Making Space for Stillness

 

Let the waters settle and you will see the moon and the stars mirrored in your own being.–Rumi

Parents naturally recognize that a long bath settles a restless toddler, that snuggle time is a necessary oasis in a child’s day. We notice when children have solitary moments they tend to daydream, a natural form of meditation. We see even the most active kids settle into stillness, quietly swaying on a backyard swing or humming while looking out the window, entirely at peace until a new idea grabs them or (more frequently) someone interrupts them to do something.

Everyone needs time to simply “be.” In stillness we’re fully present all way to the the quiet center of our being. (The vital counterpoint to this, being energized to the center of ourselves, is the blissful state of flow.) Constant activity can easily crowd our awareness into a jumble of surface impressions. Even when we are mindful of the need to downshift, obligations and diversions intrude. Yet we know contemplation flourishes best in stillness.

For some of us, a specific place helps us to gather what is fragmented in ourselves. We might be drawn to sit on the porch step each evening and watch dusk turn to darkness, we may make a ritual of drinking tea in a certain comfortable chair each morning, we may notice that time alone in nature strengthens our spirits. Many children like making their own hidden realms under blankets, behind furniture, in an outdoor hideout, wherever they can listen to silence by choice. And many families incorporate daily rituals of prayer or meditation that, in addition to a spiritual purpose, also teach children to connect with an essential wisdom within.

That inner wisdom provides important information none of us should ignore. Often the information is coded into physical impressions or sensitivities. Children may have difficulty coping with overstimulation, they may object to certain foods, or they may refuse to play at a new friend’s house. These sensitivities or inclinations aren’t wrong. They are among the many indicators of a wordless knowing. In a world that unrelentingly pushes us to fit in by denying our feelings, a measure of stillness and acceptance at home leaves the child space to know him- or herself. By reacting mindfully we draw the child’s conscious awareness to these differences.

Many of us were taught as children to ignore our inner promptings. We may have felt instinctive revulsion when served particular foods, but were told we had to clean our plates. We may have known that we weren’t ready to practice math facts over and over, but found if we didn’t comply we’d be shamed by bad grades. We may have heard a small voice inside warning us to stay away from a particular person, but were told to do what grown-ups said.

Instead we want our children to recognize that they have an internal system of communication known as intuition. They can tune in to their own impressions, perhaps learning that they get grouchy when they are thirsty or feel a stomachache coming on when they aren’t being true to themselves. They can use these signs when making decisions. The child whose gut feelings are taken seriously will learn to respond to the form his intuition takes.

Paying attention to inner promptings can be crucial. As security expert Gavin de Becker explains in Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safethis is imperative for safety because intuition is a hardwired trait warning us of danger. If the child is aware of his inner warning system he will trust himself well enough to recognize the indicators that something is wrong. As de Becker says, this can save a child’s life.

Incorporating tranquil interludes into our daily lives is an important way to nurture a connection to inner wisdom. In good times as well as difficult times, that connection gives us a sense of self and the inner reserves found in stillness.

This post is an excerpt from Free Range Learning.

How Do You Introduce A Friend?

Years ago, a family new to our area came to an enrichment program my kids and I were attending. Someone said, “Oh you’ve got to meet Beth, she dragged roadkill to the back of her yard so her kids could observe the process of decomposition.”

I knew immediately that Beth and her kids were our kind of strange. Every member of her family is clever in charmingly different ways and they quickly became integral to our lives. I don’t need to introduce her with that roadkill story because I have so many other Beth stories by now.

I don’t know about you, but I’m uncomfortable with the usual what-this-person-does-for-a-living introduction. Your friend may be amazing at her job, but she’s more than that. I’d rather introduce people by what they mean to me.  “I’d like you to meet Margaret, who is truly the most unique person I know,” or “This is Leslie, who has helped me out of more more scrapes than you can imagine,” or “I’d like you to meet Mark, an amazingly open-hearted man who also tends to make scatological jokes.”

Or introduce them by something they do that brings them joy. “I’d like you to meet David, who is a reading buddy with kids in an inner city school,” or “This is Amy, who has challenged herself to write an acrostic poem every single day,” or “This is Cynthia, who has such attuned vision in nature that she can see what most people never notice.”

