Bringing back the sense of awe
By Peter BrownI was getting my hair cut the other day and somehow the conversation with the hairdresser got onto thesubject of Ayurveda, the traditional Indian system of medicine. During the discussion, I told a story aboutthe son of a famous Ayurvedic doctor who was said to have remarkable healing powers. While playinggames at school, the son broke his arm. The teacher, knowing that the boy¶s father was a doctor, senthim home for treatment. The Ayurvedic doctor held one hand around the broken arm for some time andthen told his son to go back to school. The break had fully healed and the son suffered no after-effects.The immediate reaction from the hairdresser was that the boy could not have had a broken arm in thefirst place. It must have been a slight sprain and a little massage had eased the discomfort. I had noreply to this as the hairdresser might have been right. It was just a story I had heard from someone whohad been treated by the doctor in question and I could not judge its veracity.Yet I was interested in the hairdresser¶s reactions. It¶s a reaction that many of us would have to such astory. Such strange information can make us feel uncomfortable. It can create a sense of imbalance asour carefully crafted worldview has temporarily lost its sense of order. Because of this discomfort, we cantoo quickly dismiss that which is unbelievable or beyond our normal experience and understanding andfavour an explanation that more closely agrees with our preconceptions. In the dismissal we recover oursense of order in the universe and bring back the feeling of comfort we cherish.Yet perhaps we have lost something in this comforting process. That something may be the sense of awe.Researchers Dacker Keltner and Jonathan Haidt characterise awe as an experience of vastness andaccommodation. Vastness, they argued, refers to ³anything that is experienced as being much largerthan the self, or the self¶s ordinary level of experience or frame of reference´. Accommodation refers tothe adjustments we have to make when faced with the challenge of new experiences.According toKeltner and Haidt, the sense of awe:
involves a challenge to or negation of mental structures when they fail to make sense of anexperience of something vast. Such experiences can be disorientating and even frightening . . .They also often involve feelings of enlightenment and even rebirth, when mental structuresexpand to accommodate truths never before known. We stress that awe involves a need for accommodation, which may or not be satisfied. The success of one¶s attempt at accommodationmay partially explain why awe can be both terrifying (when one fails to understand) and enlightening (when one succeeds).
Taking on new information is a challenge and can be quite stressful at any stage of life, yet in this age of information, we are bombarded by vast quantities of the stuff. Keltner and Haidt imply that taking aboardnew ideas that are far beyond one¶s present frame of reference (such as the seemingly miraculoushealing of a broken arm) is much more of a challenge and potentially much more stressful. Previousmental structure, or world views, may be challenged and may have to be expanded or broken apart inorder to accommodate these new ideas. Or we may find the whole thing too much and put up barriers tothe information coming in. We may even find ourselves dismissing new experiences that can help usprogress and grow.In my view, Transcendental Meditation helps restore a person¶s sense of awe and wonder, making newexperiences a source of joy rather than stress.