As I write this, I am looking out at the Palisades – the magnificent vertical walls on the other side of the Hudson. If I look to my left I can see the New York City skyline off in the distance.
Upon seeing both for the first time, I was filled with immense awe. While their familiarity can lessen this sensation, it only takes a few moments of reflection to revive it.
As much as I appreciated the Palisades, I never stopped to question their origin. They arose from the ground – pushed up by molten lava over 250 million years ago. At one point they had to be saved from industrialization and development. It is because of an effort by a small group of women that we still get to appreciate their beauty today.
The rise of the New York City skyline was, of course, much more recent. The first skyscraper was built less than one hundred and fifty years ago. While it no longer remains, the second skyscraper – The Flatiron Building – does. Unlike the Palisades, the skyline is not a natural phenomenon but one that rose from the visions and effort of people (aided of course by the natural resources that the earth provides.)
I have spent much of my last two months trying – and not always succeeding – to make more time for awe and wonder in my life.
The journey began before the holidays when I was asked to interview Deepak Chopra about his life and new book, Living in the Light. Our conversation is being released today on my podcast, Attribution. We talked about the importance of focusing on “being” vs. “doing” and the need to cultivate awareness of the world around us. To seek out the light and walk from the dark. Awe is a tremendous source of “light” in our lives – yet too often we fail to see it.
The benefits of awe are well documented in this wonderful new book, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How it Can Transform Your Life by Dacher Keltner. It reduces our stress, increases our compassion and connects us to something much larger than ourselves. These are just a few of the key benefits.
Both Chopra and Keltner talk about the importance of awareness – and the challenges to achieve it in our daily lives. Amidst our busy schedules, compounding stress, and digital distractions, it can seem like a luxury to pause and wonder. Yet this deeper awareness is critical to appreciating life and living a good one.
We need not look out at natural or man made wonders to feel awe. Its sources are right in front of us if we choose to notice.
Recently I was traveling on Amtrak to Washington DC. I was excited as it provided a few hours of undisturbed time to write – which I was greatly looking forward to. After selecting my seat, a young woman and her toddler sat in the seats in front of me. The toddlers screeching and babbling were non-stop. My desire for focused writing time apparently dashed by the distracting noises of a two year old. I wondered if my headphones could drown him out.
And then I paused for a moment.
Having just read a few pages of Awe, I stopped to consider what was really happening. This little boy, whose head peeked from beyond his seat to look back at me, was trying to communicate. His babbling was not a source of annoyance but awe.
I imagined the wondrous inner workings of his little and growing mind trying to form words and marveled in it. I realized that my own speech began similarly many years ago. Rather than being distracted by his attempts, or feebly trying to cover them up with, they became songs to which I wrote. Appropriately enough, I was working on my next children’s book.
Awe is an incredible feeling but it is also a critical practice. The world is full of wonder. You can find it in a song, see it in another person’s eyes, feel it while petting your dog as he looks back at you, or by questioning the origin of anything that nature or humans have made. You can find it looking back at history, wondering about the future or standing in the present. It is both free and invaluable.
All it asks for is our attention.
May you find many sources of awe this week.