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 didn’t used to get a lot of attention—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.

What happens when you connect with awe is that first you connect with self, because you are the vessel through which awe manifests. It is through your awareness of the beauty, magnificence, creativity, tenderness, humor, and love that awe arises.

Every moment in awe is a moment of connection, first with self, then with the object of your attention. Additionally, when you connect with awe, you humble yourself. But you don’t humble yourself with judgments of “not enough,” you humble yourself with awareness of how incredibly fortunate you are to be alive and able to experience the awe that surrounds you. You humble yourself by experiencing a profound connection.

How do we know so much about awe? 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. 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 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, or standing at the foot of a redwood tree, 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. We based it on the acronym A.W.E.

A for “Attention.” When you choose to pay attention to things you appreciate, value, or find amazing, you focus your mind and heart on things that are likely to foster awe. We call this selective perception.

We all live in a world with an overabundance of stimulation. We can pay attention to only a few things at a time. Too often, we don’t choose what we pay attention to, and we operate on autopilot.

But you can choose. You can direct your attention to notice things you value, appreciate, or find amazing. When you do, your mind quiets down.

W for “Wait.” After you focus your attention, wait—at least the length of one full inhalation—and you can begin to experience a state of coherence. This occurs when the busiest parts of your mind—the default mode network—quiets down, and your body, mind, and spirit synchronize.

In our fast-paced world, we often resist doing things that take time because we feel we have too much to do. One of the reasons we believe that this A.W.E. method is so valuable is that it takes hardly any time at all. Simply focus your attention on something you appreciate, value, or find amazing, then pause long enough for one full breath, or two, and then…

E for “Exhale and Expand.” When you exhale, you activate the vagus nerve, which stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system—decreasing heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and releasing muscular tension. And during exhalation, the contraction of the diaphragm sends a message to the brain to release dopamine—enhancing your mood, creating a calming effect, and acting as a pain reliever.

You might wonder why you don’t experience the positive benefits of exhaling every time you do it. That’s because your mind is too busy. By paying attention to something you value, appreciate or find amazing, you are quieting your mind. Then, when you exhale deeply, you are likely to experience states of awe—characterized by goosebumps, shivers, raised eyebrows, and wide eyes.

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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