On the morning after the launch of HuffPost Germany in October 2013, I was in a car on my way to the airport from the center of Munich. It was raining, which gave everything a beautiful, almost magical, shimmer. All the buildings and trees seemed wrapped in wonder. Yet when I arrived at the airport, everyone I talked to was complaining about the rain. We were all experiencing the same weather but with very different results.
Wonder is not just a product of what we see — of how beautiful or mysterious or singular or incomprehensible something may be. It’s just as much a product of our state of mind, our being, the perspective from which we are looking at the world. At a different time, in a different city (maybe even most times in most cities), I, too, might have been annoyed by the rain. But at this particular time, in this particular city, what came to my mind instead was a poem by Albert Huffstickler (I know his name sounds German, but he’s from Texas): We forget we’re mostly water till the rain falls and every atom in our body starts to go home.
Countless things in our daily lives can awaken the almost constant state of wonder we knew as children. But sometimes to see them we must look through a different set of eyes. The triggers are there. But are we present enough to experience them?
When my girls were just a few years old, I remember one of those clear California evenings when the stars seemed close enough to touch. Christina and Isabella were cradled in the crook of each of my arms as we lay on the grass in the backyard, watching the universe go by. While Isabella was stretching out her little hands, trying to peel a star off the rind of heaven, Christina was, as usual, asking questions: “Mommy, what makes it go?”
Her question was as old as time itself. When men began to wonder about the hidden causes of things, they were on their way to the discovery of science. Our proud scientific age is rooted in wonder. “Men were first led to the study of philosophy,” wrote Aristotle, “as indeed they are today, by wonder.” Physicist James Clerk Maxwell’s first memory was “lying on the grass, looking at the sun and wondering.”
That sense of wonder is often stronger when it’s provoked by things ordinary and unassuming — our children’s faces, rain, a flower, a seashell. As Walt Whitman said, “After all, the great lesson is that no special natural sights — not Alps, Niagara, Yosemite or anything else — is more grand or more beautiful than the ordinary sunrise and sunset, earth and sky, the common trees and grass.”
At the root of our secular age is the fatal error that has led us to regard organized religion and the spiritual truth that man embodies as one and the same thing. This has caused millions to deny the reality of the latter because they have rejected the former. The impulse to know ourselves — which, after all, is a key component of spiritual seeking — is as deeply imprinted within us as our instincts for survival, sex, and power.
As Goethe wrote, “This life, gentlemen, is too short for our souls.” The preoccupations of our daily life can never satisfy our deepest needs. “Atheist that I am,” philosophy professor Jesse Prinz wrote, “it took some time for me to realize that I am a spiritual person.” And a growing number of people who proclaim themselves atheists because they’re uncomfortable with organized religion and its depictions of God (especially the image of the bearded figure in the sky), acknowledge experiencing awe and wonder in their lives — experiences that stop them in their tracks, transport them to hidden worlds, and give them a glimpse of the fathomless mystery of life.
Einstein defined wonder as a precondition for life. He wrote that whoever lacks the capacity to wonder, “whoever remains unmoved, whoever cannot contemplate or know the deep shudder of the soul in enchantment, might just as well be dead for he has already closed his eyes upon life.” Throughout history, great scientists — whom Arthur Koestler described as “peeping Toms at the keyhole of eternity” — have shared this sense of childlike wonder.
I completely understand the sense of wonder that has led men and women through the ages to explore outer space, but I’ve personally always been much more fascinated with exploring inner space. There is, of course, a connection between the two. Astronauts have often reported transformational experiences when they looked back at Earth, a phenomenon that has been called “the overview effect.” As Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man on the moon, described it, “There was a startling recognition that the nature of the universe was not as I had been taught . . . I not only saw the connectedness, I felt it. . . . I was overwhelmed with the sensation of physically and mentally extending out into the cosmos. I realized that this was a biological response of my brain attempting to reorganize and give meaning to information about the wonderful and awesome processes that I was privileged to view.”
Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX, who is intent on colonizing Mars, has also given expression to the other age- old human yearning: “I came to the conclusion that we should aspire to increase the scope and scale of human consciousness in order to better understand what questions to ask. Really, the only thing that makes sense is to strive for greater collective enlightenment.” But there is no collective enlightenment without personal enlightenment. And spiritual teachers, poets, and songwriters alike have in so many ways, through so many centuries, told us that unconditional loving is both at the heart of the human mystery and the only bridge from our sacred inner world into the frenetic outer world. Or, as Kurt Vonnegut put it in his book The Sirens of Titan, “A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”
And now we have the empirical data to back up what the songs and sacred texts have told us. As Professor George Vaillant, who oversaw the Harvard Grant Study, which followed the lives of 268 male Harvard undergraduates beginning in 1938, put it, “The seventy- fi ve years and twenty million dollars expended on the Grant Study points, at least to me, to a straightforward five- word conclusion: ‘Happiness is love. Full stop.’ ” It is the same conclusion reached without spending seventy- five years and $20 million by the English poet Ted Hughes: “The only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.”
Nature and art are two of the most fertile grounds for experiencing wonder. Essayist and philosopher Alain de Botton describes art as “an apothecary for the soul.” “Art,” he writes, “enjoys such financial and cultural prestige that it’s easy to forget the confusion that persists about what it’s really for.” In describing Claude Monet’s The Water- Lily Pond, one of the most popular works at the National Gallery in London, he writes that some worry “that the fondness for this kind of art is a delusion: Those who love pretty gardens are in danger of forgetting the actual conditions of life — war, disease, political error, immorality.” But the real problem in our lives, he argues, is elsewhere: “The real risk is that we will fall into depression and despair; the danger is that we will lose hope in the human project. It is this kind of despondency that art is uniquely well suited to correct. Flowers in spring, blue skies, children running on the beach . . . these are the visual symbols of hope.”
Museums and galleries remain among the few oases that can deliver what has become increasingly rare in our world: the opportunity to disconnect from our hyperconnected lives and experience the feeling of wonder. Museums are where we go to commune with the permanent, the ineffable, and the unquantifiable. And it’s an especially rare, and thus precious, experience in our technology- besieged lives. Maxwell Anderson, the CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, describes a museum’s mission as providing visitors with “resonance and wonder . . . an intangible sense of elation — a feeling that a weight was lifted.” Or as my fellow countryman Aristotle put it: “catharsis.”
“Every era has to reinvent the project of ‘spirituality’ for itself,” wrote Susan Sontag in “The Aesthetics of Silence.” And museums offer a pathway for that reinvention. Sometimes, of course, reinvention means going back to something that’s always been there. What makes it harder today is our obsession with photographing everything before we’ve even experienced it — taking pictures of pictures, or of other people looking at pictures.
Sherry Turkle, MIT professor and author of Alone Together, has written about the cost of constantly documenting — i.e., photographing — our lives. These interruptions, she writes, “make it hard to settle into serious conversations with ourselves and with other people because emotionally, we keep ourselves available to be taken away from everything.” And by so-obsessively documenting our experiences, we never truly have them. Turkle is optimistic, however, that the generation that has been hit the hardest by this will also be the one to rebel against it. She recounts the thoughts of a fourteen-year-old boy who told her, “Don’t people know that sometimes you can just look out the window of a car and see the world go by and it is wonderful. You can think. People don’t know that.”
My younger daughter, Isabella, came to the same realization when, as an art history major, she was given an assignment to spend two hours in a museum in front of a painting and write down her experience. She described the assignment as both “exhilarating and unsettling: unsettling because I realized I have never really seen a painting and exhilarating because I was finally seeing one.” She had chosen to look at J. M. W. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire in the National Gallery in London, and she describes the process of looking at the painting for two hours as “parallel to going on a long run. As odd as it sounds, looking at a painting for two hours requires you to push yourself and go past the point of what is comfortable. But what was so interesting was that when I was finished I had what felt like a runner’s high. I felt like I had just experienced something magical, like I had created a tie between the art piece and me.” She’d had an experience that cannot be captured on Instagram or Twitter.
After she had been looking at The Fighting Temeraire for about an hour, a security guard came up to her and asked what she was doing. “I found this hilarious because what I was doing was looking at a painting. But, we have gotten to the point where someone standing in front of a painting just looking at it for a long period of time is suspect.”
Fully giving our attention to anything — or anyone — is precisely what is becoming more and more rare in our hyperconnected world, where there are so many stimuli competing for our time and attention and where multitasking is king.
