Chapter no 11: EPIPHANY

Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life

The Big Idea of Awe: We Are Part of Systems Larger Than the Self

Whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.


Charles Darwin’s emotions so often gave rise to his big ideas, including the science of emotion, of which the story of awe is but one chapter. Caring for his ten-year-old daughter Annie until her

death shaped his thinking about the evolutionary benefits of sympathy. His humble curiosity about fellow human beings brought Darwin, of a privileged background, into conversations with working-class pigeon breeders, opening his eyes to their science of breeding species for signature qualities, or adaptations. His kind cheerfulness on the Beagle held the crew together as Captain Robert FitzRoy suffered a nervous breakdown, and enabled a five-and-a-half-year voyage of incomparable and inexplicable wonders.

Might awe have shaped Darwin’s thinking about evolution?

In The Descent of Man in 1871 and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals in 1872, Darwin locates the emotions we experience today in the vast story of mammalian evolution. Reading his descriptions of more than forty emotional expressions is an epiphany, as rich a portrayal of emotional expression as any, except perhaps that of Japanese artist Kobayashi Kiyochika’s print series 100 Faces from 1883. But Darwin never used the word “awe” in these descriptions.

Perhaps awe—so often a religious emotion—was a psychic battleground for him. To tell a story about the mammalian evolution of awe would challenge the creationist dogma of his era, one his devout wife, Emma, hewed to. That dogma held that our self-transcendent emotions, emotions like bliss, joy, sympathy, gratitude, and awe, are the handiwork of God, placed into human anatomy and our social lives by some form of

intelligent design. Perhaps Darwin was avoiding awe to keep the peace at home.

Frank Sulloway knows the details of Darwin’s life and work better than just about any scholar you might encounter, so I dropped by his office to solve a mystery, the mystery of Darwin’s awe. Frank’s office is the outward expression of his mind. On the walls hang framed photographs he took during his eighteen trips to the Galápagos, arresting images of tortoises, pink flamingos, and cacti-dotted volcanic landscapes. Yellow Post-it notes on his computer contain scribblings of statistical equations. Most prominent of all is a three-foot-tall stack of Darwin and His Bears: How Darwin Bear and His Galápagos Islands Friends Inspired a Scientific Revolution, Frank’s new children’s book, whose main character, a bear, tells the story of how he guided Darwin to his discoveries.

For his senior thesis at Harvard in 1969, Frank wrote about the eight-person film expedition he organized the previous summer to retrace Darwin’s footsteps in South America, during his voyage with HMS Beagle, and focused on the role that the Beagle voyage had in Darwin’s scientific development and conversion to the theory of evolution. This thesis included a computer-aided content analysis of all the letters written by Darwin during the voyage, to his family and his mentor, John Stevens Henslow.

For his PhD in the history of science at Harvard, Frank wrote his thesis on Freud, which would become Freud, Biologist of the Mind and garner Frank a MacArthur genius award. But Freud’s allure, Frank tells me, quickly wore off—his thinking seemed closed and arrogantly unfalsifiable.

Frank kept returning to Darwin. His intellectual courage, humility, and kindness drew Frank, the scholar, into Darwin’s life. In the course of his graduate work and forty years of scholarship after, Frank has retraced Darwin’s footsteps on the Galápagos based on the ship’s log of the Beagle and Darwin’s own sketches. He wrote the bestselling book Born to Rebel, which profiles how Darwin’s status as a latter-born child—he was the fifth of six siblings—accounts for his open-minded, polymath, risky, and awe-inspired revolutionary life and thought. He now is revising Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, integrating tens of thousands of new scientific studies. In

his spare time Frank spearheads conservation efforts on the Galápagos to limit a goat population, an invasive species disrupting the islands’ ecosystems. Other people’s moral beauty can become a moral compass in our own lives, and for Frank, Darwin is a life-altering person of moral beauty.

Over Indian food, Frank ate sparsely, like the competitive miler he was at Harvard. I asked him about Darwin’s awe.

“Frank, why did Darwin write about ‘astonishment,’ ‘admiration,’ and ‘devotion/reverence’ but not ‘awe’? Was he worried about writing about a religious emotion? Or creating conflict with Emma?”

Frank shakes his head.

