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7 Ways to Spark Your Sense of Wonder

Wonder and awe are essential to a passionate life. Here's how to activate them.

Mila Supinskaya / Shutterstock
Source: Mila Supinskaya / Shutterstock

I was sitting at my desk one overcast afternoon recently when a moment of wonder was spliced into my day. A pinhole opened in the cloud cover and a bolt of sun suddenly spotlighted a patch of dark mountain on the far side of the valley. It caught my eye and I heard myself say “whoa.”

The taxonomy of wonder begins here, with the mere tickle, with surprise and puzzlement as cheap thrills, and it moves through the jolt and the jar, the gape and the gawk, the boggle, the epiphany, and finally to the awe that’s four-fifths terror—watching a tornado bearing down, scuba diving while sharks circle around you, being in an earthquake and seeing the ground rolling in waves, as my mother once did near Mexico City, forever undermining her trust in “terra firma.”

So along this spectrum from simple arousal to holy terror, “whoa” is a fairly modest claim to wonder. But it shows up on the radar screen. Shows that my Old Brain is lighting up properly when nerve cells in my eyes register something moving against a still background. It shows that the sense of wonder is to some degree biologically driven, a survival instinct related to surprise and curiosity and an investigative scanning of the environment—all subsets of the urge to explore.

The sense of wonder speaks of our hunger to be moved, to be engaged and impassioned with the world and take pleasure in it, attuned to it and fascinated by it. Grateful for it.

It's our desire to feel radically alive rather than bored and disinterested, or so caught up in the toils and troubles of daily life that we miss out on its multitudes of marvels. It’s our desire to part the curtain and get a load of the grander scheme, from what’s around the next corner to epiphanies about The Nature of Things, a peak over the hedge at the vast green estates next door. And it asks us to continually seek out these enlivening moments.

Wonder sets itself over and against the still background of daily life, the routine and orderly, the familiar and predictable—those unravelers of awe—and it acts as a kind of backup generator to re-stimulate our interest in the world.

It’s a corrective for the conventional and habitual, for the fact that day-to-day life offers so few helpings of raw experience, of intensity and aliveness, of novelty, which is really as close as digging a rock out of the ground and cracking it in half. You’d be the first human being ever to lay eyes on the inside of that rock and it would be the first time the inside of that rock had ever seen the light of the sun.

Here, then, are 7 ways to cultivate your sense of wonder:

1) Seek out displays of mastery and genius. Immerse yourself in the works of anyone who's won a Pulitzer, Nobel, Tony, Grammy, Oscar, Olympic or MacArthur award. Stop and stare whenever you enter grand lobbies and atriums. Get a season pass to the art museum. Put the “Astronomy Picture of the Day” website on the toolbar of your computer. Listen to TED talks.

2) Look at your life through someone else's eyes. To overcome the anesthetic effect of familiarity with ordinary things, and look with renewed wonder at something you’ve looked at a thousand times—your own body, the sky, your kid—thereby turning the commonplace uncommon again, what’s usually required, as Marcel Proust once said, isn’t new vistas but new eyes. And those eyes don't even have to be yours.

Try reintroducing yourself to the charms of your town, for instance, by seeing it through the eyes of a visitor, or to the wonders of the world through the eyes of your children. Look at your husband through the eyes of another woman, your wife through the eyes of another man.

3) Approach things from new angles. I recently went to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, and hanging next to the Wright brothers airplane in the main lobby is the Mercury capsule that took John Glenn and his Right Stuff into man’s first Earth orbit. But seeing the little cone-shaped capsule, no bigger than a VW bug and surrounded by gawking tourists, was a little like watching the first Star Wars movie after 30 years of increasingly sophisticated special effects films; it seemed primitive and even a little cheesy with its waxy astronaut mannequin inside.

But when I wandered around to the back side of the capsule, I saw something that took it far out of the realm of being merely a museum display. That side was blackened like burnt-toast, and as I stared at it, I slowly realized that what I was looking at was the actual residue from its fiery reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, and that this little canister, which could just as easily have become a casket, a crematorium, participated in one hell of a spectacle, to say nothing of the awesome vulnerability of the man inside.

