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Sense of Wonder: Maintaining The Capacity to Be Surprised
Excerpted from Nine Disciplines of a Facilitator: Leading Groups by Transforming Yourself
by Jon Jenkins & Maureen R. Jenkins

Having a Sense of Wonder is being open and responding to the miraculous. It results when you are carrying out your best and most authentic understanding in the service of your most powerful resolve toward what is needed. Wonder is present when you experience that instant of awe, a simultaneous combination of dread and excitement after which you seem to have a new appreciation of life.

The facilitative leader evokes drive, commitment, and creativity, being open to and eliciting wonder. Having a Sense of Wonder is a choice. It is looking at reality, with all its warts, and deciding it is worth the excitement. It is being open and responding to the miraculous. It is cultivating awe in day-to-day experience.

In Nausea (1969), Jean-Paul Sartre describes his protagonist, Antoine Roquentin’s, disgust in watching a glass of beer on a café table. Roquentin’s disgust is not with the beer, it is with himself, which leads him to realize there is no meaning to existence save that he exists. With the coming of this insight, he can choose how to act out that existence.

Keeping the capacity to be delighted by groups, events, and even ourselves is difficult in a time of skepticism and cynicism. Having a Sense of Wonder is being able to see possibility without succumbing to naïveté.

A Sense of Wonder is the nexus between Interior Council and Intentionality. Your Interior Council is about the past. It is tradition, your advisors, what you have read. It is those things from your own experience that you want to keep aware of, to keep alive. Wonder brings that past to bear on the present. The discipline of maintaining a Sense of Wonder informs you of who should belong to your council of internal advisors.

Intentionality is about the future. It is one’s desires about the future put into willing a difference. It is conceiving how to bring the new into practical form. A Sense of Wonder brings that potential future into the present moment. Wonder is the source of that future.


Rudolf Otto in “The Idea of the Holy” (1958) talks about a sense of wonder or sense of awe as a precognitive awareness that produces the simultaneous emotions of fear and fascination. The two interesting aspects of this definition are “precognitive” and “fear and fascination.” Precognitive is awareness that comes before you can think, before the category comes to mind that puts the experience into a box. It is that moment between the experience and the thought about the experience. The discipline is to pay attention to those instants and savor them.” (Jenkins and Jenkins, 2002, p. 8).

They are unbelievably common when you pay attention to them.

The simultaneous experience of fear and fascination is also part of the discipline. If fear overwhelms us, we flee or fight. If fascination overwhelms us, we indulge in the delight of the experience. The discipline is to broaden our capacity to experience both at the same time. While you cannot create this feeling of wonder, you can certainly be open to it. The one thing you can always expect is to be surprised.

Situations, buildings, mundane things like water and wind, even ourselves, all have the capacity to be wonder filled. The potential is always there. We have to train ourselves to participate in it. A paradox exists here. The miraculous seems to be present all the time, but its appearance is out of our control. We have to be open to it, and yet we can’t determine when it happens. If we are not open, then it surely will not happen. If we try to force it in to being, it will not happen.

Wonder is touching the not me, the unknown. Perhaps, it is being touched by the unknown. From childhood we carefully construct a world within which we live. We add to it as new experiences come along. Boulding points out that sometimes anomalies appear and we adjust our world or deny the reality of these extraordinary disruptions to our world. (Boulding, 1961) Thomas Kuhn makes the same point in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970). Scientific revolutions are the results of information that does not fit current theories over time erodes the viability of those theories until a break through happens and a new theory emerges. Like the resistance to change in an operating image that Boulding talks about there is also resistance within the scientific community to changes in theory. In both cases there is a sense of awe that frequently accompanies these moments.

Maintaining a sense of wonder also enables you to test for real life. If as contemporary physics and psychology say, we invent our own universe of meaning, then how can we distinguish what is real from what is simply our own creation? How do we avoid illusions? Perhaps we don’t.

Two tests seem available, however. One is to test our experience against that of others. This may introduce the problem of groupthink, in which we created shared illusions in a small group, as in the investigation of the Challenger disaster. We can create illusions as a whole society, such as M. Scott Peck described about the United States and Vietnam in People of the Lie (1983). Collective illusions are arguably better than individual ones. There is at least the possibility of interaction with others.