The museum experience provides us with mystery, wonder, surprise, self- forgetfulness — vital emotions most undermined by our always- connected 24/7 digital culture, which makes it a lot easier to shy away from introspection and reflection. Increasingly, the world around us, or at least the one that’s presented to us by the tools we choose to surround ourselves with, is designed — and very well, at that — to take that element of surprise out of our path. The ever- more- sophisticated algorithms on the social media sites where we live our lives know what we like, so they just keep shoveling it to us. It’s celebrated as “personalization,” but it often caters to a very shriveled part of who we really are. They know what we like but they don’t know what we don’t know we like — or what we need. They don’t know our possibilities, let alone how vast they are.
In The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr writes that “there needs to be time for efficient data collection and time for ineffi cient contemplation, time to operate the machine and time to sit idly in the garden.” There’s not a lot of garden left in the world. And this is why museums need to guard against the danger of using social media in a way that reduces the essential art experience to more apps providing more data. Ultimately, this is as laughable as reducing the experience of going to church down to parishioners tweeting: “At church, pastor just mentioned loaves and fishes. Anyone have some sushi recs for later?” Or whipping out their iPads to quickly look up the fact that the Sermon on the Mount took place near the Sea of Galilee, which, following a link, I see is the lowest freshwater lake in the world. . . . I should totally tweet that! Or, even better, I can just imagine the tweet if social media had been around two thousand years ago. (Hey, I might have just tweeted it myself.) “Just checked in at Gethsemane. Cool garden. Anyone want to meet up?”
Of course, social media have a role to play in museums as in life. They can provide access to a much wider audience, let potential visitors know what’s going on, and extend the museum visit by allowing users to continue the aesthetic experience after leaving the museum and share it with their friends and community. It’s when we move social media from the background to the foreground that we undermine the artistic experience.
Museums all across the world are making good use of new media technologies. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has Unframed, a blog that showcases the voices of museum curators and visitors alike. It also launched a first- of- its- kind digital reading room, offering important out- of- print publications. The Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) started an online course for teachers titled “Museum Teaching Strategies for Your Classroom,” enrolling more than seventeen thousand participants. The Indianapolis Museum of Art created ArtBabble.org, an online community that showcases art- based video content. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis has a website featuring the Walker Channel, which presents live streams of museum events. The Tate Modern in London offers iPhone apps ranging from the “Tate Guide to Modern Art Terms” to “Pocket Art Gallery,” which allows users to curate and share their own virtual galleries. And the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam launched Rijksstudio to allow enthusiasts to engage with over 125,000 works from its collection through sharing images, ordering prints on materials ranging from aluminum to Plexiglas, or downloading high resolution images that can be used on anything — from tattoos to upholstery. The museum even launched a contest encouraging people to “remix, reuse and reinvent the masterpieces,” offering awards for the best designs and the opportunity for them to be sold in the museum’s store.
But when museums forget their DNA and get their heads turned by every new tech hottie that shimmies by, they undercut the point of their existence. Too much of the wrong kind of connection can actually disconnect us from an aesthetic experience.
To me, the key question is this: Does the technology deepen the experience, or does it diminish it? Clearly, it can do both. It’s great to take advantage of new media tools to reach new audiences and provide platforms for greater engagement with the arts. But we should not forget that while technology will constantly change, the need to transcend ourselves through great art never will.
From a centered state of being, every encounter with an object, however ordinary, can be an opportunity for transcendence. But if we don’t give our full attention to a deeper experience at a museum or exhibit, what are the chances that we’ll give it to a passing cloud, a tree, or a clay jug?
Of course, the visual arts are only one of art’s voices. Music, sculpture, photography, cinema, architecture, literature, drama, poetry, dance — each can ignite the deeper truth, and awaken the sense of wonder that slumbers within us. Even the ancient art form of rhetoric can pierce through the crusts of our everyday preoccupations and spark the memory of who we are. When Socrates in Plato’s Apology addressed his accusers for the last time — “Now it is time that we were going, I to die and you to live; but which of us has the happier prospect is unknown to anyone but God”; or when John F. Kennedy stood within walking distance of the Berlin Wall and declared, on behalf of all who treasure freedom, “Ich bin ein Berliner”; or when Martin Luther King, Jr., stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and cried out, “I have a dream,” something was stirred in our souls that transcends words and time.
