Cultivating Wonder

Apparently Einstein didn’t say, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is,” but I’m grateful someone did, someone who understood the power of wonder.

There are so many reasons to allow existence to elicit wonder from us.

I recently came across an excerpt from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in which she details the extraordinary complexity of a goldfish that she bought for twenty-five cents, his “completely transparent and all but invisible” ventral fins and his eyes that “can look before and behind himself.” Even a single-celled organism contains an entire, intricate world. As the psalmist says, “I will praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Marveling at the beauty in front of our eyes or beneath our fingertips is one of surest paths to joy. The Buddhist metta meditation recognizes our fundamental desire to be happy. Letting ourselves be amazed at a crab burrowing into the sand or the capabilities of the latest technology fulfills one of our deepest needs by increasing our capacity for joy.

Or consider the overwhelmingly small odds that each of us exists at all. The sperm that made you basically had to win the Powerball lottery to reach that particular egg, and that’s true for every generation on your mom and dad’s sides. Then there’s the almost impossible matter of life evolving, not to mention atoms forming. (See this nifty infographic if you want to know exactly how many zeroes we’re talking about.)

Wonder is a way of life, a means by which to relate to the rest of creation. To be is to be in relationship, Cyprian Consiglio and others have said. What kind of relationship do we want to be in?

To recognize all of existence for the miracle it is puts us in touch with the divinity of everything and everyone around us. To be awestruck by that with which we are relating affirms and expands the life of the other. It’s a way of saying, “May you be.” What could be more essential than to give life to our fellow miracles?

Holy Experimenting

For Lent this year, I decided to give up needing to do it right, “it” being pretty much everything.

The need to do something right begins with the giant assumption that a right way exists. Then I invest substantial time and energy in locating that way and pause at each step to assess its accuracy. But life is not a math test. The imaginary line I so often try to walk simply doesn’t exist.

It’s easy for me to confuse doing things right with doing them well. Even when working toward a specific outcome, we can rarely fully imagine the end product at the beginning, and we certainly don’t know how we’ll get there.

Being right is so useful in creating our own identities rather than letting our God-given identities come pouring through us. It allows us to claim an idea, an outcome, a process, a way of thinking as our own and imbue it—and therefore ourselves—with importance.

When I get stuck in trying to make the perfect choice, my ego is in charge. It’s focused on being liked and blameless, not on serving others or contributing to whatever effort is taking place.

I work with scientists, and one of the things I admire about them is their dedication to experimenting. They aren’t looking for the right way; they’re trying to discover the way things are.

An experiment that doesn’t support a scientist’s hypothesis isn’t a failure. It answered a question, and she knows something she didn’t before.

This approach can free us to explore the truth and beauty of life. When we don’t need to be right, a wide array of possibilities opens up. We can travel in our intended direction and trust the twisting path rather than seeing that natural meandering as a series of wrong turns.

This holy experiment called life is inviting us into discovery every day. Let’s see what wonders it has to teach us.

Choose a Mind, Not Any Mind

One of the wonderful things about Buddhists is that they can tell you exactly how to do something. A recent article in the magazine Lion’s Roar offered some steps to maintaining a beginner’s mind, that state of approaching the present moment wanting to learn from it rather than control it.

The article recommended noticing what’s happening now physically, emotionally, and in our thoughts. The next step is to remember what the practice is for that state of being. For example, if we’re being hard on ourselves, the practice is loving kindness.

When my thoughts start running around on the hamster wheel of life, I’ve been asking myself, what mind is this that’s happening right now? And let me tell you, I have a lot of minds.

There’s “I’ll never get there” mind. There’s “compare myself unfavorably to others to make myself feel not good enough” mind, and there’s “compare myself to others to make myself feel better than them” mind, both of which result in fear and unhappiness.

When I can name a particular mind, I feel an immediate sense of relief, as if I’m no longer required to believe that what it’s telling me is reality.

A workshop leader recently said, “We’re constantly trying to make sense of the world around us.” We see children do this, but we forget that it’s an ongoing process, that the meaning making factories of our minds work 24/7 every day of our lives.

So how do we choose to look for meaning in the world? My comparing minds have only one way to interpret all of reality—better than/worse than.

Gratitude mind, on the other hand, opens us to the wonder and beauty of existence. It creates the possibility of trust, which allows us to recognize and enter into our relationship with the rest of creation. From that vantage point, the only way to make sense of the world is to love.

This Gift We Are Living

Thanksgiving is probably the wisest of our national holidays. President’s Day can’t quite transform our outlook or way of approaching the world the way gratitude does.

Perhaps gratitude sparks such a profound shift because it puts us in touch with the truth that every moment and every molecule of this life are freely and mysteriously given to us. Here are a few of the innumerable things for which my heart breathes a deep thank you:

The repetitive and enduring nature of patience—all the times we choose not to take a mistake too seriously, every time we remember that people are more important than outcomes, each hopeful beginning again, the infinite grounding of the world in Mercy.

The expanse of Reality—the Earth, the sun, the Milky Way traveling through space at 1.3 million miles per hour, the billions of other galaxies shaped like ours, the personal imperfections we will never overcome, our incalculable and inexplicable generosity toward other beings, the presence of God in all of it.

The daily amazements—the cat’s ability to jump onto the countertop, the whir of the hummingbird’s wings, the welcome from the giant sycamore tree near the University Union, the refreshing burst of a good laugh, the reliable supply of food in the grocery store coupled with the economic means to purchase it.

