Recently, I spent a spectacular spring day in one of my favorite places, with a beautiful group of women, including my friend Kellie Flanagan. We were forest bathing. Kellie is a staff writer for the local Mariposa Gazette newspaper and today she sent me her article extolling the virtues of forest bathing. She reminded me about that sense of awe I get with every journey into nature.
I talk a lot about awe, in my meditations, with my forest bathing groups, and just when something inspires me. Awe is that sense that you get when you witness something so vast and overwhelming that it alters your understanding of the world. With awe, I feel tiny, yet connected to an immense network of all that is. I am humbled.
My mindfulness practice allows me to experience this every time I’m in nature. Every. Time. But awe is not just the result of being in nature. I clearly remember a beautiful symphony at a world famous opera house that brought me to tears, the music was so pure; or listening to a particularly moving speech; or the clear, sweet voice of a particular singer; and feeling that same sense. You might experience your own awe by viewing a great piece of art or architecture, or witnessing a heroic act, or taking in a breathtaking view.
The interesting thing about awe is, it has benefits beyond just the moment. Those positive emotions that are evoked by awe can keep us healthy in a variety of ways, and science is just beginning to discover how. Awe helps lower levels of cytokines for example, proteins that, at a high level, are markers of such inflammatory diseases as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, even Alzheimer’s and clinical depression.
Some studies suggest that awe may help children grasp scientific concepts better and that adults who experience awe, have a more accurate understanding of the nature of science.
Experiencing awe may decrease materialism and increase altruism and generosity. This seems a bit disconnected, but when you experience awe, you understand that you are connected to a larger existence. Money and material possession take a back seat to what’s really important.
One thing that awe has taught me is patience. When I experience awe, I lose track of time. For example, and this came up recently with a forest bathing group, I always let people know to allow 2 ½ hours for a forest bathing experience. Yet, we’re almost always gone for three hours. And as I told this particular group, I’m afraid to tell them three hours, because then it would stretch to 3 ½, and so on. When I experience awe, I’m just not in any hurry for it to end.
The study of awe is relatively new, so much of the findings are inconclusive. What I know, without question, is that when we focus on experiences that produce positive emotions, we create a healthier life for ourselves and those around us. Need some awesome inspiration? Just get out in nature!