WOW — the wonder of being human

A book review to find my spark

Some books create magical fantasy worlds that readers are instantly ferried away to escape from the harsh reality of this world, but not this book.

No, I’m not talking about a work of fiction.

Rather, it is a work of cold, hard science that really gave me pause and much joy to appreciate the wonders of being human.

The mystery of consciousness explained

In Soul Dust, Nicholas Humphrey takes on the seemingly insurmountable challenge to explain the why of consciousness. Consciousness is one of the biggest mysteries of science: how is it possible to reconcile mere physical interaction in our nerve cells and brain with the fully subjective, immersive, sensual feeling of qualia so intricately tied to our core sense of being? How did consciousness come about? Why does consciousness exist?

Taking logical arguments from evolutionary science, Humphrey posits an instrumental rationale for consciousness. Given that consciousness evolved with natural selection, it must serve an evolutionary purpose that improves our chance of survival as a species. It must give us an added advantage to preserve life.

What if consciousness is Mother Nature’s secret sauce that makes ‘life more worth living’? This state of phenomenological consciousness — this appreciation of rich sensory absorption — gives us an additional adaptive function for ‘being in love with the universe’.

Our subjective state of consciousness allows us to delight in this joy of living — the beauty in the everyday living; it elevates our physical existence into one that is fully all-absorbing, life-affirming, sacred and precious. We find our inspiration to explore, to be curious, to want to learn more about the world, because the world is experienced with great beauty and joy.

“I feel, therefore, I am”

Phenomenology as philosophy

To me, this is an incredibly radical and refreshing take. It sits very much at the core of finding my WOW, precisely because it is the WOW, the appreciation of everyday transcendence that breathes new life in me. It places my essence as a human being with the emphasis on being.

Perhaps it is the last year of lockdowns, the mundane-ness of daily living, the feeling of languishing, the moments of loss and grief that has made “Soul Dust” a refreshing and uplifting book to read. I’m slowly embracing phenomenology as philosophy — the celebration of the A W E S O M E experience of being alive, because being alive is simply wonderful and phenomenal.

Phenomenology — yes it is a big word — but the root of the word “phenomenal” captures for me the feeling of embracing my sensations, my body, my present, my presence. Advocates of phenomenology includes the likes of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the 20th-century French philosopher, who wrote of the importance of adopting an ‘attentiveness and wonder’ towards the world.

What does that look like for me? Moments like laughter at the dinner table, enjoying the slow fade of dusk, grooving to a good beat, marinating in a new idea, drinking milk and eating cake — these are my everyday moments I want to celebrate and appreciate with family and loved ones.

Come *dance* with me/ or just make me laugh

Can I just say how incredibly freeing this mindset can be?!

There are so many ways to be in the world, there are so many ways to be known. I can draw on ascriptive identity markers like ethnicity and nationality (as a Chinese-Singaporean female — a hyphenated identity that encapsulates family histories and geographies), I can draw on faith and religion (a 2nd-gen Christian who finds much resonance in universal-Humanist principles), I can draw on purpose and values (egalitarian principles for a more inclusive world); others may draw on my credentials and work.

Yes, the drive to create, the quest of legacy, the desire to make the world a better place — these are valuable principles that underpin a lot of my work and those of the people around me.

But as the wise Pixar’s Soul reminds us, our purpose need not be our spark.

As I wonder in what it means to be human, this is a reminder to be kind to myself. Yes I may have purpose, I may have this desire to do, but I don’t always need to be doing.

Sometimes, I can just be.

Be present, be still, be curious, be amazed. To appreciate life-affirming moments of daily living — that is my spark that gives me the zest for life, that keeps me going.

Here’s my invitation for you to consider the following.

Keeping the WOW alive

The challenge I have, and I think the challenge for many of us, is — it is so easy to lose this WOW. How then can we create rituals of daily practice to keep our WOW alive?

  • What practices can we take to bring more pauses into our lives?

For me, I’m trying to be a morning person just so that I can have a slower start to my day (still on the struggle bus on some days, but) on days that I wake up early, I can have a longer time to sip on my coffee, and soak in the morning sunshine, hear the birds chipring before starting the day.

  • How can we evoke multiple sensations/ engage our full body in daily living?

For me, this means finding hobbies that doesn’t require screen time. This could be revisiting my childhood hobbies of playing the piano, doing art, or learning new skills like yoga, bouldering. Especially during the lockdown, I had to remind myself to carve out time, to do something different, to engage my body differently beyond screen time.

  • How can we embrace time differently?

As a graduate student, time for me tends to be fractured and fragmented. Time was seen to be instrumental — and transactional in moments. For me, reframing time as a continuous dilation of the present has been incredibly helpful and timeful.

Would love to hear from you — let me know how this resonates (or not)





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Dora Heng

Recovering economist passionate about global development and being human in an age of technological disruption