“In the presence of Nature a wild delight runs through the man in spite of real sorrow. Not the sun or the summer alone, but every hour and season yields its tribute of delight; for every hour and change corresponds to and authorizes a different state of mind, from breathless noon to grimmest midnight. Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration.”

    - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Awe is the experience we seek when we go walking in the woods or in the hills. When we feel chills from a beautiful poem, or a sweeping landscape; that’s awe. 

I was recently asked to record some meditations intended to help foster the experience of awe - and it’s been an awesome (haha) experience. I had never spent much time thinking about awe, but after a little reading and practising, I was a total convert. I realised that many of my peak experiences in life have been experiences of awe. Usually I was somewhere special; in the mountains, swimming in a lake, or on holiday in a new landscape. It never occurred to me that it was an experience that could be tapped into intentionally, but the good news is that you really don’t need to be on top of a mountain - you can experience more awe in daily life, without going anywhere unusual; the local park, your own garden, a flower, or even just looking out the window at the blue sky, can all be occasions to experience awe.

Research has shown that awe has some solid mental health benefits - something which I don’t think will be a surprise to anybody who’s ever taken some time to be fully present in the natural world.

There seem to be two main components to an experience of awe - the first is what’s called the ‘need for accommodation’, which means realising that you don’t know everything that there is to be known about the world around you. Did you know that there is a special molecule in the brain of migrating birds and butterflies which is sensitive to the orientation of the Earth’s magnetic field, allowing them to find the way, like an internal compass? This is a pretty awe-inspiring thing to realise the next time you see a butterfly! Did you know that the deepest part of the ocean is over eleven kilometers straight down?

The other component to awe is a sense of vastness. The Himalayas, or the Grand Canyon are the obvious examples - but a sense of vastness can also be experienced from considering some more everyday things. Did you know that The Earth is moving at over 100,000 kilometers per hour? That’s about 30 kilometers per second - and yet it still takes a full year to travel just once around the sun. It’s an almost unimaginably vast distance. Or consider that the water in every cell of your body right now has been circulating around the Earth for 4 billion years - and will continue to do so for billions more.

This is one of my favourite things in the Oxford Natural History Museum - on the right is a scale model of the Earth and the Moon; both could probably fit through the eye of a needle. Then, on the left, way over on the other side of the huge hall, that gold ball you can see is a scale model of the sun. It's a great visualisation of the distance. You might be able to make out the writing in the display: "On the same scale, a model of Alpha Centauri (the nearest star after the Sun) would be located 1 million km away; that is nearly three times as far away as the real Moon is from the real Earth!"

If you’ve already practiced a little mindfulness, you’re already most of the way there. Research has shown that people who practice mindfulness tend to experience more awe already. And this should be no surprise, because in many ways awe is just opening up to the truth of the incredible interconnectedness and vastness of the world which we are a part of. Young children can see this very clearly, and if we no longer do, it’s only because we stop looking. Awe isn’t an experience that we need to manufacture - it’s an experience we just open to.

“In truth we are not separate from each other or from the world, from the whole earth, the sun or moon or billions of stars, not separate from the entire universe. Listening silently in quiet wonderment, without knowing anything, there is just one mysteriously palpitating aliveness.”

    - Toni Packer

So I hope you’re able to take a little time to practice mindfulness in nature, and feel the benefits of awe.

If you’re interested, the Awe app guides you to nature spots nearby, and gives you short practices to tap into the experience. It’s a great way to spend some time being fully present in nature, learn a little more about the natural world around you, and feel the mind-opening, mood-boosting effects of awe. Some new Summer-themed practices are now up too!

Download for free on iOS or Android

Ollie Bray