The Healing Power of Awe

“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”

~ W.B. Yeats

One day I was reading a psychopath’s blog (as I am sometimes prone to doing) and he asked if someone would please explain something to him.

He said that when he looks upon a breathtaking mountain vista or some other sublime scene, he thinks it’s beautiful, but he doesn’t have the emotional experience those around him clearly do. He sees their awe, but he doesn’t understand it. He had a sense he was missing out on something important.

He was. He was missing out on awe.

I felt a sharp pang of pity, and I got to thinking about awe.

Awe is one of the most powerful emotional experiences we can have. Moments of awe can take our breath away, leave us speechless, make us tremble, bring us to tears, make our spirit soar, and even change our lives.

Awe takes away our tunnel vision and awakens us to the bigger world around us. It opens our eyes to the beauty and poignancy and meaning of life. It connects us to something larger than ourselves.


Awe expands and heals the soul. When we’ve been in a dark place that has made our spirit wither and grow dim, awe opens it again and fills it with light.

“Experiences of awe are relatively rare. However… an awe experience often may provide a memorable and vivid anchor to what is most important in life, sometimes transforming one’s thinking and behavior. Indeed, awe may be one of the most spiritually significant emotions that humans experience.” The Quest for a Good Life

Contrary to common belief, awe is experienced by both atheists and believers alike, and does not need to invoke the sacred to be profound. It expands the minds and hearts of all who experience it.

It’s difficult to define awe. It is a potent emotional experience, not the watered-down version implied in contemporary use of the word ‘awesome.’ When we experience something that strikes us as exceptionally beautiful, grand, sublime, powerful, moving, or vibrantly alive, we feel awe — an overwhelming sense of wonder, reverence, astonishment, and true amazement at the astounding glory around us, the glory we are part of.

“The experience of awe and wonder has been described in literature and scripture, depicted in art, and attested to in the experiences of countless individuals. It is the characteristic human response to any number of larger realities, from the beauty and violence of the natural world, to tremendous feats of body and mind, to our understanding of perceived encounters with the divine. Awe and wonder point to the transcendent and to the limits of being human.”

~ The John Templeton Foundation

Dee, a reader, wrote “When their motives are laid out, you can easily see the simplicity that drives them: boredom, envy and hatred… It would be like living with a mute button pressed ‘on’ all of the time, on all of our senses. I can’t imagine seeing the majesty of a glacier, watching the miracle of birth or witnessing a heroic feet and then just thinking, ‘Oh that’s nice.’ Imagine never being able to experience the passion and power of true love’s kiss. Our ability to feel and be awed by something is what makes life worth living.  Since psychopaths can’t do any of that, they aren’t living at all, they’re simply existing.”

Awe is the most understudied emotion. Only recently have scientists begun examining how it works and what effect it has on us. Psychologists Dacher Keltner of UC Berkeley and Jonathan Haidt of New York University found that awe consists of two qualities: perceived vastness (meaning something we think to be greater than ourselves) and accommodation, a need to assimilate the experience of vastness into our current mental structure.

They describe awe as an emotion “in the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear. Fleeting and rare, experiences of awe can change the course of a life in profound and permanent ways.”

“Awe is an experience of such perceptual expansion that you need new mental maps to deal with its incomprehensibility,”

according to Researcher Kathleen Vohs, author of a new study on awe.  She says study participants “who felt awe, relative to other emotions, felt they had more time available, were less impatient, were more willing to volunteer their time to help others, and more strongly preferred experiences over material goods.” Those are only a few of the benefits.

My friend and fellow blogger had an experience last week of life-changing awe that she wanted me to share with others who’ve experienced psychopathic victimization.

She said she was reluctant to share her experience at first out of fear that others wouldn’t believe her, but she feels that what happened contains an important message for anyone who is struggling. She said she wanted to tell the entire world, that’s how important she feels it is. It actually inspired her to start a new blog, Metanoia Mind, and you can read about it in her own words there, in the post “The Stranger Who Changed My Life.”

