I expect that most of us think about the relationship between our body and our emotions along the following lines:
We experience or perceive an event or have a memory. Which leads to...
Emotions, which lead to...
Changes in our brain and organs, which lead to...
Facial expressions and/or body postures that express that emotion.
We might switch 2 and 3, but the basic progression is the same. But in the last few decades there has been a lot of research showing it can go the other way:
We make facial expressions and/or create body postures--consciously or unconsciously--that express an emotion. Which leads to...
Changes in the brain and organs. Which leads to...
Having that emotion.
To me this is rather extraordinary, even revolutionary. It means we can have a very conscious hand in how we feel, certainly some of the time. True, it's much easier to initiate the positive emotions in some circumstances than in others, but that second pathway, starting with expressing the emotion bodily, will work to a lesser or greater degree in many circumstances. And, of course, I often forget this!
Awe is one of those uplifting emotions that I expect most of us would like to experience more often. Psychology professor Dacher Keltner, author of Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, and Pixar consultant for the movie, Inside Out, describes awe as "The feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world."
Keltner and others have found that experiencing awe tends to improve mood, sleep, circulation, vagal tone, creativity and general health, while decreasing depression, stress and anxiety.
What have they found are the physical expressions of awe in almost every culture?
- raised eyebrows
- widened eyes
- opened mouth, dropped jaws
- vocalizations such as "wow"
Which leads us to Julie Henderson's simple zapchen exercise: "Wow."
"Bring your gaze lightly to some living person or tree or beast---
anything that seems lovely to you....
Open your eyes a little wider than you are used to allowing.
Let them rest softly on what you are regarding.
Take a deep and wondering breath....
As you exhale, say "wow."
Let that be a long, soft exhale of wow. And then, softly, see how you feel. A little happier, perhaps? A little more lighthearted or connected? Perhaps you are feeling a little awe?
You can actually nurture a sense of awe in your life simply by changing your facial expressions and paying soft attention. That's definitely a wow!
Try it again. Drop your jaw a little. Open your eyes wide without straining. Play with "wow," saying it a little more loudly, or softly.
Try it looking at blue sky or stars, a lovely sunset, a view of the mountains, your newborn child or grandchild. As Julie says, "Whatever in the moment you feel willing to be delighted by, even a little."
Overdoing it or being too tense could lead your body into the emotion of fear, since the facial expressions are somewhat similar. So to stay in awe keep it more relaxed and fun, with your eyebrows up but soft and unpuckered.
Keltner and others note that experiencing awe can also benefit society. "We become less self-focused and more connected to other people, groups, society and nature. This transformation in our 'sense of self' can lead to greater generosity and compassion (towards others and ourselves), and thus a reduction in problems such as bullying, aggression, racism , anxiety, depression, and body image issues" ("The Magic of Awe," Lillian Mezey, MD, Crozet Gazette).
Would it be a better world if more of us went around not only seeking awe, but planting and tending it within ourselves? What do you think?
Until next time,
Boy in the bath, Nerf Portraits, unSplash
Santa wow, Kraken Images, unSplash
Green and golden landscape, Bas van den
Woman dancing, Darius Bashar, unSplash