Monday, February 29, 2016

The Art of Wonder: Curiosity and Its Place in Compassion

Edward, our second son at age 8 stayed home from school on Friday with a stomach bug. I noticed at about mid-point in the day, that in almost six hours he never ceased asking questions. His endless inquiries "(I have a question!) were about the world, the past, the future and the mechanics of illness. There was no boundary to his wonder, only the boundary that I could not meet each question with an answer. Siri comes in handy in moments like these. But what is more fascinating to me is the freedom to take a full morning just to explore all of the things he wanted to know about but doesn't. 

In 1649 Descartes, a French Philosopher, wrote an essay called Passions of the Soul: an attempt to categorize passions, one of the three things that humans have that allow us to respond to the outside world. The other two are appetite and the senses. Passion, defined by Descartes as “those perceptions, sensations or emotions of the soul which we refer particularly to it, and which are caused, maintained and strengthened by some movement of the spirits”. I first categorized this definition as less body-based, but anyone who experiences passion knows it is very much of the body. The sixth chapter of Passions of the Soul unites introduces wonder as "the first of all passions" illuminating Edward's place as being endlessly curious, testing his inquiring mind (and mine) for hours. 

Descartes writes: 
6. Wonder and GenerosityPerhaps the most distinctive of the passions that Descartes identifies, however is the one that involves no evaluation of its object: wonder [admiration] merely presents its object as something novel or unusual. As such, wonder produces no change in the heart or the blood, which would prepare the body for movement. But it does involve the motions of the animal spirits through the brain and into the muscles, thereby fixing an “impression” of the object in the brain. And that explains the function of wonder: to “learn and retain in our memory things of which we were previously ignorant” (AT XI 384, CSM I 354). It is our response to those features of the world worthy of our consideration – something useful both for the preservation of the mind-body union and for the soul itself in its pursuit of knowledge. Descartes's understanding of wonder may well recall Aristotle's famous dictum that philosophy begins with wonder. But wherever it begins, Descartes certainly does not think it should end there. Wonder can become excessive, and make us crave novelty simply for its own sake. Wonder is only functional if it prompts us to resolve it in the satisfaction of knowledge.
Another distinctive passion Descartes describes is generosity [generosit√©], which produces a kind of self-directed wonder, or esteem, grounded in our recognition “that nothing really belongs to us other than the free disposition of our volitions,” along with sensing “in ourselves at the same time a firm and constant resolution to use them well” (AT XI 446, slightly altered from CSM I 384). It is this passion that seems to be the keystone for “the pursuit of virtue,” in particular because it “serves as a remedy against all the disorders of the passions” (AT XI 447, CSM I 385). And although generosity is a perception directed at the self, combining a knowledge of what is truly important in and for ourselves with the will to act on the basis of that knowledge, it seems to generate like esteem for others: generous people do good without self-interest, are courteous, gracious and obliging, and live free from contempt, jealousy, envy, hatred, fear and anger for others. The key seems to be that generous people “are entirely masters of their passions” (AT XI 448, modified from CSM I 385).

How curious that he couples wonder with generosity, and I love that generous people are "masters of their passions". Compassion asks for both. Compassion, the act of caring for the happiness of others (H.H. Dalai Lama invites us to wonder about others and give of ourselves for another person's well being: generosity. Compassion invites to ask and to care. It is that simple. "How are you" is a familiar starting place. Compassion invites us to say "I want to know about you because I care." In my hurried world, mindfulness reminds me to listen more compassionately to that answer, and to ask the next question with connection and relevance. Listening is a much a part of wonder as asking the question. If I care about the happiness of others, I know that their happiness is greater if they know I am present, mindful and listening.


Wonder leads me to curiosity. Curiosity leads me to ask with a generous heart, and a generous heart teaches me how to be more compassionate. All of these human gifts and experiences are innate to living with the heart and mind of a child. As children, we are by nature curious. We are by nature inclined to wonder. We are by nature generous and compassionate beings. And, now at 44, tumbled in and out of the adult world where we forget many things we knew as children (like where the fairies live) I am working on remembering what it is like to have a heart and of a child. Thank goodness I have an 8 year-old and a 9 year-old to remind me.

I want to be a master of compassion, too. And so this multi-year study of compassion begins with glimpses back at the great thinkers of our histories. Much of my exploration will be based in how compassion is expressed in philosophy, religion and art. I will study the collection of works of art from the Crow Collection of Asian Art as catalysts and purveyors of compassion. I will learn from great masters of compassion found in the arts of Asia: Buddha, Tara, Guanyin, Avalokitesvara, Vishnu, Krishna and so many others. I invite you to learn with me, because we will learn more learning together. And when I ask you how you are, know that I am truly listening.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Old Dead Tortoise

“How long have you been draining the lake?” I asked watching two whirlpools (one larger than the other) on the west side sucking brown water forcefully into white PVC pipes that sat threaded under the road just for this purpose.

