The sheer wonderment on his face is what I vividly recall from a chance encounter on Good Friday hill. Emerging through the Scots Pines and the shafts of late afternoon sunlight, the elderly walker was awe struck at the suddenly expansive view from the escarpment, stretching away beyond the river Avon across Salisbury Plain. His enchantment was contagious. In that memorable moment decades ago, I ‘caught’ joyful amazement from a stranger, as each of us sensed our smallness in relation to the wide, sweeping landscape.
Oftentimes, feeling small would not be considered a positive experience. However, a sense of one’s smallness – even insignificance - in the face of something awesome can be curiously uplifting and exhilarating. As a part of research into the effects of awe, people were asked to take weekly 'awe walks' and connect with wonder for the natural world. They had been invited to take a selfie on each walk, leading to an unexpected finding. As people reported a growing sense of awe over the weeks of the study, the size of their heads in a number of the selfies became progressively smaller in proportion to the image. Seemingly, they had shifted their focus from 'me as the main element' to 'me as a small part of a big wide world.'
Leading researcher into the psychology of awe Dacher Keltner defines it as “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast and mysterious that you don't understand with your current knowledge”. Keltner and his colleague Jonathan Haidt proposed that awe experiences share two features: “perceived vastness” and a “need for accommodation”, the latter referring to the way the emotion requires us to change our understanding of the world.
Researchers have been discovering a growing list of health benefits from the experience of awe, including improved physical health and psychological uplift such as improved mood, greater life satisfaction and increased humility. We may also become more generous and cooperative with others.
However, there is another side to this. In former times, awe connoted fear and dread towards divine beings. Roughly a quarter of awe experiences include an element of trepidation as we sense something vastly bigger than ourselves, beyond our control. But perhaps this is not necessarily a bad thing. Being jolted out of our comfort zone can bring about a heightened sense of aliveness and a truer perspective on life: a reminder that the world does not actually revolve around oneself in the way we usually perceive it to.
Momentary fear is not uncommon when moving into unfamiliar territory during meditation, with physical sensations such as tingling or feeling our hair stand on end. Bringing awareness to the breathing body and contact with the ground beneath is a way of calming down, which can then allow us to open towards these new experiences with curiosity and kindness towards ourselves.
We humans generally like to know things. Our brains strive to understand, filling in gaps in information with speculation and assumptions. But maybe, with the poet John Keats, we could embrace the value of being “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” - a quality that he termed ‘negative capability’.
In mindfulness practice, this quality is known as ‘beginners mind’, signifying a state of openness to life that is not restricted by pre-formed ideas and assumptions.
Children have a natural sense of wonderment - they are so small and everything is so big! Can we, as adults, find this in our more mundane world? At times, clearly, yes. And it is not just about nature: there are a wide range of experiences that can trigger awe. Seeing an inspiring film or artwork; recognising great skill or moral courage in another person; experiencing a different culture; holding a new-born baby or being present at the passing of a life. The experience of awe is accessible to all of us, though the routes may be different.
And we can act to bring awe more fully into our lives, even in ordinary circumstances: in the mundane act of washing the dishes we might notice the extraordinary presence of a plate!
In moments when we glimpse ourselves as an intrinsic part of the whole, our normal perception of ‘me at the centre looking out at objects out there’ can flip, almost into its opposite, as though we ourselves are visible to the wider world:
“…here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life"
RILKE - ARCHAIC TORSO OF APOLLO