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Exploring Awe in Life and Art

1000 year-old tree on Meares Island
I have had many experiences of awe in my life: the birth of my third grandchild last summer was a highlight. I actually experience awe each time I see him. But other than that miraculous experience, I felt awe when I taught a Workshops in Wild Places workshop recently in Tofino, BC. Our group went one day into Tofino where we caught a boat to Meares Island, just off the coast. We wound our way past tree-covered islands until we came to the Meares Island dock. The island supports an old growth forest and is designated as a Tribal Park, an indigenous-led protected area. Led by our guide, we walked in single-file, slowly and reverentially on the roughly hewn boardwalk that winds through the forest. At the end of the walk, stands a magnificent, gigantic 1000 year-old yellow cedar. We let out a  collective gasp when we saw it. We  felt humbled in the presence of such a being.

I felt awe as well, in my Newfoundland workshop that took place last June at The Doctor's House. We were on the search for icebergs and drove way up the peninsula, past Heart's Delight, Heart's Desire and Heart's Content to Brownsdale, where we hit the jackpot!  12 icebergs floating in the bay!  Completely awe-inspiring.

Iceberg floating in Trinity Bay taken with my telephoto lens. It was a big iceberg and quite a ways off.

What exactly is awe? Albert Einstein referred to awe as “The source of all true art and science”. Einstein went on to say,
 “He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.”

An excellent article in Psychology Today, discusses 10 benefits of awe. Turns out that awe is good for us in so many ways! Neil Farber in the Psycholgy Today article, sums up by saying, "Awe invokes creative, curious, mindful, altruistic, flexible, open-minded, physical, psychological and spiritual health and happiness." Sounds like we could use a spoonful of awe every day!

Awe experiences are what psychologists call self-transcendent: they shift our attention away from ourselves, make us feel like we are part of something greater than ourselves, change our perception of time, and even make us more generous toward others.

Morning sun on Cox Bay beach, BC

On the road back to Nanaimo from Tofino, BC

Another website,  Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley, suggests another 8 benefits of awe. They also suggest 4 awe-inspiring practices, including an awe narrative, where you're asked to recall and describe a time when you experienced awe and to write about the experience in great detail. Such an exercise can help to relive that moment and so to re-experience awe.

Basalt columns on the water side of the cape at Baer Art Center in Iceland

Basalt columns running the whole height of the cape at the Baer Art Center, Iceland

Other practices come close to the benefits of awe: forest bathing is one, where a person walks through a forest for several hours in a slow, mindful, meditative way sometimes with forest bathing guide or even alone. The effects of awe are also similar to mindfulness, prayer, and meditation. But not quite. There is something about the experience of awe and vastness that makes a soul sing.

Workshops in Wild Places travels to awe-inspiring places. Not only will you connect with the land and create abstract paintings from that experience, but you'll also have all of the benefits of experiencing awe. We will seek awe.

Stars by Sara Teasdale

Alone in the night
On a dark hill
With pines around me
Spicy and still,

And a heaven full of stars
Over my head
White and topaz
And misty red;

Myriads with beating
Hearts of fire
The aeons
Cannot vex or tire;

Up the dome of heaven
Like a great hill
I watch them marching
Stately and still.

And I know that I
Am honored to be
Of so much majesty.


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