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In pursuit of awe
Q: How do you connect to something larger than yourself?
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I have been pursuing feelings of awe my entire life, you could call me an awe-junkie. As far back as I can remember I have been chasing sunsets, moon rises, mountain vistas, and the sublime sounds of a river rushing by or a moving piece of music. It's in those moments that I have felt connected to something larger than myself, been humbled by the majesty of nature or human creativity. Feeling a sense of awe always helps me disconnect from the problems I am fretting over in my life, making me realize how small and insignificant they are. Watching the changing hues of pink and orange in the evening sky, or observing the light of dawn break through the night sky above the ocean never fails to take me beyond the “me” that is in my mind.
Awe is not something that can be put into words easily. Or even if it is put into words by an eloquent author, it isn't something that one can recognize until one has experienced it already. I do believe we're all born with not just a capacity to experience awe but are also intuitively drawn to seek it out. The French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said - "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience." If we believe this to be true, then we must all heed Rumi's words - "Awe is the salve that will heal our eyes". We must make it a habit to seek out awe-inspiring experiences in our own lives to balance out the pain and struggle we experience and see all around us.
This past weekend we spent three days away from the city in a remote cabin right above a flowing river in Carmel Valley, California. On one of the evenings, while little A and my husband napped, my friend Janice and I sat outside on the deck watching the sky at sunset and listening to the river. Time slowed down and we were inspired to open our favorite Rumi book (The Essential Rumi). Rumi describes “...majesty as that composite attention felt as a presence, dawn, a company of friends, a splendor that is prior to, and the source of, the universe”. He says it is a state of awareness best spoken to in terms of what it is not. This description and the poem below seem familiar to how I experience moments of awe.
THIS WE HAVE NOW
This we have now
is not imagination.
This is not grief,
or joy, not a judging state,
or an elation, or a sadness.
Those come and go.
This is the presence
...What else could human beings want?
When grapes turn to wine,
they're wanting this.
When the night sky pours by,
it's really a crowd of beggars,
and they all want some of this.
This we are now
created the body, cell by cell,
like bees building a honeycomb.
The human body and the universe
grew from this, not this
from the universe and the human body.
The first few weeks of this year Northern California was battered by constant “atmospheric river” rain storms - a welcome change from the decade-long drought. One night I had trouble going to sleep from the sound of all the wind gusts, so I got out of bed and just stared at the trees from my window. I was taken in by the torrential downpour of rain and the battering that the tall trees were taking. In that moment I got to experience the ferocity of mother nature and also was awestruck by the interplay of the wind and the trees.
Awe has been described as “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world”. I have had these moments during my walks admiring a vista that presents itself through clouds or trees or watching an actor on screen convey an emotion through an expression. Or hearing a friend’s story of how she is dealing with adversity and the courage she is showing each day. Sometimes it can present itself in the most mundane things like admiring the cracks in the paint on a crosswalk. When I take the time to acknowledge what I see and experience around me, it takes me out of my daily ruminations and leaves me feeling like my struggles are inconsequential in the face of beauty, creativity or humanity.
Studies have shown an awe-altruism link: being in the presence of vast things calls forth a more modest, less narcissistic self, which enables greater kindness toward others. In our current society focused on individualism, productivity and instant gratification, I sometimes become too focused on the “smaller self”. I have noticed that one of the after-effects of awe is a more generous and kinder state of mind.
“Awe occurs in a realm separate from the mundane world of materialism, money, acquisition and status signaling — a realm beyond the profane that many call the sacred.”
- Dacher Keltner, founder and faculty director of the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley
Research shows that positive emotions like joy and love appear to predict lower levels of the protein cytokine interleukin-6 (IL-6), a reliable index of inflammation levels. But the biggest predictor by far — as much as three times more than joy — was awe. People have used the experience of awe to manage the conditions of their chronic inflammatory diseases as well as mental health. During a depressive episode when stepping out takes too much energy, looking through photos of nature captured on my phone takes me back to those moments of awe and puts me into a more positive state of mind.
In our daily lives packed with family obligations, work stress and urban spaces, it might feel that experiencing awe is a challenge or even a luxury. But we can find awe in our everyday lives if we become more attuned to looking for it. Here are some ways that Keltner recommends fostering awe through the “eight wonders of life” -
Witness other people’s moral beauty and courage
Move in unison with others
Get out in nature
Listen to or create music
Take in visual art or film
Seek out a spiritual or religious experience
Consider a big idea
Witness life and death
Source: How to Experience More Wow