To wonder or not to wonder, that is the real question

There it was. Seemingly out of the blue. A snowy mountain in the distance known as Mount Rainier. As I continued to ride my bicycle I kept looking for the mountain, that at some points disappeared and then became visible again. I was filled with wonder – an unexpected sight. Now you might feel ‘what is special about this?’ Or, ‘That’s nice, but is this really important?’ 

Certainly if you are familiar with such sights or even this specific mountain, you might consider this a ‘common’ or ‘ordinary’ moment. Yet, I hold it is very important we try to maintain a sense of wonder. Especially with the things we are most familiar with. Why? And how we can cultivate this?

Robotic routines without wonder
I remember vividly reading the book ‘Sophie’s world’ when I was about eighteen years old. If there is one message I recollect from that book it is something the mysterious writer in the story tells Sophie in the very beginning. In Capital he writes her that A SENSE OF WONDER is not only crucial to be a good philosopher, but IS ESSENTIAL TO LIVE A MEANINGFUL LIFE.

However, as we grow older, we lose this sense of wonder for various reasons. Our daily life takes over. Or, as my teacher Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche said recently, we start to develop a kind of robotic routine. We don’t really question things anymore. 

We wake up to our alarm on working days, do our job, get groceries, eat, do the dishes, talk with friends, watch a movie or online series and then go to bed. Maybe we also go out for running sometimes or, especially in the weekend, go out to a museum, the beach and have a drink with friends. Till our alarm goes again. Another week. Same story. 

From a buddhist perspective one could say we start to ‘solidify’ our views about who we are and the world around us. Like we develop habits in the way we act. Things become ‘normal’. At least, that is how we start to think, speak and act in what we call ‘daily life’. 

Seeing magic in the ordinary 
Sometimes, if something unexpected or ‘extraordinary’ happens we experience this sense of wonder. As we often did as a child, when we saw things for the first time. When we grow older, it maybe happens only on a holiday to some exotic beach or a city-trip to a country we have never been before. 

But if we start to think about it, every moment is like that, isn’t it? Since everything is changing all the time, everything is new every day. Including ourselves. This is simply reality. But because we lose our sense of wonder, we pretend this is not the case. We think having a ‘normal’ life gives us comfort, stability and therefore brings happiness to our lives. But does it, really? It seems it is more so because we are afraid. 

It is a little bit like in Harry Potter. In the beginning of the movie he lives with family whom do not have magic. His uncle keeps pretending his life is good. Normal. The same as usual – completely ordinary. He goes to great lengths to ignore everything that is happening – all kinds of magic. It is clear to us that he is unhappy and frustrated, he is not giving up on life as usual. We can be a little bit like this uncle. The question is, when do we give up? 

Of course, Harry Potter is just a story, be it a lovely one. There is no ‘real’ Hogwarts. Neither are there ‘Fantastic Beasts’. Well, maybe that is true. But that does not mean there is no magic. In fact, magic is perhaps precisely in the ordinary. 

If we start thinking about it, every day is quite special. Not just Mount Rainier. Take a look at your mobile phone or computer for example. Is it not strange, how digits of ‘0’ and ‘1’ become words that you can read or listen to – and hopefully have some meaning? Or how a tree turns green, full of flowers during spring, and suddenly caterpillars appear? Or the fact that you wake up in the morning and are able to tap fresh water, is that not some real magic? 

Qualities of wonder
Children understand this more easily. That is because this sense of wonder is part of our nature. An innate quality. Only through social conditioning, our culture, the way we are raised and so on we start to lose our connection with this quality.

If you think about moments of wonder, how did you feel? I have found that is a moment of openness, curiosity and appreciation for whatever causes this wonder. Whether it is a mountain or a surprise gift of a friend. We can even surprise ourselves. I think this is also why many of us like to travel. Why do we feel this way? 

Not only buddhism, but in many religious traditions and even science the answer seems to be: because we are in the present moment without thoughts. Put differently, we directly experience the way things are in that moment. This is the main reason to meditate too. 

If we experience this sense of wonder, we do not ‘label’ a ‘thing’ or ‘situation’ yet with ‘beautiful’ or ‘strange’. Neither do we have a feeling of like or dislike. This comes only later. Till that moment, it just is.

Moreover, if we can maintain that sense of wonder we also can feel an openness about the next moment. What would happen next? And this time we do not approach that with fear, anxiety or try to cling to something that was before. We allow that we don’t know, yet feel relaxed and joyful in doing so. This is also where compassion and love arises.

Cultivating wonder
We can cultivate this sense of wonder. One of the ways to do this is by looking up and widen our view. Literally. We often have a narrow and focused awareness – and more or less ignore the world around us. We might have passed ten people without really seeing them, let alone saying ‘hello’. 

We can do this not just for the world around us, but also for our inner world. We think we know ourselves, but that is only because we hang on to particular stories about who we are. We identify with our thoughts, our emotions, our ‘daily life’ – as if ‘that defines who we are’. If that was true, then how can you change? 

If we start to wonder about ourselves, then we can cut through our habitual way of thinking, feeling and acting. We can let go of the things that cause suffering. And open up to change and live a life of freedom, joy and compassion. For ourselves and for everything around us, which we are interdependent with.

Facing our fears
Only wonder, however, is not enough. It also requires asking questions and hard work. If we can stop every now and then. Take a break. Have a new look. And contemplate about our lives, we can become wiser in our mind, heart, speech and actions. To wonder is the very beginning of this process. 

It is true that this can be a little bit scary as well. What if we suddenly feel our job is no longer meaningful? What if you no longer feel a strong connection with a friend or your partner? What if you suddenly see all this life in form of trees, plants and non-human beings around you and become uncomfortable with things you do that harm them? 

To wonder about the world can bring uncertainty and change. But this is happening anyway. That is how life is. We might lose things, but there seems a lot to gain. To put it in the words of His Holiness the 17th Karmapa: 

“Comparing the loss of comfort and familiarity to the gain in wisdom and growth, it is of far greater advantage to face our fear of the unknown and venture outside our comfort zones.” 

Wonder as a way to care 
In a way maintaining this sense of wonder is the underlying drive in all the things I do. To continue to wonder myself, and to share this with others in the hope to spark some wonder. It is part of the reason why I write blogs for my website, share things on social media and record ‘dharma-bites’. Wishing they can be of benefit to others. 

This time my wonder started because I had never been close to Mount Rainier before. I was cycling in unfamiliar places. In a way this experience was beyond my control. Like suddenly coming across a bicycle in a bush – how fascinating! But there are certain things we can do to create the rights causes & conditions. And we don’t need to go to unfamiliar places. As I said before, the magic is really happening in our ‘ordinary life’. It is not without reason that in the Dzogchen tradition I practice in we say that our innate wisdom and compassion are qualities of our ‘ordinary mind’. 

We could also say, and this might not only be true for all buddhist traditions but also for different philosophical schools, religions and science: enlightenment, a state of joy, freedom and compassion, can be found in our daily life. Or, to refer back to Sophie’s world, the universe is one great mystery, a rabbit pulled out of a hat – we are floating in space, but do we really care? 

Wallingford, Seattle (United States of America), April 2020

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