Positively Awe-full

by | Jan 14, 2023 | Book Reviews | 0 comments

Martin Seligman, presiding over the American Psychiatric Association, attempted to shift the focus of psychiatry from illness to wellness. As a counterweight to the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual (DSM), he produced an inventory of beneficial character traits. The great question, of course, remained: how best to instill those traits?

As a Kappasinian hypnotherapist, the solution was not immediately relevant to my work. Kappas was a behavioralist. His concern was not with the higher self-concept, but rather with encouraging the subconscious to support the fulfillment of specific goals. The foundation of success was not character but rationality – the latter being the province of his “conscious mind.”

It was upon realizing the error of that allocation that I returned to the question of character. The conscious mind is not the seat of reason but represents our social identity. The primary block in achieving our goals is doubt in the strength of that identity, and thus deference to priorities and strategies instilled by our parents. Consequently, I have discovered that affirming the virtues of the adult self is a powerful first step in resolving many behavioral difficulties. (In certain cases, I go so far as to assert “This desired self, being most true within you, and thus inevitably most real in expression to the world, is now recognized as rightfully the God(ess) of you!”)

In building those strategies, I have found value in the work of psychiatrists inspired by Seligman’s vision. Twenty years after he threw down the gauntlet, the insights of psychiatrists are being popularized. We find from positive psychology prescriptions for success (“The Happiness Advantage” and “The Culture Code”), excellence (“The Talent Code”), and healing from trauma (“The Transformation”).

But what about simple fulfillment? What about meaning? This is the focus of Dachner Keltner’s “Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life.”

I approached this work with positive expectations, but found it burdened by contradiction. The principal take-away from the book is that awe interrupts the operation of the self-absorbed “default network,” allowing us to more deeply apprehend and integrate experience.

As Dachner characterizes it, the problem with the default network (the hypnotherapist’s “conscious mind”) is that it is transactional. It seeks to reduce experiences to elements that can be manipulated for our benefit. And yet Dachner starts his study of awe with the science of awe. Science, of course, being concerned precisely with reducing experience to elements that can be manipulated for our benefit.

In pursuing this scientific reduction, Dachner defines awe as:

A feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world.

Given this, Dachner summarizes research on emotional responses that demonstrated that awe is distinct from other emotions. A multi-cultural survey of experiences that generate awe then revealed eight sources: acts of moral integrity; collective movement; nature; music; art; mysticism; life and death; and unifying concepts (I have departed from Dachner with this last).

But what affect does awe have on our behavior? Given the definition, we might not be surprised to know that awe awakens humility, an awareness of our fragility, and thus a concern with maintenance of the web of relationships that support our organic and psychological survival.

Creating awe, we might intuit, is essential to social cohesion. This moves Dachner to a survey of the means used by cultures to instill awe. These are closely related to the sources identified above. Dachner is careful to note, however, that the sources are enjoyed in tribal cultures and given evidence by archeological artefacts. Our investment in their modern refinement (to an extent, in certain cases, of perversion) is a consequence of our craving for awe.

Throughout this examination, Dachner grounds our understanding in personal stories of awe. Here, again, is another contradiction. While Dachner claims that awe is universal, his vignettes are dominated by his personal history. Most of the stories concern his brother Rolf, whose premature death from cancer forced Dachner to dig deep for meaning. Inescapable in that confrontation with loss, however, is just how privileged a life Dachner has led. In mourning his brother, Dachner took a month-long tour in the Alps. They grew up in Topanga, with famous artists as neighbors, and were taken on an extensive cultural tour of Europe before graduating from high school. Professionally, he refined his ideas in retreats and used his academic connections to seek out and engage with those making exceptional contributions in transmitting awe to others.

In “The Neuroscience of Relationships,” Louis Cozolino outlines the sequential development of parts of the brain that allow us to participate in mature, mutually beneficial relationships. Cozolino’s therapeutic practice helps adults build those parts of the mind that were left stillborn by trauma. His hope is that all of us can enjoy the benefits of altruism, the highest capacity that manifests in early adulthood.

This ability to discipline our actions according to the needs of others is one of the primary benefits that Dachner ascribes to awe. We might wonder, then, whether there are developmental preconditions to the experience of awe. Dachner does not consider this, but rather, in his reduction of awe to neurochemistry, seems to imply that awe operates in the mind as a kind of tsunami, liberating us from the grip of the default network.

From the framework of hristotherapy, of course, I see the matter differently. In the modern era, the default network (what a hypnotherapist knows as the “conscious mind”) faces the enormously difficult task of negotiating with a hostile and increasingly resource-constrained environment. Sweeping it out of the way can have dangerous consequences. Rather, we should seek to cultivate maturity that allows us to re-integrate the mind in a controlled manner. I believe that Dachner, beneficiary of a cultivated experience and privileged lifestyle, does not appreciate the difficulties that addicts and the homeless may confront in responding beneficially to awe. They may, as Moses was warned, burn themselves out in compulsive attempts to reattain that state.

As a man of spiritual sophistication, I also find myself frustrated by Dachner’s indirection when relating experiences that do not conform to his model of the neurochemistry of awe. This is not immaterial: Dachner holds that awe and its beneficial side-effects are the result of a fortunate combination of mental faculties arising through Darwinian evolution. What I see, gazing back through the mists of time, is that the force of love that permeates this reality finally found in the human brain a system flexible enough to be intelligent in responding to its urgings. Awe is a signal that prompts us to be receptive to love.

In concluding his work, Dachner offers an alternative epiphany: awe awakens a systems perspective. He then creeps forward to consider what that means for our relationships. Unfortunately, he just cannot bring himself to recognize that only love secures both the accuracy of our understanding of systems and our alignment toward relationships that sustain and enrich those systems. This is mysterious to me. Why does he deprecate love for awe?

In summary, then: Keltner Dachner’s “Awe” is an exciting survey of a specific application of the science of positive psychology. His rigor, humility, and empathy provide us illustrations that will prepare us to encounter awe more frequently. Even better, he encourages us to share those experiences to shift our relationships toward a more fulfilling mutuality. Given this, I heartily recommend the book. Its defects arise largely from forces beyond Keltner’s apprehension: his resistance to spirituality arises from a materialism that serves the interests of physicists whose theories, sadly, are determined by the need to satisfy the vanity of their “default networks.”


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