Vital Signs: Discovering And Sustaining Your Passion For Life

Paperback | December 29, 2015

byGregg Levoy

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Rediscover—or discover for the first time—the things that make you passionate in life

Vital Signs is about what inspires passion and what defeats it. How we lose it and how we get it back. And ultimately it’s about the endless yet endlessly fruitful tug-of-war between freedom and domestication, the wild in us and the tame, our natural selves and our conditioned selves. Each chapter in Vital Signs will contain a core sample, an intimate biography of one of the strategies we employ to gain or regain our passion. The book also affirms the importance of courageous inquiry into dispassion—where we’re numb, depressed, stuck, bored—so the reader can recognize and change these tendencies in themselves.

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Rediscover—or discover for the first time—the things that make you passionate in lifeVital Signs is about what inspires passion and what defeats it. How we lose it and how we get it back. And ultimately it’s about the endless yet endlessly fruitful tug-of-war between freedom and domestication, the wild in us and the tame, our natural s...

Gregg Levoy is the author of Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life and This Business of Writing. He has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, Omni, Psychology Today, American Health, Reader’s Digest, New Age Journal, and many others—as well as for corporate, promotional, and television projects.A for...

other books by Gregg Levoy

Callings: Finding And Following An Authentic Life
Callings: Finding And Following An Authentic Life

Paperback|Sep 1 1998

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Vital Signs: The Nature And Nurture Of Passion
Vital Signs: The Nature And Nurture Of Passion

Audio Book (CD)|Jul 14 2015

$69.37 online$77.95list price(save 11%)
Format:PaperbackDimensions:512 pages, 9 × 6.1 × 1.3 inPublished:December 29, 2015Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

