Chasing Awe

I was practicing Awe when I stopped to admire this guy on the door of a cafe

A few weeks ago I wrote about our complex relationship with time. I wrote about how we are rushing, running and scrolling through our days and often resisting the discomfort of just sitting with the unease, the quiet, and the often too-slow track of long days. Today I want to continue that discussion but this time to write about our desire to slow time down. When my daughters were little girls there were moments when I just had enough and their 8 pm bedtime couldn’t come fast enough. There were other times when I just wanted to freeze time and stay in this very sweet moment, the here and now, feeling everything and stretching time.

How can we slow time?

There is one solution and it is this: We chase Awe.

Dr Dacher Keltner, a world expert on chasing awe as a means to happiness says this:

“Awe occurs in a realm separate from the mundane world of materialism, money, acquisition and status signaling, a realm beyond the profane that many call the sacred.”

Awe is the state that connects us to the web of life, calms the restless and busy mind, and forces us to be completely present. Awe is hard to define but it is what connects us to the vastness of life. Awe is the key that unlocks happiness and awe also stretches time. Just 5 minutes of practicing awe in a day can have huge health benefits – as there is a definite relationship between happiness and our life span. 

Gratitude, compassion, forgiveness and laughter, pleasure, and meditation correlate with life expectancy findings. Practicing gratitude, getting outdoors for a walk, serving, and giving to others matters. You will live longer. Social connection can add 10 years to your life. 

There is evidence seen in the neuro-physiological pathways, the proof is there: awe activates the vagus nerve, calms inflammation, helps the heart, and de-activates stress regions of the brain, (the amygdala), all leading to the conclusion that happiness is good for your body. 

And you do not need to get on a plane and go to see the Northern Lights or gasp at the expanse of the Rift Valley or the Grand Canyon to take part in this practice. Since Awe is a response to something vast, and mysterious and can make us feel small and full of wonder, you can experience awe today. You might stop to look closely at a butterfly or the shape of a cloud, read a poem or smell freshly ground coffee beans. To consider what awe is for you ask yourself: when was the last time you got goosebumps? Or felt tears prick when listening to a song. When did you last feel part of a collective, what Keltner calls “collective effervescence.”  It might happen at church or at a football game, at a music concert, or when singing in a choir. Or marveling at a ladybug. Have you noticed how awestruck a 3-year-old is?

I consider myself an awe-hunter. I will stop during a walk and marvel at the shadows on a wall, seemingly painted there by the reflections of leaves. I will stop and point in wonder at the roots of a tree that curve and coil and wind for meters. I will bend to examine the shocking pink of a flower or stand and observe a tiny bee doing what bees do.  But I also feel awe in an art museum, or when the lights go down and a film rises onto a screen. When I come across a line of poetry or a passage in a book that is so beautiful it takes my breath away.

Katherine May also writes about the power of Awe to connect us to things beyond ourselves in her book “Enchantment.” And, like Keltner, she calls on us to find awe in the smaller things within our daily grasp.

“Our sense of enchantment is not triggered only by grand things; the sublime is not hiding in distant landscapes. The awe-inspiring, the numinous, is all around us, all the time. It is transformed by our deliberate attention. It becomes valuable when we value it. It becomes meaningful when we invest it with meaning. The magic is of our own conjuring.”

When was a teacher, I made time, when I could, to bring Awe into the classroom. Whether through a photo, lines of a song, a painting projected on the board, a paragraph in a book, or the booms of thunder outside, I made a deliberate effort to name Awe. Schools need to make Awe part of their mission. Imagine what a school would look like, what students would learn and feel if we stopped to include moments of Awe into the day. Jennifer Garvey Berger calls it the Genius of Noticing and they can turn days, classrooms, busy schools into a treasure hunt of joy.

What you pay attention to will grow.

This poem by the wonderful Mary Oliver is often read incorrectly and seen as a call to do more, to act, to forge ahead, and not waste time with your one rare life. But what it is actually saying is to do less, and pay attention to what is in front of you. What could be a better way to spend your wild life than to slow down, pause and watch a grasshopper?

The Summer Day

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean—

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

What Awe are you chasing today? Next time your interest is pulled somewhere, go along with it. Make time to focus in, and experience Awe.

If you enjoyed this please consider forwarding it to someone who might find it helpful. And be sure to check out previous posts by clicking on the blog tab. Thank you for reading, I really appreciate it.

Sam x

One thought on “Chasing Awe

  1. I loved this, thank-you! I hope you are well and living your best life. It would be so lovely if our paths crossed again.


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