Sunday, September 21, 2008

Awe by Paul Pearsall - Excerpts

Awe: The Delights and Dangers of Our Eleventh Emotion.

Paul Pearsall. 2007. ISBN-13: 978-0-7573-0585-6


… the best description I’ve been able to give it so far is that – no matter how good or bad our brain considers whatever is happening to be – it is feeling more totally and completely alive than we thought possible before we were in awe. It’s feeling numbed yet totally alert at the same time.

Languishing is not being sad or happy. It’s not being mentally healthy or mentally ill, perhaps because it’s more a state of chronic doing than engaged being. Because it is mistaking a busy life for a meaningful one, it’s generally awe-deficient. It’s living in a state of often unacknowledged quiet despair, unrecognized because we mistake a busy personal life for a meaningfully connected one. Languishing is going through the motions without a lot of any kind of emotion.

In fact, because awe is first and foremost our most connective emotion, the more you think about yourself, the less likely it is you will be in awe. Awe is an emotion designed to help us experience and learn from the paradox that life is as dreadful as it is divine, better than we can imagine and worse than we fear, and as short as it is magnificent.

Awe makes us feel powerless and insignificant yet at the same time also strangely empowered, because we feel we’ve been uniquely blessed by being given a brief challenging glimpse of a deeper significance to life that we may never understand but must keep trying.

Ultimately, the decision between an easier, fascinating life and a harder, tremendously mysterious one is a choice between the solace of certitude and the aggravating invigoration of unending inscrutability.

… 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 away – in other words, a life full of awe.

Although intense contemplation of its meaning can end up deepening it, awe often shakes our faith and disturbs the solace of our spiritual certitude.

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.

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.

… if you’re the kind of person who’s looking for answers, the choice of an awe-filled life isn’t for you.

… true awe always comes with a sense of terror of the vast nothingness that also makes awe so exciting.

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.

… 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.

The awe-lite life is based on the pop psychology bromide: “Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff.”

There’s never any closure in an awe-inspired life, only constant acceptance of the mysteries of life.

… an awe-filled life is a humbling one that is constantly damaging to our self-esteem.

Being in awe means that you will spend a lot of time feeling afraid and confused.

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.

“Awe is when you become so aware of just how tremendously frightening it is that you’re alive that it scares you to death.”

If we go beyond a kind of ignorant distant voyeurism through which we gawk at life rather than fully engage with it and put in the effort to try to understand a little more about life’s meaning, awe becomes less a feeling of being high and more a feeling of deep immersion in any and all of life’s processes, including health, illness, love, and even death.

Awe draws us out of our increasingly dominant secular consciousness, and awakens our latent sense of the sacred.

Awe shakes us from our mental, spiritual, and physical self-absorbed languishing and can make our other emotions pale in comparison to its transformative life impact.

My study of awe indicates that its defining characteristic is what psychologists call ego death, meaning dissolution of the sense of self, replaced by a feeling of total immersion in, and connection with, something much more vast and meaningful.

The overwhelming suddenness of awe literally takes our breath away. What we see, sense, and feel seems not only to far transcend our day-to-day level of consciousness, but causes us to become more aware of the range and power of our senses.

Research from the fields of neurocardiology, cardio-endocrinology, and energy cardiology indicates that the heart receives signals from the world around us and sends those signals to the brain and other parts of the body.

The founder of the transcendental movement is usually considered to be Ralph Waldo Emerson. He described his sense of awe derived from going to the woods alone as his way of knowing and worshiping God. He wrote that when he was in such an environment, he felt that he became nothing, yet could see everything, and become “part and parcel of God.” It’s as if he was becoming aware of God through the heart’s eyes.

The debate persists between pantheists who look for God in everything, theists who believe in a God over everything, and atheists who believe in no God or gods. It still rages between the deists who believe God set the world in motion, provided its laws, and leaves it to us to use our rational thinking to deal with it, and theists who believe in communication with God and behavioral and prayerful earning of his intervention.

