Awe Full

Last week, I wandered around the topic of “wonder”. This week, I turn my attention to “awe”.

When was the most recent moment when you experienced “awe”?

What prompted the sense of vastness in your soul? For me, it tends to be nature, always has. The sounds of a whitewater river. A panoramic view from the top of a mountain. A storm offshore. The pounding of waves on the rocks. Walking in a maritime forest. Looking out on the seemingly endless ocean. Gazing up into the star rich sky at night. Smelling the pungent whiff of the marsh.

These all trigger within me a feeling of awe. How about you?

In my serendipitous wandering around, reflecting on the Creative Self, that imaginative, curious exploring self that is nascently present in infants at birth, it connects the various separate components that make up the stuff of our lives and weaves them into a sense of the whole. Sometimes that sense of the whole clues our whole being (heart, mind, and body) into the vastness of reality. We experience this with goosebumps, we feel it with a warming of our heart, we tear automatically, and we grasp a sense of our connection to and with the All.

Again, synchronicity broke through with a chance noting of a new book to be published. The title, “Awe” grabbed my attention, and its subtitle, “The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life” set the hook. The author is Dr. Dacher Keltner, a professor at UCal, Berkeley, who has focussed his lifelong study and research on human emotions. The linkage of science and the emotion of awe reeled me in from my Jamesian depths. I pre-ordered the book…I never pre-order a book.

When the book arrived a week ago, I devoured it. First, I appreciate his multidimensional approach which took seriously three perspectives on awe: the science of the neurophysiology that occurs, the culture’s way of archiving our collective sense of awe, and finally the personal narratives, or stories, of how we experience awe.

And here was the money-shot for me: how does awe transform us? “By quieting the nagging, self-critical, overbearing, status-conscious voice of our self, or ego, and empowering us to collaborate, to open our minds to wonders, and to see the deep patterns of life.” That sounds a lot like the dynamics of Creative Interchange and the role of the Creative Self.

He goes further: “Why awe? Because in our distal evolution as very social mammals, those individuals who united with others in awe-like patterns of behavior fared well in encounters with threats and the unknown. And because of the more proximal calculus of thriving in the present, awe brings us joy, meaning, and community, along with healthier bodies and more creative minds.” Sounds almost as promising as a local personal-injury lawyer’s TV advertisements: “we don’t get paid until you get paid!”. But what if it is, in fact, true? Dr. Keltner has done the research and proffers scientific proof of the benefits of connecting with one’s sense of awe.

In recent years, our study of cognition and reason, to the neglect of the role of emotions has changed. We have sought to understand and measure the role of emotions that are built around helping humans to accomplish the fundamental tasks of life, such as fleeing danger, avoiding toxins, and finding nutritious food. To begin with, the science of emotions attempted to map anger, disgust, fear, sadness, surprise, and joy. The varying emotions had been recognized via facial expressions studied by anthropologists. Next, they moved to self-conscious emotions such as embarrassment, shame, and guilt. Finally, the studies moved to positive emotions, such as joy, amusement, gratitude, love, and pride.

Dr. Keltner, along with Jonathan Haidt began to study the emotion of awe in 2003. They followed the former students of emotion by articulating a definition: Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world. “Vastness” can be physical, as you stand next to a large tree. Vastness can be temporal as a laugh or a scent takes you back to the sounds or aromas of your childhood. Vastness can be semantic or thoughts as you experience a sudden “coming together” of thoughts, wondering, and explanations that form an epiphany of a coherence of meaning. Vastness can be disruptive as it reveals that your current understanding is lacking. Awe is about our relation to the vast mysteries of life.

Keltner has gone on to offer a taxonomy of awe, eight wonders of life that draw a person to an experience of awe.

The first is the experience of witnessing a moral act by another person or group. Last week, I mentioned my surprising encounter with a young man who came out of nowhere to help me load an oversized bag into my car. He was not being heroic, in fact, it was a simple, thoughtful act of compassion. But for me, it was an experience of awe, deeply moving, that I have told to anyone that would listen to an old priest.

The second is the sense of awe that one gets when you are part of a crowd, what Emile Durkheim called “collective effervescence”, a kind of buzzing and crackling of life force when people merge into a collective self, a tribe, or an oceanic sense of “we”. This can happen in religious gatherings, civic events, family reunions, and sports events. It is based on a sense of connection of the people gathered into something bigger than one’s individualistic ego.

The third wonder is nature, my fave! It can be in cataclysmic events that remind you of the sheer force of nature. But, it can be in the simple observation of the natural world, in a sunset, the babbling of a stream, a starry night, or a gaze at the moon. Sometimes, it is a sense of connection to a plant, a particularly winsome tree, or an animal. Such objects, sharing our existence and space communicate a common sense of being that brings awe into play.

The fourth is another favorite, music, as it transports people into new dimensions of symbolic experience through sound and rhythm. It can be induced by a collective experience of performance that seems to bring people together in spirit. My study of the Grateful Dead is a rather pregnant example of such a collective moment of awe, sometimes prompting the odd kinetic expression of “spinning” in a trance state. My own experience of watching my son play a concert of his own songs, joined in joyful exuberance with his bandmates has meant many moments of awe for me. A smile that breaks out on his face in the middle of a solo brings me a deep sense of awe. As I have said before, it is a father’s psychic pay!

The fifth source of awe is visual design. Magnificent buildings, intricate architecture, all may inspire a moment of awe. Haussmann’s grand boulevards in Paris, a Mayan pyramid, the graffiti of Barcelona, can bring about a connection with the larger reality of the human family.

Coming in sixth place is spiritual and religious awe. These are the stories of ccnversion and tranformationn that occur in a religious context. I find Keltner’s definition of “spiritual” a bit narrow as he speaks primarily of mystical experience. But he does point further: “We shall see how often the sensations that arise during mystical awe, and all encounters with the wonders of life involve touch, feeling embraced, a warm presence, and an awareness of being seen- clues, perhaps, to the deep origins of the emotion.”

Stories of life and death evoke awe, the seventh wonder. To witness that moment of birth, with new life emerging is perhaps my most vivid experience of awe. And then, to be there at the moment of death. when the human transitions from a breathing physical being to some other form of existence. As a priest, I have had the gift/burden of being present to that sacred moment, yielding another kind of awe. Keltner profoundly tells of his own experience of awe as he is present at the death of his brother, Rolf. His description of his grief and an abiding sense of Rolf’s presence even after his death is worth attention.

The eighth wonder is what he calls epiphanies. These are breakthrough moments, where all of a sudden, one perceives some essential truths about life. In these moments, disparate facts, experiences, and beliefs come together in a revelatory disclosure of truth, that feel “given” to you by a transcendent source not of your own making. Even those who are not “religious” or feel particularly spiritual, report those “breakthrough moments” when thing seem to just come together, making sense out of this existence.

I end today’s ramble, returning to the promise of awe. According to Keltner’s study, this human emotion allows us a moment of respite from our ego strivings, our anxieties, to merely and profoundly “be” in this time and space. Awe offers us the gift of reconnecting to our sense of being part of something bigger than ourselves, our siloed ego that feels alone. Here is this scientist’s conclusion: Awe integrates us into the systems of life- communities, collectives, the natural environment, and forms of culture, such as music, art, religion, and our mind’s efforts to make sense of all its webs of ideas. The epiphany of awe is that its experience connects our individual selves with the vast forces of life. In awe, we understand that we are part of many things that are much larger than the self.

Keltner promotes an active attention to this capacity of awe. In a rather practical way, he suggests that we intentionally attend to the present moment, tune our senses to take in the world, the being that surrounds us. Becoming mindful of our being, rather than our default mode of routine and automatic replies. To be alive, to be aware, sensitive to the moment, the time and space in which we live, move and have our being.

So, as I move toward my tradition of Lent, forty days of focused reflection, normally tuned for repentence, this year I am going to be focused on attending to my experience of awe.

To be sure, next Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, will come and put my soul’s nose down into the humus of my humanity, reminding me of my brokeness, my selfishness, my deceit, my double-mindedness, in a word, my sin. There is perhaps no better litany, or taxonomy/catalog of our sin that leaves no stone unturned. One completes that litany of confession with a clear sense our need for repentence, redemption and grace. And, typically, we are set in mind of the need for discipline, and foregoing the things that get in the way of our relationship to God. My training will, no doubt, kick in and I will do some of that self-flagellation during and following the Ash Wednesday liturgy.

But, this Awe thing has broken through my domesticated, routinized, contol-based religiousity, re-minding me of my native capacity for awe that connects me to my neighbor, our creation, and the Spirit. I am committing myself to being open to my sense of awe, intentionally, for the forty days of Lent. Not attempting to fabricate, make it happen, but simply being mindful of this capacity, this gift of awe, being open to it by attending to the present.

I highly recommend getting this book, Awe, by Dacheer Keltner, and reading it during Lent, as you prepare for a profound sense of Easter awe, if you share the Christian faith. Or, get the book and read it in order to open up your capacity to experience awe as the rebirth of Spring breaks in upon us. It’s as if Nature herself is in on the show.

Let’s get full of Awe., y’all.

2 thoughts on “Awe Full

  1. Hi David,

    Well said and I want to comment on: “Awe offers us the gift of reconnecting to our sense of being part of something bigger than ourselves, our siloed ego that feels alone.”

    I was thinking, reading this line, that awe and awareness are somehow linked … awareness is the way our Original, Creative Self is observing the world. Consciousness being the way our created self, our siloed ego as write, is looking at the same world. And yes! as Charlie Palmgren, our mutual friend taught me: “Aware comes from the Indo-European ‘wer’ – meaning ‘watch out for, to guard, to respect, and feel awe for’…”

    So our bigger self is our Creative Self part of even something bigger: our CI community we belong to…



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