Deconstructing Awe

I’m catching up on some of my magazine reading this week and came across a very cool article in Sierra about awe.  As a researcher, I love reading about scientific studies that help explain why I feel things. As someone who helps people venture out into the wilderness, I found it even more fascinating, since apparently much of the time that we experience awe, it happens in nature.

Even though the word “awesome” is ubiquitous these days, the word awe technically means something pretty specific – a combination of respect, fear and wonder, all rolled into one feeling.  Most of us have experienced it, whether in the presence of amazing natural beauty, the birth of a child or perhaps a spiritual awakening.  Jake Abrahamson, the article’s author, describes awe as “when people encounter a vast and unexpected stimulus, something that makes them feel small and forces them to revise their mental models of what’s possible in the world.”

Psychologists are finding that being in a state of awe “can have profoundly positive effects on people.”  According to studies, “in its wake, people act more generously and ethnically, think more critically when encountering persuasive stimuli, like arguments or advertisements, and often feel a deeper connection to others and the world in general.  Awe prompts people to redirect concern away from the self and toward everything else.”

This last part really resonates with me, as I think back to when I first got the idea to create these types of wilderness journeys that build bridges between Native Americans and non-Natives.  Back in 2007, in anticipation of the first journey that I participated in with Duane Kinnart and Van Archiquette, I thought the journey might be a chance to reflect on my worklife – what I wanted to accomplish and in what direction I should take my company.  Not small questions, but definitely self-oriented.  At the end of the journey, I left with a much larger idea – to help others experience nature as a way to experience their most authentic selves.  It really wasn’t enough to focus on me…I’d get to do that too on these journeys, but I now felt a strong need and desire to share myself with others, in a way I hadn’t ever felt before.  The Ojibwa belief that we are all one – you, me, the trees, the wind, the eagles – seemed to have implanted itself firmly in my heart and soul.  There was no going back – thankfully!

As we get ready for our 7th Family Journey in Michigan’s wooded Upper Peninsula, I am so grateful to be able to share an awe-filled week with other families.  Seeing the kids’ sheer joy in catching frogs, amazement at the stars, and wonder in the sweat lodge, it all carries me back to that initial moment on Isle Royale in 2007 and makes me smile all over.

(Big thanks go to my old friend Rolf Winters for creating the Personal Leadership Journeys and inviting me until I said yes!)

The White place

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