Experiencing Wonder and Awe

“While drawing grasses I learn nothing “about” grass, but wake up to the wonder of this grass and its growing, to the wonder that there is grass at all.” ~ Frederick Franck, The Zen of Seeing

This month is about perspectives. One aspect of perspective-taking has to do with seeing with eyes of wonder. The artist Frederick Franck found that he could up his experiences of wonder by drawing, because you have to really look and see to be able to draw. This is true.

A 2015 U.C. Berkeley study found that the experience of positive emotions, particularly awe and wonder, lowers inflammation and promotes healing. Dacher Keltner, a co-author of the study, says that the things we do to experience these positive emotions – a walk in nature, listening to music, beholding art – all have a direct influence upon our health and even life expectancy. Other benefits of experiencing awe and wonder include: our perception of time expands, we become more patient, more willing to volunteer our time or help others, and we value experiences over material things.

Awe and wonder are often used interchangeably, but there’s a subtle difference between the two, which the study details. To summarize, wonder results in admiration, but awe adds the element of fear or submission, the sense of being in the presence of something larger than oneself. Let’s look at each separately. 

Wonder

Wonder makes us stop and go ahhhh. It’s often felt when we encounter something surprising or beautiful. We stop to admire. 

If you've been reading my work for a while, you know that I include wonder as one of the nine contemplative habits in the Adventures in Seeing book. I believe that, like the other habits, wonder can be cultivated and experienced every day. 

Jeffrey Davis has spent his whole life tracking wonder and he’s coming out with a book on the subject in November (Pre-order here). He tells us why it is so important to cultivate a sense of wonder, personally and professionally.

“Wonder opens us to possibility more than to problems, to creativity more than reactivity. Wonder opens the mind with surprise. It cracks rigid preconceptions and stiff assumptions wide open. Anyone who wants to make a real difference in this changing world needs wonder on the team.”

Awe

Awe is an emotion that is a particular form of wonder, but adds an element of fear. It’s often rare and short-lived, but memorable, for example, a lunar eclipse, the birth of a child, or witnessing a tornado.

When I took the Playing Big program in 2010, we talked about fear and awe as opposites but closely connected. Our facilitator, Tara Mohr, told us of the word yirah, which she learned from Rabbi Alan Lew, and described it as a combination of fear and awe that is different from reactive fear. It’s an exciting kind of fear that’s sending an important message. For example, you might experience yirah when embarking on a new venture that’s closely aligned with who you really are and what you most want to do. 

Recently, I experienced awe (and fear) at the wildfires ravaging British Columbia and seeing incredible performances at the Olympics. Where and when did you last feel awe? 

Three Faces of Wonder

Jeffrey Davis describes three faces of wonder – wide-eyed, vertigo, and quiet.

Wide-Eyed wonder - is the kind of wonder we experienced as children, full of innocence or astonishment. These moments stop us short and beg to be noticed and appreciated. I experienced this type of wonder in California when I saw the purple sand at Pfeiffer Beach in the Big Sur area. We all love these moments. They create a feeling of being alive.

Vertigo wonder - is a time of “fertile confusion,” as Davis calls it, sometimes unwelcome and often uncomfortable. It often emerges from a crisis or disruption or challenge; for example, a car accident, job loss, or unwanted medical diagnosis. I think we’ve all probably experienced this vertigo wonder in the last year.

“It feels like we’re out of balance and can’t see clearly. We might feel fearful or we might feel a sense of something new and exciting on the horizon. It’s a time of wondering and pausing and questioning, of living in uncertainty. In that disorientation, we can feel delight and confusion, joy and fear, exhilaration and anxiety simultaneously. Who am I? Where am I? Who might I become? Where might I go? How will I get through this?” ~ Jeffrey Davis

Or, it might just feel like depression or general malaise, telling us that it’s time for a change; to consider new possibilities. Maybe you need to write, create a piece of art, or take a trip to gain perspective. You might have to take time to grieve a loss or do nothing but patiently wait for answers to emerge.

Quiet wonder - is the contemplative face of wonder, where we see the beauty in ourselves, others, or our everyday life exactly as it is, without judgment. It’s when we notice the subtle, everyday moments that make life meaningful, like the way grasses sway in the wind or the taste of a just-picked tomato. Quiet wonder feels satisfying; life is enough just as it is.

Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson advises noticing these wonder-inducing, positive experiences and staying with them a little longer. By doing so, we rewire our brains for greater happiness.

Which face of wonder have you experienced lately?

Practice

Track awe and wonder this week. Note the different types and differentiate between them. If you don’t have an experience of wonder each day, ask yourself why! 

Do you have nature deficit disorder? The natural world is arguably our most important source of wonder. Yet, many people have little time to experience nature. It was Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, who coined the term “nature deficit disorder.” He is particularly concerned about children, and believes that the lack of connection to nature can lead to behavioural problems. It is a loss of communion with other living things. Spend time communing with other living things this week.

Download my PDF, Experience Wonder, for photographic exercises to practice.

I highly recommend this free, half-day Wonder Summit, being hosted by Jeffrey Davis. It’s coming up soon, on Saturday, October 2nd, as a lead up to the launch of his book and will offer practical exercises to cultivate wonder..

Resources 

Tara Mohr on Yirah.

Find out why Frederick Franck is my Number One Hero.

Why do we feel awe? by Dacher Keltner