From The Science of Awe written by Summer Allen, PhD: “[Awe results when] any stimulus exceeds a person’s normal range of experience in one attribute or another… [Awe] leads to a ‘perception of vastness’…that leads people to feel as if they are part of something larger than themselves...[or leads to a] ‘need for accommodation’ when it violates our normal understanding of the world…Experiencing awe often puts people in a self-transcendent state where they focus less on themselves…awe can be considered an altered state of consciousness…”
Rabbi [Abraham Joshua] Heschel observes: “Awe is something that is evoked. We do not manufacture it; it is not a product of will power or of naked patriarchy… It is a gift, a grace. We undergo it and we receive it… Awe is an intuition for the dignity of all things, a realization that things not only are what they are but also stand, however remotely, for something supreme. Awe is a sense for the transcendence, for the reference everywhere to mystery beyond all things. It enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine….to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing, the stillness of the eternal.” (“Rabbi Heschel on the Via Positiva part 2” by Episcopal priest Matthew Fox)
Theoretical Physicist Albert Einstein wrote: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. [Those] to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, [are] as good as dead: Their eyes are closed.”
The Daodejing begins, “The Way that can be followed is not the eternal Way. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.” Mysticism has often been defined as the essence of religion and spirituality, and mystical experiences are commonly characterized as ineffable, transcendent, beyond the rational, and expressible only in paradox and metaphor. Awe and wonder are a fundamental aspect of mystical experiences.
Science is “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” (google dictionary) The scientific method involves research. Scientific truths involve creating a hypothesis, testing, and analyzing the results. At its essence, science is an expression of curiosity, looking deeper into experiences that prod you, attempting to resolve information that doesn’t make sense to you, and finding answers that ultimately create more questions. For some scientists, experiences of awe and wonder are at the heart of what moves them to start their research, study, or exploration.
What is awe? Well you heard some definitions earlier in the service. So, why do scientists—people who find answers using research and study-- and mystics—people who ground themselves in the amorphous and intangible world of the spiritual and religious—find value in awe? Do experiences of awe have any value for us?
Many years ago, when I was psychotherapist, I was treating a young woman who had attempted suicide and was hospitalized in a locked psychiatric unit. As we talked, I noticed that sometimes her mannerisms changed, her facial expressions seemed to shift, even her vocal quality was not always the same.
This puzzled me. After treating her for some time, I wondered out loud to her about these changes. She immediately regressed into a ball on the floor, and started crying. I was shocked by this, and tried to provide her some comfort. She started sharing with me that she had blackouts, times when she didn’t know what she had done, and didn’t know how she had gotten where she found herself to be. I was a little anxious about her disclosure, primarily because I didn’t know how to respond.
In the back of my mind, I wondered if she could have some sort of dissociative disorder or even a multiple personality disorder. But my rational mind said, “there is really no such thing as multiple personality disorder.” Lots of my peers felt that multiple personality disorder was just a sham disorder— a disorder in which a patient deliberately produces or falsifies symptoms of illness, for the sole purpose of assuming the sick role and getting attention.
I wondered if she was just using all these odd symptoms to see how I would respond. But as I continued to work with her, I pondered at my own response to her problem. She began disclosing a fascinating internal world of people of all ages and sexes that lived in and through her. Some were weak, some strong, some controlling, some destructive, some trying to save this young woman from self-destruction. Parts of her would respond to psychotropic medication while others would not. Parts of her had access to certain memories that others did not. Parts of her had infirmities that others did not. I once saw a bruise appear and disappear as she shifted from one personality to the next. I listened and observed in awe of what she was describing. I felt such powerful emotions as she spoke. As I observed her tears flowed from my eyes. Not because I was sad, but because I was so overfilled with emotions—fear, amazement, awe, wonder. I remember experiencing a ‘perception of vastness’, as if I were in the presence of something larger than I could possibly understand. And I felt a ‘need for accommodation’; my normal understanding of the world was going to have to expand if I was going to be able to understand or help this person.
My vision of what was possible expanded exponentially. My beliefs about human minds, bodies, even what was possible biochemically were shaken and I began to realize that my own intuitions, my own prima facie experiences, had just as much validity as the purely fact-based knowledge of my professional peers—even though my own conclusions were diametrically opposed to theirs. The power of awe led me on a journey of study and work to understand this condition and to figure out how to treat this woman.
Before this experience, I thought of awe as solely a spiritual experience, something that I was graced with, a gift when I saw something vast or incomprehensibly beautiful or deeply moving. I remember the first time I hiked Big Bend National Park and stood on the Mount Emory beneath a night sky pin-pricked with stars. For the first time I could clearly see the vastness of our little patch of the universe sparkling with mysteries. I felt humble as I contemplated my place, my tiny little speck of a place, within all of existence. I wondered how I fit into this vastness. Trying to take in the mystery of all that could possibly exist, of all there was to understand in our universe, it was overwhelming. I felt a connection with something larger than myself in the experience of the stillness of the eternal in the sky above. In that moment, I didn’t think about what meaning I should make of this experience. I didn’t feel any motivation to study the stars or try to figure out how to reach them. I simply took the experience in and let it sink into me with joy. In the years since, I’ve been able to draw on that experience to re-connect with my understanding of the divine and the universe, as well as my place in the universe, recalling a mood, a feeling, an experience, I could not and didn’t need to quantify with words.
