Research conducted by Jeff Thompson of the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University provides convincing evidence of how awe narratives can transform your life. Awe narratives are all about recalling and reflecting on awe experiences. Thompson’s research shows that doing so can enhance your mental health, resilience, and overall well being. His research also shows that developing awe narratives increases the ability to elicit further awe and to live an awe-inspired life.
Paul Pearsall in his book Awe: The Delights and Dangers of Our Eleventh Emotion, also writes about the power of awe and the value of recalling experiences that elicit feelings of wonder. Pearsall explains how awe experiences can enrich our lives—not only at the moment we experience them but as memories we carry with us over time. Such memories, as described by environmental psychologist Louise Chawla, serve as “radioactive jewels buried within us, emitting energy across the years of our life.”
We need the energy of awe in our lives. As Pearsall says, without awe and attention to awe, we’re likely to languish and to experience a new form of ADD—Awe Deficiency Disorder.
Pearsall’s research indicates that awe as a promoter of more caring relationships with others may be rooted in one of the essential aspects of an awe experience—that is, the need for accommodation or making room for something new.
Awe experiences tend to create a state of cognitive disequilibrium or imbalance. Pearsall calls these “baffling” or “mind-blowing” experiences that lead us to a place where we can no longer see the world as we did before. Something shifts and throws us off balance.
To gain a sense of equilibrium, we’ll have to think about things differently or adopt a completely new understanding of the world. This can be a good thing, as the newness of it all can keep us from languishing in a state of dullness. The result can be a life transformed.
I experienced such a transformation many years ago. It was evening. I was sitting in a library reading an article about the Gaia theory, the theory that Earth is alive. I had always thought about the planet as a non-living entity, a place where living things existed. In my mind, the world was divided into two categories: the living and nonliving. Earth, to me, was in the nonliving category. The idea of Earth being alive ushered in a completely new mental map of the world. This, for me, was an awe experience. My idea of the world and my place in it shifted.
In addition to the need for accommodation, awe experiences are also noted for perceived vastness. Awe’s vastness usually refers to anything that we experience as being much larger than our regular frames of reference. This vastness may relate to physical size, as in the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls. It can also relate to figurative vastness, as an aesthetic or spiritual experience. The figurative vastness might be embedded in big ideas or grand theories, as was the case of my awe experience with the Gaia theory.
Both vastness and accommodation, as a part of the awe experience, often lead to self-diminishment. We get lost in the moment; the sense of self diminishes. This awe response is sometimes referred to as a “no-self” or “self-transcendent” experience. With transcendence, we lose the preoccupation with self and are transported to a larger world. We realize that we are a part of something much greater than ourselves.
This awe response is sometimes referred to as a “no-self” or “self-transcendent” experience.
If awe experiences are to be treasured and if they have the power to transform our lives, you may be wondering what you can do to live an awe-filled or awe-inspired life. You may want to know how to keep awe alive and dullness at bay. Researchers and mystics tell us to be attentive to what is truly awesome about life and to recognize the value of our awe experiences. Thompson encourages the writing of awe narratives. Pearsall recommends the practice of keeping an awe diary. These two mindfulness practices are very similar. Both involve recalling and recording your awe experiences.
You might start by thinking of a recent experience you’ve had that involved the feeling of wonder or awe. Write about the event and the related feelings you had as accurately and completely as you can. Include as much detail as possible. After writing several awe narratives or keeping an awe diary over a period of several days, look for patterns in the events that elicit awe. Look for ways in which you respond to awe experiences. What new insights or lessons do they offer? In what ways do you experience a diminishment of self?
Don’t be surprised if recalling and reflecting on your experiences of awe urges you to make some profound changes in your life. This is to be expected. Also to be expected is a new appreciation of beauty you’ve experienced in the past and a renewed sense of energy about the future. Don’t be afraid of the “no-self.” It may be the first step toward a greater self.
Keep reading: “Unearthing Ecstatic Memories”