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Why the World Needs More Wonder Part Three

“I think we are here to wonder… the more I wonder, the more I love.”

~ Alice Walker

As I am getting ready to share my new online course, Awakening to Wonder, I wanted to do a recap of the many blogs I've shared throughout 2018 on the benefits of awe, wonder, reverence, and the related emotions. Without further ado, here are some of the reasons why I believe humanity would greatly benefit from experiencing a deeper sense of wonder, awe, and reverence, and why I am so passionate about the subject.

Experiencing states of awe, wonder, and reverence...

1. Increases Your 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, and amazement are 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 feel good these days.

2. Helps You Step Up On Your Upward Spiral

“The difference between peak performance and poor performance is not intelligence or ability; most often it’s the state that your mind and body is in.”

~ Tony Robbins

Opening ourselves up to seeing and appreciating the simple wonders around us can be one of the most effective and easy ways to change one's state and to begin an upward spiral. If we are able to allow wonder to open us up and to uplift our spirits, we can use that momentum to take the next step to feeling better and taking better care of ourselves, thus stepping up on a virtuous, or upward spiral.

Moral elevation, an emotional state related to wonder and awe, is the feeling you get when witnessing a great act of moral goodness. Jonathan Haidt, author of Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good, said, “powerful moments of elevation seem to push a mental reset button, erasing negative feelings and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, and optimism.”

3. Fosters Openness

"As Jonathan Haidt put it, wonder opens our hearts and minds. It motivates a quest for increased connection with the putative source of unexpected displays of life, beauty, or truth. This originally requires increased openness or receptivity rather than instrumental action. Wonder is thus somewhat rare among the emotions in its functional capacity to motivate people to venture outward into increased rapport with the environment." (Source)

In Nico Frijda's book, The Emotions, he describes the purpose of the facial expression of wonder, amazement, and surprise, saying "raising the eyebrows facilitates lifting the upper eyelid, and together they are supposed to facilitate rapid eye movements and enlarge the field of peripheral vision." Not only does wonder enlarge our field of vision, but it also seems to enlarge our mental space, often opening us up to contemplate larger questions about the universe and come up with novel ideas.

4. Orients Us Towards Something Larger

"However elicited, experiences of awe are unified by a core theme: perceptions of vastness that dramatically expand the observer’s usual frame of reference in some dimension or domain" (source).

Much of the research on awe points to the "small self" phenomena, where people, when witnessing sights of such grandeur as Mount Everest 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 as well as feeling like a part of something larger (source).

Reverence, a sister to awe and wonder, also connects us with a sense of something larger. In a graduation speech that Dacher Keltner gave, he said, "in caring and imagining the lives of others, we encounter the fragile, fleeting beauty of life. This is the heart of reverence—our recognition that we are part of something sacred that is larger than any individual self.”

5. Increases Prosocial Behavior

"No matter how you bring about these experiences," Paul Piff says in his talk titled Can Awe Combat Narcissism?, "...experiences of awe make people feel relatively less significant and more connected to something bigger, larger, more powerful than their individual self. And similarly,... we also find that awe brings about significant boosts in a person's generosity, their willingness to help others, their willingness to behave in more ethical ways, and take on the needs of others and de-prioritize their own individual goals and concerns. And, awe seems to give rise to these increased patterns of generosity, compassion, and kindness because of this relative smallness that awe can bring about."

6. Increases Compassion

"Indeed, moral theorist Martha Nussbaum concludes that wonder is the principle emotion that can lift us beyond the pursuit of immediate self-interest. Nussbaum notes how wonder takes us beyond self-absorption and makes it possible for us to see people and objects as worthy in their own right. Wonder is thus intimately linked with compassion and the capacity to act to preserve the integrity of life even when there is no immediate connection with one's own self-interest." (Source)

Reverence, a sister emotion to wonder and sometimes considered a cardinal virtue, is also closely related to compassion. From a sense of reverence for all life, compassion naturally emerges. As Paul Woodruff said, "reverence entails compassion, because it entails understanding the weaknesses you share with other human beings. When the reverent soul is aware of human suffering, it does not turn away. ‘That suffering could have just as easily been mine,' says the reverent soul, and feels accordingly. Then the reverent soul follows those compassionate feelings into action" (source).