The Foreman replied “Since January 1st”. By my count that’s 47 days. Today we are at water’s edge studying the engineering of this plan and troubleshooting something stuck on one of the drains. It was (that is to say it no longer is) a large, armored tortoise now dead and capping the drain to get to the bottom of things, namely the lake, in order that long-needed repairs on the dam could begin.

The House Manager asked for the role of Tortoise Remover and she grabbed her hoe and headed down the bank. She expertly pulled on his massive shell, fighting his dead weight and the draw of the water around the scaly creature. It was clear he’d been in this lake a long time (the kind of time tortoises have) his shell a cross section of settlement and algae and crust.

This tortoise was dead, just passing along as he has for decades and pulled into an unexpected unintentional trap: the one that drains water and not turtles. She pulled on him several times until his carcass was more than half-way on the shore. I wanted to get closer, but close was close enough. Meeting this creature that is more dinosaur than amphibian in its death state from several yards away was close enough.

Thirty years. That’s how long it’s been since the lake was made. This process is the first time they’ve attempted to drain the lake. As a result, thirty years of time are exposed inch by inch. Dead fish are snatched up by hawks. Snakes retreat. Turtles drown. It is a sloughing.

After lunch we walked around on the north side of the lake where most of the water has receded. An old, nature-made creek from another time is clearly visible running through the bottom of this man-made lake-in-draining. Eerie. The water is clear and fresh, free from the layers of lake and time, bright in the sunshine this little creek hasn’t seen in 30 years. How odd that creeks have memory.

I spotted a little black head. Water Moccasin. I was sure of it. Where would the nests and families and packs of snakes go as the water pulled back crackled earth and old cypress roots? Well to the creek to be sure. I stepped off of the dock, new Saucony tennis shoes sinking in the layers of silt and pine needle. It was time to face this snake, this monster of my youth, and fearful no more. With closer views I recognized tiny feet and a round shell. Turtle. Baby Turtle. Playing and swimming and sliding along this old creek, oblivious of it’s past or a future. I relaxed a little bit and went back to sit with my friend. No snakes today. 60 degrees in February and I will choose to believe they are still sleeping through winter. At least for now.

I study the lake. Or the place where the lake was. An old oar sticks up in the drying silt. I see a bucket or two, several tires and tree stumps and logs, softened by years of seasons. This landscape: the one at the bottom of a lake is one I only know through the few times I’ve gone lake swimming: tentative toes squishing in mud and lake weed. Today is different. Exposure to sun and air created wide cracks and crevices. Drain the water and we have something new. A new place to study. It’s not ugly or scarred: it’s a fascinating exposure to an underbelly ecosystem we may not get to see again in this lifetime.

I am here on a retreat with my leadership coach and it occurred to me this afternoon that I, me, this human just days away from crossing the threshold to forty-four, am the lake. I am the lake composed of layers of silt and history, old buckets and dead turtles. I am the lake with little streams inside of me finding old patterns and memories I don’t even know I have.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about being a human being is the opportunity to compose a life and change a future. I can imagine this sloughing within me: an exfoliation of the old to expose the new.

If I am the lake then stress or “being stressed” is the Old Dead Turtle blocking the drain. Stress is just a thing that blocks us from the real work. Stress for me is imagined: an interpretation of the way I think things are. Blockages trigger stress reactions. I can feel blocked from speaking, being heard, getting “my” way, seeing someone else’s point of view, criticizing, wanting, feeling overwhelmed, feeling like it’s not fair: all are triggers to many ways of responding.  It is the moment after the trigger that matters the most. The moment after the trigger can happen three ways:

1.     No action: allow the issue to sit (in this example the turtle continues to block the drain): some water gets through but it is diseased, poisoned, and the lake doesn’t drain

2.     A reaction (imagine trying to push the dead turtle through): more negative energy is created, more hurt, less forgiveness

3.     A change (find the hoe, move the turtle, drain the lake) the change will feel unfamiliar and new but finding the new way of being in new practices takes time

In my forty-fourth year, I want to change a future: my future. I am listening and responding to the “who” that I am and thinking about how others hear me. I want to sculpt my language and saturate my being in compassion and forgiveness in a new lake with new water. 

I am more aware of the layers of life and memory: the memory creeks are there as a part of me, but the debris and detritus that were making me sick are gone. It will take a while to fill this lake and there is much work to do. Breakdowns will happen. Fish will die, but dead fish will sustain young birds. Baby turtles will glide down stream and some will fight the current. It’s all there in this life: hopes and disappointments, mistakes and growth, death and rebirth and they are all but a moment. 

I am the lake and I choose something new this year. I will listen, write, meditate, pray, read, learn and teach. I will spend more time with my family. I will spend more time taking care of this body that carries me through this life. I will look for focus and abandon distraction. I will find patterns to turn into practices and I will repeat them over and over and over again until they are part of this new lake.

A Sign of Change