Or, as in the case of Beth, to introduce someone with a story.

I suspect most of us feel awkward in a group of strangers at a party, reception, or stalled elevator. Oftentimes a conversation starts more naturally by simply sharing an observation (“I hope elevator cables only snap in the movies,” might not be the right one. Which means I’d probably say it…)

Or asking a more essential question that might lead to real connection. Maybe, “What’s capturing your attention lately?” or “What do you like to do that you don’t have to do?” (Yeah, lame. I told you I’m awkward.)

And whatever we do, by really listening to the answers.

I ran across this wonderful poem by a fellow Ohioan, Susan Glassmeyer. She says it all, and more.

INTRODUCTIONS

Let’s not say our names
or what we do for a living.
If we are married
and how many times.
Single, gay, or vegan.

Let’s not mention
how far we got in school.
Who we know,
what we’re good at
or no good at, at all.

Let’s not hint at
how much money we have
or how little.
Where we go to church
or that we don’t.
What our Sun Sign is
our Enneagram number
our personality type according to Jung
or whether we’ve ever been
Rolfed, arrested, psychoanalyzed,
or artificially suntanned.

Let’s refrain, too, from stating any ills.
What meds we’re on
including probiotics.
How many surgeries we’ve survived
or our children’s children’s problems.
And, please—
let’s not mention
who we voted for
in the last election.

Let’s do this instead:
Let’s start by telling
just one small thing
that costs us nothing
but our attention.

Something simple
that nourishes
the soul of our bones.
How it was this morning
stooping to pet the sleeping dog’s muzzle
before going off to work.

Or
yesterday,
walking in the woods
spotting that fungus on the stump
of a maple
so astonishingly orange
it glowed like a lamp.

Or just now,
the sound
of your
own breath
rising
or sinking
at the end
of this
sentence.

— Susan Glassmeyer

Who Are You When The Power Goes Out?

contemplation time, power outage, technology dependence,

Over a decade ago a power outage started in Ohio, rapidly spreading to four other states and parts of Canada. In some places power wasn’t restored for days. For a time, systems with backup generators continued working but only as long as those generators had fuel. ATM machines couldn’t be accessed, gas stations couldn’t pump gas, phone service was disrupted, and water systems lost pressure.

When it started, my parents checked in with a neighbor who was home alone next door. My mother told the 14-year-old girl if she needed something she only had to ask. “I’m fine,” the girl assured her.

About an hour later the (now distraught) girl rang my parent’s doorbell. “I don’t know what to do!” she said.

“What’s wrong?” my alarmed mother asked her, “Are you okay?”

It turned out no particular thing was wrong, exactly. But this girl was close to panic. She couldn’t get online. She couldn’t recharge her phone. She couldn’t turn on the TV.  Tired of her iPod and without other familiar diversions she was left to her own devices.

She. Didn’t. Know. What. To. Do.

Maybe we’ve unlearned how to be with ourselves, perhaps for the first time in history. Our ancestors, whether hunting or hoeing, had hours each day to think their own thoughts. They had time to notice nuances in the natural world. They had time to know themselves. Those previous eras weren’t all golden by any means, but our ancestors probably couldn’t have imagined a future generation populated by people who would suffer when left without moment-to-moment diversions.

What are we diverting ourselves from, exactly?

My friend Urmila, who lives in India, tells me that we most fully inhabit our lives when we’re not doing but being. She says there’s a big different between her culture and ours. In the West believe a good day is spent getting a lot accomplished. Our spare minutes are filled with distractions, our vacations are way to check items off our bucket lists, and family time needs to be fit into a schedule.

To her a good day is one of daydreams, contemplation, meditation, a quiet walk—simply experiencing the flow of time.

(Urmila has motivated me to stop uttering what I think is the curse word of our time.)

Which brings me to a relevant study. Researchers performed brain scans on rats as they went through a maze and again afterwards. They found rats, given a chance to relax, showed enhanced learning and memory retention compared rats who were not. The scientists noted that human experiences also require periods of quiet wakeful introspection to make sense of them.

