The Healing Effects of Awe and Wonder


Bottlebrush Blossom

A U.C. Berkeley study, recently published in the journal, Emotion, is making news through several outlets cited below. It posits that the experience of positive emotions, particularly awe and wonder, lowers inflammation.

“That awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggests that the things we do to experience these emotions – a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art – has a direct influence upon health and life expectancy,” said UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, a co-author of the study.

What is wonder and how is it different from awe?

If you’ve been reading this site for awhile, you know that wonder is a contemplative habit that can be cultivated through photography. Awe and wonder are often used interchangeably, although there is a subtle difference between the two.

Here are the dictionary definitions, adapted from Merriam-Webster.

Wonder: a feeling of astonishment or admiration caused by something that is surprising, beautiful, or amazing.

“Wonder is the beginning of all wisdom. Wonder is the first of all passions. Wonder is the beginning of all writing. Wisdom, emotions, and creativity – all borne from wonder.” ~ Jeffrey Davis, Tracking Wonder

Awe: an emotion that combines dread, veneration, and wonder. It is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime.

“In the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear is a little studied emotion – awe. Awe is felt about diverse events and objects, from waterfalls to childbirth to scenes of devastation. Awe is central to the experience of religion, politics, nature, and art. Fleeting and rare, experiences of awe can change the course of a life in profound and permanent ways.” ~ Keltner and Haidt, 2003 Caltech Study

The study cited above details the differences between the two. Wonder results in admiration, but awe adds the element of fear or submission, the sense of being in the presence of something larger than oneself. It can be frightening at times.

Other benefits from experiencing Awe

IMG_6803* Perception of time expands

* More patient

* More willing to volunteer time or help others

* Prefer experiences over material things

* Greater life satisfaction

via a 2012 Stanford Study on Time and Awe
We can experience wonder in several ways, but being out in nature is one of the best. So, if our cameras can get us out in nature, where we’re likely to experience awe and wonder, then let’s do it.

I was recently in Florida, where the flora and fauna are completely different from what I’m used to at home. This led to many moments of wonder as I noticed new forms of bark and blossoms – like the bottlebrush blossom at the top of this post and the basket-weave type bark on this palm tree.

Nature Deficit Disorder

On the flip side, not experiencing nature is epidemic, especially in our western culture, resulting in what Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, coined as “nature deficit disorder.” He is particularly concerned about children, and believes that the lack of connection to nature can lead to behavioural problems.

Louv, the author of the bestsellers Last Child in the Woods (2005) and The Nature Principle (2011), coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the loss of connection children increasingly feel with the natural world. Nature-deficit disorder is not a clinically recognized condition, he explains, but rather a term to evoke a loss of communion with other living things. Nevertheless, he argues, nature-deficit disorder affects “health, spiritual well-being, and many other areas, including [people’s] ability to feel ultimately alive.” ~ Interview with Richard Louv at National Geographic

Carol Albers introduced me to a new social media campaign begun by videographer Louis Schwartzberg aimed to beat nature deficit disorder (#BeatNDD). I hope you’ll join me and Carol in spreading the word.

Download my PDF on Wonder, which includes exercises to cultivate this contemplative habit.

When did you last experience awe or wonder?


Experiences of Art, Nature and Spirituality May Help Prevent Disease – Huff Post Live

How Feelings of Awe Lower Inflammation – Traci Pedersen, Spirituality & Health

Turning to Wonder with Contemplative Photography – Center for Courage and Renewal

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It All Starts with Awareness

AwarenessWhile at a workshop several years ago, led by neuroscientist Dr. Dan Siegel, he used the term “awareness is everything.” To me, this meant that awareness, or the process of being aware, is foundational for a life of meaning.

Often, the word awareness is used in terms of becoming more knowledgeable about something, for example, breast cancer awareness, AIDS awareness, autism awareness, etc. If we don’t have a direct relationship or experience with someone experiencing these disorders or illnesses, we don’t know how we can help. So, through awareness we can increase our knowledge and our empathy.

“Awareness is the ability to perceive, to feel, or to be conscious of events, objects, thoughts, emotions, or sensory patterns.[1] In this level of consciousness, sense data can be confirmed by an observer without necessarily implying understanding. More broadly, it is the state or quality of being aware of something.” ~ via Wikipedia

Amazingly profound. Awareness is that state that allows perceptions, thoughts, feelings, senses, etc. It is not the thoughts, feelings, perceptions, themselves.

Awareness is a state of deep listening.

