Soft, white sands lead into the sparkling, teal water; stands of fir trees with exposed roots as tall as people dot the beach; craggy rocks rise just to the left of the sand, green and purple leaves of bromeliads grow from the crevices of the rocks, purple and white passion flowers crawl along them toward the water; the rocks themselves grow to become the majestic mountains of the Napali Coast. This is as close to the Garden of Eden as we’ll ever come here on earth, a place in which we feel expansive, peaceful, inspired; a place in which time seems to stand still. This is Ke’e beach on the northern shore of Kauai.
The opposite of this expansion is what Melanie Rudd studied at the Stanford Graduate School of Business where she is a PhD candidate. She knew that one of the biggest problems we face today is feeling that we don’t have enough time.
In her study she showed participants ‘awe’ videos and ‘happiness’ videos. The first showed scenes of astronauts in space, whales breaching, and gorgeous waterfalls. These were to evoke the participants’ awe, which Ms. Rudd defines as how we feel when we encounter something so beautiful that it changes our perspective, at least for the moment.
The second type of videos showed scenes of parades, confetti, and smiling, joyful people. These were to evoke feelings of happiness. Ms. Rudd wanted to know if feelings of happiness and awe evoked the same reactions from people.
She found people felt satisfied with their lives when they watched both types of videos. But when they experienced awe, the subjects felt they had more time in their lives. They were more willing to volunteer; had more desire to use their money to buy quality experiences, such as tickets to a play, rather than buying quality material goods.
In Ms. Rudd’s words: ‘[E]experiencing awe, relative to other states, caused people to perceive they have more time available and lessened impatience.’
I wasn’t surprised to read about the results of this study. I knew about the effects of awe inspiring moments in my own life. For me those moments are most intense when I’m at places like Ke’e Beach. I feel as though I can do anything, have time for anything.
I also know that happiness and awe evoke different reactions in me just as they did in the study’s participants. I feel awe in nature most profoundly when there are few or no people around. When there are people, playing, enjoying themselves, my heart fills with joy for their joy. But I don’t feel as though time has stood still. I don’t feel my own being expanding. Awe stands alone in creating those feelings.
It is always wonderful to be in precious, awe-inspiring locations. The problem for me is continuing to hold on to the feeling of awe when I am faced with the regular stresses and time boundedness of my life. I suspect most of us feel the same way.
That’s why the most exciting part of this study is knowing that we can recreate that feeling of timelessness even when we are not in nature. We can do it by looking at videos or photos of awe inspiring places. We can even do it by remembering our time in those places. With just 60 seconds of looking at or remembering awesome images, we can bring back that feeling of time standing still. This is so important for each of us. It gives us a way to tap into the creativity that comes from being released from our time-bounded reality. All we need is 60 seconds, and all of us have 60 seconds at least once a day.
While the Stanford study does not relate the feelings of awe to spirituality and religion, others do.
Albert Einstein, a scientist and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a theologian have remarkably similar things to say about awe and wonder.
Einstein says: ‘The most beautiful and deepest experience a [person] can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion…’ Behind every mystery, he says, ‘there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly…, this is religiousness… To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that there is. [‘My Credo,’ 1932]
Heschel says it more succinctly: ‘…Awe… is the sense of wonder and humility inspired by the sublime or felt in the presence of mystery.’ [God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, pp.76]
Both men associate awe with humility. The expansion caused by the majestic scene we are looking at, along with the contraction of knowing that this scene is beyond our power to create. Those seemingly opposite feelings help us create balance in our lives.
In the presence of wonder, we feel powerful, not time bound. In the presence of wonder, we also feel unpretentious, simple. These two feelings keep us from either trying to do too much or not doing enough.
Rabbi Simcha Bunim, 18th century Hasid from Poland, gave us a method of maintaining our balance between expansion and contraction. He say we should carry two notes with us, one in each pocket. One note should reads: ‘Just for me was the world created.’ This is the expansion, I can do anything note. The other should read: ‘I am ashes and dust.’ This is the contraction, I have to be careful not to overstep my bounds note.
By carrying these two notes, when we are feeling expansive and begin to make big plans, we can take out the ‘I am ashes and dust’ note to be sure we are being honest and realistic about what we can accomplish. When we are feeling insecure and unsure of what we are doing, we can take out the ‘Just for me was world created’ note to remind us how important we really are and how much we can accomplish.
I want to thank Ms. Rudd for her study. Now we know we can carry inside of us a feeling of awe and not have to travel to be inspired by beauty. We can find that inspiration any time we need it. Now we can continue to use that awe in our most creative and joyful ways.