(After a mindfulness eating exercise with a strawberry, I begin)
What I wonder is what is wonder. The word has many definitions and I would guess means different things to different people. As we explore wonder today take a few seconds to choose which definition you will ground yourself in. The definition I’m using for myself today—and this may or may not be change on other days are these: wonder is curiosity—“a strong desire to learn more” (Oxford Dictionary), wonder is mystery—“ something that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain” (Oxford Dictionary) and wonder is awe-- “…the feeling we get in the presence of something vast that challenges our understanding of the world.” (researchers at Berkley University’s definition). Maybe these definitions, or metaphors, will work for you too as we explore wonder together.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote: “Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God. But only he who sees takes off his shoes; The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.” When I was young, around 2nd grade and 3rd grade, I remember being amazed by everything. Every bush, creature, place, and person. I wondered about how they each came to be. If it was a plant I wondered how it tasted, if it was poisonous or dangerous. If it was an object I wondered how heavy/light it was; what I could do with it. As a child, I approached most everything as a mystery; I held many things in awe. Wonder was central to my life. Wonder did at times get me in some trouble, like when I tried to lift up an alligator snapping turtle to get a better look at it and to find out how heavy it was. As I did its the snapping head reached all the way around to its tail nearly snapping my hand off. But most often my wonderings were not so dangerous. I wondered about books and developed a passion for reading Science Fiction/Fantasy books that were bursting with words that inspired awe, curiosity, and mystery. I wondered how authors could write such captivating tales. I felt that “Earth was crammed with heaven” if I just stopped long enough to fully engage with it. I approached each experience with reverence and awe, not as a mystery to be solved, but as a mystery to be explored and savored. I spent days wondering as I wandered in cow pastures, libraries, my backyard, my neighborhood often alone, not lonely, just alone. I realize this is not something most of us would allow our children to do today, worried about their safety, and rightfully so, but I have to say I believe our children are missing out a little bit, not freely experiencing and wondering about the world around them. I also spent time up in a willow tree in my front yard watching people; I guessed they couldn’t see me, so I was free to watch and wonder about what they were doing, where they were going, how they moved; I was immersed, in the moment with them. I was full of curiosity, and everything was mysterious and awe-inspiring. This was a discrete period of my life. Eventually, I began being more interested in playing games, spending time with friends, and school took more of my attention. I wanted to learn how things worked, and so I listened to what teachers and priests were saying. I think my wonder became more directed, more goal-oriented, more about finding answers rather than sensually and reverently experiencing the world.
When was the last time when you wondered, not so much in regard to finding answers, but simply to fully experience an object, a person, art or music, to let it/them touch you emotionally, spiritually, physically; to put aside what you know from books or experience and be completely curious about it/them; and “to see and take off your shoes” treating the experience/person/object as if it inhabits holy ground?
Often we are too busy, too into our habits, and if we have time, we want to fill it with something new, innovative, mind-blowing, or at least something that tastes, smells, feels, sounds good. I understand, I do that too, much of the time. I mean Martha and I don’t watch any movie that doesn’t have a 5.0 or higher on IMDB—if you want to know what that means you can ask me later—because we don’t want to give our time to something that will likely be of poor value. I often choose food or drink that positively stimulates my taste buds and nose in ways that are familiar, comforting, so I tend to consume things that I already have some positive experience with. I tend not to explore dishes at restaurants after I have found what I like—I just keep having what I know. It’s a known quantity. I don’t have time to waste on fully immersing myself in what this experience, food, place might be able to offer. I don’t stop to wonder.
And while this is my eating habit, I have been fortunate to have had some experiences that dislodged me from some of my habits, experiences that have thrust me into wonder. I have come to realize that I cling to what I know. I’ve forgotten how to approach any experience with curiosity, awe, and mystery. I have forgotten that I can experience so much more in that moment, in that person, in that object if I take the time to wonder about them.
Once long ago, I was a counselor in an Eating Disorders Inpatient Treatment Program. I worked with people who were diagnosed with anorexia, bulimia, and compulsive eating disorders. For the most part I ran educational classes and offered individual, family and group therapy. I had been teaching the patients about mindful eating. But as a counselor, I didn’t eat with them, that was the job of a nurse or mental health technician. One day, the nurse and tech were not available, so I went down with the patients so that staff would be present when they ate. I decided that if I was asking them to mindfully eat, perhaps I should as well. I approached my food with curiosity and mystery, ready to learn something from the experience, just as I invited you to do with the strawberry today. It was an awesome and I would even say holy experience. I opened myself up to my senses and my feelings, again as I had asked my patients to do. Can you image approaching a hamburger or ice cream as if it was something you had never had before? As I might have approached it back when I was a child. Can you imagine noticing while eating mindfully and slowly that you experience each taste bud activating in succession, from sweet to sour to bitter? Chocolate is not just one flavor sensation but many. After mindfully eating chocolate, I was reminded of how the Maya and Aztec regarded chocolate as a life-giving force that empowered human blood. Its consumption was therefore a kind of sacrament, which gave life to the reverant consumer. When I mindfully eat chocolate-- understand I don’t do that very often—I open myself fully to my senses, as well as to curiosity, to awe and mystery, and I wonder “Should I take off my shoes.”
I want to share a little more from Fabiana Fondevila’s article “Where Wonder Lives”: [Often our] first reaction [to awe and wonder], is [reflected in] what happens to our breath, [which] to me seems very telling. You know, when you see the night sky, a very majestic night sky or a mountain or a storm or sunset—I’m naming natural phenomena, but it doesn’t have to be nature, it could also be a piece of music or art, or a very supremely kind act, that you consider, that you feel is so huge and encompassing that you can’t take it in—what you do instinctively is you hold your breath for a moment, right?...And that gives us a bit of a clue as to what’s happening. And here I’m citing researchers…Dacher Keltner and Lani Shiota and other awe researchers—they’ve found that what awe does when we experience it is it submerges us in the present. For that time, however long it lasts, there’s no past, no future. You’re not worried about anything. You’re not remembering anything. You’re there completely at one with what is happening. So this suspension of breath seems to me first of all—and maybe this is just symbolic, or an intuition of mine, I haven’t read that anywhere, but it’s as if you want to make room for it and there’s not enough room for it in your chest so you take in this big gulp of air—which is also related to the word “inspiration,” and that’s no small association—and then you hold it for a moment as everything stands still.”
I remember feeling that when I was young and life was full of awe and wonder. When there was a suspension of time and breath, a time when even the experience of a strawberry was too big to fit in my chest. Nowadays, I have to stop and make time to be open for those wonderful experiences. So I make time on occasion to eat mindfully, to look at a sunrise mindfully, to read a passage in a book mindfully or look at a piece of art mindfully, or listen music mindfully. Not expecting that I will be moved, not in the expectation that I will experience awe or wonder, but with a willingness to be open to what lies in the moment. Making time for mindful awareness. And when I feel that wonder, that curiosity of spirit, in the midst of awe and mystery, for a moment—or, if I’m lucky, for several moments, there is no “ordinary”, and anything and everything is extraordinary.