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ISBN - 10:0399174982

ISBN - 13:9780399174988

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IntroductionChase down your passion like it’s the last bus of the night.—TERRI GUILLEMETSI USED TO BE a reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer, back in my twenties, and among my favorite stories was one I wrote about the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus coming to town.In a fit of journalistic zeal, however—and therefore shortsightedness—I let one of the animal trainers convince me that riding bareback on an elephant at the head of the circus parade through downtown Cincinnati would add color to my story.Contrary to my jungle-book fantasy of being airlifted onto the elephant’s back while standing on its trunk, the only way to actually get up there was to use a ladder, and the only way to stay up there during the parade was to hang on to the elephant’s ears.Those who’ve ridden elephants bareback probably know about this already, but elephant ears have an extremely disagreeable habit of flapping a lot, especially when they’re hot. And it was high summer. So the only way to stay up there was to remain extremely flappable, otherwise I’d have been thrown, and it was probably ten to fifteen feet to the ground—a concern that, to be honest, paled in comparison with my concern about how stupid I looked up there, desperately hanging on to this animal’s buffeting ears, wearing my business clothes, because the animal trainer had sprung this brilliant idea on me right before the parade, and with my pants scrunched up above my knees.I was the first thing anybody saw in that parade, and I’m fairly certain I did not capture the theme of “The Greatest Show on Earth.”But in looking back on my elephant ride, and on what I’ve learned since then about what’s involved in living passionately and courageously, that experience had a lot in common with the experience of following passions—in that I was caught by surprise and carried off by something much bigger than me; in that it was nerve-racking and thrilling simultaneously; and in that the elephant couldn’t have cared less. By which I mean that I’ve discovered an unsettling truth: my soul doesn’t seem to care what price I have to pay to live passionately.This seems like a design flaw to me. But my security, my popularity, my vanity, even my happiness don’t seem to matter to my soul. It’s not interested in whether I live a comfortable life. It’s not interested in making me rich or famous. It’s not interested in whether people even like me or not. What does seem to matter to it, though, is staying up on the elephant and being willing to go for the Ride—the one that ensures that someday if my life flashes in front of my eyes, it will at least hold my interest.•   •   •PASSION IS WHAT DISTURBS and confounds the safe and settled in your life, the tendency to try to lock yourself into geosynchronous orbit around some form of security, no amount of which will ever adequately compensate you for giving up your passions or selling your soul, though it may allow you to suffer in nicer surroundings.Passion is the impulse toward growth, which, by its nature, protests boredom and ennui, refuses to bump mindlessly along on the conveyor belt, and has little patience for the “been there, done that” attitude that there’s nothing new under the sun. It’s what stirs your interest in life, helping you awaken from the trances and entrapments of the everyday, which block the natural migration of your energies.Whether passion takes the form of colorful intensity or contemplative alertness, it contributes to a vibrant life, a keen awareness of where the pulse is, and a determination to plug into that place. It helps you stay engaged with the world and enjoy it as a function of the primary calling of all creatures—maximum aliveness.In fact, passion is a survival mechanism, because your attachment to life depends on your interest in it, your sense of wonder and reverence, enthusiasm and gratitude, participation. It also depends on your ability to resist the torpor of dailiness, with its hypnotic routines and its soothing illusion that there’s always tomorrow—a lamp of Aladdin merely awaiting your caress—and that you have plenty of time to make your dreams come true and your passions come alive, even though years may continue to slip by Rip Van Winkle–like and you occasionally awaken with a growing uneasiness and a sense of being unrecognizable even to yourself.Part of the reason so many people are fascinated nowadays with vampires and zombies is our collective fear of being sucked of our life force, drained of our vitalities, and left in a bloodless and catatonic state.This fear may not be so much one of dying, or even being eaten alive, as much as one of being turned into a zombie. And most of us know, or have known, the experience of feeling like the living dead. Being at a job that, like a vampire, sucks the life out of you. School years spent staring zombielike into space and dreaming about the pleasures of the flesh or perhaps about freedom. Evenings spent clocking your statutory 4.8 hours of daily television. Being in a relationship in which you feel like a mere ghost of your full vital self. Long, dull stretches of life through which you’ve staggered like the walking dead. And most of us also know the fear of losing our minds and our identities that can come with simply growing old and suffering dementia. Given enough time, life itself devours our brains.But even if we haven’t sent out a new shoot in years, or haven’t strayed much beyond the cadaverous light of the television and computer, the hunger for passion reminds us that we’re still vivid with life force, our souls shouting at the turned backs of resignation and boredom and time being torn off the calendar unused.Just as there are parts of us we put to sleep over the course of life—passions ignored, pleasures denied, emotions censored, powers hidden—there’s another part that wants to bend down and kiss our sleeping selves awake.During the aerial bombing of London in World War II, damage to the Natural History Museum allowed light and moisture to enter the buildings, and mimosa seeds that had been brought over from China in 1793 and stashed in wooden collection cases suddenly awoke from their 150-year sleep and began sprouting. We, too, are revivable. No matter how long or deep the sleep, the soul is always willing to awaken.Granted, the work of coming-to is formidable, whether individually or collectively. A lot of people feel deeply disengaged from life, from themselves, and from a sense of purpose or passion. A 2012 Gallup poll of employees in 142 countries found that, on average, 87 percent of them are either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” (63 percent and 24 percent, respectively), and only 13 percent were “engaged.” In the United States alone, this adds up to roughly $550 billion a year in lost productivity.Passion equals productivity, and lack of passion sabotages it, and that goes for both work and non-work modes of expression—which makes you wonder what the engagement/disengagement figures would be on school life, family life, social life, and spiritual life. “While complying can be an effective strategy for physical survival,” says Daniel Pink in Drive, “it’s a lousy one for personal fulfillment.”“Not engaged” means you’re checked out, but “actively disengaged” means you’re busy acting out your unhappiness and dispiritedness, spreading the virus among your colleagues, family, and friends, to say nothing of the body politic of which you’re a cell. What it means, as one business columnist puts it, is that if you’re part of a rowing team out on a river, one of the team members is rowing his or her heart out, five are just taking in the scenery, and two are actively trying to sink the boat.But while dispassion is contagious, passion is equally catching. Some years ago, I was invited to facilitate one of my Callings workshops (based on my last book, Callings) for the environmental organization Earthstewards Network. As I was unpacking my car in the parking lot before the workshop began, a man pulled in, parked his car, got out, and motioned me over. He told me that he’d taken one of my workshops a year before and wanted to share with me the passion that had emerged for him as a result. “I’m going to start my car,” he said, “and I want you to bend down and smell the exhaust.”This was certainly among the stranger requests I’ve had in my time, but the exhaust that came out of the back of that fellow’s car smelled exactly like a McDonald’s. He explained that he’d recently invented a process capable of turning used french fry oil into nonpolluting fuel for automobiles. In fact, he called it “McFuel.” And he was about to embark on a one-year pilgrimage driving his car around the country to drum up media attention for his new breakthrough, which, needless to say, relies on an abundant and renewable resource.It reminded me that people—their enthusiasm and ingenuity—are amazing and that you never know who’s watching you. One person’s passion can have a profound effect on the unfolding of another person’s passion, without the first person even being aware of it. So, it thus matters greatly that every one of us is out there doing our proverbial thing and expressing our passion for life, interconnectedness being what it is, the Web being what it is, the mechanics of inspiration being what they are.This certainly goes for anyone in a position of leadership or stewardship, especially relative to children and young adults. Whether you’re a parent, teacher, minister, mentor, manager, coach, counselor, politician, or CEO, this much is certain: your passion is critical to their engagement.There’s a reason some of the world’s great stories, like Sleeping Beauty and King Arthur and the Holy Grail—of which there are versions all over the world—speak to the idea that when the king or queen sleeps, those around them also sleep, and the kingdom sleeps. But when the king and queen awaken, those around them also awaken, and the kingdom begins to flower. It’s an idea embedded very deeply into the mythologies, and thus the psychologies and philosophies, of the world, and what it tells us is that our individual work is also the work of the world, and that when we insist on our own aliveness, we stake a claim for everyone’s.Among my favorite stories from the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez is the story of a man trying to solve the world’s problems. His young son comes into the room and asks if he can help. Touched by his son’s concern but impatient to get on with his task, the man takes a map of the world, rips it into little pieces, and gives it to the boy, telling him that he can help by piecing the world back together. The boy doesn’t have a clue what the world looks like, but he takes the pile of paper off to his room.Two days later, he rushes into his father’s study. “Father! I’ve put the world back together.” And indeed the shreds of paper have been meticulously taped together. His father is stunned and asks how he did it. The boy turns the map over and says, “On the back was a picture of a person, Father. I put the person back together and then turned it over and the world was back together!”•   •   •VITAL SIGNS is about what inspires passion and what defeats it. How you lose it and how you get it back. And ultimately it’s about the endless yet endlessly fruitful tug-of-war between passion and security, the wild in you and the tame, your natural self and your conditioned self.My prior book, Callings, is primarily about finding your vocational passion, and Vital Signs expands that exploration into the art of living passionately in all arenas of life—adventure and discovery, creativity and self-expression, relationships, service, and spirituality. While Callings is geared to doing what you love, Vital Signs is geared to being in love with life. Not just attaining a passion, but cultivating the skill of passion. Not just passion as a place you get to, but a place you come from.Vital Signs also speaks to those who’ve been living through years of a Great Recession and a Code Orange world, which has driven many people to batten their hatches and hunker down. Those stresses highlight the many downward-pulling forces of everyday life that can siphon your vitality and make it hard to keep your fires burning.The restorative lies in determinedly tapping into those places where your life force wells up to the surface even during dry spells and downturns, so you can not just survive but also thrive—and crucially, take your power back during those times when you feel disempowered, starting with a clear sense of what choice in any given moment will lead you toward or away from your sense of aliveness.Each chapter in Vital Signs is a core sample, an intimate biography of one of the strategies you can employ to gain or regain passion—including the search for wonder and awe, the quest for novelty, the urge toward self-expression, the hunger to reconnect with inner and outer wildness, the desire to keep passion alive in your relationships, and the role that risk-taking plays in the ripening of passion.In exploring what’s healthy and essential about these strategies, as well as what’s potentially unhealthy and maladaptive about them, this book offers a kind of mug shot of passion—so we’ll know it when we see it—and an expansive menu of possibilities for how to discover and rediscover it.The book also affirms the importance of courageous inquiry into our dispassion—when we’re numb, depressed, stuck, or bored—so we’ll recognize that when we see it too. Because behind these debilitating conditions is our rightful inheritance of vitality and our incredible capacities.Vital Signs is also a kind of natural history of passion as it expresses itself in the human experience, following its tracks back to the dens of family, culture, religion, gender, genetics, and primal reflex. It looks at what psychology and science, as well as spirituality and myth, art and literature, history and philosophy, have to say about passion. And of course it shares the personal stories of people who’ve claimed and reclaimed their passion and aliveness, propelled by the understanding that being alive without feeling alive is like eating food with no taste to it and that we should insist on living in a world—on creating a world—that enlivens us rather than deadens us.Among the most consistent and compelling lessons these people have shared with me (and that I’ve learned myself) about the call to live passionately are the following, which I’ll flesh out in lavish detail in the pages to come:   • Passion can be cultivated—turned on as well as turned off. It’s not in the either-you’ve-got-it-or-you-don’t department. And this cultivation happens most readily at the level of the gesture and the moment, not the five-year plan.   • Passion is in the risk, in the willingness to step from the sidelines onto the playing field. The act of courage itself, even a single bold step beyond the comfort zone, is the defibrillator that strikes the heart awake like a clapper to a bell.   • Passion breeds passion, and disinterest breeds disinterest. If we lack passion in our own lives, for our own lives, our other relationships—our partnerships, friendships, communities, classrooms, corporations, and congregations—will be denied that energy.   • Passion isn’t necessarily about happiness, nor is it always a peak experience. It can just as readily involve fury, fright, or sorrow—righteous anger, for instance, or the adrenaline rush of a thrill sport, or the melancholy pleasure of watching the evening sun sink into the ocean. Andrew Solomon, in his book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, writes, “I can see the beauty of glass objects fully at the moment when they slip from my hand toward the floor.”   • Passion is intimately related to health. To the degree that passion is vitality, denying ourselves our passion contributes to diminished vitality, and not just in a psychological sense. Much illness is the result of not paying attention to the prescriptions handed out by our own inner lives.   • Passion is more than exuberance; it’s endurance. It’s sometimes shoulder-to-the-wheel stamina and patience on the order of years. If our creative inspirations, for instance, or even our infatuations aren’t balanced by long hours at the workbench, they don’t truly come to fruition.A few years ago, some work took me to Orlando, Florida, and I spent a few extra days at the nearby Atlantic coast. One early evening I was watching the news in bed when a small box appeared in the corner of the screen showing footage of a rocket being launched and a caption explaining that it was a Navy satellite taking off from Cape Canaveral.It took a moment before it dawned on me that I was just up the beach from Cape Canaveral. I bolted out of bed and ran outside, and there it was, barely a thousand feet off the launchpad and close enough that I could see flames shooting earthward from the bottom of the rocket, which gleamed white atop a cone of fire and a thick column of smoke that reached all the way to the ground.Barely eight minutes later, it was in orbit around Earth and I was still standing barefoot on the lawn of that B&B, amazed, watching the smoke drift out to sea and marveling at the hard-won bodies of knowledge in a dozen disciplines—mathematics, metallurgy, physics, propulsion, chemistry, computer science, rocketry, robotics, astronomy—that had to be laminated together over centuries to pull off that feat, and pondering the costly trials and errors, the lives devoted and sometimes sacrificed, the interlinkings of science and politics. All of it was powered by insatiable curiosity and indomitable passion.I also thought about my father, who lit those very fires in me with his enthusiasm for science and discovery and his sense of wonder, and who would love to have seen that sight.Vital Signs is about striking a match to your exuberance and vitality, and discovering what passions give you reason to get out of bed in the morning, if not run outside in your bare feet.1Cultivating WonderLet us worship the spine and its tingle.