Happiness is an abnormal, brief respite between the stresses and strains of a fully engaged meaningful life.

As [Brian] Swimme points out, there is nothing more astounding than to be able to participate in the process called life; death is an inescapable necessary part of that process, and it can be as astounding as it is devastating.

The experience of being in awe can quickly shock us out of any inauthentic happiness we’ve tried to achieve for ourselves.

Mountains force us to consider our relative smallness, powerlessness, and comparative impermanence. An unending plain forces our binocular vision to converge far beyond its normal length, drawing us to consider the nearness of our mundane life versus the farness of yet unimagined possibilities.

Based on what the SAI participants told me, they never felt more alive than when they felt the terrible pain of an awe-inspiring negative life transition. Because the awe of understanding leaves lingering doubts and more questions than answers, many of them were pensive, worrying people, not smiling optimists – another argument on the side of choosing the easier, less-awe-filled life.

The SAI participants were not an upbeat, smiling, perpetually positive-thinking group, but they were the most alive and engaged people I’ve ever met.

A good life is about meeting the challenge of carrying pain without amplifying it into suffering and savoring pleasure without becoming a slave to pursuing more of it.

You have read that awe is first and foremost the emotion of self-transcendence. It’s encountering something, someone, or even an idea, a disease, or a terrible crisis that is not only a violation of our expectations, but a revelation of what is beyond our wildest imagination.

I still know of nothing more awe-inspiring, as I have defined that response, than death, and it still leaves me in a state of utter confusion at the power of love, life, and death that can result in such agonizing grief at life’s irreversible end.

Based on my research, a working definition of awe might be that it is “the humbling experience of our own lack of imagination in the face of a prodigious stimulus.”

It’s when we are underwhelmed with our selves that we’re more likely to become overwhelmed with the wonders of the world around us.

Maybe that’s what awe is for: to act as a consciousness stimulant that makes us more aware of just how unaware we usually are and the need for a more creative, forgiving, loving consciousness.

… when we feel emotionally moved, we are actually experiencing energy moving throughout our body. Unless we consciously interpret them, however, feelings quickly pass, and our emotions just “are”. Emotions are energy neutral, meaning that until our consciousness gives them meaning, they’re pure energy manifested and registered primarily through our autonomic (or automatically reactive) nervous system.

We may admire the brain’s rational brilliance, but our emotions are taking place faster than the brain can think. That’s why truly transformative awe requires lengthy reflection after the event. Only then can we put what inspired us into the context of our lives and decide how it will be stored in our consciousness.

… pop psychology has told us for decades that living is a matter of technique and that we should learn these techniques from experts who offer their various well-marketed sets of steps to emotional health.

Being in awe is less about our own feelings pouring out than feelings pouring in.

Being in awe of all of life, both good and bad and happy and unhappy, is flourishing; it’s the opposite of languishing, which sends us off in search of the latest secret to how to have a better life.

To ask, “Is this all there is?” is to throw the gift of our being back in the face of the Giver.

Awe can really mess up our thinking, disrupt our certainty, and expose the false beliefs many of us use to get us through the chaotic, random, unfair evil that permeates so much of life.

Awe can console us because it offers enlightened illusionment – a time to dream, fantasize, and stretch our consciousness beyond the bonds of our middle-world brain.

When we’re in awe, we’re reacting on some level to the emergence of things and phenomena that our busy brain doesn’t often have the time or tolerance to deal with.

Consciousness is a mysterious blend of how and what we say when we talk to ourselves, what’s doing the listening, how it feels about what it hears, and what seems to be doing the speaking.

… the majority of Americans are languishing their lives away in a kind of psychological purgatory in the form of a mental health “in-between-ness”, in which they are neither totally mentally healthy nor mentally ill, and spend their days in the pursuit of a happiness that forever seems to elude them.

