Feature image: Sunrise at Bryce Canyon National Park. Credit: Johnny Loi Photography.
The Watchman. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Temple of Sinawava. These are not religious allusions, but names of the rock formations in Zion National Park, Utah. Soaring to majestic heights, it is not surprising that they inspired spiritual experiences in those who named them.
From the ground to thousands feet above sea level, these rocks’ vertical dimension tells a mysterious story of time and nature. Carved to each groove is the invisible movement of waters over this Earth’s lifetime. History collapsed into formations. Rocks stand as though holding secrets, as natural monuments, as silent witnesses to the forces of nature that humans will never uncover.
Face to face with this hushed grandness, one cannot help but sense the drama hidden in the place. There are things bigger than me and I am overwhelmed.
I found myself in this tension at Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks recently. I found that I could see these mysteries in two ways.
One was the questioning way. What happened here? How did the rocks get shaped this way? What was it about this area that made this structure possible? Is there consensus whether it was something catastrophic or gradual? Could geologists distinguish the footprints of a catastrophe vs. gradual canyon creation by water year by year?
The monkey mind could go on and on.
But then I found that there was another way of looking at the scene. Asking what happened was futile, since no one knew what exactly happened, how precisely the waters flowed to create the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon. No one was there. With that, I silenced my monkey brain.
Then it happened. Silence, awe, wonder, reverence.
It was a way of looking at things for what they were, just as they were, acknowledging the mystery and admiring it in peace.
I was reminded of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words on the two ways of seeing the world in his beautiful book, Man Is Not Alone:
Standing eye to eye with being as being, we realize that we are able to look at the world with two faculties-with reason and with wonder. Through the first we try to explain or to adapt the world to our concepts, through the second we seek to adapt our minds to the world.
In one, the world is subject to us. In the other, we are subject to the world. One is scrutiny; the other is surrender, a succumbing to something other than us.
Wonder rather than doubt is the root of knowledge… to doubt is to question that which we have accepted as possibly true a moment ago… But if we must know in order to question, if we must entertain a belief in order to cast doubt upon it, then doubt cannot be the beginning of knowledge.
Wonder is not just about receiving information; it is the amazement at being able to see at all:
Wonder goes beyond knowledge… We are amazed at seeing anything at all; amazed not only at particular values and things but at the unexpectedness of being as such, at the fact that there is being at all.
Even before we conceptualize what we perceive, we are amazed beyond words, beyond doubts.
And here is the crux of the two modes of seeing:
When in doubt, we raise questions; when in wonder, we do not even know how to ask a question.
Couple this with Before Learning and After Learning, applying the two modes of seeing the world in the process of learning. Also read Wonder and Fear: Thinking Two Thoughts at Once on the experience of encountering nature.