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Cultivating Awe

Cultivating Awe

By Kay Vander Vort

These days I often hear “awesome” as a response of appreciation or high praise such as, “that dinner was awesome,” “that movie was awesome,” “you got your driver’s license? That’s awesome!”  The word “awesome” has become so common place that it has lost its punch.

Recently I read an article in Parade magazine (October 9, 2016) about a three year research called Project Awe at the University of California, Berkeley Social Interaction Lab.  Here’s what they have found:

Awe binds us together

Awe helps us see things in new ways

Awe makes us nicer and happier

Awe alters our bodies – suggesting a possible role in health and healing.

Though this is pretty new science, it’s already being applied in the real world.  A teacher in New York takes her students on “Awe Walks” to connect with nature or art. Kids and grown-ups have fewer chances these days of finding transformative moments.  We’re increasingly stressed, indoors, plugged into devices and less connected to neighbors and friends. The director of Sierra Club Outdoors has partnered with UC Berkeley to form the Great Outdoors Lab to document nature’s impact on the mind, body and relationships.

Early studies have taken veterans and underserved adolescents white-water rafting.  Subjects showed measured improvements in psychological well-being, social functioning and life outlook. Veterans’ stress dropped by 30 percent.

Some years ago I made a retreat at the Benedictine Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado.  My retreat director was the monk, Theophane who wrote Tales from a Magic Monastery.  I knew he would be unique and original in his approach.  After our initial meeting he suggested that I go to a place that had a good view of Mount Sopris and spend time meditating on the mountain.  I left our spiritual direction session feeling puzzled and a bit disappointed.  But in the forty-eight hours before our next session, I began to really look at the mountain during sunrise, midday, afternoon rain and evening sunset, I came away feeling lighter.  All the worries and concerns I brought to the retreat began to recede.  By the end of the retreat I had a firm sense of the majesty or the mountain, rising up eons ago and knowing it would still be here long after I was gone – and after my children and grandchildren were gone.  It was amazingly comforting. The gift of my retreat.

While writing this blog, I remembered one of my favorite writings about awe from contemplative monk, Thomas Merton:

                In Louisville at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. . . then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes.  If only we could see each other that way all the time.  There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…   

I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.

Could cultivating awe be the healing balm our world needs?

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