—VLADIMIR NABOKOVYEARS AGO I SAW the Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti perform with the Cincinnati Opera—not because I like opera, but because I wanted to see Pavarotti, the most popular classical artist in the history of the recording industry and a member, along with Plácido Domingo and José Carreras, of the great operatic triumvirate the Three Tenors, all believed to be the best of that generation.It was a packed house, and at the end of the concert, I witnessed something I’d never seen before, not even at a Rolling Stones or Michael Jackson concert: a ten-minute standing ovation, complete with thunderous chandelier-shaking applause, high-pitched whistles, and inarticulate howls. The tuxedoed gentleman with a distinguished white beard sitting next to me grabbed onto the back of the velvet-upholstered chair in front of him and jumped up and down like a madman, with both of his feet leaving the ground at the same time. People were delirious. Inflamed. Very nearly a mob.Even without a working knowledge of opera or much of a basis for comparison, it was impossible not to recognize that Pavarotti’s voice was heart-stoppingly beautiful, like nothing I’d heard in my life, and his presence like that of a great matador. And this level of mastery, of beauty and charisma, is absolutely bewitching, has us jumping up and down in our wingtips and tuxedos in stark contrast to our dignified breeding. We find ourselves recapitulating the fate of Actaeon, a hunter who spied the goddess Artemis, queen of the beasts, bathing naked in the forest, and upon being discovered was turned into a stag. We become so seized by beauty and awe that we’re struck speechless, and all we can do is stamp and bray.In her book Cultivating Delight, Diane Ackerman describes a stone in her front courtyard, beneath a hawthorn tree, which has the word “Wonder” carved into it. Next to it is another stone, carved with the words “Carpe Diem”—seize the day. “Two faces of the same thought,” she says. Wonder and passion are a binary star, intimately orbiting each other, and together exerting a unique gravitational force. Sometimes we seize the moment, and sometimes it seizes us.In Blue Arabesque, the author Patricia Hampl describes how she was hurrying to meet a friend at the Art Institute of Chicago’s cafeteria, and though she was running late, she was stopped in her tracks by a painting she saw in her peripheral vision, a Matisse called Woman Before an Aquarium. But, she says, “I didn’t halt, didn’t stop. I was stopped. Apprehended, even. . . . I was simply fastened there.”This is one of the features of wonder: it’s gripping. You’re stopped in your tracks, riveted to the spot, your gaze held. Consider the lingo of the awestruck: spellbound, captivated, transfixed, rapt in wonder, entranced, arrested, stunned, mesmerized, and at the further extremes, petrified. The world swirls by you, a river around a rock. Your workaday life is forgotten—appointments, deadlines, to-do lists, a friend waiting for you in the cafeteria.But this is not captivation as imprisonment. It’s a moment when being apprehended sets you free, a moment that steps out from the march of time and unclasps you from the commonplace.There is, of course, no universally agreed-upon checklist of awe-inspiring experiences. You either swoon at the opera or the art museum or you don’t. You either get worked up about feats of engineering and groundbreaking new theories or you don’t. Your mouth either drops open when you watch a baseball player pitch a perfect game or it doesn’t.I remember years ago listening to a radio interview with Bill James, the guy who created Baseball Abstracts, a mind-boggling statistical evaluation of Major League Baseball. He referred to statistics that could put an actuary into a coma as “living poetry” and said it was “a poetry that marches to the even drumbeat of Pete Rose’s .310 .310 .310 or relaxes in the stressed and unstressed syllables of Willie Davis strolling through his prime in trochaic indifference.”Obviously, wonder isn’t something that happens out there, but in here; a function of the observer, not the event. Yet the experience of wonder is universal and speaks of our hunger to be moved, to be engaged and impassioned with the world, to take pleasure in it, to be attuned to it, and to be fascinated by it. To be grateful for it.Wonder is both a response and a stimulus. It’s our reaction to being moved, and it’s our desire for it. Our desire to feel radically alive rather than bored and disinterested or so caught up in the toils and troubles of daily life that we miss out on its multitudes of marvels. It’s our desire to part the curtain and get a load of the grander scheme, from what’s around the next corner to epiphanies about the nature of things. And it asks us to continually turn the stones in our own yards in search of these enlivening moments.I was sitting at my desk one recent overcast afternoon when just such a moment was spliced into my day. A pinhole opened in the cloud cover, and a bolt of sun suddenly spotlighted a patch of dark mountain on the far side of the valley. It caught my eye, and I heard myself say, “Whoa” (yet another expression of stoppage).The taxonomy of wonder begins here, with the mere tickle, with surprise and puzzlement as cheap thrills, and it moves through the jolt and the jar, the gape and the gawk, the boggle, the epiphany, and finally to the awe that’s four-fifths terror—watching a tornado bearing down, scuba diving while sharks circle around you, or seeing the ground rolling in waves during an earthquake, as my mother once did near Mexico City, forever undermining her trust in terra firma.So along this spectrum from simple arousal to holy terror, “Whoa” is a fairly modest claim to wonder. But it shows up on the radar screen—shows that my old brain is lighting up properly when nerve cells in my eyes register something moving against a still background. It shows that the sense of wonder is to some degree biologically driven, a survival instinct related to surprise and curiosity and an investigative scanning of the environment—all subsets of the urge to explore.Like any good animal with a functioning startle reflex, we’re tuned to respond strongly to unexpected and anomalous intrusions into our environment, anything from bolts of light and rustlings in the undergrowth to earthquakes, avalanches, shooting stars, synchronicities, and snow in summer.Unlike most animals, we’re also inclined to deliberately seek out anomalies, if not enchantment and astonishment, and this impulse needs regular maintenance and retuning lest we slip into a state of passivity. I recently traveled partway around the world to sit slack-jawed in front of the only mountain I’ve ever seen move. My twin brother, Ross, and I went to the highlands of Costa Rica, and one afternoon we sat at the foot of Arenal Volcano—fastened and fascinated, binoculars glued to our faces for five straight hours—close enough to see and hear enormous boulders hurtling down the mountainside, jarred loose by lava pushing out from inside. Many of them were the size of washing machines or Dumpsters and glowing red-hot, each a giant ember.It was unusual to see the mountain at all, given the sombrero of clouds that normally hangs over its upper reaches, but that day we saw a constant avalanche of blazing boulders, which, on their way down the five-thousand-foot mountain, picked up so much speed that they bounced in arcs of one hundred or two hundred feet, every bounce kicking up a violent plume of dust and ash.Wonder sets itself over and against the still background of daily life, the routine and orderly, the familiar and predictable—those unravelers of awe—and even against the endless irritations of life that tend to build up our calluses and desensitize us to its marvels.At the end of Hermann Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf, the protagonist gets a drubbing from the ghost of Mozart, one of his heroes, who plays for him Handel’s Concerto Grosso in F Major on the radio and chides him for his tormented reaction to the music’s disfigurement by the horrid little instrument. Mozart challenges him to find the spirit of Handel’s divine music behind the tinny distortion and to continually seek the beauty and sublimity of the world despite its noxious intrusions.To live passionately, the painter Pierre Bonnard once said, is one of the basic human desires and an artistic necessity. “What I wanted, at all costs,” he said, “was to escape the monotony of life.”This isn’t to denigrate monotony altogether. A certain amount of it is an earthly requirement. Before life will come forth, before it will take root or take wing, it has to have some guarantee of nature’s stability. And nature largely cooperates. It’s mostly steadfast, its laws administered with an even hand and its changes delivered by slow drip. This makes it safer to come out of the shell, the sea, the cave, or the ground, knowing that the laws of light and gravity, the proportions of chemistry, and the ground beneath your feet will stay the course long enough for you to do your business and get back to the burrow by nightfall.For some, the very reliability of it all is the wonder. It’s not the exception but the rule that astonishes—the regular and orderly. The fourteenth-century theologian Nicole Oresme, commenting on what were then called “monstrous births” (conjoined twins, hermaphrodites, and the like), professed that it’s considerably more amazing how often nature does not fail in the staggeringly complicated business of manufacturing a human being than how often it does fail.Still, in an age when so many people can, with the push of a button, offset the inconveniences of nature—for instance, being cold, dark, wet, hungry—as well as avoid those intrusions of the anomalous that actually help keep us on our toes, wonder acts as a kind of backup generator to restimulate our interest in the world.It’s a corrective for the conventional and habitual, for the fact that day-to-day life offers so few helpings of raw experience, of intensity and aliveness, and of novelty, which is really as close as digging a rock out of the ground and cracking it in half. You’d be the first human being ever to lay eyes on the inside of that rock, and it would be the first time the inside of that rock had ever seen the light of the sun.Even when life does offer a heaping platter of raw experience, wonder is still easily curbed by convention and conformity, and our uprisings of enthusiasm are routinely put down by the need to go by the book. The first man on the moon, for example, was so busy making sure that such a Great Moment in History was treated with—pardon the expression—gravity that his awe was scripted into oblivion. It was left to the second man on the moon to express the wonder of the place itself: “Beautiful. Beautiful.” he said. “Magnificent desolation.”But it was the third guy who really captured it: “Whoopee!”Becoming Adult-eratedOne winter several years ago, I conducted a weekend Callings retreat at a conference center in western Massachusetts, and when I arrived, I found out that there was another retreat being offered there the same weekend, on the subject of tracking. The two retreats, it turned out, were essentially about the same subject: the search for signs. In the other retreat, attendees were seeking signs indicating the presence of animals. In my retreat, we were seeking signs indicating the presence of callings.We shared meals together in the dining hall, so I had a chance to talk with the participants from the tracking retreat over the course of the weekend, and what struck me most was how excited they were just about the signs of the animals, not even the animals themselves. Frankly, they never even saw the animals—it was the middle of winter in Massachusetts, for one thing—but I’ve never seen a group of grown-ups so excited about the subject of poop in my entire life.I found this inspiring, though, and shared it with the people in my own retreat. If we can cultivate that quality of enthusiasm just for the hunt, I told them, just for the act of tracking our lives, paying attention to them, approaching them with wonder and curiosity, our lives are bound to reveal things to us that they won’t reveal if we’re not interested. They simply won’t give up their secrets if we don’t offer them some devoted curiosity.And animal tracks are like signs of any kind: they lead to something. In his book The Tracker, Tom Brown Jr. says, “A first track is the end of a string. At the far end, a being is moving, a mystery that leaves itself like a trail of breadcrumbs, and by the time your mind has eaten its way to the maker of the tracks, the mystery is inside you.”The psychologist Abraham Maslow considered fascination the simplest version of the peak experience, and the kind of fascination that propels our enthusiasm for the hunt is akin to the mind-set of wonder that Buddhists call beginner’s mind: one of profound innocence and openness, even if you think you’ve seen it all. It’s a mind-set that views life as if through the eyes of a child, who eagerly sits in the splash zone at the killer whale show, keeps a mind open for business and a runway cleared at all times for incoming adventure, and hasn’t yet learned the grossly overrated art of being cool and nonchalant, of being the knower rather than the wonderer.Unfortunately, it’s easy to become “adult-erated” and thus spoiled for the world, to lose the attitude of youthfulness, while the pleasures and enthusiasms we keep from ourselves turn to sorrows that eventually find their way to the eyes and mouth and set their heavy sacks down there.It’s an attitude that’s often lost on youths themselves. I see it regularly at colleges around the country where I present Callings seminars—old people of twenty who seem to have passed through the membrane from youth to adulthood with little of their joie de vivre intact. They’ve lost much of their sparkle and initiative and ceased demanding great things of themselves, or even interesting things. And they often seem frozen in the headlights of having to declare a major, choose a vocation, make a living, and generally face the stern exigencies of an uncertain future, in the process of which they suffer precocious senility and become prematurely arthritic in their outlook on life.A grown-up is often just the husk left over at the end of childhood.Astronomer Carl Sagan once described the difference between visiting a kindergarten class and a high school class to talk about science. The kindergartners were avidly curious, endlessly enthusiastic, and natural-born scientists who had never heard of a dumb question. The high schoolers were jaded, the joy of discovery and the sense of wonder largely lost to them. And they were terrified of asking a dumb question.According to Newsweek, research shows that preschool children ask their parents an average of a hundred questions a day—“cries to understand the world,” Sagan said—which of course would test the patience of even the most committed parent or teacher. Often, the adults simply wish it would stop, and unfortunately for the children, it does. By middle school, they’ve largely stopped asking questions, which, not coincidentally, corresponds with a sharp decline in their sense of motivation and engagement.And often their mental health. According to a Hofstra University study, young people who are immersed in activities and have a passion to help others tend to be more grateful, more hopeful, and happier, and to report higher life satisfaction, self-esteem, and grade point averages.•   •   •THE REASONS WHY CHILDREN’S enthusiasm for learning and discovery and their spirit of wonder often devolve into a sense of passionless duty to achieve and comply are complicated. Some reasons are social and bureaucratic, some personal and parental. But none of them are developmental. The passion for learning doesn’t naturally wane as we get older. Something gets in the way.Actually, it’s a multitude of somethings: the social value placed on short-term gratification, the challenge of competing with internet attention spans, low expectations, the substitution of internal motivation for grade-grubbing, the sense of irrelevance and meaninglessness that teenagers often feel toward what’s being taught, a grading system that makes many students feel like they’re second-rate learners, and an environment where submissiveness and lack of power are the norm, which includes the atmosphere of physical and emotional bullying so common in schools, and in adolescence.For teachers, there are also forces aplenty that undermine passion and ideals: administrators who prefer to run classrooms from the front office, skeptical fellow teachers, standardized tests that don’t take the individual into account, indifferent parents, disruptive students, increasing class sizes, and decreasing funding.Despite all this, though, and aside from the nearly limitless tactical options available for helping kids stay engaged in learning, Robert L. Fried in The Passionate Learner argues for the meta-practice of taking a “stance” toward kids by which we view them as naturally enthusiastic learners. This will make us look for and encourage their will to learn, which many kids display far more readily outside school than in the classroom.Fried relates the story of how the principal at his son’s high school once sat down with a group of graduating seniors and asked them to tell her where in their lives they worked the hardest and did their best thinking. They listed their jobs, hobbies, music, sports, friendships, and volunteer activities. None of them mentioned school. Their independent learning was more spirited than what they were exhibiting inside the classroom.