Lessons from the Inca Trail about Wonder, Gratitude, and Nature

Searching for wonder in the reality of nature

Fresno Bee, July 29, 2018

Modern human beings are alienated from nature. We live in air-conditioned rooms. We relate to higher things through dry, ancient books. We rarely see the stars or feel the rain. We are rootless.

I have been thinking about our alienation from nature after trekking through the Andes of Peru. The trek ran over high mountain passes, where we endured freezing rain and cold, windy nights. We witnessed wild jungles and wandering llamas. And we celebrated the blessing of sunshine, which gave us warmth and the rainbow.

Our guide paused at the entrance to Machu Picchu to give an offering. He gathered three coca leaves into a shape that represents the mountains. He presented this gift to each of the four directions. He left the coca in a secret niche at the Sun Gate.

It made sense to give thanks to the mountains, to the elements and to the coca that made our journey possible. Coca tea helps fight altitude sickness. Its salutary effect is a kind of magic. There is also magic in the sun’s heat, the river’s song, and the rainbow’s glow.

fiala pix.jpg
Machu Picchu, the Incan citadel set high in the Andes Mountains in Peru. Andrew Fiala Special to The Bee

Religion in its best and original sense comes from the sense of wonder before the power of nature. It reminds us that we belong to the earth. We cannot live without land, water, and sun. These elements combine in the plants and animals that nurture us.

Nature is not all ease and comfort. Forest fires are rampaging in this long hot summer. Snow, rain, and cold are dangerous and difficult. But when the rains come or the sun breaks through, we give thanks.

In aboriginal Andean religion, the earth is a spiritual being called Pachamama, the earth mother. The mountains themselves are spiritual beings called Apus. These are powerful and mercurial beings. They can be dangerous or benevolent. To modern ears, this sounds far-fetched. But many cultures speak of mountains as divinities with personalities.

We still name mountains and understand their personas. In Yosemite there is Half Dome and El Capitan. Their presence is palpable. We also recognize that mountains do things. Climbers and backpackers have a saying: “Mountains make their own weather.” Temperatures change quickly. The wind comes on strong. Fire, rain, and snow are sudden in their appearance.

Modern science explains the orographic effect. Mountains interact with moving air masses. Changes in elevation cause changes in temperature that cause precipitation and swirling winds. Mountain weather is easily explained by atmospheric science.

But scientific explanation does not touch the lived sense that mountains are powerful beings. It makes sense to say that the mountains are angry or friendly. Thunder and lightning are threatening. Forest fires are malicious. Floods are cruel. Gentle blue skies and cool mountain streams are gracious and hospitable.

Much of the magic of nature is local. The sun is wrathful in the desert. It is cheerful in the cold high places. The rain is gentle in the valleys. It is vicious at 13,000 feet.

Those who live and work on the land are in touch with the personality of their local geography. Their livelihood comes from Pachamama. Their well-being depends upon the benevolence of the Apus.

There are very few farmers and shepherds left. We are no longer connected to nature.; we no longer belong to her. We do not know where our water and food come from.

The benefit of civilization is obvious. We dam the rivers and control the fires. We farm on an industrial scale. We drive and fly, instead of walking. We live in comfort and safety.

But this benefit is not without its costs. We are uprooted and dislocated. We lose track of who we are and where we belong. We no longer experience wonder or gratitude in their original organic sense.

This is not to say that we could go back to a world of Apus and the Pachamama. The world has moved on. But it is important to remember what we have left behind. We fill our lives with imitations of reality, flickering on screens. Out there in the natural world, the fires and storms still rage. And it is still possible to experience wonder, fear, and joy in the presence of the real.

Wishful thinking at Christmas

At Christmas, maybe a little wishful thinking is OK

Fresno Bee, December 24, 2016

Much of life depends upon voluntary suspension of disbelief. We often set truth and reality aside to play in the fields of fantasy.

Perhaps we are too gullible. Fake news floods our screens. We are awash in bunkum and balderdash. Major dictionaries picked “surreal” and “post-truth” as words of the year for 2016.

Science and logic help us distinguish fact from fiction. But this problem is psychological. We enjoy our humbug. Sensational hoaxes are much more fun than reality. And the will to believe provides us with wonder and joy.

In 1897, the New York Sun famously declared, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” The editor – with the fantastic name Frances Pharcellus Church – explained, “The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn?”

“Of course not,” he said. “But that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.”

Mr. Church concluded that faith, fancy, poetry, love and romance reveal the beauty and glory of the world. These things, like Santa Claus himself, are “real and abiding.”

This inspiring essay would fail a critical-thinking class. Lack of proof is not proof. Wishful thinking does not make things true. Imagined wonders are not real just because we want them to be.

A LIFE OF PURE, UNADULTERATED REALITY WOULD BE DISMAL AND DULL.
THE COSMOS CARES LITTLE FOR OUR HAPPINESS. BUT THIS EMPTY UNIVERSE ALSO CONTAINS CHRISTMAS.

And yet, we do not live by truth alone. We love our illusions. We are fascinated by fables and fantasy. Poetry transports us. Music moves us. The unreal worlds of television, film and literature fill our empty hours.

A life of pure, unadulterated reality would be dismal and dull. The cosmos cares little for our happiness. But this empty universe also contains Christmas.

The miracle of birth cannot be reduced to mere biology. Love, beauty and joy transcend material reality. Generosity and forgiveness can break long cycles of violence and hatred. But these wonders cannot be enjoyed unless we believe in them.

On Christmas Eve, the will to believe takes center stage. Christmas stories hinge upon the crisis of faith of an incredulous child. Belief in the unbelievable empowers Santa and his sleigh. Credulity is the ticket to the Christmas wonderland.

