When my son was about two years old, he’d sit in the back seat and yelp with joy at each new kind of truck we’d pass. “(Gasp) Mixer truck! Fire truck! Tow truck! Cargo truck!” he’d shout as we drove down the street.
What struck both my wife and I at the time is how we didn’t even realize how many trucks we’d been passing most of the time before he started calling them out. “Fuel truck! Backhoe loader!”
By the time we reach adulthood, we’ve usually gone through a refinement process to determine who we are and who we aren’t. We know roughly where our bread is buttered and what information is important for us to accomplish what we have to.
A lot of what we learn has to do with what not to pay attention to, what not to care about, who not to compare ourselves to, and so on. We learn to filter out. Development has to do with concentration and focus. But in the process we can lose that sense of awe and wonder of the great world around us, so much of which is not immediately useful to us as we go about our daily to-do lists.
An Old Testament phrase that often gets lost in translation is “the fear of the LORD,” which we tend to think of as a high degree of respect for authority. Instead the transliterated Hebrew phrase “yirat Adonai” refers to a sense of awe and wonder, a reverence for the divine and the created order. It refers less to a cowering subordinate and more to a landscape painter seated at his canvas, or an astronomer at his microscope.
How much do we learn to miss out on in our adult lives? How much are we in touch with this sense of wonder? For most of us it would require a shift in our state of being.
In the New Testament, Christ invites us to “become like children.” It’s important to note that this isn’t an invitation for regression, or to naïveté. We aren’t to become children, but like them.
How might we achieve this kind of second innocence?
In his essay “Poetry and the Three Brains” poet Robert Bly discusses the findings of neuroscientist Paul MacLean, who identified three layers of the human brain: reptilian, responsible for basic survival, mammalian, responsible for community, status, sexual pleasure, and ferocity; and finally the new brain.[i]
Bly suggests that the new brain is responsible for not only solving complex problems, but receptivity to mystery, to wonder, to what we call spirituality. According to another writer, Charles Fair, the new brain can grow and its food is wild spiritual ideas.
Bly suggests that, in contemplative or meditation practice, we allow energy to move from the reptilian to the mammalian and finally to the new brain. At first, the point of sitting is to allow ourselves to experience the real chaos of the shifting impulses, thoughts, and emotions from all three brains. We can transfer the energy.
At first, reptilian and mammalian brain reach out for their usual inputs, their usual dualisms. When they find nothing to latch onto, the energy transfers into new brain. Just as the reptilian brain is symbolized by cold and the mammalian brain by warmth, the new brain is symbolized by light. Hence the images of the saint’s head wreathed in light. That state of pure being and awakening goes by different names in different traditions. New mind. Samadhi. Christlikeness.
But what I’m describing is just the mechanics, one stab at how it might work. It’s another mental model. What we’re after is the experience itself. To experience that shift in vision that sees the wide world as spiritual space, because we see with spiritual eyes. To yell not only “mixer truck!” with joy and abandon, but “(Gasp) Oak tree! Patch of grass! Rain drops! Table top! Road sign! Shaft of light!”