THE ROLE OF AWE AND WONDER IN HEALING

This year has been highly challenging. 

It seems like the world is spinning me around and destabilizing my very foundation. 

At first, I shrunk my world to the point where I was able to re-gain my footings.  Being an introvert, this was a natural thing for me to do.

At the same time, I am aware of others, particularly extroverts, who have got sucked into the vortex of fear and struggled to free themselves. 

Either way, it is not sustainable.

Since then, I have been experimenting with ways to ground myself, which has produced profound lessons on the spiritual level of healing.

I’ve discovered that any time we feel socially disconnected, the answers lie on the spiritual level.

This is particularly important to anyone who becomes socially disconnected by virtue of being chronically sick.

Sometimes the narrative is around feeling alone. Sometimes the narrative is around loved ones not understanding.

Either way, it turns out that the antidote can be found in the burgeoning neuroscience of awe and wonder.

THE SPIRITUAL BODY


Ill-health can happen on five levels.

When supporting the physical body alone does not resolve health, it is usually a clue that the blockage is on another level. 

And yes, the spiritual level can be the root cause of ill health.

The spiritual level is not about religion (so please suspend your religious beliefs when reading this blog post to get the most out of it).  It’s about neuroplasticity.

Simplistically, a spiritual trauma is anything that makes us lose our connection with something bigger than ourselves.

For example, I experienced a spiritual trauma when the medical profession harmed me, and this was perfectly acceptable apparently to that profession.  It made me feel less than or excluded from society.

At the time, I did not have a strong spiritual practice, as I was bought up in religions that do not respect women.

The point is that it threw me into a spiral of feeling disconnected, which was reversed, not through obtaining acknowledgment from others, but through cultivating awe and wonder.

Another common example I find with clients is unreasonable beliefs (which is actually a trauma on the intuitive level that separates us from ourselves) that we do not deserve a spiritual connection.

Resolution of these beliefs that separate us from ourselves can be a necessary precursor to establishing a connection with the spiritual.

The spiritual connection is available to everyone. It is not dependent on another but emanates from inside us through neuroplasticity.

AWE AND WONDER

"And if a person is religious, I think it's good, it helps you a bit. But if you're not, at least you can have the sense that there is a condition inside you which looks at the stars with amazement and awe." Maya Angelou

Awe and wonder are positive emotions felt in the presence of vast things not immediately understood that reduce self-focus, promote social connection, foster positive emotions, and even help you make better, more balanced decisions.

Awe's experiences are self-transcendent.  They make us feel part of a universe unfathomably larger than ourselves.

Whilst wonder makes us stop and ask questions, whilst marveling over something we have not experienced before.

Sometimes wonder is needed to produce awe. Sometimes it is a natural consequence of awe.

Simplistically, when we feel awe and wonder, they eject us from the vortex of fear and into an altered state of consciousness akin to a flow state. 

And that state feels like bliss to me. Awe is awesome!
 

KEEPING THE FAITH

“Looking at the stars give you that sense of out of yourself that you need to be able to be ready to encounter a God.”  Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ Director of the Vatican Observatory in the documentary “Fireball : Visitors From Darker Worlds” (2020)

The feeling of awe and wonder is a portal to faith. 

Research shows that awe can be found in both religious and non-religious people. 

For many, religion is their sole source of spirituality. For others, spiritual experiences arise from non-religious sources.  

The source of spirituality is individual to the person.

Whether we are religious, new age spiritual people, Buddhists, or scientists, we are all talking about cultivating a sense of awe and wonder at something grander than ourselves.

It is not up to me or to another person to impose belief systems or get in the person's way and their connection to the spiritual. 

What matters is feeling a high level of awe and wonder.

CHANGING BRAIN-WAVES

 
The science of awe and wonder is founded in neuroplasticity.

A 2013 study (Reinerman-Jones et al., 2013) found differences in two types of brain waves— theta and beta—between people who did and did not experience awe. 

In 2017, Marchant reported that functional MRI scans showed that awe quietens the brain's ‘default mode network.’

This part of the brain diminishes our sense of self (an effect known as “the small self”) and increases the feelings of connectedness.

