By Ethan Maurice | June 30th, 2019
This afternoon, I’m getting paid to sit under an umbrella next to a pool, read books, and write these words in Flagstaff, Arizona.
It’s a spectacular summer day. Upper seventies. A slight breeze. Overplayed but otherwise decent music sounds from the speakers that surround. A couple of kids are shooting each other with squirt-guns in the pool while their moms chat at a table under an umbrella. A man that looks like a walrus is turning red with sun in a lounge chair. Thunderheads grow off on the western horizon, but the sky above is a pale blue canvas.
As I plan to go to flight school this fall, I’m particularly aware of commercial airliners silently drawing white streaks across that pale blue canvas and the smaller planes that buzz by in approach to the Flagstaff airport. I’ve been projecting myself into the cockpit of every plane that passes by. I see myself at the yoke, soaring above those blooming thunderheads on the horizon or lining up with the oncoming runway where I’ll bring an airplane, a flying machine, back in contact with the Earth. What an incredible job for a big-brained monkey: to fly! Humans have been ground bound for quite some time… I find the thought of being a flying monkey downright mind-boggling.
I know the wonder of flight drew many of those pilots passing overhead into the cockpit, but also that, inevitably, they will often lose sight of the miracle of flight. They’ll want more, or somewhere else, or something else other than the awesome craziness of flying.
I can use the word “inevitably” because this happens to all of us all the time. I have to look no further than myself at this very moment: I’m getting paid to sit under an umbrella by a pool and read books and write this article — all things I love — and I’m projecting myself into the future and cockpit of every plane that passes by.
This is just how our minds work: anything we grasp for begins to transmute the moment we grasp it. We move on to wanting something else.
That’s okay, because the focus on what we don’t have is a constant spur to grow, making life an inexhaustible stream of adventures and pursuits. But, if you think about it, doesn’t it seem a bit stupid to spend our lives in pursuit of thing after thing that we will begin to take for granted the second it’s acquired? We could tirelessly purse this pattern our entire lives and never, for more than fleeting moments, actually be where we want to be. Is there not enough in this moment to be truly, fully satisfied?
I’ve been out on a grand ole’ adventure the past five years pondering these sorts of questions. An answer to this predicament dawned on me last summer when a quote from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic and an otherworldly walk through the mountains east of Yellowstone National Park came together in epiphanous, Fourth-of-July fashion:
Wonder short circuits the whole problem.
I’d been chasing wondrous experiences for almost four years at this point: bodysurfing black sand beaches at sunrise in Hawaii, climbing trail-less volcanoes in New Zealand, pedaling bicycles across the sweltering summer plains of America’s breadbasket on a cross-country ride with my brother, etc.
In those extra-ordinary experiences, I was bathed in wonder, perfectly present, in rapturous relation to reality. A true wonder wanderer, I cultivated the thriftiest, most minimal lifestyle, to explore broadly and spend as much time as possible in conference with wonder.
In the past year, though, I’ve begun to realize that the best ability to cultivate is not the thriftiness and a knack for snuffing out wonder-full situations, but the ability to find wonder in any situation. What if instead of pursuing the most wondrous moments, I honed my ability to feel wonder? What if I could find wonder anywhere, anytime?
This, I’ve been thinking about a lot the past year. Here are five routes I’ve found to find wonder in any moment:
Five Ways to Find the Wonder in Any Moment
First off, let’s recognize that we will constantly forget the magic of this moment and return our focus to how we want to change it. With the exception of Buddhist monks, we’re all thinking about how things should be different all time. There’s no need to fret about it, it’s just what we do.
When I notice myself far from wonder, I smile at myself, and try to bring myself back in one of the following ways:
Take a deep breath and choose other details. There’s a quote from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that reads: “we take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.” If considered for a second, you’ll find this strikingly true. Just observe your senses right now, what details are you not aware of at this moment? How does your right big toe feel? Have you noticed the way light plays on all the surfaces around you? Can you physically feel the acoustics of sounds around you? I could ask you a million of these questions, but you get the point: we don’t have the capacity to consciously grasp more than a handful of the surrounding situation. When wonder seems impossibly distant, take a deep breath, try to let go of the details you’re currently grasping, and pick some new ones.
Remember death. You and I and every other living being, we’re all sandwiched between two eternities. We’ll all here now, but will soon be gone as the wheel of time rolls on. What an opportunity then, to be here, to be now, alive in this moment! This is a cause for celebration to be found at any time. To reflect upon death is to find wonder in being alive and helps us see this moment as nothing short of sacred.
Ponder oneness. Regardless of how the universe came into being, every bit of you and I was there at the beginning. Every particle that composes us and everything else that makes up our reality has been around from the start. This cosmic soup has mixed and remixed quite a bit since then and while we each might think we are the most special molecular mix to ever be mixed, every bit of us has been at this for, well… forever. In looking through this lens, we can view reality itself as one of those beautiful, intricate Buddhist sand art pieces that monks work on for months to just sweep up and toss into a river or stream once they’re finished. The electronic device your reading this article on, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Earth… heck, every star in the night sky will part and be remixed with everything else time and time again.
Find the absurdity. Look around. Does everything seem usual, normal, a bit mundane perhaps? That’s not the fault of your surroundings, but rather what you think about them, for everything is absolutely absurd if you look beyond what you know it to be and see what it actually is. For instance, I’m sitting in front of a pool right now: a plastered hole in the ground containing dihydrogen monoxide held in place by Earth’s gravity that humans built to swim and float around in. This dihydrogen monoxide is super prevalent on the Earth’s surface and we’ve mastered control of it to the point that when too much has escaped the confines of the pool by turning into gas and rising into the atmosphere to eventually fall somewhere else, I can just grab this nearby tube, point its end into the pool, turn a knob, and more dihydrogen monoxide will come shooting out to refill the pool. Everything is absurd if you think about it, it’s just that our minds categorize things and only see them for the functions we ascribe to them.
Consider our place in space. We currently think there are about 100 billion galaxies in the universe. And that each galaxy contains about 100 billion stars. So, our sun is one of 100 Billion stars within the Milky Way Galaxy and the Milky Way Galaxy is but one galaxy of 100 billion galaxies. Translation: the entire Earth is not even a speck of cosmic dust. “Whoville,” the fabled town on a spec of dust in Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who! is light years bigger than our planet in relation to the universe.
Tying Wonder to a Ritual or Symbol
If we can find ways to hurl the mind beyond its mental orbit of ourselves and remember the temporary nature of this unlikely experience, extraordinary moments are no longer necessary to encounter wonder — we can find wonder anywhere, anytime.
This is why symbols and rituals are so awesome: they serve as reminders that provide instant access to higher plains of understanding. As someone who had a close encounter with death, I personally find contemplating my mortality the most potent route to wonder and the realization of this crazy situation. So, I carry a coin in my pocket with the Latin phrase for “remember death” imprinted upon it:
As a means of remembering the wonder more often and long after this article has escaped your mind, I ask:
What’s your best route to wonder? How might you ritually or symbolically create a reminder to take that route? What could you do or use to blast open your awareness and return to wonder at any moment?
This is worth great consideration, because even if you end up getting paid to read and write by a pool, or fly through the sky, or do whatever you dream about, no achievement will satisfy you forever.
But wonder! Wonder is an evergreen route back to satisfying relation between you and the universe.