I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Michael Schoenhofer's reflection "Awe."
Awe: It’s a key to well-being
“an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, wonder produced by that which is grand, sublime, powerful. . .” (Dictionary.com ).
Joshua Tree National Park
My wife Mary and I traveled out west for a little sunshine and warmth during the last week of January. Our aim was to walk the trails in Joshua Tree National Park near Palm Springs, California. We flew to Las Vegas, rented a car, and then drove four hours to our Airbnb near Palm Springs. The beautiful ranch home we rented was at the end of a mile-long dirt road in a desert valley. We got out of the car, looked around and said, “This is awesome.”
We could see the sunrise over the mountains each morning from our bed. We watched the sunset from our patio, waiting for the night sky to brighten and shine full of stars. "Awesome."
The first morning we walked outside and saw the blue sky for the first time in weeks. It was so quiet I could feel the silence and peace flow through me like warm honey. “Awesome.”
We walked in the National Park awestruck by the beauty of the mountains some even snowcapped, the Joshua Trees unique to the area, and fresh mountain air.
An Encounter with a Local
The closest grocery store, Vons, was a thirty-minute drive. We needed some supplies. (Since we were out west, I called our groceries supplies. It felt more cowboy.) At the checkout, we stacked our food and beverages on the counter. The checkout lady was older, all business, and a little dour. When she finished ringing everything up, she looked at Mary and said, “Do you have a Vons Club Card?” It felt like a cross-examination.
“No. We’re visitors,” May said.
She starred at us, hesitated a moment, and then reached under the counter and gave Mary a Vons Club Card. "Here. Use this now. I don't care what you do with it afterward. You saved $14 on your bill."
“Thank you,” we said in our kindest and most genuine midwestern voices.
"Harrumph." She grunted, and we left.
Out in the parking lot as we packed away our supplies we looked at each other and laughed. “That lady was awesome!”
Awe comes in different packages. Sometimes it is the breathtaking beauty of a desert sunrise or a sky full of stars. Sometimes it creeps up on you like the stillness and silence I felt on our first morning. And sometimes it is just an ordinary old package wrapped in brown paper or burlap like the checkout lady at Vons.
Why practice awe?
Research suggests that “experiences of awe may have long-term positive effects on our minds, bodies, and social connections.”
- We feel kinder.
- We feel happier.
- We feel more curious and creative. (I enjoyed drawing and writing out in our desert Airbnb and took two afternoons to finish a simple sketch)
- We feel smaller and humbled in the presence of something bigger than ourselves.
- We feel healthier. Awe may help us reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, depression, and autoimmune disease by lowering our levels of cytokines, which elicit an inflammatory response linked to these problems.
- We feel more alert.
Here's a simple exercise from the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley that you can do anywhere (you feel safe) and anytime. It’s called:
AN AWE WALK
It is a matter of intention, with the right outlook, we can find awe in almost any environment, turning a mundane experience into a flight of inspiration and wonder.
No matter where you are, the key is to be in the right frame of mind.
- To get started, turn off your cell phone. Even better, don’t bring your phone with you at all so it won’t tempt you to check it.
- During your walk, try to approach what you see with fresh eyes, imagining that you’re seeing it for the first time. Then follow these steps:
- Take a deep breath in. Count to six as you inhale and six as you exhale. Feel the air move through your nasal passages and listen to your breath. Come back to this breath throughout the walk.
- As you begin walking, feel your feet on the ground and listen to the surrounding sounds. Shift your awareness now so you are open to what is around you, to things that are vast, unexpected things that surprise and delight.
- Take another deep breath in. Again, count to six as you inhale and six as you exhale. Let your attention be open in exploration for what inspires awe in you.
- Continue your walk and, every so often, bring your attention back to your breath. Count to six as you inhale and six as you exhale. Notice—really notice—the multitude of sights, sounds, smells, and other sensations that are dancing through your awareness, undetected.
Once you get in the habit of taking walks like this, you may find how often you have opportunities to experience awe—they are infinite. (Awe Walk, Greater Good Science Center, Berkeley California)
Take a moment today to step back and notice moments of beauty and kindness. See if you can surprise yourself at what you find. You will be better for it, becoming more humble and acting with more kindness.
Michael Schoenhofer retired after twenty-five years as mental health professional. He is the author of Stumbling into Happiness, a memoir of his life changing time in Africa. He blogs at OverFlow.care on topics of well-being. He lives in Lima, Ohio with his wife and cat. He can be contacted at email@example.com.