The Importance of Awe


“The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead. A snuffed out candle.” Albert Einstein

“Awe is an intuition for the dignity of all things, a realization that things not only are what they are but also stand, however remotely, for something supreme. Awe is a sense for transcendence, for the reference everywhere to mystery beyond all things.” Abraham Joshua Heschel

Awe celebrates the mystery and wonder of life. But unlike wonder, it also includes an element of fear or dread; it is reserved for that which is more powerful than we are or aspects of life that are beyond our ability to know or to fully understand. And because the feeling of awe must strike or grab us, we are not really in control of our experience. We cannot will ourselves to feel awe, although we can establish certain conditions or take on certain attitudes which are more conducive to strengthening the power of awe in our lives.

Most of us would probably agree with Einstein that there is something “fundamental” about recognizing the mysterious in life and being able to stand in wonder. Being in touch with mystery connects us with a sense of limitless possibility, both within ourselves as well as in the larger world. To experience awe is to feel momentarily liberated, a recognition that there is something magnificent that has the power to transcend our daily cares and concerns--but it is not just “out there” , because we belong to it as well. We are part of it. When we feel awe we sense that we are operating from the place of our greatest wisdom and seeing the world and ourselves from the most enlightened and ultimately accurate perspective.

Descartes concluded that the presence of infinity was the basis for the proof of the existence of God. Another interpretation is to see infinity as proof that life is far bigger and more complex than we can imagine and as proof that actual life does not fit into the neat boxes or categories that we create to try to explain it. Whether we believe in God or not, the existence of infinity suggests that mystery and the unknown or unknowable is woven into the fabric of life--that there is a kind of magic to it, and that life cannot be reduced or simplified in the ways that some of our traditional scientific thinking might imply.

In a sense, being in a state of awe is the opposite from believing in any specific doctrine or explanation of life. Awe is about the encounter with mystery and our inability to ever come to terms with the infinite. When we think of it this way, mystery does not represent a problem that we should try to solve or conquer. Quite the opposite: mystery is where the action is.

And knowing this changes everything. Because mystery pervades all of life, from the infinite vastness of open space to the infinite complexity of an individual atom or cell, awe becomes a rational response to any aspect of life that we choose to examine, depending upon our ability to be open to it. As Abraham Joshua Heschel says, “Awe is a sense for transcendence, for the reference everywhere to mystery beyond all things”.

While the word “awe” tends to be associated with the language of spirituality, the concept of awe also has tremendous significance in the world of psychotherapy (although you would not expect to see the word “awe” appearing frequently in psychotherapy journals or academic books or articles that would be assigned to students of psychology). It is not so much that we establish a goal for our clients to experience more awe in their lives, although that would certainly be a desirable outcome. The emphasis here is more on the importance of making room for awe in the psychotherapy process. We need to invite the mysterious and tap into the unpredictable alive life energy on a moment-to-moment basis in psychotherapy if we are to promote real growth and healing for our clients. While this general concept is hardly new to the world of psychotherapy, I hope to approach this theme from a somewhat different vantage point than what most therapists are accustomed to.

In this paper I will look at how contemporary spirituality and much of psychotherapy (as it is practiced today) have significant overlap when it comes to the overall orientation as well as the basic attitudes that are considered central to both processes. This is true, I believe, even though the language used in the two fields is often quite different. These similarities could be said to stem from the fact that both are oriented so as to open up opportunities for awe. Or, stated in another way, both redirect our attention to the present moment and the infinite possibilities that the moment holds. 

Posted on October 4, 2016 .