In Pursuit of Awe: An Interview with Fraser Deans

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.

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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.


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Education for the Soul: An Exploration of the Concept of Bildung

I received a lot of great and constructive criticism on my article about the value of a liberal arts education. Upon further reflection, I wanted to write a follow up piece to clarify my argument.

My position is not that one should pursue a formal postsecondary degree in the humanities or liberal arts to gain the wisdom and self-cultivation that I believe that these subjects inspire. Rather this type of knowledge can be diffused through a myriad of different ways. For instance, it can be disseminated through social norms or through dialoging and learning from different cultures or from different periods in history.

On a broader level, learning about the subjects of the arts and humanities, gives us a deeper understanding of our place in the world. It provides insights and opportunities for personal development by offering new ways of living – new ways of being. Perhaps this can enable us to break free from the chains of our cultural conditioning and become authentic individuals. Individuals who have a degree of internal freedom, who are independent thinkers and are not merely persuaded by the trends of the time or opinions of the masses.

One of my readers introduced me to the German concept of Bildung. The notion of Bildung can be broadly defined by the type of education offered to an individual which focuses on holistic growth, self-realization and a social responsibility. Its aim is to cultivate and educate the person as a whole. The concept of Bildung seeks to promote freedom and autonomy whilst encouraging our sense of responsibility towards others as citizens existing in interdependant communities.

Of course, I am not diminishing the significance of acquiring technical skills. These are needed in the modern economy. However, I believe that they must be supplemented with a degree of emotional intelligence and maturity.

My concern with equating education to merely skills training is that it is reductionist. That is, it reduces the creativity and freedom of individuals to mere cogs in economic systems.

We are not machines, nor are we commodities. Moreover, contrary to the beliefs of many economists, we are not mere ‘utility maximizers.’

 As I’ve argued elsewhere, there are negative consequences that stem from defining success exclusively in terms of our jobs or ranking on the economic ladder.  

This idea of Bildung allows us to expand our ideas about what education is and should be about. It is not confined to school but is a lifelong process of learning. It is about nurturing one’s character, capacities and living lives of meaning and purpose.  

To quote the German philosopher and inspiration behind the educational ideal of Bildung, William Von Humbolt,

There are undeniably certain kinds of knowledge that must be of a general nature and, more importantly, a certain cultivation of the mind and character that nobody can afford to be without



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Education for Humans: The Lasting Value of the Liberal Arts

I can still remember the mix of fear and excitement on the day I graduated from university. I completed my studies in philosophy, and unlike other graduates, I had no clear path forward. My friends who completed degrees in business or engineering had jobs lined up in their respective fields. For them, their career paths were well defined. The programs they completed had clear ties to the job market.

But for someone with a philosophy degree, how exactly is one supposed to make themselves marketable to potential employers?

Well, after stumbling for a while in search of direction, pursuing a graduate degree in public policy, I finally found my bearings.

Do I have any regrets you may ask? Well, it’s complicated.

In this article, I want to argue that subjects in the liberal arts still have lasting value. However, their importance should not be confined to academic institutions or be framed in a way to make someone more employable. Rather, I will argue that the liberal arts provide the tools for ordinary citizens to identify patterns and to make sense of the world around them. These subjects help us identify the stories that shape our societies, and give us the creativity and freedom to create new ones.

The liberal arts are concerned with at least two goals:

  • How one could live a ‘good life’; and
  • How to establish and participate in well functioning societies

Useless?

I’ve read many articles on the worth and value of liberal arts degrees and there are generally two opposing views on the subject.

The first is that pursuing higher education in these subjects is foolish. Proponents of this view argue that these degrees have no tangible linkages to the job market. In difficult economic times, they claim that students should focus on subjects that will guarantee a return on investment. They point towards subjects in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) as in-demand subjects which are closely tied to the modern economy.

The opposing view is that the liberal arts teach foundational skills which can be applied to a variety of different fields. For instance, every company needs clear writers and thinkers who are able to get their ideas across in a succinct way. These subjects may not be related to a particular industry, but they teach skills that are both transferable and flexible. The knowledge of technical experts needs to be translated in a manner that is digestible to the general public.

What this debate misses however is the broader question of what education is for. In our modern society which prizes materialistic notions of success, and which views those the ‘top of the corporate ladder’ as the ultimate prize, it is difficult to look at education beyond this reductive utilitarian calculus.

To explore education through a different lens we need to first look at the ideals of the past.

The Ideals of Education: Lessons from the Past  

The mission of the educational institutions of the past was to focus on developing and cultivating one’s character and disposition. Society’s political and cultural elites were trained in the humanities with subjects ranging from philosophy, languages and literature. The goal was not to train society’s future leaders not with merely practical skills, but with a focus on cultivating wisdom and virtue.

The type of education focused on nurturing one’s character has its roots in the work of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle.

Aristotle argued that in order to achieve a life of contentment and human flourishing (what he called eudaimonia), one must cultivate virtue through practice and habit. One becomes courageous through performing acts of courage just as one becomes disciplined through exercising self-restraint.

When exercising judgement and determining how to act in unique situations, Aristotle argues that we should aim towards the mean between excess and deficiency. For instance, when looking at the virtue of courage, it would be foolish to be fearful of trivial concerns. On the contrary, one would put themselves in danger if they were overly confident in dangerous situations. To be courageous then would be to exercise discretion and right action through a proper assessment of the danger or risk a situation poses.

Good character then is developed when one has the capacity and wisdom to determine what virtues and ethical principles to apply in different circumstances. A person who has learned and practiced a moral education will be free from their immediate passions and desires. They will be able to use reason and right judgement to navigate through the intricacies of life.  

Navigating an Uncertain and Complex World

It is no secret that we live in a world with many complex, messy and daunting problems. These need no further description of these issue as we are reminded of the political, economic and environmental issues every time we turn on the news.

Of course, we need individuals with the technical skills to be able to innovate and devise new technologies to solve these crises. We need those who are specialized in the STEM fields to meet the demands of the modern economy.

However, we can’t ignore the necessity for high level thinkers who are able to see the big picture and patterns shaping the world we live in. Perhaps one doesn’t need to study the liberal arts in a formal institution, but nonetheless the studying these subjects in some capacity provide an individual with phycological and spiritual autonomy. Through reading the classics and getting acquainted to the wisdom of the past, we develop the ability to think more freely.  Moreover, we can refrain from the pressure and temptations from mindlessly following the opinions of the masses.

Our opinions would be original and authentic rather than reactionary.

In a world that is in constant change, merely training students for the job market, runs the risk of producing homogenous thinkers who will sustain society’s declining institutions instead of trying to change them to adapt to our present circumstances. We need new ideas of success which align with the pressing demands of our current situation. Instead of chasing after the sports car and large salary, perhaps education should aim to allow us to be better more informed citizens or to contribute to the well being of others.  As Richard Louv notes in his book Last Child in the Woods, educators should ask,

Does four years here make your graduates better planetary citizens or does it make them, in Wendell Berry’s words, “itinerant professional vandals”?

Our ancestors have dealt with many of the same challenges and social upheaval that we are currently facing. The liberal arts provide us with their insights and wisdom. It can help us cultivate wisdom and build more beautiful and sustainable futures.

Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another

Gilbert K. Chesterton

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