The Importance of Awe

Awe of Trees and Sun

Awe and the Beginner’s Mind

What inspires awe? What leaves us wondering and mystified? I think of nature, of all kinds of beauty, of childbirth, death, and the unimaginable vastness of the universe. Poetry can amaze us with language that sings and soars. Music and dance can take away our breath. Ideas, too, can sweep us up in amazement, and mystics dwell in the land of awe day after day.
Awe-Inspiring Image of trees surrounded by clouds lit up orange by the sun

With all the opportunities we have to experience awe, you would think we’d wander around amazed and wondering all day long. Little children, unjaded by years of repeated exposure to trees and cats and ice cubes, often take delight in something as simple as a moth fluttering against a screen or the woven pattern of a tweed. The beginner’s mind in Buddhism allows us to feel that same sense of joy and wonder that children do, but for us adults, this takes focus. The Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg invites us to watch each breath as if it were the first one we had ever taken. How amazing, how wondrous, that would be. And how difficult.

Why should we bother?

Awe Is Good for Us All

According to recent research, awe is good for us. In his article, “The Sense of Awe Takes Center Stage,” Kirk J. Schneider describes ways awe can help us: it can enhance our immune system, increase our happiness, reduce our anxiety, and make us generous, empathetic, grateful, and happy to volunteer.

Apparently awe is also good for society. A healthy dose of it makes us more willing to accept people as they are, include them in our circles, and nurture them. When we experience awe, we feel connected to something larger than ourselves. This not only reminds us of how small and insignificant we individuals are, but also focuses our attention on others.

Researchers Paul K. Diff, Pia Dietze, Matthew Feinberg, Daniel M. Staccato, and Dacher Keltner, conducted experiments in which they used nature to evoke a sense of awe in participants, then looked at how they responded to people in need or to requests for money, or measured their sense of their self importance. As reported in their article, “Awe, the Small Self, and Prosocial Behavior,” they discovered that as little as 60 seconds of awe makes us more willing to help others, promotes ethical behavior, and decreases our sense of entitlement.

Although more studies need to be done, the researchers concluded that awe inspires this prosocial behavior for two reasons. First, we experience the vast and marvelous wonder of that which is greater than ourselves. Second, we realize, in a way that is humbling, but not humiliating, how insignificant we are. Our perspective is broadened, we think about others more than ourselves, so we more easily connect with and care about them.

Saving the World with Awe

That’s one reason that Schneider promotes awe. Not only does awe reduce addictions, enhance creativity, and limit judgments, but, he tells us, awe-prone people tend to believe in a “nondogmatic, noncontrolling” god. Therefore, they are more accepting of the beliefs of others.

When we experience awe, we can’t feel anger or hatred. We feel open, expansive, connected, loving. We recognize that truth and godness are so much more than dogmas and creeds, and we are open to learning new things and dialoguing even with those who are different from us.

Does this mean that rigid, hate-filled religious people don’t experience awe in the practice of their faith? Or do their rigidity and controlling religious teachings diminish their capacity to feel awe?

I won’t go that far. Many religions generate a sense of awe in many ways, such as by erecting large, ornate buildings, celebrating through elaborate rituals, and describing God as limitless and incomprehensible. Even those religious groups that fuel anger and fear induce awe from time to time.

Nonetheless, I suspect that a message heavy on blame, judgment, and retribution produces more anxiety than awe, more resentment than wonderment. Such a message closes us down rather than opening us up, and to experience awe, we must be open to new experiences.

Openness to Experience

Openness to experience is a defined personality trait that makes us more interested in new things and ideas. Scott A. McGreal, in “Can the Experience of Awe Open the Mind?,” explains that when we are open to new experiences, we’re also more likely to feel awe. McGreal suggests this is because awe itself forces us to re-examine our world and our place in it, so if we feel threatened by new ideas, we might not be eager to experience something that cracks us open the way mystical experiences do.

On the other hand, people who prefer “cognitive closure” experience less awe. They prefer clear rules, dislike ambiguity, and tend to be uncomfortable with a sense of mystery and wonder. The clear answers of a creed and the literal interpretations of a text provide more certainty than an awe-inspiring sunset, so people who prefer order and predictability tend to prefer concrete religions with clear rules and consequences.

In such communities, open-hearted listening and exposure to new ideas is limited. Awe may be less prominent in their messages than conviction and promise. While people may feel safe and comfortable in such groups, they will likely miss out on the warm, compassionate glow that comes from open-heartedly surrendering to life’s mystery. Does this mean they will be less generous with their money and their time? Is there a correspondence between those who encourage the greatest upwelling of awe in congregants and those inspire greatest amount of pro-social behavior?

What of Unitarian Universalism?

I don’t know if there’s any research out there substantiating this, but I wonder. Could the most mystical and awe-inspired faiths also generate the most selfless service and the greatest financial giving? If so, Unitarian Universalism might not fare that well.

Historically, Unitarian Universalism has been more rational and less ritualistic than many traditions. Awe is not typically a predominant emotion in our services. Although I haven’t seen research into what denominations are most generous or helpful, I suspect Unitarian Universalism does not rank among the highest. We believe in justice and equity, and we’re willing to speak out against wrongs and march for the downtrodden, and some of our people have risked imprisonment and physical harm in the cause of justice.

As a whole, however, we do not tend to give generously or provide direct, compassionate service to others. Maybe we could use a little more spiritual connection.

If this seems daunting, remember, we don’t have to climb mountains or meditate for hours to feel awe. We don’t even have to be inherently predisposed to mystical experiences. As individuals, we just need to pay a little more attention to the world around us, especially the world of nature. A small circle of trees or a city sunset will do.

As a communities, we are already partway there. Since our Unitarian Universalist denomination lacks a creed, we tend to draw open-minded people who welcome new ideas and experiences. So all we need is a little more sacred music, beauty, and silence to increase that sense of awe that could transform our Unitarian Universalist culture. In this way, we might be decrease judgment, reduce addictive behaviors, promote love and compassion, and transform our world.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Photo by Zachary Domes, from Unsplash