During a residential I was leading in March, one of the writers commented,
We are all entitled to wonder.
Amen to that.
Wonder can begin in many places — lost in the pages of a book, under a night sky suddenly struck by a sense of the Numinous and of awe, listening to a Bach cello concerto, or in those odd moments when we are doing something mundane like drinking a cup of herbal tea or washing a dish or cutting vegetables and we are momentarily transported by the savouring or the rhythm into the deep intuition of the connection of all things.
Ella Frances Sanders, writing in Eating the Sun, notes:
A sense of wonder can find you in many forms, sometimes loudly, sometimes as a whispering, sometimes even hiding inside other feelings — being in love, or unbalanced, or blue.
For me, it is looking at the night for so long that my eyes ache and I’m stuck seeing stars for hours afterwards, watching the way the ocean sways itself to sleep, or as the sky washes itself in colors for which I know I will never have the words — a world made from layers of rock and fossil and glittered imaginings that keeps tripping me up, demanding I pay attention to one leaf at a time, ensuring I can never pick up quite where I left off.
What seems common to many experiences of wonder is the act of slowing down and often, though not always, being solitary or, if we are with others, being in a space of deep trust where we can forget ourselves. I’ve experienced this in yoga nidrā circles recently, the trust to be with complete strangers, lying down in our night clothes, closing our eyes and allowing the trance of the practice to take us to places both unique and communal.
to practice unselfing
There is not much sense of ego in wonder, yet there is a feeling of coming home to our authenticity whilst having deep regard for the whole universe.
At its heart there is always a sense of what Iris Murdoch called ‘unselfing’ in wonder. The ability to get out of our own way, trust our hearts and intuition and not be at the mercy of the chattering voices that keep us self-conscious with their constant commentaries. And when we consider how permeable we are as ‘selves’, how difficult it is to define where ‘I’ begins and ends, the act of unselfing when faced with experiences that make us wonder makes so much sense. As Ella Frances Sanders goes on:
Depending on where you look, what you touch, you are changing all the time. The carbon inside you, accounting for about 18 percent of your being, could have existed in any number of creatures or natural disasters before finding you. That particular atom residing somewhere above your left eyebrow? It could well have been a smooth, riverbed pebble before deciding to call you home.
You see, you are not so soft after all; you are rock and wave and the peeling bark of trees, you are ladybirds and the smell of a garden after the rain. When you put your best foot forward, you are taking the north side of a mountain with you.
These permeable selves are, of course, endowed with a consciousness that constantly tries to construct boundaries, sometimes protective, but at other times in ways that fracture our sense of wonder and being part of all life.
Writing is a remedy for our tendency to wall ourselves off from other lives. The experience of flow when we write is on the continuum of wonder and unselfing, something the philosopher Stephen Baxter acknowleges in Alone with Others: an existential approach to Buddhism:
To be alone at your desk or in your studio is not enough. You have to free yourself from the phantoms and inner critics who pursue you wherever you go. “When you start working,” said the composer John Cage, “everybody is in your studio — the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas — all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you are lucky, even you leave.”
[…] Having shut the door, you find yourself alone before a canvas, a sheet of paper, a lump of clay, a computer screen. Other tools and materials lie around, close at hand, waiting to be used. You resume your silent conversation with the work. This is a two-way process: you create the work and then you respond to it. The work can inspire, surprise, and shock you… The solitary act of making art involves intense, wordless dialogue.
to know connection
Baxter also suggests contemplative solitude, in addition to the solitary act of writing or painting, as a corrective to our sense of disconnection:
Here lies the paradox of solitude. Look long and hard enough at yourself in isolation and suddenly you will see the rest of humanity staring back.
And perhaps we can go further and see the whole of life staring back? This is J Drew Lanham, writing in The Home Place:
As I wander into the predawn dark of an autumn wood, I feel the presence of things beyond flesh, bone, and blood. My being expands to fit the limitlessness of the wild world. My senses flush to full and my heartbeat quickens with the knowledge that I am not alone.
This deep sense of connection is something that writers bring to the world as language. After the experience of wonder we connect these objects of wonder and our feelings of awe through language which connects us in turn to the experiences of others. If the paradox of solitude is what turns us again towards seeing and communicating with other lives, it is the paradox of our selves that forms the bridge. As much as we need to unself, to get out of our own way and let the ego and the chattering voices have a rest, nonetheless this is not an act of self-sabotage or self-abnegation. Unselfing not only puts us in deeper connection with the stars and forests and creative flow, but also with deeper aspects of ourselves: our heart and intuition; what we might call our soul. It’s in this vein that the Spanish poet, Antonio Machado, cautioned poets to value themselves, to cherish their imaginative confidence so that they would give their art what Mary Oliver refers to as ‘power and time’:
When the poet doubts that the center of the universe lies in his [her] own heart, that their spirit is an overflowing fountain, a focus which irradiates creative energy capable of informing and even of deforming the world around them, then the spirit of the poet wanders disoriented among objects.
Wonder, and the writing that flows from it, both unselfs us and centres us; it unhitches us from ego while securing us to the truth that every one of us is the centre of the universe, everyone one of us matters. And when we feel this security, we are unafraid to reach out to other centres of the universe, be they human or animal or plants.
I’m stricken by the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else, …
poet Diane Ackerman wrote in Cosmic Pastoral and later, reading at a poetry event she added:
Wonder is the heaviest element in the periodic table of the heart. Even a tiny piece of it can stop time.
to experience awe
Writers of all faiths and none are united in their championing of the need for wonder. Rebecca Elson’s exquisite poetry collection, written when she was dying from cancer aged 39 and weaving in her insights as an astronomer, sums it up in the title: A Responsibility to Awe. And the physicist, novelist and poet, Alan Lightman approaches awe as a scientist and creator. Visiting the Font-de-Guame cave in south-west France, he imagines the far off ancestors and their own sense of awe in the opening essay of Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine:
Clearly, these humans were consumate artists with a heightened connection to nature. Did they also believe in an ethereal world? Did they believe in the invisible? What did they think of thunder and lightning, wind, stars overhead, their own beginnings and ends? They rarely lived past the age of thirty. Clad in the skins of animals they had killed and aware of their own impending demise, they must have looked up toward the unchanging stars with awe and desire. In the foothills beyond the caves, these ancient people buried their dead in sewn garments and surrounded the prone bodies with tools and food for the next life. Was this time and this place where the longing began?
Awe and wonder are the counter to alienation; they are a way of opening ourselves to the universe. Awe and wonder are fundamentally expansive and deeply human. The musician Nick Cave, who answers fans’ questions on his blog, makes this point when he is asked if AI could ever write great songs. He cites Yuval Noah Harari’s theory in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, that we listen to songs to feel certain emotions and a computer could learn to map our minds for the algorithms of feelings to create bespoke songs for us. But he contends:
But, I am not sure that this is all songs do. Of course, we go to songs to make us feel something — happy, sad, sexy, homesick, excited or whatever — but this is not all a song does. What a great song makes us feel is a sense of awe. There is a reason for this. A sense of awe is almost exclusively predicated on our limitations as human beings. It is entirely to do with our audacity as humans to reach beyond our potential.
What we are actually listening to is human limitation and the audacity to transcend it. Artificial Intelligence, for all its unlimited potential, simply doesn’t have this capacity. How could it? And this is the essence of transcendence. If we have limitless potential then what is there to transcend? And therefore what is the purpose of the imagination at all. Music has the ability to touch the celestial sphere with the tips of its fingers and the awe and wonder we feel is in the desperate temerity of the reach, not just the outcome. Where is the transcendent splendour in unlimited potential? So to answer your question, Peter, AI would have the capacity to write a good song, but not a great one. It lacks the nerve.
I would suggest that poetry and whole swathes of literature similarly “touch the celestial sphere with the tips of its fingers and the awe and wonder we feel is in the desperate temerity of the reach, not just the outcome.”
We experience awe in the face of a great sunset, but we often relive and encounter new moments of awe through art, music, and words.
to live with questions
And we also come to literature and art as well as to experiences of transcendence in nature, to share the mystery that life is. An imposing mountain, a sunlit forest, a beautiful novel, a deeply moving poem, a startling canvas or evocative song … these are not ways to answer the world any more than the best science is. This is Ann Duryan in Cosmos: Possible Worlds.
Science, like love, is a means to that transcendence, to that soaring experience of the oneness of being fully alive. The scientific approach to nature and my understanding of love are the same: Love asks us to get beyond the infantile projections of our personal hopes and fears, to embrace the other’s reality. This kind of unflinching love never stops daring to go deeper, to reach higher.
This is precisely the way that science loves nature. This lack of a final destination, an absolute truth, is what makes science such a worthy methodology for sacred searching. It is a never ending lesson in humility. The vastness of the universe — and love, the thing that makes the vastness bearable — is out of reach to the arrogant. This cosmos only fully admits those who listen carefully for the inner voice reminding us to remember we might be wrong.
The idea of science as sacred searching has a poignant and necessary humility so lacking from the strident polarised voices claiming to know with absolute certainty that are so common in the world at the moment, particularly in scaremongering media or social media forums. Writers, of course, need the same sacred searching and courage to live with what we don’t know and to write the humanity of this.
to learn reverence
We are living on a world rendered increasingly fragile by our species’ acts of voracity and desperate desire to consume more and more. In the face of this, the wilderness advocate, Terry Tempest Williams, writes:
The time has come for acts of reverence and restraint on behalf of the Earth. We have arrived at the Hour of Land.
When we live with wonder and awe, when we begin to make deep connections and have the courage to live in questions rather than answers, then we revere life, all life and become part of the resistance to the erosion, even extinction, of that life.
Anne Lamott put it like this in Bird by Bird:
In order to be a writer, you have to learn to be reverent. If not, why are you writing? Why are you here? … Think of reverence as awe, as presence in and openness to the world. Think of those times when you’ve read prose or poetry that is presented in such a way that you have a fleeting sense of being startled by beauty or insight, by a glimpse into someone’s soul. All of a sudden everything seems to fit together or at least to have some meaning for a moment. This is our goal as writers, I think; to help others have this sense of — please forgive me — wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small, bordered worlds. When this happens, everything feels more spacious.
There is ecstasy in paying attention. You can get into a kind of Wordsworthian openness to the world, where you see in everything the essence of holiness. . .
Through wonder we both unself and come home to our deepest selves, which gives us the courage to connect, to live with a sense of reverence, able to abide with mystery rather than the need to know all the answers. As writers who need the state of flow to create and who use the language brought back from or wondering to communicate, we need wonder.
Writers need wonder to in order to:
- practice unselfing
- to know connection
- to experience awe
- to live with questions
- to learn reverence
So that we can put these things into our shared languages. Wonder is a birthright and a responsibility for everyone who creates.
We are all entitled to wonder. Amen to that.
Camilla Reeve says
Your blogs make me rethink everything. Thank you
Thank you Camilla — that’s such a wonderful comment and openness