Similarly, if you’re watching a sunset—and what could be more common than a sunset—stare not at the sun, but at the Earth, and you’ll begin to make out what’s really going on, which is not the sun setting but the Earth rising, spinning hugely in space. You’ll begin to make out its actual motion, and remember that you live on a planet hanging in midair.

4) Change the context. Anything familiar experienced in an unfamiliar context is likely to be an enlivening anomaly. Merely walking is suddenly made uncommon when you hit one of those moving sidewalks at the airport, with the wonderfully athletic sensation it offers of instantly doubling your speed and allowing you to watch the scenery comparatively fly by.

Even sound is utterly prosaic until you add a new element, like distance, whereupon it suddenly reveals a whole new facet: its speed. Roughly Mach 1, 750 mph, a second to reach from ground level to the top of the Empire State Building.

The author Annie Dillard once described walking to the edge of the Sea of Galilee in Israel and seeing, across a cove, a man splitting wood. “I heard a wrong ring,” she says, watching the man’s axe clang at the top of his swing rather than the bottom. She continued to watch the distant, silhouetted figure. He drove the axe down again, she could see the wood split and drop to either side, but in silence. When he bent straight and raised the maul again with both arms, she heard it ring, “as if he was clobbering the heavens.”

5) Slow down. A book called Wanderlust talks about a peculiar fashion in mid 19th-century Paris, in which strollers sometimes took turtles for walks in the parks, the better to slow their pace and maximize the connoisseurship of their amblings.

A few years ago, I spent a day by a small, crystal-clear pond nestled in a tiny granite bowl high in the Trinity Alps in Northern California. It was perhaps 100 feet long by 30 feet wide. I could easily throw a stone from one end to the other. I decided to walk around the pond really slowly, a walking meditation, an experiment in seeing the world from a snail’s pace. I took one step every minute, by my watch.

It took me three hours to get around that little lake. Normally it would have taken a couple of minutes. But I also felt like I really saw the place, and certainly saw the fibrillating restlessness and impatience inside me that occupied about half my time on that little stroll, and easily that much of my life in general; the needlings of a lifetime of being industrious, goal-oriented and hyperactive. But I stuck with it. I saw flowers so small I would never have even seen them on an ordinary walk, the peculiar geometries of rotting wood, the melting and dripping of leftover snow, birds—and thoughts—flitting by at what, from my glacial pace, seemed like supersonic speed.

6) Get out of Dodge. Growing your sense of wonder is often about simply getting out from behind the desk and the chores from time to time, the habits and routines that define and confine your everyday life, and creating opportunities to encounter wonder, put yourself in its path, and deliberately create a little estrangement from business as usual.

Few things mollify the hunger for wonder, for example, like travel, through which you’re immersed in discovery, launched into the learning curve, and taken someplace where you can be amazed. A plane is taking off for such a place every few minutes of every day. You can find a typical menu on any airport flight monitor, especially in the international terminal.

7) Change your lenses. We refer to the “sense of wonder” because the senses play such a vital role, and you can greatly extend your senses, and thus your apprehension of wonders, by utilizing new lenses—magnifying glasses, binoculars, microscopes, telescopes, amplifiers, stethoscopes.

A simple magnifying glass can transform a sprinkling of sand on the palm into a field of boulders, and the bark of a tree into a maze of canyons. Through any schoolkid’s microscope, you can marvel at the squirming animalcules in your own spit, or the wigglyworms and flagellates in a drop of water from the birdbath out back.

And through the medium of a television you can even channel the Big Bang. According to Bill Bryson in A Short History of Everything, a certain percentage of the shimmering static on TV is cosmic radiation emanating from the Big Bang itself, the ultimate reality show, the original word from your Sponsor. So when nothing else is on, or when programming stops in the wee hours, you can always watch the Creation.

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