“Teachers are amazed to discover, in students from whom they see very little as far as classwork or homework is concerned, the energy and discipline that those same kids put into taking apart a car in the family garage and putting it back together; or serving as assistant manager at a local fast-food restaurant; or organizing a charity drive for a church; or putting together a band, finding a place to practice, and getting gigs,” Fried writes. “What teachers get to see, mostly, is not students’ enterprise and enthusiasm, but their compliance or lack thereof.”And don’t dismiss these involvements as extracurricular activities that students choose to participate in, Fried says. Academic rigor is also a choice. “Students choose to absorb, or to repel, the instruction we offer them.”To captivate students and instill in them the kind of wonder that leads to wondering, which leads to curiosity, which leads to knowledge and sometimes wisdom, educator Kerry Ruef developed The Private Eye, a curriculum program designed to encourage those mental habits central to the scientist and the artist: wide-eyed looking, thinking by analogy, and a sense of the mysterious, which Einstein considered “the most beautiful thing we can experience” and the source of all true art and science.The Private Eye—as in both investigative and physiological—aims to trigger what Kerry calls “the little explosions of excitement” that are the experience of wonder and “the fizz in the mind” that helps arouse the passion for exploration and learning, which so often get knocked off the rails early on.Her motive is to “rescue the brain” and invite it back to what it was doing “before it was interrupted by being made wrong, by the control of unimaginative institutions and teachers, who are not famously investigative, by too much rote memorization and regurgitation of facts, and by the distractions of daily life—all of which cause a massive depression to settle in by around third grade, in both students and teachers.”Piloted twenty years ago in the Seattle public schools, Kerry’s “intervention” has by now been shared with several million students across the country; tens of thousands of teachers; more than fifty universities, which use it in their science-methods courses; and museums, which offer it as educational outreach.Its tools are simple. It begins with close observation of anything, from seeds and sponges to the palm of your hand, using a jeweler’s loupe, which not only cuts out peripheral vision—i.e., distractions—so that people can concentrate but also, by magnifying the world, helps to make it a little strange, subtly breaking down expectations and stereotypes.Specimens are then further magnified, and the imagination further stretched, by the posing of a simple question: What does it remind you of? What else? What else? What else? This introduces thinking by analogy, the main tool of the inventive mind. A third grader in one of Kerry’s classes, louping a seahorse, turned her answers into a poem: “Seahorses / like spines on a blackberry bush / cobwebs in a cave of bats / like a swiggly lizard smoking a cigar / like the skeleton of a giraffe.”Follow-up questions include “Why is it like that?” and “If it reminds me of X, might it function like that too?” Both of these introduce people to the scientific method: theorizing and testing your theories. If the surface of a leaf reminds you of hair or fur, might it function in the same way, and how might you test that hypothesis?First, Kerry says, students are “visually wowed.” Then they begin to make connections, find unexpected likenesses, make guesses, and test them. And all of it amplifies and prolongs the wonder, and expresses what Kerry calls “the native language of the brain. The natural sequence is from wonder to wondering and back, and it’s a self-reinforcing pleasure.”Not that it doesn’t benefit from external reinforcement and role-modeling. In fact, the zest for learning is encouraged when teachers and parents approach children as learning partners, not just as buckets in which to dump their credos and curricula. As the poet William Butler Yeats once said, education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.In teaching kids about the natural world, for instance, biologist Rachel Carson, in The Sense of Wonder, suggests that adults adopt the child’s viewpoint and not expect the child to adopt theirs. Don’t go around naming everything and testing the child on what he or she has learned. Don’t bury the world under a load of facts and explanations. Minimize the teaching and explaining, she counsels. Approach the world with senses and emotions more than thinking and analyzing—a sense of the beautiful, an excitement for the new and unknown, a feeling of sympathy, fellowship, respect, and love, and the kind of awe and humility that prompted the Nobel Prize–winning physicist Richard Feynman to proclaim, “Nothing is ‘mere’!”Skillful teachers find ways of meeting not only the schools’ but also the students’ learning goals, which start with their being respected—for who they are and what they know, what’s important to them, and what they’re capable of. Granted, respect is a two-way street, but we go first. It’s the grown-ups who start the ball rolling in that department. Or don’t.This requires power sharing, which isn’t usually on the menu in teacher-centered classrooms and top-down organizations. “But a class might agree on the rule that if you feel bored and want to stop doing something that other people (including the teacher) think is important,” Fried says, “then you must take responsibility for coming up with an activity at least as challenging.“Another rule might state that if at least half the class feels an activity is boring (after trying it for a while), the teacher should ask for suggestions from the kids on how to make it more interesting and worthwhile.”One third-grade teacher Fried interviewed said this: “In science, with the topic of ‘sound,’ I tell the kids that we’re going to study sound because we’re supposed to, but that they get to decide what we actually learn about it. . . . ‘You are the designers of this unit,’ I tell them. ‘We’ll learn the things that you are interested in.’”Another teacher, working up a unit on the period in history during which America was settled by Europeans, made it relevant and meaningful to his sixth-grade class—mostly Asian American and African American kids—by having them trace the history of their own family’s arrival in Boston, thus drawing the connection between their family’s particular emigration and that of earlier settlers, which brought the subject to life for them in a way textbook learning couldn’t and culminated in a community presentation before a large audience of parents.It’s a potent motivator to give kids the opportunity to share their work with real audiences, give them real jobs to do, ways to apply their classroom learning to challenges in their own communities. A chemistry teacher might challenge her students to create a pamphlet on good nutrition to be placed in doctors’ waiting rooms. A high-school Spanish teacher could help her students overcome their shyness about using the language by having them teach it to elementary school kids. An English teacher might decide that every major writing assignment should have an audience outside the school, in the form of writing letters to the editor, or complaints to manufacturers about shoddy products, or stories written about significant people in their own family history or community.The history teacher described his class to Fried as “electric with energy, the kids’ hands shooting up in response to every question, eager to argue every point, ask questions, seek clarity, and tackle an academic challenge of real magnitude.” And as for why the atmosphere in that class was filled with little explosions of excitement, it starts with that particular teacher’s own passion for both the students and the subject matter—“Passion is cool”—and the fact that he never made it a secret that his class was all about kids becoming powerful, through the use of their minds and the development of their intellect.“The kids reflect that vision,” the teacher said, “in the way they use words like perspective and voice and stereotype and ignorance, in the way they applaud respectfully when a student says something they think is especially intelligent, and in the way they act so unself-consciously about using their minds in class.”Keeping the Fires BurningIt probably isn’t lost on kids, either, the degree to which we ourselves, as their role models, are engaged in independent learning outside our own nine-to-five lives. Do we remain interested and involved in the issues of the day? Do we read books though there are no tests to take, sign up for adult-ed class, or even just look up unfamiliar words in the dictionary?The fact is, our enthusiasm is critical to the development of theirs. I remember my father telling me, as I headed off to college, that I’d be better off choosing professors than courses, because those who were passionate about what they taught could make even the driest subject come to life, and me along with it.What makes the biggest difference in the quality of the learning experience for students is a teacher’s passion, says Fried. “More than knowledge of subject matter, more than variety of teaching techniques, more than being well organized or friendly or funny or fair. Passion. Passionate people are the ones who make a difference in our lives.”But when we as teachers and parents, coaches and mentors, are no longer learning, we’re no longer teaching, because we’ve left behind the ability to role-model the art of discovery, the love of learning and being intellectually active. We no longer help students become “hunter-gatherers of insights, just passive consumers of pre-packaged information,” as Fried puts it.We lose the ability to inspire by example. We can still palm off information, but it’s once removed from the true purpose of education, which is to bring out the passion for learning, not just shove in the data, which will begin to fade from memory the moment the test is over. As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said, “The justification for university is that it preserves the connection between knowledge and the zest for life.”The commitment to being a lifelong learner is thus critical to sustaining passion in our children and in ourselves, because it keeps us engaged with life over the long haul. In fact, we’re more likely to have a long haul if we stay engaged, since we’re more likely to want to stick around if we take a keen interest in life.And we’re more likely to be successful. For his best-selling book, The Corner Office, Adam Bryant, a columnist for the New York Times, interviewed over seven hundred leading American CEOs and asked them, “What qualities do you see most often in those who succeed?” Number one on their collective lists: “passionate curiosity.”By nurturing curiosity, the world becomes endlessly fascinating, with dolls inside of dolls inside of dolls, and you realize—not with dismay but anticipation—that you understand almost none of it, a fraction of a fraction. Even many of the things you encounter every day, you barely fathom. Why does your skin wrinkle in the bathtub? How do spiders avoid getting tangled in their own webs? What holds clouds up if water is heavier than air?When you’re a lifelong learner, you take nothing for granted. You’re always poking into things and wondering what makes it all tick. You’re on intimate terms with search engines, consider ignorance bliss because it’s the beginning of discovery, and continually remind yourself that the world is dynamic, not static, and that you’re a part of the world.You understand that education isn’t something that stops when you receive a diploma, that learning doesn’t have to culminate in a test, and that boredom in school isn’t necessarily your fault (even if you are part of the Snapchat generation), though it is your responsibility, especially as an adult, to address in your life the meaningless and tedious, the routine and repetitive—all those activities that lead to boredom, which author Saul Bellow described as “the pain of unused powers, the pain of wasted possibilities or talents.” Boredom that, for adults as surely as for high school students, has them cutting class and dropping out.It’s only under the pressing thumb of age that some of us manage to come around again to a beginner’s mind, holding life up to the light like a color slide and appreciating the precious ordinariness of the world. It’s only then that many of us blessedly cease to care what others think of us, and once again are able to enjoy little or no distinction between the private self and the public self, be charmed by the simplest things, and feel at home in the present, like rabbits and foxes.In A Private History of Awe, Scott Russell Sanders says that we enter the world empty of ideas and full of sensation, and if we live long enough to lose memory and language, we’ll leave the world the same way. But in between, he says, we should aspire to be like small children who, when they aren’t asleep, are utterly awake, with all instruments turned on.But this is challenging, given some of the ground rules for grown-ups: the ways we’re expected to act, the behaviors that, were we children, wouldn’t elicit so much as a batted eye from others but that in grown-ups are considered strange, even suspect. I remember the astonishment I felt during one of my first assignments for the Cincinnati Enquirer, a story about the Kenner toy company, which was headquartered there. As I was being escorted into the back offices to meet the production manager of its new Star Wars line of toys, we passed a couple of guys in suits and ties who were down on their hands and knees in the hallway, playing with toy rockets, toy robots, and toy cars. They were even making explosion, acceleration, and screeching-brake noises. Which probably shouldn’t have surprised me, given that these were employees of a company whose corporate mascot was something called Gooney Bird.Years later, shortly after moving to North Carolina, I was walking along an old dirt road near my house when I stopped to admire a big open pasture surrounded by forest. A man pulled up in a pickup truck, with the name of a company printed on the door, and asked, “What are you looking at?” Intuition told me he had some proprietary relationship to the pasture, and he gave me the clear impression that he thought it odd that a man would stop to stare at an empty meadow.“I’m looking at North Carolina,” I said, explaining that I’d just moved from southern Arizona, where there are no green meadows and no forests, and that they were novelties to me. I tried to sound innocent, and then tried not to sound like I was trying to sound innocent.He seemed satisfied with my answer and drove off. I turned back to my reverie. A few minutes later I heard a car pull to a stop behind me and a voice ask, “What are you looking at?” I let out a short burst of a laugh, made up of equal parts humor and exasperation, and as I swung around, I said, “You’re the second person . . .” It was a police officer. I figured the first fellow wasn’t, after all, entirely satisfied with my answer. But I repeated it, almost verbatim, and he, too, drove off.One arena in which I continually work to re-up my beginner’s mind, despite the odds, is in the willingness to be clueless. I like being the knower as much as the next guy, and don’t particularly relish looking foolish, but I seldom pass up the opportunity to ask a question when I don’t know the answer and want to, even when it makes my companions squirm. Questions are my stock in trade as a reporter and as a teacher, and my father long ago taught me that without questions, there’s no discovery; and without discovery, there’s no learning.Earlier this year, for instance, I watched the Super Bowl with some friends and kept asking questions whose answers were apparently obvious to others: Are they allowed to grab onto each other’s clothing? Why are some fumbles pounced on and others avoided? Why do they frown on dancing in the end zone after scoring a touchdown? Afterward, one friend said she felt embarrassed for me, asking such clearly amateurish questions in front of a bunch of football fanatics, and I couldn’t imagine why. It seems to me there’s no shame in not knowing something, even if some wrongheaded gender decree says that real men are supposed to know about sports, cars, and power tools, none of which are subjects with which I’m conversant. It actually didn’t enter my mind that others might be judging me for knowing jack about football, and even if they did, it would have nothing whatsoever to do with me.Most of those watching the football game with me that night don’t know much about writing, but I wouldn’t think to judge them for it. For that matter, most people don’t know much about most things, given the sheer variety of subjects there are to know about in this world.Certainly, many of those who attend my Callings workshops around the country are faced with the need to cultivate cluelessness, because many of them are baby boomers who’ve spent twenty to thirty years in some line of business that no longer works for them, and come midlife, other parts of them want airtime—often passions or talents they’ve sidelined in making the choices they made.After doing anything for twenty or thirty years, you’re going to have gained a measure of mastery in it; a sense of competence, identity, and stability; a network of colleagues; a regular paycheck; a lifestyle to which you’ve become accustomed and perhaps would like to remain accustomed. And it can be a stinker to be a rookie again and have to start from scratch in a whole new arena, to ask the most basic questions. And without the willingness to be clueless—and a hardy commitment to growth—you’re not likely to do what your life is calling you to do, and your passions will likely remain benched.•   •   •THE MAN WHO TAUGHT the tracking workshop at the Massachusetts conference center, Paul Rezendes, was called toward just such a turnaround in his life—though commanded is probably a better word. It was a vocational redirection that took him from being the leader of a motorcycle gang to being an animal tracker and spiritual teacher, a journey that began with and returned to the cultivation of beginner’s mind.As Rachel Carson says about cultivating a sense of wonder, every child needs at least one adult with whom to share the experience of nature, and for Paul, that adult was his mother. “She was my first teacher in the language of nature, who took me into the woods near my house as soon as I could walk and taught me a sensitivity to all living things and a wonder at creation. The forest became the scene of many of my childhood adventures, but also the setting for the beginning of my spiritual search, and where I started questioning what my place was in all this beauty.”Unfortunately, the mind-set that had him going about in a state of wonder and compassion, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, was sufficient to get him beat up on the playground with some regularity. So he did what most of us do under such circumstances—he shut down. His bright eyes narrowed and his bushy tail got tucked between his legs.