Practice Presence by Cultivating Awe

“The great lesson from the true mystics is that the sacred is in the ordinary, that it is to be found in one’s daily life, in one’s neighbors, friends, and family, and in one’s backyard.” -Abraham H. Maslow, Religions, Values and Peak Experiences

We all know awe from those amazing soul-smacking experiences that we don’t expect: the incredible sunsets, enormous rainbows, powerful storms, expressions of big love and moments of drop-to-our-knees grace. This is the awe that pulls us out of our ordinary everyday experience with heightened senses and instantaneous transformation. Awe can also come to us, though we may not recognize it at the time, as the tragedies, colossal disappointments and failures. They all expand us, remove us from ordinary space and time, bond us together and create our sense of a world and our understanding of reality as much larger than ourselves.

The venerable psychologist, Abraham Maslow, spoke of awe as the peak experiences that are “rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystical and magical in their effect upon the (person).” He considered these states of mind to be the mark of the fully actualized human and, in fact, the goal of people desiring to become more fully awake, alive and present.

The science of awe shows us that we become more expansive and creative, feel a greater sense of connection with one another, an elevated sense of purpose about our lives, and deeper gratitude when in the face of awe-inspiring experiences. These are all the attributes of Presence.

We’re Wired for Awe

It has a purpose in our lives, it’s in our DNA. Awe is good medicine. Those extraordinary expansions of consciousness teach us, strengthen us and fortify our bodies, our minds and our communities. They create positive changes in our physiology with measurably reduced markers of inflammation and stress. From the earth shaking events to the small miracles, the elements of awe are all there, surrounding us, positioned to launch us toward better health, deeper connections and our higher selves.

The events of 9/11 catapulted us all into a sense of communal strength and purpose like no other time in our recent collective history. I leaped from one career to another that year, inspired by the sense of there’s no time to waste, I must step up to my true purpose.

Witnessing the births of our children opens us to one of our lives’ greatest miracles, preparing us for the work and transformation yet to come. I was flung into unimagined depths of concern for another’s survival and wellbeing, of true sacrifice and of profound connection, unlike any I had experienced before.

Awe is the experience of grace in action. It’s the connection we feel to our world when we pay attention or when it spectacularly crosses our path. My husband and I drove right through an enormous double rainbow in Hawaii. We could see both ends of the massive arch as it was suspended right over us. My jaw was hanging down the entire time (the facial expression of awe!), my eyes and smile big. We were suspended in that moment, beneath the double rainbow, which had graced our path.

Awe is what we can experience when our eyes are wide open and we are awake and aware.

And there is awe in the smaller things in life. 

By paying closer attention to what is going on–really going on–around us, we connect with the miracles and magic of life that constantly surround us.

Awe can be cultivated–it is a practice that lends itself to Presence. We don’t have to wait for the cataclysmic and catastrophic events of our lives to catapult us into the present moment. We can consciously turn our attention to the task. Awe is the expansion of our ability to see the positive, the meaning, or the truth in what’s around us. In most everything. In the commonplace, the exceptional, even the hurts and disappointments. It doesn’t have to be the double rainbows. For me, it’s the squirrel on my deck trying hard to outsmart my squirrel-proof bird feeder or the three bucks that cross my path on the road, the tender emerging buds on the early spring trees, or the softness of the winter landscape with subtle bird noises and branches swaying in the breeze.

Our practiced curiosity and paying attention opens us to noticing the magic everywhere, inspiring awe, strengthening our Presence and engendering wonder and gratitude (the sisters of awe.).

How we can cultivate awe in our daily lives:

  1. First, we must be committed to becoming more awake and aware.
  2. Then we must breathe! Our presence starts with breath. For those unfamiliar with breath work, start with 3 slow deep breaths: fill your chest, abdomen and pelvis, 3 counts in, 3 counts out. One breath for your body, one for your mind and one for your spirit. Repeat throughout your day.
  3. We must pause to pay attention to the people and things around us. Really see them. Listen well. Observe carefully.
  4. We must embrace all of the events of our lives: mundane, fantastic or otherwise. What is there to learn? What needs to be changed?
  5. We must reduce distractions that pull us out of the present moment: limit email, cell phone and social media use, take a news fast, clear up clutter.
  6. We must give the important people and events of our lives our full attention. Resist the temptation to multi-task (we’re just not good at it!).
  7. We must express gratitude for it all. Even our misfortunes are our teachers. The science of gratitude shows that practicing it (whether we feel it or not) changes our brains in radically positive ways.
  8. We must nourish our capacity to experience awe through radical self-care: a healthy, well-fed, rested, balanced, strong, resilient human being has greater capacity for awareness and presence.
  9. We must spend time in nature and pay close attention to the miracles all around: watch the sunset, see spring emerge, listen to the birds sing at the crack of dawn, observe our pets play hard, see our children grow and become wise.
  10. We must mobilize the power of our minds to let go of the old worn out stories that no longer serve us. They pull us down and seduce us away from what is meaningful and important and right here, in the present.



Maslow, A.H. (1964). Religions, values, and peak experiences. London: Penguin Books Limited.

Jake Abrahamson, The Science of Awe. Sierra, November/December 2014.

Karyn Shanks MD


Karyn Shanks, MD, is a physician who lives and practices in Iowa City. Her work is inspired by the revolutionary science of Functional Medicine, body-mind wisdom, and the transformational journeys of thousands of clients over her twenty-eight year career. She believes that the bones of healing are in what we do for ourselves.

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