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The Purpose of Wonder

It's amazing to learn that the physical body is primed for awe on a cellular level. Did you know that every morning when you open your eyes, the previous day's top layer of vision receptor cells are literally scorched away by the entering light, exposing new cells that have never before seen the light of day, thus giving you "new" eyes? Or that the first sound you hear on waking actually vibrates away the prior day's auditory cells, meaning that when the rooster crows you hear it with physiologically fresh ears?

We are viscerally reborn every day of our lives -- shouldn't that be enough to fill us with wonder? "We have won the combinatorial lottery of DNA and been given the stunningly rare opportunity to be alive at all," admits biologist and outspoken atheist, Richard Dawkins. Wonder need not be linked to God, in other words. "Whether contemplating the tiniest space between the petals of a deep red rose or the vast non-existence of something like the Bootes supervoid that is 250 million light years across and considered the largest area of nothingness in the universe," writes Paul Pearsall in his book, AWE: The Delights and Dangers of Our Eleventh Emotion, we ought to be elevated by our mysterious existence a good deal of the time. Skype-ing across the planet in real time, grasping the fully mapped human genome, tallying the sequence of Pi, downloading the Encyclopedia of Life (the first electronic data bank of every species on this planet, from microbes to blue whales), our generation should be the most awestruck in history. Yet studies show that we are actually less filled with wonder than our Web-less, Chevy-driving, pre-micro chipped grandparents. Hooked up to their iPods, video games, and Wii toys, our offspring are, in fact, more likely to have psychological problems than the average child under psychiatric care in the 1950s. When we lose the ability to be awestruck, our lives are profoundly impoverished. That is why Augustine described wonder-starved individuals as incurvatas, meaning somehow less than fully human.

"The modern west is the first culture that has managed to strip time and space of all sacredness and to produce a fully practical, efficient, and profane world," warned Mircea Eliade a half century ago. Somehow, our Blackberry-ed, over-stimulated lives have grown less fascinating with time rather than more, leading to the contradiction behind all our progress. Lots of pleasure but not so much joy; lots of information but not so much wisdom; lots of overwhelm but not much awe.

We now understand that evolution prepared us for awe, elevation, wonder, epiphany, sacredness, revelation, transport, and "second sight" as part of our survival repertoire. By stopping people and making them receptive, awe creates an opening for change. (Another cool biological factoid: Goosebumps, or piloerection, are the body's response to awe, a physical manifestation of the self expanding beyond its limits to meet the larger collective; being "taken out of ourselves" -- physically -- in the presence of something greater).

The emotion of awe occurs when two conditions are met. First, a person perceives something vast (either physically vast such as the Milky Way, conceptually vast such The Theory of Relativity, or socially vast such as meeting a very famous person). Second, this vast new thing cannot be accommodated by the person's existing mental structures. This is the key to how awe affects the brain. Stopping to wonder, our minds are changed cognitively. In this awe-opened space, new meanings, perceptions, capacities, dreams, possibilities, powers, and insights are born in us. We discover that we are able to draw new mental maps of the world and imagine new ways forward in our lives. Indeed, our most ordinary moments become qualitatively different. That's why James Joyce defines epiphany in his novel Stephen Hero as the "sudden recognition of the significance of trivial things." When our perception is changed, so is the world, as most of us have learned by now.

A mountain climber who'd been part of the first team to scale Mount Everest described a moment of life-changing awe. Returning from the peak, the hiker paused on a high pass to admire the stupendous view. As he turned around, he saw a small blue flower in the snow. "I don't know how to describe what happened," he reported later. "Everything opened up and flowed together and made some strange kind of sense, and I was at complete peace. I have no idea how long I stood there. It could have been minutes or hours. Time melted. But when I came down, my life was different."

These blue flower moments are happening every day but few of us pause to pay attention. The ordinary mind needs a slap or a climax, an epiphany or overwhelm, to stop it in its habituated tracks. That's why survivors of great upheaval and suffering are also susceptible, proportionately, to large doses of awe and wonder. This simple act of stopping to pay attention is the start of a new kind of life. Along with survivors, artists, writers, scientists, meditators -- anyone whose life requires concentration and reflection - also know that having access to the zone of one-pointed awareness, and flow, is necessary for their practice.

Science has not always supported this view. Till the late sixteenth century, apparently, scientists and philosophers held an attitude of wonder toward the natural world. But with the perfection of the scientific method, they began to look down on the higher tier of emotion, viewing awe, elevation, and wonder as marks of a childish mind (whereas the mature scientist went out coolly cataloguing the laws of the universe). Freudian psychology didn't help. Freud called the so-called higher life "a set of defenses against the instincts," which were viewed as universally animalistic.

It was not until the early 1960s that this disenchanted view of our human potential began to change. Abraham Maslow came along with his pyramid of human needs and research into peak experience. "It is as necessary for man to live in beauty rather than ugliness as it is necessary for him to have food for an aching belly or rest for a weary body," Maslow insisted, adding that certain "sicknesses of the soul" overtake us when our higher needs are not met. After that came the Positive Psychology movement which finally restored the higher tier emotions to their rightful place as the crown of human experience as well as the doorway to continuing evolution.

The ancients were way ahead of us on why wonder matters so much. The Greeks counseled that Zeus endowed humans with two primary faculties: the longing for fairness and justice and the capacity for reverence and awe. That's because these faculties correspond to two different modes of thought, which the ancients called mythos and logos. Logos represents our workaday way of seeing the world, the deductive, logical thinking that makes systems work and locomotives run on time. But there are things that logic cannot do. Logic cannot assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life's struggles. Logic cannot move the heart to love, lay the ground for sacred things, strengthen faith, or open the mind to mystery. Logic cannot feed the imagination or provide a vision of ourselves beyond what we have known before. For that, the ancients turned to mythos. Mythic thinking allows us to ponder life's deepest questions through a larger aperture, to reinterpret our struggles against a vast backdrop. This expanded mythical view enables us to maintain an attitude of wonder even in the crush of life's difficulties.

It also enables us to love.

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