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Wonder: the first passion of the soul

What are soul values?

What are the values of the soul? What educates or nurtures these values? This short essay is related to the long essay, “Killing the Buddha” as you will recognize as you go along.

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead — his eyes are closed.” This is Albert Einstein speaking.

In his essays on the Passions of the Soul, Rene Descartes said that “it appears to me that wonder is the first of all the passions” of the soul. (Passions of the Soul, Descartes, 1955, p. 358). For Descartes, wonder is a necessity, indeed the primary necessity. We can therefore deduce that wonder was more essential for Descartes than thinking, and here I refer to his statement, “I think, therefore I am”. This would be a provocative argument. I’m not going to make a comparison here, however, or argue for the supremacy of one mode over the other, but rather to ponder the nature of wonder. What did Descartes have in mind when he claimed wonder as the first passion of the soul? Lets add some flesh to the bones of this idea.

Wonder and the other

How do we cultivate wonder in relation to another human being? In the face of their otherness, the ever not-same? Psychological devices such as projection upon the other and identification with the other as a substitute for our deficiencies, get in the way of seeing the other as he or she is. The other is not a mirror of oneself. The idea of asymmetrical reciprocity is helpful here. Asymmetrical reciprocity is an attempt to understand each other across difference without reversing perspectives or identifying with each other. So, whether in exchanges between individuals, or in relations between them, reciprocity, while essential, can never be artificially ‘equalized’, and must always remain asymmetrical.

Another way of putting this is to say that we cannot really put ourselves in the other’s place, or imaginatively occupy their position if we really embrace their “otherness” - they will always be out of reach, so to speak. A non-reciprocal, or asymmetrical relation is a foundation of true ethics between two subjects, between two individuals.

Wonder and ethics

I propose that wonder is required in order to suspend narcissistic preoccupations, and truly see the other as other, and not as versions of the same, or of ourselves. As I’ve already said, without wonder, a truly ethical relation with the other is not possible. So, do we see the other as she or he is, and therefore clothed in his or her own being, or is the other something upon which we project, or a mirror in which we expect to be seen?

Luce Irigaray says that: “Wonder goes beyond that which is or is not suitable for us… We would have in some way reduced the other to ourselves if he or she had suited us completely. An excess resists: the other’s existence and becoming are a place that permits union and/through resistance to assimilation or reduction to sameness” (Luce Irigaray, 1993a, p. 74). Because wonder goes beyond that which is or is not suitable for us, in relation to another person, wonder opens the door to seeing them as they are.

Irigaray goes on to say that “this first passion is indispensable not only to life but also or still to the creation of an ethics” (Luce Irigaray, 1993a, p. 74). It is, or provides, or allows for “the advent of the other”, as Luce Irigaray frames it. (Luce Irigaray, 1993a, p. 75) The condition of wonder is prior to judgement and projection; it is the pause through which the divine can enter. When Luce Irigaray specifies that “wonder goes beyond that which is or is not suitable for us”, I believe that she is making particular reference to masculine self-affection, which makes use of both the world and women, to suit their own convenience. This is a particular theme she takes up in ‘Questions to Immanuel Levinas: On the Divinity of Love’ (Luce Irigaray, 1991c, p 36). She is calling for a different relational ethics, based on the true difference of the other.

Wonder is always anew, and in the present time, the present moment, a moment of being taken by surprise. Wonder does not allow us to rest upon mere conventions but requires more from us, in the form of spontaneous – and creative - response. Wonder stops us short, suspends our judgement, it is outside of repetition, ever new. Luce Irigaray describes wonder as the “passion that inaugurates love and art” (Luce Irigaray, 1993a, p. 82). Caroline Bynum Walker, concludes her paper ‘Wonder’ with the statement that “every view of things that is not wonderful, [full of wonder] is false.”(Walker Bynum, 1997, p. 26). This condition of wonder, which is prior to judgement and projection, leads us toward the other’s alterity or difference. Wonder is still in the world of the senses, still physical and carnal, but already spiritual. It is where the body and spirit intersect. So wonder is a spiritual passion. In other words, cultivating wonder is part of spiritual practice, part of soul nourishment and part of soul expression.

Wonder and spirituality

Luce Irigaray situates wonder as a necessity or precursor to the capacity for embodied spirituality, when she says wonder is “still in the world of the senses (‘sensible’), still physical and carnal, and already spiritual. It is the place of incidence and junction of body and spirit” (Luce Irigaray, 1993a, p. 82). Irigaray terms this place “sensible/transcendental.” We are left in no doubt that this is the place of the embodied spiritual encounter when she continues:

“Wonder would be the passion of the encounter between the most material and the most metaphysical, of their possible conception and fecundation one by the other. A third dimension. An intermediary. Neither the one nor the other. The forgotten ground of our condition between mortal and immortal…”(Luce Irigaray, 1993a, p. 82). If you have read my paper “Killing the Buddha” you will recognize the similarity in language. This place of neither/or is the place of non-duality. Wonder leads us towards a non-dual perception.

