Being an old guy with old-fashioned habits going well back into the previous century, I still like to have paper reading material at my dinner table, so as to peruse while I eat (or after I eat; more and more I like to linger at the dinner table for a while after I’ve finished my food and drink). I’ve been a subscriber to The Atlantic for over 25 years, and I still try to get thru the issues each month. The January/February issue had quite a few interesting article topics, including octopus consciousness, oil fracking, Glenn Beck, the health dangers of sugar, sleep difficulties (something I experience all too often these days), and not surprisingly, another screed against white America by Ta Nehisi Coates, renewing his call for reparations because of the sin of replacing Barack Obama with Donald Trump.
(Sorry, Mr. Coates — despite all of the historical injustices inflicted upon African-Americans by whites which you accurately cite, African Americans must share some of the blame for Trump, given that too many qualified African American voters who helped Obama in 2008 and 2012 stayed home this past November 9; despite the racism and sexism that motivated some white voters, had blacks they turned out, Trump might not have carried Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. Also, note that Mr. Coates mostly ignores the issue of voter misogyny against Clinton — which cuts across color lines).
All of that was quite good and interesting. But the article that I have given the most thought to lately is a short piece entitled “Awesomeness Is Everything“. Awesomeness? Does that have to do with “awe”? I never thought much about awe. I can’t say that I’ve experienced it very often in my life, or if I did, I didn’t immediately recognize myself being “awe struck”. To me, awe is more of an advertising term — this new IPhone is awesome! It has also had its political uses, e.g. the supposed “shock and awe” that G.W. Bush’s Iraq invasion in 2006 was supposed to impose upon the Iraqi populace. “Awesome” is a cheapened word in our modern world, applicable to anything half-way impressive (or anything CLAIMED to be impressive).
But in the context of Matthew Hutson’s article, the true experience of human awe and its importance to us starts to make more sense. Mr. Hutson cites 10 psychological and sociological studies which observed that people who experienced awe (genuine awe, I would guess) became more generous, content and spiritually inclined. Some of these studies indicated that awe-struck people often feel a greater sense of universalism and oneness with others. Hmmm, so what is the magic behind “awe”?
Unfortunately, Mr. Hutson did not attempt to explain that. But at least he provided a fairly good (although brief) exposition of what some of the important factors are in the experience of awe. Perhaps the key factor is a sense of vastness, something beyond the scale of ordinary daily experiences. This vastness could be a matter of size, skill, beauty, or intensity. A 2013 article on awe in The Atlantic considered some of the life experiences that might trigger awe. “Travel ranks high. So does gazing at the cosmos on a clear night or watching a sensational film, as well as anytime we encounter massive quantities: colorful tulips in bloom, a bustling market in India, or a stunning school of fish.”
And of course, on the dark side, a negative version of awe could also be felt regarding power, destructiveness, ruthlessness, etc. (I did read somewhere that many GOP politicos were awe-struck by what Donald Trump did to their party.) The word “fear” is used in some definitions of awe, e.g. in the Oxford dictionary. Whether good or bad, an “awe-some” experience is supposed to overwhelm our normal way of looking and thinking about things, such that we might have to adjust our ways of “looking and thinking”. A 2012 study on awe describes it as “an experience of such perceptual expansion that you need new mental maps to deal with the incomprehensibility of it all”.
I guess that it was easier to experience awe as a child; the older you get, the harder it is to be mentally overwhelmed. Perhaps an element of novelty is required; perhaps a particular experience doesn’t create the same “jaw dropping” impression after the fourth or fifth go-round. I suppose that most people’s first youthful encounters with sexuality induces a sense of awe. The rest of our lives are often a struggle to re-find the “vastness” of what we first experienced, because as Sade sang, “it’s never as good as the first time”. (Perhaps that’s why some adults go to such ridiculous lengths to re-find the kind of sexual thrills that naturally diminishes with adulthood, after our hormones diminish and the mind adapts to the unexpected “internal vastness” that a 16 or 18 year old might feel).
I wonder if the astronauts who have spent long periods up in the ISS grow tired after a while of looking down at the earth — the same views that inspired so much awe amidst the early astronauts during their 15 minute or 15 day missions in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.
What interests me most is the connection between spirituality and awe. How does awe help our spirituality? Can the “awe factor” explain why some religions went to so much expense over the course of medieval and modern history to construct huge buildings for worship (e.g. the great Catholic cathedrals dating from the middle ages; but let’s not forget Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem from the 1st Century BC, followed by Herod’s Temple build during Jesus’ time)? Does awe help us understand why religions stage big ceremonies with haunting music? Do such things help to kindle a sense of awe that might support religious faith amidst the masses? And can the awe factor relate to meditation — can a meditator experience awe, an awe manufactured in the mind, while sitting with closed eyes in a dark and probably uninspiring place ?
The awe concept is helping me to understand the feelings that I occasionally had (and hopefully might still have) when hiking. Much of the time, hiking is a strenuous chore with a variety of annoyances such as bugs or unexpected rainshowers. But there are occasional moments when you come upon an unexpectedly wonderful view or see some really neat wildlife (hopefully not a hungry bear!), when you feel really good about where you are.
Actually, the first few minutes of a hike are often the most “awesome”. I usually get to a trail by driving, often a drive that is anything but relaxing. Getting to the trailhead is not much different from driving to work on a dark early January morning. But if the weather is half-way decent and the trail leads to a quiet area surrounded by trees and rocks and maybe a stream, everything seems to change; you can feel the relaxation washing over you, despite the physical challenge of walking on a rough and possibly uphill pathway. If you are lucky, your mind notices this; the problems in your life that you were probably thinking about during the drive start to seem not so important after all. The word “peace” starts to make more sense. Everything seems to make a little more sense, at least for a while.
