An Awe Walk in Muir Woods

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We are all naturally endowed with a set of passions that enable us to find our purpose, increase our well-being, and navigate our place in the social world. These passions include gratitude, compassion, mirth, and our focus here, awe.

Awe is the experience we have when we encounter things that are vast and large and that transcend our current understanding of the world. The Greek philosopher Protagoras believed that our capacity for awe is our defining strength, it is the engine of creativity, discovery, purpose and health. And the science could not agree more: brief experiences of awe, for example in standing amidst tall trees, lead people to be more altruistic, less entitled, more humble and aware of the strengths of others, and less stressed by the challenges of daily living. These brief experiences give people a better sense of how they are part of larger social collectives, they stir scientific thought, and are good for the immune system.

Awe is the experience we have when we encounter things that are vast and large and that transcend our current understanding of the world.

We can find awe in many places, in listening to music, thinking about inspiring people, in contemplation and mindfulness. My favorite approach to cultivating awe is the awe walk.

What is an awe walk?

An awe walk is a walk within a place of meaning and beauty, where your sole task is to encounter something that amazes and transcends, be it big or small. I look for awe walks during my work day, with my family at night, and in rural and urban settings. And on very fortunate days I get to do awe walks, in a places like Muir Woods National Monument.

Amidst the tall Redwood trees, I make sure to direct my attention upward, and take in their scale, their relations to one another, the sense of community they create, recognizing that in the case of the coastal redwoods, very often nearby trees sprout from the same root system; they are family. Their height, the sense of peace they create high in the air above, evokes a first feeling of awe. It is this experience in nature that Emerson described:

In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life—no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental; to be brothers, to be acquaintances, master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. (“Nature”(1836/1982), p.39).

As I look up into the trees, a second kind of vastness astonishes and delights. Temporal vastness. These coastal redwoods, which are