5 min read

Two sorts of feeling small

Two sorts of feeling small

Have you ever stood under a night sky and looked up, or gazed out over a ridgecrest at the vista in front of you and felt small in the face of the universe, enveloped in awe and wonder at being a tiny speck lost in the landscape? Or felt the surge of being surrounded by a crowd at a concert, swaying together in a trance like state as the music washes over you?

Contrast that with feeling small when you are engulfed in guilt, shame, or fear, overwhlemed by what lies in front of you, either real or imagined. Rather than embracing you, the space is suffocating.

The first feeling is one of exhileration. In that time and place we can disconnect from ourselves and be fully present and immersed in what we are experiencing. You feel part of something larger. The second feeling is one of intense self scrutiny and criticism. It is highly myopic and deeply self-destructive.  

I am coming out of a very rough patch and have been thinking a lot about how to cultivate and harness the first sensation, the feeling of awe in my life as I start to retreat inward. I read a wonderful article on the topic today, sent to me by my counsellor, written by Summer Allen entitled: "How to experience more wow" - In the article she lays out some fundamentals about what is "awe" and how we can invoike it as summarized by Dacher Keltner's Eight Wonders of Life:

1. Witness other people’s moral beauty, kindness and courage

This can be a significant act of self-sacrifice by people like Nelson Mandela, or it can be the simple holding of a door between strangers, or a smile across a hallway. Keltner thinks that we tend to discount the extent to which other people are important for awe. ‘We often think of awe as spiritual or natural – and that’s part of it – but the bigger story is it’s about our fellow human beings… We find that 50 to 60 per cent of awe experiences are just like you’re blown away by other people,’ he says. He notes that people can also feel awe when observing someone with incredible skill or talent or unique abilities.

2. Move in unison with others

From ceremonial dances to army marches to tapping your toes in rhythm with a friend, humans have a natural proclivity for synchronised movement. Several studies have found that people are more cooperative and generous after moving in unison with others, and that they feel more bonded to their movement partners. Moving together appears to help strengthen social ties and, says Keltner, it can also elicit awe. To test out this wonder, try participating in a form of shared movement such as dance, exercise, playing music, singing in a choir, cheering on a sports team or even walking with a friend.

3. Get out in nature

You don't need to experience a natural wonder of the world, nature can be found all all around is. It can just be a walk through a forest that’s near your house, or the sight of a bouquet of flowers, the changing leaves of trees along a boulevard etc... To get more awe out of your nature experience Keltner suggests you ‘Start to look for patterns in nature, take a moment to think about what’s vast." He suggests that you consider making a habit of going for ‘awe walks’. A deliberate walk with the intention of looking for beauty in the experience.

4. Listen to or create music

Listening to a symphony, singing in a choir, or playing an instrument can produce feelings of awe. If you’ve ever had goosebumps or what people call ‘the chills’ while listening to a particularly moving song, you were likely also experiencing awe. While listening to any form of music has the potential to elicit awe, songs that are exceptionally beautiful or complex are more likely to produce the emotion. Making music with others – be it in a choir, band or orchestra – might also increase the likelihood of awe because those activities have the added benefit of involving synchronised movement.

This one is harder for me because I am not inherently musical, but I love sitting and listening to certain songs. I love the emptions they bring up in me - both happy and sad, both are reflections of a sense of awe in the moment.

5. Take in visual art or film

Visiting art galleries and museums, taking in public art and sculpture, and movies with stunning visual elements can all provoke awe. This is especailly useful for people living in cities who may not have the same access to natural spaces that I do in Canmore. Apparently, "Visuals that might be more likely to evoke awe are those that are very large – such as Michelangelo’s David or the Taj Mahal – or very detailed, intricate or complex, such as a fractal or an exceptionally lifelike painting."  In one study, viewers experienced awe when they watched a slow-motion video of drops of coloured water falling into a bowl of milk.

6. Seek out a spiritual or religious experience

For people of faith, religious gatherings, ritual and prayer can be profound sources of awe. Meditation can also inspire awe for some. Even recalling a past spiritual or religious experience can evoke feelings of awe. In a 2017 study, participants who wrote about spiritual experiences reported higher levels of awe and a greater sense of ‘a small self’ than did control participants who wrote about humorous experiences. Both religious and non-religious participants experienced these effects despite recalling different types of memories. Religious people recalled more religious events as well as life-and-death events, whereas non-religious people were more likely to recall experiences with nature, science, yoga or meditation. The message here is that the types of experiences that you personally deem spiritually meaningful are the ones most likely to result in awe.

7. Consider a big idea

‘Big ideas give people awe.'  You might have already had an experience in school or while reading that filled you with awe. The process of wrapping your mind around a new concept is cognitive accommodation, a key competent of awe. If you take the time to grapple with a new, big idea for you that could bring more awe into your life. Similarly, Keltner says poetry that at first glance can seem difficult to comprehend can evoke awe when the reader discovers what the poem is about.
Another related way to add more awe to your life is to deepen your contemplation and curiosity about the world by posing questions or puzzles to yourself – to turn everyday experiences into a way to think about big ideas. For example, Keltner recommends thinking about clouds and how they work – or waves, or rainbows. This is a way to transform simple wonder into awe and discovery. He points out that the obsessions René Descartes and Isaac Newton had with rainbows led them to figure out the physics of light.

8. Witnessing life and death

For parents, the miracle of pregnancy or birth can create feelings of awe. Contemplating or witnessing death, too, is often tinged with awe, although confronting this aspect of awe can be psychologically difficult.

Awe can be found all around us if we take the time to look for it. When the world starts to close in around me, I have been trying to look for small glimpses of awe. Those simple moments that can stop me from gazing too deeply inwards and instead they get me looking outward, marveling at the world in front of me.

So keep seeking out new experiences that interest and excite you. As Kelner says: ‘Awe is an amazing emotion and there are so many different ways people can experience it. Find that thing that does it for you and keep doing that.’

Photo by Bruno Long