Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Paradigm Shifts Induced by the Experience of Awe

In the weeks after visiting Delicate Arch outside of Moab, Utah, my wife, Nicki, and I continued our trek through virtually every National Park in southern Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Each day became a new adventure into a different landscape. Dead Horse State Park, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce, Zion, the Grand Canyon, Sedona and Red Rocks, the Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert and finishing way under ground with the bats in Carlsbad Caverns.

Many questions arose for me around this concept of "awe."  Would the repetition of the experience of awe become what Woody Allen depicted with the Orgasmatron in his movie Sleeper? Was there something about the way we exist as human beings that makes us more or less prone to the experience of awe? Finally, is the experience of awe tied to what we are as human beings and is it something that should come naturally on a regular basis?

But before I start to explore that topic, I think I should offer some kind of definition of what I think awe is--or what it does. As I have read about awe, there area multitude of definitions over such a long period of time that it is a difficult word for people to agree on. Awe is often a kind of linguistic Procrustean bed that gets chopped up in order to make it fit the situation. Sometimes it is associated with wonder, or reverence, or surprise, or fear, or the apprehension of the sublime. There is even a campaign afoot to certify it as the eleventh scientifically accepted emotion.  One definition that I like is used by Jason Silva from National Geographic which he has taken from a Stanford University study-- "an experience of such perceptual vastness you literally have to reconfigure your mental models of the world to assimilate it." Obviously, he is using vastness because nature is his primary text, but what makes a particular impression on me is that he understands that one of the prime ways that an event becomes an experience is precisely because it, "reconfigures your mental models." I also think awe changes the person who experiences it in potentially deep and dramatic ways; that is why it is so important for experience-based learning.

I first came across the concept of awe when I was studying in Divinity School where, as you might guess, awe is a regular topic of conversation at morning coffee. In fact, my first exegetical essay in grad school was an exegesis of Genesis 28:16 where Jacob has a dream in which God speaks to him at Bethel-- "When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it." He was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God: this is the gate of heaven." Two important qualities of awe emerge in this short passage. First, considered through the lens of a paradigm shift, awe often is perceived by and taps the unconscious; in Jacob's case it is portrayed by his awakening from a dream. But when he acknowledges with his rational mind what has happened, he is changed. He was asleep, and now he is awake: he has become aware. His experience of awe changes his perception of his physical place in the world, but also it changes his understanding of himself. The experience of awe is a challenge to the world as he presently constructs it and Jacob is, rightly, "afraid." The first paradigm shift that awe engenders is a re-working of the relationship between the unconscious and the conscious. The unconscious takes a firm hold on the steering wheel at the beginning of the journey of awe.

As second major paradigm shift that also occurs involves our conception of time. The Greeks had two words for time that capture the transfer of what happens in the experience of awe--chronos and kairos. Chronos is just what it sounds like, chronology. It is "clock time," and it can be represented by a number. In short, it is the measurement of time. Kairos, however, is a different conception of time. It is "event time." If chronos is quantitative, then kairos is qualitative. Chronos tells you it is March 28, 2014; kairos tells you it was the day you first went for a walk after surgery. Chronos is a number for measurement; kairos is an experience of an event that requires interpretation.

An experience of awe is always an experience of time as kairos. Time doesn't actually stand still in this sense as you are swept up completely in the moment. It is really that the sense of chronos that dominates out daily life is replaced for a period of time with a sense of kairos. Digital watches embody chronos. Each number that flips by is an exact measurement of that moment. I remember when digital watches came into existence and replaced the analog watch that I refused to wear them. It took me a long time to realize that a clock with arms that sweeps through a circle is time in a closer relationship to kairos. That kind of time has a relationship to something outside itself--it is part of an hour. The question this all raises for me is this--is it true that the more chronological we become, the further away we place ourselves from the capacity for awe? Clocks are the enemy of awe; digital clocks are the enemy doubling down. (There is one exception, in my experience, that is actually quite captivating--watch the Millennium Clock Tower in the National Museum of Scotland.)

