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April 28, 2021 5:25 AM   Subscribe

How To Live In Wonder by Caitlin Johnstone "This fixation on mental constructs causes us to lead dull, habitual lives devoid of awe, devoid of wonder. The way interest and attention remains wrapped up in lifeless labels and predictable thought patterns keeps us from elevating our minds into the open space where inspiration, spontaneity and agility become possible. It makes us dull, unhappy, rigid, and stupid."

"People fail to live their lives in awe, wonder, delight and deep peace for the same reason people keep consenting to abusive governments: our lives are ruled by narrative. And the solution to both is the same: intense curiosity about what’s going on underneath the narratives.

The word “wonder” has a few different definitions, one of which is “to be filled with admiration, amazement, or awe, marvel,” and another is “to speculate curiously or be curious about; be curious to know.”

And at first glance these do seem like two completely different notions. One seems to describe a state that somebody experiences, while the other is used to express curiosity about a question, like “I wonder if it will rain?”

But really they’re both pointing to the exact same experience: the experience of not knowing. You wonder if it will rain because, in that moment, you do not know. If you want to, you can take this not-knowing, this wondering, and use it to undo all of your adult-mind habits of perception and cognition, just by actively wondering about them.

Make a constant practice of getting curious about all of the aspects of your experience. Not with the intention of receiving any adult-mind narrative answers, but with the curiosity of a talking monkey who has no ability to understand the universe.
"
posted by RobinofFrocksley (28 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
 
I feel like this article has some good points, but is rudely dismissive of people who need to get shit done. For people with a trust fund or who can just pick fruit off the tree to eat, sure, wonder away. Most of us don't have that luxury most of the time.

Also, "Science, at least at this point in its development, is a crude crayon drawing of reality by a toddler who can barely hold the crayon."??? WTF, we can see the moments after the universe started in the background microwave radiation of the cosmos! This person finds no wonder in science? This person might not be worth listening to.

I appreciate the invitation to wonder more, to daydream and explore for simple curiousity's sake. But maybe do that without insulting narrative tools and the ability to live in the world we inhabit?
posted by rikschell at 5:57 AM on April 28 [26 favorites]


Feels like "wonder" is the new "gratitude": an optimal state of mind we're all supposed to cultivate individually, to mask and offset the enormous failings of capitalist society.
posted by daisystomper at 6:09 AM on April 28 [42 favorites]


> Eyes that have been ravaged by adult-mind scan past a million tiny miracles every single day while attention is turned toward stale, repetitive stories in the head about a character called “me” and its various relationships with life.

Saith Caitlin Johnstone, on caitlinjohnstone.com.
posted by The Card Cheat at 6:31 AM on April 28 [7 favorites]


The Great North (one of the best new animated TV series) has this touching song called The Grown Up Zone that talks about this exact phenomenon.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 6:34 AM on April 28 [1 favorite]


It's really interesting to see the responses so far. I shared the essay because I keep thinking about the concept of "holding your knowledge lightly", and wasn't sure how it would be received.

One of the reasons this piece resonated with me is because I personally read it as an invitation to examine the way we approach thinking about things like "the enormous failings of capitalist society."

Also, people here seem to have time to think about and discuss all manner of things so I'm not sure why speculating that we might have time to wonder is somehow insulting? Maybe I'm reading the room wrong, but it seems like there are a whole lot of people frequenting this site in their leisure time. Also, I am a person with no trust fund and I have shit to do but I still spend a lot of time thinking. My brain doesn't shut off so I may as well wonder if I'm going to think at all. Like, people in shitty circumstances still have rich inner lives and sometimes they somehow make time to wonder.

> Eyes that have been ravaged by adult-mind scan past a million tiny miracles every single day while attention is turned toward stale, repetitive stories in the head about a character called “me” and its various relationships with life.

