara. “And just being willing to be overwhelmed will make you count in the cosmic scheme of things; the creator has gone to great lengths to create this world. She would love to be acknowledged and appreciated now and then,” she smiled, “Now, tell me when was the last time the breath was knocked out of you.”
That was easy. When I had gone Bungee Jumping. An experience I would never forget. I could still relive the terror I was gripped with as my feet had lost touch with the ground and I plummeted down into a bottomless pit. As the air was sucked out of my lungs, with blood pounding in my ears and the heart thudding furiously, my mind had stopped working completely. Yet, I had to admit grudgingly, there was a heightened sense of awareness that had made me feel intensely alive. But I wasn’t keen on being overwhelmed in that manner again, no ma’am!
“It’s all very well to be zapped now and then, but isn’t it rather strenuous to be in that state all the time? It’s kind of difficult to go around one’s business feeling like that on a regular basis!”
Tara laughed prettily. “Delightfully put. Yes, Bungee Jumping can be a traumatic experience.” she said kindly, “But it’s exhilarating too, isn’t it? Didn’t you feel refreshed and more alive after that?”
Oh yes I did, for days on end after that. “But…”
“But you can’t depend on adventure sports to get your daily dose of wonder, right?” “You said it.”
“The idea is not to depend on extreme physical stimuli to be struck with wonder. That would be ridiculous, not to mention fatal.”
I was relieved. “Then what does an ordinary mortal need to do to reboot and refresh regularly?”
“That’s lesson four of my course _ develop an attitude of wonder. Learn to look at everything differently. Look with the eyes of a child, as if you were looking at it for the first time. Or look as if it were for the last time. Wouldn’t you look differently, then? Try that, and you might even find the Divine behind the mundane, just like all those scientists, poets and philosophers did.”
As I paused to take in the import of that extraordinary statement, the cryptic lines of William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence came to my mind…
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
Nature is wonderful
To see everything as if I had never seen it before _ the proposition sounded fantastic, but quite outside the realm of my imagination; rather difficult and impractical too. How on earth can I look at a toothbrush with wonder, for example?
“I sincerely request you not to start with the toothbrush, unless you wish to sabotage your wonder project before it can take off,” reprimanded Tara severely. “Start with nature. The sunrise. The sea. The mountains. Your garden. Isn’t it easier to feel overwhelmed by nature, no matter how often you look at it? Nature, my dear, has done 99 percent of the work, to complete the experience you only need to add that one percent _ merely achieve a shift in awareness.”
I couldn’t agree more. Even on an overcrowded beach, the expanse of the ocean can still the mind. Even in the marketplace, the fragrance of jasmine blooms can refresh the senses. Even in sweltering heat, a light breeze can cool the body. The foundation of the path of devotion or bhakti was to refer to these forces of nature as God and look upon them with reverence and devotion. Only one steeped in bhakti and wonder could see Lord Shiva in an ice block and worship a mountain cave as his abode! I still remember how dwarfed and insignificant I felt when I stood in the lap of nature at the height of 13,000 ft, at the holy shrine of Amarnath a couple of years ago. Surrounded by the looming ice-capped mountains and enveloped in unearthly silence, none of my thoughts had mattered, none of me had mattered. It was sheer wonder just to be standing there, soaking it all up. How did this wonder phenomenon work, after all?
Wonder causes self-discovery
“Lesson five, and you answered that yourself _ it worked because you didn’t matter. The phenomenon is of absence, not presence, as Osho would put it. Up there, amid the magnificence of the towering Himalayas, you, with your expectations and prejudices, desires and fears, attachments and repulsions, were absent. You, with your open mind and heart and entire being, were present. The past and future ceased to be; you were jerked into the present. In that eternal moment the mind was incapable of going on with its constant chatter of remembering, recording, analyzing, judging, explaining and verbalising. Your usually fragmented senses integrated to create an intense awareness and experience.”
“You are right! In fact, I felt the separation between me and the mountains melt away. I felt as if I was an organic part of the whole scene, I guess like a mountain lion _ I totally belonged there, you know!”