What we experience is just raw data until we feel it, think about it, and weave it into our personally tapestry. Relaxing and reflecting lets us find meaning in our experiences. That sounds like a life more fully lived, whether the power is on or not.

technology addiction, introspection, studies of memory,

I Can’t Hear You, I’m Reading

can't hear when I read, lost in reading, unreachable reader,

“Girl Reading” Pierre-Auguste Renoir (public domain)

I don’t simply get lost in books. When I read, I am unreachable.

Getting too absorbed in reading was a problem when I was a kid. I didn’t notice if I’d been reading in the tub so long the water turned cold. I didn’t notice the lamp I surreptitiously turned on after bedtime was still illuminating my page close to midnight. I didn’t hear my mother tell me to “get your nose out of that book and go outside” or hear her call me for dinner. I wasn’t trying to disobey. When you’re swooping aloft on the air currents of a story it’s hard to notice what’s happening back on Earth.

The problem was worse in school. I’d get done with some inane social studies assignment and sneak a library book from my desk. Soon I’d lift off, finding myself in the howling winds of a Siberian blizzard or the scorching plains of Africa. Eventually the poke of a classmate’s finger would rouse me. I’d look up to an odd silence only to realize the class had moved on to math and the teacher had called on me.

I got lost in more than books. I started reading daily newspapers when I was ten or eleven years old. (Trying to figure out the nonsensical world of grown-ups, something I’m still trying to do.) My younger brother tells me I was entirely unreachable behind the paper. He had repeated nightmares that he ran into the room yelling, “Dad has been kidnapped!” only to hear my preoccupied “uh huh.”

When I became a mother I didn’t let myself read for fear of ignoring my babies. Okay, that’s a lie. I read when they were asleep or safely occupied. (Surely they needed a break from my constantly loving gaze and all those vocabulary-enhancing conversations.) I took my babies out twice a day in any weather passable enough for a jaunt, often walking with a book propped on the stroller handle. (This was possible only because there was no traffic in my neighborhood.) I also read while nursing, peeled potatoes with a book on the counter, read well into wee hours of the night despite chronic new mom exhaustion. Admitting this to people unafflicted with a library addiction as severe as mine feels uncomfortably revealing.

I thought my lost-in-books-syndrome had eased somewhat by now. That is, until I missed a flight because I was reading.

I rarely fly, so I’m super responsible about the details. I print out copies of my flight information for my family, compact everything I need in a small carry-on, take healthy snacks, and arrive at the airport ridiculously early. Apparently what’s really irresponsible is allowing myself to take reading materials.

Last time I had to fly I was heading home from San Francisco. My fellow homebodies will understand why I chose a non-direct flight, one that stopped in a small Texas airport, simply because it departed earlier in the day and let me get home sooner. I had almost two hours between connecting flights but didn’t waste a moment getting to the the departure area. In this not-so-big airport with its small departure gates I couldn’t find a seat unencumbered by people or their luggage or their Cinnabun bags. So I sat on the carpet, my back against the wall, and started reading. I made sure I was no more than 10 feet from the desk to ensure I’d hear them call my flight.

I repeatedly looked up to check the clock until I lifted off into the book, becoming lost to linear concepts like time. When I looked up again (after what seemed like only moments) the area was empty.

A plane was taxing away from the window.

I wasn’t on it.

A bored employee assured me the flight had been called several times. They saw me sitting there but I didn’t look up. There were no flights heading north or west after mine till the next morning.

I got to spend the entire night on a hard plastic airport bench. The lights were dimmed but informational announcements about keeping your luggage secure played every 15 minutes. All. Night. Long.

I finished my book. I read everything on my Kindle. I memorized the posters on the wall. I thought bitterly about living on a backward planet where transporter beams are not yet a reality.

Perhaps I should start a support group. Hello, my name is Laura. I’m an Unreachable Reader.

Evoking the State of Flow

state of flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, rapt absorption, learning through flow, advance learning with flow,

CC by 2.0 Jonf728’s flickr photostream

Flow is “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”   ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

My daughter spent much of this week with a deer skeleton she found in the woods.

As she searched the site she was thrilled to find most bones intact. I wasn’t at all involved beyond providing toothbrushes and bleach to clean them.

Today she’s reassembling the skeleton in the driveway. She shows me how the back legs fit into the hip sockets, giving the deer power to leap and run while the front legs are mostly held on by bone and connective tissue.

