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.




Engaging With Spirit

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

This is not simple, venturing into the obscure, formless realm of spirit. So, for comfort’s sake, I’ll ease in with a definition.

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines spirit as an animating or vital principle held to give life to physical organisms – a.k.a., nature. Based on that definition, and recognizing that we are part of the natural world, one way to think of spirituality might be as the human capacity to engage with nature’s life force, its spirit.

To take it a step further, what does it mean to engage? If spirit is what gives nature life, and if spirit resides in us as well, then to engage implies a joining together, a merging, of our spirit with nature’s spirit. In other words, through spiritual engagement we experience our oneness with nature, and we experience this in what the poet Rainer Maria Rilke calls indescribably swift, deep, timeless moments.

It’s no surprise, then, that at such times we might be driven beyond the physical into other-worldly places. A woman is urged by nature to reach out and hug a mountain. A kayaker achieves instinctive understanding with a loon. A horse trainer enters a different dimension where he exists in a state of heightened awareness. The mountain tells a 4-wheel driver he’s where he belongs.

It’s as if at those times, in moments of spiritual connection, people willingly relinquish the rational and take part in their altered reality.

And here is where we touch on one of the most intriguing – and at times, one of the most challenging – aspects of engaging with nature’s spirit; contending with the emotions that well up inside and the feelings attached to those emotions.

As we saw in Iris’ story, the feelings can be difficult. Iris did not negate her spiritual experience. She recognized and accepted her emotions of awe and humility and the appreciation of the beautiful connection between animals and plants. But the amorphous feelings about her spiritual experience made her uncomfortable.

This makes a lot of sense. These feelings can be disorienting, scary. Like having the rug pulled out from under you.

Dr. Lisa M. Christie, adjunct lecturer in the Women’s Spirituality Program at the California Institute for Integral Studies, explained that some people have difficulty integrating mystical experiences into their lives because these experiences can radically shift our understanding of the nature of ourselves and our world. This feeling of disorientation can be frightening.

Further, because these experiences are often discounted in Western culture, people who have them sometimes doubt their  own sanity.   Or they may be censured by friends or relatives.

People can become more comfortable with this kind of experience, with this different sense of ourselves, said Christie. It takes time. It requires a shift from seeing oneself as separate in the world to being part of everything. Connected.

And then there is beauty, a physical aspect of nature that touches us deeply. We marvel at her loveliness, her majesty. When we behold something in nature we consider beautiful, however, our spirit can be stirred beyond an appreciation for the physical.

Marine biologist and philosopher Andreas Weber refers to beauty as aliveness felt.

Nature is about beauty, according to Weber, because beauty is our way to experience aliveness as inwardness. Those awe-inspiring, wow moments that seize us in the face of something beautiful tell us we are alive, engage us with all of life, with spirit.

This reminds me of a story told to me by a backpacker friend. She arrived at dusk at her campsite after a day of hiking. After setting up her tent she went and sat at the edge of the canyon at the periphery of the campsite. The sun was setting behind her. Suddenly, a ribbon of color lined up along the crest of the mountain across the canyon. Like a rainbow lying down, resting in the waning day, is how she described it. As she sat there, a sense of awe washed over her, then utter peace. She needed nothing.  She wanted nothing.  It was a perfect moment.

The words of psychiatrist Carl Jung captures the essence of the backpacker’s experience: One looks out and surrenders all self-importance.

Although there is much in nature that engages our spirit with its beauty, the stars, by offering us a peek into the expanse of the universe, stand out as instigators of spirituality. After all, who can gaze into the heavens and contemplate the universe without feeling some measure of awe and wonder, and for some, connection?

When a man stares at the stars, wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1831, he becomes aware of his separateness from the material world.

To end the discussion of beauty in nature, and this post, I have chosen to reproduce here the blog post, Nature’s Beauty, written by Robert Folzenlogen, May 15, 2009.

I believe this offers an interesting and expansive perspective on nature’s beauty, one that I wanted to share with you.

Nature’s Beauty

For most humans, the beauty of nature is represented by spectacular sunsets, magnificent vistas, colorful foliage and graceful wildlife. But her true beauty lies in her diversity and in both the interrelationship and interdependence of her physical forces, chemical processes, biologic systems and countless life forms. Nature is both evolution and extinction, life and death, growth and decay. She is a mosaic of heat and cold, light and darkness, fragility and awesome power. Nature offers sunshine and hurricanes, swans and maggots, rain forests and pond scum, whales and bacteria, distant galaxies and the molecules of life. Nature is neither good nor bad, benevolent nor judgmental, sentimental nor discriminatory. We enjoy her gifts and are subject to her whims. We are, after all, a component of her beauty, just like the golden eagle and the dung beetle.


Reflecting on Spirituality

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

A woman – we’ll call her Iris – stands between two bristlecone pines and flashes back on an elementary school lesson about the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. As she stands there she feels a connection to the trees and to all of life.

Could  Iris’ experience be described as spiritual?

