Wonder as a Practice

Looking for answers

The world, and our experiences in it, are mysteries. There is so much about ourselves, others, and life that we don’t know. Our ego-driven minds don’t like this. We want clear answers!

When we don’t understand, we do what we were conditioned to do: we become good students searching for the right answer. Why am I sad? The solution must be in a self-help book or article. Why is my partner so hard to read? If I can just get him to talk, I’d be able to figure him out. Where is my place in this world? If I could just get a new job, I’d feel at peace. But the truth is that most of the big questions that nag us don’t have a flotation device that we can hold on to.

When we feel like we’re without a good enough answer, we feel unsteady and our response is to try to control. We try to control our own experiences by avoiding anything that makes us feel uncomfortable. We try to control other people with subtle (and not-so-subtle) forms of manipulation. And we try to control our world and our experiences in it by complaining or blaming.

This sort of problem solving might give us some short-term gratification, but it never gets at the root of our problems. That’s because the root of of our biggest worries lies buried in the great mystery of the universe. Who am I? Where do I belong? What am I supposed to do? And where am I going? These are the same questions that our ancestors have been pondering since consciousness evolved to the point of asking. We’re plop in the middle of a bunch of questions with no answers. So what’s the point? I think we’re meant to learn how to wonder.

The inner wonderer

Over the years, wonder has become a good friend of mine. I even have a wondering voice that I like to use. I visualize my inner wonderer as a version of myself at about 90 years old. She’s equally bemused and interested in my current life.

I find that the voice and attitude of wonder is especially helpful on the meditation mat. Some days, in the middle of my meditation, I’ll feel a tremendous urge to jump up from my seat and do absolutely anything but sit there for another second. As a beginning meditator, I would usually cut my meditation short or berate myself for my impatience and my inability to do it right. 

As I became a more skilled practitioner, I realized that neither of these tactics allowed me to explore my present experience (which is what meditation is all about). Now when I feel the same sensation come on I turn on my wonder voice: “Whoa, there’s a little (or a lot of) impatience. I wonder where that came from? Why am I in such a hurry to go?”

Instead of being frustrated by my impatience, I’ll become curious about it. I’ll track it in my body and in my brain. I’ll explore the quality and feeling of it. I’ll gently ask if this energy simply wants to release or if it has something it wants to teach me. Often times, I’ll find that my uncomfortableness fades away after being given some space.

Wonder has a beautiful, fluid quality to it. Unlike judgement, indignation or resignation, wonder allows us to perceive life with openness. Wonder is a balance of curiosity and trust. It’s the humility to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand” while trusting that clarity will arise when it’s meant to.

Wonder in daily practice

Off the meditation cushion, wonder is equally helpful and reassuring. How often do we wrongly assume that someone’s distraction or bad mood is because of us? Instead of immediately trying to reassure ourselves (e.g. what’s wrong?), I’ve found that becoming curious about the experience is helpful. With a loving curiosity I try to pinpoint the moment I started to feel insecure or uncomfortable with that person. By addressing my own sensations and emotions first, I’m better able to distinguish what is mine and what is theirs. Once I’m in touch with myself, I’m better able to be lovingly interested in (instead of triggered by) the person or people I’m with.

Of course there are many moments where I forget to practice wonder. I find myself sad, angry or bored, and instead of becoming curious I’ll seek validation, react emotionally, or reach for something to eat. But the beautiful thing about life is that as long as we’re breathing there are endless opportunities for practicing wonder.

Belonging fully

As John O’Donohue puts it, “It takes a lifetime’s work to fully belong to your life.” Wonder helps us to belong by keeping us open to whatever emerges. When we’re able to remain open, we’re “home” wherever we are. I’ve taken on the practice of wonder as part of my spirituality and I’m never at a loss for things to wonder about. It may be something as simple as watching a spider make a perfect web and wondering how. Or it may be wondering from where a thought emerged, or why I felt great in the morning and drained in the afternoon.

The point is that wonder is a way of showing reverence for the mystery of the world. It’s the humble glistening in the eyes of great men and women who are inspired by, rather than afraid of, the great unknown.

Jessie Curtner is an Integral Coach in San Francisco. You can read more of her writing on her blog, The In Between Space.

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