Transcendent (adjective) [tran(t)-ˈsen-dənt]: exceeding usual limits; extending or lying beyond the limits of ordinary experience; being beyond comprehension; a spiritual or religious state, or a condition of moving beyond physical needs and realities
Every year at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, it happens at least once – I have a transcendent experience. It usually happens at one of the smaller stages, tucked away under the trees, while I’m listening to an intimate concert with a singer-songwriter. It’s a combination of things that align to bring together this exquisite moment – the cotton-ball clouds in the gentle blue sky, the towering pine trees, the poetry and emotion woven through the lyrics, the notes of the guitar, the tenderness of a receptive audience, the sun on my face.
Suddenly, I feel my heart soften and expand in my chest as though it can simultaneously blend into and hold the entire universe. I become both expansive and small – a tiny part of a big world and also bigger than I’ve ever been. As my eyes fill with tears, I look around me and know that I am connected to everyone I see, connected to the trees around me, connected to the music, and connected to myself. I am fully embodied, fully present, and fully alive. Any anxiety or self-consciousness I held just moments before dissolves in this moment of tenderness, connectedness and expansiveness. It’s blissful and as close to perfect as any moment can be.
The moment never lasts very long – soon I land back into the ordinariness of life and my mind starts to wander – but it stays with me throughout the day, and I can bring some of it back days and even weeks after it happens. Even now, I can close my eyes and reach back into my memory to touch that moment and remember the way I felt when it happened.
In his study of awe, Dacher Keltner gathered stories from people in 26 countries and distilled the stories into what he calls the “eight wonders of life”. People find awe, he says, in moral beauty (people’s kindness, courage, and ability to overcome obstacles), nature, collective movement, music, visual design, spirituality, big ideas, and the beginning of life and its end. Perhaps that’s why there is such a strong likelihood that it will happen for me during my annual pilgrimage to the folk festival – because that moment always combines so many of the things on the list.
Awe, Keltner says, is transformative. “It’s hard to find something that is better for your body and mind than experiencing a bit of awe. Studies where people look up into the trees or take in vast views or think about somebody who is morally inspiring find that brief experiences of awe calm the stress response and make a person feel more connected and less lonely. Awe has been seen to reduce depression, reduce PTSD symptoms in veterans, and is also good for cardiovascular health and the immune system.” (Listen to Dacher Keltner talk about awe on this podcast.)
In studying the science of awe, Keltner’s team found that there’s a certain kind of tear that happens during an experience of awe (like the tears that always fill my eyes when I have my transcendent moment at the folk fest) that’s produced by the lacrimal gland which is activated by the parasympathetic autonomic nervous system. Instead of activating fight or flight physiology, it activates calmness and connection. In other words, awe soothes and calms our bodies and gives us that feeling of oneness that I always feel with other members of the audience.
This past year, while I was traveling, I was lucky enough to have many experiences of awe, like when I swam in cenotes in Mexico, or took a train into the snow-covered Alps in Switzerland. I know that those moments helped to heal and transform me. I feel more at peace, more grounded, more in touch with myself, and more able to live with the liminality of life. I know that I am less reactive, less activated by the wounds that were once easily triggered, and less burdened by stress.
Of course it’s not only the awe moments that changed me (I’ve also been doing a lot of somatic and therapeutic healing work over the years), but I have no doubt that they mattered. I have now become much more intentional about seeking out awe moments, so that I can tap into some of what I experience while sitting under the trees listening to music at the festival. As Keltner teaches, I find ways of experiencing “everyday awe” by bringing more of the eight wonders into my life as regularly as I can. This morning I experienced awe watching a swarm of ants on the sidewalk.
It can seem frivolous, in a world that feels more and more chaotic and unjust every moment, in which political divides and climate change are becoming more and more palpable in our everyday lives, to go out in search of awe, and yet I believe that this is a crucial part of what makes us able to cope with and respond to the many challenges in our lives. Awe makes us more resilient and more grounded in the wobbliness of liminality. It connects us with each other, ourselves and the earth. It is the opposite of frivolous – it is essential.
Awe is one of the things we’ll be talking about in A Full-Bodied Life. We’ll also talk about embodiment, empowerment, liberation, love, joy, and connection. I am looking forward to the conversations we’ll have and I hope you join us!
On my semi-regular walk this morning, I found myself in the woods and suddenly realized I wasn’t really IN the woods. I’d headed down a familiar path, and yes, I was surrounded by trees, but I wasn’t really present. My body could have been anywhere while my mind was on its own separate journey. My mind was busy bopping around, thinking about all of the things involved in launching my new program today, and ruminating over some challenging conversations I’ve had recently. Truth be told, I hadn’t noticed a single tree and, even though I didn’t have my headphones on, hadn’t heard a single bird.
When I suddenly realized my lack of presence, I stopped in my tracks and started taking it all in. I noticed some of yesterday’s raindrops still on a few leaves. I noticed the graffiti on the rail bridge I was about to pass under. I noticed some clouds moving in and wondered if there would be more rain.
Then, to help me stay present, I turned off the familiar path to a less familiar one. As I discovered while I was traveling this past year, unfamiliarity is more conducive to staying present because it forces me to notice things and pay attention so I don’t get lost. A few minutes on that path was enough to shift my brain out of its ruminating spiral. Occasionally it was tempted to go back there, but then I’d stop in my tracks again and look at a leaf or the trunk of an old tree.
