Wow Place #157: Awe

Of late, I’ve been thinking a lot about the phenomenon of “awe”. So much so, in fact, that I delivered a speech on the topic a couple of nights ago at my local Toastmasters chapter. Here’s a copy of that speech, which references an “awe-some” experience you may be familiar with, from Wow Place #19. Enjoy!

“Donica, do you hear that sound?”

“It sounds like whistling.”

“You think maybe it’s the wind?”

“That is definitely NOT the wind, Dave. It’s something weird.”

Donica and I are hiking one of the most beautiful trails in the Canadian Rockies: the Plain of Six Glaciers in Banff National Park.

It’s a stunning hike from start to finish: turquoise lakes, pine-dotted hill sides, snow-capped peaks.

As we’re walking along, we hear that strange, eery whistling sound coming from all over the hillside.

Intrigued, we listen more closely and hear a similar whistling sound coming from waaaaaay across the valley.

“What is that?!!”

“You got me.”

Whatever the cause of the sound, it’s weird, and mysterious, and totally AWE-SOME!

Tonight, I’m going to share with you a few ideas about the nature of awe: what it is, how it affects us, and how we might cultivate more awe in our lives.

According to Dr. Dacher Kettner, a psychology professor at Cal Berkeley, awe is the emotion we feel when experiencing something beyond our frame of reference.

It’s characterized by one word: “vastness.”

The vastness can be physical, like when you ponder the sheer size of the Grand Canyon for the first time.

It can be temporal, like when you consider the sheer age of the trees in Armstrong Redwoods.

Or it can be semantic, like when you reflect on the sheer immensity of a concept like evolution.

In short, awe is when we realize that we are part of a larger system of meaning.

According to Kettner, there are at least 8 different situations when we might feel awe and wonder.

They are:

1) Natural awe, like when you observe Yosemite or the Sonoma coast.

2) Spiritual awe, like when you’re praying or worshipping

3) Musical awe, like when you listen to Beethoven, Mozart (or Taylor Swift)

4) Visual Design awe, like when you see Michelangelo’s David for the first time.

5) Big Idea awe, like when you consider Einstein’s theory of relativity

6) Life and Death awe, like when you’re faced with the mysteries of mortality

7) Collective awe, like when you participate in a transporting group activity such as dancing, singing, praying or watching sports together

8) And finally, my personal favorite, Moral Beauty awe,

This is when you feel blown away by the goodness of people, like when they:

· Demonstrate kindness to others.

· Offer themselves as sacrifice.

· Or display extraordinary resilience.

All of these situations are pretty awe-some, aren’t they?

The good news is, feeling awe is actually good for you!

Studies show that when you experience awe on a regular basis:

· You experience less inflammation.

· You feel more creative.

· You handle stress more easily.

· You feel greater well being

· You’re more resilient.

Who wouldn’t want to have more awe in their life?

Fortunately, we don’t have to wait for awe to come to us.

We can be intentional about finding it.

For example, the next time you’re listening to music, visiting your aged parents, or walking in your neighborhood


Put your devices down.

Look for subtle patterns.

Open yourself up to the delicious mysteries all around you.

Like… a crazy whistling sound on a hike in the Canadian Rockies.

Let’s return to Banff to hear the end of the story.

There we are, Donica and I, standing on the trail, gob-smacked by the eerie sound of whistling echoing across the valley.

Suddenly we notice a prairie-dog-like rodent pop up from behind a nearby rock — whistling.

Aha! The prairie dogs are the whistlers,

Communicating with their buddies far across the valley!

Who needs Zoom or Whatsapp when you can whistle like that?


For me, it’s a moment of natural awe.

And spiritual awe.

And especially, Collective awe, because I can share it with my sweetie.

I’ll never forget that moment.

Remembering it still fills my heart with wonder and joy.

Tonight I’ve talked a bit about the phenomenon of awe:

· What it is.

· The 8 different types of awe

· And how we can all cultivate it.

I invite you all to go out this week and do something wonderful — something full of wonder.

Drag a friend or loved one with you to the park, or a museum or a concert.

Pay attention to the vastness.

Open yourself to the mystery of life all around us.

And most of all.

Have an absolutely awe-some time!