Engaging With Spirit: Awesome Awe

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

Awe is more than an emotion. It is a way of understanding, an insight into a meaning greater than ourselves….Awe is the dignity of all things, a realization that things not only are what they are but also stand, however remotely, for something supreme. What we cannot comprehend by analysis, we become aware of in awe.  (Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Who is Man?” 1969)

A man stared into a canyon and felt one with everything….

A woman stood between two trees and flashed on the interdependence of all of nature….

A horse trainer walked into a forest and entered a parallel universe….

These were not substance-induced perceptions. These were not spirituality workshop assignments or planned outdoor events. These were spontaneous, fleeting moments of spiritual engagement with nature, triggered by a sense of awe.

Why awe?

Because awe is awesome. Awe is an emotion that resides in us all, dormant, on call for those moments when we behold something in nature’s spirit that invites us in. Awe connects us to our unconscious knowledge of being part of something larger than ourselves, gives us the opportunity to transcend our everyday world and connect spiritually.

Heschel describes awe as the sense of wonder we feel in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the worldAwe allows us to transcend our current frames of reference. Awe triggers transcendence.

Transcendent experience, the kind sparked by nature, involves momentary feelings of appreciation for beauty, a sense of unity with nature, God or the universe, and peacefulness. During a transcendent event we feel diminished.  Our sense of self fades away in what author Jordan Rosenfeld describes as a temporary blurring at the edges.

It’s beyond our capacity to fully grasp what loss of self means. But science now has the technology to probe the brain and, although the answers to what and why are still elusive, at least research is beginning to answer the question of how self-disappearance might occur.

There is some evidence to suggest that areas of the parietal lobe, those which affect our spatial sense, may be involved in the awe experience. Images of the brain show that during intense transcendent episodes there is decreased activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe, leaving the brain incapable of separating the self from the surrounding environment. This might contribute to our sense of self-loss and to the blurring of the boundaries between self and other things in the world.

It’s no wonder that such an experience can elicit fear in us; we earthbound creatures, comfortable in knowing who we are and where we exist in space.

But take heart. There may be a good-news point to all of this. Experiencing our smallness through awe may make us better people.

Psychologist Paul Piff and associates conducted a series of experiments designed to test the hypothesis that experience of awe would trigger a sense of small self that would, in turn, lead to greater prosocial behavior – that is, voluntary behavior intended to benefit another person, such as helping, sharing, donating, co-operating, and volunteering.

In one of the studies, after having gazed at 200-foot eucalyptus trees for one minute, students reported feeling less self-centered and exhibited greater generosity when given an opportunity to help another person. By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, the researchers concluded, awe may encourage people to forego strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others.

So, here we are. We are spiritual beings.  We have the capacity for transcendence. What now?

In Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words: Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ….get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.




4 thoughts on “Engaging With Spirit: Awesome Awe”

  1. Fascinating blog about our relationship with nature…spiritual encounters with nature, amazement and awe, blurring of self boundaries, processing in parietal lobe, wonder in the presence of something vast,…. Something greater than our understanding, that humbles us. Kind of sounds like Ezekiel’s vision…

    Since I also find the brain fascinating, I did some reading and just saw an article on superior parietal lobe ….I am not sure how the boundaries of self and “not-self” get blurred in working memory, but it kinda makes sense that working memory is involved as it keeps things juxtaposed while it works on them. Working memory would seem to be a good mechanism for paradigm shifts.

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