Katherine May is podcaster and New York Times bestselling author. Her writing has appeared in a range of publications including the New York Times, The Times (London), Good Housekeeping, and Cosmopolitan.
Below, Katherine shares 5 key insights from her new book, Enchantment: Awakening Wondering in an Anxious Age. Listen to the audio version—read by Katherine herself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Enchantment is investigative.
In the middle of the pandemic, I found myself feeling impossibly flat. I felt a bit like my toothbrush when it’s run nearly out of batteries and I switch on the button and it just gives me the most feeble buzz possible. There were many reasons for that feeling. It was partly because I’d spent a long time outside of my community and outside of all the stimulating things that come with having community. I also hadn’t had enough time to be on my own because I was around family. But there were also many other causes, like years and years of the world feeling like it was grinding against me. Many of us carry the sense that what we thought was a familiar society has become a very unfamiliar one, and one we don’t feel comfortable in, one that’s very conflict-ridden, much more stressful than we realized, and hard to find our place in.
But equally, as we left the series of lockdowns, I also didn’t want to go back to my same old self. I didn’t want to go back to some of the habits that I’d had before the pandemic, like always rushing around too much. This led me to feel this profound sense of dislocation. What do I do now? How do I live a good life? Enchantment’s purpose was to investigate that.
What I found was that I needed to acknowledge the level of change that had happened, and to unlearn some bad old habits and relearn some new ones. One of the big things for me was rebuilding a spiritual relationship with the world again one that I perhaps had never fully allowed myself to experience. I longed for a spiritual relationship that could nourish me, sustain me, and offer me comfort even when times were hard. This wasn’t about having some nice extras to life that were pointless. This was actually about how I survive and stay able to carry on taking good action in the world, because I’m rested enough, soothed enough, and I’ve made space to reflect on the things that matter.
Enchantment is the word that I came to use to explain that exact feeling of being in a fluid questing engagement with the world around me. Enchantment, particularly the natural world, allows me to express the fullness of my creativity, my wonder, my awe, and my fascination. And that is a quality that I think we all need in this very strange 21st century.
2. Enchantment is curious and different for everybody.
During the journey of finding enchantment, I needed to start noticing my curiosity again in order to lead me into relationships that were much deeper and richer. But I didn’t really know how to do that. I felt very far away from feeling any desire at all. I kept thinking about how easy it had been in my childhood. As a child, I could spend hours with my little collection of rocks holding them in my hands, finding them beautiful, playing with them, but also thinking about how they were formed and what that meant, feeling that enormous timescale that they were created over and truly reckoning with that in my mind.
“It begins with noticing what matters to us, and then acting on it.”
As I moved towards adulthood, it wasn’t that the level of fascination left me naturally. It was more that I began to feel embarrassed about it and that I deliberately put it away as something that didn’t seem very useful to me anymore. It didn’t seem very practical or very grown-up. Now, in my forties, I’m mourning it, and wishing that I still had that same fascination. So I wondered how I could get it back.
That meant learning to follow the lines of my curiosity again, which took some time. I did things like going out for walks, standing by the sea, and trying to feel that pull again towards wonder. It came back slowly, but surely and it took practice. It required exercise, like a muscle. In order to do that, I needed to think about what attracted me personally.
Enchantment is different for everybody. Everybody is pulled towards different qualities. It might be music, it might be art, it might be swimming in the sea, it might be climbing a mountain, it might be stargazing. There are so many different ways that we can feel this connection, and many of us will feel it in different ways. It begins with noticing what matters to us, and then acting on it. We need to feel that pull, and carry on the exploration, letting ourselves feel fascinated by something and nurturing that quality of deep immersive attention that lets us truly engage with something. It requires putting aside the idea that that’s in some way superfluous or pointless.
3. Enchantment is humble.
So much of our sense of enchantment is about understanding how small we are within much greater systems. A big example would be a walk along the beach. I often walk down to the beach and stand by the quayside when the tide’s gone out. When I do that, I can see just how far the tide comes in, just how far above my head it will end up sitting when it’s in. I really love to try and calculate the volume of water that’s rolling in and out every single day. That takes me into this incredible space quite quickly where I realize how enormous the world is.
