Grateful Gatherings Resources

Opening to Awe

Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life…and the world.

Sarah Ban Breathnach

Introduction

Listening to beautiful live music in the company of others, reading a story of extraordinary human resilience, gazing up from the base of a giant Redwood tree — the kinds of experiences that send shivers up our spines or bring tears to our eyes; these are moments of awe in which the door to life’s beauty and mystery seems to swing open a bit wider. They can yield a deep sense of joy and belonging — and a profound sense of gratefulness. If we allow ourselves, we are changed by them.

Br. David Steindl-Rast writes: “Remember a night when you stood outdoors looking up at the stars, countless in the high, silent dome of the sky, and saw them as if for the first time. What happened? Eugene O’Neill puts it this way: ‘For a moment I lost myself – actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the…high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life…to Life itself!’ …For a second you see — and seeing the secret, are the secret. For a second there is meaning!” 

Such moments often arrive unexpectedly and shake us out of the daily into a kind of momentary transcendence, into life’s mystery. We are, as Br. David says, grabbed by life! The psychologist and researcher Dacher Keltner believes that it’s also possible to cultivate our capacity to experience such moments and even to seek them out. Keltner has been studying awe for over a decade, and his research suggests that there are specific steps we can take to attune to awe: Pay attention, focus on the goodness of others, practice mindfulness, and take the unfamiliar path. A gratefulness practice supports all of these things: noticing life’s daily gifts and small beauties, appreciating and expressing gratitude for others, becoming present to this moment, and allowing ourselves to be surprised. 

Like its close companions joy and gratitude, the experience of awe can greatly shape our well-being. Keltner’s research outlines the emotional, physical, and communal benefits of awe, including greater generosity, increased sense of belonging and connection, a quieting of negative self-talk, and a boost to our immune systems. And even before these benefits kick in, there is simply the sublime experience of awe in and of itself. Awe thins the veil between our everyday world and the profound mystery of life, inviting us into a more proximal relationship with wonder, the transcendent, even the sacred. We feel our smallness in the scheme of the larger cosmic dance, and this is a gift. 

This month’s resources offer a variety of ways to think about awe and some inspiration for cultivating it in our lives. While there are nuanced distinctions among awe and wonder, they are used in resonant ways in these particular pieces — all inviting us to build a bridge between our gratefulness practice and the possibility of awe.

Essay

In this short essay, Mark Nepo writes: “Wonder is the rush of life saturating us with its aliveness, the way sudden rain makes us smile, the way sudden wind opens our face.” He goes on to describe feeding his dying father and how this moment of communion and tenderness opened them both to a sense of wonder for all of life. “I kissed his forehead and held his hand, both of us more alive than we could remember, completely covered in inexplicable wonder.”

  • When have you experienced this “rush of life saturing [you] with its aliveness”?
  • In what way did the author’s openness to wonder change what could have been experienced as an ordinary act or responsibility into something greater?
  • Is there some aspect of your own life that might be enhanced by intentionally opening to the wonder or awe that might be present just below the surface, waiting to “illuminate the world”?

Video

(minutes 6:20 – 12:02)

In this ~6-minute clip, Dr. Keltner shares some of the universal qualities of awe (i.e. it’s contagious, it shifts our perspective from self to others), the many diverse sources of awe (music, places, food!), and a brief introduction to the positive impacts of awe that have emerged in his team’s research (now available in detail in his new book, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life).

  • From your own lived experience, how would you describe the qualities of awe?
  • What are sources of awe in your life? 
  • Do you think of it as something you can seek out, something that grabs hold of you unexpectedly, or both?

Poem

In this beautiful poem, the poet shares her awe of the ordinary — imagining the origins of the “sun-glazed bag of lemons adorning the white counter” and savoring their “scented beauty.” Pausing to marvel at the lemons she grabbed hastily at the grocery store, she finds herself in a state of delight and reverence.

  • When do you experience awe in the everyday?
  • What role does gratefulness play in opening you to wonder and awe? 

Practice

In this practice, Dacher Keltner offers the steps for taking an awe walk. And if you’re unable to take an actual walk, you’ll find a 4-minute guided video walk in Muir Woods National Park in California included at the bottom of the practice.

You might also try an Auditory Awe Walk. Inspired by Keltner’s “awe walk,” take a similar approach with your favorite music. Follow the steps of the awe walk, beginning with getting centered in the breath. From there, attune to where the music creates feelings of awe. 

For either of the above practices, consider the following:

  • How do you feel awe in your body?
  • How does it change your emotional state? 
  • Can you think of a time when awe has been emotionally or physically healing for you?
  • How might you build in more possibilities for awe in your daily life?

Bonus Resources