The author Joyce Carol Oates uses the above statement as a prompt for students in her creative class at Princeton. Twenty people and I tried this exercise at the loft space of the New York Meditation Society last Saturday in Manhattan, and the results were amazing. We had spent the earlier part of the day coming to our senses, rendering what we could see, hear, smell, taste, and sense of the world around us on the page, letting our observations speak for themselves. After lunch, we trained our sights on an unsolved mystery in our lives. The result reminded me of line I once read on a plaque in a diner near the St. Lawrence River about a boat being a hole n the water that a person throws money into. In other words, it turned out that even the most stalwart, what-you-see-is-what-you-get person in the room is a walking mystery, a hole in the flowing river of life. Even if a person started with a mundane mystery–in my case, “I wonder who dented my car and drove away?”–the questioning spiraled down deeper and deeper. No matter what people started writing about, everyone seemed to end up questioning what is objective and what is subjective, what is outside and what is inside.
I wondered about a ghost I saw once. Had it been a strange and particularly vivid kind of dream? Others who stayed in the old house where I saw (dreamed?) that apparition had their own ghostly experiences. Was is possible then that I was glimpsing a vaporous something that was really “out there”? I questioned other wonders in my life, including a near death experience in which I felt seen and embraced by a white light that was also exquisitely grave, pure form of love and compassion. Had that been a neurological event triggered by shock or a lack of oxygen or could I really have been glimpsing the luminous force that exists behind the separate appearance of all things–a finer energy unifying all creation, rendering the experience of inside and outside an illusion.
Last Saturday for a little, a group of us reconnected with our inherent human tendency to wonder–and it was surprisingly wonderful. We saw that the “facts” of our lives tend to give way under intense questioning and that none of us really knows what we think we know. But that heightened state of unknowing that we all seemed to share wasn’t terrifying or confining. For a little while, the biggest of all questions quickened our attention, enlivened our senses, filling us and the space between us. Who are we?
As the Zen saying goes: Great questioning, great awakening; little questioning, little awakening; no questioning, no awakening.