Encounter Learning Centre

Moments of AWE: a Miraculous Emotion

“Leo, look at this sunset!” exclaimed my mother, her voice filled with joy, her face glowing, a radiant smile on her face. She was awe-struck!


What was amazing is that my mother had just buried her beloved Leo, her husband of 54 years, my father. We were sitting together on the shores of the Mediterranean, in Tel Aviv. And in that moment of awe, she turned to him, as she always had, to share her radical wonderment and amazement at the beauty she saw.

In that moment of awe, her grief was gone, her sadness had dissolved. Her husband Leo was there with her, as he would be for the rest of her life. In that moment of awe, she was in the here-and-now, with ultimate joy.

Sunsets will bring up the emotion of awe. Feeling the hand of a baby reaching out for our finger will bring up the emotion of awe.

hands  of the child and father

I wrote about the theme of Awe when we were in the “Ten Days of Awe,” which span the ten days between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is a time for reflection about the past year. It is an opportunity to look backward and to look forward, and to make Teshuva, which means “to return.” We are being asked “to return” to our full human essence, to everything that we are when we are fully alive, fully awake, fully attentive, and fully in relaxed joyful connection. It is a time to also see where we have failed to be in our full human essence, and may have hurt ourselves and/or others, and to ask for forgiveness.

What is interesting about the name “Days of Awe” is that scientists have recently begun to study the emotion called Awe. The new studies show that it is a dramatic feeling, with the power to inspire, change our thinking, and bring people together.

What is Awe? “Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast or beyond human scale, that transcends our current understanding of things,” says psychologist Dacher Keltner, a pioneer in the study of emotions. For years, only the “big six,”happiness, sadness, fear, anger, disgust, and surprise got much scientific attention. But as a result of a three-year research project called Project Awe, the “big six” has become the “big seven.” The emotion Awe is now thought to be a basic part of the human side of the human being, an emotion that we all need to express fully.

Interestingly what is being discovered in the research about Awe is exactly what is being asked of us during the “Ten Days of Awe.” During these ten days we are being asked to recognize and appreciate our place in the community, to unite, and to act collaboratively. We are being asked to slow down, and be aware, awake and attentive, and take stock of our life. We are being asked“to return” to our full human essence, and on a daily basis act more generously, ethically and fairly.

And here is what is being discovered about the emotion of Awe:

  • Awe binds us together: Dacher Keltner, who heads the University of California, Berkeley’s Social Lab, says that as human beings we are “wired” to feel awe, in order to get us to act more collaboratively, thus ensuring our survival. He describes how when we are awe struck by a magnificent vista, or a still starry sky, or the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, or a majestic cathedral, we realize that we are part of something much larger. Our thinking shifts from “me” to “we.”
  • Awe helps us see things in a new way: “Unlike fear and excitement, which trip our “fight-or-flight” responses, awe puts on the brakes, and keeps us still and attentive.” Michele Shiota, from Arizona State University says that, rather than the “flight-or-fight” response, this “stop-and-think” phenomenon makes us slow down, and become more receptive to new information, and more sensitive to the intricacies of a situation.
  • Awe makes us nicer and happier: “Awe causes a kind of “Be Here Now!” that seems to dissolve the self, and as a result makes us act more fairly, more generously, more ethically,” says Paul Piff of the University of California at Irvine.

With love and gratitude,

Hedy & Yumi