How Awe Affects Us (and what we can learn from it)

At the University of California, Berkeley, participants in a study were asked to stand and look at the tallest grove of hardwood trees in North America for one minute. Other participants were invited to gaze upon the facade of a science building for the same amount of time. At the end of the 60 seconds, researchers staged an accident in front of all the participants where someone stumbled and dropped pens. Those who had spent their time looking at the 200’ tall Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus trees helped picked up more pens than those who had viewed the science building. In subsequent experiences, the tree group also demonstrated increased ethicality and reduced feelings of entitlement.

The researchers took a look at the emotions that each group was feeling and found that ‘awe’ was the only emotion reported at significantly higher levels among the tree group. This led researchers to determine that even a fleeting experience of awe was enough to induce prosocial behaviors in people. (source)

It’s no surprise to me that the tree group was so deeply affected by their short experience. It is a basic premise of Integral Coaching that the object of our focus matters greatly to our being. In the endless cycle of becoming who we are, the things that we notice and the behaviors that we engage in are intertwined. Our beingness is never settled but rather constantly in process.

This means that at any moment we can make an intervention in our development by changing our behaviors and refocusing our attention. Perhaps, as stated in the article, we want to elicit more awe in our lives because of its demonstrated ability to foster altruism and ethicality.

There are many avenues one can take to begin this inquiry. Let’s look along the Six Streams of Competence, as defined by Integral Coaching:

Cognitively – Does the way I think and reason support the experience and expression of awe? I can notice how rigid or fluid my analysis of a situation is, and experiment to see if softening things makes a difference.

Emotionally – What emotions dominate my experience? When they occur, do I attach to them or allow them to flow through me? I might take up a self-reflection exercise to help me become a more skilled observer of the way my emotions open or close possibility.

Somatically – Do I have a body that is capable of experiencing awe? I can notice what resources my body is lacking (sleep, nutrition, rest, medical care). I might work with a body expert to help correct my posture in assisting me to be stronger and flexible so that I am physically supported. I can also notice my environment, both natural and man-made. Am I creating or putting myself in spaces that could generate awe? If not, what adjustments can I make?

Relationally – Do I have relationships in place with people or institutions that will support awe? Is there generosity, spaciousness, and support in my existing relationships? I can ask how I can bring those missing elements to my relationships and design questions to open possibility.

Spiritually – Am I engaged in behaviors that tie me to a larger web of life? I might begin to design activities that will help me create a life dedicated to the benefit of everyone, not just myself, my family, or my company.

Integrating – Finally, I can take a look at how I am integrating all of these ways of thinking about this issue together. None of these exist in a silo, and many of the ways I will experiment in one stream may express themselves through another.

This thorough way of inquiring into how we can bring more of a particular experience into our life can be done with any quality–compassion, confidence, intimacy, ease, trust, etc. The tricky part is to self-observe our patterns and know what interventions would bring about a new experience–easier said than done! Our own blind spots can pose real problems here. This is when a coach is useful; both in being able to help us see ourselves more clearly and in knowing what interventions are most useful.

Once you fully understand how your attention shapes your behavior and your response to life, you can adopt the practice of curating this focus. For example, think about all the times you habitually turn towards your phone when you have a moment of free time–standing in line, filling up the gas tank, sitting on the bus, etc. For a moment, become curious about how this choice is shaping you. Might there be possibilities that are being limited by this robotic activity? If you are trying to cultivate a less cluttered and more serene mind then constantly focusing on a device to receive more information is not supportive. What else could you engage in during these free moments that could open up new possibilities? There are many options but beginning with the most basic (yet neglected) practice of reinvigorating your senses and noticing what you see, hear, smell, and touch in each moment. You might study the light in different situations and notice how it affects your mood. You might notice other people around you and enjoy their expressive faces. You could try to distinguish all the myriad sounds you hear. All of these suggestions would help you to ground firmly in the moment and in your body, to tap into a more direct experience of the world. For my own part, I find it hard to excuse the habitual and chronic reliance on my phone now that I fully understand it’s role in shaping who I am becoming.

Sometimes I might ask a client to find a place where the sky is wide and open and sit beneath it and gaze at it for five minutes, every day, for two weeks. Or I might suggest that she notice her own heartbeat and lightly drum the pattern on her chest with her fist for 60 seconds, three times per day. These practices ask an enormous amount of trust from a client because the outcome is not obvious. But they are purposefully designed to encourage the client to notice new things that their current behaviors might not allow for. If done for enough time and with enough sincere focus and intention then entirely new worlds with new possibilities will emerge.

What might emerge for you? Be in touch today and let’s find out.

Eating Wild Strawberries

This morning while reading the New York Times I came across the article “For Some, ‘Tis a Gift to be Simple.” Researchers have discovered that as you get older you are likely to draw as much happiness from an ordinary experience as you are from an extraordinary one. This means whether you are spending your golden years riding a gondola in Venice or building model ships in your basement, the “happiness-making potential of everyday pursuits eventually grows equal to that of ones that are rarer.”

