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The Awesome Gift of “AWE”

“Awe is found in noticing the nature of things.”

I cannot remember where I read or heard that, but I made a note because it felt like truth.


Once when my children were little, we took a family trip to Japan. What I found so profound about our experience there was how the Japanese people we met approached life with such reverence. We met a noodle maker. By that I mean his whole life was making noodles; waking up at 4 am each day to grind by hand various grains into various sizes and textures of flour from which he made a variety of noodles. His hands were hard and calloused from decades of grinding grain. He showed us the stones he used for grinding, the variation in the grain, how he prepped and cut the noodles, and then he created a delicious 6 course meal for us composed entirely of noodles.


The thing is, you might imagine as I did, that someone doing the same thing day after day for decades would get bored, but noodle guy was far from that, he loved talking about and helping us notice the nature of grain as well as how it created different kinds of noodles. He was fascinated by it and lead us all (including my 4- and 7-year-old girls) to be fascinated by it too. We all left in AWE of the process of noodle making, the noodle guy, as well as his joy in life.


During the same trip we engaged in some other cultural traditions: one was a tea ceremony, and the other an Ikebana which is the Japanese art of flower arrangements. Both traditions had strict rules, a formality and preciseness with which they were done. What that required from someone participating, I realized, was a sense of presence and reverence; Deeply noticing each thing and being aware and intentional about each movement. I remember during the Ikebana ceremony, I sat in front of a vase on the ground with my legs tucked under me as the guide explained to me how the water in an ikebana was always filled just to the rim creating a domed surface of water. I was then handed branch by branch, one at a time, and told to place each carefully in the vase while thinking about what that branch represented. The ceremony was a simple one, but it overwhelmed me with a deeply transcendent sense of something bigger that literally brought me to tears. Until this day, I believe that Ikebana ceremony has been the most spiritual experience of my life. I understand now, it was awe.


One of the foremost researchers on the topic of Awe, David Keltner (2016), defines awe as the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your frame of reference, either temporal or spatial or meaning based reference. So it has the element of VASTNESS. A second element of awe, according to Keltner, is it transcends your knowledge structures; you can’t make sense of it. It leaves you speechless and wordless. It creates a sense of wonder.


Historically, awe was also connected to a sense of the sublime which has a spiritual, reverential quality, a feeling of oneness with all beings and things, and with the cosmos. It is related to the idea of SATORI or “breakthrough” in Buddhism, which is thought to be an indescribable, intuitive and sudden experience of enlightenment or awakening. According to Roshi Joan Halifax, awe also includes an element of fear; when we are opened to the unknown, we have a moment of threat to the ego. Awe is a moment when the ego is deconstructed, and it will do everything possible to avoid that deconstruction of the self. Too much fear will dismantle awe, but in the right dose it is an important part of awe and an important contributor to the experience of awe being something powerful and beautiful.


We’ve all had that experience of looking at a particularly beautiful sunset and feeling small by comparison, that’s the deconstruction of the self, but in that deconstruction, we open up and feel connected to something beyond ourselves, something larger and more meaningful. The fear is in the unknown of it, the part that is beyond our grasp. That is the beauty and power of awe.


According to Keltner and other psychologists studying awe, this sense of-expansiveness is “often elicited by nature, art, and impressive individuals or feats, including acts of great skill or virtue.” So, awe comes from other people, (inspiring people, acts of nobility and magnanimity), from nature, from contemplative spiritual practices, and from feats of human design (art, music, architecture, etc.).


Why care about awe though? Awe has been found to have a profound impact on our lives and our well-being. How? Awe connects us to a sense of being a part of something beyond ourselves, it binds us to a social collective (a part of a species, a group, a cause) and thus prompts greater collaboration and kindness toward others. Simply, Keltner concludes:

“being in the presence of vast things calls forth a more modest, less narcissistic self, which enables greater kindness toward others.”

Awe is associated with increased humility (the “small self” effect), less materialism, greater connection to the broader sense of others (i.e. humankind), and generosity.


Further, momentary experiences of awe inspire wonder and curiosity. You only need to watch a baby or child to grasp what the world feels like when one is full of awe and the learning that happens because of it. The same wonder and curiosity brought into adult life becomes the driver of creation and innovation; awe brings forth a sense of openness and expansiveness which allows one to think more flexibly and out of the box. It leads to paradigm-shifting discoveries.


The study of awe is a recent enterprise in psychology, but it is already showing some results in the area of better health and well-being. For example, according to Andy Tix (2016), the emerging research on awe suggests it:

Uniquely predicts indicators of the body’s inflammatory response, implicated in the onset and progression of various chronic diseases, cardiovascular disease, and depression; enhances critical thinking; and may reduce post-traumatic symptoms.”

It has been related to lowered amounts of stress and greater life satisfaction. It is also the ONLY positive emotion to show some of these associations. For example according to Summer Allen (2018),

“One study found that when people were induced to feel awe, they were less persuaded by weak arguments [showing increased critical thinking] than people who did a neutral activity (imagining doing their laundry). In contrast, some other positive emotions—like anticipatory enthusiasm or amusement—made people more susceptible to weak arguments.”

Diagram: The Impact of AWE (Keltner, 2009)

So, investing time in experiences of awe has the potential to add deeply to our lives. A lot of what I read about awe, talked about creating experiences of awe by hiking among the redwoods, listening to piano concertos, standing in front of the Taj Mahal. Big things. Mind-blowing things. However, I am going to go a little rogue from the research here and claim that we don’t need grand things to feel awe. I believe we can find awe in almost anything. I believe we feel awe when watching an infant and how it discovers the world, when we watch our pets and sense their absolute presence. I believe we can feel awe when we watch a jellyfish swimming in the ocean, when we notice the dome on the surface of water, or when we try to understand the nature of a grain.


Noticing the nature of things.


That creates awe.


It requires us to approach anything around us with a sense of NOT knowing, of being curious, being completely present to notice and observe the layers, the depth, the miracles of everyday things. Approached in this way, everything around us can be a source of awe, and so, a source of wonderment and fulfillment. I can watch the flame of a candle for minutes upon minutes, watching how it dances, all the different colors and shapes it takes on, and when it stills, I can feel my heart still. A simple act of placing a branch in a vase can lead to Satori.


Ok, so Keltner does kind of agree. He notes,

My research has led me to believe that one simple prescription can have transformative effects: look for more daily experiences of awe. This doesn’t require a trek to the mountains. What the science of awe suggests is that opportunities for awe surround us, and their benefits are profound.”

There is awe everywhere. Approach anything with openness and deep curiosity, and life will be full of inspired wonder.


This holiday, give yourselves the gift of awe: stop and notice the nature of things.


We wish you an AWE-some holiday.


References:


Allen, Summer (2018). Eight Reasons Why Awe Makes Your Life Better. Greater Good Magazine. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/eight_reasons_why_awe_makes_your_life_better


Halifax, Roshi Joan, Pollan, Michael, Keltner, Dacher, Gordhamer, Soren (2019) Panel:

The Power of Awe. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l8NaWq-xSbM


Keltner, David (2016). Why Do We Feel Awe? Greater Good Magazine. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_do_we_feel_awe


Tix, Andy. (2016). 7 Ways to be Awe Inspired in Everyday Life. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-pursuit-peace/201611/7-ways-be-awe-inspired-in-everyday-life



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