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Many years ago, a Sister-friend and I were walking out-of-doors and talking away on some issue important to us when suddenly she stopped, picked up a tiny wild flower, barely visible from its tiny home in a crack in the sidewalk. She held the flower tenderly and said, as if transported to some distant galaxy, “Look Mary Ann, this is a (she named a rare species of plant which I have since forgotten)” and exclaimed with deep excitement, “this is why I love teaching science so much! I love being a scientist!” I was taken more with her reaction than to the species now gingerly being placed in her handkerchief so she could bring it to her classroom. That was a moment of awe for her and for me as well as I recalled William Blake’s poetic lines, “To see the world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wildflower…” Another friend of mine, who is an artist, sees lovely images in leaves and flowers decaying around her. She gathers them for meditation, prayer, and small art projects. They are moments of awe for her within the detritus of life which holds a universe of potential richness. For these women, life never ends. It seems to me that artists and scientists covet life in greater portions than most of us who are taken with the ‘distractions’ of life.
A friend sent me an article recently by journalist, Hope Reese, who examined the book, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life by psychologist Dacher Keltner of the University of California, Berkeley. Keltner holds that “Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world.” We often think of dramatic, life-changing events as awe like weddings or baptisms or we think of breathtaking places like the Grand Canyon or amazing pieces of music and art or the display of the heavens when a sky dazzles us with its slow dance of an eclipse or its frothing meteors or planets showing off for us like fireworks.
But awe need not be just the spectacular; Dr. Keltner points out that experiencing awe can come from “a perceived vastness as well as something that challenges us to rethink our previously held ideas.” Sometimes awe is ‘flavored’ says Keltner “with feeling threatened like looking at a lion in a zoo.” I remember a stand off I experienced one morning walking my dog in the Metroparks when we encountered a coyote. Crouching low quietly surveying his surroundings, the coyote stared and so did my dog. We all paused for seconds, eyes gleaming and riveted until the coyote turned and ran into the trees. I was awed. (I’m not sure about my dog!)
Keltner says that awe is critical to our well-being. It calms our nerves and releases “oxytocin, the ‘love’ hormone that promotes love and trust.” Awe has a lot of the same neurophysiology of deep contemplation. Sharon Salzberg, a leading mindfulness teacher and author, says awe is the “absence of self-preoccupation;” it quiets our inner critic. Salzberg claims “it helps us get out of our heads and realize our place in the larger context, our communities.” Awe is important to us who seek or invest in spiritual exploration and, thankfully, there are ways we can develop awe in everyday life.
Keltner suggests four ways to develop awe in your spiritual life:
1) Pay Attention When Keltner asked prisoners if they could record any experiences of awe in their lives, some replied: “the air, light, the imagined sounds of a child, reading, spiritual practices.” So, walk slowly in the park and notice everything. Listen quietly for the owl at night. Drink in the beauty of a sunrise.
2) Focus on the Moral Beauty of Others Be open to seeing how people are kind to others in the checkout line or how a neighbor shovels the snow on someone’s sidewalk. Read books and articles about people who are outstanding in their kindness to others. Learn by their example.
3) Practice Mindfulness Cultivate mindfulness through interest and curiosity. There are many religious practitioners who can help through their writing and workshops. A simple technique like praying with your index finger and thumb placed over your heart can connect to the vagus nerve which, in turn, connects heart and brain to contemplation. You will experience the peace of an inner awe that can change your life.
4) Choose the Unfamiliar Path Awe comes from the novelty or openness to experiences you would not ordinarily choose. Take a different route home from work. Go to a restaurant you never chose before. Listen to music you do not necessarily appreciate. (I once listened to Lady GaGa and was amazed to like her music.)
Including awe in your spiritual diet for everyday will make you a more peaceful, prayerful, and happy person. Make an effort to try these four goals and take time to reflect on what happened to you as you achieved them. As Keltner wrote, “People who find awe all around them are more open to new ideas. To what is unknown. To what language can’t describe.”
What to do with Christmas cards you received. I thought you might like this idea as a way of being prayerful for others and environmentally sensitive. We put our received cards in a box in our chapel and every night at Vespers, we pull a card and pray for those persons or person who sent it. We may be picking out cards as late as July, but the senders get our prayers. You can do the same with your family even at the dinner table.
Mary Ann, What a way to start a Monday: your blog on awe! Thank you so much! I appreciated Keltner’s four ways to develop awe. I especially liked #4: “choose the unfamiliar path.” And your personal example of listening to Lady Gaga was great. I regularly try to listen to an artist or group that I am unfamiliar with–or I think I’ll hate. Often I am pleasantly surprised! Your blog today gave me several new quotes for my vast quote collection too! Thanks again, dear friend! Melannie
Thank you, Melannie. I’m always entertained by something new when I try an unfamiliar path. Thank you fo sharing. (I’m happy to know that a quote made it to your encyclopedia of quotes!)Blessings on your week, Mary Ann
Beautiful reflection Mary Ann. I love your 4 suggestions and am doing the vagus nerve meditation! Thanks for your wisdom 🥰
Thank you Monica. You have experienced awe in your life, both terrifying and beautiful. You can apply those experiences to your prayer…and I know you do. The heart prayer never fails to calm me; I call it melatonin for the soul. Mary Ann