By Adam J. Pearson
When I see something, someone, some action, or some scene that strikes me as beautiful, the recognition of beauty ripples and resonates as wonder.
Beauty inspires awe. Awe or wonder, to me, is a state of speechless openness and total presence.
Did you ever notice that love is like this too? Did you ever gaze into the eyes of a person or pet you love and feel completely speechless, effortlessly open, and totally present with them, not wanting to be anywhere or anywhen else than right where you were?
The similarity between love and wonder is no coincidence. To be in love is to live a life immersed in wonder, to see perfect beauty in a human being with all his or her imperfections, and resonate in admiring harmony with that beauty. Wonder is the waveform of that resonance, the music of astonishment.
Immersed in wonder, there is no argument with reality, no demand for things to be other than they are. There is only an effortlessly open embracing of life, just as it is, here and now.
Beauty holds the power to evoke this all-embracing intimacy with presence. It is a gateway into wonder, which itself leads us home into the vibrancy and vitality of life prior to our thoughts about it.
When we’re deep in wonderment, the mind is quiet. Wonderment is very different from wondering. Wondering is an activity we engage in through thinking; we wonder how, what, why, who, or when something is, was, or will be a certain way. Thus, the medium of wondering is thought or cognition. There’s nothing wrong with wondering, but it works through thought and memory, and in that sense, it operates through mental remnants of the past.
Wonderment does not operate through thought. Wonderment is the felt emotional state of being awed. If you speak at all in a state of wonder, all you can say is “wow.” Wonderment is being wowed. Beauty wows. When we are filled with wonder, the experience is of being deeply wowed by a person, place, action, or thing as it appears to us now.
Wonder unfolds in response to the present and itself inspires a state of deep conscious presence. In the spaciousness of wonder, we taste the eternal so deeply that even all thoughts of “I” and “me” are cut off. When those thoughts are cut off, we remain in and as the vibrant spaciousness of their absence.
I suggest that our response to beauty indicates something far deeper than it seems. It’s not simply an evolutionary response to pleasing features, symmetrical qualities, desirable traits, and so on. That’s part of it as it is instantiated in a human organism, to be sure, but that’s not the whole story. Beauty to me points us back to our deepest nature, to the vibrancy of awareness itself, which is ever-awake, ever-present, unfathomably spacious and vast, and ceaselessly illuminates every experience that appears.
Awed by beauty, wonder arises. Wonder reveals the spaciousness of presence. This spaciousness, this timelessness, this vibrant emptiness that’s full of a human being filled with wonderment at a world is what I believe we most fundamentally are. We’re the awake presence that gazes through the body’s eyes, that is the same in the elderly woman as it was when she was a baby. Wonder at beauty gives us a taste of our true nature by revealing its openness and ever-presence.
In Zen, Advaita Vedanta, Dzogchen, Sufism, and other great wisdom traditions, the awareness that looks through your eyes and the awareness that looks through my eyes are understood to be not-two. Not the same, but also not different.
This is one reason eye contact can be so powerful; when two people are deeply present with each other and gazing into each other’s eyes, the awareness in one recognizes itself as the awareness in the other, usually in a totally unconscious way that is experienced simply as a feeling of awe-inspiring unity. This deeper recognition is felt, in human beings, as resonance and rapport. We may also feel it as connection, but it’s deeper than connection; it’s a felt sense of connectedness that is so deep there are not even two things to connect.
Instantly, in the deep presence of prolonged eye contact between lovers, the veil of seeming twoness is parted, if only for the flash of a moment, by the awe-suffused recognition of a deeper unity.
The same thing happens in orgasm during love making; for the flash of an instant, all seeming twoness is whited out in the bliss of seamless nonduality. It’s no coincidence that what many people tend to experience after prolonged eye contact, as social psychology experiments have empirically shown, is love, or a felt resonance of wonderment-filled rapport. Wonder is the core and pulse of love itself.
From a nondualist point of view, as in Advaita Vedanta, when we are in love with someone, the One loves itself as the beloved. Being loves itself as this being. This love is beautiful in essence and itself loves beauty. It doesn’t even have to be conventional beauty. Have you ever seen a contorted object, like an old log, or a dirty, dingy urban landscape like a red door in a dusty brown wall and been awed by its surprising beauty?
I’ve had radically honest friends tell me of their boyfriends: “well, he’s not much to look at, but I love him and he’s beautiful to me.” Statements like this one suggest that beauty comes in many forms, not simply aesthetically pleasing arrangements of physical features. People and things can break all the rules of conventional beauty and still be beautiful to us. Beauty inspires wonder and it can also kindle the flames of love, regardless of its form. This, to me, is also no coincidence. It points to a deeper reality.
Immersed in wonder, we have no wish to be elsewhere, no wish to change anything, to improve, become, or acquire ourselves into an imaginary ‘better state.’ We feel that we are Home. And we are. We are emptied of thoughts of ourselves as an idea (‘me’) and present as we really are. We get a hit of the radiant openness that holds the space for what we wonder at. We are consciously present as conscious presence, the pristinely clear emptiness that is filled with the beauty that you see. We are intensely alive as aliveness itself and awed by the ineffability of Being.
Wonderment at beauty is an invitation home. It’s an invitation to remember our true nature, the radiant, vital presence of awareness that’s awake to beauty here and now. And that, to me, is its deepest value apart from its capacity to deepen our gratitude and appreciation for the present moment. It points us home to the Home we never left and could never leave, to the Being we are beyond being and nonbeing that we could never not be.
Sensitivity to wonder and beauty opens up moments of spaciousness in daily life through which this recognition, this abiding awe at presence, can pour through and be felt. And as Goethe says, there is nothing higher.
‘The highest a man can attain is wonder, and when the primordial phenomenon makes him wonder he should be content; it can give him nothing higher, and he should not look for anything beyond it; here is the boundary.”
Part of a series on Nonduality: