Cultivating Awe In A Busy World
March 24, 2023
cultivate awe


It was still pretty bright (and hot too) when I stepped out for a walk at the end of a busy work week. It felt good to be out and about on a sunny evening, a rare one without the wet weather we had been having for weeks.

I turned the corner and headed in the familiar direction of a rectangular patch of grass that marks the spot where I usually turn around. Sometimes I step off the walkway, take off my shoes and walk barefoot on the green expanse of freshly cut lawn. But I was stopped in my tracks by an unusual sight. A baby, crawling on the grass!!

A child’s stroller was parked on the walking path and the adult, presumably the child’s father was observing the little one crawl confidently on the prickly grass. The baby had dark curly hair and was dressed in a yellow t-shirt and short pants. His knees, hands and legs were in full contact with the grass which I knew from past experience had crabgrass, dried straw and sometimes even sharp thorns. None of it seemed to deter the determined child who was reveling in his new mobility. 

As I stood watching the happy spectacle, an even stranger thing happened. The father got down on his hands and knees and started crawling alongside the infant!

I stood transfixed, rooted to the spot with one shoe off my foot. For a moment, I was tempted to take a picture of the adorable duo, crawling happily with the rays of the setting sun forming a halo around them. But I decided to just watch them instead.

It is rare to be arrested by an unfamiliar sight in your neighborhood. Today was one such day. I didn’t want to make it a common occurrence by reducing it to a photo-op. I chose to just stand there and watch them with a smile. When the father turned around and sat on the grass, he saw me staring at them. I just continued smiling.

I returned home feeling happy. The unusual experience had affected me deeply but somehow I felt lighter and more optimistic. 

What had just happened?  

Understanding awe

It wasn’t until I began reading “Awe – The Transformative Power of Everyday Wonder”, a book that I had picked up at the library, did I realize that I had just encountered awe. 

Awe is described as the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world.

When I opened the book by Dacher Keltner, a professor at UC Berkeley, I had no idea that it would stimulate a deep introspection of my own encounters with this ephemeral and ineffable emotion that we have all experienced, even if we don’t know its name.

That time you attended a music concert and for a while were transported beyond the seat you occupied?

The most vivid moments at the time of your child’s birth?

The response in your body to the gentle vibrations under your hand as you touched an ancient giant redwood tree?

Your open-mouthed wonder when you saw a humpback whale and its little one breach high in the air?

All of these are experiences of awe. Although we may believe that awe is about our relation to the vast mysteries of life that happen at once-in-a-lifetime moments, feelings of awe often lie within the realm of our everyday humdrum existence, if only we stay tuned.

A walk in the moonlight

A couple of weeks ago I stepped out for my post-dinner walk unaware that there was a big bright full moon in the night sky. A solitary walk is the most soothing activity that I indulge in and try to make it happen as often as I can. Even on rainy days I sometimes step out with an umbrella in hand, gingerly navigate slippery slopes and invariably return rejuvenated. My favorite time for a walk on wet walkwaysis right after a rain shower when the leaves are still shimmering and the air is charged with unusual energy.

Hoping to listen to an audiobook on the planned hour-long walk, I had my phone and earphones with me. It had been a busy day and I wanted to simply be by myself, without any words whispered into my ear. So I stashed away the earphones in my pocket and glanced up.

And right there, was the shiny globe of the moon waiting patiently for me to look up. It was a breathtaking sight. Just the pearly brilliance of the moon against the vastness of the sky. I felt small and enlarged all at once. Insignificant but blessed by the sight. So I proceeded to do what any sane person would – try to take a picture. Despite the three cameras on my expensive phone, I was unable to take even one photograph that captured the essence of the moon that had enthralled me just minutes ago.

I kept walking but stopped periodically to take other pictures as I walked along the path that encompasses Bukit Batok Nature Reserve. At times, clouds crisscrossed the circle of moonlight, at other times, it peeked shyly from behind branches but all along, the moon kept me company that night.

It is at times like this that we feel a sense of wonder at the vast mysteries of life. Yet, it is also when we acknowledge such moments that we can find a solution to some of life’s unknowns. Becoming aware that in the predictable bleakness of everyday life lie moments of  extraordinary beauty that enchant us is the first step to harmony.

Have you experienced awe lately?

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