Awe and the Dharma

Not too long ago, I read an article in the NYT about awe, A-W-E and it’s impact on health.  For the past month, I’ve brought the experience of awe into my meditation, exploring it and trying to pay more attention to awe in my walking around life too.  

There are many ‘definitions’ of awe. You may have your own. One definition is “Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world.” This came from Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley who has done a lot of research in this area.

A simpler definition is that awe is the feeling of having goosebumps.

“Awe,” he writes, “imbues people with a different sense of themselves, one that is smaller, humbler and part of something larger.  Experiences of awe make individuals feel more connected to nature, to their communities, or to humanity as a whole. 

This is clearly not the the colloquial definition of awe—oh that was awesome!  or ‘Awwww’, when seeing a cute puppy.

I’m a nurse and I’ve studied the body and the mind during my whole career and it’s a source of awe for me, not by how it looks but by how it functions. Every second of my life, day and night, it’s making adjustments, changes, keeping my organs going, producing thoughts, emotions, memories. All to maintain balance, homeostasis. And most of the time, I’m completely unaware of what this body is doing.

Nature is another reliable source of awe for me whether it’s a beautiful sunset or seeing floods, hurricanes, lightening, volcanoes or fires. The power of nature.  Some of them are obviously tinged with fear, dread, worry, and compassion for those in the midst of it. But it still feels like awe. 

I’ve been coming to the Florida gulf beaches for several years in January and February to get away from the Michigan winters.  Initially every sunset was awe inspiring. Now I want variety and a richer sunset—clouds to get more colors or good rays. Maybe see some storms coming in the distance.  How can I get blasé about sunsets?  Is this grasping at awe?

After reading this article, I went walking in a nature preserve along the Inter-coastal Waterway in Florida among mangroves and pines with the water sparkling in the distance.  It aroused a feeling of awe in me. But I found myself walking and walking to find the next view and the next.  I wanted more and different!  I had to stop walking to let the awe of the moment sink in. It’s like I was becoming jaded with awesome things where things needed to be ‘more’ to impress me. Isn’t this grasping too?

It’s as if I was going awe hunting or awe collecting. How many awesome experiences can I have today?  

Children more often experience awe, I think, because everything is new to them. You can see the expression in their face—open mouth, big eyes, no words.  Is wonder or delight part of awe? 

When do you feel awe? What is that feeling like? How or when does it arise and stop?  Does it change you in some way? 

For me there’s a feeling of vastness, expansiveness and lightness.  I spontaneously take deeper, slower breaths.  As small sound may escape me like an ‘oh’ or humming of pleasure or just an ‘uh’. I feel my face relax, my shoulders drop.  

Someone’s talent can inspire awe.  I’ve gotten goosebumps watching the Olympics or listening to singers in vocal competitions. The quality of their voice, their range or tone.  The fact that opera comes out of the vocal cords of a 9 year old.

I’ve been sitting with awe and trying to deepen my understanding of it. Initially, I wanted to reserve awe for the big stuff but now I’m not so sure that’s a good idea. I keep going back and forth on that.  I thought if I called all kinds of small, but wonderful experiences awe that somehow that would cheapen or lessen the big ones. But am I limiting myself by saving awe only for the ‘big ticket items’?  Can I feel awe in the more subtle, quieter forms like seeing a child taste an ice cream cone or is that too ordinary. 

One friend described feeling awe when she was with her cat.—- the color of his fur, how it sparkled, the feel of it, his purring. Hearing that made me take another look at how i think of awe.

Another talked about feeling awe watching her very young grandchild examine a dust mote, completely engrossed by it.  As she talked about it I could recall similar times with my children and grand children where there was a spontaneous outpouring of something that seemed to come from my chest and heart area.  A heart opening?

Of course, awe is just a label we put to an something.  If I say this is a chair or that’s a table; we’d probably agree with that label.  Yep, you’re right. This is a chair; that’s a table.  But with experiences like awe, or even joy, kindness or compassion, they’re much more complex.  Many layers to them. What does giving it a label do to the experience? How does it enhance or limit our experience?

I wondered if I missed moments of awe in meditation. 

Does a new insight bring awe? I remember times when I thought I could sit forever.  Meditation was effortless. It was awesome.

How would you define awe for yourself?  What situations arouse awe in you? Do you feel it only with positive experiences or with negative ones too?  With the big stuff or smaller things.

The dharma encourage us to explore our experience deeply.  What does awe mean to you? How does awe change you? When does it help or hinder you?  When does it lead to grasping or aversion? Under what conditions? Does it make you feel more connected or less to others and the world?  How does awe change you in the moment and afterwards? Or was the experience ephemeral, felt in the moment and hard to recall?

Maybe a realization you’ve never had before created a sense of awe.  What happens to your sense of self then.  Is there a heart opening with awe? Do you feel how inter-connected we are in the presence of awe. 

When I feel awe, I feel humble  It puts my ego in it’s proper place in the scheme of the things. 

Awe provides some perspective of the world  It makes me realize I’m not so important in the vast scheme of things, but in a good way. That can be both humbling and fearful. 

As I said earlier, the dharma invites us to look deeply into all these experiences, to explore our moods, emotions and thoughts associated with it and its effects—- to see what fosters attachment or aversion.  Does awe lead to feeling more a part of things or less?  A richer life? Humbler or proud? If it changes us, can we explore that more? 

There’s a lot to ‘chew on’ here.  Enjoy the feast!

Photo by he zhu on Unsplash

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About Erica Dutton

Erica Dutton is an experienced teacher and practitioner of Reflective Meditation. She has dedicated herself to sharing this practice so others can succeed in meditation, see their experience as important and valuable, and realize the benefits.


  1. Nice article, Erica.


  2. Thanks. I’ve taken the experience of awe into my meditation several times and learned so much about it. It’s expanded my view of what awe is and it’s sources.

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