Awe, which Webster describes as “an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime,” is brought on when the mind stops thinking or, at least, when thought is suspended temporarily. You could say when the mind is “blown.”
In 2003, two academics published a paper1 on awe that began:
In the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear is a little studied emotion – awe. Awe is felt about diverse events and objects, from waterfalls to childbirth to scenes of devastation. Awe is central to the experience of religion, politics, nature, and art. Fleeting and rare, experiences of awe can change the course of a life in profound and permanent ways.
Jaw-dropping, eye-popping awe can be experienced positively or negatively – incredible sunsets, paintings by the masters, never-seen feats of physical prowess or the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings during 9/11. As in the above-cited paper: “an adequate account of awe must explain how awe can be both profoundly positive and terrifyingly negative.”
We propose that two features form the heart of prototypical cases of awe: vastness, and accommodation. Vastness refers to anything that is experienced as being much larger than the self, or the self’s ordinary level of experience or frame of reference…Accommodation refers to the process of adjusting mental structures that cannot assimilate a new experience.
“Vastness” seems self-explanatory; “accommodation” seems similar to my mind-blowing perspective.
So who are the wizards in the title of this piece? Wizards are those of us who have developed an exceptional capacity to be awed. We allow ourselves to experience things that are “much larger than the self,” have sufficient attention or awareness to notice and remain open to assimilating new experiences.
This requires a deep humility and willingness to be “wowed” or have our minds blown. A meditation practice helps one more easily access that quiet mind so awe has an easier time coming to the surface. This is the work to be done if one wants to develop these abilities.
Are you ready to join the club and become one of the wizards of awe?
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- “Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion,” by Dacher Kelter and Jonathon Haidt, Psychology Press Ltd, 2003
- Thanks to Christopher Gebhardt for steering me to this paper on awe.