How to Grow Re-enchanted with the World: A Salve for the Sense of Existential Meaninglessness and Burnout
There are seasons of being when a cloak of meaninglessness seems to slip over you, over everything, muffling the song of life. It is not depression exactly, though the two conditions make eager bedfellows. Rather, it is a great hollowing that empties you of that vital force necessary for moving through the world wonder-smitten by reality, that glint of gladness at the mundane miracle of existence. A disenchantment we may call by many names — burnout, apathy, alienation — but one that visits upon every life in one form or another, at one time or another, pulsating with the unmet longing for something elemental and ancient, with the yearning to see the world as beautiful again and feel its magic, to find sanctuary in it, to contact that “submerged sunrise of wonder.”
Katherine May explores what it takes to shed the cloak of meaninglessness and recover the sparkle of vitality in Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age (public library) — a shimmering chronicle of her own quest for “a better way to walk through this life,” a way that grants us “the ability to sense magic in the everyday, to channel it through our minds and bodies, to be sustained by it.”
May — who has written enchantingly about wintering, resilience, and the wisdom of sadness — reaches for the other side of that coma of the soul:
This life I have made is too small. It doesn’t allow enough in: enough ideas, enough beliefs, enough encounters with the exuberant magic of existence. I have been so keen to deny it, to veer deliberately towards the rational, to cling solely to the experiences that are directly observable by others. Only now, when everything is taken away, can I see what a folly this is. I don’t want that life anymore. I want what [the] ancients had: to be able to talk to god. Not in a personal sense, to a distant figure who is unfathomably wise, but to have a direct encounter with the flow of things, a communication without words. I want to let something break in me, some dam that has been shoring up this shamefully atavistic sense of the magic behind all things, the tingle of intelligence that was always waiting for me when I came to tap in. I want to feel that raw, elemental awe that my ancestors felt, rather than my tame, explained modern version. I want to prise open the confines of my skull and let in a flood of light and air and mystery… I want to retain what the quiet reveals, the small voices whose whispers can be heard only when everything falls silent.
To lodge herself out of this existential stupor, she turns to various fulcrums of wonder — meteor-watching and ocean-swimming, gardening and beekeeping — returning again and again to what has been my own most steadfast remedy in those seasons of inner withering. A century and a half after Thoreau made his ardent case for walking as a spiritual endeavor and a generation after Thomas Clark’s marvelous manifesto for walking as a portal to self-transcendence, May writes:
When I walk, I fall through three layers of experience. The first is all about the surface of my skin, the immediate feedback of my senses. It is often twitchy and uncomfortable: my boots are too tight; there’s a twig in my sock. My backpack won’t sit square on my shoulders. My walking is stop-start in that phase, curtailed by an endless series of adjustments. I am never sure if I really want to go the distance. But if I walk on through that, those sensations eventually fade and they’re replaced by bubbling thought, a burgeoning of ideas and insights, a sense of joyous chatter in the mind. This is the point in a walk when the interior of my mind feels luxuriant, a place so pleasurable to inhabit that I never want my legs to stop. It’s a creative space, a place where problems are solved in unfathomable ways, the answers arriving like truths known all along.
With the awareness that “our bodies have answers to questions that we don’t know how to ask,” she adds:
If I carry on walking, eventually that fades, too. Perhaps it is low blood sugar, or perhaps the popcorn brain burns itself out eventually, but at some point I reach a very different state of mind, a place beyond words in which I feel quiet and empty. This is my favourite phase of all, an open space in which I am nothing for a while, just an existence with moving parts and a map in my hand, whose feet know the route and do not need my interference. Nothing happens here, or so it seems. But in its aftermath, I find my most profound insights, whole shifts in the meanings and understandings that underpin who I am. In this state, I am an open door.
The most enchanted form of walking takes place in that most enchanted of places, the forest — that living reminder of the dazzling interleaving of life that prompted Ursula K. Le Guin to write that “the word for world is forest,” that cathedral of interdependence where trees and fungi whisper to each other in a language we are only just beginning to decipher.
