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The Alchemy Of Awe – Embracing Wonder As A Path Through Pain And Disconnect

Written by: Heidi Albritton, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

Executive Contributor Heidi Albritton

When was the last time you felt amazed? Or just marveled at the simple beauty of something (a kind gesture, the falling snow, a giggling baby)? Or how about the last time you felt a sense of ‘wow’ as you saw or felt something that really stopped you in your tracks?

A man standing at the rock.

If I had to guess, it’s probably been a while! For most of us, routine trumps novelty, habits that reinforce good things in other parts of our life can also alienate us from the new and surprising, and frankly complacency around what is and isn’t ‘amazing’ can lead us into a quiet stagnation, keeping us firmly rooted in our own opinions, beliefs, and general experience of the world. 

Tapping into a sense of ‘awe’ is just not hard-wired into the busy-ness of our modern routines. 

But maybe it should be!

Maybe we need to work on our awareness and observational skills so that we can open ourselves to the daily miracles happening all around us. 

In today's fast-paced, digitally driven world, it's easy to become overwhelmed by the constant barrage of information and demands on our attention, and to tune out the nuances of the life happening around us.

We find ourselves caught up in the daily grind, navigating through a sea of responsibilities and distractions, often losing sight of the beauty and wonder that exist in the simple moments right before our eyes. 

But what if that wasn’t the case? What if instead we truly saw, observed, felt, and appreciated those moments, those glimpses of daily magic and miracles, those tiny sprinkles of humanity and kindness in our otherwise cold and frantic world?

If you are feeling stagnant or dull, if you find yourself ‘phoning it in’ in terms of your engagement in life - cultivating the feeling of awe is probably not just a luxury, but a necessity for your overall well-being as well as your ability to thrive in the face of adversity.

I recently underwent major surgery that required a significant period of downtime for the recovery. While part of me was looking forward to the slower pace of recovery, I struggled with the initial shock of quiet and yes, even boredom. Like most of you, I’m accustomed to a highly stimulated routine with multiple sources of input and daily ‘to-do’s’. Going from 100mph to 0 felt like hitting a brick wall, and I found myself dazed and even confused as to how to engage with this temporary silence and pause. 

As the days and weeks went by though, I discovered that my senses were in fact re-aligning to this simpler, less stressed, and stimulated state. In the peace and quiet of both pain and recovery, I was noticing things I hadn’t noticed in years. Making note of smells, sounds and simple sights that would have normally evaded me in my typical daily routine. I became so much more aware of these mundane details in my smaller, simpler routine, that I became profoundly impressed and even awestruck by some of them (bees pollinating my trees, my dog gleefully rolling around in the sun, the speed of the clouds on a stormy day). Yes, these things happen literally every day, all around me, and yet I had completely closed off any real awareness of them at all. 

My limited mobility and yes, pain, presented an opportunity to observe the world around me through an entirely different, and more direct lens. And what was I fundamentally seeing, feeling, smelling, and tasting through this newfound simplicity? 

It was Awe. Something I have spent little to no time contemplating in my adult life, and something that I’ve realized has a profound power to anchor us to a healthier reality, galvanize our humanity and concern for others and our environment, and to reconnect us with our best selves. 

It’s universal

I’ve often coached my clients on emotional intelligence and navigating the six Universal Emotions described by Paul Eckman (joy, sadness, fear, anger, disgust, and surprise). Interestingly enough, ‘awe’ was not originally one of those emotions outlined in Eckman’s original study. It was his student, Dacher Keltner, who took the concept of Universal Emotions, and expanded them to include ‘Awe’, which can generally be described as an emotional response to something vast, overwhelming, or transcendent that challenges one's understanding of the world. 

According to Keltner’s work, awe typically involves a sense of wonder, reverence, and humility in the face of something grand or beyond ordinary comprehension. It can be elicited by experiences such as encountering natural wonders, witnessing small acts of kindness or large symbols of heroism. Anything that takes us outside of our own condition and allows us to see the connection to something larger than ourselves could be considered ‘awe-inspiring’. According to Keltner, experiences of awe have the power to broaden one's perspective, deepen social connections, and inspire personal growth. 