Another test for reality is the sense of awe. In the split second between an experience and our thoughts about it, reality intrudes. This is Rudolf Otto’s “precognitive” awareness. Whenever that gap appears, we know that something real has happened. The struggle here is making sense out of what the “real” was. In that moment we are freed from the old and from the world we ourselves have created.

If you keep your senses sharp, you yourself are simply amazing. Your good points, strengths, vices are not amazing in themselves and neither are your bad points, weaknesses, and virtues. The amazing part is that these things lie together, side by side.


Maintaining a Sense of Wonder is difficult today for a number of reasons. We don’t perceive or understand much of what is available to our senses. We try to put everything immediately into a box so that we don’t have to deal with it. We need to tap reserves of courage to do this work.

The Problem of Perception

Much of what is available for us to experience we miss completely. It is filtered out before it even registers. We would be simply overwhelmed with data if this were not so. We get used to things to the point that sensations do not register. The odor of the dog or cat, after a while, can’t be smelled unless we choose to. We walk down the street and our partner says, “Did you see that sign? (that haircut? that display?)” You hadn’t seen it. Trivial? Not really. What is unimportant to our operating image is often not even seen, heard, or registered. Sometimes what we disagree with we don’t see either.

We create understanding about what we are experiencing out of what we already know. Drawing on experience is important, even critical, to learning. This same ability can block coming to new conclusions. We draw conclusions with little data and often quickly, before we even are exposed to the whole experience. It is difficult to delay coming to conclusions as soon as possible.

When U.S. car manufacturers first visited Japanese factories, they reported that they had been shown fake factories, because there was no inventory. The only way to make sense of the lack of inventory they saw was to have an explanation consistent with what they knew (Senge, Scharmer, Jaworski, & Flowers, 2004). We do this because it helps us to understand and to deal with the world we live in.

It is one thing to delay closure and another to reopen our thinking after we have decided what something means. There are clues about when we need to rethink our understanding of something. When the same problem keeps coming back, we might want to look deeper into the situation. When we need to keep adding exceptions to the rules of how thing work, we might look at the assumptions we are making. When we are uncomfortable with something, when we have “it just doesn’t feel right” responses over time, we might look at the processes by which things are done. When we experience fear and fascination, we can know that the new is trying to break into our consciousness. There are lots of other clues, but none of them guarantee that something is wrong or needs to change.

The Control Box

A second reason for this incapacity to maintain a Sense of Wonder is that when we do experience awe, we tend to categorize the experience, to label it in an understandable way. We all have a need to control the world around us. Moments of wonder are out of our control; we did not create or schedule or influence them; they happen when and how they will, out of range of one’s agenda, strategic plan, budget, or even ability to manage. “Expect something wonderful to happen to you today!” could be a blessing or a curse. In either situation, you do not control it. Those of us who insist on living in a world that we control simply have to avoid the breakthrough of wonder into our lives—a heavy price to pay indeed!

We lose a great many insights by imposing an order that is not necessary. Harrison Owen (1990, p. 87) describes two approaches to creating walkways on a new university campus. The first way is that architects can plan them ahead of time as part of the overall campus design. What frequently happens once students begin to claim the campus is that pathways are worn into the grass on the routes that are especially convenient. These emerge from the way the campus is used—the route between popular classes and the café, for instance. Sometimes it is possible to forbid students to walk on the grass, to hold to the architect’s intended design.

Another way to approach the problem is to install no pathways when the campus is opened, and as pathways emerge to pave them over. This is more organic and in some ways more practical, but it means that the architect has to give up control of student traffic management. More accurately, it puts traffic management in the hands of the students.

Information and communication technologies have enabled us to control our work and lives much more than was the case even ten years ago, making our lack of control of nature more troublesome than ever. There is controversy today in areas like flood control and forestry and wildlife management. Forcing rivers into a single path can result in disastrous flooding. Allowing occasional brush fires to clear out underbrush may help prevent destructive forest fires. Allowing some predators to survive may cost the occasional sheep, but permit a healthier overall balance of ecology. In all of these matters, the value is control. We have grown to expect our lives to be very much in our control, and when they are not, it seems as if something is terribly wrong.

What if it weren’t a problem? What if that was just the truth of existence trying to tell you something more important than your current goal?

Courage Required

A third reason for the difficulty with maintaining a Sense of Wonder is that it requires courage. It is work, because in order to maintain an open stance we have to pay attention to details, dynamics, and patterns that we would not otherwise have been aware of. This is the discipline of setting aside one’s judgment in order to listen to what the universe has to say to us in a given moment. There is no guarantee of results.

