I am writing a second installment about the Bay Area Book Festival is to rave about the conversation between author Dacher Keltner and Shawn Taylor, a wonderfully charismatic interviewer. Keltner is a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and one of the world’s foremost scientists of emotion. He was talking about his most recent book, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life.
He defines awe as the emotion we experience when we encounter vast mysteries that we don’t understand. In his research for the book, he asked people about their experiences of awe, and that got me thinking about my own.
I’ll start with the most obvious and undeniable. Feeling each of my three babies flutter inside my body for the first time. Giving birth to them, meeting these brand new little people and knowing that they came from me but not really. Birth is something that happens all the time, and yet it was the most unbelievable thing I have ever experienced. Which is Keltner’s point about awe. It’s that “whoa,” “wow,” “how is this possible?” experience.
Another experience of awe I had was with those same three people, although they were no longer infants. They were as big or bigger than me, and we were on a trip to Hawaii. To be fair, there are plenty of opportunities for awe in Hawaii. I feel awe pretty much every time I see the ocean, which is why I try to go to the beach as much as possible. But this was not an ocean moment. This was a pitch black, chilly night in Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island. We’d stayed late to see the red glow from the bubbling lava, which was amazing, but not the culmination of our shared awe. The peak experience was looking up and seeing the array of stars overhead. The night was so dark, no ambient light, few trees in the way, just a wide open expanse of black sky filled with hundreds and thousands of sparkling stars. We all remember that night and the awe we felt.
A much more recent experience of awe was last year when I went on a cruise with my mom to see whales. Some of you may remember my blog about that trip. If not, you can look it up and read more about it. There were a number of awe-filled moments over those few days, and I would have thought the peak moment was when I reached toward the water and touched the top of a grey whale’s head. That was truly awesome. But shortly after that, we were floating alongside a mother and baby whale and decided to cut the engine of our little panga, and the dozen of us in the small boat sat in silence, the only sounds those of the water lapping on the boat and the breathe of the whales. The whoosh of the air coming out of their blowholes inspired true awe, a large breathe from the mom, a smaller breathe from her baby. It brought me to tears, as awe often does.
The thing is, awe doesn’t only happen in these big, amazing moments. Awe happens all the time. We just need to be paying attention to notice. A few weeks ago, when the weather turned warm and sunny, I took a pause from listening to music or a podcast on my morning walks, and instead started listening to the birds singing. I’m sitting outside listening to birds singing right now. Awe. I thought about when a client and I share a pivotal moment in a therapy session or when they tell me about making a difficult change in their life. Awe. I think about every time I drive down from Brockway Summit on highway 267 and see that first glimpse of Lake Tahoe. Awe. Jon Bon Jovi singing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah live and acapella in a silent arena. Awe. Hearing my son sing a new song he wrote. Awe. I could go on and on and on. Thank God! I hope to never stop experiencing awe.
I am going to challenge you to do what Keltner challenges in the introduction to his book. “If you have a spare moment, you might think of an awe story of your own.” Maybe a big moment and maybe more of an everyday moment. Please share your story with me, because another thing Keltner talks about is the common humanity in awe experiences. I’d love to bask in yours.