“That’s silly. . . . It’s more likely that people didn’t use the word ‘awe’ during the mid-nineteenth century. Try Google Trends and see what you find . . .”

Sure enough, Google Trends finds that the use of the word “awe” has risen dramatically since 1990. Darwin’s use of “admiration,” “reverence,” and “devotion” was simply in keeping with linguistic conventions of the day. This small piece of detective work, though, led Frank to other thinking. He continued.

“But Darwin did experience the chills. One had to do with listening to the organ in King’s College at Cambridge.”

Later that night Frank sent me Darwin’s story of musical chills, which we relied on earlier as a guide to musical awe. He added this passage from Darwin’s autobiography about feeling awe—“a sense of sublimity”— toward painting:

I frequently went to the Fitzwilliam Gallery, and my taste must have been fairly good, for I certainly admired the best pictures, which I discussed with the old curator. . . . This taste, though not natural to me, lasted for several years, and many of the pictures in the National Gallery in London gave me much pleasure; that of Sebastian del Piombo exciting in me a sense of sublimity.

In his office, Frank continued wondering.

“And of course, in the Amazonian rain forest when he spoke of the ‘temple of nature.’ ”

Frank continued.

“And now that I think about it, in his Diaries he writes about waking from a dream in Chiloé, Chile. When he awoke, Darwin was awestruck at intertwined vines on the bank of a river, which would appear in the last sentences from Origins, some of my favorites in all of Darwin’s writings.”

Frank then paused, and in reverential tones that can only be compared to those of a radio personality from the 1940s, quoted those last sentences from On the Origin of Species:

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless

forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

There, in one paragraph, is Darwin’s epiphany—that life has evolved and is ever evolving. I take this moment in Darwin’s life and writing to be a story of awe. It is grounded in a new way of seeing some essential truth about the world. This passage follows awe’s familiar unfolding: there is wonder (“It is interesting to contemplate”), vastness (“many plants of many kinds,” “endless forms”), mystery (“complex a manner”), and kindness (“most beautiful”). As in other stories of awe we have read, Darwin turns to metaphor—“clothed with many plants,” the Creator “breathes” life into existence. As in traditional ecological knowledge, Darwin sees the profound interdependence of species. We find reconciliation of the awesome and awful, that the “war of nature” gives birth to “endless forms most beautiful.” In taking in a tangled bank near a river, of birds singing, insects flitting about, and worms doing their composting work in damp earth, Darwin saw the laws of evolution, growth, reproduction, inheritance, variability, and extinction. In awe, Darwin found “grandeur in this view of life.”

Tangled Bank of Life

Awe is about knowing, sensing, seeing, and understanding fundamental truths, and leads to epiphanies across the eight wonders of life— transforming how we see the essential nature of the world. William James called this the “noetic” dimension of mystical awe. Emerson’s spiritual experiences in nature revealed “the law of laws,” the deepest truth for him in his understanding of the meaning of life. Reverend Jen’s epiphany in a church told her that she is loved by God. Literary studies speak of epiphanies, such as those in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, or that of Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,

in which status quo meanings of society are stripped away and essential truths about our social lives are illuminated. For Toni Morrison, in the epiphanies found by allowing goodness its own speech, we come to understand ourselves.

What is the substance and structure of awe’s epiphany? Its big idea? What form of self-knowledge do we gain in experiences of awe? In our studies and the stories of awe we have encountered, people most reliably say something like: “I am part of something larger than myself.” For Belinda Campos, it was a great chain of sacrifices made by her predecessors that enabled her to attain a PhD. For Stacy Bare, it was being a small cog in a misguided military operation. For Louis Scott, it was seeing his life being imprisoned by a history of racism this country was “founded upon.” For Yumi Kendall, it was feeling part of the history of music. Awe locates us in forces larger than ourselves.

The English language does not offer up a rich vocabulary to capture this sense of being connected to things larger than the self, so individualistic are we. (That task is much easier for speakers of Japanese, for in Japanese one translation of “self”—jibun—means “shared life space.”) As a result, English speakers turn to abstraction, to metaphor, to neologism, or to mystical language to describe this big idea of awe. William James called it “the fundamental IT.” Margaret Fuller “the all.” Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau “the scheme.” Ralph Waldo Emerson called it the “transparent eyeball,” to public scorn. For Yumi Kendall it was a cashmere blanket of sound. For Rose-Lynn Fisher a sacred geometry. For Reverend Jennifer Bailey it is a timeless cycle of religious composting. And many of the people we have heard stories of awe from, ordinarily articulate and well practiced in describing matters of mind and spirit, like Claire Tolan, Robert Hass, Steve Kerr, Yuria Celidwen, and Malcom Clemens Young, simply gesture to a kind of space in which awe touches them, surrounds them, embraces them, embeds them.

What is it that awe connects us to that is larger than the self? That is initially invisible, but in the experience of awe becomes visible? That resists description and formulation, but appears like an image, or holistic

pattern, like Darwin’s dreamlike awakening to a vision of a tangled bank of life, as the default self’s grip upon perception is loosened and dissolves?

My answer is this: it’s a system. I realize “system” doesn’t have the mystery of “numinous,” or wild-eyed excess of “transparent eyeball,” never mind the poetic beauty of “cashmere blanket of sound” or the metaphorical depth of “composting religion.” In almost every realm of inquiry, though, from the study of the cell to formal analyses of dance, music, ritual, and art; to studies of religion, prisons, politics, and intellectual movements; to studies of our brains that make sense of these things, people turn to the idea of systems to make sense of the deep structures of the wonders of life. Systems thinking, it’s worth noting, is at the heart of an Indigenous science now thousands of years old. It is an old, big idea. It may be our species’ big epiphany.

Systems are entities of interrelated elements working together to achieve some purpose. When we look at life through this systems lens, we perceive things in terms of relations rather than separate objects. In feeling inspired at a political march, we may take note of how our calls of protest and fists thrust into the air are linked to those of others and synchronized with the words of a speaker. In noting how a song might bring us the chills, we sense how the notes relate to one another in dynamic, unfolding patterns.

In thinking in this way we perceive patterns of interdependent relationships. Here it is worth quoting Darwin: “these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other.” Various forms of life, we are now learning, from the DNA in our cells to the individuals in our communities, are perpetually engaged in mutual influence, interdependent collaboration, and cooperation. In looking at the flow of people crossing a street, or the movements of five teammates on a court, or the interplay of color, line, form, and texture in a painting, or in marveling at life in an ecosystem, we holistically perceive how the parts of the whole are working together toward achieving some end.

In systems thinking, we note how phenomena are processes that evolve and unfold. Life is change. Our communities are always evolving. Nature is

about growth, change, death, and decay. Music and art are continually transforming, in the changes they stir in our minds and bodies. Our spiritual beliefs and practices are continually decaying, distilling, and growing.

Our default mind gravitates to the certain and predictable—fixed, reliable essences in the world. Awe arises when we perceive change. When we sense a sunset changing from oranges to deep purplish blues, how clouds transform as they move across the horizon, how a knee-high two-year-old one day is speaking to you in sentences when only a moment ago they were babbling and cooing, how a nonviolent salt march can transform history. And in the recognition that that which is born and grows also ages and dies.

Finally, through a systems lens, phenomena, both living and created, are animated by qualities that unite their disparate elements according to a unifying purpose. This might be the moral beauty of someone whose life brings you to tears. Or the rhythm of music that synchronizes us with others in dance. Or beliefs about the human soul. Or the vying for life in nature that gives rise to the endless forms most beautiful that are the world’s species. Or the feeling of awe expressed in art.

We sense the animating quality of a system holistically, in intuition, image, and metaphor—Steve Kerr’s golden wave of light, Yumi Kendall’s cashmere blanket of sound, Reverend Jen Bailey’s composting religion, Yuria Celidwen’s poetic account of the consciousness of nearly dying. And Charles Darwin’s tangled bank, which, along with the tree, would become his central metaphor in his writings, uniting his observations into his understanding of the evolution of living forms. Awe enables us to see the systems underlying the wonders of life and locate ourselves in relation to them.

Wonders of Systems

The eight wonders of life are themselves systems. Acts of moral beauty instantiate our ethical systems. Forms of moving in unison like dance, everyday ritual, and basketball are systems of movement animated by ideas, and unite people in collective effervescence. The natural world is made up of interlocking systems, from the cells of our bodies to gardens, forests, oceans, and mountains. Music, art, film, and architecture are systems of creation that deploy their symbols and modes of representation to express the big ideas of identity and culture. Religion is a system of belief, rituals, symbols, images, music, stories, and ceremonies that bring people together in community. Life is a system, its animating quality following dynamics of growth and decay. The idea of a system is a system, an abstract set of propositions that organizes observations and explanations into a coherent whole.

