Understanding and Cultivating Awe
Posted Dec 23, 2012
"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. . . 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." (Albert Einstein)
Emotion is at the heart of the holidays. Looking through the holiday cards I have received thus far this year, I am struck by references to “joy,” “peace,” “love,” “cheer,” and “merriness.”
A couple of years ago, though, I had an experience that changed the way I think about the meaning of the holidays. I was attending a Christmas Eve service at a church that my family and I had recently started attending. The service was organized differently from what I had expected, with alternating readings and songs. With daytime light still pouring through the stained glass, the beginning readings provided a kind of historical background to the Christmas story. The music complemented these readings. We sang “O Holy Night,” and I noted that listeners were encouraged to “fall on your knees.” As the sun set, the sanctuary became dark, and I realized that there were hundreds of candles surrounding me. We sang “Silent Night,” and I felt undercut by the lyric that “shepherds quake at the sight.” I had goosebumps, and tears poured down my face. My soul felt refreshed and rejuvenated by the meaningfulness of the worship. I can remember this moment like it was yesterday.
At the core of the various religious events that historically provide the basis for many of our holidays, there is a sense of awe. As the above example illustrates, awe may be one of the most significant emotions that humans experience.
The Meaning of Awe
Awe is one of the most misunderstood concepts in modern society. Indeed, University of Virginia Psychology Professor Jonathan Haidt noted that the current use of word “awe” has become “water-downed” to a meaning akin to “double-plus good.” Perhaps this is why Neil Pasricha, author of the popular blog “1000 Awesome Things,” can refer to experiences such as “kindergarten class photos,” “the three paycheck month,” and “putting a slice of lasagna on your plate and having it all stay together” as “awesome.” As Rabbi and Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel remarked, “the awareness of grandeur and the sublime is all but gone from the modern mind.”
In contrast to the contemporary use of the word, the historical meaning of “awe” implies a potent emotional experience. In fact, the verb “to awe” stems from the 13th century Old Norse word “agi,” which literally translates “fright or terror.”
Perhaps the clearest treatment of awe is provided in the theological classic, The Idea of the Holy, in which German theologian Rudolf Otto develops the idea of the “mysterium tremendum.” According to Otto, this experience consists of two intertwined components. One aspect is a sensation of trembling, which comes from a perception of being in the presence of something different from the ordinary, overpowering, and vibrantly alive. Second, there is mystery, which typically leads a person to fascination, a general term used by Otto to refer more specifically to feelings of being astonished, thunderstruck, transfixed, or dumbfounded.
More recently, psychologists have started to scientifically study the experience of awe. In his book, Born to be Good, Berkeley Psychology Professor Dacher Keltner refers to awe as an emotion elicited when someone perceives something to be so vast or "great" that an entirely new kind of thought process or belief is necessary. Awe appears to consist of elements of surprise, fear, and confusion, and it may have a distinct physiology (for example, a unique facial expression, vocal tone, and "goosebumps"). Psychological scientists also have started to discover some of the possible effects of awe, including a greater interest in religion and spirituality, an enlarged sense of time, decreased materialism, greater likelihood to help others, and enhanced life satisfaction.
Although awe often may be transformative, it also appears to be relatively rare. For those who would like to reawaken a sense of awe, I provide some suggestions below.
1. One way in which awe may be cultivated is to approach one’s interior life in a more imaginative, experiential way. St. Ignatius taught individuals to use as many of the senses as possible when approaching a holy text to more personally experience it. For example, rather than simply reading about or listening to the Christmas story, a person could imagine the details of the sights, sounds, and smells of personally being there. Consistent with this, Stanford University Anthropology Professor Tanya Luhrmann has found that individuals randomly assigned to go through Ignatian prayer exercises are more likely to report awe-inspiring mystical experiences than those assigned to practice mindfulness exercises or listen to lectures on the Gospels.
2. Otto believed that awe may be “awakened in the spirit” in situations that are conducive to the experience. Thus, a second way to cultivate awe may be to seek out those circumstances most likely to stimulate the emotion, which likely vary considerably across people. Common elicitors of awe include vast, natural locations (such as the Grand Canyon); experiential worship services (including prayerful music or silence); art of various kinds (Otto singled out inspiring architecture, such St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome); the presence or life stories of particularly virtuous people (such as the Dalai Lama or Mother Teresa); and locations that have a sense of timelessness or significant history associated with them (such as the Holy Land).
3. A final idea for cultivating awe is to reflect on previous awe experiences. For example, in her book, Positivity, University of North Carolina Psychology Professor Barbara Fredrickson advises individuals to create an “awe portfolio,” consisting of photos, thoughts, and objects that that capture previous experiences of awe. To help with this process, she encourages individuals to reflect on questions such as the following: “When have you felt intense wonder or amazement, truly in awe of your surroundings?;” “When have you felt overwhelmed by greatness, or by beauty on a grand scale?;” and “When have you been stopped in your tracks, transfixed by grandeur?.”
In addition to joy, peace, and love, I also wish you and your loved ones some of the awe that is at the root of our celebrations this holiday season. As the Celtic mystic, John O'Donohue, once said: "Behind your image, below your words, above your thoughts, the silence of another world waits."
Andy Tix teaches at Normandale Community College in Bloomington, Minnesota. Andy writes more regularly about mystery and awe at a site devoted exclusively to the topic. Please consider following that site for more articles like this.
Fredricksen, B. (2009). Positivity: Top notch research reveals the 3 to 1 ratio that will change your life.
Keltner, D. (2009). Born to be good: The science of a meaningful life.
Luhrman, T. (2012). When God talks back: Understanding the American Evangelical relationship with God.
Miller, W. R. & C’de Baca, J. (2001). Quantum change: When epiphanies and sudden insights transform ordinary lives.
Otto, R. (1958). The idea of the holy.
Rudd, M., Aaker, J., & Vohs, K. (2012). Awe expands people’s perception of time, alters decision making, and enhances well-being. Psychological Science, 23, 1130-1136.
Van Cappellen, P. & Saroglou, V. (2012). Awe activates religious and spiritual feelings and behavioral intentions. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 4, 223-236.