“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.”
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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