The gift of this moment

Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement... to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.

Abraham Joshua Heschel

Jewish philosopher and theologian 1907 – 1972

When we talk about gratitude in this season, it’s easy to find ourselves giving thanks for the big things that we receive from life and from one another. We give toasts about the conspicuous moments in our experience and feel a warmth for the special times, especially times of connection with one another.

It’s all wonderful, of course, but we’d also do well to celebrate the smallest of things and the most familiar of moments. There is wonder here too, more than we usually recognize. This is what Abraham Heschel is saying in his call for radical amazement. Like a modern mindfulness teacher, he reminds us to look closer at the routine moments of our lives, to see and feel just how incredible they really are.

Throughout the year, we are lulled to sleep by the routine: our familiar bodies, our familiar environments, our familiar tasks, our familiar friends. The more they become known to us, the less we pay attention. And as we age, it only gets worse. As our world becomes increasingly known, it also becomes increasingly dull to our senses. And so we go searching for novelty. We turn our attention to the new, the spectacular and the flashy. But this soon becomes familiar and now we’re back where we started.

The better approach is to look straight into the familiar with what Rumi called “fresh eyes.” Even our most routine moments are actually outrageous. Here we are, our bodies literally made of stardust, perched on a small, spinning planet at the edge of a glorious galaxy in a universe some 13 billion years old. Our bodies are home to an entire ecosystem of micro-organisms, a microbiome that keeps us healthy. Our nervous system contains billions of cells, each with some 10,000 synapses, giving us an uncountable number of patterns, constantly rearranging themselves in a dance of plasticity and learning. We are permeable to social messages that flow through networks; not only are we breathing the same air, we are also sharing emotion, stories, memes and ideas. And it’s all in motion, all the time.

Heschel describes radical amazement as a spiritual experience, which it most certainly is. But it also has profound effects on our minds and bodies. Undoubtedly, the experience of radical amazement sets in motion a cascade of beneficial neurobiological effects that promote our health. Every time we see the world with curiosity and wonder, the body responds with a surge of beneficial hormones and neurotransmitters. Our brains and bodies light up, increasing our capacity for amazement.

So, as we give thanks in this season, let’s be grateful for all of it. Toast the big moments, but keep your attention on the familiar as well. Your radical amazement will be a powerful gift to yourself and to those around you.