The past ten months have been the most difficult of her life. She felt she needed change from within in order to heal, and that the change needed to be spiritual in nature. She was feeling particularly down one day after being diagnosed with anxiety and PTSD. She hadn’t prayed for five years, but was inspired to begin again. A couple of days later, as she sat in a restaurant, a woman she didn’t know approached her and said the following:

“I saw you in the parking lot and something told me that you are carrying a heavy burden, and I just felt like I had to tell you that whatever you’re worried about, you don’t have to worry because you will eventually have all the things you want in life, and you have the inner strength to overcome whatever you’re going through. I feel like the Holy Spirit wants me to tell you this, I don’t know why and I don’t know if it means anything to you but I had to tell you, everything is going to be okay.”

She writes, “It’s been a couple of days since this experience I am still in so much shock. Everything she said, and the timing and everything was just so perfect. It was exactly what I needed to hear.”

She was truly awe-struck. As she put it, “The odds of a complete stranger telling you exactly what you want to hear exactly at the right time is mind-blowing to me…. I know the naysayers will always be out there, but I believe what this woman told me was so beautiful that I couldn’t keep it to myself. I had to share it and hopefully it will help someone else out there.”

Since her experience, she said she hasn’t felt anxious and she’s been filled with so much joy and love, in a way she hasn’t felt since she was a child.


Awe can be transformative. Psychologist Abraham Maslow developed his theory of “peak experiences,” which he described as instances of near-mystical rapture and wonder in the everyday. They involve “disorientation in space and time, ego transcendence and self-forgetfulness; a perception that the world is good, beautiful and desirable.” He believed that this change in perception, a sort of epiphany, really, could have transformational effects. Maslow wrote,

“The great lesson from the true mystics is that the sacred is in the ordinary, that it is to be found in one’s daily life, in one’s neighbors, friends and family, in one’s own backyard.”


When we go through a traumatic experience that disconnects us from ourselves and from life, awe can reconnect us.

“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… Awe connects us with creation. But not the creation of commandments; the creation of amazement, vastness. Awe, finally, is our fundamental connection to mystery–the source and destination of our being.”

~ Kirk J. Schneider Ph.D., An Ode To Awe

By now, you’re probably wanting to run out and experience some awe.

Jason Silva, a self-described epiphany junkie with a video series about awe on YouTube, says “It takes energy to blow your mind, but being overwhelmed is worth it. It’s what gives life its luster.” Silva does not shy away from the range of emotions one might have when considering something of magnitude. He grapples with the tinge of sadness in his personal epiphanies, such as the realization that everyone and everything we find beautiful and magnificent will one day end. (The Atlantic, Make Time for Awe)

Can we cultivate awe? Do we need to hang out with monks on top of the Himalayas, visit the Holy Land, swim with dolphins, go wing-suit flying or take a tour of the seven wonders of the world? Luckily, no (but if you can do those things, go for it). Although travel is high on the list of awe-inspiring experiences, there are other ways. Awe is subjective, and what inspires it is different for each person. Search for what brings you awe. Some ideas:

  • Spend time in nature. It will break you free from your usual state of mind, at the least. And there are many opportunities for awe when you’re surrounded by the beauty of the natural world. Vast, natural locations are well-known awe-inducers.
  • Make up your mind to see differently. Look at things as if you’re seeing them for the first time. Children are naturally filled with wonder and curiosity, but as time goes on we lose our sense of excitement and the world becomes mundane. When I was a small child, I was awestruck when I saw sunbeams streaming through an opening in dark clouds. I thought it was god looking down upon us, giving us a chance to look back. Now it just looks pretty.
  • Make it a goal to take a photo of three things each day. This will get you in the habit of really noticing the things around you, both large and small, and will put you in a curious mindset that prepares you for awe.
  • Visit a church, synagogue, or other place of worship — many are built purposely to inspire awe. You don’t have to be religious. Find a beautiful one, and visit when it’s quiet. I experienced awe at Duke Chapel a few years ago. I’d never been there before, and decided to go in the evening when the vespers ensemble would be performing. I’m not religious, but a beautiful space and sublime music (another possible path to awe) will stir anyone’s soul. This is what I heard, to go along with the majestic interior of the cathedral:
  • Reflect on previous awe experiences. “In her book, ‘Positivity,’ University of North Carolina Psychology Professor Barbara Fredrickson advises individuals to create an ‘awe portfolio,’ consisting of photos, thoughts, and objects that that capture previous experiences of awe. To help with this process, she encourages individuals to reflect on questions such as the following: ‘When have you felt intense wonder or amazement, truly in awe of your surroundings?;’ ‘When have you felt overwhelmed by greatness, or by beauty on a grand scale?;’ and ‘When have you been stopped in your tracks, transfixed by grandeur?.'” (Andy Tix, PhD, The Significance of Awe in Christian Experience)
  • Try experiencing new things. Do something you have never done before. Novelty is known to inspire awe. Try yoga, go to the ballet or opera, listen to a storyteller, see an IMAX film, go see a play, take a balloon ride…

