Nothing, not one thing, hurts us more — or causes us to hurt others more — than our certainties. The stories we tell ourselves about the world and the foregone conclusions with which we cork the fount of possibility are the supreme downfall of our consciousness.

Maria Popova

Welcome to Day Three of Awaken to Awe

You may be familiar with the famous selective attention study at Harvard, in which viewers are asked to watch a short video and count the number of times the people wearing white shirts pass the basketball. It’s not hard; the answer is 15. But (spoiler alert) the shocking result is that 50% of viewers are so focused on counting the basketball passes that they miss the woman in a gorilla costume walking amongst the players. Imagine! 50% of us can be so focused on what we’re expecting to see that we miss a gorilla walking past! 

Of course, selective attention serves us well; it’s what allows us to get things done. But the famous gorilla study offers a powerful metaphor: If you’re overly attached to specific plans and expectations for the day or for your life, there’s a good chance you will miss out on some of life’s delights and opportunities. And if your attachment to certainty runs deep, you may find yourself less capable of navigating the unwelcome surprises of life that are difficult or heart-wrenching. When you let go of certainty, you’re more able to expand your peripheral awareness and remain open to the larger mysteries of life. You open the door to awe.

Begin today by listening to this 3.5-minute meditation, with its invitation to be open to surprise and the wonders of the day that may be offering themselves to you.

Today’s Practice

Grateful living invites you to maintain and nurture a lifelong curiosity about life — to remain open to possibility, wonder, and mystery. Br. David Steindl-Rast reminds us: “As long as nothing surprises us, we walk through life in a daze. We need to practice waking up to surprise.” Practicing on a small scale — listening generously; taking a new route; saying yes, not no — enriches your daily lived experience, while also helping you build the musculature to lean in to the uncertainty and mystery of more significant aspects of life.

Choose one of these three simple practices and experiment with it for the day:

  • Listen Generously. Choose one person you’ll encounter today and set an intention to listen generously and without expectation. You might focus on a family member, colleague, grocery store clerk, health care provider, etc. This might involve calling someone on the phone. When you listen generously in this way, what surprises you in the conversation? In what ways does it enhance the connection between the two of you?
  • Take a New Route. If you go for a daily walk, mix it up. Be on the lookout for something beautiful or unusual that you’ve never seen, something that might be offering an experience of awe. If you commute to work, try a different route or commit to looking for something you’ve never noticed before on your well-worn path. In what ways might a simple shift of routine in how you move through the world create space for possibility and awe?
  • Say Yes, Not No. Is there any aspect of your life recently where opportunity has knocked but you’ve been too busy, too settled, or too certain to open the door and see what’s there? Maybe you were sure you already knew what was on the other side, or maybe you didn’t even hear the knocking (remember the gorilla!). Step back for a moment and take stock of where an unacknowledged opportunity may be open for you. Is there any aspect of your life where saying yes, not no, might yield a welcome surprise?

At the end of the day, reflect on the following:

  • What surprised me when I approached this habitual daily activity or mode of communication with a sense of possibility and wonder?
  • When have I been certain I know the end of a particular story (situation, relationship, conversation) instead of letting it unfold?
  • How might I adapt today’s simple practice to something larger in my life? What aspect of my life would benefit from releasing vigilance and building my capacity to trust the unknown? 
  • How might opening to surprising sources of awe support me in responding to the uncertainty of this time in the world?

Share Your Reflection: We invite you to add your insights in the Community Conversation area below. What you share may be exactly what someone else needs to hear today.

Deepening Resource

The One Life We’re Given by Mark Nepo

In this short essay, Mark Nepo writes: “Wonder is the rush of life saturating us with its aliveness, the way sudden rain makes us smile, the way sudden wind opens our face.” He goes on to describe feeding his dying father and how this moment of communion and tenderness opened them both to an experience of awe for all of life. 

Consider where there may be opportunities in your own life to open to the wonder or awe that is present just below the surface, waiting to “illuminate the world.”

Research Highlight

Dacher Keltner’s research points out that our “default mind gravitates to the certain and predictable — fixed, reliable essences in the world.” We experience awe, however, when we perceive change, whether in a glorious sunset, a child’s growth, or the cycles of birth, life, and death. 

Awe then works its magic in our bodies, triggering “the release of oxytocin and dopamine, a calming of stress-related physiology, and vagus nerve response, systems of millions of cells working to enable us to connect, be open, and explore.”

(AWE: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life)

Photo by Emma Simpson