• Sarah Ratermann Beahan

State of Bewonderment: Episode 7

The Dark Side of Wondering

I’ve been wrestling with this essay. I started with this:

I believe that two things can tell us a lot about ourselves: what we gravitate toward and what repels us. I’m beginning to think they tell us not just about our own inner landscape at any given time, but about the coding we inherited.

I’ve been drawing patterns my whole life. I doodle snail shells, and snowflakes in the margins of my notes. I love drawing crosscuts of trees and fingerprints, root systems and leaves, patterns in their own way. Lately, I’ve taken to photographing tree bark and exposed roots, the veins of leaves and petals of flowers.

I rarely have interest in straight lines. Both literally and figuratively. What is it about the spiral of the snail shell or the ripple in a pond that is more enticing than the rows of corn? I struggle to think of places in nature in which we find perfectly straight lines. Even in the grain of wood there is variation, curvature and divots. Rock formations like the Giants Causeway look like perfectly formed straight hexagonal columns from far away, but upon closer examination are in fact quite varied. Even blades of grass curve and overlap.

The fact is that there are no perfectly straight lines in nature—at least none without some sort of human intervention. Interestingly, there are no perfect circles either. Nature, it seems, believes in the perfection of imperfection. In fact, some of the most desirable figuring in wood grain, often referred to as bird’s eye, fiddleback or curly, is caused by fungus, burls, stress or knots in the tree. What is most pleasing to our eye is the tree’s scar.

I bear an uncanny resemblance to my maternal grandmother, Claudette, who passed away in 2020 at the ripe old age of 89. We have the same eyebrows, maybe the same curve of the cheek and shape of the eye. We also have a rather peculiar connection. As her health began to fail in the last five or so years of her life, I began to feel her pain. Claudette’s early life, and that of her mother and mother’s mother had been traumatic and virtually erased.

This is where things went haywire. I have been noodling with this piece about our unconscious patterns, the patterns in nature and the way epigenetic plays a role in our patterning. I was thinking about the history of trauma in my family, of my great-great-grandmother’s hysteria diagnosis and subsequent institutionalization. I was thinking about what we are learning about how trauma impacts our DNA, and the way that shows up in our unconscious patterning.

And then I went down a rabbit hole of what if… what if grandma didn’t want me to share this story? What if I got the details wrong? What if I was sharing out of turn and my family got upset? What if I didn’t have enough information to have an opinion? What if…

I was on a deadline. A self-imposed deadline, admittedly, but I am committed to sending this newsletter out every Friday though I suspect no one really cares if the email lands in their inbox on Friday or Tuesday. It was a deadline nonetheless. I could feel myself getting a little panicky. I could sense the rigidity in my muscles, the tension was knotting me up.

“What would you tell a student if they were in your shoes?”

“I would tell them that the creative process does not respond to should.”

I got a notification about a post from a former colleague on LinkedIn, a channel I spend very little time on. But the headline of her post was “who knew that daydreaming could be bad for your health?” I was intrigued and, I’ll admit, a little suspicious. She shared brain research that suggests that daydreaming can lead to rumination because of our brain’s hardwired tendency to negativity bias. Simply put, our brains are wired to be on the lookout for the predator, the danger that lurks around every corner, as a matter of survival. The Default Mode Network, the part of the brain responsible for our daydreams, is a hotbed of potential rumination, which can lead to spinning into negative thought patterns about the past and the future, thereby triggering anger, sadness, stress and depression.

Perhaps the solution, she posited, was to daydream with purpose and intention. Maybe we should put some guardrails on our wandering, to keep it aligned and forward moving, to avoid that rumination spiral.

Now, I’m protective of the freedom to daydream and the act of wondering and wandering (ahem, I named both my business and this essay series for this state of being). My knee-jerk reaction is to defend the daydream, the mind-wander and the DMN. The Default Mode Network is also the seat of creativity, after all. I bristle at the idea of putting guardrails on our wandering/wondering, as it will likely have immediate consequences for our creative selves. And I know, from both years of research and my own experience, that creative expression has indisputable health benefits. But, the data doesn’t lie, right? How do you reconcile two very compelling bits of research, especially in light of the fact that I am not a psychologist or neuroscientist?