 “All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.”

~ Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

♥ I hope you will experience awe and live a life filled with wonder.



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18 thoughts on “The Healing Power of Awe”

  1. Metanoia Mind

    What a beautiful article…it’s too bad the words “awe” and “awesome” are so often misused. experiencing true awe is a great thing.

    thank you for sharing my blog and my story, as a person who has been a victim of psychopathic/narcissistic abuse I want everyone else out there to know that there is hope.

    please hold onto whatever hope you have…even if you don’t have much, hold onto it, believe it and trust it because that’s the only way you can heal is by having hope that things will get better.

    1. Admin

      Thank you. I’d been thinking of writing this post for months, but it just wasn’t happening… until you told me your story! It was the element of inspiration I needed. Thank you for sharing it with the readers here. I hope they’ll take the message to heart.

  2. Linda

    This was a precious gift on a morning when my heart is crying a little. Although I am well along in my healing, even a brief encounter – an attempt at hoovering – can stir up the pain again. I have known awe, and I welcome it when it comes. This lovely essay reminds me that the transformative power of awe is still there for us, even on days when our heart may seem closed off from the world, alone and in pain. Thank you! A beautiful reminder that our world is, indeed, awesome! xx

    1. Admin

      I published this late last night, and figured people would find it in the morning. I didn’t know anyone would consider it a precious gift, though! Thank you. Your words were a gift for me to wake up to!

      I remember when I was going through the worst of it. The whole world shrunk down into nothing but THAT. I thought about it all the time. I didn’t even realize the leaves had changed color and fallen! I was cut off from everything, it seemed. I wish I could claim some dramatic moment of awe saved me, but I just came out of it slowly over time. I’m sure it would have helped, though.

      I experienced many moments of awe with the psychopath, and I realize now (meaning, today) that’s one of the things that made it seem so incredible. But experiencing awe again afterward, although it took a while, made me remember that he was far from the only source of wonder and magic in my life. It truly is all around us. I hope you’ll find some of it today.

  3. Nearlybel

    Such a subject, and so beautifully written, tears are running down my cheeks.
    It must be the awesomeness of your words Admin, and the awesomeness of you. Very, very special. xxx

    1. Admin

      Oh my, thank you so very much Nearlybel, but when I read your words I know it is YOU who is the awe-some one. Truly.

      I had some tears, too, while writing it — the picture of the soldier holding his baby daughter for the first time is almost too much to take in. It is such a powerful portrait of awe, mixed with hefty, heaping doses of love and gratitude… thank goodness for the emotions that bond us!

      What would we be, and what would life be, without them?

      Unfortunately, all of us here know the answer to that. A run-in with one of them traumatizes us to our core, but we must remember they are the anomaly. We must not let them rob the joy from our lives or take the faith we have in ourselves and others or steal the magic from this beautiful existence we’re given, which doesn’t last forever. Awe, or even simple appreciation of the beauty around us, brings us back to the land of the living. Once we’ve been in that dark place, we can end up appreciating this one so much more. And it’s not because of them that we end up with this gift; it’s because of the resilience and strength of our own spirit to overcome them.

  4. Dee

    What an interesting article. Now that I think about it, my ex psychopath would often and easily say something was beautiful, but was fascinated by how deeply I took in a view, a song, an experience, or a meal. I often caught him absorbing my ability to “sensualize” all experiences: Taste, smell, sight, feel, hearing… and even my 6th sense too. I am the sort who deeply feels and absorbs life and I often got the sense he was vicariously living through the way I experienced life and Awe through “my senses.” He would often delight and be absorbed by my reaction to things , very much like a parent re experiences the magic & wonder of Christmas through their child’s eyes.