Perhaps the most powerful paradigm shift that seems to be part of the experience of awe is the way it often transforms your relationship to your world and to yourself. My experience at Delicate Arch (and at Weeping Rock in Zion National Park, deep underground in the Green Lake Room at Carlsbad Caverns and with myriad other natural wonders) was such an entrance into the DKDK zone because there was a novel, surprising vastness (though that could be internal as much as external) that forced me to stop and think about my relationship to what I was seeing. Different people have different emotional reactions to those kinds of situation; awe is never experienced the same way for people. For some it might be amazement, humility, fear, reverence or fascination, but the effect is that you are jerked out of your conscious self in chronological time and forced to implicate yourself in the sense that you are brought into an intimate connection. In short, the way you thought the world was constructed has been challenged and there is a forced, involuntary re-evaluation; and this can happen anywhere at anytime.


I am presently taking a MOOC course at Harvard X (with around 10,000 other people from all over the world) with Professor Bob Kegan entitled Unlocking Immunity to Change. The course explores a technique that counteracts the impulse to stasis as well as exploring why we fail when we try to change. One of the first things you have to do is choose a goal that is "adaptive" rather than "technical." An adaptive goal is one that requires a change in mindset, attitude or beliefs; it is a goal that cannot be solved with a technical fix. Another way to look at this is that technical problems can be solved with your reasoning skills and through thinking. Adaptive problems require changing people's beliefs and are addressed with your stomach or your heart. Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic to achieve more space would be a technical problem. Coming to the realization that you need to get off the Titanic would be adaptive.

The other part of my goal setting for this course requires me answering four questions: Is it true for you? Is there room for improvement? How important is it to you? Does it implicate you? It is this last question that has generated a number of questions from the class participants. Many of them want to know exactly what "implicates" means. In fact, the instructors warn, "A common mistake is people choosing a goal that does not implicate them." It is like they are choosing a goal that has a chronos solution, when, in fact, they need to look to kairos for some answers. Sometimes I think that self-implication may be the most difficult experience-based learning concept to explain.

My goal for the course is, "How can I increase the number of times I experience awe?" After you set your goal, the course instructors ask for a rationale for why you have chosen this goal. I just wrote in a quote from Albert Einstein that I love, “The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.” As they say in Fiddler on the Roof-- TO LIFE!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Cultivating Awe @ Delicate Arch

I spent two months this fall seeing how many times I could put myself in a place where I might experience "awe." I had a hunch that what we sometimes call "awe" might be something that had gone underdeveloped in thinking about why and how we can make some experiences deep, memorable and life-changing. Usually when I hear the word "awesome" in contemporary culture, it seems to be a cheapened and even falsified use of the word. Somewhere in the early 1980's with the creation of the Official Preppy Handbook and the rise of the film Valley Girl, the word became synonymous with "totally" and often followed by "dude." In fact, sometimes I think that people use that word as a kind of wish fulfillment; we actually desire and even need awe in our lives, but we don't actually have the feeling very often.

Awe, I am speculating, may be like other concepts--empathy, serendipity, availability--that I have explored earlier in this blog. These are all ideas that, if we can identify and develop them as skills and dispositions, might give us increasing number of ways to make our learning truly transformative and life-long.

I began outside of Moab, Utah at a place I had read of long ago in Edward Abbey's book, Desert Solitaire--Delicate Arch in Arches National Monument. To get there you follow the well-worn path up sandstone and sliprock for about two miles enduring a number of false "peaks" and promises that make you think you're there. The actual arch appears alarmingly quickly as you follow up a narrow path that hugs the side of a cliff. But then the path ends, the cliff wall recedes and ....

One of the things that I have discovered about awe is that it is highly subjective. One person might look at this scene and become mute and immobile; another person give it a glance and check their I-phone.  When I arrived there was only one other person there, a man from Seattle who had been to this spot decades before and had returned because he had just retired and was not sure what to do with the rest of his life. He was looking for inspiration, and we sat silently for a long time periodically sighing. But then some recent college grads arrived and after a cursory glance at the scene before them sat down and analyzed the "awesome" party they had been to the night before.

