Recently, I have felt the pain of losing a dear friend. On my morning walk, I went for solace to my “mother tree,” a large redwood in the park nearby. I found myself hugging her and praying for my friend and asking for guidance. When I left, a strange feeling of peace came over me. I felt the preciousness of life — the beauty and the joy of being alive. I felt a sense of awe – the feeling of being in the presence of something vast and beautiful that I really couldn’t understand with my rational mind.
All of us have had “awesome” moments – or perhaps much longer experiences – that have touched our hearts and souls. They can be as simple as a gorgeous sunset, as emotional as the birth of a child, or as evocative as a stirring symphony. Events or situations that provoke awe can also be terrifying. We can be in awe of the power of nature even as it destroys — the flames of a fire devouring a forest, or hurricane winds lifting roofs of buildings. No matter what is the source, awe is a transformative emotion.
Awe is something we may feel but rarely talk about. It is present for me from having read a recent book by Dacher Keltner, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder. Keltner, who directs the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, delves into the science of this complex emotion. He reveals how awe is not only for extraordinary events, but also for ordinary daily encounters. Those moments have positive psychological and physical impacts — they enhance our connection with other people and bring us greater relaxation and happiness. They give us a deeper appreciation of art, music, and especially nature. By cultivating our experience of awe, we also develop our capacity for altruism, empathy, compassion and spirituality. Such important areas of our lives!
Keltner shows, however, how our culture is becoming more and more “awe-deprived.” We stare into our smartphones rather than at the night sky. Working, driving, at home on Zoom, we spend less time outdoors and with other people. Attendance at live arts events is way down, and arts programs for kids are being removed from schools. We miss witnessing the daily miracles of Mother Nature as well as the human acts of kindness that so feed our souls. How can we be fully human without these awesome blessings?
So, my words of wisdom to you this week are about seeking out opportunities for awe. Perhaps they will come to you in moments of great joy, but they may also come in times of sadness or fear — when the world seems so completely out of control, yet you are struck by the beauty of it anyway. Take the time to be with whatever comes, be it awesome or awful, whether you understand it or not. And take the time to let your awe ripple out into acts of appreciation and kindness with those around you and this great, wonderful awe-inspiring world.