Languishing is indolent and sneaks up on you over time. It’s characterized not by depression, high anxiety, or the presence of negative feelings, but by the absence of the regularly intense feelings about life that flourishers experience, including the good, the bad, and the ugly things that life brings.

The use of the word awesome has become more an announcement of a shopper’s discovery than an indication of a transformative spiritual insight in progress.

True, unadulterated, sincere, understanding awe involves awareness of significant spiritual needs being drawn out of us, not wants finally being met for us. It leaves us bothered and thoughtful, not satisfied and full, and it’s as likely to make us sad as happy. Awe is the basic human emotion that lifts us far above languishing, not because it makes us feel good, but because it makes us feel.

We may often be too emotionally numb to know it, but languishing is always lonely. Flourishing is always shared.

Of course awe doesn’t alter the reality of pain, but it provides a sense of meaning and comprehensibility that provides a degree of manageability.

Life isn’t wonderful. It just is, and that’s more than enough to inspire awe.

“You can’t be in awe of how great life is unless you’re also awed by how rotten it can be. Awe is becoming so intensely alive that it can be really terrifying and make you rethink everything.

The easily awed are essentially “one thought” people, who don’t allow their brains to dart around from idea to idea.

Without accommodation, awe can become a superstitious portent supporting our preconceived fears, biases, and narrow self-protective and self-enhancing view of the world.

When someone is a zealot, he or she can’t conceive how anyone could see the world and explain its mysteries differently than that person does.

… if we take the time and pay attention, being in awe is easy. The problem arises when awe arouses us but doesn’t necessarily inform us. Our reverent fear and awe’s sense of powerlessness can easily be transformed into evil when we haven’t taken sufficient time to accommodate awe into our own lives.

Faith has come to mean a blind, trusting acceptance of a belief, usually one into which we were indoctrinated as children when we were the most vulnerable and most prone to being ignorantly awed.

My interviews indicate that the awe of understanding is almost always in reaction to nature or processes like a fuller awareness of our own senses, a strong emotion, giving birth, loss, illness, healing, dying, suffering, loving, and other manifestations of profound connection or disconnection with “something more”.

Whenever our awe response results in a sense of separation rather than deeper and more profound connection, it’s the dark side of awe that does to work and will have toxic consequences.

With the awe of understanding comes the challenge of a mind forever opened and seldom at final peace and closure.

The awe of understanding can be experienced alone, but it results in the undeniable urge to share what happened and talk about it with someone else.

If you decide to have more awe in your life, you will have to be willing to take on and think deeply about your role in the process as an imperfect being in an imperfect world that keeps teasing us with its imperfect grandeur.

The lesson to be learned from understanding awe is that the purpose of life isn’t to be happy but just “to be” and to accept the gift of being allowed to at least try to figure out the why of why we are.

The more we have to love, the more we have to lose. The more we care, the more we are sure to grieve.

The more self-conscious we are, the less fully conscious we seem able to be.

It’s when we’re most engaged in life itself and with someone with whom we share life that we can lose all awareness of time, place, and self – a state psychologists call “flow”.

That’s the thing about awe: There is no “payoff”.

Popular-psychology bromides aside, we actually have relatively little control over the most important and difficult things that happen in our lives.

It’s the effort, not success at finding final answers, that will sustain us.


Richard Dawkins

Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument.

Richard Dawkins

False beliefs can be every bit as consoling as true ones, right up until the moment of disillusionment.

Editor, Publisher’s Weekly

Nobody ever went broke overestimating the desperate unhappiness of the American public.

Albert Einstein

The most beautiful and most profound emotion we can experiences is the sensation of the mystical. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.

Wallace Stevens

The imagination is man’s power over nature.

Fritz von Unruh

The dog is the only being that loves you more than you love yourself.

Thorstein Veblen

The outcome of any serious research can only be to make two questions grow where only one grew before.

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