And, finally, a middle aged couple weighted down with photography equipment turned the corner from behind the cliff and, in what seemed to be the blink of an eye, the man had set up his paraphernalia and had turned to his wife and was saying something about the glare from the sandstone and his need for a device that would calibrate the light for him. I was reminded of Annie Dillard's words of wisdom from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek when she realizes that she experiences different ways of seeing. After describing how sometimes she has to verbalize and analyze what she is seeing she writes,  "But there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied. The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment's light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this second way I am above all an unscrupulous observer."

For me, Delicate Arch set the stage for a series of future events as I became obsessed with trying to see if I could recreate the feeling I had there, but it was not until a good deal later that I could even begin to process and give language to what it felt like. One of the characteristics of awe might well be that it is pre-verbal, and that it resists capture as well as duplication. In fact, as I look at the picture at the top of this blog post, I find it so inadequate as to be laughable. Again and again I found myself in the next months standing next to someone at Dead Horse State Park, or Bryce, or Zion, or peering into the Grand Canyon saying, "I can't describe this; no picture of this will make any sense."

If I try to put words to the feeling I would say that first, time ceased to feel chronological; to look at my watch would have seemed comical. My focus became sharper; I lingered on certain vistas for longer periods of time. At the same time, I found myself involuntarily asking all kinds of questions about the relationship between myself and my surroundings but not with the desire for explanation but something more like connection. Second, that desire for connection came, paradoxically, I think, from the vastness and the novelty of what I was seeing. I would describe it as a simultaneously moving outward and inward. Oddly, a line from Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby floated through my head, "I was within and without. Simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life."  And I chuckled to myself as I imagined sharing this moment with a more cynical Nick Carraway. And third, in that same vein, I found myself being more self-aware but not self-conscious. In the same way that time had changed, my sense of self was more open, more what I have called in an earlier blog post "available." All of these characteristics mimic what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found in his study of peak experiences in his book, Flow

Abbey described his first experience of Delicate Arch this way, "The beauty of Delicate Arch explains nothing, for each thing in its way, when true to it own character, is equally beautiful. If Delicate Arch has any significance it lies, I will venture, in the power of the odd and unexpected to startle the senses and surprise the mind out of their ruts of habit, to compel us into a reawakened awareness of the wonderful--that which is full of wonder...The shock of the real. For a little while we are again able to see, as the child sees, a world of marvels." Awe awakens us to new possibilities, but, at the same time, it also challenges our customary way of moving through the world.

So here is something else I learned-- You do not find awe, awe finds you. And perhaps that is one reason why it is so subjective as an experience. But what I want to explore further is whether, even though I know you cannot create awe, can you prepare for it in a way that will increase the chances that it will find you? Are there things that we do, mindsets that we embrace, that actually divorce us from what might be a daily dose of awe? These were questions that came much later, however; they could not have been of the moment.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

On Felt Experiences, Rituals, Saying Yes and Being Present

For the past two months, I have been practicing being fully present in the moment. But it wasn't until I went, again, to Sleep No More the immersion theater piece that I have written about in an earlier blog post, that some realizations about how to be fully in the present came together in powerful ways.

Sleep No More is a theater production that contains twenty-one characters, multiple plot lines loosely based on Shakespeare's play Macbeth and Hitchcock's film Rebecca that rotate three times each night and a six floor hotel as its setting. It also completely eliminates the "fourth wall" in a way that intentionally pushes the audience out of their comfort zone. In short, it is a wonderful creation to explore how to live in an experience-based way.

Jim James at the McKittrick Hotel, home of 'Sleep No More' in New York.