What I’ve found since practicing contemplative photography and studying creativity is that simple, present awareness precedes knowledge and is necessary for creativity. In his book, Looking into the Light, Sean Kernan says,

“Artwork starts with awareness, with being awake in some new way, knowing that, and following it.”

Awareness is not about looking for or learning about anything. It’s about being fully present and open to what is – before conceptual thought. One of my eternal questions is “how do we live in the most open state of awareness?” Dan Siegel has something to say about that.

The three foundational elements of mindfulness — objectivity, openness, and observation — create a tripod that stabilizes the mind’s attentional lens. ~ Dan Siegel

The first step and key to becoming more aware is noticing ourselves – our opinions, judgments, rejections, thoughts, feelings, motivations, etc. Through observing ourselves without judgment, we begin to understand why we do the things we do and what our primary motivations are.

Objectivity – being without judgment, bias, prejudice.

Openness – letting everything in.

Observation – bringing focused attention to what is.

Through understanding ourselves better, we increase our ability to understand others.

One of the best books that I know of on the subject of awareness is by Anthony de Mello  – Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality.

De Mello was a Jesuit priest who worked in India and was strongly influenced by the Hindu religion. His book presents a mixture of Christian spirituality, Buddhist parables, Hindu meditation exercises, and psychology to help us become more aware.

De Mello has a gift for writing in a way that anyone can understand and he is hilariously funny too.

Those who are self-aware react less and act more. ~ Anthony de Mello

The best ways I’ve found to begin to incorporate these three O’s into my life is through some form of meditation or contemplative practice – whether it be mindfulness, writing, or creating art.

I prefer a daily contemplative photo walk.
These practices bring us into the present and teach us how to take that watchful stance. Through regular practice, we are then able to bring this quality of present awareness into the rest of our days.

Joe Henry, in his wonderful interview with Krista Tippett at On Being, said this about self-awareness.

“Well, it’s essential — how close any of us get to it on any given day is up for grabs. Some days, I feel like I have a very good aerial view. I’m the lifeguard above the pool, and I can see everything for better and worse. Plenty of days, I feel like I’m chin deep in the middle of that water. And I don’t know how deep it is. And I am, in fact, a lousy swimmer. But… I have the desire to be aware.”

How do you practice awareness?

Links to Learn More about Awareness

Buddha’s Brain – This book by Rick Hansen takes a fascinating look at the science of meditation and how it can lead to happiness.

On Being Interview with musician and producer Joe Henry – The Mystery and Adventures of Life & Songwriting (this is all about awareness and how it’s necessary for creativity)

Photography teaches awareness. See my online photography workshop, Photo By Design, which will begin mid-August.

Read: Science of the Mindful Brain by Dr. Dan Siegel and How Expectations Affect What We See.

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My Gift from the Sea

I’m at the sea – the Atlantic Ocean, specifically. Water, and especially the ocean, draws me like a magnet.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s classic book, Gift from the Sea, has been my companion. I’m re-reading it for the umpteenth time and this time it touched me in a new, profound way.

Lindbergh’s gift came from the shells on the beach and what they taught her about relationships, particularly the different stages of a marital relationship.

She also talks about the aging process, and how many get stuck in their 40’s and 50’s in an eternal search for lost youth. Yet, this new stage should be a time of “second flowering,” in a whole new way.

“A new stage of living when, having shed many of the physical struggles, the worldly ambitions, the material encumbrances of active life, one might be free to fulfill the neglected side of one’s self. One might be free for growth of mind, heart, and talent; free at last for spiritual growth.”

This is the stage I’ve found myself in the past few years, as my kids make their way in the world and I build a life and business beyond mothering.

What is my gift from the sea?


“The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. To dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed, but lack of faith. Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach – waiting for a gift from the sea.” ~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea

The quote above describes my gift very well. It’s in the ebb and flow of the tide, where we find the treasures.

The edge of the sea – where water meets the land – is where one sees the ebb and flow. As I watched the waves coming in and going back out, I noticed that they do both at the same time. As water is pulled back into the sea, a new wave is coming in over top of it.

It’s a never-ending cycle – the rhythm of life.

The sea deposits treasures at our feet and then takes them back out again. One has to be paying close attention to see those treasures as they come or they’ll soon be gone and we’ll have missed them.

This is what I’ve been trying to do over the past few years, living a contemplative life through photography. What’s made all the difference is paying attention to the treasures that come into my life and either appreciating them and letting them go or acting on them while they’re here.

I’ve noticed that the best opportunities and experiences have come to me, rather than me seeking them. For example, I was asked to do a contemplative photography workshop while attending a workshop on contemplative poetry. I seized the opportunity.

