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Cultivating Awe in Nature: A Mental Health & Spiritual Practice


Nature is a healer and has rescued me in my most difficult times, with her soft comfort and unfathomable power


I often turn towards nature for a sense of spiritual connection, calm, and centeredness. Awe usually arises spontaneously for me when I allow myself to be emersed in nature, but I've recently learned to cultivate it intentionally and built a practice around it for my spiritual and mental health. Join me in this post to learn what awe is, how experiencing awe can benefit you, and how you can cultivate it in your life to build resilience and health.

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” Rachel Carson

What is Awe?


Most of us have been struck by the beauty of nature. You know what I'm talking about, that feeling of expansiveness when you stand on the shore looking out over the ocean. The soft melting in your chest when the sun sets with a symphony of colors. The amazement when you see the first tiny seeds sprout in your garden. All of these moments bring meaning to our lives.


Awe is a complex emotion that is not easily put into the "positive" or "negative" camp of feelings. It can be described as reverence mixed with dread, amazement, and fear. It is one of those experiences that is hard to put into words and is often best captured by the work of artists and poets. But, I do believe that most of us have a sense of what it is because we have felt it.


When do we most often feel awe? Well, the big winners are nature and other people. It is in the immensity and incomprehensibility of the natural world - when we are hit with the knowledge of our insignificance - that we feel awe. Humanity is also an important source. The human spirit is capable of overcoming, surviving, and transcending suffering, hardship, and more. When we hear the stories of spiritual masters, or close friends and see that glimmer of humanity shine through it is hard not to sit in awe of their lives. Last but not least, art, architecture, music, poetry, rituals, and religious experiences are all powerful sources of awe.


Awe is not always felt in the big moments. This is important and hopeful news because our lives are busy and full of the mundane. When you begin to cultivate an attitude of awe it will show up more often in your life and you will reap the benefits of connection, peace, and more.


What can Awe do for you?

It may improve your mood and self-esteem

The research found that experiencing awe has many mood-boosting benefits. People who reported experiencing feeling awe had higher self-esteem and were more creative. They were calmer, more patient, serene, and grateful.

It is good for your brain

Awe may help brighten your mind. A study found that people who were exposed to awe thought critically about information, had more scientific curiosity, and better decision-making abilities.

It may improve your physical health

Awe also had physical health benefits, like boosting immune function and decreasing inflammation. Studies found that people with the tendency to experience awe had lower interleukin-6, a marker of inflammation. Inflammation contributes to a host of chronic diseases and has been found to be associated with mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and psychosis.

Connection, belonging & meaning

People who had an experience of awe in nature reported many positive emotions like feeling connected and having a sense of belonging. Research participants who experienced awe were also cooperative and generous.

“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.”― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Here are 5 tips for experiencing awe in nature


In today’s busy world, we have lost touch with the amazement of the world and don’t experience awe as often as our ancestors did. We don’t take as much time to allow the wonder of the world to impact us. Our minds are filled with to-do lists and tasks, and our eyes are so often fixed on screens.   But that can be different. Here are some tips on how you can cultivate awe in your life.   Focus on something bigger than yourself You can do this on your next nature walk or right now in your home. Close your eyes if it feels comfortable and imagine all the multitudes of living beings on earth right now. Imagine the animals, bugs, fungi, bacteria, and plants; from polar bears to whales, to elephants in Africa. all of them living their lives without you or me having anything to do with it. When you are outdoors, look up at the sky, the mountains, or the ocean and take it all in. Breathe deeply and notice how your body feels in that moment. 

Set an intention  Take a moment during your day, preferably in the morning, or before you leave your home to set an intention. Simply close your eyes, become still for a few minutes, and imagine yourself finding something beautiful and awe-inspiring in your day. You can also put words to your intention and say it out loud. You can try, “today I’ll notice beauty and awe” or “I’ll seek out awe and wonder in my day”, or anything similar that feels right for you. 

In our fast-paced society, we often overlook the wonder and amazement of the world, failing to experience awe as our ancestors did. We get caught up in daily tasks and our attention is constantly drawn to screens. However, it doesn't have to be this way. Here are some tips to help you cultivate awe in your life. Focus on something greater than yourself. Whether you're taking a nature walk or simply sitting at home, try closing your eyes and imagining all the living beings on earth at this very moment. Picture the animals, bugs, fungi, bacteria, and plants, from polar bears to whales, to elephants in Africa, all living their lives independently of us. When you're outside, take a moment to appreciate the sky, mountains, or ocean. Take a deep breath and note how your body feels in that moment. Set an intention. Take a few minutes each day, preferably in the morning or before bed, to set an intention for the day ahead. Focus on what you want to achieve and how you want to feel. This will help you stay grounded and mindful throughout the day.



Choose the unfamiliar

We often experienced awe when we are open to novelty. So, do something different today. Try taking a new route on your walk or commute, visit a park you have never been to, or plan a small adventure on the weekend. It does not need to be elaborate; it can be as simple as or as complicated as taking the bus to your favourite beach.


One of my favourite practices is to put on my coat and sit on my balcony first thing in the morning. It always touches me how different every day is, and even though I don’t have any view to speak of I always get a glimpse of nature that inspires me. Maybe the new thing you plan to do today is just to leave the house, or to say hello to your neighbor. Anything different invites novelty into your life and the opportunity to open your life to awe. 

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” - Albert Einstein

Focus on your senses


One can experience more awe by being curious and interested in their surroundings. When we are on autopilot, we may overlook the beauty of the world and our own reactions to it. It is easy to get lost in our thoughts, but setting an intention can help us be more mindful.


Choose a sense to focus on during your day and bring your attention back to it when your mind wanders. For instance, if you decide to focus on listening, pay attention to all the sounds around you and refocus on your sense of hearing when your mind wanders. You can try this exercise with each of your senses, including touch, smell, sight, or even the sensations in your body. Dedicate a few minutes each day, whether you are out and about or sitting quietly at home.


Feel it deeply 

When we experience an emotion intensely, it has a lasting impact on our bodies and makes it easier for us to experience it again. If you feel a positive emotion like awe or joy while in nature, take a moment to pause and reflect on how it feels. Observe where in your body you feel it - your chest, tummy, or head. If you feel it in a specific spot, place your hand there and take deep breaths. It's common to experience a tingling sensation in your arms or a light feeling in your chest. Sometimes, you may even get teary-eyed, and that's perfectly normal.





Remember and Express it!

It's important to remember and express positive emotions, such as awe, in order to enhance our emotional and psychological resilience. This way, we are better equipped to handle difficult situations. One effective way to hold on to awe is to spend more time with it. You can write about it, draw it, share it with others, or simply remember it. Keeping a journal where you record the beautiful and meaningful moments of your day can also be beneficial. Alternatively, you can make it a part of your evening routine to reflect on your day and appreciate the moments of awe that you experienced.

  

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