Saith Caitlin Johnstone, on caitlinjohnstone.com.
This made me laugh out loud, thank you!!
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 6:35 AM on April 28 [22 favorites]


People fail to live their lives in awe, wonder, delight and deep peace for the same reason people keep consenting to abusive governments: our lives are ruled by narrative. And the solution to both is the same: intense curiosity about what’s going on underneath the narratives.
Nice to see Gwyneth Paltrow has finally got someone she can roll her eyes at.
posted by fullerine at 6:42 AM on April 28 [3 favorites]


As of late, my wonder falls exclusively buttered-side down.
posted by a complicated history at 6:49 AM on April 28 [4 favorites]


I should probably flesh out my reaction to this a bit beyond snark (Metafilter: etc.,). I didn't object to the spirit of what the author is proposing, and do aspire to find wonder in everyday things where and when I can (sometimes drugs are a helpful shortcut). But as daisystomper put it, this essay seemed like another example of people being told its a shortcoming of *theirs* if they cannot "live in wonder" in the midst of whatever conditions they find themselves, no matter how miserable or oppressive. It comes across as an extremely privileged point of view, and not too far afield from the conservative mindset that anyone who is down and out should and can pull themselves up by their bootstraps (only mentally instead of economically), or the "Power of Positive Thinking" school of thought, all of which are useful tools for the maintenance of the status quo. There's also all the anti-science woo-nonsense;

"Make a constant practice of getting curious about all of the aspects of your experience. Not with the intention of receiving any adult-mind narrative answers, but with the curiosity of a talking monkey who has no ability to understand the universe.

Speak for yourself. This way lies "I'm just asking questions about vaccinations, sheeple!" Why would I pay attention to someone who claims they have no ability to understand the universe? Not a limited ability to understand it, as we all do, *no* ability to understand it.

People fail to live their lives in awe, wonder, delight and deep peace for the same reason people keep consenting to abusive governments: our lives are ruled by narrative.

Our lives are at a base level ultimately ruled by force, or the threat of force. This essay is not aimed at people living under truly totalitarian regimes, but I bet people who are would be interested to learn that "narrative" is the only reason they're "consenting" to it.
posted by The Card Cheat at 6:57 AM on April 28 [6 favorites]


I do think we need to think past capitalism, but I don't think wonder will get us there. Organizing and the adult tasks the author pooh-poohs will be required. Wonder is a required element, don't get me wrong, but the people who say we can just dream our way to a better future are as infuriating as the people who totally dig the status quo.
posted by rikschell at 6:59 AM on April 28 [4 favorites]


This article reminded me of a workshop I took many years ago with the Improbable theatre company. We were in a small black box theatre that was empty of anything but a few lighting instruments and our personal belongings. One day we were instructed to silently wander through the space and choose something we see and repeat the following:

I SEE (name the thing you see)
I NOTICE (name a detail of what you see)
I WONDER ( ... )

What we all discovered is that if you spend 30 minutes seeing your environment, noticing details of your environment and letting your mind wonder about what you've noticed -- whooooo boy, your mind will take you places you never expected it to go! This past year I have used this mental exercise on my afternoon walks and now I have sooooo many questions about my neighborhood.
posted by pjsky at 7:10 AM on April 28 [20 favorites]


I don't know what Caitlin Johnstone's background is, but this is derived from buddhism. Buddhanature is a mind free from an obligation to believe the overlay of concepts onto experience, and therefore free to see reality as is. The entire buddhist path is to be able to understand the nature of mind and how it creates concepts, and therefore creates suffering (or samsara).
posted by nanook at 7:29 AM on April 28 [5 favorites]


Also, people here seem to have time to think about and discuss all manner of things so I'm not sure why speculating that we might have time to wonder is somehow insulting? Maybe I'm reading the room wrong, but it seems like there are a whole lot of people frequenting this site in their leisure time.

Leisure time in which we want to be able to do what we choose, and frequently many would like that to be just brain candy for a little bit.

Also, I think some of the snark is coming from those who have precious little leisure time, and this is coming across as a bit of a gentle scold about "you could be using that half hour better", or we are thinking of those who don't frequent this site because they don't have that time.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:29 AM on April 28 [2 favorites]


It's a great idea, but this essay just seems naive? There's a whole bunch of really notable stuff already written about this, like Aldous Huxley's Doors of Perception in 1954, or William Blake in "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" in 1790:
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.
Or so many religious texts from contemplative traditions/practices, and etc. While I'm really glad that Johnstone has discovered this in her own life, I'm unsure what her essay adds to discourse on the subject.