Ancient cultures have also used psychedelic drugs such as ayahuasca, peyote, and psilocybin mushrooms to connect to something bigger than the self.

Through brain scanning, it was found that psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin and LSD work via the same default mode network – just as awe does.

Joe Dispenza has also done a significant amount of research on the effect of true meditation on the brain waves and found it to alter the brainwaves in a similar way to awe and wonder. True meditation is an important part of many spiritual practices.

Either way, awe, and wonder are accessible to all. Our brain is wired for it. 

 

ROLE IN HEALING

"As biologists, we contemplate with admiration and awe the wondrous array of sophisticated cell interactions and recognitions evolved in the T cell immune system, which must be a model for other similarly complex biological systems of highly differentiated organisms." Baruj Benacerraf

Negative and positive emotions are associated with different responses by the autonomic nervous system.

The autonomic nervous system contains both the sympathetic branch, which controls the bodily functions needed for stress and the parasympathetic branch, which controls the bodily functions needed for healing.

One of the most effective things that we can do to digest, detox, and balance our immune system is to spend more time in parasympathetic mode.

Awe and wonder are highly effective at switching the brain and autonomic nervous system to the parasympathetic branch.

A 2011 study (Shiota et al., 2011) and a 2017 study (Gordon et al.) identified that when people viewed positive awe-inspiring images, the parasympathetic activity increases, and sympathetic activity decreases. 

Furthermore, a 2015 study (Stellar et al., 2015) looked at the effects of different positive emotions on chronic inflammation.  

Awe was the only positive emotion to reduce inflammation significantly, and the reduction was proportionate to the amount of “awe, wonder, and amazement that day.”  Isn't that amazing!! 

Now, this is where it gets fascinating.

Researchers (Janicki-Deverts et al. 2007) found that inflammation may trigger social withdrawal to rest and slow-down, reducing opportunities to experience awe.

But Kiecolt et al. 2010, proposed that awe's ability to increase feelings of interconnectedness, even whilst resting, could decrease inflammation and accelerate healing.

Furthermore, a 2018 study (Saeri et al.) found that social connectedness alone can act as a 'social cure' for psychological ill-health.

Even when sick, we can consciously choose to cultivate awe and wonder, to not only improve our health but reduce our suffering.

IN AWE OF OUR BODY

"I stand in awe of my body". Henry David Thoreau
 

This is important.

Learning to cultivate awe and wonder for the external world can help us transfer these skills onto our bodies. Why would this be helpful?

When you are sick and symptoms are flaring, it’s easy to get catapulted into a vortex of darkness.

This approach's problem is that it activates our sympathetic nervous system and tells our body it is not safe to heal.

I’ve seen this time and time again.

And I have also seen clients turn their symptoms around in a matter of 1 – 2 weeks by flooding their brains with awe, wonder, joy, and pleasure.

Why? Because we are telling your body, it is safe to heal, rebooting vital bodily functions (including detoxification, digestion, and the immune system), and reducing inflammation. No supplement can do this.

What if, rather than researching symptoms and catastrophizing, we wondered about how the body worked and what our body was trying to tell us?  There are no mistakes, just information.

Or better still, connected to the awe that is our body, as a means of restoring the faith in our body's ability to heal.

These mindset changes may be subtle but have a profound effect on our health and decision making.

HOW TO ELICIT AWE

“The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It's not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.” ― John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America. 


So how do you know if it is awe? 

Studies have found that feelings of awe can be identified by goosebumps or vocalizing jaw-dropping “wow.” 

An expansive range of information-rich stimuli can stimulate awe.

A stunning view (like Ayers Rock), the vastness of the night sky (and the moon), soaring music (like the theme song from Out of Africa), an expansive scientific theory (like the theory of evolution), a charismatic person (like Martin Luther King), mesmerizing architecture (like Saint Chappelle), and if you are inclined religious practices.  

They can also be found in the ordinary all around us in the everyday.

Far from being a rare occurrence, Amie Gordon has found that awe is everywhere around us in our daily life.

However, the thing is that we must be mindful of these more subtle moments, or they can pass us by.

And we must be open to giving ourselves what we need.

If you find yourself unable to give yourself ‘awesome awe,’ then it may be that you need to work on your self-esteem first.

