Read an Excerpt
The Choice of a Lifetime
'Awe: Mysterium tremendium et facinas'
Faith in the Mysterious
Imagine that you were given the choice of a lifetimethe choice between an easy life and a difficult life. The easy life would be interesting; moreover, it would be relatively stress free and calmly predictable. An unshakable explanatory system would provide a safety net when crisis happened, and nothing astonishingly and perplexingly wonderful would ever mess up your thinking. Horrible and/or challenging life events would not keep defying how you see and understood life. The other, more difficult life would be vastly more enthralling, but also full of tremendous mysteries and would sometimes send you down into the depths of confused depression, even as it lifted you to the strange elation that life can be so magnificent and powerfully confusing. This difficult life would consist of constantly searching for the meaning of life and how life should be lived and understood, and would prompt you to totally rearrange your life and how you view it. Which would you choose? This is a book about what happens if you could make the second choice or, as often happens, have that kind of life imposed upon you by events that lead to undeniably true and deep awe. It's about a life full of moments of powerful and transformative emotions that frequently send chills down our spines, fill our eyes with tears, cause our hearts to race, make the hair on the backs of our necks stand on end, boggle the mind, and literally take our breath awayin other words, a life full of awe.
This book makes the case for the valuable irresistible fascination, the highest elation, and sometimes a most profound sadness that leaves us in a state of puzzled apprehension, perplexing dread, yet appreciative wonder and hope regarding the vast mysteries of life that is known as awe. But be warned: Choosing or having imposed upon you the more difficult, challenging, awe-inspired life won't always be what most people might call 'a good life,' even though it is guaranteed to be a full life. It will be far from an easy life, but it will be an unimaginably intense one that may not leave you feeling better but will leave you feeling in ways that you may never have imagined possible.
What is so difficult about living a life filled with awe? The kind of awe, as experienced by hundreds of people who describe their experiences with this most unique of human responses in the following pages, is much more than appreciating beauty found in nature, having a temporarily reverent religious experience, or experiencing what is being described by the increasingly ubiquitous word 'awesome.' It is a mystical feeling that seems to be capable of incorporating almost all of our other emotions. It's as 'real' as our experience of life ever getsso real, in fact, that it overwhelms you like no other emotion and, like passionate lovemaking, can leave you feeling drained as much as inspired.
Although intense contemplation of its meaning can end up deepening it, awe often shakes our faith and disturbs the solace of our spiritual certitude. When we're in awe, life ceases to make sense, or at least to comply with the sense we've made of it so far. It doesn't make the kind of sense we thought it made before we were awed by something that seems beyond our understanding of what makes (or can make) sense. Awe results in a sense of fear and submission to things, events, people, and ideas that are experienced as being much greater than the self, and that can make us feel wonderful or terrible, or even both ways at the same time.
Choosing a life full of awe means that we are frequently anxious and uncertain and are never self-confident, because awe is the ultimate 'ism' breaker. Being in the kind of awe you will be reading about upsets any firm conviction we may holdthat our personal version of monotheism, polytheism, pantheism, agnosticism, or atheism is the one and only right belief. Because it so suddenly puts an end to our sense of selfand offers only mystery rather than answers, and a need to know more rather than a sense that we finally know it allawe is more like feeling repeatedly 'dead again' than the experience of being 'born again' (comfortably and safely converted to the certainty of having finally found the answer).
If you choose a life of awe, you will surrender the solace of certitude. You will live with more 'open-ture' than closure and, unless you can learn to find a strange, exciting comfort in being presented with and grappling with the tremendous mysteries life offers, you will seldom feel calm or at ease for very long. Awe offers far more stress and aggravation than comfort or relief, more self-doubt and agitation than assured self-confidence, and often more contemplative sadness than relieved joy. You might not end up having faith in anything other than the fact that life and the universe are not only beyond what you even imagined, but also transcend what anyone can or will ever be able to imagine. One woman from my Study of the Awe Inspired (SAI) described her awe response by saying, 'When I was in awe, I felt like I had suddenly discovered the secret of life, but I didn't know what it was. I just suddenly felt that there was this immense, scary, wonderfully overwhelming secret that made me feel afraid, sad, and strangely invigorated all at the same time. I don't think I've ever felt more messed up or more alive in my whole life.'
Another person I interviewed in SAI expressed her experience of awe by saying, 'When you have a lot of awe in your life, I mean the real deep kind of life-altering awe that makes you rethink everything, you're not born again. It's more like you keep dying again and again, until there's almost no more you. You're not 'born again' in any single religious sense because you don't end up converted or suddenly finding one answer or one idea that you have unshakable faith in. I guess the faith you do end up with, after you've thought a lot about whatever awed you, is a faith in the fact that there is an endless mystery of life that we're privileged to have the chance to grapple with, and that's a very big and fascinating thing to have faith inthat's there's more than we do or can know. I agree now with Helen Keller when she said that life is a daring adventure or it is nothing at all.'
An Incredible Journey
Awe is experienced as the sudden awareness that life is, as the famous biologist J. B. S. Haldane put it in his essay 'Possible Worlds,' 'not only queerer than we suppose [which relates to a facinas, or fascinating life] but queerer than we can suppose [which relates to mysterium tremendium, or a tremendously mysterious life].'1 When we're in awe, Hamlet's challenge to Horatio that there are more things in heaven and earth than his philosophy could dream is experienced as is the even more disarming sense that there may be no philosophy sufficient to create a dream bizarre or outlandish enough to incorporate whatever it was that inspired our awe. Awe renders us dumbstruck, and it's up to us whether we want to take it from there and start thinking deeper and differently about life or experience a brief spiritual buzz that leaves our life's explanatory system unperturbed.
Awe can make us feel strange, because it's the emotion we feel when we're most in touch with the unfathomable eeriness that is the universe we live in. It wakes us from the languishing sleeplike state we've fallen into that results in taking so much of life for granted. If we think long and hard enough about whatever inspired it, awe can turn things we've gotten used to into revelations that make us wonder how we could have ever taken them for granted. Awe can turn what we seldom allow ourselves to pay attention to into astonishing new questions about our place in the universequestions that can take considerable mental effort to keep ignoring. But if you're the kind of person who's looking for answers, the choice of an awe-filled life isn't for you.
If you take a few moments to reflect on the following factseven though a very narrow band of imagination and understanding limits humans to sensing such a very small part of the world around usyou might experience the blend of unbounded delight, humbling dread, and excited incredulousness that characterizes the awe response. It's difficult to imagine a race of beings taking the following facts for granted and considering them ordinary, but they describe how we're all traveling every second of our life: We seldom think about it (our senses are so limited that we don't feel it, and our narrow band of belief seldom allows us to accept it), but we're all riding around together on one of the universe's billion fragile, cracking, exploding rocks, on which even our existence is a statistical fluke beyond one in billions. Sucked to our gas-covered rock by an invisible force, we're being spun around at 17 miles per second while at the same time whizzing at 19 miles per second around a nuclear exploding fireball that, even though it's 90 million miles away, holds our rock in its orbit with its invisible force, and, if our rock got too close, could cook us all in a nanosecond.
If thinking about those numbers isn't enough to tease at least a little awe out of you, consider these additional facts: The rock spinning us around, the fireball that keeps life on our rock alive, and the entire solar system that contains these speeding objects are also spinning together at 140 miles per second as one huge mass. This mass is spinning around the center of a galaxy called the Milky Way, and even at this unfathomable speed, this galaxy is so vast in size that it still takes about 200 million years for the rock and its fireball to complete one orbit around it.
If you've chosen the easier, busier, interesting, less mentally bothersome life over the harder, awesome kind that gets you more easily and deeply personally involved in tremendous mysteries suggested by those numbers, you may have already thought, 'Wow, that's kind of interesting,' and like a distracted business traveler on a jet plane, sat back and ignored how fast you are traveling, dismissed the perils of such a warp-speed trip, and preferred not to contemplate why or how this galactic race is happening in the first place. On the other hand, if you tend to have a lower awe threshold and are in the midst of the difficult mysterious life that comes with it, you may not only be thinking about what these numbers mean, but also even trying to feel the speed they describe.
If I still haven't gotten you to reflect on the fact of just how fast you're going and the paradox that you could be going so unbelievably fast and still feel that you're sitting perfectly still reading this book, maybe just a few more facts will engage your awe response. The Earth, Sun, and Milky Way are also speeding through the nothingness of space at 25 miles per hour, and, together with a few other neighboring galactic systems, this entire cosmic collection itself is also hurtling at 375 miles per second toward some of the other 100 billion-plus galaxies that are also spinning and whizzing around.
If thinking about all this for even a minute still doesn't boggle your mind to be awed enough to want to think about what this all means, consider that all of this speed is ultimately generated by the influence of invisible stuff called dark matter. That's a phrase similar to the old term terra incognita used by ancient cartographers, who were also in awe of the world they were trying to represent but couldn't find the words to describe undocumented mysterious territories.
Dark matter is something we can't see, but scientists have proven it has to be there because, whatever it is, its ghostly presence and energy keep pulling and tugging on the galaxies and the small amount of matter we can see, like the rock we're riding on. In fact astrophysicists tell us that the matter we see makes up only 4 percent of the universe, and based on what you are about to read about our awe response, that might serve as a reasonable estimate of about how much of our life we allow ourselves to be in awe of.
Because awe is so mind-boggling and perturbing to our mental and emotional status quo, you may have already said to yourself by now, 'Enough already! I get the point.' But do you? You will read in the following pages that awe can be so powerfully disruptive to our thinking that it tires it out, and we want to quickly try to get past it and move on. I encourage you not to bail out and instead to keep reflecting about the fantastic voyage you're on.
The harder life, one characterized by frequently being in awe and not being frightened by the time-consuming and often upsetting contemplation and reflection that awe offers, is the most fully lived life of all. But the choice is yours. You could decide to just be inspired for a few moments by the wonderfully puzzling events that happen in life, and then return quickly back to a more comfortable daily routine. Just as we're often told to 'keep busy' or 'keep going' or even take medication to numb our feelings to get us through our grief and despair, we can choose to be awed and let the terrible things pass or explain them away with old ideas seldom challenged or indoctrinated in us during childhood. The current incidence of languishingthe psychological diagnosis for mistaking an intensely busy life for a meaningfully connected oneis related to diminishing awe to a brief high that has little lasting impact on our lives.
Consider the fact that, in addition to the 22 percent of the universe made up of the mysterious dark matter, the rest of whatever 'is' in the universe is an even stranger something called dark energy. No one can see it, but it's pushing everything away from everything else. It makes up the remaining 74 percent of the universe and gives off a repulsive invisible energy totally resistant to gravity and that is causing the vast nothingness in which all the travel described in this chapter is taking place to constantly expand.
It seems worthy of our attention to reflect on the idea that nothingness can keep expanding as the after-effect of an as-yet-unexplained, sudden 'big bang' that took place 13 billion years ago, when time is assumed to have begun. I haven't had enough time yet to try to figure out where time was before it began, but some scientists now suggest that the nothingness of space may be breathing in a 20-billion-year cycle of an exhale-like, post-bang expansion, followed eventually by a reactive contraction in a big-crunch cosmic inhale, and so on and so on for infinitywhatever that is.
You're probably suffering from severe awe fatigue by now, because the brain just doesn't want to deal with all this information and is more interested in its usual fixation on the four f's of fighting, fleeing, feeding, or fornicating. That's because we've allowed our awe response to atrophy from disuse. The easy life choosers might call the facts you've just read 'fascinating' or even say they knew them alreadyand so what? But choosers of a difficult life who are open to awe's challenges are willing to go the next step to contemplating the tremendous mystery they represent.
A Debt to the Unborn
Awe is an overwhelming and bewildering sense of connection with a startling universe that is usually far beyond the narrow band of our consciousness. For many of us, a little awe once in a while in the form of brief, attentive fascination is enough, and the time and effort of reflective awe and all the mental and emotional upheaval it causes isn't something we want or have time for in our daily lives. Our awe response is made even more intense and bothersome because it comes with the frightening, increased awareness of how small and powerless we are and how briefly we liveideas and feelings that are distracting in our current 'don't worry, me first, be happy, quick fix' culture.
Any feeling of being more alive that comes from awe derives from the mysterious energy we sense from our connection with whatever it is that inspires our awe. It's not our individual self that's coming more alive but our deepened sense, as one of my interviewees put it, 'of the essence of Being itself, and you can't feel that when you're just feeling yourself.' Awe offers the invitation to leave our state of languishing and to flourish, but the choice is ultimately ours as to what we do with this most delightful and dangerous eleventh emotion. Awe is the emotion we experience when something causes us to feel supremely luckylucky to be the beneficiary of being given one out of the trillions of chances to having a life at all. These are the odds of winning at what author Richard Dawkins describes as the 'combinatorial lottery of DNA,' a stunningly rare opportunity to live, when trillions of others who theoretically could have had a life will never get that chance. Awe may be such an intense emotion because it awakenssomewhere deep in our evolutionary consciousnessour sense of responsibility and obligation to the trillions of the never-to-be born losers of the DNA lottery who, as Dawkins put it, 'will never even be offered life in the first place.'
Maybe awe is so intense and disrupting an emotion because it can cause us to feel at least a little guilty about wasting or complaining about a gift billions of the never-lived never received. Maybe our awe response is an occasional reminder that we've been squandering the most miraculous gift in the universe.
Perhaps it's because awe is so closely associated with our worst dreadthe expiration of the gift of lifethat it leads to some of our most introspective moments. As you will read, true awe always comes with a sense of terror of the vast nothingness that also makes awe so exciting. It's an anxiety of non-being that's an unavoidable requirement of the experience of being itself. Awe is our most intense emotion because it brings us closer to a sense of being in its most infinite and profound sense, and closer to death at the same time. Perhaps because awe makes us realize we will eventually lose the existence that allows us awe's profound awareness of being, it must almost come with sadness and a sense of shame for our ingratitude for the gift of life.
A Consciousness Copernican Revolution
Awe is unique in that, unlike our other basic emotions, it can be experienced in combination with any of those other basic emotions. It's not physiologically possible to feel intensely joyful and extremely sad or angry and loving at exactly the same time, but we can experience awe during any of these states. Awe can deepen and intensify any other emotion and can even cause them to blend together, as when the awe we feel for nature's beauty is made more intense by feelings of anger at humankind's disrespect for it, joy that we can still experience it, and anxiety that we had better get to it and start savoring and protecting it. The loving awe we feel for another person can come not only with joy and amorous feelings, but also with the anxiety that we must continue to earn its reciprocity and sadness that we cannot be physically with that person forever.
Awe is a responsibility as much as a gift. As Buddhist thinkers have taught for more than 2,000 years, and as Western philosophers like Hegel, Schopenhauer, Paré, Llinás, and Kant have pointed out, awe happens not because your mind involuntarily reacts to the outside world, but because our understanding and experience of the outside world is transformed by how we think about it. If we want to immerse ourselves in the profound mysteries of life and the great and horrible things that happen as a part of being alive in a chaotic world, we have to make the choice to be open to awe and willing to reflect about what experiencing it means and suggests about our humanness.
Awe's risk factor is the constant mental and spiritual upheaval it can cause, and it often results in as much sadness as delight. But the reward is an intensely connected life made as meaningful as it is difficult, because we have taken the time and had the courage to struggle with mysteries we sense but will never ultimately solve. We may not end up feeling happier, but we will surely end up feeling much more than we have ever felt by becoming fully engaged with all of lifeand somehow become more of a crucial part of its ultimately inexplicable essence.
Comparing his ideas about awe to Copernicus's discovery that the Earth is not the center of the universe, Immanuel Kant referred to his view of our emotional experience of life as a 'Copernican Revolution.' He asserted that it is the representation that makes the object possible rather than the object that makes the representation possible. We are the ones who do the representing, and it is we who must choose between being just interested in life and being totally engaged in it. It's up to us as to whether we allow allow ourselves to see life as full of tremendous mysteries far beyond enjoyment and nice little surprises.
Life can feel busy and interesting (and a lot easier) when we automatically and quickly react to our world, but it becomes an awe-inspiring, tremendous mystery when we take responsibility for the fact that how we see, think about, and experience our world is largely a matter of our own conscious choice to embrace and think longer and more deeply about its mystifying grandeur. We can go through the ten basic human emotions or be open to the unique eleventh by becoming more deeply aware of nature, a person, or even ideaslike the fact that we are finite beings speeding at inconceivable speeds through a mostly invisible world or each a one-in-a-billion occurrence of the gift of life. Being aware is much more than reacting. It's experiencing that we are experiencing and applying our full and deepest consciousness to where, with whom, and why we are, and that's what can inspire profound awe.
When Kant wrote, 'Two things awe me most, the starry sky above me and the moral law within me,' he was referring to the perplexing connection between the world and how we experience it, and that's the exact juncture where awe happens. Kant believed that unless we fully perceive and try to process and understand what happens to us, even though it upsets us and we may never fully succeed, life becomes, in his words, 'less than even a dream.' It's interesting to look up at the starry nights, but those same nights become tremendous mysteries when we choose to think about what it means that the same stuff that makes up those stars is in our bodies. We can choose to go through life busy with all it has to offer or struggle to be fully aware that we are experiencing what we're experiencing. In an increasingly languishing world full of busy people having lots of experiences, there is less and less time for the full awareness that leads to awe.
An Emotional Bombshell
Choosing a more ordinary easy life can result in interesting, wonderful memories, but choosing the extraordinarily difficult life of awe can cause even these memories to become upsetting, tremendous mysteries. Looking at photos of our family can be an interesting family activity or lead to thoughts that the images we are looking at no longer exist and how moments in time are so brief and gone so quickly. I remember being in awe when I tried to answer author Steve Grand's challenge to his readers to think about a wonderful childhood experience that they could feel and even smell. I could do it immediately and felt my grandmother's touch on my shoulder as she poked so caringly at the Christmas turkey. I could smell that turkey roasting and could hear again the chatter of my family happily gathering around the table, and tears filled my eyes as I recalled that wonderful time.
But then Grand dropped what he called 'the bombshell,' and that's what awe feels like when it causes our fixed ideas about life to explode and shatter: Grand correctly pointed out that the 'I' at this moment was never and could never have actually been there for the Christmas at Grandma's house! He described the science that shows that there wasn't a single atom in my body todaythe one that was reacting so strongly to my memory of that magical Christmas daythat was present that day. With complete scientific validity, he said that whatever we are, we're not the stuff we are made of, and for me it was an awe-inspiring concept that the 'me' doing the remembering wasn't the person present at the memory-making.
Grand discussed how our 'self stuff' is the temporary dynamic arrangement of matter that comes and goes, constantly rearranging itself to be what we consider to be our current 'me' at any given moment. It scatters and rearranges in other forms at another place and in another time. Alive or dead now, all the people who were the main characters of my memory are all gone and their 'matter' or energy somewhere else, yet I could feel that memory as if it were happening right now and as if I were again the person who 'wasn't there.'
Grand asks whether the idea that we were not, in fact, 'there' for such profound moments in the history of our lives 'doesn't make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.' Mine sure did, but his challenge didn't diminish my memory. It expanded it and turned it into something I could think about in new waysin terms of how I could understand my life, its meaning, and even the meaning of a memory and how one is made. This new knowledge caused what awe always causes if you elect to think hard enough about it and not just be halfheartedly interested in ita major shift in consciousness and awareness. Grand's idea transformed what had always been a reassuring memory into a tremendous mystery that, at the same time, messed up and yet strangely deepened my thinking and feeling about the place, time, and people that formed the template of my memory and the content of my consciousness.
