How to take an awe walk

“He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” – Albert Einstein

Awe takes you out of your own head – like one of those high beam lights switching on, your vision goes from tunnel to wide-field. But you don’t need to travel to the ends of the earth, climb a mountain, or seek out novelty to evoke that feeling. Virginia Sturm’s team at UC San Francisco studied the power of 15-minute awe walks, where you can train yourself to morph an ordinary walk where you’re delighted and inspired by your everyday life.

We know that the simple act of walking endows us with a slew of neurochemical benefits, and that a sense of awe enhances your health, happiness and takes you away from the chatter in your head.

What if you combined the two of them? People experience awe primarily via a sense of physical vastness or novelty. But what if you didn’t have to wait to climb a mountain or watch an avalanche to feel that sense of awe?

When you walk, a cascade of rhythmic and neurochemical actions is triggered in your brain, making it fitter and healthier. Your brain also produces brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BNDF), which is akin to fertilisers for your brain cells. And then there’s vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), which grows the blood vessels carrying nutrients to your brain. When you walk after a meal, you lower your glycemic load, meaning your blood sugar levels fall.

So imagine what happens when you combine these physical and mental fitness benefits, with that transcendental sense of awe that already reduces stress and inflammation whilst increasing feelings of gladness?

Designing your awe walk

  • Would you like to do it yourself, or with others?
  • What is your favourite sense to engage? These could be a dramatic sight like wide plains, or the echoes in an old cathedral.
  • What do you already enjoy looking out for, that confers that sense of awe. Ideas include sunset and sunrise, beautiful music that gives you goosebumps, and luscious plants.
  • When you encounter these, how do you engage with them? Do you sit back and admire, wax lyrical with someone else, research further, or take photographs?
  • How does this activity engage you further? E.g. Some people use the phone lens to focus their concentration, others indulge their curiosity by researching.
  • How does your mood change before and after encountering awe?
  • And, how does your headspace change?

Everyday places

One of my favourite concepts is Everyday Amazing. We spend so much time thinking about that Mythical Someday– that far-flung destination, that day when we reach our goals, and we forget that we have to continuously practise being the people we want to become. Otherwise, your head won’t suddenly switch off when you’re on holiday. And the greater the disparity between your everyday and that Mythical Someday, the more dissatisfied and energy-deprived you’re likely to be.

Observing and appreciating tiny wonders around you uplevels an otherwise-benign walk where you’re rushing, into time that pays dividends. The thing is, you can never run out of awe – every sunrise and sunset, the sky is painted differently. There’s immense beauty lurking behind tempestuous clouds.

When we teach ourselves to look through the lens of Everyday Amazing, the more we teach ourselves to appreciate the beauty of vacation and other special occasions. This is because our brain’s reticular activating system learns to filter out unnecessary information like distracting thoughts, so we take in more delight.

Some ‘Everyday Places’ for awe walks

  • A park in your neighbourhood.
  • A part of your city you’ve never explored before.
  • A different route on your daily walk or run.
  • A place that feels like your kind of sensorial buffet– specialist supermarket, makeup store, bookstore.
  • A fireplace or hearth; a storm; the snow fall.

Places that require some planning

  • A forest, jungle or offshore island.
  • A zoo or botanical gardens.
  • A museum, gallery, planetarium or aquarium.
  • Somewhere with clear views of the night sky.
  • Looking up from a trail lined with tall trees or dense buildings; or looking around a large stadium.
  • The shore of a water body.
  • A mountain, hill, or a restaurant in a skyscraper where you can watch the sunrise or sunset, or see panoramic views.

And, putting it all together

These instructions for taking your awe walk are adapted from The Greater Good Science Center:

  • Turn your phone off, or to Airplane Mode, if you’d like to take photographs.
  • Adopt the mindset that you’re discovering things with fresh eyes, and that you’ll allow yourself to be delighted and curious.
  • Anchor yourself with your breath– inhale deeply for six counts, feeling your belly expand, and exhale for six, feeling your belly contract. Feel the air move and hear the sound of your breath.
  • Feel your feet on the ground as you walk, taking in the sounds around you. Shift your awareness to take in what’s around you– anything that feels unexpected, delightful, vast.
  • Inhale for six, and exhale for another six.
  • Allow yourself to explore what inspires awe in you, moving from the vast to the small, and vice versa. It could be the scale of what’s around you, the animals at play, or patterns of light and shadow.
  • Ever-so-often, inhale and exhale for six. As you anchor yourself, notice all that’s around that you’d otherwise not. Immerse yourself in all your senses, and notice what you enjoy the most.

What would your first awe walk look like? Enjoy it!