This does not mean being passive. I have to actively follow my instincts in terms of what I do and notice the treasures as they appear. They’re everywhere, just waiting to be acknowledged.

How many more might I have missed?


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The Art of Doing Nothing


“I want to learn to do nothing. Be empty of attachment to things. To allow things simply to be, without my needs and projections.” ~ Natalie Goldberg, Long Quiet Highway

Doing nothing is not easy for me.

It’s not that I’m constantly physically active – far from it. I’m not a doer, but I am a thinker. What’s hard for me is to have my mind do nothing.

Yet, I firmly believe that cultivating a state of nothingness – which to me, means being totally present, without preconceived ideas or expectations, is extremely worthwhile.

It’s the state where creativity and right action is seeded.

Just as the ground in winter seems to be dormant, we know that it’s actually preparing the way for new growth. The same goes for the mind and body.

As usual, I think about how photography can teach me to do nothing. Last week, this article from National Geographic, What Does Nothing Look Like?, drew my attention.

Photographer Murray Fredericks visited Greenland over the years 2010 to 2013 and photographed “nothing.” Take a look at his amazing photographs.

“What I’m really fascinated with is the psychological impact of a photograph. Why does a landscape image have such an effect on people? Even when it’s an image of nothing.” ~ Murray Fredericks, National Geographic

Perhaps the answer to his question is that nothingness is so pregnant with possibility. His photographs make us pause and actually feel something. The paradox is that they are not really of nothing. We just don’t normally consider bare land, space, and light to be “something.”

Doing nothing might also help in our relationships, to others and ourselves. In his article, The Disease of Being Busy, Omid Safi says:

“I want my kids to be dirty, messy, even bored — learning to become human. I want us to have a kind of existence where we can pause, look each other in the eye, touch one another, and inquire together: Here is how my heart is doing? I am taking the time to reflect on my own existence; I am in touch enough with my own heart and soul to know how I fare, and I know how to express the state of my heart.”

If we take the time to practice doing nothing, maybe we’ll find our heart, or the heart of someone else.

How do we practice doing nothing?

* We could actually pause and do nothing. Start with five minutes and just be and observe without judgment. This could develop into a full blown meditation practice.

* Practice photographing nothing (or space or light) like Murray Fredericks does. Or, photograph nature doing nothing, like the birds above. They can teach us how to be.

* Take a daily rest. Again, just five minutes will do. Lie down. Close your eyes and let go of thoughts.

Is this something you find hard to do? Do you see the value in doing nothing?


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The Benefits of Road Tripping


On the Road


Road trips are adventures and learning experiences.

I was on the road all last week, just me and my dog, Daisy. On Saturday, I landed at my destination, West Palm Beach, Florida where I’ll be staying for a couple of weeks.

That space between was filled with new experiences. Here are a few of my takeaways.

Morgantown West Virginia

Sunset outside Hotel Room, Morgantown,

* Always expect changes in the plan.

Road trips start out with a plan, but one has to be open and willing for those plans to change. Because, in any adventure, unexpected circumstances will inevitably come up.

Sometimes, the plans change before you even leave, which is what happened to me.

A predicted snow storm had me leave a day early to avoid the storm, which meant the first night I spent in Morgantown, West Virginia, rather than the planned Beckley, West Virginia.

* It’s fun to experience new places.

While I advocate photographing close to home, travelling through new territory is a great way to rejuvenate. Your senses and attention are heightened when you’re travelling in areas you’ve never been before.

Although you don’t fully experience a place as you’re travelling through, you do get a taste.

On the first leg of my trip, I travelled on roads and through places that I’d never been before, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania being one of them. I’ve know of Pittsburgh as a steel town, but was surprised at how hilly and pretty it was.

The hilliness continued and the weather warmed as I continued on to Morgantown, home to the University of West Virginia and the actor Don Knotts. I found out that it’s considered one of the best small cities for living in the United States.


West Virginia Mountains

* Beauty comes in unexpected places.

For most of the next day, I drove through the state of West Virginia and it was one of my most enjoyable drives ever. I was blown away by the beauty of the West Virginia mountains.

There were several scenic lookouts along the way for stops, as well as a visitors center for the New River Gorge, a spectacular sight.

I didn’t expect it to be quite so beautiful for whatever reason, and it was a wonderful surprise.


Reaching Out

* Take the time to meet new friends.

Being in the online world, I meet many people through the digital waves that I’ve never met in person. On this trip, I reached out to two online friends, who took the time to spend the day with me in Beaufort, South Carolina, another new place.