About 4 years ago, I had some pushback when I described ‘awe’ as a spiritual experience, particularly from a group of folks who didn’t believe in anything supernatural, anything spiritual, or in any aspect of divinity or the divine. I remember when one man, who described himself as a secular humanist, told me that he had had many experiences of ‘awe’ in nature and said none of them were spiritual—they were, to him, emotional and profound, even transformative, but not spiritual. Some of these experiences he held within himself to remember and reflect on. Generally these experiences were positive and affirming. Some motivated him to treat others more kindly and to respect the earth. And some of these experiences prodded his curiosity and his skepticism, and decreased his materialism.
After our conversation I wondered, “Is awe a spiritual experience, or is it an altered state of consciousness? Is there only a specific segment of the population, a particular type of person, who is able to have experiences of awe? Does the experience of awe have an evolutionary purpose for humankind?” I knew it’s effects on me were varied. And I knew many people had described awe as spiritual. At least a few, like Albert Einstein, spoke about his experiences of ‘awe’ as being necessary to his scientific curiosity, writing: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. [Those] to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, [are] as good as dead: Their eyes are closed.” So many questions, so few clear answers. And maybe there aren’t any clear answers.
Part of me was curious about awe as a phenomenon to be studied and part of me preferred the experience of awe without explanation, simply allowing it to grace my life, leaving me feeling connected, humble, and wonder-full. However, my curiosity got the better of me and I searched for and found a summation of the research that has been done on awe. Sounds very Unitarian Universalist doesn’t it. It started: “While philosophers and religious scholars have explored awe for centuries, it was largely ignored by psychologists until the early 2000s…This has led to a number of fascinating discoveries about the nature of awe, while also raising many questions still to be explored.” (A white paper prepared for the John Templeton Foundation by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, September 2018, “The Science of Awe”). In for a penny, in for a pound, I continued reading.
The image to your right is of milk, dye, and water. It is from a video that was used by researchers trying to elicit the experience of awe in a study participants. And in fact, these kinds of videos often did elicit an experience of awe in college students. But here’s the question that was not answered by this study: why does this video elicit awe? Perhaps some of you might share your thoughts with us after the service today.
As we grapple with what awe is, what elicits awe, and whether awe serves some sort of evolutionary purpose, we could look at the meaning awe held for our ancestors. There are theories that the experience of awe helped early humans find vast spaces to settle together—like valleys or canyons-- or that the experience of awe undergirded early community building, since the awe experience often results in people feeling more connected to one another and sometimes results in people being kinder to others. We could look at early meanings of the word awe; in Old English and Old Norse, awe meant “fear and dread particularly toward divine beings.” The English meaning evolved into “dread mingled with veneration, reverential or respectful fear; and the attitude of a mind subdued to profound reverence in the presence of supreme authority, moral greatness or sublimity, or mysterious sacredness.” Today, we often hear the word awe used in reference to “a positive experience in nature.”
Pretty much all this research has limitations, and those limitations may impact the ultimate meaning of awe for each and all of us. You see awe experiences are elusive and hard to define. Perhaps that’s their nature. But does that make them any less useful to us? To mystics? To scientists?
Even though I was aware of these limitations, I did find myself drawn to the tool researchers used to measure awe. Researchers often use the awe subscale in the Dispositional Positive Emotion Scale. In this diagnostic tool a person is asked to indicate their level of agreement on a scale from 1-7 for each of the following statements:
I often feel awe.
I see beauty all around me.
I feel wonder almost every day.
I often look for patterns in the objects around me.
I have many opportunities to see the beauty of nature.
I seek out experiences that challenge my understanding of the world.
I am partial to the final statement from the awe subscale. I seek out experiences that challenge my understanding of the world. Those experiences may result in my doing more research, or may result in my holding onto to those experiences to reflect on later for spiritual grounding or joy. In my current stage of development, I understand that I need mental and spiritual challenges in my life to continue to grow in spirit and wisdom, to learn more about myself and others, to deepen my relationships, and to find additional ways to be kinder and more respectful to people and planet.
What would change if you put these statements from the awe subscale on your desk or on your refrigerator, and looked at them from time to time. Considering how awe fits into or could fit into your life. Perhaps these statements might lead you to consider the value of awe. And perhaps these statements might help you define awe for yourself, as a mystic, a scientist, as both, or as none of the above, or maybe as a Unitarian Universalist.