Music has always been a big part of my life. In my twenties, living in London, I became a classical music reviewer for Cosmopolitan so I could get free records to review (yes, vinyl records — I know I’m dating myself). I would play them for hours. Indeed, I wrote my second book listening to Haydn’s 106 symphonies. And then I fell in love with a man whose idea of heaven was traipsing around Europe from music festival to music festival.
So having spent countless hours in darkened auditoriums, often with my eyes closed, meditating, I have found myself transported by music no matter what the quality of the performance. I remember at Covent Garden in London a performance of The Marriage of Figaro under a guest conductor. I was sitting with a group of friends that included a brilliant English conductor when, very early into the performance, we realized that this would be a painful affair — especially for him. When the string section was attentive to the guest conductor’s unfamiliar rhythm, the brass was not. Soloists bolted off in their own directions, often taking a good share of the chorus — never, unfortunately, the whole lot — with them. It finally ended. And our conductor friend was the fi rst on his feet, applauding loudly and long with what certainly appeared to be genuine appreciation. As he applauded, a regular patron seated behind us leaned forward and hollered, “What a terrible performance!” Over his shoulder, applauding even more enthusiastically, our conductor friend shouted back, “What a great work!”
A symphony or an opera is such a metaphor for life. As philosopher Alan Watts put it, “No one imagines that a symphony is supposed to improve in quality as it goes along or that the whole object of playing it is to reach the finale. The point of music is discovered in every moment of playing and listening to it. It is the same, I feel, with the greater part of our lives, and if we are unduly absorbed in improving them we may forget altogether to live them.”
And sometimes there are great philosophy lessons in the simplest popular song. I fell in love with the lyrics to the Beatles’ classic “Let It Be” when I was at Cambridge — an ode to acceptance written by Paul McCartney and John Lennon that could have been written by Marcus Aurelius: “When I find myself in times of trouble Mother Mary comes to me Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.”
There is sadness in many popular songs, and there is plenty of darkness in great art, whether Shakespeare’s Tempest or Mozart’s Magic Flute, but in the end it is overcome by love. There is chaos and ugliness, but a new order of harmony and beauty evolves out of them; there is evil, but it is cast out by good.
And there is plenty of darkness in the drawings of children trapped in the violence and the poverty of the inner city. I remember one such drawing by a child in South Central LA. It was no less dark than any of the others, but through the darkness it was clear that this child had seen something beyond, and by seeing it, had given the rest of us access to that vision. In the same way, a collection of poems and whimsical butterfly drawings by children at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, far from diminishing the horror, makes it starker and more horrible when set against the glimpse of another reality.
Along with music and the visual arts, another art form that often offers a direct road map to our inner lives is storytelling. Humans are hardwired for narrative; we may be the only creatures who see our own lives as part of a larger narrative. Though we’re told by physicists that time doesn’t exist as we think it does, we’re still very much creatures of time. And time inherently creates a story. Things begin and they end. How they end is the story. Or maybe it’s what happens between when they begin and end that’s the story.
Jung called the universal language of stories “archetypes.” He described them as “ancient river beds along which our psychic current naturally flows.” Our conscious minds relate to these archetypes through stories. Far from simply serving as entertainment or diversion, stories are a universal language about the purpose of life itself. And that purpose is self- actualization — integrating the Third Metric into our lives. Christopher Booker identifies seven kinds of stories: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth. But though there are seven plots, in one way or another they’re all about the same thing: the personal transformation of the protagonist and his or her journey through challenges, ordeals, and wrong turns to a place of wisdom. As in our own lives, the story’s outward form must track the inner journey of the hero. When we disconnect from our inner selves and identify exclusively with our ego, that’s when we lose our connection with life’s meaning and purpose and are left facing a void that we try to fill with more money, more sex, more power, more fame. And as we see in all modern literature, when the ego separates itself from the self, the end is always frustration and destruction — whether in Herman Melville’s Moby- Dick or Stendhal’s The Red and the Black.
We can use the power of story, and our primal need for it, to redefine our own narrative. We’re all on a journey, a voyage, a quest to slay the monster, free the princess, and return home. But too often the goals we seek — those that the conventional notions of success tell us we should be seeking — take us down dead ends, searching for the meaning of our lives in all the wrong places. Mindfulness helps us become aware of our own story.
Excerpt from Thrive pp. 174–188
Originally published at journal.thriveglobal.com