As awe so often does, Grand's challenging idea caused me to wonder where Grandma, Grandpa, and my deceased relatives were now, where the 'me' who was there is now, and if I could actually be 'with' those who have died when I die, all questions that sound bizarre even as I write thembut that's what awe does. Awe makes us feel and think in strange and disconcerting ways about life's large and small concepts, about our fondest memories and greatest fears, and about the paradox that these issues are all manifestations of the same mysterious forces of our speeding lives. One of my interviewees described awe's 'weird' involvement in the mysterious as it contrasts with the choice for just the interesting 'normal kind' of life in which we mistake intensity for meaning by saying, 'I'm the weird one in our marriage. For me, everything's a big mystery, and I talk in ways and about things that my husband says are goofy or far out. When I wanted to talk about how mysterious it was that waves are part of the ocean, break, but don't end, he thought I was nuts. He said a wave is a wave and he always just takes things as they are, but I'm always so much into why and how they are and what it all means. He's so much calmer, steadier, and normal than I am, so I have 'to talk to my weird friends' when I get in awe of something that my husband thinks is no big deal. Almost everything to me is getting to be a big deal.'
To this day, I'm still trying to deal with the mystery of how I wasn't 'there' for the best or the worst times in my life and won't eventually be after the ones in the future. The 'me' who's writing the words you're reading won't exist by the time you read this, and the 'you' who's reading them won't exist when you're done reading. Grand's bombshell still causes me to wonder where in the heck we are, where we were, and where we will be. Despite the confusion it causes me, I would still choose ideas that cause me to be in awe, because it feels as invigorating as it does upsetting.
Our other ten basic emotions are how we experience and express our life, but awe is how we ultimately transform it. Awe can be inspired by a person, place, thing, oras in Grand's challengeeven an idea, but like the speeding galaxy we're riding, these catalysts for an awe-inspired life are always there. They're waiting for us to 'represent them,' so that they can come to life in our lives. As Kant suggests, it's our frame of mind or our own consciousness that puts us more deeply and intensely in touch with these ideas and allows us to contemplate them over and over again in different ways. It is through this decision of how we will consciously engage with the world that we make the choice every day between an ordinary and more soothing life and an extraordinary one full of inspiring turmoil.
Our Amazing Eleventh Emotion
Even though awe meets all the criteria to be considered a fundamental emotion, it has been left off psychologists' accepted lists of the basic ten emotions. Psychologists have been trying to come up with a definition of an emotion for over 100 years, but consistent in all the differing definitions is that an emotion is something that's triggered by our interpretation of events (such as thinking about not 'being there' for our most cherished memories), involves most if not all of our physical systems (awe's goose bumps, racing heart, chills, and so on), somehow communicates our experience to others (the gasping look of confused shock that comes with awe), and can be disruptive and adaptive to our lives at the same time (awe's delightful dread). Although awe hasn't made it into the big ten, awe fits all these criteria, and this book makes the case that it deserves to be there. Awe offers the hope that, by choosing to make it a more frequent part of your emotional repertoire and learning more about it and what inspires it, your life may not end up being wonderful but it will be amazing.
There are many versions of lists of the basic emotions. A statistical technique called factor analysis that looked at most of the lists of emotions from the perspective of our autonomic nervous system reaction yielded emotions that generally fell into one of the following categories: love, fear, sadness, embarrassment, curiosity, pride, enjoyment, despair, guilt, and anger. Some lists replace sadness with loneliness, and others include words like joy instead of enjoyment, disgust instead of shame, and contempt instead of anger, but the basic ten I've listed have generally been accepted by most psychologists as the basic ten human emotions. One of the most respected researchers in the field of human emotion is psychologist Carroll Izard, and his work suggests that the ten emotions listed above or terms close to them are in fact the fundamental emotions from which all the others derive. They're the ten ways we react to what life gives us, but awe, as our eleventh emotion, is how we constantly create and re-create our lives. It's unique not only in its capacity to create more consciousness chaos for us than the others, but to blend and intensify all the others so that we can find new and deeper meaning in all of them.
How many times do you experience one of the basic ten emotions? If you're like most people, you've probably experienced them far more often than you've experienced awe. When you were in awe, you may have noticed that it was very much unlike the other ten in that it lasts a much shorter time than the others, but when it does happen, it tends to leave an imprint on your consciousness that is hard to ignore or deny.
Awe can't be managed or controlled, and no matter how hard we try, we can't sustain it for long. We can stay angry or sad, but we can't stay in awe for more than a few moments. Awe is an emotion we seem able to tolerate only in short, small doses, but thinking about what awed us can take a lifetime.
Think of a time when you were in total awe. You might notice that you also experienced some of the other basic emotions at the same time, but that unlike the others, awe is the one that could feel wonderful, terrible, invigorating, and frightening at the same time. You may want to write down on an index card one of your most awe-inspiring experiences and use it as a bookmark as you read the following chapters. Compare it with the experiences shared by the people you will read about, and read it once more after you finish this book. When you do, remember Grand's challenge while you're doing this, because the person reading your awe experience won't be the person who wrote it.