She points out that the spine is somewhat similar to a human spine in the lower thoracic and upper lumbar regions, but very different where the large cervical vertebrae come in.

I know so little about this topic that I forget what she’s telling me while she speaks.

Handling the bones carefully, she faithfully reconstructs the skeleton. She’s so deeply engrossed in the project that she hasn’t come in for lunch or bothered to put on a jacket to ward off the chill.

Her interests are far different than mine, but I know what it’s like to be this captivated.

You know the feeling too. You become so absorbed in something that time scurries by without your notice. Your whole being is engrossed by the project. You feel invigorated.

Skiers call it becoming “one with the mountain.” Athletes call it being in the “zone.” Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has termed it the “state of flow.”

In this marvelous state the boundaries between you and your experience seem fluid, as if you are merging with what you’re doing. The more opportunities any of us have to immerse ourselves in activities we love, especially those that stretch us to our full capacities, the more capable and centered we feel in other areas of our lives.

Photo by Claire Weldon

Children, especially the youngest ones, slide into flow effortlessly. While playing they concentrate so fully that they lose sense of themselves, of time, even of discomfort. They’re inherently drawn to full-on engagement. As Csikszentmihalyi explains in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,

Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.

For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.”

Kids demonstrate flow when they’re eagerly drawing, building, climbing, pretending, reading, exploring—-however rapt involvement captures them. Their intent focus makes a mockery of what is supposedly a child’s developmental handicap — a short attention span.

Flow truly puts a person in the moment. No wonder it can be hard for our kids when we call them away from what they’re doing to what we deem more important. No wonder they might be more enthusiastic about playing with Legos than taking part in a structured geometry lesson.

Imposing too many of our grown-up preoccupations on kids can teach them to block the experience of flow.

What do we need to remember about this state?

Flow is typically triggered:

  1. when a person’s abilities are stretched nearly to their limits
  2. during a self-chosen pursuit
  3. when they are looking to accomplish something worthwhile to them.

These characteristics are also the way we’re primed to learn from infancy on. It’s been called the Goldilocks Effect. This means we are attracted to what holds just the right amount of challenge for us. Not too big a challenge, not too little, but something that sparks our interest and holds it close to the edge of our abilities, moving us toward greater mastery.

That’s pretty much the way science, art, and other major human endeavors happen too. Flow may indeed be our natural state.

Public domain by Cheryl Holt.

How do we encourage flow?

It doesn’t have to be complicated. Here are some ways to allow more flow in your kids’ lives (and yours too!).

  • Foster a calm, relaxed environment.
  • Engage in what brings out delighted fascination. If you’re not sure what that is, fool around with something hands-on. Tinker, paint, write, sculpt with clay, take something apart, dance, experiment—-whatever feels enticing.
  • Let go of worry and pressure.
  • Welcome mistakes as well as challenges.
  • As much as possible, don’t interrupt.
  • Remember that flow isn’t really separate from play.

The outcome of flow?

  • Deepened learning and stronger confidence.
  • A drive toward complexity, luring us to increase challenges, broaden our range of abilities, even face anxiety and boredom as we access an ever more profound state of engagement. (As A Playful Path author Bernie DeKoven explains here.)
  • Dr. Csikszentmihalyi’s work tells us achieving the flow state regularly is a key component of happiness.

That’s vital, even if it means you end up with a deer skeleton in your driveway.

Post first published on the wonderful site, Simple Homeschool.

Portions of this post are excerpted from Free Range Learning

Truly Inhabiting Time

screen addiction, phone addiction, mindfulness,

CC by 2.0 MK Feeney’s flickr photostream

Last night I sat in a dark theater next to the man I love watching The Imitation Game. It was a compelling story, brilliantly acted. Yet several times during the movie I was tempted to take out my phone. I wanted to verify the story* and find out more about its subject, Alan Turing. I’m not rude enough to actually check my phone during the movie, instead I sat there castigating myself for having the urge in the first place.

Although I write a lot about living in the moment and cultivating awe, I’m apparently on my way to becoming a phone junkie.