Here are some things to get you started.


NATURE 

“The first act of awe, when man was struck with the beauty of wonder of nature, was the first spiritual experience.” Henryk Skolimowski

Perhaps the most reliable elicitor of awe is nature, not only due to its inherent vastness but our genetic affinity.

Scientists argue that this connection is primal to all humans.

There is even a term for it – biophilia – which is an innate and genetically determined affinity of human beings with the natural world.

Many ancient peoples have a primal connection to the country, which is integral to their culture from which we can learn.

The photo above is of an Aboriginal sacred women’s site near where I live, which is truly wondrous and a source of constant awe for me. It is said to have a spiritual connection for all women who visit. That is certainly my experience.

When we went into lockdown, I started studying the wonders of the world. One such ancient wonder was Stonehenge. As I studied, wonder turned into awe for nature.

Here is a monument by my ancestors (I am of English and Scottish ancestry) to the inherent wonder and awe of nature.

The greatest elicitor of awe is arguably earth from space.

Astronauts report a cognitive shift akin to awe whilst viewing the earth from outer space. It’s called the ‘overview effect.’ 

There are increasing virtual experiences of earth from space, which can provide this neuroplastic moment. 

Our ability to experience awe is not limited to nature. Still, in my experience, nature is a reliable place to start and have our first awe experience to better recognize awe in our everyday life.

 

AWE WALKS


The Japanese practice of Shinrin Yoku, or Forest Bathing, has garnered a reputation for improving physical and mental wellbeing.

It is proven to reduce stress hormone production, improve feelings of happiness, free up creativity, lower heart rate, blood pressure, boost the immune system, and accelerate recovery from illness.

However, a recent study (Sturm et al., 2020) built on this tradition by researching "awe walks" and found they led to even greater health improvements. 

Simply setting the intention to cultivate awe before a 15-minute walk saw participants experience awe during their walks, with widespread health benefits including joy and prosocial emotions that persisted over-time.

Awe is all around us. We need to set the intention that “I am creating awe in my life” to experience it.

RITUALS

“I'm in awe of the universe, but I don't necessarily believe there's an intelligence or agent behind it. I do have a passion for the visual in religious rituals, though, even though they may be completely empty and bereft of substance.” David Bowie


Religion uses rituals to foster spiritual experiences.

Whether it is prayers, meditation, chanting, candles' lighting, kneeling, full moon services, music, art, scents, or even silence.

Whether you are religious or not, the value of rituals supports the cultivation of a neuroplastic shift.

I have found to be true that layering in rituals can indeed help me be open to awe and wonder but deepen the experience.

Here are a few things I have found helpful.

  • Sunrise and sunset bookend the day with natural awe and provide a prompt to welcome awe and wonder into my life.

  • Scheduling time to cultivate awe, including slow down and exploring the unfamiliar, can provide the space to experience awe.

  • Layering in different sensory experiences seems to activate the brain connections and allow awe to be accessed quicker.

  • Once activated, I have found it easier to activate awe with merely one sensory experience: a song, a candle, a scent, a thought.

  • Wonder (a more cognitive experience) can be a portal to awe (more of a full-body experience). I have found without the ability to elicit wonder that awe can be muted. I’m simply looking at something joyful rather than awesome. 

  • Being curious about an area of science can help to foster awe and wonder. It does not have to be complicated. Simply, how does something you enjoy work?

  • Keeping a shortlist of reliable awe experiences can limit the time spent in the darkness, socially disconnected, and stressed.

 

Here is what one of my rituals look like. I love to wake before dawn, set the intention that I am open to awe and wonder in my life, sit on the beach listening to the predawn ‘silence’ of nature, and watching the sunrise whilst listening to expansive music delivered up by Spotify. It just does it for me.

Maybe your ritual looks different from this - but the point is rituals can support you in your endeavors.

CONCLUSION

Awe is awesome.

I have not learned to access this brain state until this year.

Having accessed it, I don’t want to lose my connection.

Much of what I have written about here is a mixture of burgeoning research and my own personal experiments.

If you are feeling socially disconnected, for whatever reason, then answers may lie on the spiritual level.   

Irrespective of your beliefs, awe, and wonder are available to all.

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