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Feeling Small, In the Best Way Possible

Updated: Jan 13, 2023

In a mindfulness group I was leading recently, I asked members to name an activity that promotes a sense of wellbeing. One patient talked about her talent for landscape drawing and her frequent trips to a nearby wood with stunning views of the water. She struggled to sum up this experience with a single emotion. “It’s like…it’s like feeling really small…but in a really good way.”

Ah. She was talking about awe.

We’d often talked around this idea in group - patients shared, as they engaged in the mindfulness practices, a sense of timelessness, of perspective, of ecstatic insignificance - but we’d never named it directly. So, what is awe? And, more importantly, how can we get more of it in our lives?

Simply put, we feel awe when we are in the presence of something larger than ourselves, something that we cannot quite put into words. Research shows that awe can help relieve anxiety, stress, depression, and loneliness, as our inward focus expands to connect us with whatever beauty we find ourselves in. In doing so, awe also triggers greater levels of kindness and generosity, as well as life satisfaction. Awe can be triggered not only by nature but also by art, music, and any experience of being part of a larger whole, such as a concert.

The good news is, awe doesn’t have to involve grand gestures. Music festivals and solitary hikes are great, but there are also accessible paths to awe we can take daily. The general principle you can start with is to view the world the way child might. It’s all new, the stimuli are endless, and it’s amazing.

Here are some ideas:

Tap into your 5 senses. Take walking, for example. You’ve been doing it your whole life. Half the time you probably don’t notice how you got from point A to point B. The next time you take a walk, pay attention to one of your senses and try to notice all the details entering your awareness through that sense. So, as you walk through the city, pay attention to the sounds you are hearing. Notice not only the incessant honking but also the chirping, whooshing, the sound of your own breathing. Or, as you wait at the bus stop, look around at the leaves on the ground. Notice the palette of shapes, sizes, shadows, highlights, and combinations of colors, each one utterly unique.

Pause. Even for just a second. Or at least slow down. Pay attention to what you are actually doing, not what you are about to do or what you’d rather be doing. If you are eating a chip, just eat that chip. Don’t pop another one into your mouth yet. Savor it.

Journal. You can also reflect on an awe-inspiring experience by writing about it. Simply remembering such moments can prompt present-moment feelings of awe.

Start small. As with any new practice, don’t take on too much. If all you can do is pause for a second to notice 3 breaths, do that. And try to notice those 3 breaths as if you’ve never experienced breathing before. Notice how the breath feels on your skin, where on your face the breath lands, which parts of your body move in sync with the breath.

The start of winter means colder weather and shorter days, and for many of us that means more time inside, less spontaneous socialization, and a dip in wellbeing. Now, more than ever, you deserve some awe in your life.

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