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!

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