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.


  1. Thank you for this, David.

    I recently returned home from Southern India, and experienced a bounty of awe-inspiring moments, images, scenes. I agree with your thoughts on moving without a camera. I am an avid photographer, but I often feel that by taking photos, I am not fully present in the moment, and it often feels like an attempt to save these "experiences" for later - a method for procrastination, if that makes sense.

    The most memorable moments of my trip occurred at the Nataraja Temple in Chidamaram. As in all Hindu temples, we removed our shoes and put away our cameras before passing into the inner sanctum. We watched the young, slick brahmin priests perform the Puja ritual within a smokey steel alter, before a magnificent pure golden statue of Shiva in his cosmic dancing form. As bells rang, a woman gave an extraordinary offering of song in sanskrit. The scene was haunting, ethereal. I had never before encountered a place that oozed such intense spirituality. This, this was awesome.

    I wonder if being barefoot makes it easier to experience, connect with ones surroundings and to feel awe.

    I hope you are well,


  2. oh elliott....i miss you.....yes, yes, i a blog coming up i am exploring the way we can increase capacities forawe....the senses...all of them...including barefoot...matters!.....later this month i go off to a retreat about science and spirituality.....the brain research on the spirit....but experience based , oh where are you ? and HOW are YOU?