Being open to new ideas and new experiences requires courage of several different kinds. We have to be ready to admit that our understanding of a situation may simply be wrong. This is the courage to be wrong. John F. Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage (1956) documents this dimension of courage. Of course, Kennedy demonstrated his own courage following the Bay of Pigs fiasco when the U.S. government sponsored the failed invasion of Cuba by anti-Castro Cubans and mercenaries. Kennedy took responsibility for authorizing it, when he could simply have transferred blame to the previous administration or the CIA.

There is also the courage to act. It is one thing to be aware of a mistake and to admit your part in it. It is another to point to someone else who was right. Finally, it is another sort of courage to turn around and move in a new direction.

One has to put himself or herself into a “corrected” frame of mind in order to move between acknowledging a mistake and acting to correct it. Often you hear people only go halfway; “Yes, I was wrong; that’s just the way I see things.” Then someone else steps in to address the problem in a new way. To go all the way means taking charge of a new approach to the same problem. This means going back to your assumptions and forcing yourself to change them to fit the reality that has intruded. This is a unique sort of courage.


“Facilitation is maintaining a sense of wonder about those we work with; it is dread and delight about the group that is currently in front of us. This discipline is appreciating the group and the individuals that make it up. It is also being conscious of their dis-relationships and being in a state of wonder about them” (Jenkins and Jenkins, 2002).

Being present to wonder requires that we be willing to set aside our known world and pay attention to the unknown and allow it to speak to us. Being facilitative, which is to say enabling groups, is greatly enhanced by this ability to keep in touch with wonder. Facilitators who are open to the experience of wonder and who can enable others to experience it are able to tap huge reserves of energy. They seem to be more aware and more effective. Creativity is released. People are motivated. Relationships are deepened. Trust is enhanced.

D. H. Lawrence (1964) in his poem, “New Heaven and New Earth,” points to how renewal of the spirit takes place. He begins with a sense of weariness. He is tired to the point of sickness because everywhere he looked he saw that he had corrupted it. He saw that he had corrupted everything, nature, machines, people, friends and foes. He was sick to the point of despair. He knew everything because he had polluted everything. All that was left was despair.

He then describes death and how that begins to relieve the weariness. At the end he dies. Nothing has meaning or purpose. All is gone. It is good to be put to death, to find yourself in the black, dead earth. It is good to be nothing, absolutely nothing.

He then points to the experience of wonder. At the moment of being trampled to death by constantly seeing yourself, you reach out. You touch something that is not you. A shock runs through you and a spark ignites and flame burst into existence. So you put your hand out a little further and it is true you are touching the unknown the truly unknown.

This is a moment of awe. (Lawrence, 1972)


In workshops that deal with and solve difficult problems, occasionally something takes place that is outside the experience of those present. There seems to be a period during which the problem is unsolvable; it is overwhelmingly complex or difficult. It seems impossible. We might keep up a brave face, but deep down we feel it is impossible.

In the process of looking for a solution, sometimes a comment is made or an idea expressed, and it is like a flicker of light in the darkness. Many people in the group may not see it or understand the potential of the idea, yet a few people do. These few may make comments or suggestions supporting the insight. This is a moment of wonder. The facilitator’s job is to enable the idea’s exploration and growth. There may be outright hostility toward the idea, which needs to be controlled until the idea is explored further. Naturally, these moments of insight do not automatically result in a good idea. The first idea may be unrealistic, but others often emerge because of the first moment.

A good facilitator pays attention to these moments and enables the group to see the idea’s potential and to give it space to prove its worth.


These experiences of wonder can be profoundly moving. You can sense excitement in a group that has had this kind of experience. Groups are inspired by them and are driven to creativity.

We once led a strategic planning workshop for the human resources staff of a large Dutch company. There were about fifty people working over three days. During the last session, the group created a 120-day timeline with people signing up for the twelve action arenas that had been identified. Everyone agreed to a role in the execution. By the end of the 120 days, every goal had been reached except one.


People who share certain kinds of experiences of wonder have a special sort of relationship. They have shared a moment of marvel. When they continue to work on the new reality that has emerged, their relationship deepens.