We tune out from ourselves because the options are so enticing. There’s an endless wealth of information and entertainment for us to discover. A walk with earbuds, sure. A phone to check while we’re waiting in line, entirely handy. Social media to indulge in, masterful performances to watch, obscure online articles to read.. (Guilty throat-clearing noise from me.)

What we forget is that each repeated choice we make teaches our brains to prefer that choice. It’s the neurological equivalent of driving along the exact same tracks in a dirt road, making ruts deeper and deeper until it’s nearly impossible to steer away. It’s easy to create these mental ruts thanks to dopamine, our brain’s feel-good chemical. We’re wired to get a rush of dopamine from all sorts of everyday delights. A problem solved, a friend’s smile across the room, kiss, a hug—ding goes a dopamine reward.  That’s also true of an answered tweet—ding. A text—ding. Ding ding ding from Instagram, channel flipping, and Candy Crush Saga.

A study found that people who were asked to forgo media contact for 24 hours (no texting,email, Facebook, TV, or cell phone use) actually suffered withdrawal symptoms. They experienced anxiety, cravings, and preoccupations so overwhelming that their ability to function was impaired. College students now say they spend 8 to 10 hours a day on their phones, 60 percent admit they’re addicted.

We’re actually rewiring the way we live minute-to-minute. We’ve tuned ourselves to need distraction. Side effect? This makes us less comfortable with distraction’s opposite—-the powerfully real time spent in contemplation, daydreams, and face-to-face conversation.

I don’t want to be trapped in the cage of my skull. I want to live fully in body and spirit as well as mind, to truly inhabit the mortal time given to me.

So I’ll be watching more closely where I direct my attention, hopefully rewiring the way I engage with the world around me. Next time I want to be in the theater next to my husband entirely drawn into the movie. When I walk out of the theater I want to look up and enjoy the stars. Then I want to drive to the home we’ve made together, staying right there in the moments unique to our lives. That’s it. That’s enough.

I wish that life should not be cheap, but sacred.  I wish the days to be as centuries, loaded, fragrant.   ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

distraction, living fully, mindfulness, screen addiction,

CC by 2.0 epSos .de’s flickr photostream

*Yes, I checked later. The movie took plenty of liberties with the real story.

Make a List of Non-Resolutions

no resolutions, non-resolutions, no New Year's resolutions,

image: unsplash

Resolutions are traditionally meant to fix what we think is wrong with our lives, as if it’s necessary to hammer ourselves into someone society finds more attractive and more successful.

I say meh.

Seems to me the more significant challenges are to discover greater depths in ourselves and to cultivate more joy in our daily lives. Maybe we need to replace New Year’s resolutions with delight-enhancing non-resolutions. If you need ideas for your own list, here are some things I hope to nurture in my life, .

Prioritize time for daydreaming.

Sigh loudly whenever you want to. It stimulates the vagus nerve.

Pursue the urge to know more, no matter how obscure your fascinations.

Tune in to sensory pleasure: birdsong, soft blankets, wind in the trees, warm soup.

Accept all apologies as you wish those you apologize to might accept yours.

Give your machines names,  especially your car.

Send oddities via snail mail, it’s ridiculously fun.

Eat something different, often.

Talk about your traumas as a stand-up comedian might.

Greet the same tree every day.

Each time you take a first sip of ice water, pay attention as it slides down your throat.

Allow yourself to become a library addict.

Lie on the grass whenever you can. Also sand. And snow. It’s like accepting a hug from Ma Nature.

Try sketching for fun.

Listen.

Collect poems that speak to you.

When you take a walk, just walk. No phone, no earbuds, simply let your legs move you forward.

Talk to insects.

Look at yourself tenderly, as an angelic being might see you, adoring every moment of the amazing mortal life you lead.

Play!

Understanding Children Through Imitation

follow your child's example, what it feels like to be a child, child's experience,

Mirror a child’s movements. (morguefile)

So much of a child’s experience, from infancy on, is constantly being shaped by adults. Their behavior, posture, movement, and sound are restricted by structured activities, confining seats, and grown-up expectations . If we allow ourselves, we can drop into a child’s world for few moments by replicating his or her movements. It’s a form of listening at the bodily level that can be instructive as well as enlightening.

I’ve admitted to trying this the very first time as a new mother, imitating my newborn’s movements in an experience so profound it felt like a ceremony.

