Tantra keywords: Wonder
I’m working on an article at the moment, attempting to explain what for me, are some of the basic orientations of my approach to Tantra practice. Rather than seek safety in definitions, I thought it’d be more interesting to examine my own perspective on Tantra practice by highlighting a few keywords – and so I’m beginning with Wonder.
“The planes of yogic realization constitute wonder, astonishment.” Siva Sutras, 1.12
I confess, I came out of the 1990s acutely bored with the cool, detached, self-distancing irony which became so popular in that decade. I decided, instead, to make wonder my basic orientation towards the world – to find wonder in the everyday, in small things, the things I often took for granted. Wonder is often related to the perception of the novel, the unexpected, the inexplicable; it’s been linked to what is being increasingly termed a “spiritual” quest for increased connection – the feeling of belonging, of engaged participation. Wonder can be found in a small moment – the sudden unfamiliarity of any artifact and how it came to be; wonder can be an exhaustive epiphany, something I feel throughout my whole body, something that stays with me. Years ago, out climbing with some friends, I became stuck on a cliff, unable to move forwards or backwards, higly conscious of the sheer drop below me. I looked down, and beneath my feet was a frozen stream of ice. I looked into the ice, and was enfolded into a seemingly endless moment of sheer beauty by the scintillating colours and infinitismal reflections, until a friend inched his way over and led me to safety. That night, I dreamt of the colours of the ice, and the echoes of that memory remain with me still, over a decade later.
“The attitude of wonder is notably and essentially other-acknowledging. It is not shut up in self-concern or quasi-solipsistic withdrawal.” Ronald Hepburn, ‘Wonder’ and other Essays, 1984
Wonder has, I sometimes feel, been sidelined in contemporary discussions of magic – as magic is increasingly thought of as a eudaemonistic enterprise. Wonder is, in many ways, antithetical to ulititarian purposiveness, to the urge to categorise, to order. Wonder propels us towards the unfamiliar, to seek new relations, to revel in dizzying complexity and richness. Wonder pulls us into the world beyond a limited horizon, beyond the certain, the familiar, the possible. Wonder is excessive – and its excessive quality is something that western philosophy, trailing in the wake of Aristotle, has fought to foreclose, to rein in. Descartes suggested that whilst wonder might prompt us to learn the nature of things, one should try afterwards to emancipate ourselves from it as much as possible.
Turning to Rasa theory we find quite a different take on wonder.
Rasa is often translated as “savour”, “Juice”, “essence”. In terms of Indian aesthetics it refers not only to artistic-production but also aesthetic-enjoyment; both aspects are fundamentally inter-related and interconnected. Rasa resists definition. The Kashmiri Saivite philospher Abhinavagupta calls it a “magic flower” out of which blooms a sense of wonder. For Ahbinavagupta however, rasa is a “universal” emotion, and in order to taste it, one must forget one’s personal perspective and attachments and be receptive to the universal experience of that sensibility – an experience which is transformative, at least for one who has cultivated sahradaya – “a shared heart”. This aesthetic mode of perception requires the ability to let go of judgement, analysis; the intervention of the grasping mind; the colourings of personal history.
In the tantric and aesthetic works of Abhinavagupta, one finds the term camatkara – an experience of wonder which is itself aesthetic relish:
“The word camatkara, indeed, properly means the action being done by a tasting subject … by the enjoying subject, he who is immersed in the vibrations (spanda) of a marvelous enjoyment (adbhutabhoga)” (see Raniero Gnoli, The Aesthetic Experience according to Abhinavagupta).
Camatkara is also the “flashing forth” experienced when one delights in any sensation. It has the qualities of being uninterrupted (acchina), immersive (avesa) and a sensation of inner fullness (trpti).
The delight we may experience in eating a good meal, listening to music, seeing a close friend after many years of absence, is the result of the cultivation of our aesthetic sensibility:
“The wonder (we feel) is limited to the degree in which this vitality does not feed (consciousness). For the complete absence of wonder is, in effect, an absence of life. Conversely, aesthetic receptivity – being endowed with a heart – is to be immersed in an intense state of wonder consisting of the arousal of vitality. Only he whose heart is fed by this infinite and nourishing vitality, only he who is dedicated to the constant practice (of taking delight in this form of) pleasure, only he and none other is pre-eminently endowed with the ability to feel wonder.” Abhinavagupta, quoted in The Aphorisms of Siva by Vasgupta, Mark S.G. Dyczowski
Abhinavagupta’s yoga is a yoga of wonder, astonishment, delight. It is a discipline of attention, of sensitivity to the world – each opening to wonder bringing us closer to the all-pulsation (spanda) of consciousness which is all-pervading.
Wonder is often associated with the other-worldly, in something that lifts us beyond the ordinary, or everyday – it’s become associated with the idea of transcendence away from the world – towards the “sacred” as distinct from the “mundane.” I find Ursula Goodenough’s insistence on finding that which is sacred in the apprehension of the immediate an appropriate sentiment:
“My ethical aspirations are animated by my apprehension of the immediate, by my sense of belonging and relatedness.”