I stand in awe / by Michael Sloyer

I stand in awe. I stand in awe of the world. I stand in awe of the natural world. The man made world. And the world I see when I shut my eyes. I stand in awe of the things I know. The things I don’t know. And the things I don’t know I don’t know. But not all the time. Sometimes I stand in awe of nothing. Sometimes I feel frustrated, jaded, indifferent, exhausted.

We’ve all had those tough days. At work, at home, or otherwise, where we just want to turn off the world. We want to crawl up into a ball and hide in our most comforting vice. But isn’t it ironic that when the material world fails us, we look for solutions by digging deeper into the material world (via technology, food, alcohol, etc). This is exactly when we need to be turning on the world. Because the world we live in is fantastic. It is full of color, full of mysteries, full of miracles. It is full of inner peace and human connection.

I love yoga. Yoga means union. The union of mind, body, and soul. Such a beautiful concept. Especially the part about the soul. And though I subscribe to the belief that human beings have souls, this has always been a rather abstract and complicated concept for me. What does having a soul actually mean? And why does the beauty of contemplating my own soul sometimes feel clouded by the not so great aspects of organized religion? But I recently came across an admittedly very simple yet useful explanation: the body describes that which we share with other forms of life, and the soul describes whatever makes us uniquely human.

Humans have the unique ability to think about thinking. Like animals, we wake up in the morning and take care of our physical needs in a routine fashion. But as the scholar Lawrence Hoffman says, we also have the ability to “de-routininize our daily routine so as to stand in ‘radical awe’ at being alive.” But too often, we choose not to take advantage of this unique ability. Or maybe we just forget. But forgetting is really just a passive way of not choosing.

Choosing to feel awe? Really? Is that possible? While I agree there is nothing like that feeling of spontaneous awe — when we watch a baby come into the world, when we come across a touching photograph, or when we realize for the first time that who we are is actually one step above the voice in our head — awe by luck is not the only source of awe. We can be active participants in our own awe. We can choose to marvel at the things around us, above us, and within us.

There is of course a fine line between authenticity and superficiality. Just because I look up at the stars and think “wow, we really are just a tiny speck of dust in this mind boggingly immense universe” doesn’t mean that I truly feel the immenseness of the universe. But there is something to the old age adage, “Fake it until you make it.” I have found that if I actually stop and take a minute, and I think authentically stopping and contemplating are the keys here, I can glimpse that wonderful feeling that makes life so worth it. Sharing observations and thoughts that lead to feelings of awe, or even just saying them out loud to myself, can also be incredibly helpful. Because once I release them into the world, they become real. They become real to me and to the person on the receiving end. And together, we can go from feeling nothing to feeling feelings. We have been empowered to actualize our own peak experience. Because special means special. Special doesn’t mean rare.

So from today on, I will make it a point to marvel like I have never marveled before. I will find real beauty in the mundane. I will ask questions like “Are there more grains of sand on the earth or more stars in the sky.” I will be authentic, but I will also marvel for the sake of marveling. Because it feels damn good to marvel. And to take a stand for awe.