In consonance with the emerging science of “soft fascination” — which is illuminating how time in nature jolts the brain out of its rut and unlatches our most creative thinking — May writes:
The forest… is a deep terrain, a place of unending variance and subtle meaning. It is a complete sensory environment… It is different each time you meet it, changing with the seasons, the weather, the life cycles of its inhabitants… Dig beneath its soil, and you will uncover layers of life: the frail networks of mycelia, the burrows of animals, the roots of trees.
Bring questions into this space and you will receive a reply, though not an answer. Deep terrain offers up multiplicity, forked paths, symbolic meaning. It schools you in compromise, in shifting interpretation. It will mute your rationality and make you believe in magic. It removes time from the clock face and reveals the greater truth of its operation, its circularity and its vastness. It will show you rocks of unfathomable age and bursts of life so ephemeral that they are barely there. It will show you the crawl of geological ages, the gradual change of the seasons, and the countless micro-seasons that happen across the year. It will demand your knowledge: the kind of knowledge that’s experiential, the kind of knowledge that comes with study. Know it — name it — and it will reward you only with more layers of detail, more frustrating revelations of your own ignorance. A deep terrain is a life’s work. It will beguile, nourish, and sustain you through decades, only to finally prove that you, too, are ephemeral compared to the rocks and the trees.
Often, her reconnection with wonder is a function of the poetry of perspective — something she brings to the seemingly mundane fact of the tides, daily lapping Earth from both ends under the pull of the Moon:
There are two giant waves travelling endlessly around the earth, and twice a day we see their full volume. We barely sense the scale of what is really happening, because we only ever witness it locally. We rarely stop to think that they join us to the entire planet, and to the space beyond it.
When I feel the pull of the tides, I am also feeling the pull of the whole world, of the moon and the sun; that I am part of a chain of interconnection that crosses galaxies.
Again and again, she faces the tension between our reliance on rationality and our longing for magic, for some deeper truth resinous with transcendence. A century after the Nobel-winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger bridged the newborn quantum mechanics with ancient Eastern philosophy to make the striking assertion that “this life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of the entire existence, but is in a certain sense the whole,” May writes:
Both are just ways of conceptualising a foundational fact of living. The alchemy comes in understanding the truth that seems so easily hidden: that everything is interconnected. That there is only one whole. That we exist within a system that includes every degraded human act and every beautiful one, every blade of grass and every mountain; that shines and snaps and varies like the surface of the sea. We as individuals contain it all. We hold within us the potential for the greatest good and the most dreadful evil. We know, intuitively, how each feels, because there are lines traced between us and everything else. I don’t have to believe in God as a person. I can believe in this instead: the entire mesh of existence binding us together in ways we perceive only if we listen. Each of us is a particle of this greater entity. Each one of us contains it all.
With an eye to our reflexive inability to hold such a totality in view — perhaps because it contours a larger consciousness that transcends the cognitive limits of our own — she adds:
We find this absolute connectedness hard to grasp. We often prefer to forget it. We often push back against it. But it is there, real as sunlight, behind everything we do. Since it is too big for us to swallow whole, we approach it through metaphor. We tell stories about monsters and magic and elemental gods, but really we are finding a way to understand. Really we are talking about us, all of us together. Some of the old stories don’t work anymore. We are finding them harder and harder to understand. But that doesn’t mean we abandon them. Instead, we need to double down on the storytelling, and find new ways to tell out our meanings. Perhaps that is what we’re meant to do: remake our stories until we finally find the one that fits.
God has always been a name whispered between us.
Radiating from May’s quest is the intimation that wonder is not a property of the world but a property of the story we tell ourselves about the world. She ends with an invocation of a better story to tell ourselves — an invocation that is also an invitation to self-enchantment:
Our sense of enchantment is not triggered only by grand things; the sublime is not hiding in distant landscapes. The awe-inspiring, the numinous, is all around us, all the time. It is transformed by our deliberate attention. It becomes valuable when we value it. It becomes meaningful when we invest it with meaning. The magic is of our own conjuring.
Couple Enchantment with the pioneering neuroscientist Charles Scott Sherrington, writing a century earlier, on wonder and the spirituality of nature, then revisit the great naturalist John Burroughs’s superb manifesto for spirituality in the age of science.