Trust is critical to organizational health. A person can be trustworthy but not trusted. Clearly trust is build on integrity, doing what you promise to do; consistency, applying standards to everyone equally; communicating clearly and regularly; not tolerating incompetence, bad behavior, and dishonesty in feedback; and confronting and dealing with painful situations. It is also built on creating those moments where meaning and purpose are obvious to everyone.

Jon worked with the corporate processes manager of a big multinational who had these traits of evoking trust. He was understated but decisive. He did not preach that people had meaningful work. He enabled them to see it for themselves. At staff meetings he asked, “What was the high point in the past week?” “What was the low point?” “What was it that made it high or low?” He would complement people for their contribution to the mission of the company in specific terms. Everyone that Jon talked to about this manager said they would work for him at any time and where.

For the facilitator, wonder may first be experienced as an intrusion. You had an image of the group or its task or yourself, and that understanding is challenged. You find yourself caught up in the excitement and fearsomeness of the challenge presented to you. Then you find yourself with a profound sense of respect of the source of the challenge. Finally, there is the sense that this is as good as it gets.


Like the other eight disciplines, this one has four levels. In this case they are encounter, entrapment, collegiality, and adoration. Having a Sense of Wonder comes from several directions. Sometimes it is experienced as wholly clear. Sometimes the past provides a source of wonder. Jon remembers one of his first walks in Rotterdam. There was a statue of a man with his arms raised in the air. He looked like something Picasso might have done—angular, distorted. There was a jagged hole chiseled out of his center. Jon’s friend explained that the statue was called The Hole and commemorated the bombing of Rotterdam by the Americans near the end of World War II. Thousands of Dutch civilians had been killed. Jon was hearing of this for the first time, and was in shock. It would have been easy to put distance between himself and what had happened; he was only three when the bombing occurred; mistakes are made in war; it was critical that the harbor be crippled in preparation for the invasion. Yet something is set free in being present to all that being an American is.

Sometimes it is the future that surprises us. We have all had the experience of hearing someone describe a future reality, perhaps a park, a building, and a new organization. It is hard to believe, and yet the energy of the speaker can bring us into the dream. All the more amazing is the experience of finding exactly that reality some while later, standing before us.

Sometimes we surprise ourselves. We do things we’ve never done before or thought we couldn’t or wouldn’t ever do. Our success can surprise us, and sometimes our own cruelty can be shocking.


The first level of a Sense of Wonder is the encounter with the mysterious. Jon was teaching a Training of Trainers course in Poland a few years ago. The participants were teachers in Polish business schools. Most of them had a great deal of experience with teaching, but that had meant lecturing. Very few interactive methods had been used. Even the lectures lacked much passion or effective communication with learners. One of the methods in Jon’s course was preparing and giving dramatic lectures. One of the participants was a woman in her mid-twenties, sophisticated, businesslike, and attractive. When it was her turn to lecture, Jon was looking forward to a masterful presentation. She stood up and seemed instantly to turn into a little girl flirting with Daddy. Her voice pitched higher, she giggled. Her posture turned into the hunch of a preteen caught doing something naughty. She was a completely different person, utterly unsuited to the workplace. Jon was stunned; he struggled to give feedback. How in the world could this happen to someone? Where in this woman’s experience did this bizarre self come from? This is the kind of thing that happens with the encounter. Suddenly you are facing something that is beyond your control or understanding. It can be a positive or a negative encounter, but it is inexplicable.

One day you wake up late and a bit distracted, dress hastily, and as you walk into the office, a colleague says, “Nice tie!” That’s a surprise; usually no one says anything about your clothes. You look down, and surprise again, it is a very nice tie! You chose it yourself! It seems like your whole existence has been approved.

At this level of the discipline, the issue is to be open to what is going on. The Polish woman seemed to represent a whole system of relationships between men and women in Eastern Europe. Jon felt challenged to do something. As he watched the presentation, Jon considered a myriad of options of how to respond. But the starting place was simply standing present to the amazing transformation he was witnessing.

The response to the encounter is paying attention and standing present to what is happening both externally and internally. Being present to the immediate moment and the historical context that created this moment is also part of standing present. Knowing that your own biases are also creating your understanding of the situation is important part of standing present.


The second level of Wonder is called the entrapment. This is the experience of no escape, nowhere to run to, and nowhere to hide.