“Boys have to demonstrate how tough they are, so if I ran across a group of boys torturing a frog or something, my brother was smart enough to keep his mouth shut, but I spoke up. And I’d get called a sissy and get beat up. So eventually I turned my back on the truth and learned how not to object, how to fit in, how to be tough, how not to care. I just went to an extreme.”He became the leader of a motorcycle gang he started in Fall River, Massachusetts, called the Huns, which eventually became a chapter of the Devil’s Diciples (the misspelling intentional, according to their website, “so as to distance ourselves from religious affiliation”—on the incredibly off chance that someone might actually be confused). For ten years, starting in the early 1960s, Paul led what he describes as “a violent, criminal life.” But it was a kind of double life too. “I was a gangbanger and notorious street fighter who meditated and read Socrates on the sly, who talked about the psychological self, cosmic consciousness, egoic structures, and wholeness.”It was also a life that caught up with him when he got busted for possession of an illegal firearm and three shopping bags full of marijuana, intent to sell. But it was his ticket out. Motorcycle gangs are like the Mafia, he said. You need a damn good reason to leave. And the prospect of a prison sentence (suspended) gave him a reason his fellow gang members could understand—the need to lay low.Thus the considerable effort required to reactivate his sense of wonder and his beginner’s mind began, as personal growth so often does, with a crisis. “Heroes ain’t born,” Redd Foxx once said. “They’re cornered.”When Paul first came out of gang life, he turned to the Catholicism of his youth, which isn’t the contradiction it would seem. “They’re both authoritarian systems. It’s just spiritual pride instead of machismo pride.”Then, on the recommendation of a friend, he became, of all things, a Hatha Yoga teacher, founding two ashrams over the course of ten years, which ended when he discovered his wife having an affair with one of his students.Eventually he found his way back to the woods. “It’s the one thing that never left me, or that I never left, and that kept me connected to any kind of sanity.” Following the tracks of animals, he said, “I began to synthesize the lessons of nature and spirituality that would direct the rest of my life.”Out of his experience of trading one wild life for another, gangbanging for animal tracking, he wrote a book called The Wild Within, a quality he refers to as “the larger sense of who we are,” and whose tracks we obliterate with our ideas and images of who we think we are, or need to be, and with the continual lapses in attention that put us out of touch with ourselves and our surroundings, with the Maker of the Tracks, and with the core instruction all spiritual traditions teach to those wishing to fulfill their potential: Sit down and shut up. Be quiet and listen. Be still and know.It’s the primary mandate and meditation in Paul’s tracking and stalking classes: pay attention. To every footfall, every breath, every sound you make, every nuance of landscape, wind, and light. Move from the realm of thought to the realm of senses, from the mind of the tracker to the mind of the animal—the coyote silently following the deer through fresh snow, the deer snapping to attention at the slightest shift of wind that brings with it the smell of coyote; the hawk eyeing the rabbit from above, the rabbit watching for the shadow of the hawk, whose shape it can distinguish, on the ground, from that of every other bird.Tapping into the larger sense of who you are requires paying heed to your environment with a Sensurround wakefulness, Paul says. It requires taking an interest in the world again, and in yourself. Whether you’re in the forest, the office, or the street, he says, stop once in a while, stand very still like a tree or a lamppost or a hunter, and just observe. What you’re after is a moment when your mind isn’t elsewhere, a moment when—especially for you urban guerrillas and concrete-jungle animals—you step out from behind that protective bubble of “Don’t mess with me.”Stand on a street corner while waiting for the light to change and listen to the rumble of engines; the rattle of tailpipes; and to car radios, sirens, the Doppler effect of passing jets, honking horns, shoes hitting pavement, snippets of a dozen conversations, the sizzle of burning tobacco in someone’s cigarette, a shout, a laugh, a baby’s cry, a car door slamming, the banging of lumber at a construction site, the screeching of tires—little of which you truly hear until you stop and notice how much you tune out, pulling your collar up around your senses.With this level of awareness, Paul says, you’re keenly attentive to the world—once again—alive to the subtlest movements within and without, to the demands of this moment and the possibilities of the next. And with it, you’re back in touch with the world and your place in all this beauty.The Envy of Angels: Everyday AweTry designing a system capable of suspending a billion pounds of water in midair with no strings attached.It’s called a cloud, and someone who’d never seen one would undoubtedly find it fascinating. But try working up enthusiasm for clouds when you’ve lived with them every day of your life and forgotten—or more likely, never knew—how amazing it is that even a modest-size cloud, an “everyday” cloud like a cumulus a half mile high and wide, weighs as much as 3,500 747s at 400,000 pounds each (empty), almost 1.5 billion pounds total, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. A good-size cumulonimbus cloud, a thunderhead five or six miles on each side—an everyday summer cloud in, say, New Mexico—weighs nearly 14 billion pounds. One cloud.Even the word billion is just another everyday thing. The McDonald’s near my house proclaims, “Billions and billions sold.” But if you counted off one number every second, day and night, it would take you thirty-two years to count to a billion. It would take you twelve days just to count to a million. And even if you had literally all the time in the world, the entire age of the universe, you couldn’t count to a quintillion, which would take you thirty-two billion years.It’s axiomatic that we should try to find wonder in our own backyards, should learn to re-sacralize the world by falling back in love with the ordinary and everyday. But the everyday is actually the hardest place to find wonder and to become re-impassioned about, because its wonders have usually long since been drained away by familiarity.To overcome the anesthetic effect of familiarity with ordinary things, to look with renewed wonder at something you’ve looked at a thousand times—your own body, the sky, your kid—thereby turning the commonplace uncommon again, what’s usually required, to paraphrase Marcel Proust, isn’t new vistas but new eyes. And those eyes don’t even have to be yours. You can reintroduce yourself to the charms of your town by seeing it through the eyes of a visitor and to the wonders of the world through the eyes of your children. You can look at your husband through the eyes of another woman, your wife through the eyes of another man.Those eyes don’t even have to be mortal. In the Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire, the story unfolds through the eyes of a couple of middle-age angels in trench coats who’ve spent eternity witnessing but not partaking of human life. One day, one angel says to the other: “It’s great to live only by the spirit. . . . But sometimes I get fed up with my spiritual existence. Instead of forever hovering above, I’d like to feel there’s some weight to me, to end my eternity and bind me to the earth. At each step, each gust of wind, I’d like to be able to say ‘Now.’ ‘Now and now’ and no longer say ‘since always’ and ‘forever.’”This being bound to Earth, all the particulars of earthly life that unfold in the now and the now are what makes us human and, from the angel’s point of view, enviable.In another scene, the angel comes upon a man who’s just had a terrible motorcycle accident and is dying, and to comfort him recites in his ear all the particular things the man has loved in life: “The fire on the cattle range, the potato in the ashes, the boathouse floating in the lake, the Southern Cross, the Far East, the Great North, the Wild West, the Great Bear Lake, Tristan de Cunha, the Mississippi Delta, Stromboli, the old houses of Charlottenburg, Albert Camus, the morning light, the child’s eyes, the swim in the waterfall, the stains from the first raindrops, the sun, the bread and wine, hopping, Easter, the veins of the leaves, the color of stones, the pebbles on the stream bed, the white tablecloths outdoors, the dream of a house inside the house, the loved one asleep in the next room, the peaceful Sunday, the horizon, the night flight, riding a bicycle with no hands, the beautiful stranger, my father, my mother, my child.”You can also look at things from new angles. I recently went to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and hanging next to the Wright brothers’ airplane in the main lobby is the Mercury capsule that took John Glenn and his Right Stuff into man’s first Earth orbit. But seeing the little cone-shape capsule, no bigger than a VW bug and surrounded by gawking tourists, was a little like watching the first Star Wars movie after thirty years of increasingly sophisticated special-effects films; it seemed primitive and even a little cheesy with its waxy astronaut mannequin inside.But when I wandered around to the back side of the capsule, I saw something that took it far out of the realm of being merely a museum display. That side was blackened like burnt toast, and as I stared at it, I slowly realized that what I was looking at was the actual residue from its fiery reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, and that this little canister, which could just as easily have become a casket, a crematorium, participated in one hell of a spectacle, to say nothing of the awesome vulnerability of the man inside.Similarly, if you’re watching a sunset—and what could be more common than a sunset—stare not at the sun, but at the earth, and you’ll begin to make out what’s really going on, which is not the sun setting but the earth rising, spinning hugely in space. You’ll begin to make out its actual motion and remember that you live on a planet hanging in midair.Anything familiar experienced in an unfamiliar context is also likely to be an enlivening anomaly. A scene in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel The Gift describes a man crossing a street when, struck by a burst of light that ricochets off his temple, he sees a rectangle of sky being unloaded from a van—a dresser-with-mirror reflecting sky and trees “sliding and swaying not arboreally, but with a human vacillation.” Here is the everyday sky, but in a wholly unusual and fleeting context, down here on the ground, being unloaded from a van.Merely walking is suddenly made marvelous whenever I hit one of those moving sidewalks at the airport, with the wonderfully athletic sensation it gives me of instantly doubling my speed and seeing the scenery comparatively fly by.Slowing down also does the trick. A few years ago, I spent a day by a small, crystal-clear pond nestled in a tiny granite bowl high in Northern California’s Trinity Alps. The pond was perhaps a hundred feet long by thirty feet wide, and I could easily throw a stone from one end to the other. I decided to walk around the pond really slowly, a walking meditation, an experiment in seeing the world at a snail’s pace. I took one step every minute, by my watch.It took me three hours to get around that little lake. Normally it would have taken a couple of minutes. But I also felt like I really saw the place, and certainly saw the fibrillating restlessness and impatience inside me that occupied about half my time on that little stroll, and easily that much of my life in general; the needlings of a lifetime of being industrious, goal-oriented, and hyperactive. But I stuck with it. I saw flowers so small I would never have even noticed them on an ordinary walk, the peculiar geometries of rotting wood, the melting and dripping of leftover snow, birds—and thoughts—flitting by at what, from my glacial pace, seemed like supersonic speed.And I remembered reading, in a book called Wanderlust, about a peculiar fashion in mid-nineteenth-century Paris, in which strollers sometimes took turtles for walks in the parks, the better to slow their pace and maximize the connoisseurship of their amblings.After coming out of the mountains, I drove down to Santa Cruz to visit my brother Ross. One afternoon we sat at an outdoor cafe and watched a man who’s locally famous for walking one of the town’s main streets, Pacific Avenue, every day and very, very slowly, taking one baby step every five seconds or so. It can take him the better part of an afternoon to get from one end of the avenue to the other, barely half a dozen blocks, but I imagine he sees a lot of things that pass by the rest of us in a blur.Ross told me that he once stopped to talk with the man, who used to be a NASA electrical engineer, and when Ross asked him what he does at intersections if the light changes while he’s in middle of the street, the man shrugged and said, “I walk faster.”Sound, too, is utterly prosaic until you add a new element, like distance, whereupon it suddenly reveals a whole new facet: its speed. On Earth it’s roughly Mach 1, 750 miles per hour, or a second to reach from ground level to the top of the Empire State Building.Annie Dillard once described walking to the edge of the Sea of Galilee, in Israel, and seeing, across a cove, a man splitting wood. “I heard a wrong ring,” she says, watching the man’s ax clang at the top of his swing rather than the bottom. She continued to watch the distant, silhouetted figure. He drove the ax down again; she could see the wood split and drop to either side, but in silence. When he bent straight and raised the maul again with both arms, she heard it ring, “as if he was clobbering the heavens.”Talking to people on the phone is easy to take for granted until you get a phone call like the one I received from my older brother, Marc, while I was living in New Mexico: “Hi, which house is yours?”“What?”“This is Marc. I’m flying over Taos on my way to New York. Which house is yours?”I ran outside and saw a jet flying high overhead, and tried to picture my brother’s face pressed to the window, calling me quite literally from out of the blue.Or you could just take a nap. After all, is there anything that rouses the imagination more than sleep, with its promise (or so neuroscience tells us) of half a dozen dreams a night? What novel or theater is equal to the phantasmagorical and allegorical empire of dreams, with their scenarios of wingless flight and talking animals? What movie or opera sets by your slippers every morning such tales of wonder and intrigue, in which your day-to-day perplexities are run through an outlandish costume shop, and your everyday conundrums are paraded around in startling metaphors? And how close to home all these hidden intelligences.Another option is to pay a visit to somebody else’s everyday life. Few things mollify the hunger for wonder like travel, through which we’re immersed in discovery and launched into the learning curve. With a little disposable income, you can drive to the airport, park in the long-term lot, and get on a plane headed to someplace where no one knows your name, where the landscape, the language, and the constellations are all unfamiliar. A plane is taking off for such a place every few minutes of every day. You can find a menu on any international flight monitor: Cairo, Caracas, Istanbul, Kathmandu, Marrakech, Nairobi, Rangoon, Tangier, Timbuktu, Ulaanbaatar.There are even places in the world whose names alone trigger flights of fantasy and an outbreak of wonder in the mind: the Spanish Steps, the Snows of Kilimanjaro, the Valley of the Kings, the Spice Islands, the Nile, the Left Bank, the South Seas, the West Indies, the Silk Road.Ultimately, what we need to do is get out from behind the desk and the chores from time to time and create opportunities for our souls, wheezing like engines that won’t turn over, to encounter wonder, to put ourselves in its path, and deliberately create a little estrangement from business as usual.You might take a magnifying glass on your walks, or seek out displays of mastery and genius, or stop and stare whenever you enter grand lobbies and atriums, or get a season pass to a museum, or bookmark NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day website (, or listen to TED Talks. Mostly it’s a matter of figuring out what triggers wonder and awe in you, what fascinates you, and simply doing more of it.The invariable mark of wisdom, Ralph Waldo Emerson said, is to see the miraculous in the commonplace, and anything that counters the tendency to take life for granted is an active ingredient in both wisdom and wonder, as is an appreciative bent toward life in general and the life you have in particular, and your willingness to be mystified and not need to pin down every butterfly. Just because we can pontificate in lengthy scientific treatises on the origin of the universe or the nature of DNA, just because we can trace the massive genealogy of consciousness and name God, doesn’t make these phenomena any more commonplace, nor should it diminish the awe we feel about them. They’re still fully functioning miracles.Abraham Maslow, who popularized the term “self-actualization,” didn’t generally believe in a big bang theory of it, in which peak experiences suddenly bring us into being as the people we’ve always imagined ourselves to be or deliver us to transcendence on the back of some great white stallion of revelation. Toward the end of his life, he talked about a kind of time-release version of the peak experience that he called the plateau experience.The plateau experience is a sort of ongoing peak experience that is more calm and less climactic, more a discipline than an event, and that we only slowly and painstakingly teach ourselves to experience by choosing to sacralize life. We witness it in the deepest and most mindful ways by paying exquisite attention to it, by exposing ourselves to inspiring people, great music and art, and the raptures of nature, and by living in a more or less permanent state of being turned on. Maslow called it “holding classes in miraculousness.”It is, of course, challenging to keep that love light burning when you’re perpetually on the treadmill, and particularly when you’re suffering—from illness, poverty, heartbreak, meaninglessness. Yes, there’s fascination even in suffering. Dark nights of the soul and trials by fire are every bit as rich in it as days of wine and roses. Yes, the scope of life doesn’t necessarily narrow just because you’re confined to a sickbed or even a prison. The poet E.E. Cummings wrote a book called The Enormous Room while in jail. And yes, the way out of suffering is probably through rather than around. But it’s asking a lot.Still, looked at rightly, any item from your litany of complaints or your daily to-do list can potentially become a portal back to a sense of wonder if not sacredness—Zen and the art of doing the dishes, Zen and the art of being sick. David Steindl-Rast offers a beautiful example from his book Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer: “Suppose, for example, you’re reciting Psalms. If all goes well, this may be a truly prayerful experience. But all doesn’t always go well. While reciting Psalms, you might experience nothing but a struggle against distractions. Half an hour later you are watering your African violets. Now, suddenly the prayerfulness that never came during the prayers overwhelms you. You come alive from within. Your heart expands and embraces those velvet leaves, those blossoms looking up to you. The watering and drinking become a give-and-take so intimate that you cannot separate your pouring of the water from the roots’ receiving, the flower’s giving of joy from your drinking it in. And in a rush of gratefulness your heart celebrates this belonging together. As long as this lasts, everything has meaning, everything makes sense. You are communicating with your full self, with all there is, with God. Which was the real prayer, the Psalms or the watering of your African violets?“Wherever we come alive,” Steindl-Rast says in another part of the book, “that is the area in which we are spiritual. To be vital, awake, aware, in all areas of our lives, is the task . . . and the goal.”