In Pursuit of Awe: An Interview with Fraser Deans

Featured

We often forget how extraordinary the world we live in is. The vast array of spectacular species that have existed long before the evolution of the human being. The beauty and perspective that a sunset provides on a perfect summer’s day. 

We become weighed down by the day-to-day responsibilities of adulthood. This can consequently take the wonder and awe that is waiting to be found in the world. 

If only we were to be more present. 

If only we were to pay a little more attention to what surrounds us. 

I think experiences of ‘awe’ can provide us with a reset, connecting us to others, to nature and providing a sense of belonging. It reminds us that we are not strangers on this earth. There is no separation between us and the natural world. Everything is intertwined though a series of complex networks and systems. 

To make sense of the power of experiences of awe, I interviewed Fraser Deans founder of the Awe app.

  1. Tell us a bit about the Awe app. What was your main inspiration behind its development? 

The Awe app was created to help people find moments of awe and wonder in their daily lives. The app helps us reset, relax and regain perspective during our busy lives.

A few years ago I was invited to a meditation evening organized by monastics from Plum Village (established by the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh). It began as a fairly normal group sitting with guided meditations and dharma talks. Later they led us through a mindful eating exercise with a tangerine. After meditating on this tiny orange fruit, noticing its imperfections, its squishiness, its fragrance and its sweetness, we were simply asked “where did it come from”. From this innocuous question the entire experience transformed. The fruit having been handed to me by a monk, was bought from a supermarket, was transported in a truck, was born from a tree fed by the sun and soil. A flower was pollinated by a bee belonging to a hive.

Water from a cloud or river was guzzled up by the tree’s roots. Generations of trees and fruit eating animals and pollinating insects had evolved with each other to offer me this fruit. That tanginess on my tongue was the resulting sensation of all those preceding events. I was no longer holding the tangerine, I was holding the universe. Thich Nhat Hanh labelled this realisation as inter-being. I felt immense gratitude and humility at the sheer scale of interconnections occurring so I could experience the sweetness on my tongue.

Photo by Mina-Marie Michell on Pexels.com

After the event I pondered what this experience actually was. The realization was described as “inter-being” but what was the actual phenomenological experience? Research gave an answer. It was AWE! I’d had a profound, pure awe experience. 

Awe has two requirements.

  1. Firstly, perceived vastness. The stimuli should appear much larger than the observer’s normal sense of self. This can be either physical (like a mountain) or conceptual (like a philosophical idea). In my case, vastness was felt from the interconnectedness of previous events.
  2. Secondly, a need for accommodation. This involves a realization or experience that doesn’t currently fit with the observer’s world view. For example, a toddler, having only experienced friendly dogs, would need to accommodate the information that dogs can be dangerous before meeting a guard dog. In my case, I needed to accommodate the realization that reality was connected in such a deep way. (I also probably needed to accommodate the idea that insignificant objects like tangerines could trigger insight). 

So then the question, how do we get more awe experiences?

And the original idea of an app was born. An app that leads you to awe-inspiring local nature with a guided audio track that blends direct experience, systems thinking, science, quotes and poetry. A source to stimulate new ways of reframing the world around us.

The app has changed slightly since the initial vision. Now, you’ll be able to listen to seasonal meditations that connect people with nature. Nature is the best elicitor of awe. Our Awe Walks feature brings awe to your daily strolls through mindful nature prompts. We have added courses from top nature connection leaders. For example, Mark Westmoquette, a Zen Monk and Astronomer, leads us for mindful stargazing. And finally each day ponder a beautiful quote from one of history’s leading thinkers.

2. What knowledge or insights do you hope people will gain from experiencing more awe in their lives?

Studies in awe have proven heaps of psychological benefits including boosting mood and reducing depression, increasing feelings of connectedness, increasing cognitive flexibility and improving life satisfaction. The effects of awe even tie into pro-environmental behaviour changes (and we need that right now). 

But I suppose on a more personal level I hope awe helps those struggling with modern life to find beauty where they didn’t see it before. 