Tara laughed, “Which brings us to the sixth lesson _ when one comes face to face with something that is unexpected, extraordinary and inexplicable, the mind stops, the identification with the body-mind complex ceases, and that’s the reason you feel one with the Universe.”
I paused, and repeated this extraordinary truth to myself again. As it sunk in, I felt excitement mounting in me; it thrilled me to the core. “Existence reveals itself to the one who wonders.” I pronounced in awe, “It is forever ready and willing to share its secrets with one who approaches it unconditionally and humbly, devoid of all acquired knowledge, willing to be surprised, nay, knocked out. That is how the secrets of the phenomenal world were discovered by scientists through the ages!”
“And the magic never ceases even after you discover how it works. That is why an Einstein could still exult over a ray of light, because as he remarked, we still do not know one thousandth of one percent of what nature has revealed to us.”
“And that is why one will never again take two plus two for granted, because it expresses a thought of God, as it did to 'the man who knew infinity' _ Srinivasa Ramanujan.”
As Tara and I excitedly exchanged notes like little children in shared wonder, the toothbrush loomed over my Himalayas to bring me down to earth with a thud. “But Tara, the identification with the body-mind complex is far too strong. How can one dissolve the identity once and for all, and see the Divine behind the mundane everywhere? How can one abide in awe all the time? Is it even possible?”
“Aha, now you’re asking the right questions! And not a moment too soon. The creator Herself is waiting in readiness for you at the final chapter of the course, to reveal the secret of existence,” said Tara, very solemnly, “It’s not only possible, but it’s the very purpose of human life to abide forever in awe and bliss. The outer world can only take you thus far, but the inner world takes you to infinity itself. You’ll surely find the answer in the depths of your being.”
I closed my eyes and stayed that way for what seemed like eternity. Then I heard the soft strains of the verses from the Kena Upanishad, which I used to chant along with my father as a young girl, from afar. Kena in Sanskrit means ‘by whom’. The very first verse wondered about the most appropriate questions that God, say the sages, was waiting to hear:
Directed by whom does the mind go towards objects? Commanded by whom does the life force move? At whose will do men utter words? What power directs the eyes and ears?
The sage of Kena seemed to be addressing me directly – to see the Himalayas with wonder was the beginning, to wonder ‘who’ is seeing the Himalayas is beginning of wisdom. To wonder about the Himalayas was fine, but to ask ‘who’ wonders is the crux of it. Who is the one throwing light on the Himalayas so that it can be perceived? By whose grace do the eyes perceive its beauty? Who, who, who… I found my answers, said the sage, but each individual needs to find the Eureka moment of self-realisation for oneself. “Shine the torch of wonder inwards and ask the mother of all questions - Who Am I?” said Ramana Maharshi. When one persistently and unrelentingly engages in self-enquiry, the body-mind complex will be dissolved forever, leaving behind the universe itself, and an awareness of existence that is ever wonderful, blissful _ Sat-Chit-Ananda.
Tingling all over, I opened my eyes to find myself back in my garden chair. The same garden now seemed extraordinary to my eyes. The sky was clearer, the stars shone brighter, the shrubs glowed with an ethereal light. The whole of existence was in utter harmony, like it has always been for millennia, ever at work but ever fresh. One just needed that shift in awareness to perceive the wonder of it all! The faint sound of TV in the background was in harmony as well, a part of the world around me. I heard my husband call out, “Hey, come and watch Mega Builders on Discovery channel. You know what amazing technology has gone into building this ship? It’s mind blowing!” Yes, he was in wonder. My son drifted in, browsing on his mobile. “Mom, you were staring at that star up there to the right, isn’t it? Well, it is called Deneb. It’s the most distant star from earth but you can see it with naked eyes as it’s the most luminous. Look, he held his iPhone to my Tara, and she came into sharp focus on the screen, “With this app you can map the stars and constellations and know a lot more about them. Wonderful, isn’t it?” Yes, he was in wonder too!
How could it be otherwise? For, vismayo yoga bhumika, says the Shiva Sutra. Wonder is the foundation of yoga, the divine harmony of creation. The entire cosmos was thus poised in constant wonderment! I looked up again at Deneb, and Tara winked back. The magic, I discovered to my delight, never stopped working indeed!
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