There are times when I am mired down by the mundane and other times I am overwhelmed by pressures, worries and the stresses of life. Sometimes it feels hopeless. Sometimes I feel like a failure. Often I can’t find the path. But every so often, in those moments, I am touched by something deep. I feel smaller but not less significant. The world feels both small and vast at the same time. I feel connected to those around me and I feel…really feel. I care about those around me in a way I haven’t before. I feel a victory that isn’t about my struggles but something deeper and more profound. I sense that God is in control in a way I cannot logically make sense of and I find a peace that goes beyond my understanding. I stand in awe of God’s love and the beauty of life, nothing is ugly. I’m valuable and all those around me are valuable. It is a touch of eternity, a touch of heaven. In a moment I’m connected to something bigger…its beyond words, logic or understanding.
How do we experience God? God is Awe. Awe is both cognitive and physiological- meaning we both experience it in our bodies and minds. We don’t just “think” awe; we experience “awe.” Researchers have been very interested in the “emotion” of awe for several years now because of its unique properties and because of its correlation with positive mental health- in other words, we are healthier when we regularly experience awe.
One study in 2014 quotes the historian Charles Kingsley:
When I walk the fields, I am oppressed now and then with an innate feeling that everything I see has a meaning, if I could but understand it. And this feeling of being surrounded with truths which I cannot grasp amounts to indescribable awe.
The study found that those who were prone to experience awe were “more comfortable revising existing mental schemas to assimilate novel information” and did not require closure. Ironically, this may indicate that in order to experience God we need to let go of our black and white thinking, our paranoia about new information, and our fear of unresolved questions.
Our chiefest enemy with regard to experiencing God is “invariant representation.” Invariant representation uses a top-down processing that allows a “left cortex” label to “alter” perceptions and allows us to speed by what we already “know.” It “oppresses our raw sensory experience by muddling the waters of clear perception with prior expectation.” In other words, this is the reason that we don’t experience everything for the first time, each time. It is why children are awed by simple things. But this is not simply boredom, when something gets a “label” it bypasses significant amounts of sensory processing- we do not fully engage our senses with things that have been labeled through the invariant representation process.
Research suggests that there is an experience during periods of awe of a small self and it is this experience that allows us to me more generous and kind to others. Unlike harsh guilt and shame tactics, the gentle touch of awe allows us to shrink and become more connected. I believe that awe is moment when we swim in God. We briefly let go of all our concepts, definitions and preoccupations and encounter a moment as it is meant to be- new, fresh, and visceral. Elizabeth Barrett Browning captures the ever present divinity in the ordinary in the following lines:
“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”
Buechner experienced awe, for that brief moment his invariant representation system was turned off and experienced all of those sensations new as if for the first time:
“…if God speaks to us at all in this world, if God speaks anywhere, it is into our personal lives that he speaks…at moments of even the most humdrum of our days, God speaks…The swallows, the rooster, the workmen, my stomach, all with their elusive rhythms, their harmonies and disharmonies and counterpoint, became, as I listened, the sound of my own life speaking to me…” (Fredrick Buechner, The Sacred Journey)
Piff, P. K., Dietze, P., Feinberg, M., Stancato, D. M., & Keltner, D. (2015). Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology, 108(6), 883.
Shiota, M. N., Keltner, D., & Mossman, A. (2007). The nature of awe: Elicitors, appraisals, and effects on self-concept. Cognition and emotion, 21(5), 944-963.
Van Cappellen, P., & Saroglou, V. (2012). Awe activates religious and spiritual feelings and behavioral intentions. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 4(3), 223.
Valdesolo, P., & Graham, J. (2014). Awe, uncertainty, and agency detection. Psychological science, 25(1), 170-178.