Embracing Awe and Wonder: Pathways to Transformation

Step into a world where the ordinary reveals the extraordinary, where awe and wonder become gateways to a deeper connection with life.

Amidst life's ceaseless ebb and flow, 'awe and wonder' emerge as silent beacons, guiding us to the profound beauty that lies beyond the surface. Embrace these moments that gently nudge our souls toward an expansive understanding of our existence.

What wonder is this…a garden among the flames! —Ibn’Arabi

In his poem, A Garden Among the Flames, the scholar and mystic poet Ibn' Arabi invites us to look beyond appearances and see with the eyes of the heart. This poem is a testament to the profound change that unfolds within us when we stand witness to the transformative power of nature and life.



Embracing the Transformative Power of the Inner Vision

To be resilient is to be able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions, how we can "bounce back" or regain our strength.

No matter the situation, the solution is this: go straight to the goal—reconnect with your divine Self, and consciously enter God's presence. That Reality is the life of our life, the Love of our love, breath of our breath. It is everywhere, yet sometimes forgotten.

Remembrance of the truth of our being is the key to being resilient, experiencing awe and wonder, and living a soul-inspired, soul-guided life.

What is it that brings forth the rare flower after a fire? What allows us to have hope amid despair or strength to meet challenges that seem insurmountable?

"Remembrance of the truth of our being is the key to being resilient, experiencing awe and wonder, and living a soul-inspired, soul-guided life."

—Yogacharya Ellen Grace O'Brian

The first part of this series focused on resilience—how we withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions and can bounce back or regain our strength. Yogacharya O'Brian offered a definition of resilience from Dr. Simran Jeet Singh: resilience is about our ability to find hope and agency amidst difficulty. And Yogacharya's working definition of resilience is our ability to be anchored in awareness of our spiritual nature as we act skillfully amid challenge and change.

This second part of the series focuses on awe and its close cousin, wonder, considering how awe is an inherent, natural support for resilience. What do we know about awe? What is our experience of it? Is it a rarified spiritual experience that comes only unbidden, or can we arrange conditions to show up for it? And what happens when we experience awe? Does it change us?

Understanding Awe and Wonder

It's useful to start with our own experience. We can ask ourselves: how have I experienced awe in my life? When was the first time, as a child, that I experienced it? What was that like? What was it related to? How does the memory linger even until today? And essential to our inquiry is to ask ourselves: What was my most recent experience of awe?

Recalling inspirational experiences from our lives often leads us back to moments filled with awe and a deeper understanding of the world around us.

The book Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life by Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, explores the new science of human emotion, specifically focusing on awe and compassion and their roles in shaping moral identities and the human quest for meaning. Keltner's career is dedicated to this study of emotions and their impact on life.

His years of study positioned him well for this work, as well as his willingness to investigate his own experience. Many human emotions have been studied, and now we have brain activity maps. But awe was one of the last to be explored. Likely because the experience of awe is so varied, hard to pin down, and by its very nature, beyond words. Understanding the transformative power of awe enriches our lives, offering us a lens through which the mundane reveals its hidden magic.

What is awe? How would you define it?

An online dictionary defines awe as a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.

Keltner & Jonathon Haidt define it this way: Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world.

Like meditation, which was highlighted in the first message in this series, experiences of awe are transformative. We know that from our experience of it. Yet, learning how it transforms--the scientific, investigative look at what awe brings forth, is encouraging and helps us identify it as an essential medicine for our time. And we have free access to it!

Keltner wrote: How does awe transform us? By quieting the nagging, self-critical, overbearing, status-conscious voice of our self, or ego, and empowering us to collaborate, to open our mind to wonders, and to see the deep patterns of life.

This is something we know. When we experience awe, we are momentarily free from ego-based identity. From the research cited in Keltner's book, Awe's vanishing self has even been charted in our brains. The focus in this work has been the default mode network, or DMN, regions of the cortex that are engaged when we process information from an egocentric point of view. This finding would suggest that when we experience awe, regions of the brain that are associated with the excesses of the ego, including self-criticism, anxiety, and even depression, quiet down." As our default self vanishes, other studies have shown, awe shifts us from a competitive, dog-eat-dog mindset to perceive that we are part of networks of more interdependent, collaborating individuals. We sense that we are part of a chapter in the history of a family, a community, a culture. And ecosystem.

The Eight Wonders of Life that Inspire Awe

By its very nature, awe is mysterious. It just happens! Can it occur more regularly? Is there an intervention we can prescribe for ourselves?

Here's the most encouraging insight about awe that we can test out in the laboratory of our lives: It can occur more regularly because it already does. It is not rare; studies show that it happens regularly—on average 2-3 times per week—that's once every couple of days! Our observation will reveal it when we take the time to explore it. Really?

Many of us experience awe in ways that go unnoticed because we think that it must be an overwhelming, mystical experience. But in fact, we have what could be called "ordinary awe" regularly—experiences of touching or experiencing the extraordinary in our everyday life. Many encounters that are mind-expanding, vast, or beyond our comprehension occur. It's happening, but we may not be taking it in, registering it, or allowing it to be as transformative as it could be.

In his research, Keltner and his colleagues identified eight categories of awe, which they called the eight wonders of life, context-specific ways in which we ascribe meaning to vast mysteries. Here is their list of eight wonders that provide an opportunity for awe:

1. Moral beauty—such as witnessing acts of courage or compassion

2. Nature – experiencing its beauty, vastness, grandeur

3. "Collective Effervescence"— the tribal experience of "we" that can occur in group settings such as weddings, graduations, sporting events, political rallies

4. Music—all types

5. Visual design – such as architecture, sculpture, painting

6. Spirituality or religious experience

7. birth (life) and death experiences

8. Epiphanies—ah-ha moments or sudden insights into essential truths

The opportunity to experience awe surrounds us every day. What is needed is for us to pay attention. Along with paying attention, it is helpful to cultivate curiosity about what we are encountering or witnessing and how it influences us.

Awe is the feeling that accompanies encountering something vast beyond our current understanding of the world. It is a feeling that interrupts our conditioned perception of life and takes us out of our narrowly focused ego-driven mindset into wonder. The pursuit of everyday wonder doesn't require grand gestures; it's about appreciating the sublime that dances quietly in the ordinary.

Embracing Awe and Wonder: Pathways to Transformation

Step into a world where the ordinary reveals the extraordinary, where awe and wonder become gateways to a deeper connection with life.


The Language of the Heart: Listening to Life's Messages

Here is how awe showed up for me recently on my walk home from the grocery store. I wrote about it in this poem, starring the neighborhood crows. I've had many experiences with them—having them caw at me or dive at me when they feel threatened, but this experience was different. No caws or calls, just silent movement and communication.

On an ordinary afternoon

a group of neighborhood crows

lead me home from Safeway

They fly just above me, a little ahead,

then stop on the overhead wire

waiting for me to catch up.

On it goes like that

they fly the familiar route,

stay close to me, go ahead, stop, wait,

then fly again, a few feet forward,

like a friend who drives in front of you

to guide you someplace you have not been

pulls over and stops now and then

so you can catch up and stay in sight

of one another.

I carry a backpack of groceries,

ingredients and plans for supper

the crows carry the wind

and portents of grace,

the nourishment we need most now.

These are times when everything is speaking to us,

urging us to learn a new language

listen carefully:

use the ear of your heart and the eye of your soul

to walk the path you thought you knew

These are times when everything is speaking to us.

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