•   •   •WE REFER to the “sense of wonder” because the senses play such a vital role, and they have as impressive a scope as the wonders themselves. The naked eye, for instance, can see down into the microscopic realm, can actually make out certain of the amoebas, those single-celled protoplasmic shape-shifters that go by vaguely mythic names like Proteus and Pelomyxa, and which you can find in any backyard pond.The naked eye can also see out to a distance of nearly three million light-years, out to the Triangulum Galaxy on a clear night far from the city. A single light-year being equivalent to almost six trillion miles—times three million—we’re prodigiously farsighted.But our senses are also limited. The human eye can see only a very narrow band of the world’s available light—the visible being but a single octave in the full keyboard of the electromagnetic spectrum, which stretches from mile-long radio waves that would require eyes the size of satellite dishes to see, down to the staccato bursts of gamma rays. Still, within that narrow chink of discernible light is a stunning range of wonders, some of them way over our heads, and some right beneath our feet.The beauty is that we can greatly extend our senses, and thus our apprehension of wonders and our passion for the world, by utilizing new lenses, and we have an arsenal at hand—magnifying glasses, binoculars, microscopes, telescopes, amplifiers, stethoscopes, cyclotrons, satellite dishes, radioscopes.A simple magnifying glass can transform a sprinkling of sand on the palm into a field of boulders, and the bark of a tree into a maze of canyons. On my inaugural outing a few years ago with a new magnifying glass, which I now carry almost everywhere I go, I found one of the iridescent blue dragonflies that populate the forests in this part of the country expired in an abandoned spiderweb—a perfect opportunity to examine him up close, which I spent the next twenty minutes doing.His finely veined black wings were tattered like the sails of a galleon ripped by cannon fire, his eyes the very definition of “bug-eyed”—two globes of compound eyes on either side of his head, like black billiard balls, the largest eyes in the insect world, with nearly thirty thousand individual facets, through which I would appear as a mosaic. He had three pairs of legs, two pairs of wings, and two pairs of genitalia, including a clasper at the back of his blue chassis for grabbing females by the neck during mating.That same afternoon I used the magnifying glass to inspect spring flowers in my backyard—phlox, pansies, irises, lilies, fuchsias, azaleas, roses—like hundreds of Chagall paintings, Tiffany lamps, Kurosawa films, Einstein theorems, Neruda poems, Blakean visions, Fabergé eggs, and effortlessly brought to life, compared with the animal gruntings and flop sweat discharged by my own creative endeavors. I could spend a lifetime and never come up with anything of such drop-dead design and elegance as the simple velvet face of a flower.Through any schoolkid’s microscope you can marvel at the squirming animalcules in your own spit, or the wigglyworms and flagellates in a drop of water from the birdbath out back—thousands of creatures jellied and hydra-headed, coiled and ciliated, tubed and tentacled, beaded, honeycombed, spiraled, ridged, grooved, pajamaed in fluttering silks, or heaped together like the spools and springs of a smashed clock.Even a common dustball from beneath the couch is a small galaxy under a microscope. What we nonchalantly refer to as dust is really a goulash whose ingredients list reads like a recipe for a witch’s brew: flakes of skin and spores of mold, volcanic ash from days of old, flea eggs, filaments of asbestos, the digits and droppings of insects, tire meltings, sea salt, pollen, pavement grit, fabric and hair fragments, tissue and toilet paper shreds, and sand particles blown in from Africa—all collectively referred to by dust mites as lunch.And it doesn’t just stay under the couch. Every cubic foot of air in our houses has roughly three hundred thousand bits of flotsam held aloft by air currents. And there are as many creatures crawling across the plains of our skin and swimming through the kelp beds under our arms and between our legs as there are in any equatorial swamp or forest canopy.Through the medium of a television, you can even channel the big bang. According to Bill Bryson in A Short History of Nearly Everything, a certain percentage of the shimmering static on TV is cosmic radiation emanating from the big bang itself, the ultimate reality show, the original word from your Sponsor. So when nothing else is on, he says, or when programming stops in the wee hours, you can always watch the Creation.•   •   •IN THE SNOW LEOPARD, Peter Matthiessen talks about “coming down” from a literal high, a two-month pilgrimage in the remote pyramidal reaches of the Tibetan Himalayas, during which he heard not a single engine, read not a single letter from home, passed through villages that hadn’t changed appreciably since the eighth century, and had been so far removed from civilization as he knew it that his mind quieted to a whisper and notions of past and future receded enough to offer him a taste of enlightenment if you define enlightenment as “Now!”However, the lower in elevation he went and the closer to the world he left behind, the more irritable he became. At one point he nearly decked one of the locals for an unwitting intrusion. “I had lost the flow of things and gone awry,” he said, “sticking out from the unwinding spiral of my life like a bent spring.”He experienced what every spiritual seeker before him and after him must eventually come to: the challenge of bringing your vision over into daily life, integrating and sustaining it, pushing your expanded self through the eye of a needle. The desire to make room in our lives for wonder and awe, and the passions they can release in us, will always have to contend with agents of decay and distraction, the foremost being the hoodoo of habit and routine, which relentlessly conspire to break the spells of enchantment.Like all life and all revelation, wonder decays. It decays from childhood to adulthood. It decays from first encounter to subsequent encounters, and from infatuation on. Like the content of dreams, much of what we bring back from our forays into the realms of wonder is fleeting if not unfathomable. Certainly our discoveries will try to attach themselves to the womb walls of daily life, get a foothold and bloom, but many will end in miscarriage, flushed from consciousness by the demands of Monday morning.“Somewhere a philosopher is erasing ‘time’s empty passing’ because he’s seen a woman in a ravishing dress,” the poet Stephen Dunn writes. “In a different hour he’ll put it back.”I once sat in on a weekend trapeze class at a retreat center in Texas, designed, like fire-walking workshops, largely as a fear-fighting tool—“If you can do this, you can do anything.” On the last day, I overheard a participant say to one of her classmates, “Well, I’ll be fearless for a week.” (Which would, of course, be precisely the week to take some long-needed risks.)Certainly at the higher registers of wonder—the kind of elusive and mystical encounter Matthiessen was seeking in the form of the snow leopard—the challenge of preserving expanded states of mind is even more difficult, because it involves breaking through not just the crust of everyday apathy but also the armor of the ego. And the ego can’t be shattered as easily as is implied by a famous Zen parable about individual consciousness being the air inside a sealed glass jar and cosmic consciousness the air around it, and all we have to do is break the glass to experience mystical reunion and rejoin the stubborn molecules of self with the Boundless and Inexhaustible.For one thing, the ego is master of the boundaries and won’t so readily participate in its own death. Nor is there one swift blow that’s guaranteed to shatter all our illusions, one dose of Maya-Be-Gone that will dissolve our trances once and for all. If nothing else, they tend to regrow once we “come down.”Trying to sustain beginner’s mind past the beginner stage of life, trying to continually renew our willingness to be moved and keep remembering that the wondrous is embedded in the ordinary, is like trying to live each day as if it could be your last. They’re both true—the mundane is miraculous and you could die today—and they’re both excellent meditations that would undoubtedly enrich your life. But they’re both hard to pull off for more than a little while at a time. We’re habituated to take things for granted. They don’t call it the force of habit for nothing. It takes real work to see the universe in a grain of sand and heaven in a wildflower. Forgetfulness, on the other hand, is no discipline at all.“Life is a spell so exquisite,” the poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “that everything conspires to break it.” So we need a few counterspells, something to help us maintain the enchantment and cut through the distractions—a word that means “to be pulled apart.”Consider the following advice from Hasidic rabbi Abraham Heschel: “We are trained in maintaining our sense of wonder by uttering a prayer before the enjoyment of food. For daily wonder we need daily worship: three times a day we say, ‘We thank You for Your miracles which are daily with us, for Your continual marvels.’” And this, I think, is the crux of it. We sustain wonder the same way we sustain spiritual traditions—with regular discipline and worship.This isn’t to say that daily prayers, like anything overly familiar (even wonder) can’t be dispatched so perfunctorily that they’re gutted of meaning. I uttered them myself every day of summer camp for years when I was a kid, the pre-meal blessing: Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha’olam hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz. But it was just a thing to get done before eating. We could as easily have said “Rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub” for how sincere we were in worship. How many people really understand the miraculousness of food and the complicated chain of events that brings it to the table? Carl Sagan: “If you wish to make an apple-pie from scratch, first you must invent the universe.”And if wonder can devolve into routine, it can also devolve into escape, leading us not so much toward engagement as disengagement. For example, humans have always liked their holidays from the everyday, their ventures down the rabbit holes of amazement and into wonderlands of alternative consciousness, whether mystically or mycologically inspired, whether brought on by travels or novels. Sometimes these journeys are merely distractive, something to get your mind off your troubles and chase down with beer and pretzels, and sometimes they’re bids for genuine off-the-grid transcendence, a piercing of the veil and a crossing of the Jordan.But either way, what goes up must come down, and what goes out must come back. And if we don’t make peace with ordinary life, if we don’t resolve to live in an everyday world that inspires us rather than deflates us, we become not so much pilgrims as fugitives.Emerson once said this of travel: “At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern Fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. My giant goes with me wherever I go.”The desire to be intoxicated is strong in us, though, and wonder and awe can be like any high, a wallop of arousal in which the brain dumps large amounts of psycho-juices into the bloodstream—dopamine, epinephrine, serotonin—sending an urgent message over the wires: Do it again! But this time, don’t settle for Naples. How about the North Pole?For some, this can be compounded by an expectation that upon reaching the top of the world or the bottom of the ocean, the foot of the pyramids or the grave of Jim Morrison, you’re going to have an epiphany. You’re going to be swept with waves of profound emotion and gratitude and figure out Something Important. And maybe you will and maybe you won’t. But if you don’t, then the ante is upped. Next time, you’ll need a stronger dose, a higher mountain, a deeper descent, a bigger thrill—something that raises more hair.At its extremes, the hunger for wonder and awe can mutate into the need for shock and fright. I once saw a series of photographs of a roller coaster that goes 120 miles per hour straight down and into a corkscrew. The last photo shows a young woman coming off the ride, her blue jeans soaked clear through at the crotch and a shaky smile on her face.Wonder is highly commodified nowadays. Impresarios use it to fill circus tents. Religions rely on it to pitch kingdoms to come. Corporations sell new technologies by showcasing “the wonders of science.” So it’s not hard to find someone willing to give you your fix, sell you a potion to help you tap the vast fallow fields of your sensorium, or take you to any awe-inspiring corner of the world you like.But when the remotest Himalayas and the wreck of the Titanic become available as package tours, when you can reach the summit of Mount Everest and call your wife in New York on your cell phone to tell her about it, when consumer culture offers “adventures in macrame” and “new frontiers in baking” and “a revolution in toilet paper,” wonder and awe are in danger of being drained of their majesty.Thunderstruck: On Passion and PerspectiveI gave a lecture in London a few years ago, which gave me an opportunity to visit the British Museum, home to arguably the largest collection—some say plunder—of classical antiquity in the world.I was especially enamored of a long corridor in the Assyrian collection whose walls are lined with elaborately sculptured stone slabs that in the ninth century B.C. lined the throne room of the king’s palace in the Mesopotamian city of Nimrud. The nearly floor-to-ceiling bas-reliefs are covered with warriors and winged bulls, chariots and horses, eagle-headed men and human-headed lions that until the mid-1800s were buried beneath the sands of the desert and hidden from the sight of humanity for thirty centuries.But standing in the cold light of the British Museum, staring down that avenue of stone walls, with interpretive plaques and barrier wires and crowds of people, it was hard to grasp how utterly astonished and dazzled the explorers who first unearthed them from the yellow deserts along the Tigris River must have been. To say nothing of the astonishment of the crowds of Arabs who assembled at the dig site each day to see what sensational finds would turn up next: sphinxes, black marble obelisks, weapons and armor, giant alabaster vases, stone monsters with the heads of vultures, the bodies of men and the tails of fish, colossal sculptures of winged lions with the bearded heads of men—the logo of the Assyrian Empire—thirteen pairs of them, each up to seventeen feet tall and weighing ten tons.And all of it exhumed in the era of the pick and shovel. Not the bulldozer and the forklift, not infrared photography, aerial surveying, remote sensing, and carbon dating.Perhaps what most stirred the imagination of Europe, though, were the hundreds of clay tablets lining the palace library’s shelves, each covered with a hieroglyphic-like script, which scholars called cuneiform but at the time couldn’t decipher. When they finally cracked the cuneiform code a few years later, they were suddenly able to restore the language and history of the Assyria of the Old Testament—everything from its grammar and dictionaries to its laws and religions, including treatises on botany, astronomy, astrology, metallurgy, geology, and geography. All the records of an empire submerged beneath the sand for over three thousand years.Finally they understood what they were looking at: a city referred to in the book of Genesis as Calah, one of civilization’s first great cities, where the perfumes of Arabia were exchanged for the tapestries of Anatolia, the spices of Phoenicia for the pearls of Oman, and the silks of China for the purple dyes of Tyre, a gram of which was worth more than twenty grams of gold.And what a strange and implausible destiny the relics of Calah have had, to go from adorning the palace walls of Assyria to being buried for 150 generations beneath the plains of the Fertile Crescent, then being unearthed, hauled across the desert on oxcarts, packed onto rafts buoyed by hundreds of inflated goatskins, and floated down the Tigris River to the sea, then getting shipped around the bottom of Africa to a land no Assyrian even knew existed, and finally being enthroned anew in the austere aisles of the British Museum.The Arabs in whose backyard this drama unfolded often feasted and danced all night at the site of the reappearing city of ancient Nimrud, sometimes dashing like madmen into the trenches, amazed and terrified at the strange figures emerging from the desert, throwing off their clothes and shouting war cries. One sheik exclaimed, “Wonderful! Wonderful! What has been all our lives beneath our feet without our having known anything about it. A palace underground. Wonderful! Wonderful!”The author Annie Dillard says of a backyard reverie, “I had been my whole life a bell and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.” As in thunder-, awe-, dumbstruck. And all three are certainly characteristic of the more amplified forms of wonder, like astonishment and mystification and the sense of sublimity. Of incomprehensibility and whatever’s beyond the making of sense, beyond your ability to speak rationally of it. What takes words right up to their timberline.Sublime and metaphysical experiences enthrall us precisely because they stupefy and overwhelm us, because they’re literally inexpressible, leaving us not just tongue-tied but also fallen entirely from our faith in language. When the journalist Harry Reasoner was asked on TV to share his reaction to seeing the Great Wall of China in 1972, he said, “It’s . . . uh . . . it’s one of the two or three darndest things I ever saw.”We value these experiences because they’re so mystifying, because they knock us on our asses. In fact, reverence itself grows out of an understanding of just such limitations, and a quite literal understanding: that there’s always something we stand under, always something over our heads. It explains why Orthodox Jews wear yarmulkes and why Turkish sultans once entered the great Byzantine mosque of Saint Sophia in ancient Constantinople wearing hats in the shape of Muhammad’s foot—to remind them that there’s always Someone above them. It’s sometimes referred to as knowing your place, and it’s an acquired taste.Being made to feel small takes some getting used to, whether the dressing-down comes at the hands of sniffy maître d’s, imperious biographies, or gods and goddesses. But there’s a different, perhaps even agreeable way to feel diminished, and that’s in the presence of the magnificent and almighty as it manifests in, say, nature, because there’s really no comparing yourself with it. There’s no