A chronic pain specialist and meditation teacher shows us how to simplify mindfulness and harness the healing ability of awe.
Michael Amster, MD, is a San Francisco Bay Area-based physician and faculty member at Touro School of Medicine. As a pain management specialist, Michael is keenly aware of the integration of mind, body, and spirit and the effects of physical and psychospiritual pain on health and wellbeing.
Michael has been a student of meditation for over 30 years. He is a certified yoga teacher and meditation teacher trained at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. He is also the founder of an organization dedicated to health care professional wellness. We spoke to him about his latest book, The Power of Awe, cowritten with Jake Eagle, LPC.
Our review of The Power of Awe can be found in the January/February 2023 issue of Spirituality + Health.
S+H: When was the last time you felt awe? Where were you, and what were you doing?
Amster: I experience brief moments of awe many times throughout my day. Earlier today, I had three of them in the 20 minutes of taking my dog on a walk to the park. I had an awe moment during the deep connection I had when I gazed into her eyes as I put on her leash and witnessed her excitement to be going on a walk. I had several awe moments walking to the park and noticing the various trees and the diversity of leaves and bark textures. I had an awe moment looking at the sky and contemplating that the sun is almost 100 million miles from Earth, and it takes just eight minutes for the sunlight to reach my eyes. I find endless opportunities to discover awe in the ordinary moments of my day; all I have to do is bring my full attention to the present moment to experience them.
Wellness practices are often inaccessible to the populations who need them most. A mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program could be eight weeks long. Yoga studio memberships can be costly. How do you position A.W.E.—your practice of “attention, wait, and exhale/expand”—in a world where self-care is heavily commodified?
The beauty of the A.W.E. Method is that it is a 5-15 second practice that can be done by anyone, at any time and place. It does not require you to participate in formal classes, such as MBSR, or attend a time-intensive or costly mindfulness retreat. Compared to a formal mindfulness practice that requires a focused amount of time and effort, the A.W.E. Method can be done right now in the cycle of a breath—wherever you happen to be. Once you learn to practice the A.W.E. Method, you’ll be experiencing many moments of awe throughout your day.
One of the many interesting qualities of awe is that it has been shown by researchers at UC Irvine to be experienced more readily by individuals of lower socio-economic status, compared to their more affluent counterparts. In a 2018 study published in the Journal of Emotion, researchers also demonstrated that lower socio-economic status was associated with less narcissism and more caring for others, including feelings of compassion and love.
Which practice is more impactful and why: A.W.E. or ditching our devices?
We are increasingly more connected and dependent on our devices than ever before, which makes it more challenging to ditch them. Finding time away from devices seems elusive, and it can be stressful for many people to turn them off.
One of the reasons the A.W.E. Method is so powerful is that the practice takes only 5-15 seconds and can be done anytime, anywhere. You don’t have to turn off your devices as you do for 10-20 minutes with a formal mindfulness practice. Anyone can afford the time it takes to practice the A.W.E. Method. It only takes time for a cycle of a breath to experience a moment of awe. Some of my most powerful awe moments have been in line at the grocery store or waiting at a red light.
Did we need the A.W.E. Method one hundred years ago? Ten years ago? Tell us your take on our collective cultural moment and our relationship to (lowercase) awe.
We have always needed awe, a vital part of our evolution as a species. The emotion of awe is interwoven with our neurobiology. Our physical and mental health benefits from experiences of awe. We know from research over the past 20 years that awe is a prosocial emotion. Awe diminishes our sense of ego and expands our capacity for empathy, generosity, and kindness to others.
As we have become more attached to technology and disconnected from the natural world, we have lost a sense of awe in our daily lives. In fact, we live in an awe-starved culture. We know from research that Americans experience the least awe of any nation on the planet. The A.W.E. Method is so effective because we reconnect to what is most precious to us in a matter of seconds.
A.W.E. sits squarely between evidence-based method and spiritual practice. How do you persuade folks who tend to want one or the other to try A.W.E.?
One of the most exciting aspects of the A.W.E. Method is that it’s a powerful mindfulness practice with scientific evidence to back it up. In our research studies with hundreds of participants, we demonstrated significant improvements in depression, anxiety, burnout, chronic pain, stress, and overall sense of wellbeing in just a minute a day.
As a scientist, medical doctor, and spiritual seeker, I consider the A.W.E. Method to be the best of both the scientific and spiritual worlds. And we know that there is a dose-response, which means the more you practice the method, the more you benefit. I can’t imagine a more ideal spiritual practice that is scientifically proven and accessible freely to anyone, anytime and anyplace.
What was your most surprising discovery during your research for The Power of A.W.E.?
The most surprising discovery during our research was how the emotion of awe has the unique ability to be present with other emotions, such as sadness or loss. When we’re unhappy, for example, we may not be able to access happiness at the same time. And when we’re anxious, we may not be able to relax at the same time. But whether we feel unhappy or happy, anxious or relaxed, we can also feel awe.
That we have the capacity to be in awe when experiencing difficult emotions gives us a great deal of influence over our suffering.
We had many participants in our studies who were suffering from cancer and other chronic illnesses, and yet they were able to find profound mental and physical health benefits from the A.W.E. Method. Awe brings us back to what is precious, in part because it has the unique ability to be present with other emotions.
Read our review of The Power of Awe here.