    1. Admin

      That’s fascinating, Dee. It sounds like he was trying to feel vicariously through you.

      A beautiful view just doesn’t do it for them — they need intense stimulation in order to feel anything at all. While we’re thrilled looking out over Niagara Falls, they’ve got to go over them in a barrel. They need new lovers because they’re more stimulating than an old one. The pursuit, the seduction, the cheating, the sneaking around, the duping — that’s exciting. Sex isn’t enough — it’s got to be a lot of sex, or weird sex, or sex with a lot of different people, all supplemented by large doses of bizarre porn in the downtime. Boring night at home? In an emergency situation like that, they can always provoke us into a screaming rage just for a little drama.

      They want to feel, otherwise they wouldn’t be chasing stimulation all the time, or asking us strange questions about what it’s like to be human, or just acting in ways that show they don’t know. They envy us. When a psychopath is envious, he loses his much-needed feelings of superiority and grandiosity. His envy causes hatred, and that hatred creates wishes to destroy the object of his envy (carried out through devaluation, or worse), which in turn eliminates the envy. When envy is eliminated, superiority and grandiosity are temporarily restored. Rinse and repeat. And fuel the whole mad debacle with plenty of caffeine and viagra.

      1. Depressedempath

        Oh wow!! You have nailed it Admin. Your awesome blog and what you just said above is exactly my experience.
        I still can’t get him out of my head…I am still trying to figure it out- why me? how I got trapped? What was he thinking? I don’t think I will ever understand him fully, but reading here is definitely helping me move forwards, step by step, every day.

        1. Admin

          I’m so glad you enjoyed the blog post, and that my little rant above meant something to you. When I was writing that reply, I was thinking that they’re really not as perplexing or as complicated as they seem to be.

          We are far more complex (because we have a conscience, emotions, morality, and all the rest that they lack), and because of that, we think they are, too, and we look for more than is actually there. We look for a deeper motivation for their behavior, in part because we wish they had one that were more meaningful.

          Obviously a psychopathic person, as an individual with variations, can’t be summed up in a paragraph, but I did my best to sum up the main characteristics they have in common. :-)

          1. Admin

            I want to add that your questions of “why me?’ and “how did I get trapped?’ are important ones.

            Why you? Because he sensed you’d be receptive.

            Why were you receptive? That’s the question that’s important to consider. There are so many possibilities.

            It could be as simple as a person’s desire to be in a relationship. Or if they’re already in one, there’s some emotional need that’s going unmet. Or it could be loneliness, or the need for someone who understands us or appreciates us, or the need for someone who can bring some fresh energy into a life that feels a little too dull or routine. Or it could be something deeper, like low self-esteem, or unresolved childhood trauma or a history of abuse. Or a million other things.

            Take any one of those (and most of us had — and have — more than one) and combine it with the ability to feel empathy, love, compassion, and pity, and the ability to bond, and the basic ingredients needed are there.

            Then add some skilled manipulation that can override your boundaries, and your goose is cooked.

            Dr. Hare says it’s vital for all of us to know what our individual vulnerabilities are so we can notice when someone’s zeroing in on them. It’s good advice, and it takes conscious effort. Keep in mind that those vulnerabilities change over time and that some of them don’t seem like vulnerabilities, or are just hard to articulate (for example, the need to be appreciated, which is a big one). The need for appreciation is a basic emotional need we all have, but if we’re not getting enough, it becomes a risk.

            I realized afterward that was one of my weak spots, because when I was with him I felt so incredibly appreciated, as if no one had truly appreciated me before. But the funny thing is, before that, I never had the conscious thought that I wasn’t getting enough appreciation! Somehow, he knew. It could be as simple as the fact that most of us aren’t shown the appreciation others close to us actually do feel for us. I make it a point to express my appreciation for others more often now.

