“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”
— Albert Einstein
I stood there with my toes in the sand gazing at the endless expanse of water.
I was a little boy and it was my first time seeing the ocean in person.
It gave me goosebumps. My jaw was left hanging wide open, stunned by what I was witnessing.
I was experiencing awe.
Awe is a profound self-transcendent feeling.
It is the wellspring of the mystical experiences through which religious traditions have emerged.
Keep reading this article and you might find yourself struck with awe before you finish.
I’m going to share an exercise with you that will help you tune into the awe-inspiring experiences all around you.
But before we dive, why is awe so important?
Astonishingly, we only began researching this emotion rigorously in 2003 and we are beginning to discover that awe carries with it powerful benefits that could help recenter a world off balance.
What are those benefits?
- After an experience of awe, you’re more likely to engage in altruistic behavior because you’re feeling a deeper sense of connectedness with others
- You’re more likely to engage in experiences over material goods
- Your perception of time transforms creating the feeling that you’re inside of a timeless moment
- Awe is the emotion that most strongly predicts reduced levels of cytokines, a marker of inflammation that’s linked to depression because they block serotonin and dopamine
- It sharpens your mind making you more discerning and enhances your capacity to analyze the strength of an argument
To some, this combination might sound like the description of a psychedelic trip.
But this experience is accessible to all of us. No drugs necessary.
So what exactly is awe?
It’s made up of two primary characteristics….
- Perceived vastness: Experiencing something so incredibly expansive or deep that the self-feels small in comparison
- Need for accommodation: The need to update our mental structures to assimilate the experience we are having.
Essentially we experience awe when we encounter something of such magnitude and grandeur that we reach the horizon of our comprehension and our chattering mental dialogue short-circuits.
We enter a still, timeless moment. We feel more connected to the world around us.
And our brain goes into “absorption” mode trying to gather as much information as we can in order to create an updated model of the world.
Great works of art and lavish natural experiences can evoke awe.
And I believe we can trigger awe in everyday life.
In fact, it’s been something I’ve been learning how to do for over a decade.
As a close up magician, I’ve watched as sleight of hand could trigger widened eyes and goosebumps in spectators.
The vastness they encounter is the mystery and the need for accommodation arises from having just witnessed something impossible. Their mental structures can’t make sense of what they just witnessed.
But if you don’t happen to have a magician on hand, you can still access awe because the mystery of life is all around us.
We are living inside of a grand mystery it’s just that we normally shield ourselves from its magnitude with the knowledge we’ve come to acquire through our lifetime.
The 7 Symphonies of Awe
Below I’ve listed out a 7-step exercise to help elicit awe right now.
Each step is a doorway into a rich sensory experience and each piece is connected to all of the others.
I’ve used the analogy of a symphony because there is rich complexity in each of these worlds I’ll describe. Allow yourself to soak it up, ponder and feel what I’m describing.
These “living symphonies” are happening all around you in every moment.
Immerse yourself and the ordinary might begin to look extraordinary.
The Symphony of The Flower
Imagine yourself looking at a Flower. If you have real flowers in your house or in your garden even better. But if not the image above will suffice as a replacement.
Now allow your attention to fall softly on this flower and let your mind begin to explore its intricacies.
Begin notice this flower is more than a flower. It’s THIS flower. It’s a unique representative of the flower family. Notice the smell or what you imagine it might smell like. Notice the vivid colors.
Bask in the beauty.
To help facilitate this process, this 1-minute Richard Feynman video can help:
Sit and savor this experience for a while before moving onto the next one.
The Symphony of The Brain
Now notice, all while this has been happening, that your eyes are converting this stimulus into electrical signals sent to your brain in order to construct this perception of a flower.
Your eyes soak up the input and send it to the occipital lobe in the back of your head.
Your brain has somewhere around 86 billion neurons that all serve different functions to create the experience you’re having right now. Even the capacity to reflect on this process is a product of the process itself.
You haven’t had to “do” it. It’s somehow just been happening.
But for your brain to function it needs to be properly oxygenated.
The Symphony of The Body
Notice that this whole time you’ve been breathing.
You haven’t even thought about it. It’s just been happening.
Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.
The lungs infuse your blood cells with oxygen and your heart pumps these blood cells into the vital organs of your body.
There are 37.2 trillion cells in your body. The mitochondria in your cells are converting nutrients from the cell into energy.
All of these complex processes and many more are occurring below the surface of your awareness right now.
We don’t need words for these things in order for them to happen.
They are just happening.
The Symphony of The Earth
And within this, there is an exchange. The oxygen we inhale is exhaled by the plant that birthed this flower.
The oxygen is expelled through photosynthesis that converts light into energy.
This is process fueled by what we exhale from our lungs: carbon dioxide.
This reveals a harmonious relationship that is happening on the surface of a rock of tremendous size that innumerable types of living creatures call home.
When astronauts first went into space, the experience of looking back on their home planet struck them so deeply that is was given a name: the overview effect.
From this perspective, we feel the preciousness of our planet. The differences dissolve between us because we are all riding this “pale blue dot” suspended in darkness.
The Symphony of The Cosmos
The planet is hurtling through space.
A part of a solar system that revolves around the star that is closest to us: the sun.
This solar system is embedded within a vast galaxy known as the Milky Way. There are 100 billion planets within this galaxy alone.
There are an estimated 100-200 billion galaxies in the Cosmos.
These numbers are beyond comprehension.
And all of those planets and galaxies are in motion.
We are in motion.
The Symphony of The Past
And we are in motion through time.
Shot from the past like a cannonball into this present moment.
The cannon was the Big Bang setting all of this in motion some 13.6 billion years ago.
Humans have only been around for an estimated 50,000 years.
100 billion of us have died.
There are 7.6 billion of us alive today sitting on the shoulders of all of those who came before us.
Are you in touch with the generational cascade behind you?
Can you sense how your ancestors struggled and fought for you to be having this moment right now?
The Symphony of The Future
We find ourselves today in a technological wonderland our descendants could hardly imagine.
We are building exponential technologies that could solve some of the world’s biggest problems or create even bigger problems.
Our daily choices will impact the future trajectory of life on this planet.
We can impact and influence the lives of our children and our children’s children from where we sit today.
What future will we lasso and pull towards us with our thoughts, intentions, and actions?
What will this symphony sound like?
The only way to find out is to pick up your instrument and play.
Tuning Into Awe In Your Everyday Life
So reconnect to these different symphonies as you go through your daily life.
Take time to notice the flower.
Be grateful for the body and brain that allows you to perceive it.
Recognize how fortunate you are to live on this planet and extend appreciation to your ancestors for everything that had to go through in order for you to be here right now reading these words.
And from this awe-inspired place we can build a more harmonious future together.
Mike is a magician and poet telling tales from the intersection of attention, deception, and wonder.