We are most likely to experience awe when we are faced with a new and unexpected phenomenon, such as thunder, lightning or when we spend time in nature. The emotion of awe has psychological benefits, such as giving us solace in moments of trial. It also has physiological benefits, such as keeping to a healthy level the cytokines, the proteins that help the body cells fight infection. Since feeling awe does wonders to our mind and body, what can help us be more open to awe and what strategies can we adopt to feel awe in our hectic lives?
Can you think of a moment when you saw or heard something which was so unimaginable beautiful and breathtaking that your mind entered a state of stillness? Time stopped ticking and you were overwhelmed with wonder and curiosity. Tears in your eyes, you may have even felt like kneeling down in the midst of the uncanny event. This is how an awe-inspiring experience might be.
The need for beauty – a story of awe
One morning last May, I woke up with the desperate need to see the beauty around me. On the usual way to the playground where I would spend the mornings with my boys, a violet crocus was blooming on the side of the road. My hands hurriedly fumbled for the iPhone in the bag. I asked the boys to wait for three seconds and the first photo of a crocus was joyfully taken.
One month later, my husband gave me as a gift a more professional camera which became my best friend. I started making time in my hectic daily life to stroll around in search of stunning flowers of intense colors and mesmerizing perfumes. Those flowers had been there the previous Springs and Summers but I only noticed them last year. It was such an fascinating discovery for me to observe that there are so many types of tulips, with different shapes of petals.
The camera lens allowed me to go closer than ever to the soul of flowers. I felt reverence to their perfect and symmetric beauty. I was perplexed at the universal intelligence that can create such beauty. I came back home relaxed and with a big smile on my face.
This year, I am much more aware about the beauty of the nature during my usual walks. Flowers, trees, grass, clouds, birds, insects are my companions. Every day, this is a new parade of clouds in the sky. Some flowers wither, some others are ready to blossom. There is life in every one of them and I watch it unfolding.
By now, you might have guessed which is my new hobby. I lose track of time when taking photos of flowers. I feel free and connected to some sort of flower sisterhood. I am in awe!
What is Awe and why is it so important?
In the Old English, awe was used to express fear and dread. Now, the meaning of awe has evolved to a positive emotion “in the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear.”, as leading researcher Dacher Keltner describes it.
In collaboration with researcher Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Dacher Keltner carried out a study to find the location of awe in the brain. The participants of the study were shown a series of slides that evoked sensory pleasure, pride, compassion and awe. While the participants viewed the slides, an fMRI scanner was taking photos of their brains.
The awe slides activated the left orbitofrontal cortex, which is a brain area that is lit when we are physically touched, when we are involved in a goal-oriented action or when we reflect upon our internal experience from a broader perspective. Therefore, it seems that we are wired for awe and feeling awe may change our perspective upon the world.
Furthermore, research has shown that the experiences of awe can have plenty benefits such as: boost our health, make us live in the present, give us hope and appreciation of life, help us feel connected to nature, create a paradigm-shift, broaden our identity and boost creativity.
The challenge is to be open to awe experiences when they present themselves to us. You can be standing in front of the most spectacular rainbow and yet fail to be touched by it because you either are busy to notice it or if you do notice it, you do not savour the awe-feeling because your mind is churning some urgent issues.
What makes a person be open to awe?
In 1930, Albert Einstein wrote in his credo,
“ He … who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”
Einstein believed in awe.
Mary Oliver, the American poet, believed in awe when she wrote:
“Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled—
to cast aside the weight of facts …”
Kirk Schneider, humanistic psychologist, believes in awe when he writes in his blog post, Ode to Awe:
“Awe is the God beyond God, the origin and the destination, the expanding question and the expanding answer. It is our humility and wonder before creation; our astonishment before creation.”
I believe in awe and if you are reading this post, it is very likely you also believe in it.
The sources of awe-inspiring experiences
In the English Oxford dictionary, awe is
“… caused by profound reverence in the presence of supreme authority, moral greatness or sublimity, or mysterious sacredness.”
As this definition indicates, the belief in awe is rooted in transcendent values such as truth, goodness, and beauty. These three values provide the inner motivation and the need to seek for awe-inspiring experiences in everyday life.
Truth, goodness and beauty are subjective values and precisely the observation of the subjective manifestations of these values can create the awe-inspiring moments in the observer.
Truth may mean faith in God or in a Higher Power that governs this Universe. Truth may mean the physical laws of the Universe. Truth may mean morality and justice of social system. Truth may mean history and a political ideology. Truth may mean pursuit of our goals.