Some of the power of Sleep No More is that it is performed without language. The absence of the ability to speak (it is forbidden for the audience and cast) means that what you know most deeply over the course of the evening you know in your body first. In this case, unlike most of most of daily life, your body gives you the most immediate information about your surroundings. I tend to live in my head most consciously, and this theater piece confronts and confounds that impulse. During the course of my sabbatical year I have been experimenting with a process called Focusing--one that I described in detail in an earlier blog post. Perhaps the most revolutionary concept in the Focusing process is the ability to access what is called the "felt sense."

Focusing begins with the recognition of a "felt experience." The racing of our heart, our palms beginning to sweat, the aching in the pit of our stomach are all seen as our body recognizing something important occurring before our conscious mind can access what is happening. For example, the witches know that Macbeth is approaching through a felt experience, "By the pricking in my thumbs,/ Something wicked this way comes." Embodied cognition (as it is now called by some cognitive psychologists) is, for some people, a deeply powerful way to know something. While some literary critics see the witches as having supernatural powers, I think that they actually are just good at listening to their bodies. Acknowledging what we know in our bodies brings you into the present in dramatic ways.

A second factor increasing the capacity for being present was offered by the actor playing Macbeth in the talk back after the play. He explained that "since the the text is an unwritten one--it is physical and it is repeated three times every night--then becomes a routine that is like a ritual. You have to follow the ritual because that is what allows you to be fully present with the people who surround you."

Finally, the actor playing Hecate immediately pointed out that, even though there is a ritual, things never go as planned; there are always changes that have to be made spontaneously. What was most revelatory to me, however was what she said next, "You are not going to be able to fix what has been changed, so you have to accept the changes, not deny them. You have to say 'Yes!' to whatever happens."

One unusual aspect of Sleep No More is that in a show where everyone is wearing masks (see the picture above), the actors choose audience members at different times in the show to engage in a private "one on one." When someone asked how the actors chose the audience members to engage in one on ones, they answered, "There is usually just something about the way they are engaged with everything; they are the people who are most present."

Two months ago my wife had basal cell cancer and a subsequent surgery on her nose that meant that she was ordered to be immobile for the next six weeks. My role in this was just to be there--to be present. So, the daily routine for a month revolved around changing bandages twice a day. We would sit down to the dining room table--now covered with bottles of hydrogen peroxide, aquaphor gel, xenoform strips, boxes of sterile gauze pads and what would eventually be hundreds and hundreds of Q-tips--and methodically go through the ritualized procedure of taking off the old bandage and setting a new one in its place.

I was really more like a sous chef in this process--I layed out the materials and then was responsive whenever needed to supply the correct item. Since the procedure always had its little quirks, I had to simply watch and say whatever I thought was needed in the moment. As days went by, I began to notice that the consistent verbal chatter that I had been offering began to recede--oftentimes because I was being told it wasn't helpful. It felt like I had become the soccer coach I always abhorred and avoided--the one who constantly yelled out at the players while they were performing.

So, in response, I began to settle in to simply watching intently and stopped talking. If I had to describe it I would say that I was much more aware of the immediate surroundings, of where everything was on the table and how far away it was when I had to reach for it. I also became more aware of my own place in the surroundings, of my breathing and anytime my body moved. Finally, because there were always little things that would go wrong during the bandage changing, I was aware of the purpose of each part of the process and how things had to be improvised to go forward. It was always true that "What's done cannot be undone;" you could not fix what was happening, you could only accept it and move forward.


Over the month, as I became more and more grounded, centered and connected, the bandage changing process took on a levity and a lightness. What happened, I believe, is that we both became more fully present with each other and with the moment. And that feeling began to grow out from those moments to the rest of the day. Days would go by where we had just been with each other for the day.

The power of being productive holds great sway over my own life, I am trained to get things done and often to them quickly and efficiently.  But I have begun to notice that the power of presence seems to have changed me in ways that make the world look a bit different. The world, I think, may be looking at me differently as well. I have been to Sleep No More four times before the other night, but I never had a "one on one" with any of the actors; the other night I had three.