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The Importance of Wonder and Awe - Part III

         So far, we have discussed how essential wonder and awe are to experiencing an adequate depth of meaning and joy in our lives and how we deprive ourselves of this transcendent emotional state. Largely, we have insulated ourselves from wonder and awe through being immersed in a materialist culture that is obsessed with cultivating the power that we believe will give our lives predictability and control.

             We recognized the universality of wonder and awe as a driving experience across all religions, cultures and time periods, leading to a consistency of spiritual experience that transcends differences in religious tradition and doctrine – and we questioned the lack of cultivation of such experiences in our religious practices.  This led us to our need to understand how we can overcome our fear and resistance to this emotional state and learn to cultivate wonder and awe in our own lives. 

Overcoming our fear and resistance 

As we approach and move through the process of adulthood, we increasingly recognize our limits in being able to predict and control the events of our lives.  As our fears increase in response to this growing awareness, we either choose – or have thrust upon us – various options from our culture that we are told can help us to diminish our fear.  We are so immersed in these culturally-defined options that few of us ever question their basis in reality. Most of us employ one or more of these options to “make life bearable.” 

We may seek to increase our personal power through knowledge – training and education that will give us the answers to control, predict and earn ourselves over the unseen hurdles that come our way.  Economic power is virtually worshipped in our consumer society – even though we all know the ill winds of life blow just as unpredictably across the wealthy. We may seek answers in a religious tradition that focuses on doctrine and regulation of human conduct, proclaiming “all the answers” through a hierarchy of religious authorities who claim exclusive reserve to the ultimate mysteries that evoke our wonder and awe.  

Ultimately, we tend to adopt options that make us feel safe and we tend to compare, judge and challenge options that don’t fit with our ways because we are threatened by them. Remember, wonder and awe occur in the absence of judgment and comparison. We may stand by our choices, even though they are not working for us – which explains why so many of us feel something is terribly missing in our lives. 

Consider the level of courage it takes for us to recognize and acknowledge aspects of ourselves and our lives as being perceptions, beliefs and habitual behaviors we have adopted, but which lack real meaning for us. You know the ones – we do them because “everybody else does them,” or, “everybody else believes in them,” or, “I don’t want to be different,” so what – are we supposed to learn to think for ourselves? Imagine the courage required to release those perceptions, beliefs and behaviors that don’t make sense or that don’t work for you now – to simply let go of what you don’t really know. 

Letting go: cultivating wonder and awe 

We are not talking about rejecting such perceptions, beliefs and behaviors, for they often provide the best available guidance for us for the time being.  But since life is about growth, “for the time being” implies that more will come to us that would change them or expand on them, if we just keep ourselves open.  So, we are talking about releasing our attachment to those perceptions, beliefs and habitual behaviors.  We suspend our critical judgment based on our previous understanding of things.  

This takes courage, because we are stripping away our insulation – our cocoon of illusory power spun from these perceptions, beliefs and behaviors (doing what we have always done). Indeed, our attachment to these things is the insulation we have described as shielding us from our would-be experiences of wonder and awe.  Nothing can make us feel more vulnerable than our letting go of our entrenched ideas of how things are and how our lives should be in favor of opening our minds, hearts and souls to the Universe as it offers itself to us.   

Yet, to live this way is perhaps the very deepest expression of authentic faith. This opening to total vulnerability is the way modeled by Christ and exemplified by the lives of saints in every religious tradition.  

When we live this way, we give up our need to predict and control our lives and the world around us.  By living in openness and acceptance – referred to as a state of “surrender” in spiritual terminology – we are open to the unfolding of every event.  This is the state that opens us to the experience of wonder and awe. By returning ourselves to this childlike state, unshackled by our illusions and delusions of being in control, we come to see how the Universe (God and Creation) sustains us and grows us. From the seemingly ordinary to the cosmic, we come to an intimate experience of grace: from the power behind our drawing of each breath to the unique arc of our lives in the unfolding process of humanity. 

Another way to say this is that we must “lower our shields.”  Awe cannot be experienced without our becoming vulnerable to the yet unknown.  While this is threatening to the lower, egoic mind (think fear and supplication), it is exhilarating for the soul – which is our true self. The combined emotional experience is awe.  To again quote the Rev. Trumbore, “Awe though is slightly different than wonder. Awe unlike wonder contains a component of fear and reverence, a reverent wonder with a touch of fear inspired by the grand and the sublime.”  In the face of the grand and sublime, personal boundaries disappear, leading to a sense of vulnerability as the small ego-self cannot expand to embrace or comprehend the ineffable. Only the soul can go there! 

Life as soul 

Therefore, let us undertake the challenge of shifting our identity from the small, egoic self to the larger self, or soul-self.  Though spoken in the terms of transpersonal psychology, the concept is ancient – embracing the eminent conversation documented between Jesus and Nicodemus and lived through the ages by those who found their peace beyond the egoic pursuits of mainstream humanity.  

The soul level experience of life at physical birth gradually fades with ego development.  The return of soul life begins with our return to wonder and awe. We return to soul life by letting go of our attachment to the perceptions, beliefs and habitual behaviors in material reality.  We find our courage in vulnerability, living in surrender to the ineffable behind our awe and wondering, contemplating the ineffable as it is unfolded in us. We find solace in what unifies; not what divides. We see the sacred in both spirit and nature – celebrating our unity with both. To quote Rabbi Heschel again, “Awe is an intuition for the dignity of all things, a realization that things not only are what they are but also stand, however remotely, for something supreme.”   

            So let us begin with a return to the pursuit of the state of wonder and awe – following where it leads us – that wondrous, unexpected, indescribable, incomparable, “surprise of the soul” that elevates us beyond our senses. In wonder and awe, we shall find the emotional foundation upon which to build a fulfilling and meaningful spiritual life, for such is the leavening that gives expanse to all other emotional experience. It is the wellsprings of gratitude; the parent of vision. In the state of wonder and awe, we find both the spark of love and its highest consummation. It is the threshold of our discovery of ourselves as soul.  

Granville Angell   © 9/2006 

Granville Angell, EdS, LPC, NCC, invites you to submit questions for his column. (Your identity will be kept confidential.) Email him:  angell(at)transitions-counseling.com, call his private practice, TRANSITIONS Personal & Family Counseling Services at 704-276-1164; visit his web site: www.transitions-counseling.com, where you can read prior articles.