This was Einstein’s truth as he writes in his Credo:
“I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own—a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty. Neither can I believe that the individual survives the death of his body, although feeble souls harbor such thoughts through fear or ridiculous egotism.
It is enough for me to contemplate the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity, to reflect upon the marvelous structure of the universe which we can dimly perceive, and to try humbly to comprehend even an infinitesimal part of the intelligence manifested in nature.“
What is your truth?
The subjective truth guides our actions, influences our decisions and perceptions on reality. Each moment when we observe a manifestation of our truth could be an awe-inspiring moment.
Goodness is the second transcendent value which can be the source of awe-inspiring experiences. You do not have to believe in God in order to believe in goodness. Human beings can essentially be kind, compassionate, empathetic, loving, generous, as studies at the research center Greater Good Science also show it. Goodness refers to all the qualities and virtues that people reflect in their behaviors.
For Mary Oliver, the dynamics of nature and the love for parents represent goodness, as she warm-heartedly writes in her poem, “Of Goodness”.
That the clouds travel, as they do,
Like the long dresses of the angels
Of our imagination,
Or gather in storm masses, then break
With their gifts of replenishment,
How good it is that we travel from one side of the family to the other
On this Thanksgiving weekend
Disappearing fathers on one wing and diminishing mothers on the other
But what I would give to see a teal to deal
With the heartache and the loss
And so on and so on.”
What else does goodness mean to you? Search for goodness in people and when you find it, that goodness will become part of yourself.
Beauty, the third source of awe, involves ideas of taste, aesthetics and passion in nature, art, music, science, technology, etc. The same properties and sounds of an object in nature or in artistic/scientific/technological works can terrify some of us or make some others stand in awe. The encounter with a snake can make some freak-out and run, whereas others may stand still and observe the snake with fascination.
To Einstein’s mind,
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. … To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms— this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men.”
Beauty may lie in the expression of emotions captured in a poem, a song or a dance.
Beauty may mean your passions. What are your passions and how living your passions can be awe-inspiring? For example, if you were passionate about mathematics, a novel mathematical formula could be a source of awe.
What else does beauty mean to you? How important is to surround yourself by beauty?
Eventually, beauty lies in anything that touches us deeply and makes us live for.
Creating awe-experiences in everyday life
In everyday life, it is more challenging to live transformative awe-inspiring experiences, like standing on a mountain top – unless we live near-by mountains. Researcher Rick Hanson suggests that 30 seconds of focus on a good fact, such as a cup of coffee, can be extremely efficient to rewire the brain to remember positive emotions. In a similar line of thought, how can we create some space in our everyday life for awe-inspiring moments? Here are four strategies:
Design your home space – The animators at Pixar, an American computer animation studio, have their offices designed as wooden huts or caves, awe-inspiring symbols. How about designing some awe-inspiring corners in your home? What awe-inspiring objects would you put in those corners? Now and then, change the symbols or the places where those symbols are so that your brains can react to the novelty.
Listen to a video of an influential person you think highly of – YouTube is an abundant source of talks of talented people in different fields of your interest. Recently, I discovered Jason Silva’s channel Shots of Awe, which I listen to whenever I feel the need to be enlivened. How about you? To whom would you like to listen to sparkle your imagination?
Get into a child-like mind – take some moments to be playful. Play with your kids, your partner, your friends. How would you like a drawing game, for example? Chose a photo of a famous person and draw a caricature. Who has the funniest drawing? You or your kid? If you like cooking, how about arranging creatively the food on the plates for the people who are going to taste the food? If neither drawing not cooking are your cup of tea, there are so many domains out there for you to choose from and get playful. Playfulness shakes off the jadedness and brings to surface the curiosity to investigate further. Surprise yourself!
Reorganize your daily life – make a list of your values and describe how these values are reflected in your everyday life. There may be some conflicts between some of your values and daily activities. There may be some values that don’t serve you any good and some activities that don’t reflect your deeply held values. Most importantly, be ready to change for the better version of you. What touches you most in your everyday life? How could you explore it closer and more often? How much time would you need for that? What else do you need to carry out your exploration?
According to Protagoras’ myth about the origins of human beings, Zeus endowed humans with the capacity of awe. Therefore, let’s make the most out of this capacity. We wouldn’t want to make Zeus angry, would we?
If you have a personal awe-story, I’d be glad if you shared it with me, at discoveriesinto(at)gmail.com. With your acceptance, I will publish it on my blog. Awe-stories inspire people, so how would you like to inspire someone with your story?