7. Brings Us Into the Present and Expands Our Sense of Time

"Experiences of awe bring people into the present moment, and being in the present moment underlies awe’s capacity to adjust time perception, influence decisions, and make life feel more satisfying than it would otherwise." ~ Melanie Rudd (source)

From the article titled, Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being, researchers Melanie Rudd and colleagues found in three experiments that participants who felt awe, relative to other emotions, expressed that they felt they had more time available and were less impatient. Given this perception of more time, people who experience awe are more likely to volunteer their time as well.

8. Enhances The 'Altruism Effect'

"Awe is the ultimate 'collective' emotion, for it motivates people to do things that enhance the greater good." ~ Dacher Keltner (source)

Increasing our positive emotional state, increasing our openness, helping us feel as if we are a part of something larger, increasing our desires to engage prosaically, and expanding our perceived sense of time, all add up to what scientists call awe's "altruism effect." Many studies have looked at how awe helps to increase generosity, willingness to volunteer and donate and give of one's time, as well as increased kindness and compassion.

And it doesn't need to be a big extravagant experience of awe to produce these effects either. As Dacher Keltner at the Berkeley Greater Good Science Center said, "our research finds that even brief experiences of awe, such as being amid beautiful tall trees, lead people to feel less narcissistic and entitled and more attuned to the common humanity people share with one another."

9. Is Part of the Antidote to Otherization

"The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction." ~ Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

"Otherization," is the process by which we make anyone, any group of people, or any thing, out to be "other" than ourselves. In order to knowingly inflict harm on another, we must otherize them to some extent. Once again, it appears that awe may be part of the antidote, among many other components, including education, friendships with people that we consider to be the "other," etc. Researchers have "found that eliciting awe via a nature video caused participants to feel more connected to people in general on the Inclusion of the Other in the Self Scale" (Source).

10. Motivates Us to Protect That Which is Sacred

"Everything is a sacred reality with infinite preciousness with immense potential to unfold. So the idea of reverence and respect is something that connects our ecological thinking and our social justice thinking. The entire universe is composed of precious beings, precious sacred realities and we’re here to commune with them." ~ Drew Dellinger

According to the study, Assessing Reverence in Contexts: A Positive Emotion Related to Psychological Functioning, reverence motivates us to preserve, to protect, or to engage with that which we consider respected or sacred.

Paul Woodruff makes the case that now is the time to revive reverence, saying, "without reverence, things fall apart. People do not know how to respect each other and themselves. ...Without reverence, we cannot explain why we should treat the natural world with respect." (source)

A key reason to write about reverence is that many believe that a loss of reverence is at the heart of most of our global crises, including our ecological crises. In a world where so many of us have forgotten that we emerged from and are an integral part of the web of life, and that our earth community needs us humans to take our roles as stewards and custodians with reverence, humility, compassion, and love, renewing reverence is part of the work of our times.

11. Health Benefits

"Nature connects us to the deepest part of our soul, sending visual healing to our hearts, showering us with the gift of love for ourselves and the world around us" ~ Louie Schwartzberg (source)

Researchers have started investigating the relationship between our health, specifically, our levels of inflammation, and what scientists call our "prosocial" emotions, such as joy, connection, and love. In this study, Stellar said that out of all of the prosocial emotions that they tested, "awe, measured in two different ways, was the strongest predictor of lower levels of proinflammatory cytokines." Cytokines can act either as pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory agents, and in this case, it appears that awe may actually help reduce inflammation.

Louie Schwartzberg has a program called Visual Healing, "a virtual immersive program of Moving Art... availing his stunning award-winning body of work collected from over 40 years, to health and wellness institutions and organizations wanting to bring a sense of natural wonder, healing serenity, restoration and well-being to their environment... Advanced research in areas of health and wellness show positive effects on health outcomes, including shorter length of stay in hospital, increased pain tolerance and decreased anxiety."

In a previous article, On Reverence, I wrote more about some of the studies showing the connection between reverence and lower complications after surgery and decreased hospitalization times.