Author Douglas Adams describes his choice between the harder and easier life by saying that he prefers to live in awe 'of the infinite and baffling complexity of life.' He reflects on his choice of the path of the more difficult and more mysterious life in the quote beginning the introduction to this book, 'I'd take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day.'10 Ignorance, as Adams uses the word, doesn't refer to stupidity or a lower level of intelligence but to a choice to take life as it comes or as we've been told it means, rather than to try to understand from where it comes, why it came, where it goes, and so on.
To the extent that we could choose a more ordinary, predictable life doesn't mean that we don't feel intense and busy. That's what languishing is: mistaking a hectic personal life for a connected, meaningful one. Such a choice offers the added benefit of having a life generally free of the surprising and disrupting upheavals of a life of frequent awe. A normal, less emotionally and mentally demanding life is a perfectly logical choice, one I've often wished I could make when a life of awe seems to keep imposing itself upon me. Sometimes I long for what I call an awe-lite lifeone that is much calmer, less confusingly intense, and less full of often very unsettling surprises that throw my entire belief system and way of thinking into total disarray.
An example of awe lite is the recent request from the president of a large corporation for whose company I was going to lecture. He said, 'Inspire and awe them, but keep it light. I don't want to get my people upset by thinking they have to think about the meaning of life. They have enough on their minds. Don't share any really sad or upsetting stories.' I wondered what is was that was on their minds that could be more important than the meaning of life and how they could ever experience awe if they weren't ever thinking about it.
Based on philosopher Rudolf Otto's definition quoted at the beginning of this chapter, an awe-lite life offers facinas (interest) without the mysterium tremendium (complete mental upheaval). It's certainly possible to enjoy life without being in repeated awe of it, and people who end up with awe-inspired lives sometimes say they wonder whether the easier, awe-lite version might not have been preferable. A life of awe isn't one for the faint of heart or for a hardened heart, because it is stressful, and it often breaks our heart as much as it fills it with joy. With all the other ten basic emotions, we essentially know what we are getting, but in the case of awe, the range of feelings and thoughts is complex and varied.
What the easier life lacks in exhilaration it makes up for in predictable comfort and less suffering, stress, fear, pain, and anxiety. It's the life that a lot of people seem to wish they haduntil they actually have it. You will read that humans evolved to be in awe, so to deny your awe-inspirable nature can result, particularly toward the end of your life, in a sense of regret and grieving for past missed opportunities. With the current emphasis on positive thinking instead of deep thinking and the philosophy that we should do all we can to be incessantly upbeat no matter what happens and not 'think too much' and just 'do it,' an awe-lite life can end up causing you to feel that you had a remarkable life in which your only regret was that you weren't truly there to live it.
Based on the SAI that serves as the basis for the following chapters, an awe-lite life can end up feeling somehow less of a life in which something is always missing. It can make us more prone to languishing than flourishing. However, for some of us, a less contemplative and more mentally restful life might be a good choice. It fits our more 'cool' and less reactive temperament, helps us avoid anxiety (or at least maintain the level we're comfortable with), and lets us go about living without a lot of thinking that only raises our anxiety. As one spouse of a SAI participant said, 'My husband is in awe all the time. He takes life way too seriously and too intensely. He makes such a big deal out of such little things, and I tend to do just the reverse. He just can't be happy with what 'is' and is always wondering 'why.''
The awe-lite life is based on the pop psychology bromide 'Don't sweat the small stuff, and it's all small stuff.' Persons leading awe-inspired lives consider that platitude to be absurd because, for them, it's often the prior ignored 'small stuff' that often serves as the primary catalyst for their awe response. They're awed by things as vast as a mountain vista but also as small as the head of a pin, and as extraordinary as a volcanic eruption or as ordinary as the fresh smell of a new morning.
People with lots of awe in their lives do sweat the small stuff. They tend to work themselves up into a sweat about almost everything and anything and take most things very seriously. Awe is a sweatier life than one of awe lite because awe is an emotion that derives from being intensely engaged in all that life offers; it regularly makes mountains of molehills and big deals out of what awe-liters see as no big deal. Awe-liters embrace the 'don't worry, be happy' philosophy, but those who choose an awe-inspired life do not seem to be happy unless they worry. Happiness separate from full engagement with life's real problems is not possible for those who are open to awe.
Of course, none of us would intentionally choose to have fear, sadness, confusion, and uncertaintyall the things that awe producesin our lives, and although we do inherit temperaments and reaction styles that can make us less or more awe-prone (or at least, more willing to think long and creatively about what awes us), we are not given the choice before we are born of what kind of lives we will have. Although we can't control our destinies, and it often feels like the choice of a hard or easy life has been made for and not by us, we can find our own meaning and management as our destinies unfold if we regularly use and try to learn from awe as our one human emotion designed to help us thrive and not just survive or languish through our lives.