There are always moments of encounter that we slip away from. It is unexpected but not really interesting. Sometimes, however, an encounter comes that really seems to have your name on it. You find yourself, for whatever reason, intrigued and bound. This mysterious moment is yours, and you are going to take it on, whatever it takes. This is the awareness that drives radical change, from improving one’s golf game to rebuilding an organization—an individual feels called upon to respond to what is happening. . . . This is really about me!

A few years ago our biggest customer was reorganizing, and our company’s role had been cut back by more than half. Our employees at the time were very upset. The cut in income meant that some employees who had never done acquisition before would have to begin to do so. No one’s position was as secure as it had been. We were holding meetings with the whole team to plan new directions for the company, but the mood was very negative. Two individuals had found jobs elsewhere, and those remaining were very angry. One day the office manager turned to Maureen and said, “You claim to be able to improve the quality of life in teams—how come your own team is such a mess?” Suddenly the difficult situation was more than just a quirk of fate to work through—it was about Maureen’s integrity. It began as an encounter with an unexpected business event but suddenly grabbed hold of Maureen. This is the level of the entrapment.

In the early 1970s we were part of a team developing a course called “New Individual and New Society.” As apprentice trainers, Jon and Maureen were accustomed to working with the youth subgroup, totaling about twenty people (the adults in the course numbered over a hundred). It was a weekend event running Friday evening through Saturday noon. On Saturday night, the head teacher asked that Jon do the morning lecture to the whole group.

Jon said he had never done that presentation before. Perhaps one of the more experienced trainers should do it. Jon suggested a number of alternatives, but the head teacher was having none of it. Jon said he thought he would be terrible, but the teacher kept insisting. Finally, out of excuses, Jon agreed. He got a pot of coffee, found his notes, and spent the rest of the night preparing a lecture.

The morning session was opened by one of the other trainers. Jon was next. He walked to the front of the room and looked over the largest group he had ever stood before. To his right was the exit door to the building. His mind was blank. He rattled his papers, looked at all the people, and again looked at the exit door thinking, “If I walk out that door I will never have to do this again!” Another thought came to him: the first sentence of his lecture. He looked at the participants and began to speak.

In that moment, between the two thoughts–one of leaving and one of starting, Jon moved from the level of entrapment to the level of collegiality.


This is the third level of the Sense of Wonder. Jon’s example of the eight or ten hours that transpired between being asked to do a lecture and completing it the next morning became for him a source of strength that has lasted a lifetime. It was a dreadful experience that has become a friend and companion.

What had been an experience of being trapped suddenly may turn into an experience of being honored by that which intruded and trapped you. You realize that if you had not had that intrusion, you never would have made the discovery that it brought you. You actually look forward to the next intrusion, albeit with a sense of some dread.

We did a strategic planning session with a training department of about a hundred people. When we got to identifying blocks, we omitted our customary emphasis on the distinction between a problem and a root cause. Though we ordinarily go into some detail on what comprises a root cause, we assumed these learning professionals would automatically look beneath appearances to search for root causes, and we just put the group directly to work, without much context. But what a shock when we got our evaluations! We got responses like “Lack of trained professionals” and “Lack of e-learning training.”

It was easy to blame the lazy participants, to blame the short workshop program, to blame ourselves for being incompetent facilitators. What we realized with reflection, however, was that we had been given a gift—a clear demonstration that our original approach had been right all along—no matter who the participants are, you have to seriously stress the difference between a problem and a root cause. Being inside of a problem can make even the most professional of us incompetent analysts. The realization didn’t help much with that workshop, but it indeed proved to be a blessing.

A few years ago, Jon was asked to do some training of facilitators in Serbia. The program was funded by USAID and was run by a private American development company. Jon arrived in Belgrade late the night before the program and stayed in one of the big hotels. He noted that the building, about twenty stories high, was burned. The next morning a driver arrived to pick him up, along with one of the community development officers. She had a degree in psychology and was quite articulate in English. The driver was funny and clever, and his English was understandable.

Along the drive, the officer and the driver pointed out various points of interest. Like much of Central Europe, there was a mixture of poverty and wealth, with the emphasis on poverty. One spot in particular was a bombed-out hospital. NATO had hit it during the war. This was at the end of ten years of sanctions that had reduced one of the better-off countries of Central Europe to a skeleton of its former self. Jon commented that they must despise NATO and the United States. They said they did, but that acting on that hatred would neither help them or their country.

