Wondering About Wonder

“May you experience each day as a sacred gift woven around the heart of wonder. ”

– John O’Donohue

Lately, I’ve been wondering about wonder. In talking to a friend about how often we fail to turn to wonder and instead leverage the “rational answer and advice-driven thinking” to ease our anxieties, she said: “Wonder seems contrary to productivity.” Yet, it’s the most magically productive thing we can tap into. I wonder why it’s a tool we leave it behind in lieu of fear-based reactions like worry and anxiety (and then get spun up in the myth-making that spin out from them). I wonder why we’re not trained to trust wonder like we trust our astute rationales and logical thoughts. What would it be like if instead of chasing after answers and definitives, as fervently as we do, we chased after the results borne of wonder?

In listening to this podcast conversation with Shelley Francis, Marketing and Communications Director for The Center for Courage and Renewal and author of The Courage Way: Leading and Living with Integrity, I kept thinking about the notion that courage is a choice and fear is a reaction. How do we lean in and harness our courageous self, especially when fear and it’s quick old patterns take a hold? What gets us out of fear and into curiosity so that we can choose courage in the first place? I’d wager that wonder has something to do with it.

The Center for Courage and Renewal has a guiding set of 13 touchstones which inform how we can relate to each other with integrity and trust in our organizations, communities, homes. When we bring these touchstones into our group experiences (like our bootcamps and circles) as guidelines to create safe spaces, we emphasize a few of them to shift the productive, problem-solving entrepreneurs in the room to pause a moment from jumping into fix-it mode for a different reaction entirely–one they may not be used to, especially when there’s a lot of emotions happening for themselves or others in the room that feel like problems worth solving. We ask them to Turn to Wonder:

“When the going gets rough, turn to wonder. Turn from reaction and judgment to wonder and compassionate inquiry. Ask yourself, “I wonder why they feel/think this way?” or “I wonder what my reaction teaches me about myself?” Set aside judgment to listen to others—and to yourself—more deeply.”

Wonder creates space more transformative work to happen. “To not fix means I have to sit in the place of it being unfixed, and uncertain and unsure of the outcome, and that feels an awful lot like a conversation that has a lot of silence in it,” notes Shelly Francis in this podcast episode. That silence and lack of answers can feel like the cloud of unknowing, but the great mystics knew that space well. That was the space where the world seemed to open up with insights from the inside out.

Turning to wonder is a concept not too esoteric to bring home and to work, however. It’s a tool that brings us back to what’s really here now, even if that’s a lot of things we don’t want to lean in to at first glance and even if we think we know the answer already. Wonder asks of us to suspend what we think we know about what will or will not happen and why that is so. It reminds us that there’s a lot we don’t know about, and begs us to get curious and dwell in possibility. From there, something shifts. Important conversations emerge. New insights are gleaned. We listen deeper to something beneath the words and feelings. People feel heard. We hold our presence for ourselves and an other.

As Brené Brown says, “What we know matters but who we are matters more.”

How does that impact your relationships at work, at home, in the world? The rustling, riddling anxiety that can rise in us when listening to another, or listening to our own thoughts and sorting through our own feelings makes us want an answer or immediate response to quell all those feels, isn’t the best mode for communication at work, at home, in life – and that ongoing inner conversation in our hearts. What happens for us when we jump in to fix-advise-rationalize in those moments with our partners, colleagues, and ourselves? We often shut down or defend against what’s happening, what we’re feeling–against life itself.

“We are killing the moment by controlling our experience,” writes Pema Chödrön. “We want to hold on to what we have. We want every experience to confirm us and congratulate us and make us feel completely together. We say this is fear of death, but it’s actually fear of life.”

Living and leading with integrity means listening to our own voices. It means we can stand in the swirl of our experience (feelings, thoughts, sensations, longings), even if it feels like a space without words, and being present for what unfolds without controlling what’s next. From there, you can discover what’s in store in that swirl of your very own humanity. If we can do that for ourselves, we stand a greater chance of being able to hold space for others when they are in their own ‘swirl of humanity’ moment.

Such a stance is life-giving. Perhaps as a mark of resiliency, when the going gets tough, the tough turn to wonder. Wonder, like curiosity, feels expansive in our bodies, whereas fear feels like a contraction (as we learned in Reboot Podcast #75: A Pattern of Habits – with Judson Brewer). It’s a response to life akin to opening all of the windows to let in air versus locking all the doors and battening down the hatches. It allows you to find your own way in the labyrinth of your own experience by living it versus curling up in fetal position to merely get through it.  

“Wonder is not a pollyanna stance; not a denial of reality,” writes author Christina Baldwin. “Wonder is an acknowledgement of the power of the mind to transform.”

Turning to wonder moves you to stand with the courage to open up to other possibilities and double-click into your experience to see what else is there beyond the anxieties, old-stories, knee-jerk pseudo-sage placating advice giving. What’s important here? What’s arising that is calling for more of my attention? What’s asking me to look and listen more closely with eyes and ears of the heart? What’s coming up for me that I need to look at for myself more closely as I listen to someone else’s story?

With wonder at the helm, you can sit at the edge of what you don’t know and feel into what you do. You stand a chance at staying present, keeping fear and it’s wired reactions at bay. You stand a chance at doing something new, therefore allowing something different to happen. If we make a conscious effort to be with ourselves and others in this way, what impact might that have?