Later on in the hike you get tired and the awe wears off. But if you’re lucky, you might take some of it home with you, and you feel better for a few days (I’ve noticed that I sleep a bit better during the first night or two after a good hike).
Meditation might also do this, once in a while. That’s what the “Big Mind” is, when you somehow find an internal sense of wonder and vastness at the sense of just being. (I’m not referring to the “big mind” teachings and themes of the notorious Genpo Roshi, although despite his downfall, he did recognize the power of experiencing vastness more than most other Zen teachers). I didn’t find a whole lot of support for a direct connection between awe and meditation on the web — a search turned up but one note, located on the Brainwave Research Institute site.
I would agree with a lot of what BRI says about the connection between awe and meditation, to wit:
the loss of wonder, awe and curiosity are not inevitable, no matter how much information and newness we are bombarded with. Staying curious, staying amazed and eager, means being open and childlike again, with no preconceived notions. Settling deep into a meditative state changes the way the brain perceives the world. Of course when you are meditating with your eyes closed, you don’t visually perceive the world you are sitting in. Everything you ‘see’ during meditation lives only in your brain; it’s a representation of how your brain sees the world. This is the key to unlocking the wonder, awe and curiosity within you, if they have been stifled or underused . . . .
As you sit in contemplation, you focus your thoughts on something simple, like a pebble. As you contemplate the pebble, you can’t help but become amazed at the incredible forces of Nature that not only created this rock out of something that was not rock, and then reduced the rock to something smaller than a pea… and that in another millennium . . . it will have changed again into something else, and will continue doing so long after this planet does not exist, over and over and over again … This opens up contemplation of eternity… Contemplating the nature of simple things is a Zen tradition. And, the wonders and curiosities of the world are never ending, if only we choose to become aware of them and engage them in our thoughts.
In my actual experiences as an active Zen meditator who regularly sits with a local sangha, I will admit that during most of my time on the cushion, I have not been in a state of awe. But then again, I do occasionally have “a glimpse” of something bigger, a trap door that cracks open for just a second or two, seemingly leading from the noisy dark background of my mind into a “bigger” world. On very rare occasions, it seems as though that door stayed open for a few minutes, and I was able to “stick my head” through it and briefly feel the wonder of whatever this “big world” might be.
So on most days, I get off the sitting cushion without experiencing anything extraordinary (although I still welcome the slowing and calming of body and mind that usually does occur). But I have had a handful of memorable occasions when I walked away a bit awe-struck at . . . at being alive in general.
The “awesome vastness within” might also occasionally sneek up on you during a social situation, while you are having a rare night where you really get into a good groove with your friends or lover or family, and you start to feel very much at one with them. Again, not always, and probably not very often; but occasionally, you might have an encounter that makes you feel a bit better about being here. This occurs even though nothing much has really gotten better (other than your own sense of well being, and perhaps some of the social bonds amidst your friends were strengthened a bit). I’m not a parent, but people who are parents often describe the experience of becoming a new parent in terms that suggest awe (except for the mother who has to do all the painful work! But once that is over, mothers too experience awe about the which child their body has produced). Once again, though, the awe doesn’t last — before long it’s getting up to a crying infant at 2:30 am and continually changing diapers.
An unexpected sighting of a shooting star can still do it for me. I remember at least 3 or 4 shooting stars that I have seen, going back several decades. I remember where I was and what they looked like. Again, as with a really good meditation sitting or a really close experience with a comrade, shooting stars are generally quite rare, so the novelty factor is not overwhelmed. I still look up at the moon and the visible planets and the more recognizable constellations (like Orion, the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia and Cygnus) whenever I’m out on a clear night, but I can’t say that they make me feel awe-struck at this point in life. However, on those rare occasions when I’ve been out of the NY metro area with all of its hazy skies and light pollution, and have seen the true night sky with its brilliant splattering of stars against the black night, well the goose bumps usually follow.
So I’m becoming convinced that the notion of awe is useful after all; awe is perhaps a required component of “spiritual realization”. Unfortunately, however, awe is not a very reliable phenomenon. Perhaps some people are more “awe prone”, while others get accustomed to “big experiences” very quickly and don’t feel much awe as adults. It would be interesting if the awe researchers would dig deeper into this question. Could differences in “awe sensitivity” help to explain why some people are very much concerned with spiritual questions and matters (whether traditionally theistic or more “eastern” or “mystic”), and others just don’t care. Could it be that a logical positivist skeptic like Michael Shermer just hasn’t experienced much awe in his life, that he just doesn’t get goose bumps? And could our differences in awe-sensitivity correlate with genetic and/or neurochemical features in the brain (which would give Michael Shermer and his followers even more ammo to attack all of the trans-scientific metaphysical ponderings about ultimate beings or themes in the universe and the possibility of conscious live beyond death that people who have encountered awe often engage in)?
And yet, even if some people “get it” and others don’t, based upon known scientific laws and interactions, would those laws eviscerate or de-legitimize whatever that “feeling” is, the one that we get from being in the state of awe? Even though they don’t occur very often, we still tend to remember the awesome times in life more than the quotidian things (i.e., we remember beaches and concerts and good moments with friends more than driving to work, waiting in the supermarket checkout line, or washing dishes); and even more than most of the bad experiences.
Sure, there are “awesomely bad” things that happen to us in life, but I’d still like to think that the good awe experiences outnumber and outweigh the bad for most of us. And perhaps that’s why the need for religion or other forms of spirituality and mysticism just doesn’t seem to be going away in modern times, even if old-school religion isn’t in demand so much anymore.