The Power of Awe

Maybe you don’t need to sit on your meditation cushion longer or more often. Maybe you don’t need to learn how to self soothe. Maybe you don’t need to work on unresolved issues from childhood. Or, maybe you do. I don’t know, but I do know that if you start developing your awe muscle, either you won’t need to do those other things, or if you do, they’ll be easier.

Awe is an emotion that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention in the past—an overlooked gem. And when people consider awe, they often think of it as something they can experience as a reward for having done “their work,” or the result of some significant insight, or what happens after enough hours on a meditation cushion. But based on our research, awe does not have to be a reward that is at the end of your journey; it can be a starting point.

If you follow our work, you may have heard that along with Dr. Michael Amster, we conducted two large-scale awe studies in cooperation with UC Berkeley and NorthBay Hospital last year. The results—not yet published—are impressive: decreases in depression, anxiety, loneliness, pain, and increases in wellbeing and mindfulness. But what’s even more impressive is how the participants got these results.

In less than a minute or two a day

For twenty-one days, the participants practiced accessing awe three to five times a day, and the practice only takes about ten to twenty seconds each time. Think about that for a moment.

In about the time it takes to read the short paragraph above, people were accessing awe.

So, a few questions. What is awe? Why is this simple practice getting such great results? And, how can you learn to do it?

Awe is an emotion that carries us beyond our typical experience of the world to the point of amazement. Most studies of awe use extraordinary sources of stimulation to induce awe, for example, sitting on the rim of the Grand Canyon, standing at the foot of a redwood tree, listening to a remarkable piece of music like Beethoven’s Für Elise, or some kind of virtual reality simulation. All of those work, but they aren’t necessary. This was part of our unique discovery.

You can discover awe in the ordinary. And we’ve developed a simple technique to help you do so. If you want to experience this more fully, you can apply for our course, which occurs via Zoom, in four 1-hour sessions, February 4th, 11th, 18th, and 25th. I believe there are only four spaces available as of the publication of this article. If you aren’t able to join our course and you want to give this a try, read an article we wrote for the Greater Good Science Center—it provides enough for you to get started.

Time Expands

There are many reasons why the awe practice produces meaningful results. The primary reason is the way awe alters our sense of time. As time expands, our sense of urgency disappears, we become more patient, which changes the way we relate to other people. The other significant thing that happens is a brief resetting of our nervous systems.

I think of my awe practice as a way to wake myself up several times each day. I come off autopilot and give my attention to something that amazes me. It’s like a respite, a break, a positive infusion that keeps my nervous system from getting stuck in defense physiology.

Does awe solve all my problems? No, but by developing my awe muscle, I find everything else a little bit easier. Awe shifts my state of consciousness, almost instantaneously. Most of the time, we live in a state of safety consciousness—focused on being productive and getting things done, but if we access awe, we experience less stress even when we’re in safety consciousness. And if we are in safety consciousness and want to be in heart consciousness but are having a hard time making the shift, accessing awe can open that pathway.

Awe is almost always available to us; we don’t need to wait. We can insert moments of awe throughout our day. Wake up in the morning, don’t have time to meditate, take a moment to access awe. Getting ready to have a difficult conversation with your partner and you feel anxious about it, take a few moments and access awe. Feeling tired, but there is some task you need to do, step into a moment of awe. Going to bed at night, hoping to have a good night’s sleep, before you turn down the sheets, take a moment to access awe. The more you do it, the easier it becomes.

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