On one hand, it’s a trite insight, but on the other, it’s something that we can feel at a cellular level and really understand that we are part of a much, much bigger machinery. I feel the same way when I spend time looking at the moon in my back garden at night. None of these things require me to travel very far. Our sense of enchantment doesn’t live somewhere far away and exotic that we’ve got to go on a mission to find. It’s actually there all around us in whatever we want to engage our attention in.
“Our sense of enchantment doesn’t live somewhere far away and exotic that we’ve got to go on a mission to find.”
What we need to do is to choose to engage that attention, and we can see the evidence of just how small we are. When we realize that we’re small, we can see ourselves in context with the rest of the world, and we can understand what an enormously wild and amazing thing humanity is. We also understand part of how enormously wild and amazing nature is. I used to feel unsettled by that thought. I used to feel worryingly insignificant. But as I grow older, I feel deeply comforted by it. I love feeling like I’m a cell or an atom rather than someone that the weight of the world rests on.
4. Look for the stories.
Enchantment on its own is all very well, but we need to allow it to make meaning for us as we walk through our lives. Some of that meaning has been made already by our ancestors and the other people around us. It’s always useful to engage with the stories that already exist.
If I’m traveling to a new place or looking for something when I’m feeling a bit lost, I go out looking for the stories that have already been told around me. That might be the mythologies that have been already made around my local landscape. For example, the ghost stories that people tell or the ancient myths that have fed into our place names or the names of our streets. I love to go to things like local museums and pick up guidebooks in bookshops because often they will tell us about how other people have created meaning in the landscape around them. They’re often found in families too. The way that families talk about themselves is a way of mythologizing.
Stories are the way that we as humans come to not just understand ourselves, but process complex feelings and create a sense of the sacred, a sense of our values being imbued in everyday life. One way to find enchantment is to go out looking for those stories, to understand the meaning of what we’re experiencing, and to add to that. We can create stories of our own and make sure we pass them on, becoming storytellers and family mythologizers. That way the next generation can imbue their own worlds with those values too.
5. Enchantment is a practice rather than a one-off experience.
I think if I left this world with any mission having been completed, it would be to convince the world that they need to learn to never stop being a learner. The glory of humanity is in that sense of questing. The glory is in that desire to keep building and growing, adding new insights, and finding new things while consolidating knowledge by sharing and enriching it.
If we are to learn to be enchanted, we can’t do it once. We have to keep coming back to it over and over again. We have to keep exercising that muscle, renewing our fascination, and expanding our view to fill a wider part of the world.
“It takes determination, consistency, and faith.”
How do you undertake this practice? Well, you just keep on noticing. Enchantment comes to us when we deliberately turn our attention to something that we find beautiful or fascinating and when we contemplate it. That practice is really about making time, every single day, to notice what is attracting that attention and to feed that attraction with even greater attention.
As with so many things, practice is really hard. It takes determination, consistency, and faith. We shouldn’t expect ourselves to come to this as perfect learners or as perfect practitioners of noticing. We need to be able to let ourselves fail sometimes, to let ourselves stray off the path, and to gently guide ourselves back in. This can only happen through gentleness.
Enchantment is not a competitive process. It will shrink away from you if you apply force to it. It’s a practice that demands your gentle, kind, and loving attention on yourself as well as the attention on the world around you.
Go out every single day just for a few seconds, take a breath, and ask yourself, “What is making you feel interested right now? What feels wonderful to you? What seems beautiful to you? What don’t you know about that you’d love to understand?”
Since engaging in this process, I’ve noticed more and more how inaccurate my knowledge is of the natural world. For example, I didn’t really know how the tides worked, even though I thought I did. After looking that information up, I now find them even more deeply fascinating for understanding them better. I noticed that I couldn’t name many of the stars in the sky, and I’m still working on that, but it does give me a greater orientation when I look out at night. I noticed that I knew the names of very few plants and flowers, and that actually I couldn’t name as many trees as I thought I could. Now when I go out walking, I rehearse the names that I already know, and I make a note to look up the plants that I don’t know the names of.
That enhances my well of possibility when I’m looking to feel enchanted. It makes that process much more natural to me. It means that it comes to me because I can’t help but notice the things I know and it makes the things I don’t know more obvious. Ultimately, it makes me a kinder teacher to other people, because I now feel deep compassion for how little we know. I can now share that knowledge much more gently and kindly.
To listen to the audio version read by author Katherine May, download the Next Big Idea App today: