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.

No comments:

Post a Comment