(My own screen name is an expression of this very concept: open your doors of perception, loosen your filters.)
posted by LooseFilter at 7:33 AM on April 28 [4 favorites]


I do really wish the author (and all the authors of similar pieces to this) took the additional step of asking themselves, "if this is important, how might I induce the experience of wonder in other people," or even "how can I help make others' lives more conducive to curiosity and wonder" rather than stopping themselves at the easy and self-congratulatory stage of, essentially, polemic advice column. Which, to be perfectly frank, just gives me another thing to feel shitty about not "cultivating" for myself, in addition to the "grit," "hustle," "gratitude" and general demented American cheer that I am expected to muster as I attempt to keep my family fed. (But I guess this is all just a narrative I have bought into by not being sufficiently curious beyond the material conditions of my everyday reality!)

That unnecessary snark aside, I don't think a writing derived in good faith from legitimate curiosity or "wonder" would be this insulting and dismissive of everyday experience. If this is the theoretical portion of a grant application to provide experiences of wonder to low-income people then great! As a slightly-scolding treatise on why I should hack my human "operating system" toward wonder, I am... curious about its motivations.
posted by EL-O-ESS at 7:40 AM on April 28 [7 favorites]


Sea otters are renowned for their playful curiosity. When a sea otter goes and checks out a scuba diver, they’re not doing it with the intention of coming away with any conclusions.

No. Sea otters are trying to assess if you are a threat. They are trying to see if you have food. Those pieces of information are, by their very definition, conclusions. It’s really common to see otters as playful and cute, but in the words of one of the otter specialists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, “These are not. Nice. Animals. These are the weasels of the sea. You must not approach them, ever. These are wild animals.” I won’t link here because there are some really upsetting aspects to otter behavior, but otters and other animals are trying to survive in their own way, just as humans are trying to survive in their own way, and if people are not able to engage with every facet of their existence with an attitude of wonder, nobody has “failed.”

It’s a great concept, approaching the world with wonder, but this article frames it in a really condescending way. Lots of folks have a hard time shutting the wondering off long enough to take care of the things they need to do. Lots of people are wildly overburdened with care. Everyone just do the best you can.
posted by corey flood at 8:41 AM on April 28 [15 favorites]


good to see LooseFilter beat me to it.. but yeah, I hold no animosity for Blakean wonder. I can see that this particular author has elicited some surprisingly negative reactions, and yesterday or tomorrow perhaps I'd be among the dismissive shrugs, but strictly in terms of input/output, well.. happy to say my snark generator seems to be quiet today.
posted by elkevelvet at 8:41 AM on April 28 [2 favorites]


Wow, people (here) are really twisting this to fit their narratives–not everything is about capitalism–not everything needs to address every other thing.

Back to TFA: I used to do a version of this back in my architecture student days. I had a 15 minute walk from the bus to my school, and on the many, many days were I was stressed and overwhelmed by my workload, I'd purposefully spend the walk focusing on the many trees on the way, trying to see them not as trees but as individual three.-dimensional shapes, try to see each leaf individually.

I still do it sometimes when my personal narrative threatens to overwhelm my sense of enjoyment and wonder.
posted by signal at 8:45 AM on April 28 [7 favorites]


In the interest of engaging with the essay on its own terms - the counter-argument I have is the Zen Koan:

"Before enlightenment - chop wood, carry water.
After enlightenment - chop wood, carry water."

I think this gets kind of at the heart of what the naysayers are trying to say - that even if you do live in the kind of state of wonder that this essay is encouraging others to cultivate, you do still need to do the nuts-and-bolts stuff. The danger with this kind of "cultivate a sense of wonder" mindset is that too often, people will stay in that state and ignore the nuts-and-bolts; it's presented as kind of an either-or thing, rather than a mindset that co-exists with the practical side of things. That's kind of what that koan is getting at - enlightenment isn't supposed to replace those daily tasks, it is supposed to add another color to your brain as you still do those tasks.

Another saying I picked up from a neo-Pagan book also speaks to this:

"You need to serve the Goddess of Trivia before you can serve any others."

I think this gets a little closer to the nuance that some of the naysayers are getting at - that sometimes someone who is overwhelmed with juggling the how's and when's and this's and that's of a harried life simply doesn't have the bandwidth to cultivate the "sense of wonder" mindset being presented here - your mental processes are already tied up with too much other stuff. Some of that might be their own doing, but not all.

So - would a sense of wonder enhance people's lives? Yes, it could. But is everyone at equal liberty to cultivate that in their own lives at any given moment? No, I'm afraid not. And for those who are, is this sense of wonder meant to absolve them from still digging in and doing the grunt work of life? Unfortunately not.