personal affront or sense of failure. No one looking down an upturned nose at you or throwing a gauntlet at your feet.This hasn’t always been the case. Mountains, for instance, are a standard source of wonder and sublimity nowadays, and in many cultures always have been. Not so in Christian Europe. The ancient Romans found them desolate. People in the Middle Ages considered them warts on the planet. A seventeenth-century phrasebook listed among their attributes “insolent, ambitious, uncouth, inhospitable, shapeless, ill-figured, sky-threatening and forsaken.” And Martin Luther believed them to be part of God’s retribution for man’s disobedience in the Garden. Even social philosophies have often considered the “high” to be suspect and the “low” to be preferable: “Every valley shall be exalted,” the Bible says, “and every mountain shall be laid low.”And if mountains have not always been revered, even reverence of mountains has not always been revered. In The Way of All Flesh, Samuel Butler pokes fun at one of his characters, a Mr. Pontifex, whose first glimpse of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe, causes him to hemorrhage awe: “My feelings I cannot express. I gasped, yet hardly dared to breathe, as I viewed for the first time the monarch of the mountains. . . . I was so overcome by my feelings that I was almost bereft of my faculties, and would not for worlds have spoken after my first exclamation till I found some relief in a gush of tears. With pain I tore myself from contemplating . . . this sublime spectacle.”This hyperventilating appraisal, though, is actually a pretty close approximation of my own reaction to seeing the Andes in South America—an extremely agreeable diminishment. I had gone to Peru to do some mountain biking and trekking in the Cordillera Blanca, part of the snowcapped spine of the Andes that winds through central Peru and home to twenty-seven peaks above twenty thousand feet. Outside the Himalayas, they’re the world’s tallest mountains. But never having seen anything higher than the Alps, which top out at about fifteen thousand feet, I found myself staring dumbfounded at the enormous physicality of the Andes, whose glaciered massifs are simply so huge. It’s a sight to humble the hairiest thunderer of an ego, but as long as you don’t feel competitive with mountains the way some people do, it’s an utterly pleasurable way to be humbled.The category in my brain called “Mountain” was so thoroughly challenged, even negated, by the vastness and novelty of the Andes that it was given the chance to expand to accommodate this new arrival, and that expansion was exhilarating.It happened again later that same summer back in the States, when I watched the Perseid meteor shower. A couple of friends and I were lying on big plastic lawn chairs tipped back onto the ground, and among the meteors we saw was one that streaked, large and low, from one horizon to the other—in two seconds flat! I have never seen anything move that fast. The closest has been when I’m flying and see another jet heading in the opposite direction in the flight lane below me. The combined speed of the jets gives me a visual aid to what 1,000 miles per hour looks like (the speed of Earth’s rotation). But this was a peek at what 132,000 miles per hour looks like. It physically startled me.So here’s another of the benedictions of wonder: it’s a stimulus to contemplations grander than the everyday, to perspectives that the earthbound and time-bound often crave. It’s a look at the bigger picture, which is always getting bigger because the universe is always expanding.If you sat on a beach and pushed the heel of your hand through the sand, you’d create a trough lined by ridges where the sand was shoved aside. Recently I sat on the flank of just such a ridge created when an Ice Age glacier pushed its way down a mountainside twenty thousand years ago in what is now Colorado, dragging boulders the size of bungalows along like they were pebbles. That sage-scented ridge, however, was two thousand feet high, and its partner on the other side of the valley was a mile away.Spilling down the valley between them was an enormous carpet of coniferous forest where the glacier used to be, and meadows filled with moving herds of elk. Predators were nowhere in sight, but their handiwork was scattered across the valley—the stripped carcasses of elk, their bones still bearing the teeth marks of lion and bear, the skin and fur on their legs peeled down like ladies’ stockings. Up the valley were snowcapped peaks whose perpetual ice fields looked like blotches of white paint splashed from above.It was a fine day in the warm interglacial, and it would be a thousand generations before the white tide rolled back in and covered the land with two thousand feet and ten thousand years of winter, and for a few hours on that lovely afternoon—and in very few other ways—I was able to apprehend something of the size of the force that makes mountains and that puts me in my rightful place in the universe, a glimpse of the magnitude at which evolution is constantly working, with world-creating, world-destroying gusto.On the wall in a nearby cabin where I’d gone for a weeklong retreat was a depiction of yet another order of magnitude—a National Geographic map called “The Physical World,” which showed not the usual patchwork of countries in playful kindergarten colors but just the geographical features, the deserts, ice caps, plains, valleys, and mountains of Earth, including those under the oceans. It was one continuous landform, some of it above water level, some of it below. And it was apparent that Mount Everest is not only the highest mountain on Earth but also the cap of a monstrous escarpment that starts thirty thousand feet deep at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. It stretches up the flank beneath the East China Sea, across China itself, and onto the Tibetan Plateau, where Everest sits at twenty-nine thousand feet—forming a mountain over sixty-five thousand feet tall.Sitting on the front steps of the cabin at night, I looked out into a solar system that was halfway through its pilgrimage between the arms of the Milky Way, which it traverses every quarter of a million years. This means that 125,000 years from now, the night sky is going to look like a Jackson Pollock painting and be so bright as to obliterate the constellations and no longer suffice to hide prowlers at their doings.It reminded me of the final scene in the movie Men in Black, in which Earth is a marble in a game of marbles played by gargantuan aliens; or the parting shot in the movie Antz, the camera panning slowly back until the anthill in which the movie’s entire drama took place is now seen against the voluminous backdrop of Central Park and the skyscrapers of New York.Among the benedictions of perspective, of the Big Picture, as hinted at by the cultural, spiritual, and especially natural wonders of the world, is that although we may be small in relation to it, we also have a place there. And whether the marvels that lead us toward that bigger picture are under our feet or over our heads, they can serve to lift us up like a bell and strike us with a new appreciation for the largeness and richness of life, with new intensities of perception and new depths of feeling and significance.Perhaps it’s no coincidence that we use the term peak experiences to describe these high points and turning points in our lives, or that astonishment comes from a word meaning “to stun with a thunderbolt,” as in being thunderstruck. It’s at these times that we’re momentarily taken outside ourselves and connected to a larger frame of reference.•   •   •IF WONDER AND AWE typically begin with the new barging in on the old while it’s dozing, a sudden gust through an open window that scatters your thesis papers across the room, then it works as surely at the cultural level as at the personal. Entire eras have been characterized by the titillating trespasses of the unexpected and anomalous, by the hunger for novelty and fascination, and by the exhilarating and unnerving expansion of our worldview. Our current era is undoubtedly one of these, as was the era referred to as the Age of Wonder, a.k.a. the Renaissance.Christopher Columbus’s voyage west in 1492 instigated a couple of centuries of radical amazement, as Europe was flooded with wondrous new stuff brought back by explorers from the far-flung empires of the New World—the Americas, Asia, India, Africa, and the Middle East. The very existence of these zoological, geological, botanical, cultural, and anthropological marvels hauled into question the egocentricity of the European worldview. The scientific revolution of the time simultaneously hauled into question the centrality of the world itself, compliments of the discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo, and Bacon, who proved that Earth wasn’t the center of the universe.People’s sights were turned toward whole new -cosms, both macro and micro. Telescopes brought a new order to the heavens. Microscopes brought into view the teeming universes of the tiny. The printing press spread the news far and wide.Europeans, says Stephen Greenblatt in Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World, experienced several centuries of something like the startle reflex seen in infants—“eyes widened, arms outstretched, breathing stilled, the whole body momentarily convulsed.” Columbus himself used the word wonder so many times in his journals and dispatches that the king of Spain suggested he be called not Almirante (the Admiral) but Admirans (the one who wonders).It must have been a giddy time. How far and fast the horizons were being pushed back and the maps redrawn, how completely people’s conceptions of size and scale, height and depth were being altered. How the parochial imagination must have reeled at seeing, for the first time, mummies and the giant vertebrae of whales.In fact, it was to accommodate and advertise all this marvelous new stuff that museums were born. Starting out as collections called wonder cabinets, or cabinets of curiosities, they were anything from a literal cabinet or closet to an entire building stuffed with all manner of rarities and curiosa: shrunken heads, the skeletons of mastodons and conjoined twins, the enormous horns of rhinoceroses, astrolabes, alligator skins, Amazonian dugout canoes, Javanese bridal costumes, and the contents of Egyptian burial chambers. It was an endless treasury from whole new continents that Europeans came to think of as their own personal cabinets of curiosities, when they weren’t thinking of them as their personal coffers and fiefdoms. Their journeying to new worlds was, in a sense, a chronicle of the colonization of the marvelous and the commodification of wonder.The world’s ruins speak eloquently of these ages of wonder, of whole epochs when the inspiring of awe was national passion and pastime, and heroic scale the order of the day. I’m among those who ardently seek out places where this is on grand display, and the job in London was a perfect excuse to indulge that appetite with a side trip to one of the places that most monopolizes the imagination of ruin-lusters like myself: Italy, a country whose language even has a tense called passato remoto to refer specifically to events in the very remote past.I spent a month there, wandering day and night through the world’s highest concentration of UNESCO World Heritage sites and through the magnificent ruins of the Roman Empire, whose power terrified kings, including the kings of Assyria, and made a hundred nations bow at the waist. Italy’s ruins enthrall me the same way dinosaurs enthrall me—that such a thing once existed!To stand amid the colossal ruins of Italy is to be set down on an alien world and survey the remains of a vanished race. And to travel in Italy is to see entire ages deposited in sedimentary layers, one enameled on top of another—the pagan above the Stone Age, the medieval above the pagan, the modern above the medieval, the ghosts of one age lodged with the ghosts of previous ages. Around every corner are bolts of unexpected illumination.Italy is an object lesson in a kind of beauty and ornateness largely gone from the world, a piercing contrast between the ravishing craftsmanship in stone, wood, and mosaic that graced its ancient buildings—reminding us what can happen when people build with eternity in mind—and the comparatively dreary and uninspired architecture of our own time.Just the skeletal remains of the old temples and triumphal arches are more splendid than most modern buildings with all their flesh and blood intact, and remind me that death and beauty are not strangers to each other; they share a wall.These monuments were built not just for beauty or practicality, though, but also for impact, for propaganda. They were designed to awe and intimidate, to stun and stupefy when approached from ground level looking up, throwing the awestruck into shadow, or doubt, and built to impress the gods as well as the mortals. The pyramids of Giza, the Parthenon in Athens, the Great Wall of China, the Temple of Karnak—they were all meant to be beheld and to demonstrate the virility of their makers and their empires. And size does matter. It’s no coincidence that in the literature of wonder and awe, the phrase “the sheer size” appears routinely, whether the wonder is natural or architectural, grand canyons or grand cathedrals, the world’s largest ball of twine or the enormity of the world’s suffering.And the world is full of the remnants of these literally monumental creations. Full of the toppled and fox-haunted ruins of Roman arenas, Chinese royal tombs protected from grave robbers by automatic crossbows, Turkish fortresses where pashas once reclined on divans and clapped their hands for goblets of sherbet, Indian palaces in whose courtyards rajas played Parcheesi with human pawns, and Greek temples with their marble gods whose noses and fingers made target practice for the bored soldiers of countless armies.Not that a ruin has to be grand to speak to us of wonder and rouse the passion for living that’s often borne of perspective, of a glimpse at the big picture reminding us that this is our precious nick of time and that we’d better make the most of it. Old graveyards will do it. So will log cabins set agreeably in yellow meadows, and ramshackle horse-and-buggy wagons floating like derelict schooners in the waving grasses along country lanes.Or the mere stones that pave the streets of old Roman hill towns, which are often embedded with fossil shells that appear as if floating at the surface, advertising in limestone, alabaster, and marble that oceans and mountains trade places from time to time and that on this spot fish once swam by at eye level.The enormous brethren of these shells that float in the paving stones of Italy—the fossil bones of mastodons, for instance, or the skulls of dinosaurs—have also been a stimulus to the human imagination, providing our forebears with the inspiration for some of their most striking myths, like the gold-guarding griffin, half lion and half eagle, which sprang to life from the tales of Scythian gold miners who, prospecting in the Gobi desert, found the beaked skeletons of Protoceratops. The stone bones of mammoths found on the island of Samos were reconfigured in the Greek imagination as the war elephants that Dionysus employed in his battle with the Amazons. And on Crete the titanic skull of a mastodon was found, with its great nasal cavity in the center, from which a trunk once emerged, as well as a story of a race of one-eyed giants known as Cyclops.•   •   •IN THE LATE WINTER OF 1790, a Frenchman named Xavier de Maistre was under six weeks of house arrest for a dueling incident in Turin, confined to his room in an old apartment building, a room thirty-six paces in circumference if you hugged the wall, and a detention, he said, that, were it up to him, he would have chosen to execute during Lent rather than Carnival.In his wide-ranging ruminations on that forty-two-day confinement, called A Journey Around My Room, he says, “The authorities have forbidden me to roam around the city, a mere point in space. But they have left me with the whole universe. Immensity and eternity are mine to command. It is not in their power to prevent me from exploring at will the vast space that always lies open before me.”Once again, here is captivation not as imprisonment but its opposite. The quest that’s triggered by wonder, by the baffling of the mind or the transfixing of the spirit (or the body, in de Maistre’s case), has the potential to magnify the world in the way Wendell Berry meant it when he said that the impeded stream is the one that sings, in the way Einstein meant it when he said that “once you can accept the universe as matter expanding into nothing that is something, wearing stripes with plaid comes easy.”This magnification starts with the way wonder arranges itself on the face—eyes wide, mouth agape—and runs through those mind-expanding epiphanies that can occur in mystical, psychotherapeutic, or psychedelic encounters; in powerful healings, synchronicities, or crises; through peak experiences, prolonged fasting, solitude or prayer, travel, ecstatic dancing in the Sufi or Hasidic traditions, or the deliberate frustration of the logical mind by Zen koan.The rupturing of ordinary perception leads us to consider that the world isn’t what we thought it was. What we believed matters most doesn’t. And we’re far more powerful than we imagined. Or far less. But either way, the experience has the effect of latching a capo onto us and raising our pitch.These experiences are like random mutations in nature, unexpected buds from which grow entirely new evolutionary branches or whole new species of behavior. From then on, we’re a different creature. We temporarily escape the small self that’s always fishing in the shallows and head out into the deep pelagic waters. And our lives are split down the middle, into B.C. and A.D., into marking our lives by the time that came Before Comprehension and the time that came After.I had one of these experiences on the north coast of Scotland when I was in my late twenties, shortly after a personal crisis—losing the one and only job I’ve ever lost. I was sitting on a cliff at the edge of the North Sea, looking out over an ocean that was the only thing between me and the Arctic Circle. The terrain was wild and isolated, with moors covered in purple heather sweeping in from behind me and dropping abruptly into the blue-green water, and gulls wheeling by in lavish arcs on the wind.Looking out over enormous bulwarks of rock anchored like battleships along the coast, I was suddenly—though what is suddenly when it took my whole life to get to that moment?—struck by the understanding that the same force that lifted those ramparts out of the sea just as easily pushes up a daisy, and just as surely created me. I came off the same conveyor belt as those moors and that frigid ocean.

