Friday, September 27, 2013

Live in Wonder ...

A couple of years ago, I walked down a long, sunny hillside outside Santa Barbara, California, beneath the spreading branches of some very tall deciduous trees whose name I never did discover.

The shaded air was warm from the sun beating on the canopy overhead - at least it was until I rounded a bend in the path to find a small stream meandering from a ravine above. I turned my face gratefully toward the cool air rising from the water and there, close to the ground beside the stream, saw two perfect wild irises, bright and sharp and iridescent as two stars against the deep green of the surrounding foliage. My breath caught at their random perfection and I stood in the coolness for a long time just gazing at their fragile beauty.

Moments like these are moments of wonder, unexpected gifts to be cherished and remembered again and again. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines this experience of wonder as:
A feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable. (Marvel, astonishment, amazement)
But I think wonder goes even deeper than that. Wonder is also a way of being in the world, a way of opening to the possibility of being surprised. It is the readiness of our hearts and minds and perceptions to encounter beauty and astonishment. When we become stressed and beaten down by providing care for others, our focus becomes narrowed and constricted and we can lose our sense of wonder because we no longer see the things that give rise to it. And when we lose our sense of wonder, we lose an important source of refreshment and renewal.

Wonder's broader lens reminds us that all is not toil and trouble. Entwined in the ordinary, and even in the difficult things and experiences of life, can be moments of sublime beauty, awe and amazement -  if only we have the eyes to see them. Think of yourself as a child or of your own children or neighbours. Wonder comes naturally to those so new to the world. They find sources of wonder all around them - in the diamond dewdrops on a spider's web, in the flight of a kite in the wind, in the experience of tying their shoes for the very first time, in the arc of a rainbow across the sky.

Being open to wonder means pulling ourselves out of our ruts and narrowed perceptions to notice all of life. It means becoming mindful so we can see the the full context of the world and relationships around us and the smaller things of life as well. As we open more and more to the possibility of wonder, we increase our potential for both emotional and spiritual renewal.

Wonder is known as a principal source of spirituality and of humanity's belief in the existence of an unseen order of life. Spirituality, in turn, is known as both a source and outcome of trauma and compassion fatigue healing. So, is it possible that by enhancing our openness to wonder, we can also enhance our compassion fatigue recovery and resilience? It seems quite likely.

Parker Palmer explores this idea of enhancing wonder in an excerpt from The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life:

Normally, when we are taken by surprise, there is a sudden narrowing of our visual periphery that exacerbates the fight or flight response - an intense, fearful, self-defensive focusing of the 'gimlet eye' that is associated with both physical and intellectual combat. But in the Japanese self-defense art of aikido, this visual narrowing is countered by a practice called 'soft eyes', in which one learns to widen one's periphery, to take in more of the world ...
Soft eyes, it seems to me, is an evocative image for what happens when we gaze on sacred reality. Now our eyes are open and receptive, able to take in the greatness of the world and the grace of great things. Eyes wide with wonder, we no longer need to resist or run when taken by surprise. Now we can open ourselves to the great mystery. 

May each of us find "soft eye" moments of wonder in the week ahead, and sweet memories of those still shining in the past.

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