Looking at the Earth and the universe from the standpoint of awe, wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur and magnificent mystery of all being. That’s what the new bottom line is about. 

Rabbi Michael Lerner

Welcome to Day Five of Awaken to Awe

Few things elicit awe more readily than gazing up at a sky full of stars or trying to wrap our heads around the fact that our galaxy is one among at least 100 billion galaxies in the universe. That’s right — 100 billion. If awe is in part about standing face to face with a vastness and mystery that is incomprehensible, considering our lives within the cosmic scheme of things is truly awe-inducing. How is it we are here at all? What a miracle! Attuning to the wonder of life in this way, we open ourselves to what Br. David calls “the mystical bliss of universal belonging” — our profound interconnectedness. Just as the stars and planets move in a kind of gravitational dance, we, too, form a constellation. We are tethered to one another, dependent on one another, not only for our happiness but for our very survival.

Begin today by reading Ladder to the Pleiades, a very short and utterly sweet vignette by Michael P. Branch, in which the author shares how his daughter, starting at age two, asked him to go outside every night for over a year to look at the stars. Every night — rain or snow or clouds. After reading, take a few moments to consider this: What is my version of Hannah’s gazing at the night sky? What gives me a sense of my place in the cosmic scheme of things?

Today’s Practice

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Let’s come down from the vastness of the night sky to the very roots beneath our feet. Any sense of connection and belonging we may get from gazing at the spiraling of our own galaxy can feel incomplete without a more tangible sense of belonging in our relationships with others and with the world. Forest ecologist Suzanne Simard’s decades of research on the ways that trees are connected underground through their roots and complex webs of fungi offers a powerful reminder of the ways all life-forms, including our own, are interdependent. Because these underground systems are hidden to most of us, it’s easy to understand how we may think that a tree in a forest is a singular entity. The same could be said about our own lives; sometimes we lose sight of all the ways we are held in community, completely dependent on one another. Grateful living reminds us to notice and appreciate these life-giving connections. As Simard reminds us: “Ecosystems are so similar to human societies — they’re built on relationships.” 

For today’s practice, we invite you to envision your personal ecosystem and tap into the wonder of all the ways that you are not alone. Inspired by Dr. Simard’s research, we’re going to use the image of a tree for this exercise. You can respond to the following questions using this downloadable/printable tree, sketching your own, or simply noting your responses in list or narrative form. There is no right or wrong way to do this.

  • The Roots. Who has come before you that has made your life possible? Not only your ancestors, but people who have led movements or worked for social justice? Try to imagine the countless unknown people — people whose stories you will never know — whose existence made yours possible. Make a list of them or, if you’re creating a visual tree, write their names or identities among the roots. For reflection: How am I nourished by remembering and giving thanks for all who came before me to make my life possible?
  • The Branches. Spend some time naming all the ways you are connected to life around you. Your branches might include family, friends, and co-workers; beloved pets; health care providers or those who grow your food; your garden or the tree you can see through your window. List these connections or add them to the branches of your tree. For reflection: What connection emerged that reminded me I’m not alone? What forgotten connection reminded me of a relationship I want to nurture? Does naming these “branches” offer balm for any loneliness I’m feeling?
  • Complete Your Tree. Now that you’ve named some of your roots and branches, fill in your tree and the space around it by naming other ways in which you are connected to humans past and present, to the earth, to all of life. These might include things like: I’m a musician playing music played by thousands of others; I’m a parent loving and aching for my child like millions of other parents past and present; I’m laughing, playing, cooking, grieving, and longing — alongside a planet of fellow humans doing the same. You might also consider your legacy, the seeds you are planting that will bear fruit long after you’re gone, connecting you to the future.

Once you’ve completed your written reflection or tree sketch, take a few moments to give thanks for this vibrant network of connections that has made your life possible. Bring to mind the sacrifices, the gifts, the hard work, and the love that resulted in you being here, right now, just as you are. When you’re ready, complete the practice by reflecting on the following:

  • In what ways does naming the ways I’m tethered to others and the world open me to a sense of awe?
  • Did anything emerge in this exercise that surprised me or reminded me of a connection that I want to tend and nurture?
  • Going forward, what will I do each day to remember with awe that I exist simultaneously within a vast and mysterious cosmos and within the roots and branches of my singular, particular life? 

Share Your Reflection: On this last day of Awaken to Awe, we encourage you to share a response to today’s practice or a reflection about your exploration of awe over the past five days. Please post in the Community Conversation space below.

Deepening Resources

In this rich conversation with Krista Tippett at On Being, Suzanne Simard shares not only her decades of research about forests, but also her personal reflections about the ways in which we as humans are  interconnected. She speaks of aboriginal knowledge, her journey with breast cancer, and the truly awe-inspiring ways that the neurotransmitters of the brain mirror the fungal networks below ground.

We also couldn’t resist sending you off with this uplifting and joyful performance of You’re Not Alone with Allison Russell. When the cameras pan to the concert crowd, you’ll see a beautiful example of what Dacher Keltner calls “collective effervescence,” something we often experience when listening to music with others. According to his research, this kind of shared exultation is a sure pathway to awe. 

Research Highlight

Toward the end of his book, Dacher Keltner writes: “Our default mind blinds us to this fundamental truth, that our social, natural, physical, and cultural worlds are made up of interlocking systems. Experiences of awe open our minds to this big idea. Awe shifts us to a systems view of life.” He goes on to reference new studies that reveal how awe “shifts our minds from a more reductionistic mode of seeing things in terms of separateness and independence to a view of phenomena as interrelating.”

How does this change us? “The epiphany of awe is that its experience connects our individual selves with the vast forces of life. In awe we understand we are part of many things that are much larger than the self.”

(AWE: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life)

Photo by Lucas Marconnet