We’ve all experienced awe at some point in life. It’s the feeling of wonder when we’re in the presence of something that alters our understanding of the world. It’s often an encounter with vastness that snaps us out of our small realities. Some awe-inducers include: endless stars in the night sky, majestic redwood forests, birth of a child, the overview effect astronauts experience upon seeing our fragile earth from space, hearing an accomplished musician live, being in the presence of a wildly respected human, or learning about say the theory of relativity*.
This fascinating research on awe mentions that all forms of awe are characterized by two phenomena: “perceived vastness” and a “need for accommodation”. “Perceived vastness” comes from encounters with something or someone that is vast or profound, or from observing something physically large. Since this vastness often violates our normal understanding of the world, awe-experiences evoke a “need for accommodation”. This means that this state lends itself to modifying the mental constructs that we implicitly use to make sense of the world and act in it.
Here’s a perfect summary, verbatim from the awe-researchers —“This need for cognitive realignment is an essential part of the awe experience. Awe is also accompanied by feelings of self-diminishment and increased connectedness with other people. Experiencing awe often puts people in a self-transcendent state where they focus less on themselves and feel more a part of a larger whole. In this way, awe can be considered an altered state of consciousness, akin to a flow state, in addition to an emotional state.”
So now that we know this, think back to your last encounter with awe: What did you do after that memorable camping trip in the great outdoors? What action did you take after absorbing ancient wisdom from that wise sage? How did you cultivate the awareness that your local symphony orchestra unlocked? What did you do after hearing that brilliant and engaging professor speak? How long did the heart-opening after the birth of your child last?
There is power in awe but there is forgetfulness in life. We can feel dwarfed and tap into wonder in the presence of the vast night sky, ancient wisdom, music, deep intellect or a tiny human. But what we do after feeling joyfully speechless is the key to creating the world we want to live in. We are taught discontent at every turn but awe drops us squarely in the middle of gratitude and human-connectedness.
Awe is a profound gift in our short-term focused and often fear-driven lives. But it’s only a gift if we channel this fleeting awareness back into our thoughts and actions somehow. The ultimate promise and value of awe is full-bodied, openhearted presence and action…we can’t stay stuck in awe.
“However many holy words you read,
However many you speak,
What good will they do you
If you do not act on upon them?”— Buddha
*In case you’re interested – Albert Einstein, in his theory of relativity, found that space and time were interwoven into a single continuum known as space-time. And events that occur at the same time for one observer could occur at different times for another.