Most of us have had an experience so surprising, so moving, so profound, that it changed our lives in an instant.
Perhaps falling in love for the first time, or seeing a child born, or looking up at the night sky and really understanding how immense it all is. This feeling, we’ve told ourselves, is the real essence of life.
Then we’ve gotten on with our lives, and all but forgotten about it.
How is this possible? How is it that we let these moments go so easily, instead of putting them at the center of our lives?
“That’s the $64 million question,” says Saybrook psychology faculty member Kirk Schneider. Memory is always fleeting, the present is always distracting, but he thinks there are other factors at work. “Our society, industrialization in general, puts a premium on control, efficiency, and expedience, and these are helpful in meeting people’s needs. But at the extreme … and I think we’ve moved into the extreme… it becomes debilitating to a fuller experience of life. I think our quick fix model of living has alienated us from awe, even made us fearful of it.”
That becomes “a vicious cycle,” he says. “Experiencing awe requires profound reflection, pausing, searching, and sensing, all the things we’re not given time to do, which means that even when we experience awe, it’s harder to stay with.”
Schneider’s recent book, Awakening to Awe: Personal Stories of Profound Transformation, is a guide to help recapture the ability to experience, and stay with, awe.
“On the one hand, it’s not so simple in our culture because we have to break through so many layers of conditioning, but on another level it is quite simple because it’s always available,” Schneider says. “If we do want to start attuning ourselves to the bigger picture of life, we can do that in any circumstance. I think Victor Frankl proved that. If he was able to do that in the death camp … if he’s able to experience the beauty of the Bavarian mountains while on a train to Auschwitz … then I think it gives hope to all of us, even to people who are significantly depressed that they too can (at least potentially) see the bigger picture of living.”
Studying people’s recollections of the times they’ve experienced awe, Schneider has found that there are seven approaches, or “lenses,” that help us focus on the essential, mysterious, and profound qualities of life.
The first lens, the Lens of Transience, is an attunement to the passing nature of time. “In almost any circumstance, if we can attune ourselves to how this circumstance is fleeting, how all circumstances are fleeting, our lives are fleeting, actually vanishing as we’re manifesting, we become more acutely aware of the preciousness of that moment, the poignancy of the moment against the background of the groundlessness of being,” he says.
The second, the Lens of Unknowing, involves turning one’s attention to the mystery, uncertainty, and “evolving nature” of life. “If we can tune into that we can tune in to how things are continually changing, and be open to the discovery of something new, of new possibility,” Schneider says.
Similarly the third lens, the Lens of Surprise, involves opening oneself up to the experience of the unexpected, such as sudden beauty. It entails stepping out from the thoroughly “controlled” lives we live most of the time and seeing what happens. At least periodically.
The Lens of Vastness “is the lens of the macro picture of life, just taking in the grandeur of that, the magnitude of all that surrounds you,” while the Lens of Intricacy “is tuning oneself into the world of subtlety around us. For example, on your walk, noticing the subtle ways that branches move in the breeze, or the wealth of associations to a given memory, body sensation, or image.”
The Lens of Sentiment is openness to one’s own emotional states and state of being. “We experience this with music, with great film, in love relationships, friendships, or simply through contemplating the mystery of being,” Schneider says. “The lens of sentiment is a very powerful way to allow oneself to be affected by this awesomeness, this mystery of being. It is to be moved, and it deepens one’s capacity to be moved by life.”
The final lens is the Lens of Solitude – something harder and harder to get in the modern world. “Computers, text messaging, iPods: you could say these things promote a kind of isolation, but it’s not solitude,” Schneider says.
For him, the ability to experience solitude is the key to self-acceptance, the key to accepting others for who they are, and the foundational lens on which all others rest.
Awakening to Awe contains the stories of how people have encountered awe through these approaches, and a practical guide to bringing vastness, sentiment, intricacy, surprise, and solitude into one’s own life – and cultivating them as best one can.
“In particular,” Schneider says, “this book is a look at how these themes translate into everyday life. I find these experiences very moving, I think everybody does, and that our lives are deeper, and more enriching, when we maintain a connection with them.”
For more information on Awakening to Awe and related works, visit Kirk Schneider’s website.