Monday, February 9, 2009

Innocence, Joy, and Wonder

I hope you're all enjoying the 3 day weekend. I certainly am. The rain has been so welcome!

The time off school has provided time for reading, reflection, and learning. I've come across Catherine Ingram and her work. She's an unaffiliated teacher of adults whose work interests me. She leads silent retreats to help adults rediscover luminous awareness, joy, and innocence.

I offer here a quote from one of her books, Passionate Presence, that has to do with child-like innocence.

Supporting innocence, awareness, wonder, and joy was—not so long ago—the main aim of the kindergarten curriculum.

Some of us "old" teachers strive to keep joy alive in our schools gone mad with standards and timed tests. We resist the needless urgency coming from "on high" in regard to early literacy and numeracy. Nothing–absolutely nothing—should be allowed to elbow out the joy and wonder that is proper the heart of kindergarten.

Anyway, let me move offstage here and let Catherine speak:


"Except ye become as little children

Ye shall not enter the kingdom of heaven."


On the last day of one of our silent retreats a man spoke about the parting words he had heard from his girlfriend before leaving her the week before. "Now, don't you go and fall in love with someone there," she told him. The man looked around at the group of sixty and said, "How am I going to explain that I fell in love with everyone?" I assured him that his girlfriend probably wouldn't mind that as much.

One of the great gifts of my life comes from witnessing what happens in silent retreats. Participants, many of them strangers to each other, come together and, with the exception of two hour-long group sessions per day, are silent for a week. They are given no spiritual practice or instructions but are encouraged instead to rest as much as needed and to notice throughout the day the clear awareness to which no thought ever sticks.

Day by day, joyousness and surprising bursts of energy infect the participants as they feel the naturalness of being awake and sharing companionship without the stories and ego presentations that usually make up society. People will frequently describe feelings that are familiar from childhood such as waking up in the day and feeling excited for no particular reason. We refer to this as causeless joy or the pure joy of existence. It is sometimes experienced as a current that flows inside, like champagne bubbles of well-being.

The feeling of well-being emerges from our natural condition of innocence. In awakened awareness, the clear perception through which we regard the world is renewed each moment. We are no longer mentally dragging around the hardened crust of history about ourselves or having to wear the weighty armoring of self-importance.

I once spent a couple days on the island of Lanai in Hawaii at an exclusive resort that often attracts guests who are titans of industry. One day I was walking on a path down to the ocean and an older man passed me. I immediately sensed an imperious attitude in his purposeful march and his cheerless determined face that seemed carved out of stone. We looked each other in the eye, and a chill wind blew through my soul. I was reminded once again of the burden of thinking of oneself as somebody in the world, someone with power over others. I felt compassion for the man because, despite whatever wealth he had accumulated, I sensed only his impoverishment at missing what I consider the best of life. If one is not in touch with one's innocence, there is no heaven to be found, even in the most beautiful places on earth.

The most consistent characteristic of awakened teachers and people I have met is a childlike nature. They laugh, cry, twinkle, and joke, all with a spontaneity born of freedom. Their faces are fluid and reflect a timeless sweetness, even into old age. Poonjaji, a model of dignity into his eighties, could be at times downright goofy--and we loved it. He also exhibited a free-flowing range of emotions. On my first visit to meet him I noticed that almost every day he would laugh and cry several times during gatherings with students. Sometimes his tears would come from the happiness of seeing a person release a long held burden; sometimes he would cry with someone who had suffered a loss. As with a child, feelings would pass through him and be gone as quickly as they had come, leaving no lingering mood behind.

We all love the innocence we see in children. We delight in watching them learn new things and play in wild abandon. We love to hear their questions and reflections about the world because they spring from original awareness and the brilliance that obtains. We wistfully watch them sleeping and remember that feeling of perfect peace. We delight in the company of children because they remind us of our own innocence.

But in awakened awareness, innocence is no longer the special province of children. We, too, delight in learning new things and playing in abandon; our original awareness questions and reflects in brilliance; and we, too, sleep in deep peace. Innocence is a condition not dependent on age but on attitude. It lives in continual surprise, not knowing how things are supposed to go, not needing them to go a certain way.

--Catherine Ingram

from her book Passionate Presence

1 comment:

James Gurney said...

What a beautiful job Catherine has done explaining what sort of transformation happens on a wordless retreat to someone like me who has never tried one. She has that rare ability (as did William James) to express the nuances of spiritual experience.