I didn’t try it again until I was the mother of three kids under six. I’d dashed over to a friend’s house to drop something off, feeling rushed to get back to my nursing baby. My friend’s children were asleep. I stood in her quiet kitchen telling her how much I wanted to sit down and chat, but couldn’t spare the time. She answered my complaint with mock outrage, “Don’t you dare relax! What were you thinking?”

In my best imitation toddler voice I said, “WANT TO!”

She wagged her finger. “That’s enough out of you. Do what you’re told right this minute.”

Then I dropped to the floor in a full-on act of defiance; lying on my back, kicking my legs, and squalling, “You can’t maaaaaake me!”

By this time our hilarity was well out of proportion to this brief moment of improv. When I got up I felt different—wonderfully de-stressed and energized.

I insisted my friend give it a try. She resisted, until I admonished her with the same phrases I’d heard her use on her kids. I even flung out her full name accompanied by finger wagging. That did it. She twirled around whining “Noooooo. No no no!” till she was out of breath, with hair in her mouth and a smile on her face.

We both agreed we felt incredible.

I don’t for a minute suggest you do this, ever, in front of any child. Self-expression should never be ridiculed. But if they’re not home, give it a try. What this did, for me as well as my friend, was let us fully express strong emotions through our bodies as our children do, as we used to do when we were children. We may have been well-educated, reasonably sophisticated women but the need to indulge in some primal venting hadn’t left us. A little method acting gave us both new insight into what our children experience.

After that, I looked for ways to learn from my children through imitation. We adults do this all the time when we play with our kids. We chase and let them chase us. When they pretend to be an animal or make-believe character we join in. We’re the big bad wolf blowing down a child’s fort made of cushions. We’re the sotto-voiced doll talking to another doll or the train engine struggling up an imaginary hill. Playing is a window into a child’s experience, and remarkably restorative for us as well.

But what truly let me honor my children’s world was letting them choreograph my movements. Sometimes we’d play what we called “mirror”— standard actor training done face to face. The child is the leader, the parent the “mirror.” As the child makes gestures, facial expressions, and hand movements the parent tries to duplicate the movements exactly. Then we ‘d switch so the child got a turn being the mirror. I always ended up laughing first.

Sometimes we played a variant of this, making each other into emotion mirrors. One would call out a feeling like “surprised” or “angry” or “wild” and the other would try to convey the word through facial expression. (This is also a great way to advance emotional intelligence.)

My favorite imitation was through dance. We’d turn on some lively music and I’d try to copy my child’s dance moves. This is much more difficult than it sounds. It’s nearly impossible to keep up with a child’s energy level for long!

My kids are past the stage where they want me to imitate their dance moves. But I haven’t forgotten how much letting my kids choreograph my movements taught me. Even now, they’ll catch my eye across a crowded room for a brief moment of mirroring. It’s funny, warm, and lets us both feel understood.

Don’t miss this wonderfully expressive choreography by Zaya, imitated by real dancers.

Regain A Missing Sense

“Awe is the beginning of wisdom.” Matthew Fox

We’re missing a sense integral to a fully-lived life. Not a sense like hearing, seeing, tasting, or feeling—although these senses should come into play too. I’m talking about a capacity that has dulled significantly since you were a very young child.

Back then everything was wondrous. You crouched down to watch a bug on the ground, curious to see how it moved through tall grass, thrilled when it lifted off on shiny transparent wings. The sun on your face, the smell of the dirt, and experience of running with your arms out in imitation of that flying creature are all still held in your bodily memory. As a small child, you lived within moments of wonder.  The sense we’re missing is awe— a heightened state of being, a sort of enhanced aliveness.

Sure, it’s necessary to become somewhat dulled to the world we live in just to get on with what we think is the real business of being an adult, but it’s easy to take it too far. Muting the capacity to be struck by wonder subtracts from who we are, even from how completely we remember our days. That’s probably why we seek out new experiences. We know we’ll catapult into wonderment when we travel to Bali or try white water rafting for the first time. Without some element of surprise it’s hard to feel fully alive. Days blend into the sameness of weeks, months, years. We hunger for surprise to waken our curiosity and if we’re lucky, to waken awe as well.