            So think back and ask yourself, what are the things that really stand out about the good times with him — how did he make you feel that was in some way surprising, in that you didn’t realize you were missing it until you got it from him?

            I’m lucky that I kept a journal during it, because it’s all there in black and white. I actually wrote that I’d never felt so appreciated, as a person and as a woman, as I did with him. But even if I didn’t write it down, it was something that stuck out like a sore thumb (along with a few other things). Think of what stuck out like a sore thumb to you.

            I hope that helps you find some answers.

            Thank you for your comment! You’ve been missed around here.

            1. Depressedempath

              Oh wow! I’ve been reading all your blogs and you are still helping me come to terms with it all even though I don’t always reply! What you say about needing drama and action, not liking a quiet night at home is sooo true of mine! He often insisted we go out for pizza dinner even though I had just driven for 4 hours to his house at it was 9.30 in the evening! Sometimes I would arrive after the long drive and he would attack me as soon as I arrived. Once he ordered me off his property 10 mins after I arrived and I had to drive back home for 4 hours. I really don’t know why I kept going back for more???? Seriously I was addicted. So glad it’s over and I can live again in awe of life itself!

              1. Admin

                We get such tunnel vision when we’re traumatized. our world becomes small. I’m glad you’re living in awe of life again! And that you’ve still been reading the blog. I have no idea who’s out there reading, and I love it when someone I haven’t heard from in a while surprises me!

  5. Nearlybel

    You are so right Admin, they aren’t complex at all,
    We are the complex ones.
    They are the black holes amidst humanity,
    They suck us in and we can’t see, it’s just too dark. Some of us make it back, into the light of life.
    They are vacuums of nothingness,
    We fill them up, with our very life.
    Their cup overfloweth while we are sucked dry,
    until we know, and then that journey we have to take because we don’t believe them anymore. If I hadn’t written it down, I’d find it difficult to believe it happened at all,
    well nearly xxx
    And all that survive them and live their lives how they wish are pretty awesome, and you Admin are the most awesome of all. xxx

    1. Admin

      I want everyone to make it back to the light. Each and every one. I believe that everyone can.

      “You thought you lost your way, but a distant memory of compassion called to you and you followed, searching for its source. It was you — that faint sound had come from your own soul.”

      ~ The Known, the Unknown, and the Unknowable

      You kept a journal, too? I’m so glad I kept a record. I don’t look at it often, but when I do, I’m amazed to read my own words. He had me so totally confused.

      You said “They are vacuums of nothingness, We fill them up, with our very life. Their cup overfloweth while we are sucked dry,” and it’s a poetic way to say what scientist Reid Moloy found in his extensive research. He said psychopathic devaluation is driven by unconscious envy and greed envy, and that their envy is hatred of the good object, and their greed is the desire to have all the ‘contents’ of the good object. Once they find a victim their greed and envy cause rage and sadism, and the victim is devalued and destroyed. When that has been accomplished, the psychopath’s need for devaluation will start all over again.

      As Thomas Sheridan so eloquently put it, they are eternally empty and eternally hungry. He hit the nail on the head with that one.

      Thanks, Nearlybel :-) xxx

      1. Dee

        Fantastic stuff here admin!

        So true that psychopaths aren’t really all that complicated. When their motives are laid out, you can easily see the simplicity that drives them: boredom, envy and hatred. Targets become confused because our brains don’t function like a psychopathic brain. It would be like living with a mute button pressed “on” all of the time, on all of our senses. I can’t imagine seeing the majesty of a glacier, watching the miracle of birth or witnessing a heroic feet and then just thinking, “Oh that’s nice.” Imagine never being able to experience the passion and power of true loves kiss.

        Our ability to feel and be awed by something is what makes life worth living. Since psychopaths can”t do any of that, they aren’t living at all, they’re simply existing. That has to be awful. That’s the only AWE a psychopath will ever get to feel.

        1. Admin

          Dee, thank you for putting the AWE in awful :-)

          Your comment is so artfully written. You got your point across, and did it beautifully, too. You powerfully captured the essence of two opposite realities, and in one paragraph! I’m feeling awe right now.

          May I place an excerpt within the post?

          1. Dee

            Of course! Thank you so much Admin. xo : )

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