Life in the In-Between
Awe is something we feel when we venture into the in-between areas of life, so in an awe-filled life, you will often feel confused. Because awe causes our cognitive map to constantly change, we end up feeling lost much of the time. Awe sends us reeling between the comforting certainty of the rock of fundamentalist, rigid religious thinking and the hard place of modern science. It leaves us on our own to deal with mysteries that neither of these fields can ever fully explain. Awe is the one emotion that can cause us to think and feel in ways that help us bridge the gap between the illusion of science's total power to explain everything and the exaltation that comes from formal religion's veneration for not having to. When we feel awe, we don't experience a sense of closure, comfort, enlightenment, or 'aha.' Instead, we are flooded with a sense of mystery, arousal, confusion, and 'oh no . . . now what?'
For many of the persons I interviewed for this book, awe was a religious experience and an encounter with what they called 'the Sacred,' 'God,' 'the Power,' or 'the Absolute.' Awe is the emotion we feel when we allow ourselves to be drawn into the murky and scary in-between areas of life, the dialectic twilight zone between the poles of good and bad, right and wrong, win or lose, faith and doubt, and perhaps most difficult to deal with, self and other.
Awe lite happens when we are drawn to something life offers but don't let go of one of its safe 'either-or' poles. Sometimes, we have to find a pole and hold on to it for a while as if it were the whole truth about us and life, but a fully engaged and awe-inspired life is led at life's existential intersections and not on the safer corners.
Because we live at a time when quick fixes are the theme of the day and people move from one pole of life to the otherthat is, trying to avoid staying too long in the confusing and challenging difficult areas of life where awe usually happens, the in-betweenour awe response has begun to atrophy from neglect. According to popular psychology advice industry gurus, we can follow simple steps to go from alcoholism to being 'born again,' from low self-esteem to self-love, or from depression to elation without the prolonged mental, emotional, or contemplative struggle in the middle ground, free of the disruption that awe creates in our feeling and thinking. Even the new field of positive psychology tends to focus on being happy and deals with the wonderful more than the tragic. It is concerned with what's right and not what's wrong. But awe happens and instructs from within and between all of these realms. People who have lots of awe in their lives are less concerned with being happy than they are with the search of the meaning of their being.
After hearing people describe what it was like to be in awe, it seemed something like the experience of being caught 'in a pickle.' That was the name of a game we used to play when I was a child. One of my friends would stand in front of a baseball base, and about sixty feet away another friend would stand in front of another base. I would start out safely standing on one base while they tossed a baseball back and forth, trying to tease or entice me off base and into the middle ground.
The thrill, stress, and challenge of 'pickle' was to venture off the safe base while the ball was in the air, get someplace between bases, and run back and forth as the ball sailed back and forth. If I could tolerate the stress of being caught between bases, a throw would eventually be off target, and I could race toward one of the safe bases, but sometimes I got caught. Those who played the game best were those who could tolerate the in-between place the longest, relish the fear as well as the adventure, wait for their best chance, go for it, win or lose, and learn something from their time in the middle that they could use in the future. Sometimes they got caught, and more rarely they made it, but it was not fun playing when the one supposed to get in the pickle wouldn't leave the safe base. Throwing the ball back and forth became boring. The fun was in getting out and into the in-between place and staying there as long as possible. The purpose wasn't to win the game but to keep it going as long as possible, to enjoy the thrill of being a little scared and excited at the same time, to keep looking for new openings and opportunities, and to most of all just fully enjoy being in a pickle. As I look back at the times I was caught in the middle, it seems to be a lot like awe feels.
Experience or Awareness?
The choice of leading the easier life is a response primarily to the brain's egotistical commands and results in going through most of our daily life 'experiencing' things from our brain's narrow, self-enhancing, and very personal perspective. Most of our other emotions work that way, but in a state of awe's diminished sense of self, we are freed to be more fully aware of life in its broadest context and with all of our intelligences, including (as you will read later) gut feelings derived from our heart and intestines that occur before our brain has the time to think.
The word experience derives from the Latin word experiential, meaning 'to try.' The word aware comes from the Greek word horan meaning 'to see.' Sometimes, we have an experience like drinking a chocolate milkshake, and our awareness matches up with the experience. We participate in milkshake-drinking behavior, and we mindfully observe that we're doing it. We might say something like, 'Wow, this shake tastes great, and I'm savoring the fact that I know I am tasting something great.' More often, however, we suck our shake while we read, talk on our cell phone, or worry about something else. We become a participant in an act (have an experience) but not a full and total observer (have an awareness).
