March 2017 Vol. 9, Issue 2
Congrats on almost making it to spring!
In this issue of TYM, I'm continuing the article from last month, with some more thoughts, and exercises, on the cultivation of awe. Enjoy.
(P.S. You can find many of my newsletters, and some articles not posted from Tame Your Mood, at the
Psyched in SF
"The Cultivation of Awe" (Pt. 2)
An Exercise: Awe location
This exercise in the location of awe can be done anywhere, but you need to have time to not be distracted or pulled away to a task. Set aside a fixed amount of time, say, 5 minutes to start.
1) So, imagine you're in a duck blind, out in the grassland, just scanning for the right bird. You're not pressured because that does no good in this situation. The mindset is a meditative one, not an active-doing one.
2) Focusing (for now) just on the visual field/sense, let your visual attention roam over the environment.
3) Notice the objects (the tree, the person, that building, it doesn't matter what it is) and feel their quality. The more depressed you are, the deader/flatter the object is likely to feel. The more anxious, the more fear-inspiring.
4) Keep scanning till you notice an object which doesn't feel either flat or fearful, that has a quality of openness and pleasure. It doesn't matter at all what it is, or what you're supposed to feel about it. All that matters here is what that visual object happens to do in the moment as rods and cones are stimulated in the eye, the optical nerve vibrates, that vibration zips into the brain. Etc.
5) Keep your attention on that object and let yourself feel, take in, and open to (as much as possible) the feeling of openness. See if the feeling approaches awe in some form or intensity. Even if it doesn't, it's still more in the awe camp than the depressed/anxious camp, simply because you're feeling receptive. If you weren't feeling receptive at that spot, to that object, then you would feel more flatness/fear.
6) When that "spot" of openness shifts or dissolves (or just moves, like the man descending into the subway), then start over and find another spot.
The point of this exercise is to sensitize you and your brain to the experience--not the belief or faith or wish--of openness, whether more on the dread side, or the wonder side of awe. If depression and anxiety were hands, then they would be in constant states of clenching. Awe, if it were a hand, would be open, allowing the awe-some object to just rest on your hand.
Actively looking for awe is, like a pianist coming to identify notes by ear, actively sensitizing yourself to and practicing the state of openness.
Also, awe is a particular emotional response to something that is very real: we are thoroughly the vastness we see. To practice feeling awe, we are also retraining our depressive/anxious beliefs--again, through direct, visceral experience. Instead of, "I'm worthless, small, cut off," our minds, through the direct reality that awe responds to, becomes, "I'm part of the vastness, I have purpose, I am welcomed."
Really. You need to be somewhat ready, but after that, the mind and brain cannot forget the direct experience of reality, when it directly contradicts your beliefs. I can say the world is flat, loudly and passionately, but when I fly due west and eventually find myself back at my starting point, your mind wants to bend to the experienced truth.
I recently was tasked with pulling weeds in a garden, and was given a hoe after my initial pulling resulted in just a pile of the weed tops. Awe is like that hoe for depression and anxiety: it scoops under to the roots and pulls them up, one by one. The direct experience, over time-hence the emphasis on practice-will overpower the thought-based beliefs of insufficiency and fear.
If you suffer from anxiety and depression, then you know them very well. Now sit still and look for where they are not, and rest there.
Here is another exercise in the cultivation of awe:
1) Get comfortable and give yourself a little block of time so you can be reflective, without feeling rushed.
2) Think about something utterly mundane. E.g., the TV. The sky. A fingernail.
3) Contemplate the object and describe to yourself how it works. Keep working through the levels of explanation. For instance, with the TV: you plug it in and push the power button. Electricity flows from the wall socket to the TV. Electricity comes from the local generating plant through copper wires. The plant generates energy by burning coal. Coal was formed by certain geological processes millions of years ago. And so on....
4) Keep going until you start experiencing (not just thinking, but feeling) the sense of interconnection and bigness. That is, you begin experiencing some measure of awe.
Here's my example, coming from recent readings of neurobiology: I am contemplating the image of this computer I'm using. The steps I can think of are: light is projected from the screen, enters the eyes and registers on certain cells; an electro-chemical signal/vibration transfers to the brain's visual centers, and then I see an image. But as I think this through, I realize that there's no screen on which it projects; it simply arises somewhere and somehow in the mind. The mind depends on the organic brain. The brain has a several million year history.
For me, when I rest with that, I get a sense of vast mystery, and incredible complexity, and something approaching a sense of magic. That is, awe.
I saw the magicians Penn and Teller do a stage bit where they demonstrate the steps of a magic routine, first as trick, then as show-and-tell. Knowing how it was done--look, it's like this and this and then this happens, voila!--did not at all take the magic out of it. Because the magic is in the fact that it can be done; the awe is in experiencing the fact that such complexity actually exists, and that it's both an it and a me. You can know how the cigarette disappears, but letting yourself experience the routine in all its details and as something happening right now--that's where you find the awe in the most common of things.
My Book is Available:
Anxiety and Depression: 42 Essays on Overcoming the Wild Moods (2011), is for sale as a paperback or Kindle.
It is a collection of short essays, focusing on the challenge of managing, and ultimately, uprooting depression and anxiety. You can find a few sample articles here, and can purchase the book on Amazon here.
Archive of Past Newsletters
All past issues of Tame Your Mood can be found here.
Various audio recordings can be found here, including audio
readings of past newsletters.
I am a San Francisco psychotherapist who helps individuals
struggling with anxiety and depression to not only manage these "wild
moods," but eventually learn how to overcome them. I work comprehensively with mental, emotional, bodily, and spiritual dimensions of anxiety and depression, all
which are necessary to overcome the chronic quality of anxiety and depression.
If you are interested in exploring working
together in psychotherapy, please contact me at: