In my last dharma post, I talked about how the mind may tend to wander in meditation, and yet we still benefit from the practice. Now let’s look at how to transform the wandering mind into a state of wonder. When we notice the mind is wandering, instead of giving ourselves a hard time about it, saying we’re no good at meditation, we can see how the word ‘wander’ is just one letter off from ‘wonder’, and that offers us easy passage into that more expansive state.
The word ‘wonder’ is used two ways: as inquiry when we wonder about something, and as awe, an acknowledgment of the exquisite unanswerable nature of life. Meditation sets the stage for both inquiry and awe. Wise inquiry, as I teach in my book Asking In, happens when we quiet the frantic fear-based thoughts and questions, and access our innate wisdom. Likewise, a state of awe is only possible when we have quieted busy habitual thinking—all that planning, worrying, evaluating, judging, assessing, calculating, hoping, and remembering—and open to receive the seemingly elusive yet ever-available wholesome gift of simple awareness. We don’t have to go anyplace special to have this experience. Wherever we are we can wake up to the energetic aliveness of being. And, just like that, we are awed. We experience a pure sense of wonder.
Think of a time when you experienced wonder.
Where were you?
In class, all of my students found that they experienced wonder in nature. That makes sense. When we go out into wild nature with the very purpose of leaving worries behind and engaging in the sights, sounds, smells, and feel of wild nature, we actively set ourselves up to experience awe. When we take the time to simply sit and watch ocean waves, ripples on a lake, or listen to a babbling brook; that experience quiets the mind and soothes the soul. There is a sense of returning to our natural selves.
The element of water is curative, but all the elements can bring us to a state of wonder. Staring into a campfire is a classic way we humans have experienced an altered state ever since our ancestors discovered how to activate and tame it. Due to the climate crisis, fire has fallen out of favor as a meditative element. It activates fear for those of us living in wildfire-prone areas, and it puts carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But we can get in touch with the fire element by feeling the warmth of the sun on our skin, and see it in the sunlight that filters through the forest’s overstory and dapples the understory that illuminates our experience even more.
The earth element is the soil under our feet as we walk, the sense of support and padding, the variations in texture; but it is also all that grows from the earth, all plant life, like the towering trees as we walk through a forest, gazing into the branches above, and the community of plants below. And the earth element is all creatures great and small, including ourselves. Several students mentioned moments spent with beloved pets bringing not just comfort but wonder.
Of course, we can sense that our bodies also contain the water element with the blood that courses through our veins, and the fire element with the electrical synaptic activity, the burning of calories for energy, and the very heat of our bodies.
And then there is air. The element that, in nature, is mostly felt rather than seen, but in classic meditation practice, the air element is central: we follow the breath. Throughout millennia the simple focus of air coming into our lungs and air going out into the world as we sit has been the way for humans to return to a sense of awareness and oneness with all life.
During the past year of the pandemic, there have been times when many of us were not permitted to access wild nature. The parks and beaches were closed to stem the spread of COVID-19. When they opened again, it was with great rejoicing, deep appreciation, and renewed appreciation for the wisdom of those who worked hard to assure that such wild places continue to exist, for the benefit of all beings, including ourselves.
Without access to those places, are we trapped? Or can we still find a state of wonder? That is the essence of the practice of meditation, a portable practice not dependent on being in a particular place or listening to guidance on an app. The ability to come back to awareness even as we sit in an airport lounge or stand in a grocery store checkout line: that’s what we are cultivating.
The sabotage of awe
Think again about that sense of wonder you experienced. Ahhh…
But then what happened? Did that illuminated moment suffuse your being? Or did the thinking mind jump in and sabotage it?
Life has this capacity for the pure joy of being alive, yet often we immediately stumble over the thinking patterns that make even this awesome experience not enough. “If only…” or “It’s good but it would be better if…”
This may happen more when we’ve had a hand in the creation of what we’re looking at. Indeed, part of our creativity has a critiquing component, making decisions what would be best where. But if we can’t stroll in our garden, for example, and pause to allow its natural beauty to awaken awe, then love’s labors are lost, aren’t they?
If we can easily access that sense of wonder in the woods or at the beach or in someone else’s garden, but not in our own, then that’s an interesting thing to notice. Where else in our lives might that be our habit of mind? In other kinds of work we do, other offerings, how we see our body, how we see our closest loved ones, how we see ourselves? Is there some self-loathing that contaminates everything we touch and everything near and dear to us that gets in the way of awe?
Another form of sabotage is to have a glorious experience and immediately grasp at it, cling to it, and ask ourselves why can’t it always be like this? This insertion of dissatisfaction, or launching the comparing mind, can dilute wonder or cause it to disappear altogether as the mind launches into a series of complaints or plans.
Meditation lets us practice being fully present to receive the gift of the moment. And yes, the mind may wander at times, but when it does, can we remember to swap an a for an o and wander into a state of wonder?
Give it a try!