Following Irigaray, we could therefore say that wonder is that intermediary space, carnal and material, already spiritual, namely embodied spirituality. And that wonder permits ‘fecundation one by the other’, that is, transformation and regeneration, in any relation between two. While most couples might not imagine that wonder would fertilize their view of each other, Irigaray clearly recommends the transformational qualities of wonder.

Wonder at the other, rather than mirroring the other

How do we cultivate wonder at the alterity or otherness of the other, the ever not-same? Iris Marion Young, as discussed by Marguerite La Caze in her paper, ‘The encounter between wonder and generosity’, maintains that “people should regard each other as ‘irreversible,’ or not mirrors of each other”(La Caze, 2008, p. 119). Projection upon the other, identification with the other as a substitute for our own development, and expectation as to how we want to be viewed by the other all get in the way of seeing the other as he or she is. The notion of irreversibility avoids this, as does avoiding the expectation that the other will facilitate our lives.

Marguerite la Caze extends the idea further when she proposes asymmetrical reciprocity as “an attempt to understand each other across difference without reversing perspectives or identifying with each other” (La Caze, 2008, p. 133). So, whether in exchanges between individuals, or in relations between them, reciprocity, while essential, can never be artificially ‘equalized’, and must always remain asymmetrical. We are accustomed to looking for parallels with another, in order to be comfortable with that other. We “identify with” or imagine ourselves walking in that person’s shoes. How tenable is this identification, then?

La Caze questions whether we can actually put ourselves in the place of the other, or “imaginatively occupying their position” (La Caze, 2008, p. 119). We cannot reduce the other to ourselves, or ourselves to the other. According to la Caze, one way in which to confound the notion of mirror-image, is to rely on the metaphor of voice, rather than the specular image, because it sustains irreducibility and irreversibility more readily. (Young, 1997, p. 50) (La Caze, 2008, p. 120)

Let’s return to the mirror-image idea for a moment. In regard to the specular image, Sara Heinämaa points out, “Western philosophy is often accused of oculocentrism, the privileging of vision over other senses, touch and hearing … “ (Heinämaa, 2003, p. 47). It’s worth noting the “specular” means “like a mirror”). Although Sara Heinämaa (argues that “the self-other relation is essentially - necessarily - reciprocal” (Heinämaa, 2003, p. 125), Young, La Caze and Irigaray argue for non-reciprocal, or asymmetrical relations as a foundation of personal ethics. They argue that a masculine ethics would be more likely to depend on reciprocity, and an illusion or presumption of sameness. Thus reciprocity would lead to and exchange or trade. I see a feminine ethics being free of the need for symmetrical reciprocity and instead celebrating difference, otherness - and asymmetry.

Wonder, ethics and discrimination

Marguerite La Caze, in her paper, The encounter between wonder and generosity, following Descartes, says that “generosity involves a proper judgment that needs to follow wonder”(La Caze, 2002, p. 14). By “proper judgement” she means an evaluation of character. While I agree, I propose that generosity towards oneself, or self-affection, needs to precede wonder, so we are neither overawed nor dismissive of the other, and already secure in our own judgement.

La Caze, however, develops her discussion on proper judgement. (La Caze, 2002, p. 17) also contemplates that wonder needs to be tempered by some discrimination as to what is a “worthy” object; finding in oneself the capacity for wonder and the cultivation of it is one side of the principle, but on the other is having the discrimination to discern worthiness or unworthiness. On first glance this might seem contradictory, because wonder is a passion prior to judgement. However, if we consider an ethical relation with both the other, and ourselves we invite problematic relations if we do not exercise discrimination. This is important to ethics-in-the-feminine because in the past a woman’s role has been to accept whatever comes, without discernment. A new feminine ethics compels a woman to take care of how she spends her energy, and with whom.

As Marguerite La Caze points out, “taking self-respect into account complicates and refines the picture of asymmetrical reciprocity because it prevents us from conceiving the asymmetry between people as self-sacrificial” (La Caze, 2008, p. 119). Following my earlier discussion, if we privilege embodied spirituality, if we allow for the possibility that all human relations be therefore mediated by divinity-in-the-flesh, then we will indeed know what is ‘worthy’ and what is not.

