Are otherworldly sunsets a prerequisite to experiencing wonder and awe? Do we need to see the Grand Canyon or the Taj Mahal for our jaw to drop open and the hairs on the back of our arms to stand up? I think not.
What is awe? This important but long forgotten emotion has come into focus recently, mainly thanks to the research undertaken by Dacher Keltner (and others) at the Greater Good Science Center in Berkeley, California. They have defined awe as “the perception of something so vast (in size, number, dimension, quality) that it challenges our understanding of the world” and forces us to reframe our thinking. In other words, what we are witnessing, when in a state of awe, does not fit into our pre-existing lens, and so we need to reach for a larger frame of reference.
That is what our body seems to be doing when it responds to awe by taking in a deep breath, holding it for a moment, expanding our chests and our irises, and—for as long as the feeling lasts—inhabiting some kind of timeless present.
Awe and wonder are identical in all but one respect. Wonder arises in the face of something mysterious and overpowering but with a positive tint: a magnificent nature scene (the night sky, a waterfall, a mountain), a rapturous symphony, an uncanny sports feat, an act of sublime kindness. Awe, on the other hand, can arise when something is frightening as well as grand: a lightning storm, an earthquake, a tsunami, a Nazi parade. Awe doesn’t have to be scary, but it can be; wonder is always a delight!
Of course, words are just words, and we can describe this feeling with a host of other terms, such as amazement, astonishment, surprise, transcendence, or even “goose bumps”! And we are always talking basically about the same experience: coming into contact with that which is larger than us, something that is, in some way, unfathomable.
Why do we feel awe?
Studies have found that awe and wonder lead people to cooperate, share resources, and sacrifice for others (all of which are necessary for living in community). And some studies have found a specific link between awe and altruism: apparently, being in the presence of something vast calls forth a more humble, less narcissistic self, which enables greater kindness toward others.
This is how Keltner explains it: “In the course of our evolution, we became a most social species. We defended ourselves, hunted, reproduced, raised vulnerable offspring, slept, fought, and played in social collectives. This shift to more collective living required a new balancing act between the gratification of self-interest and an orientation toward supporting the welfare of others. Experiencing awe might have helped us make this shift. Brief experiences of awe redefine the self in terms of the collective and orient our actions toward the interests of others”.
But the effects of awe go even beyond altruism: it has also been associated with greater discernment (being able to tell faulty arguments from sound ones), improved health (by enhancing our immune system), and greater creativity (by helping us think “outside the box”).
Aside from all of these very worthy and important repercussions, I believe awe and wonder can provide one more (and perhaps less studied) effect: it can serve as a doorway into ecstasy!
What is ecstasy? Merriam Webster defines it thus: “a state of being beyond reason and self-control”; “a state of overwhelming emotion, especially rapturous delight”; “a mystic or prophetic trance.” What is the common thread between all these different “tastes” or varieties of ecstasy? The answer lies in the etimology of the word. “Ecstasy” literally means “to stand outside oneself.”
Our ordinary state of consciousness is one of separate, autonomous individuality. This mindset is what allowed us to create the world we live in, to focus on tasks and achieve them, to respect boundaries (others and our own), and to deal with life’s myriad everyday tasks and affairs. But it has also left us feeling lonely, isolated, and even threatened by others (since the egoic mind tends to focus mainly on fulfilling its own interests and securing its own safety). And this has made for a very stressful and disconnected way of life.
Our ancestors who lived in tribal cultures tended to think of themselves as families, or even as single, multi-faceted organisms, and they had many practices (dancing, singing, drumming, ingesting visionary plants) that enhanced this perception and regularly helped bring them to a sense of oneness, not only with others in the tribe but also with the “more than human world”: other animals, the forces of Nature, life itself.
Modern civilization affords us few opportunities to catch a break from our small selves and to joyfully melt back, even for a moment, into the wholeness from which we came and into which we shall return.
Awe and wonder may well be our ticket back into that elated and embodied experience of oneness and transcendence. And we don’t even have to find or create a tribe to get there. In fact, from today’s integral perspective, the idea of a “tribe” only makes sense if we think of it encompassing all of humanity, and even all sentient beings. The evolution of consciousness has allowed us to expand our sense of kinship and to forge a sense of belonging that is truly boundless.
