Embassy of the Future: The Magic of Wonder

Benjamin J Butler is Wonderfruit’s resident wizard. He is a leading Futurist, Strategist and Philosopher based in Asia. He is affiliated with the World Economic Forum, Bridge Consulting, Futur/io, and the Lifeboat Foundation. He is co-host of the soon-to-be-launched Quantum Futures podcast. Benjamin presented a Scratch Talk at Wonderfruit in 2019.

Wonderfruit is built on the tenets “Live. Love. Wonder.” Today I’d like to reflect upon ‘wonder.’

At a time where many people are facing uncertainty and crisis, one might think that now isn’t the time to talk about ‘wonder’. “I need to make ends meet, keep my job and put food on the table”. Or worse still, “I’ve lost my job and need to find a new income stream”. It’s my experience, however, that wonder is a perfect antidote for these challenging times. Now is not a time to go into avoidance by binge watching Netflix (or other addictive behaviours), or into freak-out-panic-mode. Wonder might well be the perfect antidote to these times.

A Journey to Wonder

Last year, just prior to the Wonderfruit Festival, I went on an important visit. I travelled back to the heart and soul of the Land of the Rising Sun—Nara, Japan—a place I’ve been visiting for 20 years. In fact I speak Japanese, having spent 8 years living there. A friend of mine, John Craig, took me on a walk up this twisted path into a bamboo forest. I could already feel that it was a magical place as we approached, and upon turning a corner I was confronted with a huge rock, or monolith, which was not from Japanese civilization. It was so incongruous, so out of place, I felt like I was in an episode of Lost. I marvelled at “Matsuda No Iwafune” for a long time, standing there in complete wonder. In fact, I could have spent all day looking at it, with a big grin on my face. My friend had an equally large grin—marvelling at the scene we beheld, and the reaction he saw in me.

My friend said that when Graham Hancock, the world-renowned writer on ancient civilizations, went there he was equally struck by wonder and said it was one of the most significant monoliths in Asia.

What is ‘Wonder’?

The word ‘wonder’ comes from the old English word ‘wundrian’, meaning ‘be astonished’, or ‘amazed’. The Oxford dictionary defines it as ‘a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable’.

But more than intellectual definitions, we all know what wonder is when we are hit by it. Like that moment in Japan recently, or standing on the edge of the Himalayas and being stuck in my tracks, or watching the birth of my daughter as a new consciousness entered this world, and tears rolled down my face.

There is so much magic in wonder. And it’s such an antidote to some of the anxiety, negativity and anger we see in today’s society.

First of all, it stops us in our tracks and gets us present. You aren’t so concerned about the past or rushing to some future when you are in that state of wonder. In Japan that time, I was certainly in no rush to leave that cosmic site. In recent years, with books like the ‘Power of Now’ and the mindfulness movement, we are all learning the importance of getting really present.

Wonder also evokes a feeling of joy. When JRR Tolkien was asked, he said “if you really want to know what Middle Earth is based on, it’s my wonder and delight in the earth as it is, particularly the natural earth.” It’s tricky to behold something in wonder and simultaneously be angry or sad.

That also links to another good point. Wonder often, but not always, happens in nature. And perhaps it serves as some way to reconnect us to our primordial and ancient roots, as part of nature—and as its guardians. In that sense, it’s really important at this time of human and planetary history. Recent studies in psychology have shown that nature is essential for our mental health: the University of Essex concluded that it can support recovery from pre-existing stress and immunise us from future stress.

Sometimes the wonder of the natural world can hit us really hard, like when we look over some panoramic vista such as the Himalayas or look up at the cosmos. Carl Sagan wrote:

“Our contemplation of the cosmos stirs us; there’s a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation as of a distant memory of falling from a great height, we know we are approaching the grandest of mysteries.”

I think we have all felt small when faced with something immense. That humility is a spiritual experience. Have you ever experienced tears, when confronted by the beauty of the natural world?

Wonder also has a remarkable ability to open the mind to new possibilities. As Gerry Spence wrote “I would rather have a mind opened by mind than one closed by belief.”

This openness is important for so many dimensions of human existence. It certainly means less conflict. When you look around the world today, you’ll see a lot of people who are 100% convinced they are 100% right ,100% of the time. Many societies have fragmented and are becoming quite tribal. This is less likely if the mind is open to new perspectives.

And a mind opened is one which can learn. It should be no surprise that educators speak of the importance of wonder for a child’s development. When a child is marvelling at the world in joy and wonder, their brains are firing on all cylinders—compared to a child in anxiety and fear, with their veins full of cortisol.

If you walk through the pages of the biographies of great scientists, you’ll see that many of them started from a sense of wonder. It might have driven their passion through all the hard work and experimentation that they needed to do.

“All of my life, I have been fascinated by the big questions that face us, and have tried to find scientific answers to them. If, like me, you have looked at the stars, and tried to make sense of what you see, you too have started to wonder what makes the universe exist.”
—Stephen Hawking

Most of all, the magic of wonder is that it opens us up to all of these gateways to our own amazing humanity: because we are meant to be curious, present, creative, connected to nature, open and joyous. In fact, back in my motherland—the British Isles—the highest spiritual achievement of the indigenous people, like that of the Guru in India or the Rinpoche in Nepal, was that of the poet. In fact, the poet, the druid and wizard were really all interchangeable. It’s the poet who sees wonder everywhere. This is why wonder must be a crucial dimension of everyone’s personal odyssey.

I hope you all find wonder in your day today. I find it in the poetry of the romantics, reading inspiring books, wandering out in nature, looking into the eyes of a loved one, and appreciating the human spirit. It might give you the energy to overcome all the lethargy, fear or procrastination that this current crisis might evoke in you. I know it’s been great medicine for me.

The poet Yeats once wrote “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”

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