Magical Presence vs Cognitive Wonder
Observations on aging
It's a strange property of aging that while the 'magic' of day-to-day experiences fade, my appreciation for them grows.
Take national parks. I imagine myself at 8 years old, running through the shallows of Mirror Lake at Yosemite or walking out of a tent cot in the mornings watching fog blow out of my mouth. There was a certain sparkle in my vision, in the air, in the moment. I was completely there. I was nowhere else. I was fully plugged into the present moment, but in a childlike, happy, electric kind of flow-statey kind of way. All experience was art, and I was the artist. I’ll call this feeling “magical presence.”
When I visit Yosemite today, I trundle up and take it in, and while the beauty is breathtaking, it’s not this electric atmosphere I'm wading through - rather, I feel a deep appreciation of the beauty of the environment that touches my heart. It's a contemplation of how the valley was created through millions of years of Earth's natural forces. It's the disbelief at the size of El Capitan. It's gratitude that I'm privileged enough to live in California and be able to experience this view not once, but anytime I have a free weekend. I’ll call this feeling “cognitive wonder.”
The wonderful part about magical presence is that it's not context-dependent. Sure, I experienced it in national parks, but I also experienced it in watching droplets slide down the car window during a rainstorm, or in playing with sticks in the dirt (I was a very imaginative kid). It's just more continuous with day-to-day life. I didn't know I was experiencing magical presence as a kid because I was just in it.
But magical presence is also not in my control. I either felt it, or I didn't. The experience was transient in an unreliable way, though as an adult I’ve found that mindfulness can certainly make this happen more frequently.
Cognitive wonder, on the other hand, is far more controllable. Contemplating something beautiful can be an intentional effort. It might involve taking the time to learn about the history or mechanism of the subject, but it’s more deterministic. It's also communicable to others - by explaining to them what you're thinking, you can bring them into cognitive wonder as well. But it takes work to learn about something in this way, and sometimes, it’s more relaxing to just turn your mind off.
As I grew up, I saw this slow transition from magical presence to cognitive wonder play out in many areas of my life. Listening to music, spending time with my loved ones, playing sports, reading books, and more. I'm not sure why one displaced the other over time. Maybe my cognitive ability to understand the scarcity of wonderful things makes me treasure them in a way I couldn't at a younger age, and my mind is also dealing with more and more problems at once, leading to less present-mindedness and room for magical presence.