A few years ago, my family took a cross country road trip with the Grand Canyon as our ultimate destination. While I was excited for the time together, the road trip experience, and for the views along the way, I was unprepared for just how grand and amazing the Grand Canyon would be.
From every view, at every time of day, it was breathtaking, unfathomable, glorious. I felt like I could stand along the rim or hike the trails for the rest of my life and never take in the whole of that landscape. It was a truly awesome experience.
I have enjoyed awe-inspiring moments closer to home as well.
Sunsets along the mighty Mississippi River; the sky aflame with color, water currents powerful, swirling, mesmerizing.
Immersion in nature walking a forested path through Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park; sunlight filtering through the leaves, birdsong distant and near, blue sky overhead.
A spirit-filled worship service with sacred art, liturgy, music, all pointing toward God, and the wondrous reminder that I am a small part of something larger and greater than myself.
These are the kinds of experiences I have long understood as personally transformative and essential for my body, mind and spirit. Intuitively, I perceived these moments as awesome. What I did not know until recently is there is a growing body of research focused on a deeper understanding of the experience or emotion of awe, and how it impacts our lives for better health, mindfulness, and happiness.
The awareness of awe is not new. Theologians, philosophers, and poets have long addressed the mysterious aspects of awe, especially in regard to religion and nature.
Albert Einstein said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and 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.”
Poet Mary Oliver offers these awe-infused “Instructions for living a life”:
Tell about it.
As research develops, new definitions of awe are emerging: ”Awe is an overwhelming feeling associated with vastness, reverence, wonder, and at times a touch of fear; a sense of transcending day-to-day human experience in the presence of something extraordinary.” (Farber)
While there is still much to explore and understand, the growing body of science illuminates the benefits of awe:
- Awe promotes mindfulness through association with stillness and attentiveness, creating a feeling like time is expanded and more available
- Awe soothes and relaxes the body and mind
- Awe increases curiosity by enhancing our ability and desire to take in novel information from the environment, creating a greater desire to explore
- Awe brings people together, as we realize we are part of a bigger picture and inspired toward collaboration and cohesiveness
- Awe makes us nicer, more generous, cultivating prosocial helping behavior and decreased entitlement
- Awe improves physical health, showing correlation between the experience of awe and improved physical health and mental well-being
- Awe inspires hope, greater happiness, creativity, and spiritual health
The trials of the past year have been daunting and persistent — the COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice, social unrest, political division and inclement weather.
Perhaps you, like me, are anticipating our transition from winter to spring with renewed eagerness and hope. Sometimes getting beyond our self is the best way to care for self. As we watch for signs of awakening life in nature, it’s a wonderful opportunity to cultivate our awareness and experience of awe.
One recent study found that intentionally adding a 15 minute “awe walk” to your week can yield positive results including being happier, less upset, more socially connected, more upbeat and hopeful.
This Awe Walk Practice Guide can help explore this idea for yourself.
What are the extraordinary moments that spark vastness, reverence, and wonder for you?
Whether it is through worship, art, music, or nature, I hope you create the time and space to cultivate awe in your life, and that the benefits of awe are evident in your life as well. Be well!
To schedule an appointment with Methodist Employee Assistance Program, call (901) 683-5658. All sessions are being conducted via telehealth due to the pandemic.
Renee Dillard, LCSW
Renee Dillard is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. A native Memphian, Renee earned her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Memphis State University, Masters of Science in Social Work from The University of Tennessee, and her Masters of Divinity from Memphis Theological Seminary. She is an Ordained Minister in the United Methodist Church. Renee has experience in behavioral health, grief and loss, and community based social work. She is passionate about promoting healing and hope for individuals, families, and our community. Renee loves time with her family, meaningful conversations, getting lost in a good book, and exploring nature through a long walk on a beautiful day.
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