in praise of awe + 5 ways to get it
The little tree sparkled. From trunk to tip, tiny specks of light glowed golden bright.
It wasn’t man-made. It was the play of street lights on droplets of rain that had gathered on its branches. It stopped us in our tracks. We paused mid-stride and mid-sentence to gaze open-mouthed at its natural beauty. We looked at each other in awe, in delight, in love—not with each other, but with this world.
Awe’s a funny thing. If you’re the type of person who feels it regularly, you may be used to other people rolling their eyes at you. You might be used to being considered to be, along with regularly awe-struck, a little naive, slightly child-like. You may be used to feeling full-up with joy.
I adore awe. It makes me feel like hugging the world. It makes me want to smile at a stranger, pet a dog, hold the door open, and donate to charity. And apparently, I’m not alone. Science has proven it. Or, more specifically,
Dacher Keltner, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, devotes much of his research to studying awe. In his 2009 book, Born to Be Good, he looks at the emotions beyond the “big six” (anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise), believing that more nuanced sensations—compassion, forgiveness, humility, and awe—are what push us beyond self-interest and “wire us for good.” Cultivating awe, he says, is part of unlocking the truest sense of life’s purpose.
At the Berkeley Social Interaction Laboratory, Keltner and his team are attempting to figure out where awe originates in the brain. Along with neuroscientist Emiliana Simon-Thomas, he’s used striking images to elicit awe in subjects whose brains were monitored by an fMRI scanner. Their preliminary findings suggest that while other pleasures—a monetary reward, a slice of cake—engage areas of the brain associated with self-interest, awe lights up the region that becomes active when we are touched, or when a mother sees pictures of her baby. Unlike the “me, me, me” response that most types of pleasure trigger, awe—and its associated increase in oxytocin—makes us feel warm and fuzzy toward others. For the full article, go here.
Here’s some of the ways I (un)intentionally cultivate awe. Maybe they’ll work for you, too:
1. Morning yoga practice. I simply can’t get through even just one single salutation without at least tasting how incredibly awe-some my soul vessel (body) is, the breath moving through my body is, the deepest, greatest place of peace and strength I tap into during my practice is.
2. Nature walk. Trees blow my mind. Have you ever stood beneath a really big one, palm pressed against its trunk, and closed your eyes just to feel it? Aside from my yoga practice and tools, it’s one of the quickest ways I know of to get an instant mini bliss-boost.
3. Go big. Standing in front of something much larger than ourselves can also boost our feeling of being, well, small. And feeling small helps us drop out of our ego, which usually wants to feel big, and into that truer place of union with the greater, good, and wonder-full—and every living being.
4. Star stuff. Awe’s the reason we love staring at the night sky. A friend of mine had a life-transforming epiphany when he first began to explore the realities of space. The star stuff sparked a realization for him that we’re all part of this great big universe, sharing the sky and the earth below. He stopped worrying so much about what other people thought of him, started volunteering, and asked a girl he’d had a crush on out on a date. p.s. He’s a pilot.
5. What amazes you? What makes you go “holy cow, that’s amazing!”? Whatever it is, its awe-some, too.