Be Astonished

May 14, 2021

"Pas de Deux" by Eric Rennie

The Buddha, like Socrates and Jesus of Nazareth, left behind no writings of his own, which made him susceptible to having others put words into his mouth.  A case in point is the saying attributed to the Buddha that can be found on more than a few gauzy internet memes:  "Those who are awake live in a state of constant amazement.” The only problem is that the Buddha never said it — of if he did, there is no record of it.  The saying may be found in Buddha’s Little Instruction Book by Jack Kornfield, published in 1994.   Similar words were put into the mouth of Meg Ryan’s character in the film Joe Versus the Volcano,which was released in 1990.  She tells Tom Hanks, “My father says almost the whole world is asleep….He says that only a few people are awake and they live in a state of constant total amazement.”  

Whether the words were put into the Buddha’s mouth or Meg Ryan’s, it’s the thought that counts. There is a reason why these words wind up as gauzy internet memes.  Awakening is a common metaphor for what Buddhists call enlightenment, and spiritual seekers who are trying to wake up are certain that whatever it is, it will be amazing.  Who wouldn’t want to live in a state of constant amazement?  

These days I come at the subject from a more mundane direction informed by my practice as a fine arts photographer.  Apart from some technical considerations, photography really boils down to paying attention.  Something catches your eye, and you snap the picture.  The issue is not so much what you see as how you see it. What you see may be perfectly ordinary, as such things are normally reckoned. How you see it is a matter of learning to behold the world as if for the first time.  As W.B. Yeats once put it, “The world is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”       

The late poet Mary Oliver — no stranger to internet memes herself — captured this approach in her poem, “Sometimes”:

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

What jumps out at me is the exhortation to “be astonished.”  You might think that you can’t be astonished on cue.  And yet, if you are really paying attention, the astonishment is never far behind.  You might even say that to pay attention isto be astonished. 

What is perhaps most astonishing is that the world is always like this,full of magical things,and most of the time we don’t see it.  We are lost in thought,which always seems to be directed elsewhere, toward some neverland —  somewhere that once was or ever shall be but is not what is happening right now.  Virginia Woolf wrote that the whole world is a work of art, yet there were long stretches of what she called “non-being,” when we slog through the dull humdrum of everyday life without noticing. “Every day includes much more non‐being than being,” Woolf said.  “One walks, eats, sees things, deals with what has to be done; the broken vacuum cleaner; ordering dinner; writing orders to Mabel; washing; cooking dinner; bookbinding.” Most of us spend little time bookbinding or writing orders to the maid, but you get her point. 

There is a third part to Mary Oliver’s instructions for living a life: to tell about it.  You might been shaken from the dull revery of everyday life.  Say you are Moses tending to your father-in-law’s flock on the slopes of Mt. Horeb, and you are riveted by the sight of a bush that burns but is not consumed.  You turn aside to see and on that turning turns the whole history of western religion.  You tell everyone you know about this curious sight, and then you go and tell the pharaoh to release your people from bondage in Egypt.

For most of us, of course, that turning aside to see will be much less consequential.  For a photographer, it may be nothing more momentous than a look on someone’s face, a fold in a curtain, a certain slant of light. Something catches your eye, and you snap the picture.  Then you load your pictures onto a computer, and if the image still astonishes you, you share it with the world.  That is your way of telling about it, just as this is my way of telling you.     

January February March April May June July August (3) September (1) October (1) November (3) December (2)
January (1) February (1) March (1) April (1) May (1) June (1) July August September October November December