Tracking Wonder

How to cultivate this elusive emotion

Wonder is Not Kid's Stuff

Wonder can help us face - not escape from - adult reality.

I won't valorize my cooing, gazing eight-month-old daughter as the exemplar of wonder. That would be too easy. And it may not be accurate. It certainly would not be constructive to encourage responsible adults to mimic the habits of a doe-eyed infant. In fact, I'll just come out and say it: Wonder is not kid's stuff. It turns out that it might be rather adult stuff.

True, I've been on the tracks of wonder since a tow-headed boy. At 17, 18 years old, I secretly desired to keep alive what then I could only call "imagination." To stay on wonder's tracks partially drove me to devote much of my adult life to being a writer, to teaching writing, and to mentoring writers around the country. In fact, a capacity for wonder probably led me to blend the ancient art of Yoga's philosophies and practices with my creative writing process, to pen a book about that yoking, and to show other writers ways to weave Yoga and writing.

The daggers, slings, and arrows of adult life have not led me astray. Just the opposite. During the past six years amidst a divorce, a new marriage, the purchase of a farm house, a lightning-inspired fire of said house that decimated my study and library and also left us out of home for 15 months, two bouts of debilitating Lyme Disease plus a small dose of depression, not to mention the arrival of a little girl named Dahlia who has summarily rearranged my life - I have been deliberately on wonder's scent more than ever.

Wonder has been a reliable - dare I say, "awe-some" - ally in learning to live in, not escape from, this world. I am learning how to navigate crises and periods of "fertile confusion" - those moments when identity, reality, in short a personal "world" are in flux. I've picked up a few tools and tricks to lure it to my living quarters - my study, kitchen, living room, bedroom -however fleeting its visits.

The results? Well, I'm not a silly, skipping Peter Pan of a man who insists we have birthday parties every day. Wonder is quieter than that. Something, though, has shifted in my perception. I respond more than react to all the crap that inevitably "happens." Those shifts coupled with my innate curiosity and concern for other human beings are enough to keep me on its tracks and to keep living in some key questions.

What is wonder exactly? Is it just a phenomenon or trick of the eyes? Can adults actually cultivate something so ethereal? Why do we have so many misconceptions of what it is? What's it for? Those questions these past few years have sent me many places in search of this seemingly ubiquitous yet elusive emotion: to tour with an archaeologist through what may well be North America's largest and oldest cave art and rock shelter art sites; to India where members of the longest living Yoga tradition, Kashmir Shaivism, have "spelunkered" through the mind's darkest caves; to the Texas Panhandle to sniff out what a young Georgia O'Keeffe might have felt during two seminal years that shaped her artistic vision; to a Peruvian shaman who visits upstate New York that I might glimpse for myself the beatitudes and sublime terrors that William Blake and William James and Walt Whitman and my other literary heroes had experienced and so dutifully had come back to tell about.

Those experiences corroborated much of my research and studies. Socrates talks with a young geometry student named Theaetetus. Descartes corresponds with a young princess of Bohemia. Pam Houston advises her undergrad writing students at UC-Davis. At the heart of all these teachers' observations is, yes, wonder. Respectively: Wonder is the beginning of all wisdom. Wonder is the first of all passions. Wonder is the beginning of all writing. Wisdom, emotions, and creativity - all borne from wonder.

And wonder in the East? In short, the Tao Te Ching's author suggests that when we recognize both the external world of, say, paper cups and bird feeders and the internal world of ideas and images as the same, then we enter a portal of wonder, the wonder of wonders. The yogic teacher Abhinavagupta essentially says the same thing: When we experience the dream world of impressions and the waking world of objects as the same, we are in the space of wonder. And to pause in that space, the teacher suggests, is the heart of Yoga. From Greece to the Netherlands to California to China to India, wonder matters.

A handful of psychologists are picking up the crumbs these teachers have left behind. A few biologists have insisted scientists restore wonder before it's too late for the planet. Some religious thinkers have called for its revival if religion is to be relevant this century. At least one academic has called upon humanities professors to renew its place on college campuses to save higher education from the marketplace of gadgetry. None of these people are speaking to Dahlia or her crawling play-date friends. They're reaching out to you and me.

My two-part hypothesis is simple on the face of it. Part one: To cultivate wonder can benefit how we adults relate. To our minds and our bodies. Our sense of self and Self. Our loved ones. Strangers. Other animals. Plants. Work. Problems and crises.

Part two: Wonder may be the responsible - not childish, Alice-ish - emotional experience for us adults in the 21st century to learn to identify and cultivate.

Yes, wonder can be tracked. But it cannot be pinned down, caged, and analyzed (well, I guess it can, but that's not my endeavor). On this blog, we'll track it that we may come to recognize, appreciate, and understand it in all of its many forms and guises, and also invite it into our lives. Not to hunt it down and kill it. For at the heart of this wondering about wonder is a constant play between knowing and not-knowing, between figuring out and then surrendering again to the circuitous, fish hooked, umbrella-shaped question mark.

Join the tracking party.

See you in the woods.

 

Jeffrey Davis is a creativity consultant and author of The Journey from the Center to the Page: Yoga Philosophies and Practices as Muse for Authentic Writing.

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