Excerpts for Private History of Awe

Excerpted from A Private History of Awe by Scott Russell Sanders. Copyright © 2006 by Scott Russell Sanders. Published in March 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.


On a spring day in 1950, when I was big enough to run about on my own two legs yet still small enough to ride in my father’s arms, he carried me onto the porch of a farmhouse in Tennessee and held me against his chest, humming, while thunder roared and lightning flared and rain sizzled around us. On a spring day just over twenty years later, I carried my own child onto the porch of a house in Indiana to meet a thunderstorm, and then, after thirty more years, I did the same with my first grandchild. Murmuring tunes my father had sung to me, I held each baby close, my daughter, Eva, and then, a generation later, her daughter, Elizabeth, and while I studied the baby’s newly opened eyes I wondered if she felt what I had felt as a child cradled on the edge of a storm—the tingle of a power that surges through bone and rain and everything. The search for communion with this power has run like a bright thread through all my days.

In these pages I wish to follow that bright thread, from my earliest inklings to my latest intuitions of the force that animates nature and mind. In the world’s religions, the animating power may be called God, Logos, Allah, Brahma, Ch’i, Tao, Creator, Holy Ghost, Great Spirit, Universal Mind, Manitou, Wakan-Tanka, or a host of other names. In physics, it may simply be called energy. In other circles it may be known as wildness. Every such name, I believe, is only a finger pointing toward the prime reality, which eludes all descriptions. Without boundaries or name, this ground of being shapes and sustains everything that exists, surges in every heartbeat, fills every breath, yet it is revealed only in flashes, like a darkened landscape lit by lightning, or in a gradual unveiling, like the contours of a forest laid bare in autumn as the leaves fall.

Saints and bodhisattvas may achieve what Christians call mystical union or Buddhists call satori—a perpetual awareness of the force at the heart of things. For these enlightened few, the world is always lit. For the rest of us, such clarity comes only fitfully, in sudden glimpses or slow revelations. Quakers refer to these insights as “openings.” When I first heard the term, from a Friend in England who was counseling me about my resistance to the Vietnam War, I thought of how, on an overcast day, sunlight pours through a break in the clouds. After the clouds drift on, eclipsing the sun, the sun keeps shining behind the veil, and the memory of its light shines on in the mind.

This book is my history of openings, from watching a thunderstorm while riding in my father’s arms, to witnessing the birth of my first child while holding my wife’s hand. The narrative concludes with my daughter’s birth because that event made me feel, for the first time, fully adult, no longer merely a husband, no longer merely a man seeking his own way in the world, but a parent, responsible to my daughter and to all children yet to come, generation after generation.

As sudden as lightning or as slow as pregnancy, these passages of clear vision occur only now and then, yet they give meaning to every hour. There is nothing exotic about such awakenings. They come to me in the midst of family and friends, at work or play, on the street, in the woods, in lighted rooms, under moon and stars. I am convinced they come to each of us, whatever our age or circumstances, whatever our beliefs about ultimate things. The enlightenment I wish to describe is ordinary, earthy, within reach of anyone who pays attention.

* * *

I wish to recover, so far as possible, the freshness of apprehension that I behold in my granddaughter, Elizabeth. Since her birth two years ago. I have been looking after her one afternoon a week while Eva goes to work, and I have watched the baby meet the world with a clear, open, wondering quality that Buddhists call beginner’s mind. When she sleeps she sleeps, and when she wakes she is utterly awake, undistracted by past or future, living wholly in the present.

On the threshold of sixty, I am no beginner. My mind churns with memories, notions, plans, like froth in a riffle on a creek. But occasionally the waves simmer down, the water clears, and I see pebbles gleaming on the bottom of the stream. Or rather, in these clear moments, the fretful I vanishes, and there is only the pure gleaming. Such moments, strung together over six decades, make up my inner history, one hidden behind the facts you could read on a résumé. Those six decades began in October of 1945, two months after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Like others of my generation, I grew up during an era of Red scares and missile threats, A-bomb tests and assassinations, civil rights marches and moon landings, and above all the agony of Vietnam. That outer history enters these pages wherever a public figure, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., or a public event, such as the Cuban missile crisis, helped shape my understanding of what it means to be human, what sort of world we inhabit, and how I ought to lead my life.

A kind of history less easily captured in headlines also figures in this narrative, and that is the grand human effort, now several centuries old, to reconcile the perennial wisdom of religion with the story of the universe as told by science. We live in an era, the first since the Middle Ages, when these two seemingly contrary visions might be reconciled. Today, physicists and biologists no longer describe the universe as a machine but as a pulsing web, a dance of energy, less like a clock ticking than like a mind thinking—the same luminous, animate universe, I believe, as the one described by the great mystics and witnessed by anyone who is sufficiently awake.