Retain, Even in Opposition, Your Capacity for Astonishment

Yesterday was a get-shit-done kinda day for me. The to-do list was in full effect; an intricately laid plan of emails, phone calls, and the endless last-minute details of finishing a project.

It was the kind of day when I am even more loathe than usual to pick up my phone if it rings because if anything extra that was unplanned shows up, the whole productivity system could fail.

But yesterday was also the first day of breaking a six-day juice cleanse, and so grocery shopping was on the to-do list as well. And when the emptiness of my belly reached the level of the emptiness of my fridge, I took a break from the nose-down business to check off going to the grocery store.

It took a few blocks of driving for the chatter in my mind to quiet enough for me to actually catch what was being said on NPR. Two bombs went off at the Boston Marathon.

The news felt like an explosion in my heart. Shocking and sickening.

And then the fast thought: My partner’s entire family is at the Boston Marathon to cheer on his sister-in-law.

It is events like yesterday’s that are a reminder of why we cling so to our plans and to our to-do lists: the potential horror and heartbreak of the things we can’t control.

And so, we lay everything out. We orchestrate. We attempt to control the people and things in our immediate vicinity. Our resistance to what we can’t contain and label is so great that we even tend to only hear or see things that exist in categories we are already familiar with, things that we can neatly file away in an oft-used compartment in our minds.

I know this tendency well in myself. For years I have been aware of my control freakishness. The attempts to dismiss some perceived future suffering by having things organized and figured out. Regardless of whether the suffering I anticipated actually plays out, which it often does, I’ve come to learn that I create decidedly more suffering for myself (and for others!) by trying to resist it.

But it wasn’t until a few weeks ago when I heard the scholar Ravi Ravindra teaching on the life lessons from the Bhagadvadgita, one of the two main Sanskrit texts about yoga, that I understood this idea in a different way. He said that humans don’t like to be surprised.

“That’s not true,” I thought to myself as I scribbled down his quote in my notebook. “I love surprises!”

But when I chewed on it for a bit, I realized that allowing myself to be surprised is the flip side of the “control everything” coin. And that if my underlying tendency is to want to have everything compartmentalized and labeled, it indicates that I don’t, in fact, particularly like surprises.

Trying to resist the possibility of future suffering really is the same thing as trying to resist being surprised. But when it’s said in the latter way, it seems shockingly sad.

I really don’t want a life that is devoid of the sweet miracle of surprise.

Even when that means that sometimes the surprise will be of the nature of yesterday’s bombings.

Because as I’ve studied the element of surprise in my life more closely over the last few weeks, I’ve discovered that regardless of whether the surprises have been sweet or sickening, delightful or terrifying, they have the same underlying effect: they have all brought me back to feeling love.

When I got home from the grocery store yesterday and watched the video of the explosions at the marathon, I sat in my chair and was overcome with weeping. I cried for how scared the people there must have been. I cried for the devastation the people who lost loved ones must feel. I cried because of the people who, without thought, ran toward the blasts to help. And when my partner called to let me know that his family members were all accounted for and unharmed, I cried out of immense gratitude.

And though I would in no way characterize yesterday's events as loving, I was crying because of the love I felt. For all the people in Boston, for my family and for the people in the world for whom these types of events are wretchedly no longer a surprise at all.

To allow ourselves to be surprised—whether by ourselves or by others, whether in ways that we would label “good” or “bad”—frees us of our conditioned responses and our prescribed categories of thought. It brings us back to a felt sense of being alive. It floods us with love.

And isn’t that the point of all spiritual practices?

Which brings me to my new mantra: “Retain, even in opposition, your capacity for astonishment.”

Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens says this in the movie Lincoln. He has just left the senate floor where he argued, after decades of public ardency that black people are equals in every way with white people, that black people should only be seen as equal in the eyes of the law.

How epically difficult it must have been for him to loosen his grip on the very ideal he felt made him a decent human being. But he understood that presenting this new and truly surprising argument would allow a greater chance that the amendment to the constitution to ban slavery would be passed.

This is my new mantra because I’m starting to get it: surprise is a deeply spiritual act. But more importantly—as embodied human beings on this profoundly beautiful and deeply troubled planet, our capacity for astonishment is what brings out our best human qualities.

So be willing to scrap your to-do list. To toss your best-made plans. To let go of an idea of yourself you've been gripping to. Even to receive the most opposed and terrifying news. It will reveal to you your best self, and it will open the possibility for you to impact the world from a source of grace. And we could use more of that.

My love to Boston and beyond.

owen keturah