And - is this cultivation of a sense of wonder meant to absolve one member of a household from doing their share of the grunt work, leaving the other partner to pick up the slack? FUCK no, and I suspect behind a lot of the philosophers the article quotes, you had a silently-resentful spouse who was thinking "well that's nice for YOU that you get to think about those kinds of things, I still need to wash the kids' diapers because SOMEONE has to."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:55 AM on April 28 [5 favorites]


I bear no ill will toward the overall message here - there are a whole lot of things that won't smash capitalism that are still worthy of attention. And I was very relieved that it didn't close with an obligatory "mindfulness is the answer" paragraph. (Although "curiosity is the answer" isn't far off.) If nothing else, I'll take this one as a helpful, if ham-handed, reminder of the interrogative functions of mind.
posted by Bob Regular at 8:58 AM on April 28 [2 favorites]


I don't doubt this is a true description of one human experience. But, the more detail I learn about the "incomprehensibly vast universe" leaves me more in wonder than I was before. Far more wonder than I ever had as a child. The questions only become bigger!
The human eye only perceives about 0.0035 percent of the electromagnetic spectrum.
I'm confused. We see a 400 THz band. The highest frequency gamma rays in nature extend to at least 2*10^28 Hz. Where is this number coming from? Why isn't it billions of times smaller? It doesn't really work for the spectrum of our sun, although it's much closer, unless I'm missing something. Is it weighted by something? (Total power from all sources as viewed from Earth? Could be. That'd take some work to figure out.)

I'm glad people are excited by these ideas. Childlike wonder is great. Most of the details here make me want to complain that details are important and also worthy of wonder.
posted by eotvos at 9:07 AM on April 28 [3 favorites]


(To be clear, since I just trashed the thing - I'm very happy to have read it and to see it posted. The ideas are really interesting.)
posted by eotvos at 9:16 AM on April 28 [1 favorite]


I have to push back against this idea that there is some kind of risk that people will fall into wonder and neglect their wood chopping or something. Some responses seem hyper-personal, and if I read the article via the lens of that one person I dated who never did their laundry, well. The world I live in is not conducive to falling into wonder, people don't get there and remain there dreaming, I just don't get some of the more negative responses. Life is hard, we get it. Is it the same or different hard, if I was born into 1910 Alberta and had to clear my land and grow the food that would keep me from starving? If we are typing our thoughts here today we are privileged, there is room to acknowledge that anything that results in a shift of focus is generally a good thing.
posted by elkevelvet at 9:23 AM on April 28 [6 favorites]


yesterday or tomorrow perhaps I'd be among the dismissive shrugs, but strictly in terms of input/output, well.. happy to say my snark generator seems to be quiet today.

I feel this lately, too: be curious, not judgmental. (I'm actually, for really reals and no shit, trying to be more like Ted Lasso every day. And maybe Abed on Community, it's good to just like liking things.)



...also, "Metafilter: If we are typing our thoughts here today we are privileged."
posted by LooseFilter at 9:43 AM on April 28 [3 favorites]


I have a job where I spend most of the day talking to people who want to die, and usually for good reason. For a few minutes every afternoon, I go outside and look for the small wildflowers that pop up in the parking lots or between plantings of grass. I watch them, seeing which pollinators come to visit. It's a small marvel which keeps me going. Wonder isn't a luxury good. Sometimes, it's survival.
posted by batbat at 9:57 AM on April 28 [22 favorites]


"You need to serve the Goddess of Trivia before you can serve any others."

Macrocosm in the microcosm.

Wonder isn't a luxury good. Sometimes, it's survival.

In the midst of dry academic discussion, that's juicy.
posted by otherchaz at 10:44 AM on April 28 [1 favorite]


MetaFilter: weasels of the sea ?
posted by y2karl at 12:34 PM on April 28


I say "WTF?" at least 20 times every day. Does that count?
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 5:16 PM on April 28 [3 favorites]


I think this essay on how to do nothing by Jenny Odell (previously on Metafilter) gets at some of the same concepts but is about 4000% less condescending. It also addresses some of the concerns brought up here, including the wonder-as-luxury-good notion.
posted by chrominance at 7:31 PM on April 28 [2 favorites]


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