I like to think of wonder as that deep space that we enter where we allow important things to begin to grow clear. For me, wonder is spiced with a sense of the numinous—a sprinkling of spiritual cinnamon. And I have a suspicion that our souls need more of it than we realise.
The soul can be thought of as that realm which mediates between our individuality and our physical body; our thinking and our behaviour. It’s the source, if we let it, of our deepest thoughts, feelings and our most rightful behaviour. It’s fertile with creativity and it’s connected with our heart as both metaphorical and literal organ.
Many contemporary researchers are fascinated by the brain and see it as the source of all that happens within us. Indeed, our complex neural system often reflects our sensations, feelings and activity. We can, for example, associate certain regions of the brain with particular activities. Yet in spite the insights we gain from functional magnetic resonance imaging showing neural patterns alighting in response to particular aspects of our thought or behaviour, if we sense what is happening within us, then much of what goes on in our feeling life is evident in our body, usually within the upper part of our body, in our chests, our hearts, our solar plexus. We describe it in colloquial language all the time. We are heartsick. We have a gut feeling about something. We feel the fizz of nervousness in our body or the sadness of grief squeezes at our hearts. Our neurons may be firing but our brain is not where we sense what is going on, it’s in our souls and our bodies. It’s a mystery we have yet to fathom completely even with the achievements of technological science. Yet the phenomena of the soul life are present to us, in a way that the activity of the brain is not. We can think about our thinking but we can’t sense what’s happening in our temporal or parietal lobe. We can however observe our soul life and our behaviour.
If we start to consider our soul life seriously, not just our brain, our mentality, but our hearts, our bodies, our beings, then we begin to notice something. One of the things which our souls long for is time—time to mull things over, to allow all the impressions, experiences and memories from the world we meet; the people and situations we encounter, to be digested. If we allow ourselves this ‘mulling over’ time, we know how to respond to what meets us in the world, how to align our everyday encounters with the larger guiding story which draws us. The soul loves thick, rich ‘staring out the window’ time especially when we sense confusion or lack of clarity and we need to get in touch with that guiding story. We hanker for time where we are not fixated on trying to ‘nut it out’, rather we long for periods of time where we are prepared to sit quietly beside the muddy pond of our soul life and wait until it clears so we can discern what’s needed.
In this time when much of the world ignores the deep rhythms of fallowness and fertility evident in the natural world, where we assume that growth may continue in spite of rhythm, it’s unsurprising many of us yearn for a bit of wonder time. We long for a real holiday (holy day). In the past, before key performance indicators and gross domestic product dominated, we had times of wonder institutionalised by cultural and religious traditions. The notion of some kind of sabbath or day of rest was part of many traditions—these traditions knew we are not 24/7 beings. Festivals and rituals featured times of silence, reflection or retreat. We would interrupt daily rhythms with long contemplative journeys to reach a site of pilgrimage.
Our reliance on outer forms has now generally diminished as we seem destined to rely less and less on religious and spiritual institutions to guide us and more and more on developing our own rhythms—unique, perhaps for each of us, but also responsive to the deeper earthly, cosmic and seasonal rhythms. For example, January in Australia for me is a time of rest. No matter how keen I may be to work on a project, my intention for progress is usually over-ruled by the wisdom of my soul and my body. The heat dampens thinking and activity, a siesta beckons, or I feel the need for some time in nature. In January I drop into long days of sleepiness, dreaminess, and wonder.
Not just in January but more and more in my own life, I see the need to cultivate times when I allow these patches of wonder, where I connect with the numinous, where I stumble upon what the Celts call the ‘thin place’ (a term I discovered through one of the participants in my workshops who explores thin places regularly).
So, how do we cultivate wonder?
I have my own strategies for encouraging wonder when I want to write or where I need to explore a troublesome challenge or a creative project.
- I take a train ride with a notebook (the non-electronic kind). Actually I find any kind of liminal time is useful for wonder. On the train, in the departure lounge, on a plane, in a waiting room, I often get out my notebook and see what’s cooking.
- I let myself drop below the ‘to do’ list. One way to do this is to have a notebook for wonder activity (drawing, writing, life planning) and a separate sheet of paper for the intrusive thoughts—I’m running out of olive oil, I need to get a birthday present for my sister, what will I take to the share a plate supper, did I respond to that email? While I’m letting myself drop into wonder, the list of tasks can try to assert its place but if I just note the items, then they no longer intrude and I can look after them when I have given time to wonder. And I can feel free to drop into that state more easily—and it definitely does involve shifting a gear.
- Take a walk, not a power walk, but some kind of stroll is best, preferably somewhere with a little natural beauty. I notice that I’m much better at cultivating wonder if I’m not trying to ascend something, or reach a destination, and where I’m not walking at speed or with the intention to firm my thighs. Wonder comes when I stroll—gently. I carry a notebook in my pocket or backpack and the fruits of wonder can be recorded when I reach a log, a bench or a café. I can be headed somewhere but I am with the journey rather than leaping ahead to anticipate my destination.
- Hanging out in a café can be good–usually one where the music is not too loud and the conversation is just a pleasant murmur rather than the din induced by too many hard surfaces. Cafés and libraries are third places; not home, not work where we can allow deeper conversations with ourselves or with others.
- I’m a bit clutzy in the garden, still learning to trust its rhythms but I find when I potter in my little courtyard, then wonder often enters easily. I wonder at the glory flower with its huge pink bloom, the scrubwrens taking turns in the birdbath or the slow movement of a praying mantis. A bit of pottering can presage a patch of wonder.
- Some kind of threshold crossing is helpful. When I want to write imaginatively then using a stock fairy tale phrase can signify the shift from chronos (quantitative) time to kairos (qualitative) time. We move into timeless time when we utter ‘Once upon a time…’ or ‘Once there was, and once there was not and once there was…’even if we erase it later.
- Find some kind of ritual. Light a candle, incense or a fragrant oil burner, make a pot of tea, or simply set ourselves a ‘wonder time’. When I want to drop into wonder, I often set my kitchen timer for 30 minutes. I use my timer and not my phone. It somehow seems more wondrous to twist a plastic lemon and then put it in another room where its buzz is audible but its ticking is not.
- Free ourselves from electronic stimulation. Although watching a good film or reading something inspiring from a facebook post or a tweet can create a mood of wonder, receptive wonder differs greatly from creative wonder. We probably need much more of the latter than we allow.
I’m planning a bit of wonder this afternoon; a mix of receptive and creative wonder. I trust you find time for some too.