This graced and charged existence we share—this breathing, this intertwining of lives, this shaping one another, this distinct being here amid the myriad possibilities that could have arisen.

The people who bless my life—family, friends, coworkers, writers who died years ago and left their thoughts behind, restaurant servers, my mechanic, you reading this.

Happy Thanksgiving. May we all live in the wonder of this gift of existing.

A Wonder-Full Unfolding

In describing the transition to civilian life, a young man who recently switched from active duty to the navy reserves said he was taking the energy of being on high alert all the time and transferring it into being curious. This sounded to me like a brilliant idea for everyone.

I’m not claiming that in the day-to-day civilian world we maintain the same intensity as those who serve in the military—though people who have experienced trauma probably do—but that we often approach the present moment as a threat, a situation that could go wrong or needs to be controlled. If, instead, we approached our lives with wonder and curiosity, we could better participate in what’s actually happening, better recognize what’s coming into being.

Wonder and curiosity will remove our habitual defenses, and so practicing them requires a degree of trust. It’s sometimes difficult to believe that existence is trustworthy, even for those of us who have always had food to eat and a place to live. Perhaps this is because our definition of trustworthy means everything will come out the way we planned, or nothing will be painful.

Or maybe it’s because we believe that whatever has happened in our lives has its origin in something we’ve done, that we are the agents of our existence. This belief is just too small to take us very far. In a recent meditation Jim Finley writes, “Our freedom from the prison of our own illusions comes in realizing that in the end everything is a gift.”

Curiosity and wonder open us up to this realization; they are tools to recognize the true nature of reality as something we participate in and help co-create but don’t originate. As Finley might say, though we are not other than the Creator, we are not the Creator.

Finley would certainly say that God is loving us into existence breath by breath and heartbeat by heartbeat, and so we are invited to wonder at this love and at ourselves, who are the manifestation of it, with curiosity about how that love will unfold.

Seeing the “Endlessly Precious”

Sometimes amazing things happen. As I was getting ready to leave New Camaldoli Hermitage, a kind staff member recommended driving north a few miles before returning home because Big Sur is mostly empty right now.

After some hesitation I realized I would likely never have this stretch of coastline to myself in quite the same way as on this Monday afternoon with the main road, Highway 1, still closed to through traffic in both directions because of mudslides.

Heading toward a famous waterfall, I saw an incredibly large bird in the sky and pulled over, hoping it was a condor. As I walked toward a clearing, it came swooping by, soaring out over the ocean, and was soon joined by a second condor flying in those graceful circles over land and sea. A couple of times they came so close overhead that I could hear their wings and read the number on the tags biologists use to track all California condors.

When a bird with a ten-foot wingspan beats his wings as he—or she—passes overhead and you hear a sound you’ve never heard before and may never again, the magnificence of life makes itself felt. But if we choose to, we can live awestruck at life on a daily basis.

It’s easier to have our breath taken away when the beauty and ruggedness of the world are pressing in on us, and we need those encounters with wildness. At the same time, we can remember that something amazing is always happening.

As my friend said about her growing puppy, how does her paw know to make more paw? Though we can explain the molecular and cellular processes to answer that question, the explanation in no way diminishes the wonder that it happens, that RNA exists at all much less differentiates hair cells from muscle cells and puts them in the right place. And how astonishing that we can know these microscopic processes.

Living in wonder is a matter not only of taking the time to drive north and pull over to the side of the road but also of recognizing that every moment is as sacred as the ones spent with the condors. “There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious,” says Abraham Heschel in The Sabbath: its meaning for modern man.

It’s so, so easy to forget what we’ve been given, but every tick of the clock is another chance to remember and rejoice.

Profound Gratitude and Deep Joy

Sometimes it is hard to get here. OK, it is almost always hard to get here. By here I mean mentally in the same place that our feet touch the Earth, where the oxygen that we’re breathing actually floats—or whatever oxygen does.

On my way to work yesterday, the interconnected miracle of it all announced itself. A day had passed, and everything that supported my life and made the ride to work beautiful still existed. Soil still anchored the trees. The grass still covered the hillsides (I know, I know, but it’s California—what can I say?). The ocean hadn’t moved and neither had the freeway. “The sky gathered again/And the sun grew round that very day,” as Dylan Thomas writes in “Fern Hill.”

When I checked my email, a friend had written, “Have a wonder-filled day of it!” Yes! Why not? Sounded like a good idea.

And then I forgot. I got caught up in doing things and didn’t do them with great focus or productivity. When I notice that not many items have been checked off the list, I tend to freak out a little. This is rarely a helpful response.

I used to not know I was freaking out. It appeared to me as trying to buckle down and concentrate. I’m beginning to think that we spend vast swaths of our lives being afraid and not knowing it.

There is more than enough fear to go around right now, but if we respond with joy and gratitude, we can help relieve some of that fear. True joy won’t come through ignoring the difficult things happening in every life. It can come when we pause and wonder at having oxygen to breathe, lungs that work, rain, and electric green hillsides.

I’m always tempted to think that these things are not enough, but they are literally life. If we can cultivate profound gratitude and deep joy for that life, our actions will be what’s needed. These actions may or may not have the desired outcome. Our exterior circumstances may become more difficult. But what we’re creating together now on this Earth is bigger than our individual circumstances, and when we can see it, we will know that it is exquisite.