Listen Now to an Excerpt:
From the Vital Signs Audio Book
From Chapter 1:
Eyes Wide Open: Cultivating Wonder
Wonder acts as a kind of backup generator to re-stimulate our interest in the world. Even if we haven’t sent out a new shoot in years, or haven’t strayed much beyond the cadaverous light of the television and computer, wonder reminds us that we’re still vivid with life force, our souls shouting at the turned backs of resignation and boredom and time being torn off the calendar unused.
Wonder is a corrective for the conventional and habitual, for the fact that day-to- day life offers so few helpings of raw experience, of intensity and aliveness, of novelty, which is really as close as digging a rock out of the ground and cracking it in half. You’d be the first human being ever to lay eyes on the inside of that rock and it would be the first time the inside of that rock had ever seen the light of the sun.
Even when life does offer a heaping platter of raw experience, of magic and mystery, wonder is still easily curbed by convention. The first man on the moon, for example, was so busy making sure that such a Great Moment in History was treated with, you’ll pardon the expression, gravity, that his awe was scripted into oblivion. It was left to the second man on the moon to express the wonder of the place itself: “Beautiful! Beautiful!” he said, “Magnificent desolation.” But it was the third guy who really captured it: “Whoopie!”
From Chapter 2:
Questing: The Happiness of Pursuit
Scheherazade was the queen whose stories make up the Arabian Nights, and I think we all share her fate.
She became the wife of the Sultan of Persia, who had a decree that every woman he married would be killed on the morning after the wedding---a man with a serious intimacy problem. Scheherazade wanted to put a stop to this, so on the day of their wedding, she began telling the Sultan a story, but stopped just short of the finish. The Sultan agreed to let her live one more day to see how the story turned out. The next day she finished the story and started another, stopping, once again, just short of the climax. Again the Sultan let her live one more day. After 1001 nights and 1001 stories, the Sultan fell in love with Scheherazade and the killing stopped.
Scheherazade reminds us that the commitment to forward momentum is a lifesaving virtue, and that it’s critical not to fall too far out of sync with life, which moves. That is, if we stop telling our stories, we’re dead. If we stop the narrative from moving forward, stop doing the life-giving thing, stop doing what Scheherazade’s storytelling ultimately did---create passion and love where there wasn’t any---we’re dead, in a soul sense.
Besides, only a roving mind and a busy body are really adequate to this world, anyway, which is spinning on its axis at 1000 miles-an-hour, in an orbit around the sun at 65,000 mph, in a solar system traveling at 540,000 mph around the galaxy, in a galaxy charging through space at 670,000 mph, in a universe expanding at 160,000 mph per megaparsec, whatever that means. What it means is that you, personally---even when you’re sitting peacefully in the lotus position---are moving at a million and a half miles an hour, which you won’t notice, of course, unless something happens to hit your windshield.
From Chapter 3:
Call of the Wild
Thoreau said that in wildness---not wilderness---is the preservation of the world. He didn’t say wilderness because he didn’t mean wilderness. He meant the breaking of rules, the insurgent life in the midst of your peers. Meaning this: Walden Pond is and was only a mile from downtown Concord, and a train passes close by its shore to this day, as it did in Thoreau’s time. But that nearness is the wild in it. To buck civilization right in its midst. To find a deep surge of nature right inside us.
What we’re after isn’t just the wildness that’s divorced from cultivated life and exists only in outbacks and hinterlands, belonging only to other species and other eons---though we seek that, too, sometimes. We’re also after the wildness that exists alongside daily life, at the edges of “Concord.” That Wild Kingdom brought to you by an insurance company in Nebraska.
The Ainu people of Japan ritualize the proximity of the wild and the domestic by keeping a firepit in the center of their houses, positioned so that the sun streaming through the eastern door each morning touches the fire. They say the sun goddess is visiting her sister the fire goddess, and that one should not walk through these sunbeams lest you break their contact. The intuition that the bond between wild and tame, natural and human should not be severed is an ancient one, woven deep into our psyches. But between us and the wild is also a divide, an evocative and disturbing border called the frontier---the edge, the brink, the fringe, the margin, the verge, the pale that's beyond everyday life, the limits of your culture's jurisdiction over you and your free will. It's the line you sometimes have to cross to reclaim your passion for life.
The human psyche is a dirt floor covered with carpet remnants we call civilization, but beneath it are the ur-emotions and proto-instincts of a billion years of outdoor education gone a little fusty in the head from too much recirculated air. We have canid teeth and old circadian rhythms, deep and super-sensual intelligences, and a brain that, having spent 99% of its developmental time in the wild kingdom, doesn’t quite know what hit it.
But we also haven’t forgotten these bonds, and are drawn to reconnect with wildness, with our instinctive self and its intimacy with natural rhythms, native intelligences and untamed vitality.
From Chapter 4:
A Spark Needs a Gap: Love and Passion
Relationship will always be both safe harbor and storm, will always challenge us to burn without being consumed, to-have-and-to-hold without possessing. And love and passion will always be difficult to uphold in partnership because they work toward different goals. Love wants assurances, passion wants abandon. Love wants to be soothed, passion wants to be stimulated. Love wants to go steady, passion wants to be swept away.
Another way of saying this is that it’s critical to be able to feel ambivalent about love and yet proceed with it. Passion, though, is above all the hunger to connect, the desire for union, the capacity for relatedness. It’s your deep affinity for and abiding interest in not only a special someone, but in life itself. And with the whole world as the apple of your eye, all of life becomes an aphrodisiac, all desire becomes tantric, a vehicle for transcendence, and the archetype of the Lover---the part of you that presides over passion, feeling, sensuality, responsiveness---can spread out into every available niche. “The problem is not desire,” the Indian spiritual teacher Sri Nisargadatta once said. “It’s that your desires are too small.”