“When was your last AWE-gasm?” the headline shouted. I loved the play on words so, curiosity aroused, I read on.
The article in January’s Good Housekeeping was referring to recent research on the subject of awe. You know, that feeling of wonderment you got as a child on, for example, seeing the ocean for the first time or discovering snowballs.
In order to find the wow in something, two conditions need to be met; it needs to be vast and mind blowing. Vast doesn’t necessary mean physically huge; it refers to anything that is larger than the self or our frame of reference. Standing on a mountain is a clear contender but gazing into the minutiae of a tiny flower also does it for me as I consider the microscopic details. These too feel immense. Mind blowing only occurs when you try to assimilate the experience into your current way of thinking about things and it is impossible. It’s that moment you find yourself saying “I just can’t get my head round this”.
Watching live streamed ballet from the Royal Opera House at the cinema, Steve Backshall exploring Greenland on TV and finding the most beautiful fragrance in a £1 bundle of daffodils have been some unexpected personal moments. Flatpack instructions have also had that impact.
Being taken for some fresh air and a restorative stroll after too long coughing between four walls induced the same effect. With very little energy available, just sitting before the beautiful was enough to inspire wonder and I happily immersed myself in it.
Allowing yourself to be sufficiently present in order for the experience to overwhelm you is key.
Awe has been shown to increase creativity, reduce inflammation and symptoms of depression and anxiety. It does something else too – increase both our feelings of calming bliss alongside that of arousal. As the article goes on, “one of the few other experiences to trigger both systems at once is an orgasm”.
Well, I’m up for all those benefits so how do I make my days awe-gasmic?
Apparently, as adults we aren’t so good at engaging with amazement inducing experiences.
We tend to do one of two things; either stick a camera between us and it or prefer to be busy elsewhere. Wherever ‘elsewhere’ is.
I’ll hold my hand up to the camera thing. But what you won’t know are the number of pictures I never take and the irritating slowness that can accompany any of my walks as I stop and stare. Some of the best memories are those, invariably shared with others, that never make it to frame or print yet stay in the psyche as a profound moment where everything comes together to create a sense of wonder.
The ‘elsewhere’ ness is more insidious though. Having a ‘lot on my mind’ can hijack the most beautiful of days. I have had times where scenery has played second fiddle to a brain on overdrive and I know I have been robbed of something special as a result. I’ve got better at choosing brain numbing routes where the challenge of the path reframes my focus and I do return blissed out and re-energised.
There are also moments when we can be surprised out of our ‘elsewhere’ by the reality of the world we live in. Flooding in Appleby drew the crowds this weekend as we gazed silently at an Eden on steroids invading our streets and homes. Awesome or awful was the question I found myself considering as I chatted with one lady who was watching the water lap at her doorstep.
“I don’t think it’ll go as high as last time,” she said, “the blue ribbon on the drainpipe shows where it went to after Storm Desmond”.
She pointed at the wall and I could see a fine light blue tape fluttering about 4 feet off the ground.
“What happened then?” I asked
“The whole house had to be gutted, back to the brick work,” she explained, “it took ages.” Her son was busy adding the flood barricade to the door well.
“We’ll just have to see what happens today,” she shrugged. She didn’t appear that bothered, more resigned to accepting the river’s upper hand. The policeman alongside agreed with her, it was going to be a case of wait and see.
Whilst the Eden was in vast mode and clearly reluctant to stay within her banks and our usual frame of reference, I’m not sure if the article writer had this type of experience in mind when suggesting we needed to be overwhelmed by it. For some Appleby residents it would be an inappropriate ask. There is a fine line between awe and shock
Which is why, as an observer, it wasn’t just the Eden that blew my mind. It was also the kindness of strangers. As part of the natural world, humanity is also capable of generating awe and wonder, invariably in response to a day when awesome becomes awful. Police, fire services, various emergency crews, everyone who turned out to help, prepare, watch and just, well, care in Appleby did that in spades yesterday.
The daily kindness too of ‘get well’ wishes, meals and offers to do shopping as I have got back onto my feet after a bug have brought awe into my home when I couldn’t seek it outside and I have been blown away as a result.
The article writer finishes by suggesting that awe is fostered by keeping an open mind, living in the present and creating opportunities to just feel it. If that’s the case, then, in true ‘When Harry met Sally’ style, I’ll have what she’s having.