The relation between awe, wonder and the numinous

The difference between awe and wonder is that awe is a feeling of fear and reverence while wonder is something that causes amazement or awe- a marvel. Awe is an emotion comparable to wonder but less joyous. Awe is difficult to define, and the meaning of the word has changed over time. Related concepts are wonder, admiration, elevation, and the sublime.

When Rudolph Otto, German philosopher and historian of religion, wrote of the numinosum, (from numen, spirit) he was referring to a particular aspect of religious experience, which “entrances the soul” (Otto, 2004, pp. 12,26,42). Otto used the Latin mysterium tremendens et fascinansto cover all or some of the following: awe or dread in the face of the numinous; overpowering presence of majesty; intense unbearable energy; the sense of a wholly other; a fascination with or attraction to the numen followed by rapture in contact with it.

The mysterium tremendumis one of the forms which the numinous takes, and is the non-rational encounter that is “beyond conception or understanding, extraordinary and unfamiliar” (Otto, 2004, p. 13) which causes astonishment, awe, and sometimes fear.In Otto’s view the numinous was ‘wholly other’ and experienced by affect rather than intellect; he said “the nature of the numinous can only be suggested by means of the special way in which it is reflected in the mind in terms of feeling” (Otto, 2004, p. 12). However, it is not only the ‘wholly other’ that evokes astonishment and even fear, and which could then to be said to be numinous.

In my PhD thesis, I discuss mysticism as a direct response - or access to - the numinous, and propose this as a means by which women (and, possibly, men) can avoid the constructs of meaning of the symbolic. I define, discuss, and amplify what mysticism might be for feminine spirituality, both past and present. I contrast the possibility of a spirituality based on direct experience of the numinous with a masculine divine enclosed within the symbolic and codified in religious dogma/theory. (This is, in essence, what my essay Killing the Buddha is about). It is wonder which opens the door to the numinous and releases us from the prison of ego.

Cultivating awe is good for the brain and your brain hormones

As Linda Graham says, It is “important to amplify the positive emotions that shift our brain functioning out of contraction and reactivity into more openness and receptivity. We cultivate positive emotions – kindness, compassion, gratitude, awe, delight, not just to feel better but to do better. Deepening your experience of these positive emotions can “undo” the constricting effects that negative emotions like envy, resentment, regret and hostility have on your nervous system and your behaviours.”

Notice that awe, wonder and the numinous, are experiences that move us towards openness and receptivity. This in turn increases our window of tolerance and resilience. We can invite awe and wonder by immersing yourself in nature, in music and wondrous works of art, and exposing yourself to the ideas and lives of extraordinary and inspiring people. Intentionally cultivate that which will easefully create awe and wonder.

Contemporary science and awe and wonder.

Believe it or not, there was a symposium on awe in 2016. Here is one speaker, Lani Shiota: How Awe Transforms the Body and Mind. This will put you in the right place to ponder awe and wonder. Another speaker was Dacher Keltner, Why Awe Is Such an Important Emotion. This lecture demonstrates clearly how modern science tries to verify and pin down sublime experience. I find Dacher’s presentation almost unbearable, and I have yet to analyse my high-cringe response. I’m interested in what you experienced.

Here is a panel discussing the same subject, which is, in my view, somewhat better, partly because of the presence of Roshi Joan Halifax. Roshi Joan brings gravitas and wisdom to any subject.

Science and wonder

If we take Einstein’s quote at the beginning of this essay as a starting point, we can say that every true scientist is a mystic, and is led to his discoveries by a sense of awe and wonder. In addition to Einstein, I’m thinking of Nicolas of Cusa, Pythagoras, Plotinus, Bonaventure, Spinoza and Hegel. Bonaventure regarded the senses, including the development of the intellectual sense, as the means by which God could be discovered. He felt that the most exquisite manifestation of this was through the study of mathematics. It is thinkers like Bonaventure who show us that mysticism can arise from any discipline, not necessarily one that is proclaimed to be 'spiritual.' Nicolas of Cusa was well-known as a mystic, scientist and mathematician.

A more contemporary example is that of Wolfgang Pauli, quantum physicist and contemporary of Jung. They collaborated in a deep exploration of psyche and matter. Here is an absolutely fascinating article from the New Scientist on Pauli and Jung. Both were deeply mystical, but both avoided that label because they, and many others at the time, including Freud, regarded this a great slur against their scientific objectivity. Well, see what you think, now that the wheel has turned.

Joseph Campbell Foundation on Wonder.

In December 2019 this article on Wonder appeared in MythBlast. If you haven't met up with the wisdom of Joseph Campbell this is a great place to start.

May you live in wonder!


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