The awe response is our maximum state of full and total observation. It makes us more fully aware, meaning that we are then able to more completely experience that which we are experiencing. For example, I've learned from firsthand awareness that there's a subtle but significant difference between what we mean by saying, 'I'm having pain' (an experience), and saying, 'I'm having the thought that I'm in pain' (an awareness). Having pain is an awful experience, but I found it awe-inspiring to discover that there's a crucial step in the pain cycle during which we have the chance to think about the fact that we're thinking about our pain and that this participating/observing distinction allows for some additional degree of manageability of how much, how long, where, and what kind of pain we will think about at any given time. At the very least, it allows us some precious moments when we have pain, but for awhile, pain doesn't have us. We become less reactive to the physiological reality of our pain and, for a few minutes, can regain some of the control that pain so easily takes from us.
Being mindfully aware of the difference between experiencing something and being fully aware of it provides us with the opportunity to forge new meanings within life's agonies and ecstasies. No matter how many good or bad things happen to us, a life full of experiences leads to languishing, but a life filled with aweand the full awareness it awakensresults in flourishing.
If you've ever experienced driving your car and been shocked to awareness by nearly crashing into a stopped car in front of you, you've uncomfortably realized the key difference between going through life on self-involved cruise control, moving from one automatic experience after another, and the full, intense, focused awareness that you're in control of two tons of steel racing at sixty miles an hour in the broader context of hundreds of other speeding hunks of steel under the command of selfishly distracted brains. When you slam on the brakes just in time and just before you might have died, you become much more alive, and that's what awe feels likea sudden jolt beyond experience and into awareness.
Awe's CostsA Final Encouragement
Before you make your own choice between an awe-filled and awe-lite life, and between experiencing life and being fully aware of it, consider again some of the costs that come with making the choice for an awe-filled life.
Choosing the fully engaged, connected way of an awe-filled life means you will lead a life with companions with whom you share a love so awesomely deep that the fact you both will not be able to complete the journey with one another will bring you to your knees, weeping from the overpowering grief known only to those who experience the strangely splendid suffering inseparable from the awe of profound, companionate love. If you choose to try to have more awe in your life, even the death of a pet will leave you emotionally devastated, with your life (again) in need of rearranging.
An awe-inspired life requires the expenditure of huge amounts of persistent patience and tolerance, because it constantly teases us with subtle clues about life's ultimate purpose and destination, without ever allowing us to come up with a completely satisfying, rational answer. Awe is like trying to assemble a complex jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing. There's never any closure in an awe-inspired life, only constant acceptance of the mysteries of life. We're never allowed to know when this fantastic voyage might end or what happens after it does, but that's part of the life-disorienting chaos that makes this choice so thrillingly difficult and makes a life of blind faith so much easier.
As you have read, an awe-filled life is a humbling one that is constantly damaging to our self-esteem. Awe takes us down a few pegs and causes us to realize that our feelings of personal power and importance almost always end up being illusions. The nice thing about not assuming too much of a sense of self-importance in the first place is that we don't have to lose that sense when awe puts us in our place.
Awe can upset our stomachs. Ancient Hawaiians said they felt awe in their nàau, a word that means intestines, bowels, and also heart, mind, and feelings. As it so often is, their philosophy was prescient, as modern medicine is just now learning that our gut and our brain develop from the same clump of fetal tissue. One part ends up in the brain, and the other in the intestines to become what are called our central and enteric nervous systems. Our intestines are lined with over 100 million neurotransmitters, about the same number found in the brain, and these two nervous systems are connected by the longest nerve in your body, the vagus nerve. When one of the systems is responding, the other always does, too. That's why indigestion produces nightmares and why antidepressants that calm the brain are sometimes used to soothe the stomach. Awe is often experienced as 'butterflies in the stomach' and something we 'sense in our gut,' and awe can leave us not only with a bothered brain but also an upset stomach. An interesting peripheral discovery in the SAI was that persons frequently in awe seem highly prone to severe migraine headaches and stomach and bowel problems.
Being in awe means that you will spend a lot of time feeling afraid and confused. If you check a thesaurus, you will see listed under awe words like fear, terror, dread, fright, and trepidation. Living a life of awe is living life on the edge of the sense of chaos and confusion that comes with the realization of life's perplexing majesty. As one of the respondents in the SAI defined it, 'Awe is when you become so aware of just how tremendously frightening it is that you're alive that it scares you to death.'
Because it's so difficult to describe in words, awe can be very aggravating and can leave us speechless just when we most want to tell someone what we've experienced. Being awed is fully yielding to life and allowing ourselves to be taken in by it, but just when we feel we have so much to share, awe leaves us unable to find words to express what we're feeling. The everyday emotional vocabulary that works pretty well with our other ten emotions falls far short of being able to be convey what awe feels like and means to us. Victor Hugo captured this awe-muting effect when he defined a moving piece of music as 'that of which nothing can be said and about which it is impossible to remain silent.'
So now that you've read about some of the high costs and consequences of your choice, which life would you choosethe awe-lite life that's easier and calmer or an awe-filled life that is much more difficult, thrilling, and confounding? The following pages can help you make your choice of a lifetime, so perhaps you would prefer to put off your decision until you've finished this book. After all, you'll be an entirely different person then.
©2007. Paul Pearsall, Ph.D. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Awe: the Delights and Dangers of our Eleventh Emotion. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.