Awakening to Awe – Susan Wilkes (Words for the Journey January 2017)

Awakening to Awe

By Susan Wilkes

One of the most awe evoking experiences of my life began in the back of a pick-up truck.   Situated on Navajo Nation land in the Southwest, Antelope Canyon is accessible only with a Native American guide.  Our guide expertly swerved through miles of sand to arrive at this spectacular “slot” canyon, a narrow gorge carved out of sandstone.  


“We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.” ~ John Muir

The scientific explanations for the formation are straightforward – Rainwater runs into the basin above the canyon, gathering sand and speed as it rushes into the narrow passageways.   Erosion deepens the corridors and smooths hard edges, forming the flowing shapes in the rock.  And the result of this centuries-long process is spectacular.  I walked through the space in silent wonderment at the smoothly sculptured rock, the magnificent display of color, the beams of light shining down.  I felt “every nerve quiver fully” in the stunning desert cathedral.

For many of us, these experiences of awe are most often found in the natural world.   With awe, we have a sense of vastness, of being in the presence of something greater than ourselves.  Religious scholars associate these numinous experiences with of the Divine.  Joseph Campbell wrote that “God is the experience of looking at a tree and saying, ‘Ah!”

Interestingly though, Dacher Keltner, Director at the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) and awe researcher, reports that nature is the second most common way people experience awe.  His studies show that people around the world most commonly talk other people when describing awe – witnessing the birth of a child, being with someone dying, or having someone unexpectedly treat them with kindness.  In these instances, the “vastness” we experience is psychological rather than physical. 

“Don’t underestimate the power of goosebumps – actively seek out the experiences that nurture your own hunger for awe.”     ~ Dacher Keltner

“Don’t underestimate the power of goosebumps – actively seek out the experiences that nurture your own hunger for awe.” ~ Dacher Keltner

Similarly, great works of music, art and architecture also evoke feelings of awe.  For example, I remember feeling profoundly moved while viewing the powerful mega-paintings of Kehinde Wiley at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts this year.  Researchers at the GGSC point out that all of theseexperiences move us beyond our day-to-day experiences and also elicit a sense of feeling small and yet very connected to the world around us as well as to something greater than ourselves.

Studies show remarkable positive benefits of this important human emotion including benefits to our immune system, decreases in anxiety and narcissism, increased benevolence toward others, and even sharper thinking!  In one fascinating and hopeful study, some participants were asked to gaze up at beautiful eucalyptus trees for one minute, while others stood in the same spot but stared at the side of a nearby building.  Then a researcher “accidentally” dropped a box of pens.  The participants who had been looking at the trees were more likely to help out with picking up the pens.  Similar studies have shown that even just recalling experiences of awe leads to more generous and ethical behavior.  


“The finest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle.” ~ Albert Einstein

The new science of awe suggests that the opportunities for awe surround us every day; we don’t need to travel far.   Daily experiences of awe can have significant positive effects on us.  And, we can increase our experience of awe by engaging in simple activities.  Try these easy practices to up your awe quotient:

  1. Seek out wonder and amazement by taking an awe walk.  Try going to novel environments (outdoor or inside) and approach what you see as if you are seeing it for the first time.
  2. Think of your most recent experience of awe. Describe it in writing with as much detail as possible.
  3. Read a story or watch a video that involves a sense of vastness and that alters the way you understand the world.
  4. Be mindful of the natural elements and objects around you on a daily basis (e.g., the moon, moving water, a tree, etc.). Take a moment to fully experience the mystery around you.

May we all experience many moments of awe this year.  May they remind us of our connection to a force beyond ourselves. May awe awaken in us a greater compassion for all.


Susan Brock Wilkes, Ph.D. is a faculty member and former President of Chrysalis.  A certified spiritual director, Susan currently teaches Mindful Self-Compassion and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction at Chrysalis.

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