During the three-hour drive to the course location, Jon’s understanding of the people of Serbia and their past dramatically changed. As in many situations, when you got beneath the public images to the actual people, a more complex and more hopeful reality emerged. There are both truly awful, self-serving individuals who have sway over much of public opinion, and at the same time there are wonderfully generous and great souls, looking for ways to restore Serbia to the world community in a responsible way.

Here was Jon who as an American was responsible for the destruction, hurt and anger he was witnessing. He found himself caught between guilt and blame. One part of him suggested succumbing to a sense of collective and historical guilt. His government had waged war on this small country; it had used 10 years of economic sanctions it knew would not work; and it failed these people at the end of WWII when Tito took over. At the same time Jon wanted to blame the Serbs for their destruction. Their national pride, their looking the other way when Croats, Bosnians, Kosovars and others were being butchered and their permitting malevolent leaders to act without checks, all made it inevitable that they would bring this suffering on themselves. Nether response was adequate. Between these two and the experiences he was having was something amazing.

Cultivating a Sense of Wonder is disciplining yourself to become open to these moments of challenge as friends, blessings in disguise that help you to deal with the world you live in.


At some point you realize that these moments of awe-filled transformation are more than colleagues. You realize you are not forced into these moments of awareness; it is a co-creation. Whatever it is that puts you into these moments is you yourself, your attitudes, your selfhood, your own responses, and who you are. It is this realization that is the level of the adoration; it is something you find yourself grateful for.

We use the term co-creation because what you do with these moments of awareness is your own choice. It is a continuing series of choices. An opportunity is offered by a situation in your life, you respond, the opportunity changes, you respond again, and so on. It is like an ongoing dialogue between friends. The ideas evolve as the dialogue continues.

There is no reason to be thankful for these challenges and affirmations that come as defining moments; you are just thankful. Other responses are possible, such as anger or resignation. The discipline increases the frequency of the times you are thankful. It increases the number of moments you are aware of. You find yourself more sensitive to the different kinds of awe.

In the adoration, the experience is that of connection. Suddenly you are connected to yourself, all of yourself, the things you hate the most and the things you are the most proud of. They make a single whole. You experience being connected to the past, all of it. The future and all of its all unrealized possibilities are all part of you. You and the other are united in a dance of co-creation.

The duality found at this level is reverence and humility in tension with confidence and courage. Joseph Campbell, in his classic work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), describes the moment of adoration with an Irish fable of the five sons of the Irish king Eochaid.

Fergus, Olioll, Brian, Fiachra and Niall went hunting one day. After some hours in the forest they found themselves lost and thirsty. They stopped to rest and the eldest Fergus went in search for water. After some time he found a well that is guarded by an old woman. She was an ugly hag. She was more than an ugly hag. She was covered with dirt from head to toe. Her teeth were rotten and green; her hair was matted with dirt, twigs and leaves. Her eyes were dim and runny. Her nose was of to one side and flattened against her face. Her skin was wrinkled, her arms bent and her hands knobby and claw like. Her bandy legs ended in huge fat ankles. Her feet were flat and shovel like. Her toenails were broken and jagged. A few were blackened. She reeked of rot, sweat and decay. She could be smelled from some distance away. In short, she was disgusting. Fergus greeted her and asked, “Are you guarding the well?” and she said, “It is.” He asked, “Would you give me permission to take some?” She replied, “I do. It will cost you a kiss on my cheek.” He said, “I will not! I would rather die of thirst than kiss you.” He then left, returned to his brothers and told them that he had not gotten water.

Olioll, Brian and Fiachra, went in search of water. They too found the well and the hag. They asked her for water but refused the kiss and so returned to their brothers without water.

Finally, Niall, the youngest brother went and came to the well. He yells out, “Give me some water, woman!” “I will give it and you will give me a kiss,” she replied. He answered, “Before I give you a kiss, I will give you a hug.” He went to her, bent over and gave her an affectionate hug and a kiss on the cheek. When he stepped back the there stood the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She walked with womanly poise. Her skin was smooth and without a flaw. Her eyes a pale blue that seemed hypnotic. Here teeth were like a string of matching pearls. Her mouth was red as rowanberry juice. Her arms were elegant; her hands smooth with long tapering fingers. Her legs were long and graceful. On her feet were sandals. She wore over her shoulders a crimson cape of the finest fleece closed with a silver brooch.

