What might be the relationship between awe and mindfulness and well-being? Mindfulness is a quality of the human mind experienced by everyone reading this article. We may not call it “mindfulness,” and it may be fleeting rather than continuous, but we all have moments of being completely present with our immediate experience, without the usual layers of mental activity (thinking, mind wandering, commentary, judgement etc), and importantly, without being caught up in a sense of me, me, me. The strong relationship between mindfulness and awe became clear last week as we explored awe in some of the programs I run. Practices to cultivate awe were introduced based on the health benefits of awe being documented. More on that later.
Participants in the program provided examples of experiences of awe that they have had. For some people, awe is reserved for the big stuff. For others, small moments can be awe inspiring. What struck me on reading the examples is that many were also experiences of pure mindfulness – where we drop out of thinking about an experience (or the past/future) and are fully present. Many of the experiences of awe highlighted interconnection, ego transcendence and self-forgetfulness. Appreciating interconnection and moving beyond our usual preoccupation with self are also outcomes of mindfulness meditation. Examples of awe included:
- being at the beach at sunset surrounded by a magnificent sky, the crash of the waves and the wind in my hair
- standing at the cliffs of Dirk Hartog Island watching humpback whales play offshore
- holding my (grand)daughter shortly after her birth
- the first death in my family
- glimpsing how extraordinarily ingenious nature is in designing our fundamental constituents – cells, molecules, atoms
- experiencing the love of my wife
- appreciating how “miraculous” it is that a big city will have every morning all its fruit, vegetables, meat, services ready for customers with no central organiser.
The relationship between awe and mindfulness moves in two ways. A moment of awe can drop us into a state of mindfulness, and on the other hand, cultivating mindfulness enhances the capacity to observe and see detail, beauty and connection – all linked to awe. After a recent mindfulness meditation on a rainy day, I walked outside to find the sky had cleared and the sun was shining. The rain drops suspended at the end of the tiny leaves of a native shrub were lit up. Each droplet had a slightly different hue, some more green others blue, yet others orange or yellow – a jewel encrusted shrub. A small moment of awe, primed by meditation.
The research into awe suggests that this small moment of awe may have supported my physical health. Recent research has shown that people who regularly experience awe have lower levels of the interleukin-6 molecule (known to promote inflammation, which in its chronic form is tied to poor health). High levels of interleukin-6 are used as a proxy measure for poor health. The study published in 2015 was carried out with over 100 students at the University of California, Berkeley. The researchers were looking to see if it was possible to identify health benefits connected with positive emotions. The students recorded how often they experienced specific positive emotions – awe, amusement, compassion, contentment, joy, love and pride. The research confirmed existing research showing that positive emotions were collectively associated with good health (low levels of interleukin-6). Interestingly, this research showed awe to have the strongest (negative) correlation with the levels of interleukin-6. So, if you have not valued experiences of awe, maybe it is time to rethink. This research comes from the Greater Good Science Centre at the University of California, Berkeley – well worth checking out if you are interested in knowing more about ways to support your own well-being and the well-being of others.
The take home message – experiences of awe seem to be particularly good for your health.
Through practising mindfulness meditation, you can enhance your likelihood of experiencing awe. Not only does meditation heighten your sensitivity to the world around you, but a key underlying principle of mindfulness is that of “beginner’s mind.” Beginner’s mind encourages us to meet each moment with curiosity and openness, rather than an “already knowing” mind. This increases the odds in favour of experiencing awe. Whenever you feel a moment of awe – linger there. This strengthens the neural connections that are fired when experiencing awe, making it more likely to experience awe in the future. As they say, “neurons that fire together, wire together.”
Kathryn Choules (PhD)
Dr Choules is a qualified instructor of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction from the University of Massachusetts and a Senior Teacher of Meditation (Meditation Association of Australia). She has been offering mindfulness programs, workshops, training and retreats since 2013. With many years experience in government, academia and the community sector, both in Australia and overseas, she understands the challenges and benefits of finding calm amidst the storm of modern living and the modern workplace.