Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
-from the poem “Sometimes” by Mary Oliver
August's Gift: Astonishment
Last December when I developed monthly topics for the twelve essential gifts of gentle yoga, I decided that August would be a fine month to write about the idea of “astonishment.” August’s sunny beachy days, fields of bright sunflowers, and magical sunsets seemed to match the very definition of astonishment: “feeling of great surprise and wonder; the rapt attention and deep emotion caused by the sight of something extraordinary.” I sat down this morning to reflect on images of astonishment.
I have used the theme of “astonishment” many times in yoga classes since I discovered the short stanza above from a Mary Oliver poem. I loved these lines from the moment I read them as they always remind me of my grand-daughter, whose quick and careful observation of the world around her often leads to moments of astonishment and delight. Then her penchant for immediately and enthusiastically telling about her astonishment in great detail always equally astonishes me. She often provides me with wonder-filled tales which I promptly tell about to any of my patient friends who are willing to listen to just one more. Deciding she might be an excellent consultant on astonishment, today in our facetime chat I asked for her help on thinking about astonishment. Her thoughtful 8-year old response was an attempt to pay close attention: “Are you talking about good astonishment or bad astonishment?” I suddenly realized that my often-used examples of “good astonishing” moments that take your breath away and cause your heart to sing can be matched in intensity by “bad astonishing” moments that take your breath away and cause your heart to break.
For several months now we have found ourselves faced daily with examples of things that in the past might have certainly been “bad astonishment.” We have watched graphs of virus cases and deaths, seen masked faces everywhere, and listened to news reports from our own country and around the world that would have blown our minds this time last August. We seem however, to be less astonished and more numbed to what keeps getting described as our “new normal.” Sometimes I wonder what might ever seem surprising again as we seem to get more and more dulled to the way things are. Our usual individual maps of how life is supposed to go, now seem so incorrect as to feel useless and many of us often feel more dread and fear than wonder and amazement. I’ve heard myself think more than once, “nothing surprises me anymore.”
The Principle of Least Astonishment
As I began working on this post, I quickly came across an idea that seemed to be exactly what I needed to read about, “the principle of least astonishment,” also referred to as the principle of least surprise. Hoping to get a different take on the idea of astonishment, sadly, I quickly realized this is a term that comes from software design. Since I was feeling quite techno-overwhelmed already by a crazy-making computer virus program installation and zooming myself on a daily basis for all kinds of reasons, I didn’t think I could bear to read about anything related to software design. On a wary tiptoe, I took a quick look at this information. I decided that at least I could peek at Wikipedia where I learned that this nearly 40-year-old software design principle states that “a component of a system should behave in a way that most users will expect it to behave; the behavior should not astonish or surprise users.” Wikipedia noted that a typical formulation of the principle is: “If a necessary feature has a high astonishment factor, it may be necessary to redesign the feature.” For the first time ever, I realized there are software engineers purposely explicitly designing tools in ways that were not supposed to astonish or surprise me, so that my life would be easier and I would be more able to quickly adapt to their software. Certainly, this very brief foray into the world of software design heightened my respect for the people behind the tools on my screen. While I welcome this approach in my computer use, however, I am sad to think about my whole life this way in terms of astonishment of both the good and bad variety.
That said, I began to think about the fact that many of us have become more and more accustomed to having things work as we expect them to work. This is certainly not true for many people in our world, but so many of the privileged among us have been able to count on things working out sooner rather than later. Our phones should give us the next minute’s weather forecast. Our playlists should play what we want to hear right now. Our cars should keep driving at the speed we just chose. When that doesn’t happen as expected we may not be astonished but we were at least surprised (and probably quite annoyed). We have come to believe there are certain things we can expect and control and that we aren’t likely to be surprised by how things work. Until now. And now we know the design has run amuck. At first, we were all quite “bad astonished.” Lately many of us are less astonished and more dulled, angry, and depressed. Many of us no longer have the capacity to pay attention, be astonished and tell about it.
Challenging our mental models
Most simply described, a mental model is a way of making sense of the world. Each of us has developed our own mental model that we use unconsciously every day to help us understand things, reason, develop priorities and make decisions about what is important. Surprise (astonishment) shakes our mental models and can cause us to re-evaluate our model and change it or perhaps to cling to our model ever more zealously. For months now, COVID-19 has continued to provide us with an event that challenges our individual and collective mental models of how the world works. Philippe Silberzahn’s April 15, 2020 blog is an interesting read about how the coronavirus challenges our mental models. His article refers to the organizational theory of Karl Weick who describes a “cosmological episode” as “a particularly severe shock that can call into question our very identity: the gap is too great to be denied and the event is so unexpected and powerful that it cannot be interpreted by our existing mental models, leading to their collapse and that of our identity at the same time.” Silberzahn describes COVID-19 as an example of a cosmological episode. He states that “the key to a cosmological episode, apart from managing the event itself, is to win the battle of narration, of mental models, to get people to accept the meaning of the event. Whatever the consequences of the coronavirus, it is obvious that this “battle” has already begun, that its consequences will be very heavy, and that they will be very different depending on who wins it.”
It would take more words than this blog can manage for me to write about each of our own mental models and our collective mental models and how these play into the narration of the meaning of the pandemic we are living through. My take away from this thinking about mental models (obviously through the lens of my own model) is that astonishment/surprise (the gap between our mental models and reality) is important to hold onto. We need to not lose the element of astonishment. We need to not collapse into ourselves in sadness and worry or separate ourselves from each other because our individual mental models are causing us to make different decisions from each other. Together we need to share our narratives and create a shared narrative that can get us through this as safely as possible and take us to the other side as whole as possible.
We need to pay attention.
We need to be astonished.
And we need to tell about it.
This month’s pose: Mountain Pose (Tadasana)
Even though I have lived in Vermont for over twenty-five years, as I drive around the state I often turn a corner to see an incredible mountain and am astonished enough to gasp out loud. A mountain’s strong solid grounding with its crown rising gently to the sky still gives me that feeling of surprise that takes my breath away and makes my heart sing. It creates in me good astonishment. Getting into yoga mountain pose can give us the same feeling. If you decide to move into mountain pose, try saying aloud to yourself in your mountain, “I am the mountain. I am grounded. I am safe. I am astonishing.” Seeing and feeling yourself this way can be good astonishing.
Here are some cues for getting into your mountain:
Stand with your feet hip distance apart. Ground into the 3 corners of your feet (point under the base of your big toe, point under the base of your little toe, middle of your heel). Imagine you have deep roots going down into the ground. Let the muscles of your legs hug the bones of your legs. Let your knees be unlocked. Engage your abdominal muscles (belly button toward spine). Engage up through your torso. Shoulders are loose with arms hanging at sides. Turn palms forward. Eyes look straight ahead. Crown of head reaches with lightness up to sky. Lift up the corners of your mouth and smile. Take 3-5 deep breaths in and out.