3. Do your experiences of awe and wonder relate to ideas of the sacred or notions of spirituality?  

Yes absolutely!  

A key belief for me is that we can find awe and wonder in absolutely any object when framed in the right way (like the tangerine). However, frame adjustments are not a one-size-fits-all-thing. It depends on the pre-existing relationship between subject and object. When you get the right frame adjustment, we can transform the mundane into the magical. 

If we wish to continually and intentionally reach awe states we must delve into the unknown / mystery / numinous. There we find new framings and relationships with the world. An orientation toward mystery keeps us nimble and flexible in life’s situations: an acceptance that we possibly don’t have the best handle on the moment but if we keep seeking we will find it. 

Someone holding a strict scientific worldview may struggle with nihilism when science can’t answer all their questions. They may benefit from including spiritual ideas into their worldview which help fill that mysterious gap between the edge of science and the answers they seek.

A key belief for me is that we can find awe and wonder in absolutely any object when framed in the right way

4. Do you have any favourite authors, books, poets etc. who’ve inspired you over the course of cultivating more awe in the world?

Recently I’ve been diving into the teachings of Rob Burbea. Burbea taught many ideas that resonate with the philosophy of awe.

Alan Watts is awe-inspiring on his own but his talks regularly leave me stunned. 

John Vervaeke’s Awakening from the Meaning Crisis is a brilliant lecture series explaining the philosophy and cognitive science behind modern life’s lack of meaning and how we can rediscover it.

5. Where can people find out more about your work? 

You can download the app on iOS and Android from www.awe.fyi 

If they wish to stay in touch best subscribe to our newsletter where I share thoughts on awe www.awe.fyi 

We’ve also just wrapped up the first live cohort for Intentional Awe, a course designed to help people cultivate awe and wonder in their own lives. Those videos will be packaged up and shared in the coming weeks.


Source Image: Pexels Free Photos

Escaping the Rat Race: Lessons from Buddhist Thought

Featured
Source

Republishing this article with edits, as it aligns with similar themes in the Work and Leisure series


As humans we spend most of our lives in a state of perpetual craving and desire. We land a big promotion at work, but soon fantasize about continuing to move up the corporate ladder. We become consumed by discontent and dissatisfaction as we constantly compare our social standing to that of our peers.  Wealth, status and power are engrained in our cultural ethos. However, all these pursuits are elusive. The temporary pleasure that we receive from these aims quickly fades as we relentlessly try to fill the void.

Psychologists call this phenomenon the ‘hedonic treadmill’ (also known as the hedonic adaptation).  The concept states that despite the events we experience (positive or negative), we always revert back to our ‘baseline’ level of contentment or happiness. While we may feel initial euphoria after experiencing something pleasurable, diminishing returns kicks in and we soon crave for more. Look at the surprising fortune of lottery winners. Many think that if only I could I win the lottery than surely all my problems could be solved. They imagine this would enable them to live a carefree life of eternal bliss.

Despite these fantasies, this reality is quite different. One study demonstrated that lottery winners were not any happier than those who did not win the lottery 18 months after wining. The excitement and dopamine rush that you once felt when you won soon fades. Moreover, the grand lifestyle that you become accustomed to inhibits you from finding joy in the everyday mundane aspects of life. The same is true of attaining other milestones in life such as winning a championship or getting a promotion.

Yuval Noah Harari summarizes this sentiment in his book Sapiens,

When the mind experiences something distasteful it craves to be rid of the irritation. When the mind experiences something pleasant, it craves that the pleasure will remain and will intensify. Therefore, the mind is always dissatisfied and restless. This is very clear when we experience unpleasant things such as pain. As long as pain continues we are dissatisfied and do all we can to avoid it. Yet even when we experience pleasant things we are never content. We either fear that pleasure might disappear, or we hope that it will intensify.

As I argued in my previous article, our desire for pleasure makes sense from an evolutionary perspective.  Humans need a signal to motivate them to ensure their survival, to eat, to reproduce  pass on their genes to the next generation.  Yet our inability to detach from pleasure and our longing for more is one of the main causes of human misery. It is synonymous to being on a treadmill, running faster and faster, yet going nowhere.