For me, my weeks of recovery offered me a chance to reconnect with silence, with the power of pause, and the magic of fully seeing, observing, and feeling what was in front of me without the veneer of my daily routine and punch list of tasks. 

My friend and mindfulness teacher, JoAnna Benn describes the power of this type of silence as, “a gift of healing. It helps you work through things that need attention which tend to rise up when you’re silent, sometimes things you didn’t even know were an issue. Perhaps, just perhaps we can listen to people’s pain, not their story and as we calm our nervous systems — reflect that perhaps we didn’t grasp every angle of the situation. Can we be generous enough to be in the moment with that person, and instead of reacting as we always do, give space for them and us to be ‘new’ again.”

This idea that the awe inspired by silence would provide a doorway to a deeper and more meaningful experience of our human condition is a powerful one, especially given the challenging and frankly incredibly stressful reality of the world we are currently inhabiting. 

“We are living in a time of profound crisis, and we need everyone to find their place and enjoy a sense of belonging. As we feel into that sense of spirit, wonder, and awe as we glance at the night sky, act on a yearning to climb a mountain, dip our heads under an ocean wave, stroke the velvet side of a petal, all that makes us human and feel alive, today’s citizens need to be shapeshifters — able to move between two worlds” (JoAnna Benn)

We invest a great deal of time and energy carefully crafting a comfort zone around our lives, ensuring that we, our friends, and family experience the least amount of pain and suffering possible. 

Of course, we do! Who wants to willingly experience pain or suffering? 

And yet, these buffer zones of comfort also separate us from the most profound, the most poignant and the most important aspect of life – the very things that might allow us to experience a sense of awe. 

Awe does not happen behind the veneer of a perfectly curated life. It happens when we are exposed to the grit, the pain, the searingly ‘real’ that we try so hard to avoid. 

Pain as a teacher and pathway to awe

During my convalescence, I experienced pain. Quite a lot of it, and I didn’t like it one bit. 

I fought against it at every turn. I used my pain medication. I meditated; I numbed w/ Netflix, I overindulged in the treats that my friends and family brought me. But at the end of the day, I had a sense that I was avoiding something important, that I was creating a barrier between me and the lessons I might learn through this experience. 

And so, I slowly stopped the numbing and did my best to transition into just observing. Into witnessing the pain in my body with curiosity instead of fear and judgment. And that is when the magic began to happen. 

As author and Buddhist Monk Pema Chodron stated, “Pain is not a punishment; pleasure is not a reward. Inspiration and wretchedness complement each other. The gloriousness of our inspiration connects us with the sacredness of the world. But when the tables are turned and we feel wretched, that softens us up. It ripens our hearts. It becomes the ground for understanding others.”

Pain is the very thing we all try so hard to avoid, and yet to a large degree, it is the doorway to experiencing awe. 

Experiencing awe doesn't always require pain, but when you're in pain, it can break through your daily routine, allowing you to feel gratitude and awareness you might not otherwise notice. Pain can lead you to find beauty and solace in unexpected places, expanding your perspective and opening you to new possibilities.

So, short of being in physical pain, how do we cultivate this powerful emotion in our daily lives? 

In her Johns Hopkins Magazine article, AwestruckAshley Stimson, writes that “in a world marked by division and conflict, cultivating awe has the power to bring us together and inspire positive change. Research has shown that experiencing awe can make us more compassionate, less materialistic, and more inclined to help others." 

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we were all a little ‘more inclined to help others? What would change in the chaos and conflict we see in the world if we were all more in touch with the awe all around us?

Awe, society and wellbeing

Studies from Johns Hopkins University tell us that embracing awe offers multifaceted benefits that include enhancing mental clarity, emotional resilience, and physical well-being. These studies paint a powerful picture of the human condition, demonstrating that awe fosters greater life satisfaction, reduces stress, and diminishes materialistic tendencies, In fact, one such study showed that frequent experiences of awe even correlates with lower levels of inflammatory cytokines, promoting overall physical health and productivity.

In her article exploring some of these exciting studies, author Ashely Stimson concludes "There's evidence that awe deactivates what's called the default mode network—the part of the brain associated with self-perception—allowing us to step outside our insular thoughts and ruminations and be wholly present in the moment. Awe also activates the vagus nerve, a braid of nerves running from the brain to the large intestines that is associated with feelings of compassion and altruism." 

