wise words

Sophie Haruna Klimcak
on Finding Awe and Wonder
by Sandra Yeyati

Sophie Haruna Klimcak , photo courtesy of Wild Awake
photo courtesy of Wild Awake

Sophie Haruna Klimcak is the co-founder and program director of Wild Awake, a nonprofit in San Francisco. Drawing from her Japanese and Eastern European roots, she designs immersive, nature-based learning experiences that nurture deep caring for people and the planet. Klimcak holds a master’s degree in education from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education and bachelor’s degrees in philosophy, neuroscience and psychology from Washington University, in St. Louis.

Whether in an after-school setting with children or an outdoor adventure among adults, she and her team of naturalists, artists and healing practitioners invite people to mindfully gaze at the stars, invigorate the senses with ocean sound-baths, experience healing and community in a song circle, build empathy and connection through storytelling, and express creativity by painting with botanical pigments.

What inspired you to start Wild Awake?
In the summer of 2020, my co-founder Shasha Du and I took a weeklong trip to Joshua Tree National Park. Every night we experienced this feeling of awe and wonder and reverence as we stared up at this stunning night-sky portal of infinite space and blazing stars. On the last night, we brought binoculars and stayed up to see the comet NEOWISE. At 4 a.m., it appeared on the horizon—this icy rock moving toward the sun and releasing all these gases behind it in a glorious paintbrush streak—and we literally screamed and held each other because we had never seen anything like that before. As educators, we decided that we wanted to keep those feelings alive in our hearts, and design for awe and wonder in learning.

You don’t have to travel to places like Joshua Tree or see a comet to experience wonder and awe. With the right amount of mindfulness and attention, everything is worthy of such appreciation—our backyards, our houses, everything. Feeling a sense of wonder requires us to take time to appreciate the textures of something in its entirety and realize where it might have been sourced from and how it’s supporting us and we’re supporting it—remembering that we’re interconnected. We offer local experiences to help people see that magic exists where they live.

How do you define the learning process?
Learning is super-creative, constructive, collaborative and social. The best kind of learning is when you’re following a thread of your own intuition and asking questions that are joyful for you. They’re not questions someone told you to ask. You’re building your own worlds by a process of inquiry. I think wakefulness comes from bringing that attention to whatever it is that you want to go deeper into.

How do you help people awaken to that learning spirit?
One of our most experiential offerings was a wildflower therapy workshop, which brought people in community to see the superblooms in the Bay Area. To make this a wonder-based experience, I created this little booklet for a mindfulness walk, inviting folks to choose one flower to develop a relationship with over the course of an hour and a half. The booklet had multisensory prompts to deepen that relationship, and I asked them to record a conversation with their flower. When do people stare at a flower that long, right? But it does wonders, helping you move a little bit slower in the world. The next time they walk by flowers, they’ll notice them in a different way because they took intentional time to develop a relationship to local flora and to their own joy and wonder. Little steps like these can be radical in developing a love for what we may lose if we don’t protect and care for this world.

Can you describe one of your favorite programs?
Living in San Francisco with the bay surrounding us, we are always in a relationship with the ocean. It cools the planet, making it livable for us; it’s an amazing place to play and enjoy water sports; and it nourishes us through seafood. So, we designed a program that takes folks out to forage for seaweed.

It’s not about filling our buckets with as much seaweed as possible, but rather bringing mindfulness to the experience. We marvel at the diversity of seaweed; you can see dozens of different kinds along our shoreline. People are curious about what makes seaweed a certain color or how it nourishes us. We learn how to harvest seaweed from rock in a way that it can regenerate and grow more seaweed. We make an offering to the ocean, saying, “Thank you,” remembering our mutual reciprocity.

What advice do you have for people that want to connect with nature?
One of the most accessible ways of connecting to nature is by connecting to your own body. Putting one hand on your belly and one hand on your heart and noticing your breath can really help you drop into that space of deep calm and deep knowing. If you can, find your local dark sky and go out to see the stars. Look at the moon. Notice the way planets and stars move through the sky. Or, notice a leaf or a flower and be in a relationship with it by noticing it over time, returning to it and seeing how it has changed and how you’re changing inside, too.

Sandra Yeyati is the national editor of Natural Awakenings. 

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