What is the heavy side to wondering? Can daydreaming be hazardous? What if our minds wander into dark spaces?

There are two sides to every coin, as they say. For many years I was convinced that allowing my mind to wander was a sign of a lack of discipline. Or, perhaps if I was feeling generous, a luxury afforded to those with plenty of time on their hands, something I pined for. I craved the wonderous wandering, both of the physical variety and the soulful. I wanted to walk for miles with no destination in mind. I wanted the ability to say yes to the long drive, or the offer of a trip across the globe. I wanted to read about trees or somatics or astrology just because they were interesting. I wanted to let my doodles become art.

When I gave myself permission to do all those things, a whole world unlocked. It took stepping out of the stream of 8-5 work culture. When I left the job I loved in a career I had my heart set upon with no backup plan, the context of my world changed and so did what I thought I was allowed to do.

Like so many of us, I spent years in jobs in which I was a round peg in a square hole because I thought that’s what being an adult was. Get a job, get a career, make ends meet, save some money, retire and then you can do the things like travel and read and stare out the window aimlessly. If you are lucky you’ll get a taste of the wandering along the way, but only when you’ve requested and been granted PTO.

When I finally acknowledged that being a round peg is doable, but will wear away at your edges until you become a person you don’t recognize, I knew I had to do something different. I didn’t just quit my job, I quit my career at the ripe old age of thirty-five.

By rejecting a way of life that often felt like swimming against the tide, I suddenly began to explore the other things I’d assumed were unavailable to me. I began an MFA program. My husband and I left our home and travelled around the country for months. I walked without a destination every day. I read the magazines and books that had piled on my shelves for years. I went to the Arctic Circle in the winter and the desert in the fall.

When I got hung up on my writing, my professors told me to go outside. Take a walk. Sit in the park. Stare at the trees. They didn’t outline the neuroscience behind their suggestion, it was just an age-old writer’s trick. Get out of your thinking mind. Let the words breathe. Turn off the editor, and let the child out to play. I’d allowed myself to physically wander—around the wide expanse of the North America, reading the poets and novelists I’d never heard of before, letting my mind flit, tinker, and mull the words. Now someone was telling me to literally just stare at the distance and let myself…do nothing?

This is what happened. It didn’t happen overnight, but in slow, minute increments. I began to notice my surroundings. I saw the way the light played with the leaves, casting pattered shadows on the grass. I could smell the wild animal that had crossed the path just moments before me. As my mind fluttered like a butterfly from what I was seeing to an idea and back again, I began to see connections between seemingly unrelated things. I saw how nature reflected the interior of human behavior. Everything in the natural world became a metaphor.

I began to notice my body differently, too, when I let my mind wander. I heard the cadence of my steps as I ran. I could feel the difference in my joints as I sat cross-legged on my mat. My fledgling meditation practice helped. The act of scanning my body, simply drawing awareness to each tiny bend in the finger and curve of the ear is a special kind of tonic for my busy mind. It became almost automatic, this awareness of myself from the inside out.

I believe that daydreaming made me smarter. I believe wondering has made me more empathic. I am certain it has made me more aware.

But there is always a flip side, isn’t there?

The best answer I can arrive at is to look to my own experience.

Sometimes an event can trigger me into a spiral of worry. While the year 2022 will go down in my personal history as one of the hardest, I have found my tendency to worry has been turned down. I’ve gotten more adept at managing my anxious nature. I have a whole host of practices and a pretty pink pill that help me ride the waves of anxiety without being thrown overboard. I have also come to recognize the futility of worrying about the inevitable “bad” things ahead of time. What good did all the worry do, after all, when the dog died anyway or the sickness remained in Dad’s lungs?

But truthfully, I know that our brains do not respond to reason very often, and reason is not what rewires them.

Last week, as I tried to beat this essay into some kind of shape, an event that I could never have seen coming sent me into a spiral. My sister had an accident and banged herself up. While she is in (mostly) good spirits, and thus far recovering nicely, I was rattled. So much so that I found myself in the throes of worst-case scenario thinking. About EVERYTHING. I got in the car and worried about having an accident. I worked through my weekly financials and despite having a surplus of funds worried about what would happen if we didn’t have enough in savings to cover a catastrophe. It was like this incident was the last pea on an already overfull, precariously balanced plate, and it tipped the whole thing end over end. My brain was suddenly in animal mode, looking for danger.

There I was, I was in a negativity bias rumination spiral. My writing was all locked up (because if there is anything that shuts down a creative process it’s anxious thinking), my body was tense, and I was afraid that one false move was going to send me into the ER or bankruptcy.

My first response to this state of mind was to overdose on information. I read everything I could about the DMN and rumination, negativity bias and anxiety. I pored over journal articles on my phone while I drank my coffee. I wanted the literature to tell me the answer, not just to tell me how to get out of the spiral, but to reassure me that I did not have to give up my unfettered daydreaming.

What would you tell your students to do in this circumstance?

Put the phone down, it isn’t helping or healing you. Put the coffee down. Sit. Feel your feet on the floor. Breathe for three minutes. Get outside.

I did. I harnessed up my pup and we went for a long walk on the trail. I could hear an eagle shrieking off to my starboard side. I squinted to see if I could spot it in the trees. I saw bear tracks and coyote scat. I noticed my thoughts again. And again. I smiled at the fact that I never worried about running into a bear, even though that’s why our brains are programmed to negativity bias in the first place, right? My brain has evolved to be on the lookout for reckless drivers and possible financial potholes, but bears don’t enter my fear equation. Funny how that works.

I’ve been working on a book project with a psychologist and coach for the last year. We write a lot about unconscious patterns, limiting beliefs, negativity bias and the ways to rewire our brains so we can live a more authentic, blissful life. We talk about the importance of noticing our thoughts as the first step in rewiring. This has always struck me as synchronistic, as I coach people to turn up their noticing skills to tap into their creative potential. My foray into wondering and wandering led me to noticing. I don’t think that is a coincidence.

I am still thinking about patterns. I will write that essay about my grandmothers because they deserve to have their stories told, but for now I take this week as a signal that their story needs more time. The words need to breathe, I need to do more exploring.

I coached a client through a three-minute meditation last week. She said that her mind won’t quiet, that it continues to wander no matter what she does. I reminded her that that’s what our brains are designed to do. I suggested she stop trying to wrestle it into submission, but instead acknowledge the wandering. Just noticing the pattern is a gargantuan step toward rewiring our thinking.

I heard Krista Tippett interview the poet and memoirist Mary Karr on On Being the other day. She referred to Karr’s 2018 graduation address to Syracuse University in which she speaks about fear and anxiety.

“Fear can take that expensively educated brain of yours and reduce it to the state of a dog crouched over a bone. You know the moments, heart pounding in your ears, sweat bumping down your ribs. Ask yourself at those times, who’s noticing how scared you are. To me it’s this watcher, or noticer self, that’s who I think you really are. That’s where your soul is. That’s where God comes in. That’s a place you can draw strength from.”

What if I consider rumination with beginners mind? What if we approach the spiral with the curiosity of a child instead of the skepticism of an adult?

Here’s where things get either real convoluted or real simple. What if the answer to our rumination is curiosity? What if the way we step out of the anxiety/fear/rumination spiral is to begin with a question… “I wonder…” What if we turn the DMN on itself?

Mary Karr says, “if you can get curious about what scares or infuriates you, especially if it’s part of yourself, you can get way less scared.”

What if instead of avoiding the dark side of rumination, we ask ourselves what it has to tell us? What if we shine a soft, compassionate light there instead? What if the shadowy side of ourselves has just as much to teach us as the bright and shiny?

I am reminded of the figuring in the grain of wood caused by disease or wounds. I suspect that if we leaned into our shadowy sides and saw our wounds as distinctions that make us beautiful, we might get to keep our daydreaming, rumination and all.

State of Bewonderment is a written and visual exploration into moments of bewonderment. What is bewonderment? It is the space where awestruckness inspires action, where wonder pivots us and curiosity shifts the world. These essays are made possible by a Mid-Career Artist Grant from the East Central Regional Arts Council of the great state of Minnesota.

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