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Exploring the sense of wonder: embracing beauty and building peace. By Rita Casadei

Rita Casadei. Department of educational science, University of Bologna

“I call upon the dear children, who are able to do all things, to unite with me in building peace in mankind and in the world.”
Why start with Maria Montessori’s epitaph? Because it is an uplifting message: it concerns humanity, and through the child it reaches out across space and time to every one of us. It rouses all generations to bring their development to completion, to realize their full potential and shared humanity.
It is an invitation to give meaning and direction to our educational and existential design through a clear and conscious exercise which allows each of us to feel responibility and pleasure in making sense of our lives. Living means expending energies: being aware of them, directing them to ends which are wise and harmonious. This can be done by accessing that indissoluble unity of body, mind and heart which enables our interaction with the world, and what we learn through the world, to constitute a rich aesthetic experience. From the Greek for feeling, αἰσθάνομαι, the watchword is to encourage the combined development of sensitivity and discernment, motor intelligence, emotional literacy, and abstract-imaginative thinking. It is clear that sensoriality is of vital importance in learning to know ourselves and the world, as well as in developing a healthy, stable personality. Knowledge is greater and deeper when acquired through the senses; it is the senses that dignify the body as a source of knowledge and expression on a par with the intellectual faculties and emotional-affective skills. The aesthetic exploration of the world ensures that our perceptions remain alert and responsive; it nurtures a spirit of exploration charged with amazement and wonder because attentive to details, to passing moments which are never the same: every occurrence is new, always happening for the first time and hence deserving of amazement, attention, exploration, appreciation. Surprise and wonder are energetic dispositions but at the same time subtle, intent on kindling interest, joy and love in meeting and knowing. Wonder is the gaze that takes nothing for granted, that is intrinsic to knowledge – not in terms of mere assimilation, but through revealing the unknown. In pedagogical terms, wonder obliges us to acknowledge the aesthetic dimension as crucial – as much in recognizing the complexity of the person in terms of an overall integrity of body, emotional-affective life, muliplicity of expressive needs and languages, as in legitimizing a design tending to the fullest flowering of the person, starting by accessing his or her inner potential.
Wonder is ever on its guard against the encroachment of the predictable and trivializing; we are nurtured by encountering beauty, touching it, but also by allowing ourselves to be touched by it. Beauty is an inner disposition with the power to generate the nobler human qualities. Wonder is indicative of an existential attitude which is bent on inquiry, inquiry fostered by love, love of knowledge, not in the sense of hoarding notions, but revealed as gaze, gesture, listening which savours, and therefore experiences, reflects, feels.
Where the word knowledge is concerned, it is important to bear in mind its etymological root in the Latin for know and savour, which points to an interaction between the self and its environment in an aesthetic dimension, exploiting to the full our sensory apprehensions as a resource and a language of intelligence and sensitivity, in which our bodily experience is endorsed as a means of access to pleasantness. The aesthetic dimension thus enables us to explore the subtle, profound interconnection of body-mind/heart-spirit – dimensions which in Chinese and Japanese are expressed by a single ideogram, 心shin, by way of indicating that they are not susceptible of duality. Educating through action enhances this sensitivity. Conceptualization and abstractions need to be be mediated by perceptions and manual dexterity. “In early infancy, the hand aids the development of intelligence, and in the mature man it is the instrument which controls his destiny on earth” (Montessori, The Discovery of the Child). The hand effects the dynamic bonding of mind and creativity, senses and mobility, human being and environment. Beauty and peace imply relationship (such as proportion-relation, encounter-action) between the individual and the environment; when the gaze is charged with wonder, we home in on beauty and we promote peace in the world and in the cosmos: cosmos from the Greek κόσμοςorder, meaning proportion, harmony.
The sense of wonder accompanies our discovery of the nature of beauty and peace, our encounter with it and contact with it, and by engaging our sensory apprehension it attunes itself to time dilation: the time of listening, feeling, touching with a view to expanding and refining intelligence and sensititivity. There is one sensory experience which we can say is universal and of major significance: exercising silence, both of gesture and word. We can consider it a matrix experience which enables us to enter into harmony with beauty and peace, to generate them within ourselves so that we can recognize them without. The exercise of silence nurtures attention and sensitivity, concentration and delicacy, giving us access to the meaningfulness of the meditative experience, restoring the body to composure, attention to vigilance, emotion to calmness. Meditation teaches us to listen and hear ourselves, to keep and hold to a position: we experience the body as made up of universal elements, our breathing as an inner voice which speaks both of itself and the universe. We learn the unity of body, breath and mind, we experience the pleasantness of beauty and peace. We learn to discipline the mind so as to be able to observe our own thought, not in its contents, but in its forms and movement – from a stable, firm point of observation. It is a meaningful experience which breeds confidence in our potential to know and to be transformed; it develops a concrete form of intelligence, bound to reality and to our bodily experience; it cultivates an understanding of the world which is penetrating, selective and homogeneous; it fosters a sensibility sustained at once by a principle of order and harmony and by a shared awareness of peace. Self-knowledge is aesthetical in that it questions us not so much about who we are (crystallizing a self-image) as about how we are (what we do with who we have become)