The following are the comments Iris made as she attempted to answer that question for herself.

There was something about standing on the path between those two trees, and I just felt a connection, but it was a connection I hadn’t thought about since I learned about it in grade school. I thought about how the trees give off oxygen, which we take in, and we give off carbon dioxide, which they take in.

And I thought about the relationship between animals and plants, our beautiful connection to each other, that we need each other, that we’re all part of the same living organism. I don’t know if that was spiritual, that feeling of connection to everything in life. I felt it at that moment. But, maybe it was.

I would think spirituality can be a connection to something bigger than ourselves. When I stood there with a tree on either side of me and I was in the middle, what I felt was a smallness.

I’m just a speck in a big universe. You feel that you are here for a small period of time, passing through.  But those mountains and those trees are going to be here a long time.  I was humbled, not frightened.  It gives you some perspective.

The bristlecone pine are not lofty and not magnificent, not like the redwoods and sequoias. They are small and gnarled. But they are survivors, 5000 years. Think about what was happening in the world 5000 years ago. Europeans were probably still living in caves. It was before Judaism. Around the time the Egyptian pyramids were built.

And yet, a spiritual experience might be as simple as looking at the stars at night, or it could be walking through a field of wildflowers. Moments like that, awe-inspiring, wow moments. I guess a wow moment can be an appreciation of the beauty of the moment. But do I see that as a part of a big connection to God? No. You could probably be an atheist and feel the spiritual connection to nature.

I’m such a practical person, that I kind of don’t want to deal with spirituality. The feelings are too amorphous.  It’s the unknown, and spirituality has a sense of the unknown.  It could be comforting for someone actually seeking it, but for me it’s uncomfortable.

Beauty. Emotion. Connection. The unknown. God. Iris has touched  upon many of the elements we associate with spirituality. Her statement gives us a kind of blueprint for considering the topic.

Next week’s post, It is. It isn’t. Maybe It Iswill explore the role of beauty and emotion in connection with the spiritual experience. 



Intuition: The Sixth Sense

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

Intuition. How does one begin to understand something that can’t be seen, touched, tasted, smelled or heard, something that eludes those basic senses that anchor us and help make our world comprehensible? What exactly does it mean when intuition is described as an unconscious sense of knowing or a clear conception of the whole?

It is probably beyond our ability to comprehend. It is not reasonable. It does not lend itself to rational approaches to understanding.

Yet, we know intuition exists. We feel it in our gut. We infer it from observation and evidence.  Intuitive knowledge results in the familiar ‘aha moment’; in the experience of thinking or dreaming of someone who calls the next day; in the I-knew-that-was-going-to-happen event.

Intuition also offers a gateway to our primal selves and helps us preserve our unity with all of the natural world. When modern life threatens to sever us from nature, intuition lets us know and sends us out for a walk in the woods, or compels us to hug our cat, or to stop in our path and gaze into a star-studded sky.

Intuition exists in us all, although some of us are more in touch with our intuitive selves than others. Intuitive awareness becomes available to us when logic falters and objective life is not enough.

With intuition, however, we are challenged to leave the comfort of concrete experience. Our intuitive understanding does not come through reason and judgement, as happens in our conscious life. The understanding comes through knowing we know, but not necessarily knowing how we came to know. In making decisions based on our intuition, we rely on an internal communication system that accepts the absence of logic and reason.

It boils down to our conceding to the idea that we have unconscious and subconscious abilities that allow us to sense everything in our surroundings all at once. Leading us to solutions and actions.

Although the neural pathways associated with our five basic senses have been well documented, researchers are still unclear about where intuitive perception – commonly referred to as the sixth sense – resides in the brain. Researchers are attempting to understand intuition and to pinpoint the regions in the brain that contribute to intuitive experience.

Other research is attempting to understand the decision-making aspects of intuition. Scientists are trying to identify the intuitive decision-making processes that result in the ability to recognize and act on intuitive information, without intentional and conscious analysis.

An interesting four-year study, which began in 2012 by the Office of Naval Research, was undertaken as a result of a steady stream of anecdotal reports of marines and soldiers returning from deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan who, in combat, had developed a feeling or a hunch that alerted them to possible attack or the presence of a hidden I.E.D. (Improvised Explosive Device). Dubbed, the spidey sense, after the mysterious perception and intuitive power of Spiderman, this ‘sense’ about the dangers they were facing while in combat allowed them to trust what they knew and to respond without conscious analysis.

In the course of analyzing their data, researchers identified two types of individuals who exhibited greater ability to detect hidden I.E.D.s and who were more alert to the danger around them: 1) Those who either had been raised in rural areas in a natural environment and who had experience with hunting, and 2) those who had grown up in tough urban settings.

This raises many questions about the relationship between intuition, prior knowledge and experience. But I’ll leave that for someone else to ponder.

What is of interest here is this truly human phenomenon called intuition, which expands our possibilities beyond what we experience in the objective world and which keeps us connected to the wild.