Awe, Yiss*

In my last (first) post I spoke a little about the Four Pillars of Fulfillment and how one might go about cultivating those. All four have links to elements of the occult experience, but the one I’m currently most fascinated with is transcendence.

Transcendence – roll it around on your tongue a little – yup, this is a term that can be quite a turn-off. For some it carries with it the somewhat cultish New-Age baggage of Transcendental Meditation; for others it smacks of organised religion and perhaps also a denial of immanence (and I’ll come back to this later), for others who have had the misfortune to slog through the A.E.Waite version of Eliphas Levi’s writings, it might make them think of the turgid and obfuscatory Victorian prose of ‘Transcendental Magick’.

For me, in considering the Pillars, I prefer to use the term ‘awe’ – which is defined in a landmark study (Keltner and Haidt, 2003.) as ‘a complex emotion’ arising from the perception of vastness, of something greater than ourselves.

Emotion research is a big deal right now. There have been over 100 studies into the emotion of awe alone since that 2003 paper; but hey, I’m not a scientist and I’m not claiming to have read even a fraction of those. What I have read, and I’ll provide details of the two main papers I have explored so far at the end, indicates that awe is liminal in its very essence. It occupies a place somewhere between an emotion and an altered state of consciousness (it is no coincidence that I stumbled across this idea in a book discussing psychedelic research) in that it alters (diminishes) our sense of self and by doing so increases our sense of connectedness to the all. Here is that transcendence / immanence jive again.

So what is awe, what does it feel like and how can we feel more of it? What good does deliberately seeking the awe-inspiring do for us?

What it is, is pretty easy to explain – synonyms include reverence, surprise, amazement and wonder; so it sounds pretty good, huh?

Common sources of awe cited across various studies are nature, art, architecture, music, religion and, yup, the supernatural. Awe is a response to stimulus we might consider unusual and intense – for example, looking up at the vast trees of a forest canopy, the beauty of a waterfall or the paintings on the vaulted ceiling of a cathedral (lots of awe-type experiences involve looking up, which seems significant). It can also be a response to stories of heroism, such as a fireman saving a cat from a burning building – again, a looking up, albeit of a different kind.

Of course, the more mundane can also bring this emotion to the fore: watching a houseplant grow a new leaf, the day-to-day development of a child, seeing a stranger perform a small act of kindness. These things all trigger awe to various degrees.

What does awe do for us though? Piff, Dietze, Feinberg, Stancato and Keltzer , in their 2015 paper ‘Awe, the Small Self and Prosocial Behaviour’, found that experiencing awe led directly to a diminishment of the sense of the self as a discrete being, and so led to an increased sense of being a part of a greater entity – be that family, community, the human race, the planet or nature itself.

This goes some way to explaining why awe/transcendence is so bound up with the religious and spiritual experience, as religions can be argued to attune individuals to their conception of a higher power, something vast.

The above study also found evidence that awe experienced in response to natural stimuli (looking up at tall trees) was more likely to influence prosociality than that triggered by looking up at tall buildings. Results showed people who had recently experienced awe were more likely to experience positive emotions such as love, compassion and generosity toward their fellow humans and may in fact encourage us to improve the welfare of others.

Where does this take us when considering the occult? Well, back to immanence and transcendence. To me, as I have stated above, these perceived opposites are not, in fact, mutually exclusive. Feelings of awe and transcendence (and this is particularly evident in studies involving psychedelic drugs) often lead people directly to feelings of immanence. By experiencing a sense of divinity, something greater than ourselves, we recognise that we are a part of that, that there is a spark of the divine in everything in existence.

This is the macrocosm/microcosm of the occult expressed beautifully. As above, so below, as within so without. By observing the great Without we recognise the greatness Within us, within all of nature. This leads me to the oft quoted Crowley phrase – ‘every man and woman is a star’ – awe allows us to see that spark of light in our fellow humans and act toward them with greater love.

I cannot think of anything greater than the more nature-based forms of occultism for inspiring awe. Wicca, for example, teaches us to observe nature and as a result awe is a regular experience for many of us. Paganism, folk magic of all stripes, herbalism, hedgewitchery &c. all tend to move with the rhythms of the natural world and that might explain why they can be such a source of joy for so many. (I have more to say about awe and nature and magic but I’m leaving it here for now while I gestate those thoughts further.)

So, get outside, if you can, as often as you can. If possible, do your magic outside, it isn’t easy to do that in the city, but even just doing so occasionally helps keep that connection alive. Stand in nature. Look at the trees, look at the night sky, seek out great lakes and waterfalls. When the world opens up again, go to art galleries, go to concerts, go to church, if that is your bag. Hell, take a trip of whatever kind helps you feel that sense of wonder at life, the Universe and everything.

*this is a meme reference. i like memes. memes.


Keltner, D and Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual and aesthetic emotion. Cogn. Emot. 17, 297-314

Piff, P. K., Dietze, P., Feinberg, M., Stancato, D. M., and Keltner, D. (2015). Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 108, 883–899.

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