Why do we come to appreciate the simple moments, no matter how ordinary, as we grow older? One possibility offered by researchers is that extraordinary events define us; and once we know who we are, our chosen ordinary pursuits allow us to appreciate and enjoy our hard-won selves. Another idea is that as we grow older we become more aware of the finite time we have to enjoy the everyday. In other words, the nearness of death helps us to appreciate and draw pleasure from the ordinary experiences–find new meaning in what we once deemed meaningless. This is what reminded me of the following Zen story.

One day while walking through the wilderness a man stumbled upon a vicious tiger. He ran but soon came to the edge of a high cliff. Desperate to save himself, he climbed down a vine and dangled over the fatal precipice. As he hung there, two mice appeared from a hole in the cliff and began gnawing on the vine. Suddenly, he noticed on the vine a plump wild strawberry. He plucked it and popped it in his mouth. It was incredibly delicious!

As this man faces death, he is not consumed by his grief or fear but instead entranced by something rather ordinary: a plump wild strawberry. It is not the strawberry that is extraordinary but his way of being with it. He gives himself over to the experience fully so that even at the moment of his impending death he is engaged in the sensuality of living–the sweet taste of the strawberry, the variegated texture of the fruit pulp on his tongue, the sharp smell of the leaves and deep aroma of the dirt, the creaking sounds of the vine as it struggles under his weight, and the rich red color of the fruit as it shines in the sun.

We know that we are all going to die someday so we can experience strawberries like the man in the story anytime we like! Our avoidance of the certainty of our own death flattens our experience of life. Intent on avoiding our mortality, we shun the ordinary and seek out the extraordinary–the glitter and flash of the rare experience offering a distraction from the truth of our impermanence. This hunger for the distracting qualities of the extraordinary can lead to many negative things. Excessive financial debt and unhealthy addictions (to people, substances, food, work, etc) are two prime examples. But the simplicity of the wild strawberry sensually* invites us to return to the experience of being human and being present in our bodies.

I don’t want to wait until the actuarial tables tell me that death is nigh before I can enjoy a simple sunset as much as a catamaran cruise in the Caribbean. So the question is what am I willing to do in order to have this sort of appreciation for the everyday? This research suggests that drawing the fact of our own mortality closer to us is part of the answer. Furthermore, I believe that we can develop specific skills that will allow us to step into this sensuous appreciation of the ordinary more easily. Just imagine what delight the world would offer if you could somehow embody this ability.

Here are two practices I recommend for stepping into this new way of being. Please feel free to ask any questions or post any additional ideas or suggestions in the comments!

Eating Wild Strawberries
Intention: To more fully engage your five senses (hearing, taste, touch, smell, and vision) in a delightful appreciation of the world.

  1. Find a delicious piece of fruit. It can be a strawberry, peach, apple, orange–whatever you like.
  2. Wash and clean the fruit. Experience the feeling of the cool water on your fingers as you gently rub the fruit. Appreciate having clean water. Look at the surface of the fruit as you wash it; notice the variations in texture and color.
  3. Bring the fruit to your face and rub its skin against your lips where some of the most sensitive skin on your body can be found.  As you do this, breathe in the aroma of the fruit. Is the skin soft, furry, rough, thick, delicate? Is the smell vibrant, citrus, sweet, cloying, fresh?
  4. If required, peel the fruit. Listen for the sound. What does it feel like to peel this particular fruit? How do your fingers feel as they pull away the peel? How does the smell change as the peel comes off?  What color is the inside of the peel? Touch the unpeeled fruit to your lips again and now experience the texture. It is bumpy, smooth, wet, dry?
  5. Now bite into the fruit. Is this a juicy fruit? Is eating it a messy experience? Are there seeds you have to contend with? Is there pulp, and does it pop in your mouth? Is the taste sweet or refreshing?
  6. Now check in with the outside world. What sounds are going on around you? Can you hear other people, birds, or maybe traffic? Can you hear music? What is the light like in the room?  What about the temperature? What is the quality of the air in the room?
  7. Continue eating and checking in with the environment and the sensual experience of eating this fruit. Pay attention to what it sounds like, tastes like, feels like, looks like, and smells like. Notice how it changes during the experience.
  8. When you are done, wash your hands and enjoy the water as it runs over your sticky fingers. Feel gratitude for your ability to elevate an ordinary experience by simply paying attention.

Acknowledging Impermanence** 
Intention:  To acknowledge the impermanent nature of life in order to more fully appreciate the present moment.

  1. Shortly after waking, stand in mountain pose.
  2. Take a few moments to breathe, giving your mind and body some time to silence.
  3. Say to yourself the following phrases:
    • I acknowledge that today’s body is different than yesterday’s body.
    •  I acknowledge that today’s world is different than yesterday’s world.
    • I acknowledge that all things change and that impermanence is the nature of the Universe.
    • I acknowledge today as a unique creation that will never occur again.
  4. Turn your palms out and inhale, sweeping them up and over your head.  Let your palms meet and, exhaling, bring them to meet in the prayer position at the center of your chest. Taking one last inhale, remember your pledge and go forth into your day.

* When I use the term “sensuous,” I mean “relating to or affecting the five senses rather than the intellect” and not the more commonly used sexual definition.
**Impermanence is one of the essential Buddhist doctrines. It means that all of existence, without exception, is transient, or in a constant state of flux.