What a joyful and stimulating time we had walking, talking, and photographing at Hunting Island Beach (see image right) and in town.

I also spent time with two other online friends in different cities. Of course, you can also start conversations with people you meet along the way. Everyone has a story to tell.

* Time on the road gives space for new ideas and photographs to emerge.

Driving can be quite monotonous, giving plenty of space and time to see and reflect. It took about three days before I started noticing ideas popping up everywhere – possibilities that I could consider in life and in business.

The time and space between starting point and destination gives those ideas time to germinate. It’s also a chance to listen to inspiring content, whether a radio show, podcast, music, or book on tape.

There are even photographic possibilities.


Rest Stop Magic

The photograph above was taken at a rest stop in Florida while I took my dog for a walk. It had rained the night before and this was a puddle in the grass reflecting the sky and greenery above. I snapped this photo with my iPhone and was very surprised when I saw the image on my screen and its Monet-like qualities.

What have you learned from a road trip?

More on Road Trips

The Benefits of Long Road Trips – this article is along the same lines as my post here.

As photographers, we want to tell stories with our images. There can be a whole story in one image, or the story can be told through a series of images. Many of the best images by renowned photographers came from their own road trips as David Campany and Denise Wolff show in this book, The Open Road: Photography and the American Road Trip.

It’s always good to have a special book for the road. My friend, Norah, gave me The Long Quiet Highway by Natalie Goldberg, the perfect road trip book.

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Who are you?

P1150692“The camera always looks both ways.” ~ Freeman Patterson


Who are you?

How would you answer this question?

For myself, I could say that I’m a middle-aged woman, a wife and mother, Canadian and American, who likes to photograph and creates online and in-person workshop experiences.

These labels tell you a little bit about me, but do not get even close to the essence of who I am.

If I were to ask a close friend of mine, they might say that I’m a thinker, that I’m generally a positive person, who loves to read and be inspired and to share ideas and inspiration with others. This is getting a little closer.

Yet, we can only ever point to essence.

Last week, I discovered the work of Nilofer Merchant, who asks this very question in her TEDx talk on the subject of “Onlyness.” Watch below.

“Onlyness is that thing that only that one individual can bring to a situation. It includes the journey and passions of each human. Onlyness is fundamentally about honoring each person: first as we view ourselves and second as we are valued. Each of us is standing in a spot that no one else occupies. That unique point of view is born of our accumulated experience, perspective, and vision. Some of those experiences are not as “perfect” as we might want, but even those experiences are a source for what you create.” ~ Nilofer Merchant, TEDx Houston

She believes that our onlyness is made manifest (or not) through our jobs, hobbies, passions, etc.

She believes that everyone has value to add to the world, not through their titles or positions, but through owning “their perspective, their vision, their talent, their creativity, their oddness.”

It can manifest in small, subtle ways or big, visible, world-changing ways. Each is important.

“Until you unlock your onlyness, you are not fully alive.” ~ Nilofer Merchant

Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, is known for having an epiphany on the corner of 4th and Walnut in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, where he suddenly felt a sense of oneness with everything and everyone around him. He saw their onlyness as well as how they and he were all connected.

“There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” ~ Thomas Merton

I too believe that every person has his or her own brilliance to share with the world and that many never do. It may look similar to someone else, but it is still subtly, uniquely you. Many have been conditioned to believe that they have nothing special to offer. Is that you?

How can you discover your onlyness?

1. Find your inner teacher. Pay attention to what attracts you, repulses you, makes you angry or sad, lights you up. These all hold clues to your onlyness.

2. Ask the people closest to you. They know your onlyness and can tell you how they see it manifesting in the world. Ask them what you uniquely bring to a room, a conversation, your relationship.

3. Have the courage to start sharing what matters to you. Maybe you’ll start by speaking up at work about something, sharing your art with friends or online, or writing a letter to the editor.

I did that when I started writing online and sharing my photography. My work has evolved as I’ve continued to follow my inner teacher. I have to give credit in a big way to Tara Mohr’s Playing Big program for giving me the courage to follow through.

If you think you know your onlyness, I hope you’ll share it with us in the comments. That’s one way of owning it.


For those of us who are photographers, you know that I also believe that we can learn a lot about ourselves from our photography. In the new workshop, Once Upon a Time: Photographs have Stories to Tell (in collaboration with Sally Drew), we’ll explore what our photographs have to say about us.

Maybe they’ll show us our onlyness.

Registration opens this Saturday, February 7th. Only 25 participants will be admitted to this first session. Learn more here.


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