How to Feel Alive Again

a book review of Katherine May’s book, Enchantment

It all started with a Post-it note. “Go for a walk,” it said, the no-nonsense command perched in a prominent spot above Katherine May’s desk.

Katherine May, a British author who wrote the best-selling memoir “Wintering” about a fallow and difficult period of her life, had come across more hard times during the height of the pandemic. She was bored, restless, burned out. Her usual ritual — walking — had fallen away, along with other activities that used to bring her pleasure: collecting pebbles, swimming in the sea, savoring a book. “There was nothing that made the world feel interesting to me,” Ms. May said in a recent interview with The New York Times. “I felt like my head was kind of full and empty at the same time.”

In Ms. May’s latest book, “Enchantment,” she describes how a simple series of actions, like writing that note, helped her to discover little things that filled her with wonder and awe — and, in turn, made her feel alive again. “You have to keep pursuing it until you get that tingle that tells you that you’ve found something that’s magical to you,” Ms. May said. “It’s trial and error, isn’t it?” We asked Ms. May for tips on how you can do the same.

Commit to noticing the world around you

“We have to find the humility to be open to experience every single day and to allow ourselves to learn something,” Ms. May wrote in “Enchantment.” This, she acknowledges, “is easier said than done.”

“Let yourself go past those thoughts that tell you it’s silly or pointless or a waste of time, or you’re far too busy to possibly do this,” Ms. May said during the interview. “Instead give yourself permission to want that in the first place — to crave that contact with the sacred, and that feeling of being able to commune with something that’s bigger than you are.” Entering a state of wonder is akin to using a muscle, Ms. May said. Put yourself in that mind-set more often and it gradually becomes easier.

First, you must “give in to the fascination” that you feel in everyday moments. For example, Ms. May gets “really excited” when she sees light dance across the surface of her coffee. Don’t force it, though. The key, she said, is to keep looking for the things that make you marvel — and have faith that you will encounter them. What you find pleasurable might be quite simple: Ms. May has often felt awe when examining a small bug in her garden. “We’ve told ourselves that everything needs to be so big,” she said. “Actually, we can just breathe out and live quite small lives.”

Ask yourself one simple question

Instead of thinking about what you find enchanting, which may feel too difficult to answer, Ms. May suggests asking yourself a different question: What soothes you?

It might be going on a walk. Or visiting an art museum. Maybe you enjoy watching the shifting clouds. Whatever it is, find a way to do it. Every morning, Ms. May goes outside and smells the air “like a dog,” she said with a laugh. She notices the color of the sky and the way her skin feels against the cool air.

For some people, that soothing moment might be found in a place of worship, or while staring at the moon. “The moon is so beautiful, and when you look at the moon you can’t help but notice the stars and the planets that are out in the night sky,” said Ms. May, who observes the phase of the moon regularly. “It’s just a lovely, lovely thing to do. Every day. And it’s so easy.”

Contemplate and reflect in your own way

If you want to spend more time in personal reflection but you are concerned about doing it the “right” way, set aside that concern. When Ms. May was learning to meditate, for instance, she aimed to do so twice a day for 20 minutes, but not before or after sleep, and never after a meal. Then she became a mother and finding the time to meditate became more difficult. “You come to a point in your life when you think, ‘This is just simply impossible,’” she said. “For a long time I thought, ‘I’ve failed. Obviously I should be able to do this.’”

Eventually, she had a realization: The problem wasn’t that she hadn’t tried hard enough, it was that those rules weren’t made for her. They had been created by someone who had never walked in her shoes. Now she meditates in a different way. Sometimes she does it for five minutes in the middle of the night, or while walking through the woods. “For me, it’s never been about clearing my mind,” Ms. May said. “It’s about undertaking the kind of slower work of processing all of those things that are itching at the back of your brain.”

Do it because it feels good

People tend to think that seeking pleasure for pleasure’s sake is somehow naïve, Ms. May said. In other words, we are more likely to assign worth to things that are considered practical and efficient. But you don’t need a set of data or another compelling reason to do something that brings you joy. For example, one of Ms. May’s hobbies is cold water swimming. She doesn’t do it to burn calories. Rather, it’s for “the sheer pleasure of being in that incredible space,” she said, not to mention “how sensual it is, and the amazing happy hormones it releases.”

And although Ms. May initially took a beekeeping class to learn how to make honey at home, this goal became less urgent when she became filled with awe as a student. “I could still, technically, do that, but I realize now that this is never what I really wanted,” Ms. May wrote in “Enchantment.” The enjoyment of it all — the connection with her teachers and classmates, the sensory delights — surpassed any practical ambitions. “I want to take it slowly, to absorb my lessons through the skin and the ears, to sometimes get stung,” she wrote of the experience. And she described the wonder she found in the class: “They are so loud when they all sing together, and with the smell of honey and propolis, the smoke, the way the whole box vibrates under your hands, it is quite absolute, this interaction of human and bee.”

Christina Caron is a reporter for the Well section at The New York Times, covering mental health and the intersection of culture and health care. 

Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age by Katherine May