Have you ever experienced a rush of goosebumps up and down your spine, or vocally exhaled with intrigue, amazement, or fascination, or were rendered speechless from an experience that blew your mind or touched your soul?
Awe is not typically a topic of conversation nor is it generally considered an emotion, yet, one of the leading experts on awe, Dacher Keltner, feels that it is a foundational passion that drives human culture, and can have a profound impact on us. Recent scientific studies reveal that an awe-encounter is deeply transformative, enhancing our sense of well-being, activating creativity, and increasing our capacity for compassion. This means ecstatic inspiration has tangible benefits for our lives. Feelings of awe can also offer positive physiological effects like decreased cortisol levels and cytokine response thereby regulating the nervous system and reducing inflammation in the body. In addition, sensations of awe increase our “feel good” chemical messenger, dopamine, which promotes blood flow, improves cognitive function, memory and mood.
While in a state of awe, our normal frame of reference becomes disturbed, causing us to question what we think we know. As a result, we temporarily transcend the ego and are able to perceive and absorb a fresh perspective, free of our old preconceived ideas. Here, we lose track of self and the possibility arises to consider and assimilate new perceptions that can vastly enhance our lives. Evidence finds that when we’re struck with awe such as beholding the birth of a baby, witnessing incomprehensible acts of bravery or generosity, or revering the sheer complexity of our existence, we find our minds magically transformed, our fixed thought patterns reorganized, and we shift into a broader awareness of ourselves and the world we live in.
Alan Watts pondered, “When you consider that man is a little germ living on an unimportant rock ball that revolves about an insignificant star on the outer edges of one of the smaller galaxies …if you think about that for a few minutes, I am absolutely amazed to discover myself on this rock ball rotating around a spherical fire.” So here we are, floating in the outer spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy, which is 105,700 light-years across. Imagine traveling at 186,000 miles per second for 105,700 years- just to cross our galaxy! We are one of an estimated 2 trillion galaxies in the visible universe with an average distance between them of 9.9 million light-years. In doing my best to comprehend this, I am driven away from my senses, pushed beyond my mental limits, and find myself in awe contemplating the sacred mysteries of life.
The etymology of awe includes fright, fear and dread. About 20% of awe encounters have an element of fear. For example, a natural disaster like a tornado might evoke awe with an element of fear. It’s possible that as our species evolved to understand more, we came to realize a violent storm doesn’t mean the wrath of God is upon us, and perhaps knowing this washes away the fright and dread that once was and leaves us with what today is more commonly associated with a sense of awe as amazement. It is also worth noting that the experience of awe varies by culture. In Western culture, there is far less fear connected with awe experiences.
Writings of early human history reveal awe was primarily associated with a religious or holy encounter with God and often perceived as terrifying or paralyzing. Moving into the age of enlightenment and beyond, everyday encounters of awe were recognized and explored by science, transforming a phenomenon such as lightning from a weapon of God’s wrath into appreciation for what we now know is electricity.
Albert Einstein said “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.” Einstein felt that awe, the experience of the mysterious, opens our eyes, and provides us wisdom and life force. Clearly, Albert was ahead of his time. I’d guess that he would encourage us to cultivate daily habits of awe by seeking the beauty and mystery in our everyday lives.
We can do this by fully engaging with life, incorporating contemplative spiritual practices, slowing down to be more present with the things we enjoy, stopping to watch the hummingbirds and focusing on moments of wonder and curiosity. If your skin breaks out in goosebumps, you let out a gasp in amazement, or your jaw drops in disbelief, you’ve awakened to awe and in that instant you have the eyes and ears to see and hear the great mysteries behind this awesome adventure of life.
May you experience Awe today!
Hugs, Amy xo