Awe: What It Means. How to Experience It.

Awe: What It Means. How to Experience It. November 3, 2023
Tyler Lastovich via Unsplash

Awe is the emotion you feel when you encounter vast mysteries you don’t understand. It is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world. Your individual self gives way to the sense of being part of something much larger.

I cobbled together the definition above from the new book Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life. The author is Dacher Keltner, the faculty director of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and an expert on human emotion. With his fellow researchers, he has studied the phenomena of awe in great detail. In his words:

We have studied how we feel awe near great trees and in looking out at panoramic views. At sporting events, punk rock shows, and in the flowing effervescence of dance. In mystical experiences, in prayer, meditation, yoga, and during psychedelic trips. In peak experiences with music, visual art, poetry, fiction, and drama.

His primary finding? Awe has the power to transform us. It does this, says Keltner, “by quieting the nagging, self-critical, overbearing, status-conscious voice of our self, or ego.” Or what Aldous Huxley referred to as “the interfering neurotic who tries to run the show.” Keltner continues that “when we experience awe, regions of the brain that are associated with the excesses of the ego, including self-criticism, anxiety, and even depression, quiet down.”

The good news is we can find awe anywhere and everywhere.

Finding awe doesn’t involve a lot of time or money. It’s available to all of us whether we are rich or middle class or poor, and regardless of our status, religion or race. Keltner tells us “Finding awe is easy if we just take a moment and wonder.” And it’s well worth the effort “because brief moments of awe are as good for your mind and body as anything you do.”

How do we know when we’re in a state of awe? It really can’t be measured, but when you feel it, you know it. It’s an overwhelming sense of joy or bliss and can happen when we sense we’re in the presence of the Divine. When we are exposed to awe, we might feel a chill run down our back, or even be brought to tears. Our mouth may drop open, and we might involuntarily utter the word “whoa!”

Our everyday lives offer opportunities for awe. Keltner has several suggestions as to where we might find it, including “walking meditations, pilgrimages, hiking, backpacking, and after-dinner strolls.” When doing these things, he asks us to tap into our “childlike sense of wonder” and approach what we’re doing “with fresh eyes, imagining you’re seeing it for the first time.” In our search for awe, he also advises us to:

Go somewhere new. Each week, try to choose a new location. You’re more likely to feel awe in a novel environment where the sights and sounds are unexpected and unfamiliar to you. That said, some places never seem to get old, so there’s nothing wrong with revisiting your favorite spots. The key is to recognize new features of the same old place.

We might try a “regular awe walk” near trees or bodies of water, under the night sky, or in a place where you can view a sunrise or a sunset. We might walk through a historical part of town or on a path through the woods. The key to feeling awe is to “approach the natural world (and life) with the question: What if I had never seen this before?”

Keltner also offers a more concise piece of advice: GET OUTDOORS.

The capital letters above are his. Keltner calls being in the great outdoors “its own form of religion … away from the buildings, gatherings, ceremonies, and dogma of a formalized church.” The researcher cites the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson who was “overcome by wild awe” while walking through a community park. In Emerson’s lightly edited words from the 1836 essay Nature:

In the woods, we return to reason and faith, There I feel that nothing can befall my life—no disgrace, no calamity, which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, all egotism vanishes … the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and particle of God.

For those who are spiritually inclined, the feeling of awe is often linked to the sense we are connected to God. Keltner points out that “Americans often sense the Divine in nature and feel that they are near that which is primary, all-encompassing, and good. When looking at the movement of a river, or hearing birdsong, or watching clouds, or sitting quietly amid a strand of trees, people feel as though a benevolent force is animating the life around them.”

Keltner believes that when we immerse ourselves in awe, we realize we are part of something bigger than ourselves. We begin to see, as 19th century scientist Alexander Humboldt noted, that we exist within “a network of forces and interrelationships.” Kelter continues:

Awe moves us to sense we are part of the natural world, one of many species … dependent upon one another for survival. Awe shifts us to a new view of life … we understand that we are part of many things that are much larger than the self.

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