Experiencing awe seems to help us behave more altruistically to others. It allows us to see beyond ourselves and our own situation, and to have some measure of appreciation and acknowledgement of others. Something that is severely lacking in our modern, digital world.

Talk about a powerful antidote to road rage and beyond! 

Cultivating awe is clearly not just a personal experience—it has powerful implications for our society as a whole. In a time of global, moral crisis, where division and conflict threaten to tear us apart, cultivating awe can serve as a unifying force. When we are humbled by the grandeur of nature or the achievements (or shared struggles) of humanity, we are more likely to transcend our own self-interest and work towards common goals.

The transformative power of awe cannot be overstated. It can heal our hearts, connect us to something greater than ourselves, and inspire positive change in our lives and in the world around us. 

As I re-enter the ‘real world’ and restart my regular routine after my recovery, I am prioritizing my search for awe-inducing moments. I am keeping my devices turned off a little more, I’m taking walks without my phone to distract me, I’m choosing to be outside as often as the weather will allow. I’m also trying to truly listen to the people in my life, whether in my intimate relationships, or people in general. I don’t want to lose this thread of connection that I was able to touch during these weeks of solitude and observation. 

I consider my search for a daily dose of awe as part of my contribution to the remaining humanity in this world, a way that I can actively prioritize my awareness of the good, the beautiful, the inspiring, and the poignant fragility of this life. All with the hope that we can share the good as much as humanly possible!

So as a coach, someone working with individuals and teams to be more impactful, to learn tools like mindfulness to improve their well-being and satisfaction in work and in life, how does this whole ‘awe’ thing come into my professional life? Well, the facts and my own experience are aligned. Helping my clients find those quiet moments of awe is a priority and has become an integral part of my process. 

5 steps for cultivating awe in your life

It turns out that ‘stopping to smell the roses’ is as critical as everything else on our to-do list! Here are a few ways you can cultivate a sense of awe in your life:

  1. Spend time in nature: Take regular walks in natural settings such as parks, forests, or along the beach. Pay attention to the beauty of the natural world—the intricate patterns in leaves, the colors of the sky, the sounds of birdsong. Being immersed in nature can evoke a profound sense of awe and connection to something greater than ourselves.

  2. Practice mindfulness: Engage in activities that encourage present-moment awareness, such as meditation, yoga, or simply sitting quietly and observing your surroundings. Getting quiet with yourself, meditating, or just sitting in silence can allow you to appreciate the small wonders of everyday life and can help you cultivate a sense of awe in the ordinary.

  3. Seek out new experiences: Step outside of your comfort zone and expose yourself to new cultures, ideas, and perspectives. Traveling to unfamiliar places, trying new foods, or learning a new skill can expand your horizons and open you up to the awe-inspiring diversity of the world. Challenge yourself to try new things in 2024!

  4. Engage with art and culture: Visit museums, attend concerts or theater performances, or explore literature and film that inspire you. Art and music have a unique ability to evoke emotion and provoke deep reflection, allowing you to experience moments of awe and wonder.

  5. Connect with others: Spend time with loved ones and engage in meaningful conversations that explore the mysteries of life and the universe. Sharing awe-inspiring experiences with others can deepen your sense of connection and appreciation for the world around you.

Let’s all make 2024 a year of actively seeking inspiration and connection, and in understanding the alchemy of awe, let’s share the wonder and love as far and as wide as we possibly can!

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Heidi Albritton Brainz Magazine

Heidi Albritton, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Heidi Albritton is a dynamic Coach & Trainer, with over 20 years of experience in operational excellence and transformative coaching. Notably, she pioneered Mindfulness coaching at a global non-profit, contributing to the creation and facilitation of an organization-wide Mindfulness & Resilience program. A certified expert in Corporate-based Mindfulness, Advanced Enneagram Dynamics and High Performance Coaching, she's dedicated to helping individuals uncover their potential, manage their emotions, and lead a life of impact. Heidi's personal journey, marked by resilience in the face of Lyme's disease and cancer, fuels her passion for mindfulness and authenticity. Her mantra, "Change your mind, change your life,"



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