We developed a systems view of life to adapt to the central challenges in our hypersocial evolution. Systems thinking allowed us to track the shared caregiving of our vulnerable young, the network of coalitions that defined our relations with friends, the more fluid social hierarchies we shifted to, and all the forms of collective activity that made up our daily life

—food sharing, collaborative labor, defense, and celebration. Systems thinking emerged in our relation to nature and underlies traditional ecological knowledge. Our survival depended on our understanding of the social system—community—we are part of, and our relation to ecosystems; our minds developed a systems way of understanding, grounded in a new neural architecture of our social brains. Many Indigenous peoples developed this view of the grandeur of life thousands of years ago.

As Andrea Wulf tells it in her wondrous The Invention of Nature, the centrality of systems thinking to awe, science, and art is embodied in the life story of nineteenth-century scientist Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt would be drawn to the Andes in the spirit of wonder and write about nature as a web of life—each living form exists within “a network of forces and interrelationships.” His drawings of the maps of flora, fauna, climates, and geology of the twenty-thousand-foot Ecuadorian mountain Chimborazo would give birth in Western thinking to the idea of an

ecosystem. System was Humboldt’s big idea, shaping Darwin, who traveled on the HMS Beagle with Humboldt’s books; Thoreau and Emerson in their writings about nature; Gaudí’s organic and architectural wonders like the Sagrada Família; environmentalists and revolutionaries like Simón Bolívar (Humboldt abhorred the system of slavery); and poets like Coleridge and Wordsworth. Systems thinking is always composting.

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.

New studies are documenting how. The pattern to these results is that 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 and dependent. For example, brief experiences of awe shift us from the illusions of the twentieth- and twenty-first-century thinking that we are separate selves to realize that we are embedded in complex social networks of interdependent individuals. Awe moves us to a sense that we are part of the natural world, one of many species, in an ecosystem of species dependent upon one another for survival. Awe opens our eyes to the idea that complex systems of interdependent adaptations gave rise to the millions of species that make up the living world. Awe even leads us to see systems-like patterns of agency organizing random sequences of digits.

Awe enables us to see that life is a process, that all endless forms most beautiful are deeply interconnected, and involve change, transformation, impermanence, and death.

Finding Our Place in the Systems of Life

Since that day on Paul Ekman’s deck when he pointed me in the direction of awe, I have charted the systems of awe to tell its scientific story.

Awe begins with our miraculous eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin responding to the images, sounds, scents, tastes, and touches of the eight wonders of life. Our sensory systems represent these encounters in neurochemical patterns that make their way to the prefrontal cortex, where we interpret the wonders of life with the symbolic systems that are language and culture. Being moved by awe triggers the release of oxytocin and dopamine, a calming of stress-related physiology, and vagus nerve response, systems of millions of cells working to enable us to connect, be open, and explore. The complex systems of muscles in the face, body, and vocal apparatus enable us to convey to others what we find wonderful. Tears and chills, themselves end results of systems behind our eyes and under our skin, signal to our conscious minds the presence of vast forces that require we merge with others to adapt and understand. Being cultural animals, we turn to ever-evolving cultural systems, of chanting, song, and music; painting, carving, sculpture, and design; poetry, fiction, and drama; and supernatural explanation and spiritual practice—our archives of awe— to bring others into a shared understanding of the wonders of life.

But what is the end of awe, its unifying purpose? Here’s my answer. Awe integrates us into the systems of life—communities, collectives, the natural environment, and forms of culture, such as music, art, religion, and our mind’s efforts to make sense of all its webs of ideas. 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.

Being part of this scientific story of awe has taught me that the evolution of our species built into our brains and bodies an emotion, our species-defining passion, that enables us to wonder together about the great questions of living: What is life? Why am I alive? Why do we all die? What is the purpose of it all? How might we find awe when someone we love leaves us? Our experiences of awe hint at faint answers to these perennial questions and move us to wander toward the mysteries and wonders of life.

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