The same is true of art. Music is merely sound and rhythm. Poetry is scribbles on a page. Films are flickering, two-dimensional images. We must allow ourselves to be enchanted by these things. And when we give in to the illusion, we encounter meaning that transcends the material world.

Religion and politics also require suspension of disbelief. Bread and wine are transformed. Flags and insignia are not mere cloth. We encounter the sacred and sublime through a leap of faith.

It is easy to dismiss this as humbug. A cynical Scrooge will complain that love is hormonal, justice is power, and truth is the echo of a lie well told. Critical reason bursts the bubbles of the false and fantastic.

THE CHALLENGE IS TO STEER A MIDDLE COURSE. WE NEED TO KEEP WONDER AND HOPE ALIVE.
BUT WE ALSO NEED TO KEEP OUR HANDS ON OUR WALLETS.

But we do not live by reason alone. Poets and playwrights know this, as do shysters and charlatans. And therein lies a significant problem. Like other artists, the con artist plays upon our credulity. He sells us a pack of lies, which we gladly pay for.

The challenge is to steer a middle course. We need to keep wonder and hope alive. But we also need to keep our hands on our wallets.

There are times when it is appropriate to set reality aside and celebrate the play of the imagination. Christmas is surely one of those times. We sing the songs and tell the tales, weaving a fantasy that glows in the child’s wondering eyes. F.P. Church rightly celebrates “the glad heart of childhood.”

We cannot live every day as if it were Christmas. The adult world includes violence, hatred, stupidity and ignorance. Sober thought, grounded in reality, is the cure for these maladies.

But despair is also a problem. Wonder and hope are often in short supply. And cynicism pinches our hearts.

So yes, Virginia, we need to believe in Santa. Tomorrow we’ll be back to battling bull. But today we play with the fairies, creating a world of generosity and love for our children to enjoy.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article122726694.html

What to do when entertainment becomes greater than truth in politics

Fresno Bee, September 18, 2015

  • Political speech is different from philosophical reflection
  • Wonder, doubt offer an antidote to political distraction
  • Wonder creates tolerance, humility and compassion

Political pomposity is fun. Say what you will about Donald Trump, but he is not boring. He gives the pundits lots to talk about. Demagoguery and punditry are entertaining.

Philosophers have long warned against political speech that moves us, without concern for truth. But we like amusing distractions. Many watch politics as a sideshow – paying more attention to the jokes and jabs than to the content. Some snarky commentators suggested, before the last Republican presidential debate, that the debate could be used as a drinking game, taking a shot with every mention of Ronald Reagan. Truth seems the least of our concerns.

We are distracted – but not very thoughtful. Technology doesn’t help. There is now even an app that measures boredom by tracking how often you fondle your phone. When the app detects boredom it offers up a new distraction, such as a link to BuzzFeed.

In the age of Internet addiction disorder, we are habituated to stimulation. The more distracted we become, the more distractions we crave. People become addicted to video games, pornography, Twitter and political news.

Philosophers have long warned about this. They recommend silent reflection and patient dialogue that breaks us free of the trivial nonsense that fill our lives. Philosophers advise disconnecting from the amusing drivel drifting through our minds.

Silent meditation and philosophical dialogue are, of course, countercultural. It is difficult to imagine a public figure in our loquacious era who would admit to doubts or who would wonder aloud about the complexity of the world.

Our culture encourages us to express opinions, even mean and ugly ones. Read the comments on YouTube for an example. We tweet, post and opine. But rarely do we listen or wonder or simply stop to consider our own ignorance.

Philosophy, they say, begins in wonder. Wonder gives birth to inquiry, dialogue and scientific discovery. Wonder also gives rise to tolerance, humility and compassion.

Wonder is often accompanied by doubt, which admits all that we do not know. This provides an antidote for the bombastic certainty we hear from the pundits and prophets. Demagoguery and dogmatism are defeated by the contemplative mood.

Many marvels prompt wonder – from the starry skies above to the moral law within. Given all of the mysteries of life, it is surprising that more people are not more cautious about what they say.

Wonder begins with very basic amazement about the fact of existence. Why is there something rather than nothing? Humble gratitude develops when we realize that existence is a rare and fleeting gift. But debaters can’t score points by puzzling about metaphysics.

Nor can politicians take the time that is needed to establish scientific certainty. The painstaking efforts of the natural sciences contribute to the experience of wonder and humility. Scientific knowledge deflates human narcissism. Species come and go. The universe is vast. The world is infinitely complex. And knowledge is a difficult process.

Wonder extends into the study of the human spirit. Compassion grows when we understand the breadth and complexity of the human condition. Our own cherished values, norms and institutions are temporary and local. How amazing that people are so different from one another.

Love, friendship and grief also give us plenty to wonder about. It is humbling to consider how deeply our own lives are intertwined with the lives of others. Poets have explored this theme in various ways. And art and beauty give us even more to wonder about.

Political bombast loses its allure – as does much of the drivel of popular culture – when deep questions plant a splinter in the mind. The demagogues and pundits bristle and bluff. Meanwhile the philosopher wonders and wanders in the depths.

This might mean that philosophy is utterly useless. Or it may be that wonder is a priceless good to be enjoyed for its own sake. Maybe wonder is a waste of time. Or maybe it is the key to a better life.

If you are interested in this topic, a public philosophy conversation will take place from 7-9 p.m. Wednesday at the Woodward Park Library. I will be there, along with Fresno City College professor Wendell Stephenson, considering the value of philosophy in the world today.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/article35703480.html#storylink=cpy