In his book, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How it can Transform Your Life, Dacher Keltner talks about how awe, “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world,” can shift us out of self-consciousness, ego, anxiety, pettiness, and rumination. What I was doing, when I stopped on the trail to notice the trees, was hitting the pause button on all of those self-protective patterns my mind is habituated in, and landing myself more fully in the moment, more fully in the experience of being in a body that’s present in a beautiful world.
Keltner talks about many kinds of awe in his book (awe in people’s acts of bravery, for example), but says there is something special about awe we experience in the natural world. “In fact,” he says, “it is hard to imagine a single thing you can do that is better for your body and mind than finding awe outdoors.”
In a study that Keltner cites about the impact of awe, Frances Kuo had children diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder “go for a walk of comparable length and physical exertion in a green park, a quiet neighborhood, or noisy downtown Chicago. Children scored better on a measure of concentration only after the walk in the park. Getting outdoors in nature empowers our attention, what William James called ‘the very root of judgment, character, and will,’ and our ability to discern what is urgent from what is not and how to place the hectic moments of our days into a broader narrative.”
Time spent in nature can also make us less entitled and narcissistic. Keltner talks about another study in which one group of students was sent to stare up at trees and another group was sent to stare at a tall building. Later, when told of the compensation for being in the study, those who’d stared at trees asked for less money, citing reasons such as “I no longer believe in capitalism, man.” While participants were answering questions about the experience, a person (who was in cahoots with the researchers) walked by and dropped a bunch of books and pens. Those who’d stared at trees picked up more pens than those who looked up at the building.
As I did on this morning’s walk, I am trying to be more intentional about being in awe, especially in nature. I am also trying to be more intentional about having an embodied experience in a beautiful, complex world. There are far too many ways in which we dissociate and numb ourselves, especially because there is much in the world right now that activates our nervous systems and makes us feel wobbly and disconnected.
To help us all have a more embodied, awe-filled experience in the world, I’ve created a new program called A Full-Bodied Life. It’s both a self-study program and a community where we can have ongoing conversations about topics such as this. You can sign up any time you want and either study alone or join the conversations.
Like many Canadians (and people from all over the world), I have fallen in love with astronaut Chris Hadfield in the last four months. Not only is he an exceptional human being (Canada’s first commander of the International Space Station, a gifted musician, and a gifted photographer) he brings us all back to something that many of us lost when we left childhood – a sense of wonder.
His sense of wonder was paired with his great generosity, and that’s why so many people fell in love with him. He clearly took great delight in sharing his experiences with us.
I am happy to say that I was raised by parents who, like Chris Hadfield, taught me to witness the world with a sense of delight. Every Spring, my Dad would write “frogs” on the calendar on the first day that he heard them singing. If he found a bird’s nest in a tree, he would almost certainly drag one or more of us kids out to the tree to see it. One of my favourite photos is one that he took of dandelions – what he said were the most under-appreciated flowers in the world.
Mom was the same. On lazy Sunday afternoons, we would go for drives in the countryside and explore old abandoned homes, because she was intensely curious about what was inside. Any chance she got, she would climb trees, just for the fun of it. Even in her dying days, she watched the birds at her bird feeder and delighted in the variety and beauty of each of them.
On Mother’s Day this year (our first since Mom died), my sister and I drove out to the small town where we grew up to visit the graves where our parents now lay buried. We had a lovely day together, first at the grave, and then in the park with the swinging bridge we used to play on, and in the field where we used to hunt for crocuses when Spring finally came.
Instead of the desperate sense of emptiness that we both thought the day would be filled with, there was peacefulness and nostalgia in our conversations and our wanderings. Much of the day was spent doing exactly what Mom and Dad taught us to do – finding the beauty in the world. We got muddy on the riverbank, trying to get the right angle to photograph the swinging bridge, and we got our clothes covered in dry grass and dust, lying in the field trying to capture both the crocuses and grain elevator in the same shot.
I was reminded, once again, of the power of beauty for healing and transformation. The grief was still there, but in seeking beauty, we were able to breathe hope into our lives.
In our pragmatic, goal-oriented lives, we forget to pause for beauty. “Wandering in crocus fields is for people who don’t have important things to do with their lives,” we tell ourselves.
Wrong. Wandering in crocus fields is ESSENTIAL if we have important things to do with our lives. Beauty is imperative!
In my travels in the world, I have seen people whose lives are full of wealth but not much beauty. I have also seen people who live in poverty but surround themselves with beauty. I would rather live in community with the second group of people, because they know joy, they live generously, and their delight shines in their eyes.
Last night was one of those impeccable Spring evenings when the wind calms, the sun’s setting rays are warm and golden, and the air is full of the hope of new life. I couldn’t resist wandering through my neighbourhood once again, seeking beauty and letting myself be filled with awe.
I am grateful for every moment that brings wonder into my life, and I am grateful for the capacity to witness it.
And if you still need convincing that a search for beauty is imperative, watch this short video of a 109 year old Holocaust Survivor. “I see beauty everywhere.”