Niall asks who she was and she said she was “Royal Rule.” She grants him water, blesses him and explains that both as a hag and as a beauty she is Royal Rule, which requires a gentle heart to release the beauty in the hag.
In mythic form, this is the discipline of maintaining a Sense of Wonder. At this level, the humble and reverent heart can embrace even the most disgusting of situations, people, and problems.


We fail to have a Sense of Wonder unless we discipline ourselves to maintain it. We need to set aside our cynicism, our belief that the world is out to do us harm. We need to learn to see, to experience the awe that is available in every moment. We need to learn how to set aside our capacity to judge, to put things into boxes and learn how to appreciate the unknown. We need to learn to have courage, the courage to be open to the new, the courage to be wrong, and the courage to act to correct the wrongs we have made.

• • •

Practices for a Sense of Wonder

In the day-to-day living of a leader it is easy to forget the best reasons for choosing to be a leader of this specific group. It is easy to succumb to the various temptations we have talked about. Exercises and practices are ways of not only strengthening you capacity to act out of the discipline they also become rituals that remind you of the need for the discipline.

Expanding the context of the situation can enable you to see the relationship between what is happening and the world and times in which we live. It can be useful to ask yourself how the mystery, the depth, and the greatness of the group with whom you work is manifested (Jenkins and Jenkins, 2002).

When one of these procedures is done once as a way of bringing awareness to a group it is an exercise. When these are done regularly with a group they are then a practice. We are putting it in the practices part of the chapter but it could have gone to the exercise part also, depending on how it is used. Each practices following would be done in a regular routine.


The most obvious practice related to the discipline of the Sense of Wonder is contemplation. One might focus attention on an object, such as a flame or a stone. One might focus on an idea, a saying or a Zen koan. Sit in a comfortable position. Focus your mind on the idea or object. View your focus from several perspectives in your mind. Think of its history or formation. Just look at it. Think of nothing else.

One other approach to this is called a Spirit or Consciousness Conversation. These are done in groups wherein there is already a reasonably high level of trust. The conversation is about something thoroughly mundane and everyday such as cats, stairs, fire, or water. The conversation is an exchange of experiences about the topic, exploring its impact on our lives from several perspectives. The following is an example of how a conversation about water might go. Notice that the leader is not aimed at analyzing the topic, but rather inviting participants to tell about their own experiences of Wonder.