The antidote isn’t necessarily Bali or rafting (although if you’ve got the time and money get going). The antidote is freshly seeing and being present to your own life, letting it continue to surprise and awaken you.

Here’s one way to practice this.

Every single day, choose to find at least one moment that snags a loop of wonder and pulls at it. This may not be easy. But you already pay attention when there’s even a slight alteration to your routine. You may travel on the same road day after day. But when you’re stopped by construction or traffic, you tend to see details that had previously escaped your awareness. You might even convince yourself that those details are new, otherwise how can you explain never before noticing a stain on the side of a convenience store that’s shaped like a wizard or a the dinosaur-themed curtains in the window of a house or heck, not even realizing the store or house were there at all as you regularly swept by in the flow of traffic?

So you might allow your thoughts to slow and really hear the teakettle come to a boil, or really notice the intricate loops in a child’s scribbles, or really smell the green aliveness as you walk through the park.

To maintain this practice of wonderment, tell someone (even if it’s your journal) what provoked your awe, using as much detail as possible. You’ll notice that you have to pay a great deal more attention. Perfect. This puts you right in the moment, away from ruminating about the past or speculating about the future. It forces you to use your senses. Sometimes the only thing you can find that surprises you is a sound you can’t identify (investigate, or make up a fantastical reason for the sound, or try to make it yourself) or a person’s facial expression so extreme that it’s caricature-like (you might imagine a backstory or make the next song you hear explain it). If you don’t want to tell someone or write it down, sketch it. (Here are some drawing hacks for non-artists like me.)

Staying on the lookout for surprises is one way to consciously alter your outlook. You’re more wide awake to wonder, just like the child you once were.

 

Mindful

Everyday
I see or hear
something
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle

in the haystack
of light.
It was what I was born for —
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world —
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant —
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help

but grow wise
with such teachings
as these —
the untrimmable light

of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?

Mary Oliver, from Why I Wake Early

Angry Stranger’s Gift

angry stranger, gift of impatience, tolerance, soul moment,

Years ago I waited in a convenience store line in complete desperation. I was still bleeding after giving birth to my daughter and needed pads. The customer ahead of me was working her way into a snit because the store was out of an item she wanted. She refused to buy similar products the clerk offered. I stood behind this customer trying to keep from judging her (and failing). She was middle-aged or older, wearing expensive clothes and fussily styled hair, but what really defined her was the kind of self-absorption that turns a minor inconvenience into a personal offense. She demanded someone check the back room where she was sure the product languished due to employee laziness. She demanded to see the manager, who wasn’t there. She. Wouldn’t. Leave.

I was so exhausted that I simply wanted to curl up on the floor. It was the first time I’d left my baby’s hospital bed for more than a few minutes. My newborn suffered from a serious malady that hadn’t yet been diagnosed. She was increasingly losing weight and vigor. All the while I missed my three-year-old fiercely. I hadn’t seen him for days aside from brief hugs in the parking lot. I spent all my time by my baby’s side. It was a triumph when I could get her to nurse for a few moments. Sleep deprived and terrified for my baby girl, I clung onto hope like a parasite.

The customer ahead of me was now yelling. I assumed she’d had no greater trouble in her life than being deprived of a convenience store product. I realized that she may have been older than my own mother, but she had less maturity than my firstborn who knew enough to respect other people and more importantly, to care about them.

I’d been in the hospital environment for so many days that simply driving to the store was a sensory overload. Bright sunlight, traffic, people engaged in daily activities were all so overwhelming that I felt like a tourist visiting for the first time. Maybe that’s why I felt a sudden tenderness for the customer ahead of me. It was as if some surface reality melted away to expose this woman’s beautiful soul. I didn’t know if she was going through a difficulty that left her frantic to have her needs, any needs, recognized. Or if she had experienced so few difficulties that she hadn’t developed any tolerance for disappointment. It didn’t matter. I saw her as utterly perfect. In that moment I felt nothing less than love.

Just then she whirled around and left. I exchanged a look of solidarity with the clerk, made my purchase, and drove back to the hospital. That encounter not only gave me a powerful surge of energy, it also boosted my spirits in a way I can’t explain. It was a boost that lasted. All these years later I remain grateful.