On Monday, the full solar eclipse takes place across the United States. For a little over two minutes in the middle of a high-summer day—just when we’re normally bathed in brightest light—the moon will completely obscure our view of the sun, creating a radiant corona while casting a thick shadow on the earth. Non-human animals will stop in puzzlement, perhaps panic, as their bodies become alarms: something essential to existence feels terribly off. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of human animals will travel from all over the nation and even the world to points along the path of totality to marvel at this rare natural phenomenon, together.
I love that the path-of-deepest-darkness, which is also the path-of-longest-duration, is called the path of totality: as I write, people are hurrying towards this 73-mile-wide band that at once bisects and unifies the nation, not horizontally or vertically, but diagonally, from coast to coast, propelled and bound by that which makes us capable of evolving into our highest (total) potential as a species: curiosity and wonder. Wonder and curiosity are the seeds of innovation, awe, and reverence, which in turn spore connection, love, and redemption.
Could we, then, in the wake of the heinous hate crimes proliferating both at home and abroad, witness a timelier natural phenomenon?
Could we, while navigating our own messy lives—our griefs, longings, addictions, mourning, regrets, shames, and sorrows—pay homage to a more significant natural act?
This morning, as I was re-reading Gay Hendricks’ wonderful classic, Conscious Living, I came upon this passage, which feels uncannily fitting right now:
"The lessons of conscious living are learned in the wide-open spaces of genuine curiosity, yet the open spaces have a path through them. The path of conscious living is paved with stepping-stones of wonder. Your wonder comes alive the moment you shift from conviction to curiosity. The wondering sojourner reaps a singular reward given only to those who keep their curiosity alive: pure, raw, unfiltered experience. One moment the raw experience may be blissful, the next moment unbearably painful or unfathomably confusing, but it is always genuine and direct and all yours." (38)
Curiosity and wonder move us. Closer—to the object or experience we’re marveling at, but also towards each other; we want to share, express, and otherwise memorialize that which wakens us afresh because, in part, it’s surprising or fleeting.
When we privilege the certainty of conviction over the uncertainty of curiosity, we approach our encounters with ready-made beliefs. If what we encounter challenges those beliefs in some way, we’ll resist the encounter, either in another person or within ourselves. We’ll only be partially available to what’s in front of us. As such, conviction can, if unchecked and unbalanced, breed reactivity, a state of being in which we thwart connection, both with ourselves and others.
When we privilege curiosity, we choose to suspend judgment (ready-made convictions) in favor of discovery. We are primed to find the unexpected. We’re on the lookout for that which doesn’t fit, that which complicates, for that which demands we grow both more capacious and more precise in our ability to experience and express what’s happening, now.
Curiosity and wonder are, then, key antidotes to fear. Unless our fear is alerting us to true-blue danger, it’s signaling the proximity of a feeling we don’t want to feel. Rejection. Humiliation. Anxiety. Being wrong. Unworthiness. Shame. Loneliness. Regret.
When wrestling with these uncomfortable emotions, I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the old, old stories—convictions—that are, despite the pain they cause, familiar and therefore easy to believe. There’s something wrong with me. I’m broken. Something’s not right, deep-down.
When I allow myself to become possessed by these convictions—that’s what it feels like, being possessed—I shrink. I pull back. I become wary of others, because I’m wary of myself. Normally warm and inviting, I become edgy, easy to anger. I anticipate rejection and criticism, because I’m rejecting and criticizing myself. I’m moody. I’m weepy. Nothing feels good.
I used to spend lots of time, when in this place, analyzing and interpreting—searching for the origin of my feelings, mining my childhood. Work that paid off in spades, that eventually allowed me to understand, and therefore forgive both others and myself. But such unfettered focus can also slip into wallowing, into indulging our pain (our convictions) as a way of distracting ourselves from the possibility before us: to take responsibility for our happiness, right now.
These days, I do my best to encounter my discomfort unarmed; without judgment. That is, I do my best to inhabit my most painful emotions with curiosity and wonder, mind-states I’m learning to adopt even in the most difficult times. Sometimes this means saying no to the pint of Ben & Jerry’s non-dairy Chunky Monkey in the freezer, or the glass of wine, or the next podcast in my que, and facing, head-on, the nearly unbearable sensations of sorrow in my upper chest and throat, or the gripping, heavy feeling of regret or shame in my gut. Sometimes it means heading out of my house with the intention of looking every person I speak to in the eye with every ounce of my attention and a warm, genuine smile that conveys how miraculous it is that our two lives are crossing, in this very moment, this teeny pin-dot of time in all of human history, now, here. What are the chances? Sometimes it means keening with all of my body, tears streaming down my face in the car or on my bike, as if giving birth—because, really, I am—to suffering’s other-side.
Because there’s no way to access that “pure, unfiltered, raw” experience of conscious living without embracing the totality of our aliveness.
What then, will we find once there? Why bother with the arduous journey, the inconvenience and discomfort?
Because we need the unexpected. The inside-out. New ways of seeing. Possibility.
This is why, I believe, we as a species are compelled in droves to set aside every-day obligations, travel distances, and risk miles of backed up traffic in order to witness a total eclipse. Our bodies know the potency of darkness, and the promise of surprise: each of our lives began in the deep reach of a lightless womb; healing accelerates when we’re asleep; the starry sky—evidence that we are part-of (part of something bigger)—is only visible to the naked eye at night.
As we approach Monday’s eclipse, this is what I’m thinking about. How, during the slim minute of shared darkness at midday, a thick seam of humans in goofy paper glasses will swell across our nation, faces tilted towards the slip-mooned sun. How, for this brief, ordinary moment, millions of humans who might otherwise be busy arguing or apologizing or attacking, or wanting and longing and connecting, will bond in one huge inhale of shared wonder.
This is what I want to think about, or at least be conscious of, as I slide on those spectacles, my son by my side. That it’s not just the eclipse we’ve come for, but who we are, at our best, something we must come together to remember.