So the question remains – how does one end this cycle of discontent and get off the ‘hedonic treadmill’? One piece of wisdom comes from the Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha. He taught that we ought to accept things as they are without craving. Refrain from immediate intuitive judgements about our experience, and let things be as they will be. For instance, if we experience something pleasant, be cognizant of the fleeting nature of this emotion and do not be distressed when it passes.

To achieve this state of mind the Buddha developed a set of mediation techniques which were aimed at allowing one to be aware of the contents of their consciousness and focus on the present moment. While it comes in many forms the most common form of meditation is ‘mindfulness meditation’ in which one pays attention to their present experience using the breath as an anchor. One will quickly realize the inherent chaos and noise in their minds. In meditation the task is straight forward, acknowledge the thought and return back to the breath. However, as many who have attempted meditation know it is far too easy to get distracted and lost in thought.

What this practice allows us to do is to detach from our thoughts, emotions and yearnings. It enables us to see the futility of our efforts to intensify or extend pleasure. In Buddhism, the ultimate goal of these meditation techniques is to achieve a state called ‘enlightenment’.  Enlightenment is a state of mind in which an individual is liberated from the ego, the constant ‘mental chatter’ and from the cognitive and emotional distortions that are so pervasive in our day to day experience.

As Joseph Goldstein states, it is “the mind of non-clinging, non-fixation, nonattachment to anything at all. It’s the mind of open groundlessness.” Attaining enlightenment doesn’t require us to achieve a particular goal or chase after an experience. Rather, it is available to us when our minds are grounded in the present moment, and we are liberated from our ego.

The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves

Alan Watts

Beyond the Individual: Inquiries into our Different Selves

Featured

Who am I?

At first this seems like a pretty basic and trivial question.

I surely know what I am, right?

But the more I look into the matter, the more skeptical I become of a stable or fixed idea of the self. For instance, I could tell you that I am synonymous with my body, and provide you with all the details of my physical appearance. However, this description is elusive at best. As I age my body and its attributes are continually in a state of change – a state of flux. In a matter of months, billions of cells in my body will die and be replaced.

Being disappointed with that inquiry, I then turn to my personality, my character or disposition. I find that my identity and character traits are much more fluid and malleable than I once thought. That is, my personality is context dependent. I find myself to behave uniquely in different social settings. I almost become a different person when I am with my friends as opposed to my family or at work.

Frustrated and in dismay, in one last final attempt, I look at evidence for psychological continuity examining my mind, memories and subjective day-to-day experience. Yet, again I find myself disappointed.

Our memories aren’t as reliable as I once thought.  As psychologist Bruce Hood demonstrates in his book The Self Illusion, memories aren’t like fixed pieces of information stored in a computer hard drive. Rather, they are in a continual state of reorganization, becoming immersed and weaved into new experiences. They are ‘edited’ to assist us in telling coherent narratives and making sense of the world.

As Bruce Hood explains,

Our identity is the sum of our memories, but it turns out that memories are fluid, modified by context and sometimes simply confabulated. This means we cannot trust them, and our sense of self is compromised.

The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity, Bruce Hood

Buddhism: No-Self

The Buddhist doctrine of anatta posits that there is no concrete or unchanging self that we possess or carry throughout our day-to-day experience. Our bodies, personality and mind are constantly in a state of change. Nothing within us or in the outside world is permanent. Attempting to cling onto a static identity is like trying to grasp onto water.

For Buddhists, all that exists are fleeting moments of consciousness or mental states, passing by like water flowing continuously in a river. 

The contemplative exercise of meditation can help us further understand this notion. During meditation, one is asked to turn their attention to the breath. As mental sensations, emotions and thoughts arise, one gradually learns to detach and watch them as they fade away. Through this practice we come to an understanding that we do not amount to our thoughts.

Rather than identifying with our thoughts, we become a witness or objective observer.