Editorial Reviews

Praise for VITAL SIGNS “This magnificent work brimming with gorgeous prose and life enhancing stories and insights reveals how the cultivation of passion is key to the energy, love, creativity, health, and just about everything else that is good and true in our existence. Levoy offers us a thrilling new map to the vital core of all our becomings. To read this book and follow its principles is to stop boring God!”—Jean Houston, Ph.D, author of The Possible Human and The Wizard of Us, and Consultant to the United Nations in human and social development“The topic is stimulating…and Levoy’s faith that we can all find passion in our lives is genuinely stirring.”—Publishers Weekly“Our society seems increasingly obsessed with security and playing it safe in every area of life.  But along with this trend often comes a deadening and listlessness in living—as risk-taking, excitement, and novelty are shoved aside. Gregg Levoy's Vital Signs is a marvelous corrective to this trend.  If you could use more passion, wonder, awe, and the sheer juice of being alive, this is your book.”—Larry Dossey, M.D., author of One Mind:  How Our Individual Mind Is Part of a Greater Consciousness and Why It Matters “If you want to fall in love with life, this is your guide! Vital Signs is a roadmap to living a life using your passions as a compass. Grab a cup of tea, find a quiet spot to sit, and dive into this book. You are about to set upon the journey you were born to take.”—Dennis Merritt, author of Your ReDefining Moments and The Art of Uncertainty “Gregg Levoy has written a beautiful book about being enthralled with life by activating the passion that is within. His extraordinarily powerful storytelling, captivating language, and insights into what ignites human hearts with awe makes this book impossible to put down. He reminds us that our inclination to seek out enchantment and wonder needs regular maintenance and that raw experiences, intensity and aliveness, are what stimulate us to ever grander perspectives of this fascinating thing called life. I love this book." —Edward Viljoen, author of The Power of Meditation “Gregg Levoy has discovered the fountain of youth, and his soulful book is the map leading us to the buried treasure of our own passionate aliveness.”—August Gold, author of Multiply Your Blessings “Gregg Levoy has the answer to one of life’s biggest quandaries: How do you find your passion? Herein lie the keys to living in awe of life. Read this book and soar.”—Laura Berman Fortgang, author of Now What? 90 Days to a New Life Direction "Vital Signs is a vital read if you’ve ever wondered how to discover or reclaim your passion. Illuminating how others seize the sweetest aspects out of life, Gregg Levoy unravels the art, wonder, and imperative of falling in love with your own life again and again. Every word is rain for the parched soul."—Tama Kieves, bestselling author of Inspired & Unstoppable: Wildly Succeeding in your Life’s Work! and A Year Without Fear: 365 Days of Magnificence “What a timely book this is, and so welcome. A yearning for passionate, engaged living is deep in our souls. That means living with more active appreciation, awe, delight and fascination—and with far greater happiness and care for others. Gregg Levoy writes beautifully, with all the contagious vigor and delicacy his subject matter so abundantly deserves. Renewal is possible at any age, he shows. So give this gorgeous book widely, generously, passionately. I will.”—Stephanie Dowrick, PhD, author of Seeking the Sacred and Heaven on EarthAcclaim for Gregg Levoy’s CALLINGS"An absolutely superb book. I was stunned by it. It strikes right to the soul. It's like a remembrance of everything you knew but then forgot."—Jean Houston, author of The Possible Human“Gregg Levoy has written about the nature of guidance with a ringing clarity. CALLINGS is a spiritual seduction that gives form to a universal mystery. I’d recommend it to anyone who is seeking to hold the divine hand through a transition in their lives.”—Caroline Myss, Ph.D., author of Anatomy of the Spirit“Gregg Levoy’s wonderful book is not only filled with wisdom, it is inspiring and illuminating----a book of special insight.”—Neale Donald Walsch, author of Conversations With God“Stunning! Wonderful! Levoy writes like a poet. His material is both spiritual and practical. I don’t know another book that deals with callings in quite the same way.”—Larry Dossey, M.D., author of Healing Words, Prayer is Good Medicine“Ravishing! This book is going to charge off the shelves. It’s the kind of book people call each other about to share favorite passages. A book to savor.”—Booklist“This inspiring book, elevated far above the category of self-help by Levoy's masterly writing, is a recommended guide for those who dare to examine their dreams and take action to explore them.”—Library Journal“Beautifully written.”—Book-of-the-Month-Club"Sensitively written and appreciates the value of the journey as much as the end result."—Good Housekeeping“Solid and wise.”—Utne Reader“In the crowded field of books about listening to the heart, Levoy’s guidance and encouragement are rewarding.”—Publisher’s Weekly“Callings is a feast of prose, and filled with wise observations.”—Intuition Magazine“An intelligent and articulate exploration.”—Body Mind Spirit Magazine"Gregg's book is a touchstone for anyone seeking something more out of their work, or making a transition."—Kansas City StarFrom the Hardcover edition.