Unlike many religious or spiritual practices, wonder and awe do not require any particular beliefs, mantras, prayers, or special attire. We can choose to enter wonder wherever we are, whatever we are doing, by simply changing our mode of perception.
For example, one could be walking down the street, looking down at the ground, as we often do when lost in our own thoughts (and, by looking down, becoming more and more self-absorbed), and suddenly decide to shift perspective, and look up. Look up at what? At the sky, at the clouds, at the tops of buildings, at the tree canopy and the sun shining through it, at whatever happens to be displaying itself above our heads.
This simple act helps us to connect to the larger world and to gladly relinquish our “small minded” thoughts, our obsession with our own specific set of problems and circumstances. We can couple this renewed perspective with a conscious change in our breathing; for instance, taking a few slow, deep breaths, intending to take in our surroundings with every inhale and to let go of what is not immediately important with the exhale. And some may find that adding the right kind of music will directly turn this conscious, open, and expanded walk into a full-on ecstatic experience.
Another practice that can help catapult us out of our everyday identities is this: stand outside (barefoot, if weather and situation permits) and stretch your arms wide open, while raising your face to the sky. Let your mouth relax into a smile, and make sure your forehead is uncreased. Every bit of you should be in a state of delightful expansion. You can also think of a question or something you need help with, and inhale slowly as you bring your arms up to the sky, stay there for a few moments, sensing for a tingling in your upturned palms, or arms, that signals circulating energy. Then very gently bring your arms back to yourself with a sweeping motion, as if your arms were moving through sludge (if you are sensitive you may, in fact, feel the resistance of the energy you are moving), and let them come to rest on your heart. Repeat as many times as you feel the need to.
Here are a few other practices that could help you spark moments of awe and wonder into your life without too much effort:
- Seek out novel ways to do things. If your walk always tends to take you along a regular path, challenge yourself to choose alternate paths every day. Try out new recipes, new colors to wear, new fragrances, new music; wander away from the ordinary in any way you can!
- See the ordinary with fresh eyes. When you go out into the night, imagine you are seeing the stars for the very first time. What would you say, what would you do, if this were the case? Would you go about your evening as if nothing were happening? Would you go back inside to watch TV? Or would you linger there, marveling at the crazy, spectacular show of lights?
- Wonder about the people around you: the passersby on the street (as you perhaps did as a child or youngster), but also those closest to you. What don’t you know about your son, your daughter, your friend, your workmate, your partner? What might you ask them to help reveal a layer of themselves that is completely new? Or, perhaps, revel in the fact that there is so much in them you will never, ever know.
- Put on earphones, crank up that song that makes you tingle with joy and abandon, and go all out. If you can dance outside, with the grass under your feet and the stars above you, imagine you are joining others as they honor the night and each other by moving as one single, pulsating, jubilant organism.
- Let your mind wander into unexpected places: read about the limits (or lack thereof) of outer space, of life on the ocean floor, of matter in the center of the earth, of how your continent looked when dinosaurs roamed on it, of space travel and the first ocean voyages, of the unimaginable courage and thirst for adventure that is the hallmark of human kind.
- Remember awe-inspiring moments in your life; write about them, tell about them, relive them in your imagination.
- Watch movies or read biographies of great feats. Let the inspiration move you to conjure up bold, boundary-pushing dreams.
- Read or write science fiction. Let your imagination bring you a glimpse of alternate universes that may very well come true (in some form) in your own lifetime.
- Read some of the more far-out science out there, such as epigenetics, quantum physics, astronomy, and even psychology, which are always pushing the frontier of the possible.
- Think in terms of deep time: not your lifetime but that of the earth, the solar system, the universe. Consider the time frame of mahakalpas (Sanskrit for “eons”) employed in Buddhist cosmology. One kalpa lasts approximately 16 million years, one “mahakalpa,” 1.28 billion years.
- Challenge your view of yourself. We are not born with a set number of talents, assets, or characteristics, nor are we the net result of our experiences. Rather, we are what we make of what we have lived and received (both by upbringing or genetic inheritance). In other words, just as the universe appears to be unbounded, so are we. Not because we can literally do or be anything we want to be, but because we are free to define ourselves by our limitless imagination, and by the immeasurable vastness of our heart.
BY FABIANA FONDEVILA, published by innertraditions.com
Photos by Miriam Posz. Find her work at @miriamposz