Further experienced meditators note that the feeling of having an internal narrator to our experiences in our minds is just another illusive mental state that arises in consciousness that we can perceive and let go of. That is, the feeling of having a self or an ‘I’ can disappear as well.

 As Sam Harris notes in his book Waking Up,

For most people experiencing the intrinsic selflessness of consciousness requires considerable training. It is, however, possible to notice that consciousness that in you which is aware of your experience in this moment – does not feel like a self. It does not feel like “I”. What you are calling “I” is itself a feeling that arises out of the contents of consciousness. Consciousness is prior to it, a mere witness to it, and therefore, free of it in principle.

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Sam Harris

The Social Self

Think of the myriad of ways that you are influenced by your external environment. Your work, friends, family and hobbies all leave an imprint on who you are, and who you become. Sociologist Charles Cooley developed the term the ‘looking glass self’ to describe how we mold ourselves to fit the opinions or expectations of others. We often see this phenomenon in the case of celebrities who put on a public persona or ‘mask’ in the public eye while disclosing what they are truly like in their private life.

Cooley’s thesis can be distilled into the following esoteric passage, “I am not what I think I am, and I am not what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am.”

Source

This begs the question, if our character and disposition is always adapting to different social environments, is there a ‘core’ or true identity one holds onto throughout their life?

Exploring the fluidity and interconnectedness between ourselves and others, Virginia Woolf looks at this concept in her wonderful experimental novel The Waves. Weaving through the internal monologues and soliloquies of six distinct characters, Woolf forces the reader to contemplate how we are defined by our relationships. For Woolf, boundaries are permeable, and the distinction between you and ‘I’ is not always clear.

Our friends, how seldom visited, how little known—it is true; and yet, when I meet an unknown person, and try to break off, here at this table, what I call ‘my life,’ it is not one life that I look back upon; I am not one person; I am many people; I do not altogether know who I am—Jinny, Susan, Neville, Rhoda, or Louis: or how to distinguish my life from theirs.

The Waves, Virginia Woolf

Self as a Dynamic Network

As I’ve argued throughout this article, the self can’t be reduced to a single homogenous entity. It is more like a dynamical system or network changing over time. As philosopher Kathleen Wallace claims in her book The Network Self, we are comprised of interconnected and interdependent traits from different domains of our lives, including those from our social relations, family relationships and biological dispositions.

We may identify with some traits more than others, while some characteristics may become more salient in specific social contexts. For instance, in a work networking event our identity may be strongly linked to our occupation whereas in other situations being a parent may take precedence at a family birthday party.

Further, our physical appearance and personalities are not static as they continually evolve throughout our lives. We may become radically different people at 50 as opposed to when we were 15.  As Kathleen Wallace suggests, the network self accounts for our changing character throughout our lifetime.

The network self is changeable but continuous as it maps on to a new phase of the self. Some traits become relevant in new ways. Some might cease to be relevant in the present while remaining part of the self’s history. There’s no prescribed path for the self. The self is a cumulative network because its history persists, even if there are many aspects of its history that a self disavows going forward or even if the way in which its history is relevant changes.

The Self is Not Singular but a Fluid Network of Identities, Kathleen Wallace

Implications

Viewing the self as something that is dynamic and fluid, allows us to transcend cultural stereotypes which often pin us down to a reductive single trait.

As opposed to solely identifying with one’s cultural ethnicity, we can start to break down barriers finding commonalities with others rather than focusing on our differences. This is not to say that we shouldn’t prioritize or value some identities over others, but it is to argue that we are more interesting, complex and nuanced than a single label or category.

Perhaps this can be a first step in addressing the rigidity of positions espoused in the current ‘culture wars.’

Lastly, looking at the self as a continually evolving interdependent system provides us with a degree of liberation. We are not required to cling onto a certain conception of ourselves affording us the possibility of change and transformation.

Thus, we can break free of the self-imposed cages we put ourselves in and truly be free.

You are under no obligation to be the same person you were five minutes ago

Alan Watts

Featured Image Source