The Beginning of Wisdom

"Awe is the beginning of wisdom." -- Rabbi Abraham Heschel

Years ago, a friend confessed that she was not at all religious. Then, in the next moment, she described her reaction upon first beholding Monument Valley, whose stark, unearthly beauty provoked her spontaneous tears. My friend, although not conventionally "religious," was deeply spiritual, I believe, for the ability to be awed is the hallmark of a receptive spirit.

Wonder -- surprise mingled with admiration -- and awe -- wonder heightened to reverence -- are cousins, if not siblings. Both are states of receptivity in which one grasps, at least for an instant, that the world is not what it seems; that it is far more mysterious than our senses have led us to believe. When one holds such awareness beyond the fleeting moment, he or she becomes enchanted.

Enchantment is the natural state of children. It is common among the aboriginal peoples of the world and also among religious mystics. Alas, among Western adults, enchantment is all too rare. Insulated from nature, bombarded by technology, compulsively busy, and accustomed to noise, we leave precious little space for wonder. If there is a universal criticism of the Western world, it is, in the words of Episcopalian priest Matthew Fox, that "we have lost our awe." Similarly, cultural historian Richard Tarnas mourns our "disenchantment of the universe," the blowback of our individualistic, materialistic, and mechanistic Western worldview.

Awe is the key ingredient of mysticism, the bedrock of the great religious traditions. Mystical awareness also inspires countless artists and scientists, especially the great ones. "The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical," said Einstein. "It is the source of all true art and science."

If awe is the foundation for wisdom, for art, for science, and for religion, then it would behoove us to make space for awe and to coax our jaded existences back to life by nurturing it.


Awe is much on my mind just now, having recently returned from a conference dedicated to it: Science and Nonduality 2013 (SAND13). Its organizers accomplished an amazing feat by bringing together physical scientists, psychologists, neuroscientists, spiritual teachers, musicians, and artists -- from 35 states and 25 countries -- to explore the nature of perception and how those perceptions shape individual and collective "reality."

If there was a universal theme, it is that perception is an elaborate ruse. The mind is not a tabula rasa, argued the titan of philosophy Immanuel Kant. Our mental structures filter and distort what is sensed. Uninterpreted sensory input, Kant understood, would be useless, "nothing to us" and "less than a dream." In today's lingo, uninterpreted sensory data would be noise devoid of music, pixels devoid of image, or caresses devoid of care. The mind does not simply record sensory data; it organizes and shapes our "reality." Otherwise, we would be overwhelmed by the relentless bombardment of meaningless stimuli.

But there is a price to be paid for maya, the illusion we take for reality. When we confuse the map with the territory, wonder gets shortchanged. In ordinary states of consciousness, we miss the forest for the trees. We perceive ourselves as separate beings interacting in Euclidean spacetime within a largely mechanistic cosmos.

"Forfeit your sense of awe," observes Fox, "and the universe becomes simply a marketplace." By our obsession with the material and the observable, we become disenchanted. By our disenchantment we desacralize the universe. And by desacralizing the universe we turn everything into a commodity, including our planet.

Awe pulls back the curtain of illusion. Behind that curtain, in the words of the late British astronomer Sir James Jeans:

"... the Universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine."

Such awareness is termed mystical consciousness. The aspen grove is not the collection of individual trees it appears to be. Beneath the surface, it is a single interconnected organism. Similarly, the mystic recognizes individual consciousness as but a wave on the vast sea of universal consciousness.

Fox has spent a lifetime studying the mystics, who challenge us to reawaken the sense of awe that each carries in his or her core. I count myself fortunate to have been awed by beauty a few times in my life, as was my friend at Monument Valley. At SAND13, however, I was awed in an unexpected way, by an overwhelming sense of the beauty of other human beings: the organizers, the presenters, the performers, and the attendees.

So many of those present at SAND13 seemed at or near the pinnacle of human experience. Among them were spiritual teachers who could speak from the heart to large audiences for extended periods with no notes, and world-class scientists daring to challenge on logical and theoretical grounds science's tacit assumption that materialism is all there is. Among them was a storyteller with the uncanny ability to mimic his characters, including the eagle in the story of the Hunter and the Eagle, and a Jewish-Buddhist comedian who wonder-fully encapsulated the wisdom of the spiritual teachers and made us laugh in the bargain. Among them were musicians who did not know how to perform, only how to become one with their instruments.

I was wowed too by the organizers and by my fellow attendees. Virtually everyone I met seemed possessed of a gentle soul, an agile mind, and a huge heart. By the end of the conference, I felt I was standing on holy ground, and like Moses, in the presence of such radiance, I was tempted to hide my face. "The compassion of the grace of God," wrote the 12th-Century mystic Hildegard of Bingen, "will make humans light up like the sun."

In the days since SAND13, I've found myself struggling for words worthy of the conference's impact, at times overpowering. "Dave," a friend offered in fitting summary, "it seems you have swallowed a sunbeam. Now you have to digest it."

(Portions of this essay were adapted from a previous post and from the author's book Reason and Wonder).