I think this is how we are supposed to be in the world – present and in awe. – Anne Lamott
How often do you slow down long enough to “smell the roses?” Do you step outside at night to witness the majesty of a meteor shower or a sky full of stars on a clear, crisp night? Can you envision the last time you were in awe of your surroundings? This could be the end of a long hike that brings you to the edge of a powerful waterfall, it could be the first time you saw your child take a step, or it could be the moment you fell in love with your person. Put yourself in that place for a moment right now, recall the wonder and excitement. Man, I wish I could bottle that feeling up and keep it on hand for moments that feel routine, mundane, stressful, defeating. Spray a little awe around in the moments that rob us of childlike astonishment and lead us to forget the world’s expansiveness. What if we could daily acknowledge the brilliance, beauty, and transience of this world?
I took a little personality quiz on the Greater Good Science Center website today called “The Awe Quiz.” I found that I have a tendency towards engaging in situations that challenge my thought process, make me feel curious, leave me with the childlike awe feelings that we should all seek. I am not sure that I would have had the same results one year ago. Prior to engaging in a journey that encouraged presence and awareness, I think I was missing out on opportunities to live an AWE-some life. I am thankful for the people in my journey that have helped me to redirect my energy. I remember the initial moments of resistance when my sister encouraged meditation. I remember doubting the impact and questioning my ability to commit to a new practice. My willingness to engage in moments of wonder and awe is one of the many benefits of living a more mindful life.
I remember being in awe of the sky when I was younger, I have rekindled this love for looking up. Sunrise, sunsets, clouds, the rays emitted from the sun though those clouds, stars, the moon and its phases all remind me daily (and nightly) how brief and ever changing this moment is. It takes mere moments to miss the evolving colors of the setting sun. I love bringing the attention of my children to the beauty of the sky. I love asking them what they see, what colors stand out? What shapes do they see in the clouds? Absorbing their reactions of surprise and awe is contagious. It is good for the soul. But I wanted to dig into why these moments are so memorable and impactful and potentially how to create increased access to this feeling.
I found an article on the Huffington Post website titled, How Awe-Inspiring Experiences Can Make You Happier, Less Stressed and More Creative. That’s what I’m talking about…let’s dig into this goodness. This article provides various definitions and results from multiple university studies surrounding the emotion of awe. It discusses a foundational paper:
In “Approaching Awe, A Moral, Spiritual and Aesthetic Emotion,” psychologists Dacher Keltner of UC Berkeley and Jonathan Haidt of New York University outlined how exactly awe works and what affect it has on us. Awe consists of two qualities, Keltner and Haidt say: perceived vastness (something we think to be greater than ourselves), and accommodation, a need to assimilate the experience of vastness into one’s current mental structure. Keltner and Haidt describe awe as an emotion “in the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear.”
Awe is the sweet spot between pleasure and fear. I can only imagine the brain’s chemical reaction to these moments. It is no surprise that we cannot exist in these moments perpetually; doing so might remove the component of wonder. I can also gather that what induces feelings of awe for me is not necessarily going to trigger the same reaction in everyone else. Our experiences with wonder are all unique to the fabric that makes us who we are.
The Huffington Post article goes on the discuss the reality that experiencing awe provides a healthier relationship with time, boosts creativity, increases our ability to be hopeful and grateful regarding our life, improves our relationship with nature, and aides in transforming our lives. Abraham Maslow’s description of “peak experiences” seems like another way to describe feelings of awe. He says that peak experiences are indicated by:
“disorientation in space and time, ego transcendence and self-forgetfulness; a perception that the world is good, beautiful and desirable…He emphasized that moments of transcendence could take the form of an intense religious or spiritual experience, but it could also come from the simplest moment of love, beauty or natural wonder. If nothing else, awe teaches us, as Maslow suggests, that there might be something just a little bit magical about everyday life — a realization that can help us engage with life from a place of joy, wonder, and gratitude.”
I recognize a connection to my discussion of human connection in my post about The Importance of Finding Your Tribe when discussing the benefits of awe. When we can have human connections or awe filled experiences that help us get outside of ourselves, we can live happier and more fulfilled lives. When we are not driven only by ego, status, and pride…we are more apt to practice gratitude. Imagine how minuscule the past due bill, lost job, or moment of defeat seems in comparison to the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, the incredible life beneath the surface of ocean waters, the birth of a baby, the first time your child speaks the words “I love you,” or the intense beauty of the setting sun. There are certainly moments that take our breath away, moments that give us no choice but to lose ourselves and be completely consumed in that moment. But what if we are missing out on opportunities to experience the simple beauty and love that can leave us in wonder on a daily basis? Our focus could use some re-shifting from time to time. Perhaps we should make time to slow down and look up more often.
My favorite Emerson quote is tattooed on my back:
Live in the Sunshine, Swim the Sea, Drink the Wild Air. Ralph Waldo Emerson.
I try to live in this manner but the more I become consumed with duties, roles, responsibilities, and to-do’s the more distracted I become. The reality is that I am only gaining more responsibilities as my children get older and become more involved little humans. Therefore, my perception needs to shift. Traveling with my family needs to become a priority. Getting in nature needs to become a priority. Looking up long enough to recognize the beauty in how quickly our life is passing by and the value of relishing in every moment that I possibly can need to become priorities. I think we can live in awe and be ridiculously productive and involved in our communities. For me, mindfulness and presence has been the key to this shifting perspective. Releasing situations or stressors that I have zero control over frees up space in my heart and mind for awe, wonder, and gratitude. The next step is to seek out moments to experience awe.
Images in this post are all courtesy of the crazy talented, Janey Cooper Photography.