Why The World Needs More Wonder
“The most important emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the power of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.”
We’ve been walking for a good amount of time now, sweat dripping down our foreheads, heavy backpacks weighing down on our shoulders. The red earth is muddy under foot. Just beyond the small path, the earth steeply drops off the cliff's edge into swirling fog, which is obscuring the sight below, I can't even tell what's down there or how deep the canyon goes. In fact, we are walking through such thick fog that I can barely see my friend that is a few paces in front of me on the path.
As we turn the bend, the clouds part and the late afternoon sunlight streams across the path. I look up and gasp. Beyond the cliff's edge is a stunning lush green valley, thousands of feet below us. And beyond that, through the parting clouds, I see turquoise ocean going out to the horizon. I hear a bird call out in the valley, echoing off the cliffs that are covered in lush vegetation with partly hidden waterfalls cresting down them. I have to sit down, I am so moved. I look around, taking in this expansive panoramic view for the first time, as if trying to breathe it all in.
After a pause, the length of which extends to a nearly timeless place, my friend beckons me: we're almost there! We just have one small patch of trail left, this time with cliffs falling steeply on either side of the narrow path. I grip my water bottle tightly as I focus on my footing. When I am able to lift my eyes off the path again, I can't believe where I am standing. We are on the farthest cliff's edge, with nothing but wide ocean stretching out before us as far as the eye can see.
Most of our group has already made it, and one friend, sitting on a rock, is singing a sweet lullaby on his guitar to welcome us. I pinch myself: is this moment even real?? Together we all pause to watch, utterly mesmerized, as the rich pinks, purples, and reds dance across the sky while the sun moves towards the horizon.
We find a patch of land a little away from the cliff's edge and set up camp, pausing to cheer excitedly when the first star of the night is spotted. Then another and another until the sky is bursting with sparkles, the likes of which I've never seen quite so clearly before.
The evening is spent laughing, dancing by the fire, telling stories and sharing words of appreciation. In the middle of a lively story, a friend stops and points up in astonishment. We all turn around. The full moon, a bright golden beauty, is rising above the cliffs, illuminating the valley below with its bright silver light. The night is so clear, I feel I can see every crater and valley on the moon's surface, and my outstretched hand nearly makes a perfect shadow on the ground beneath me. We pause in silence, but for the crackling of the fire behind us.
We put out the fire and lay down on large blankets, the sounds of the ocean thousands of feet below us a distant hum. We ponder the vastness of the cosmos, musing about galaxies, black holes, and asking, how is it that any of us are even alive at all to witness and participate in this?
It was a camping trip to remember. Here are a few of the pictures, taken above the Kalalau Valley in Kauai, HI. That first picture is of us out on the sunset ridge and this one is a picture of me in my tent. Thank you Patrick Kelley for the awesome (in the full sense of the word) images.
When was the last time you had your breath taken away from the experience of
something beautiful, magnificent, sublime?
When did you last get goosebump shivers while witnessing superb poetry, dance, art, or super human athletic abilities?
When were you last deeply moved by the goodness of a fellow human?
Awe. Wonder. Reverence for the sublime sacredness of it all. Being so filled with a sense of the miraculous that it takes your breath away ...why is any of this important?
Well, for many reasons. The more I experience and study these states, the more I am convinced that it is essential for humanity to consciously cultivate these states during these chaotic challenging times.
And I don't just mean the awe experienced from witnessing grandiose panoramic vistas like the one described above. There are many ways to experience awe. I'm especially interested in what Dacher Keltner calls micro moments of awe, such as the example I gave last week of seeing beauty in the ordinary - even in a task as mundane as washing dishes. There are a great many reasons why I think that awe and wonder are antidotes to much of the challenges we are currently facing on the planet. For the sake of not turning this into a lengthy book, I am going to start with four reasons. ;-)
Let's first clarify what we're talking about with some definitions. Although I'm mostly focusing on awe and wonder, I also adore the cluster of emotions around these states: astonishment, amazement, delight, curiosity, interest, elevation, reverence, a sense of sacredness, the numinous, and the mysterious, etc. Since there seems to be the most scientific research on awe, let's start there.
WONDER: "a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable" (source) or "rapt attention or astonishment at something awesomely mysterious or new to one's experience." (source)
Awe has recently become a hot topic in the realm of Positive Psychology. One example of this interest is the 3-year Templeton Foundation grant that Dr Keltner and the Berkeley Greater Good Science Center received to study awe. At the end of these 3 years, to share their results with the larger community, they produced a conference called The Art and Science of Awe. I was fortunate enough to attend and meet many other "wonder junkies," as Jason Silva calls us. The following four points incorporate some of the research that was presented there.
Without further ado, here are four reasons I think it's more important than ever for humanity to be consciously cultivating, seeking, and experiencing more wonder, awe, and reverence for the sacred beauty of existence.
1. Wonder and Awe Increase Quality of Life
"A life shaped by wonder, as we shall see, is characterized by intellectual and moral sensibilities that open up the widest possible world of personal fulfillment" ~ Robert Fuller, Wonder
Let's start with a point that is fairly self-evident. The subjective experience of wonder, curiosity, awe, and amazement are pretty enjoyable experiences. These states feel good. And we like feeling good. This is a simple point, but one worth noting, as many of us are struggling to find any ounce of feeling good these days. With the opioid epidemic and increasing rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide, experiencing emotional states that feel good aren't to be taken for granted. But that is not the only way that they increase our quality of life, oh no.
Much of the research on awe points to the "small self" phenomena, where people, when witnessing sights of such grandeur as Mount Everest, or the infinitely vast starry night sky, or images of supernova explosions, feel a sense of being small in a vast and grand universe. This often results in the feeling of one's problems becoming smaller and less significant. (source). Being less pre-occupied with our own self-interests and internal drama narratives can free up massive amounts of energy, energy that can then be mobilized for creativity, inspiration, novel thinking or any number of other focuses.
Paul Piff, a prominent researcher on awe, said at the Art and Science of Awe conference, "it's clear that awe results in a sudden and dramatic reduction in attention to the self and its goals, and causes people to lose themselves in this all-encompassing event, to be here now. Awe seems to kind of dissolve the self, if you will, to give rise to the feeling that the self has been lost and perhaps allows the world and its novelty and freshness to seep in."