  Leader: Sometimes water can be so beautiful. When have you ever experienced water as beautiful? I remember when I was a teenager; my family was camping near Mount Lassen in California. We were walking along a stream, toward its source. As we went around a bend, there was a waterfall sparking in the afternoon sunshine that filtered through the evergreens. It was only 9 or 10 feet high, 3 meters or so, but fairly wide. It fell through rocks and small plants that clung to the side of the cliff. It sparkled and danced. Water at that moment was simply beautiful. When have you experienced the beauty of water?
  Participant 1: I remember sitting on a beach watching the waves come in and slowly retreating as another wave broke. There were so many colors in the water. It was breathtaking.
  Participant 2: When I was a kid we used to go to a lake every summer. We stayed in a cabin. Late at night we would walk along the shore to look at the moon’s reflection, as it seemed like a pathway to heaven.
  Leader: Sometimes water can taste so good. Not necessarily what comes out of the tap, but water can taste so good at the end of a hot day. I was traveling with my family when I was ten or twelve, driving from Los Angeles to Taos, New Mexico. We had a 1954 Pontiac, no air conditioning. My father hung a canvas sack filled with water on the bumper to keep it cool as we drove through the dessert heat of 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 degrees centigrade). After a couple of hours we stopped and had a drink. It was so cool and delicious. When has water tasted great to you?
  Participant 1: When you drink from a clear mountain stream. It tastes like the forest, but it is great.
  Participant 4: There is nothing like a huge glass of water in the morning after a night of drinking. It makes a huge difference.
  Participant 3: I grew up on a farm. Sometimes we would be in the fields and in the middle of a summer afternoon my mother would bring a cooler filled with jars of water.
  Leader: Sometimes water can be frightening. I’m sure you have all seen the horrific pictures of the tsunami last year. When I was in the Navy I made a couple of trips to the Mediterranean. I was in what is called an LST–Landing Ship Tank. It was about 600 feet long and carried trucks and Jeeps on the main deck and tanks below. While crossing the Atlantic on the way back we were caught by the edge of a hurricane. I remember standing in the wheelhouse watching waves cover the front half of the ship as we crashed up and down. The water that covered the deck was blue-green and several feet deep. I was terrified. Have you ever had an experience of water that was frightening?
  Participant 2: In a water safety program I took one time I had to jump from a platform about 20 feet above the water. We were to jump feet first, cross our legs and cross our arms holding onto the life jacket. The thought of hitting the water scared me to death.
  Participant 4: I also did safety training. In our case we had to practice escaping from a helicopter. We got into the cabin of a simulated helicopter. It would drop into the water, float for a few seconds, roll over and sink. We had to get out of the cabin. The disorientation of the crash and rolling over combined with panic. Because of the pressure of water rushing in, you were supposed to wait to get out until the cabin was completely full of water, but your panic was so strong that it was very difficult to learn.
  Participant 2: I was once caught in a riptide when I was swimming. It sort of grabbed me. I was pulled under and rolled over and over. I knew I should relax and then I would float to the surface, but I kept starting to panic as I ran out of breath and thought I was going to die. Then I floated suddenly to the top, broke the surface and was safe.
  Leader: When have you seen water being destructive? When I was twelve or thirteen we lived on a hillside in South San Francisco. Our row of houses was the topmost row. Behind our house you could walk up to the top of the mountain. One spring we had a mudslide. A sort of thick stew poured off the mountain, rocks, trees, dirt, and water. It missed our house, but the next four below us were all hit. The gardens disappeared; the fences were tossed aside, the mud pushed open doors and filled rooms. Everything was pushed downhill. When have you experienced water as destructive?
  Participant 3: One time I watched a flash flood run through a village. It carried buildings, cars, and everything. People scrambled to escape.
  Participant 4: My old house and its rotting roof is a testament to the horrendous damage a little leak here or there can do if you let it go. It’s amazing!
  Leader: Water is such an everyday thing. They say our bodies are 95 percent water. We can’t live without it. It is both life giving and so destructive.

Naturally a dialogue like this feels artificial, but the exercise is clear. The aim is to build together an appreciation for some mundane aspect of existence.

Group Context

Another exercise related to the Sense of Wonder has to do with the content you give to groups with whom you are working. You might begin with the vision/mission statement of the group. You might begin a discussion about what the group does to contribute to their company. Ask them to view this beyond the work process relationships, to include social, cultural, and other aspects of their relationship with the company. Shift the focus then to the company. What does the company contribute to society? Products and services surely, but what else does it contribute? Things may come up like taxes, training, stability of the community, and so on. A final question could be, “If an historian of the future were describing the company’s most important contribution to the world, what might they say?”

The aim here is to look with a Sense of Wonder even at the everyday relationships in which we work, to recast our relationships in a new light.

• • •

Exercise for a Sense of Wonder

Mindful Music

We pay heavily for our busy, harried lives. One cost of our distracted lives is that we rarely take time to appreciate what is around us: the wonders of nature, events that happen to us, even everyday pleasures like eating and listening to music. We rarely give these things the opportunity to offer their full benefits. Likewise, we miss the stunning mystery, depth, and greatness of our colleagues, participants, and of ourselves.

In this exercise we focus on a piece of music, to try to appreciate what is there. You want to develop not only concentration but also greater sensitivity and clarity of awareness. Listen as carefully as you can. Try to catch the subtleties you may have missed before: the delicate notes, the background rhythms, and the emotions that arise in you. Try to hear with all of your senses; feel the vibration, taste, and see the sound in all of its glory.

This is an individual exercise. Any music can be used, but you might try beginning with something classical. Sit or lie comfortably and take a moment to relax. Then listen and enjoy as fully as you can. Periodically you will find your mind is adrift in fantasies and that you were largely oblivious during the last few minutes. When that happens, simply return your attention gently, just as in meditation, but this time focus on the music instead of the breath.

A way to help yourself to focus on this exercise is to take a large sheet of paper and a box of colors. As you hear the music, choose the main color the piece brings to mind. As you hear the music, draw what the music beings to mind.

Think back over what you have just done.

• What do you remember from this exercise?
• What did you notice about the music?
• What were some of the emotions you felt during this exercise?
• What was different in this music from most music you listen to?
• What was different in your listening?
• What or whom in your life could use your appreciation?
• How might you practice that?

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