According to a study which was recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, there is strong empirical evidence to support the idea that experiences of awe play an important role in how an individual perceives the self. This study suggests that brief experiences of awe seem to promote shifts away from a self-centered view of the world toward one which includes the needs of those around us.
Awe is a familiar feeling. There is awe in birth. There is awe in death. There is awe in every precious second of life in between. Awe reminds us of our fragility. Awe is startling, miraculous, bewildering!
A silent, star-filled sky; a morning sunrise; the vast seemingly endless stretch of the Grand Canyon; each can take our breath away. Each places us at the edge of a mystifying expanse and forces us to consider ourselves within the context of a reality that we cannot fully comprehend.
In the birth of a child; the passions of love; an act of kindness and compassion; awe is there to remind us of our human connectivity; humble us in our vulnerability; invite us to be grateful for life.
Awe weaves reverence and amazement into a single moment. We experience epiphany. We realize that we are part of something much greater than ourselves. In awe we experience transformation: an instantaneous shift in understanding of who we are and where we stand in the world. From the Jewish perspective, awe has the capacity to inspire, illuminate and motivate through a powerful emotional mix of trepidation and reverence. Humility, fragility, epiphany, reverence, gratitude and fear are all experience in awe, and it is for this reason that the first ten days of the Jewish calendar year are referred to as the Days of Awe.
The Hebrew word for awe is Yireh, which according to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, is not only a feeling – it is a way of understanding. For Heschel, awe enables us to perceive in our everyday lives glimpses of divine magnitude. From this perspective, we need not stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon to experience awe. There is awe in the peaceful, quiet, solitude of a sleeping baby. There is awe in the frenetic, joyful welcome of a dog greeting you at the door after a long day at work. There is awe in the mysterious random acts of cats. There is awe in watching bees making honey and in the systematic ways that colonies of ants build their mounds. There is awe in fire and awe in ice. Awe can even be found in the consideration of refrigerator magnets.
Each of these common experiences may not seem to have the gravity and the unfathomability that is immediately present when we stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon, but if we pause in the moment and allow ourselves to remember our childhood curiosity and amazement regarding turning on a light switch or the act of trying to see what surfaces a magnet can stick to – there, in that place of bemusement – in that place of wonder – is the awe. From the mundane to the majestic, from ants making mounds to earthquakes moving mountains, everything we experience in life has the capacity to evoke that sense of mystery, wonder, magic and amazement.
Of course, our ability to experience awe is not like switching on and off a light bulb. There are obstacles and hindrances that constantly distract us from connecting to the world and with each other. The rigors and stresses of work; the insanity of daily traffic; the noise of endless obligations – all of these and so much more divert our attention and distract us from seeing the miraculous in the mundane.
In order to experience more awe in our lives we need to cultivate a daily mindset. We need to find ways to be inspired and connected to the glories of creation all the time – not just in moments of drama or magnificence – but in the minute by minute mundane moments that surround us in our daily interactions.
As we prepare for the High Holy Days and the Days of Awe, we are invited by our faith and our tradition to pay heed to what matters most in our lives. Take the time. Commit yourself to seeking moments of awe every day and rejoice in the mystery and marvels of the world.