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Awe and Wonder Abound

By July 17, 2023Pilates In Holland

How’s your Summer of Awe going? It’s been a month since I wrote about looking for awe in the everyday and I thought it was time to check-in on myself. Then my husband read my Nature Is Dope blog and asked me if all those benefits are actually benefits if I’m lost in a book the whole time I’m outside, and that got me thinking (always dangerous!)

So we need to take a little detour back to 2013 when my family first visited the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Designed by Antoni Gaudi, construction began in 1883 and it is scheduled to be completed in 2026, 100 years after Gaudi’s death. Since his death, the project has been hindered by civil war, funding problems, conservation work, permit applications, and then the pandemic. But it’s never stopped, because it is so inspiring to anyone who has seen it. Rick Steves once said (and we Kruegers agree), the one building in the world we would all love to see is the Sagrada Familia…finished.

(This was the title of a photobook page I made after our family visited the Sagrada Familia in 2013.)

The spires and outside facades of the Catholic church are breathtaking, but the parts that really inspire awe in my family are the interior ties to nature. Gaudí took inspiration from nature and used the natural strength and structural mechanics of trees to shape his architecture: the tree-like columns, make the cathedral feel like a forest lit by dappled sunlight. 

And the light! Oh, the light from the stained glass windows! Gaudi called architecture “the organization of light.” The interior lacks the elaborate carvings that decorate the façades, allowing the stained glass windows to paint the walls with light. He wanted, and achieved, a space for quiet worship and inner peace, with light filtering in through the leaves, open between the trunks.

The Sagrada Familia is one of our favorite places in the world, and a place that inspires awe every time I see it, even just memories of it. There’s a particular stretch of towering trees on a path I walk regularly. It reminds me of being in the Sagrada Familia. Or maybe the Sagrada Familia reminds me of being in this small forest? Either way, I am filled with awe.

Turns out that’s not only a great memory, but it’s also good for me. Seeking awe, whether in natural or urban settings, can make us more hopeful, foster a sense of community (even when we experience awe alone), lessen emotional stress, and reduce body-wide markers of inflammation. When study participants were asked to go for “awe-walks,” focusing on little things that captured their sense of wonder, they began to focus on the world outside their heads. 

Asked to take selfies during their walks (and put their phones away the rest of the time), the faces of the group focusing on awe got smaller in relation to the scenery around them over the 8-week study. It seemed to change their perspective so they became part of the world, connected to everything around them, not the center of it. That didn’t happen in the selfies of the group given no special awe instructions.

The author of that book I referenced last month, Awe, was recently interviewed by The New York Times about the awe walk research. Dacher Keltner’s tips for taking your own awe walk are:

  1. Shift your focus: hone in on the details to start; a leaf, a bird’s call, a detail on a stained glass window. Then zoom out to experience your whole environment and all the people, buildings, and plants in it.
  2. Include all your senses: what rhythms do you hear? Are people or animals chattering? Does it smell like rain or a delicious food truck? Is the texture of that tree or statue mesmerizing? All the senses can inspire awe.
  3. Ditch your phone: As my husband alluded, sometimes I’ve walked through that cathedral of trees and completely missed it because I was focused on a book or podcast playing on my phone. So I need to be more intentional to be present to the idea of awe. Even if it’s just for 20 minutes, it can be a whole lot easier to find the wonder in little things around you without digital distraction.

I’ve been giving this a try for a while now. On my first awe walk, I went to Eighth St. in downtown Holland. I had just started listening to a new book that I was enjoying and was feeling a bit resentful at not getting to listen to it. I made a deal with myself to do the awe walk on the first half, and when I turned back towards the car I could start my book. I completely forgot the book. I got so caught up in looking at cool things, I couldn’t stop! And I noticed that as I stopped to take pictures of things, that got others’ attention too, and they got to share in the awe for a second.

When I did an awe walk on awe walk near my house, I noticed so many details I would have otherwise missed. I felt so much more grounded and content. I didn’t have racing thoughts of a to-do list or other anxieties (at least not in that moment!) But that’s the point, you get caught in the now. You become present to your body and your surroundings. You feel like a part of the world, not the center of it.

Give an awe walk a try. I think you’ll like it. 🙂


Author Renee

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