I'm at the closing retreat of our nine-month Mindfulness Teacher Training Program (MTTP). This cohort-based intensive program is such a joy for me to facilitate. The students have worked hard and are very close to each other. We've all learned so much about mindfulness. More importantly: they've all gone through various levels of personal transformation as we've investigated deeply what mindfulness is and how one might share it with others with integrity.
One of the assignments for this final retreat was to design and deliver a one-hour presentation on some aspect of mindfulness that includes presenting some information, an experiential practice, and an interactive unpacking of that experience using the rich style of dialog we call inquiry.
One of the students picked the fascinating topic of "awe." Awe is something we don't think about or talk about much. She suggested to us that awe is, well, awesome. She also proposed that having experiences in which we feel inspired (awed) is wonderful, and that dropping into one of those timeless moments of deep connection with a beautiful world much bigger than our busy selves is really important, too. She also suggested that we can even encourage those moments to arise!
The student cited some interesting research in which one group of participants gazed up at the canopy of a grove of trees and another gazed up at tall buildings. Guess which group was then measured to be kinder and more generous? You guessed it: the tree gazers. Presumably because an encounter with awe tends to lead to a more positive way of looking at the world. (See our Practice Lab below for a summary of The Science of Awe.)
Then our teacher training student took us out on a walk. It helped that we were in a beautiful spot: a retreat center on Vashon Island right on the water. But she suggested, and I believe it, that an encounter with awe is also possible anywhere.
We walked slowly down to the beach. Pausing often. Opening the senses. Feeling our feet on the ground. It helped that we were silent with each other and had done some meditation earlier.
I was impressed by the softness of the new growth on the Douglas Fir trees. Another participant pointed out a deer walking by. The brighter greens of the new growth on the salal impressed me on the way down the path. Spring is amazing and I was grateful for the support to tune into its brighter greens and softer shapes.
Then we got to the beach. The tide was halfway in on the rocky shore. It was a warm and sunny day. I sat down right on the edge of the water. And I reached my hands out and draped them into the shallow water and closed my eyes to tune in to the sense of touch. It's hard to describe the feeling but it met the definition of awe:
An experience that feels vast and transcends our usual understanding of the world.
The water and I just felt connected. Fluid. Vast for sure. Time felt very slow and rich. I felt so present just sitting there. I reveled in that for several minutes. Breathing. Feeling the sun on my face. The warmish sea water flowing over my hands. The lumpiness of the sun-warmed rocks under me.
And then - surprise! - something nibbled my fingers. I jumped up a bit in astonishment to find that a hermit crab had just scrambled over my hand and given me a little experimental nibble!
And then I tuned back in to look: not just one hermit crab, but two, then a group of four, then further to my right six more. This wasn't just a beautiful scene of rocks and shells and sea water and algae, but a home. A community of crabs live here. I was the visitor. Part of their world for the moment, but it was their world not mine. I stared, fascinated, as I saw more and more hermit crabs and watched them go about their morning.
Would I have even noticed the presence of these little life forms in the water if I'd been with a friend talking? Would I have noticed even if I'd been alone but lost in thought? I think in either case I would have appreciated the beauty and serenity of the beach but I don't think I would have had the taste of awe I had when I first merged with the sea water, and then, to my surprise, discovered my accidental visit to the community of crabs.
It's surprisingly difficult to downshift enough to truly tune into the awe-inspiring sight and sounds and smells and touches and tastes that are all around us, isn't it? And yet how rewarding that is! And according to the emerging field of study on the experience of awe: how important and healthy it is for us.
May you go out and feel awe today.