I look out my window this morning and see the bare tree branches quivering in a slight breeze. A bird’s shadow breaks across and then the bird itself appears. Within that brief moment of awareness my brain informed me of something irregular to the pattern (the shadow) which allowed my perception to anticipate what followed; the sighting the bird itself, then quickly incorporating that feathered creature into my visual field. If I wasn’t open to it I wouldn’t realize that a surprise happened. Typically, because of the stretch of time I have spent on this planet, I would just automatically build it into my pre-organized familiarity. It would just “sort of happen” and I would move on the more important stuff. As if that event itself wasn’t really important. This morning that bird really happened.
We lose the ability to be surprised as we age. And that’s not too surprising either. The long march of accumulated experience falls into pattern and becomes apparently predictable as time passes. Even novel interjections are de-mystified and flattened by this expectation of the ordinary.
Maybe this ability to be surprised is worth reconsidering. Maybe over time our natural astonishment about life needs to be augmented by a self-generated one. It seems that’s why bird watching is so engrossing. We allow ourselves an opportunity to set aside the knowledge that this is all familiar and open up to a different sense: All is Unexpected! Part of birding is seeing that rare bird of course. But in every bird-walk our joy in fulfilled when the stillness of the woods becomes animated. But first we must be open. Just because we opened our eyes by separating our eyelids doesn’t mean our eyes are open.
Assessment and categorization are automatic habits in us that proceed from surprise. We both desire surprise and also dispense with it as quickly as possible. Something strange is going on. When we get in “naturing mode” by heading out to the woods, by quieting ourselves, by letting our eyes dilate slightly, we beg for surprise. But just as quickly as it happens, as the bird finally appears, we change into the organizer of experience, we say “That’s a House Finch.” Because not to do this would be not to close the circle. But to close a circle is not to end our path around it. I’ve started thinking of this circle as the circle of effort and awe.
There are two goals in experience; to gain understanding through effort and to increase our awareness through awe. The trick is to keep our brain ready to move. Proceeding all too quickly from surprise into analysis is just the way we are wired. Survival relies on bringing the unexpected into comprehension, mainly to evaluate threat or to recognize possible reward.
Moving the other way takes practice. Disengaging ourselves from the identifying labels that we paste on experience, realizing that we have only managed to brush up against a small part of the surface of what we can know about something, turns us back towards awe. With practice we can remember the limitations that our categorizations impose. The sense of novelty is dependent on us as much as on fresh sensation. The deeper investigation of life relies on reanimating this cycle of wonder.