12. Increased Inspiration, Insights, Innovation, Flow, and Creativity

"The experience of wonder, then, is a principle source of humanity's creative adaptation. It spurs us to break loose of reconstructed models of our world to pursue quite novel interests - among which might include the quest for intrinsic meaning, the realization of social justice, or the artistic creation of particularly vivid examples of truth, beauty, or vitality." ~ Robert Fuller

In Steven Kotler's CreativeLive class on cultivating creative flow states, he said that awe is the front end of a flow state. When presented with such perceptual vastness as galaxies or deep geological time, he says, the conscious mind can't process it, so it kicks over into processing with the subconscious mind, giving a perfect setup to enter a state of flow. In an awe experience, our perception of time often starts to distort, which is also one of the features of a flow state, once again making awe a beautiful doorway to flow.

Flow states are known to increase the chances of inspirational insights and creative innovations that people can't seem to unlock in ordinary states of consciousness.

13. Unlocks Your Unique Genius and Contributions

Jason Silva on awe: "we must strive to enter these spaces because these are the only spaces that have lead to visions that have transformed the world."

I'm excited to feature an interview in my upcoming course, Awakening to Wonder, in which we will discuss how wonder can act as a gateway to discovering your unique genius and contributions.

14. Reclaim Your Sovereignty from the Attention Economy

There are so many demands on our attention at every given moment. The Attention Economy rides on capturing, keeping, and monetizing our attention, trying to keep our attention hooked as long as possible. And how do they do this? Essentially, by trying to hijack our brains and get us addicted.

This is why reclaiming where you place your attention and creating a practice of focusing your attention on things of your choice, is even more powerful these days. Whether this is through a meditation practice or going on Wonder Walks, any practice you may have of consciously directing your focus is powerful.

15. Shift from Desensitization and Numbness to Greater Openness, Depth of Experience, and Sensitivity

"I used to dislike being sensitive. I thought it made me weak. But take away that single trait, and you take away the essence of who I am. You take away my conscience, my ability to empathize, my intuition, my creativity, my deep appreciation for the little things, my vivid inner life, my keen awareness to others' pain and my passion for it all." ~ Unknown Author

One of the results of getting caught in an addictive cycle of any type, is the process of tolerance and desensitization. This process of desensitizing oneself can produce a numbing effect and we feel the need to have more and more and more just to feel much of anything. In a world that is constantly trying to get our attention, each media headline seems more outlandish and outrageous than the last.

What I am particularly curious about is how we can do the opposite. Instead of becoming desensitized to the wonders of the world, how can we lower our wonder threshold so that we can become more sensitive and open to the immense beauty all around us in every given moment?

16. A Resource for Hard Times

My wonder practices has been one of my greatest resource during hard times in my life. When I was so sick that my body basically rejected food for a time, I found nourishment in the beauty of the natural world, in leaves unfurling in the springtime, frost dusting crackling dry leaves, and ephemeral tiny snowflakes forming and then melting, only to be witnessed in their glory for a brief flash of time.

In the somatic healing work I support, one of our central practices is to find a place that feels like a resource within the body and to really tune into that space. From there we can assess the places that are out of alignment, hurting, wounded, or held in trauma. By rooting into the resourced area and then touching ever so briefly into the contracted part, and once again returning back to the resource, people are able to gently unwind their trauma.

It is my intention that my blog and my upcoming course may serve you in finding that type of nourishment so that you may face whatever you are currently facing in your life, resourced, nourished, and with dignity.

In conclusion, I want to share these words from Dr Paul Piff, in this talk at UC Berkeley:

To conclude, as inequality runs rampant, and our country, it seems, grows ever more divided, we can't help but wonder how to curb these mounting levels of narcissism, of entitlement, and self interest. And as we work to reverse these long-term socioeconomic and sociopolitical trends to foster more connections to others, stronger communities, more prosociality, and more kindness. In the short term it would also make sense to foster more experiences of awe for ourselves and for others.

I don't mean to suggest that awe is some sort of panacea, not at all, but it might, at least in part, serve as a shortcut to the kinds of psychological shifts that we're hoping to bring about. It's important to seek out these experiences of awe, to attune to them, and cherish and protect those things that bring them about because I'm convinced, as I think we all are, that we'll all be better off for it.

I could not agree with these words more. Yes, much change is needed, including addressing structural and systemic issues, but as he said, awe appears to be a shortcut or a "hack" to help foster some of these desired changes. These are some of the main reasons I'm focusing on creating offerings that can help people experience more awe when encountering the beautiful wonders of this universe.


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