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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A Retreat for Nature Lovers

P1160198This is a story about coming full circle.

About ten years ago, I was trying to decide what the next phase of my life would be – post raising children. Photography was my passion, but I didn’t want to lose my love for it by turning it into a business.

I’d also become very interested in environmental issues, and decided to do a Masters program in that subject. My goal was to work for a not-for-profit environmental organization.

Going back to school at my age was so enjoyable and interesting. The program I enrolled in taught me so much. And, I did briefly work part-time for a wonderful environmental organization called Earth Charter Indiana.

However, photography kept drawing me back.

Fast forward about seven years. At my Star Island workshop last fall, I met a woman named Deb McKew, who works for a wonderful organization called BRI – Biodiversity Research Institute.

According to their mission statement, they assess emerging threats to wildlife and ecosystems through collaborative research, and use scientific findings to advance environmental awareness and inform decision makers.

Deb is the Communications and Publications Director for BRI and has a passion for writing. She came up with the fabulous idea to create a workshop that bridges the scientific research being conducted by BRI and the art world.

In other words, to allow artists the opportunity to see BRI’s work in action and express the experience through their art.

On Block Island (12 miles off the coast of Rhode Island), BRI tracks raptors and songbirds as part of their research, and also maintain a saltwater marsh.

For five days this October (4th – 9th), BRI will be hosting a retreat where science meets art. There will be three sections of 8 participants each – art, photography, and writing (although there will be some writing in all three sections).


I will be leading the photography section and am very excited about the opportunity. I feel as though I’ve come full circle, combining my love for photography, writing, and environmental work in one place.

If you’re with me on this, I hope you’ll consider being one of the eight in this very special and intimate retreat.

Learn more by clicking here.

And, if you know of someone else (or a group) that would appreciate this type of experience, please pass it on to them. There is a special offer (see below) for registering before May 1st.

I’m offering one free spot in either my Going Abstract or Keeping It Simple workshops this fall for anyone who signs up for the Block Island retreat before May 1st.


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Inspiring Photographer Saul Leiter

Recently, I watched a documentary about the legendary colour photographer, Saul Leiter (1923 – 2013). It’s called “In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life from Saul Leiter.” Watch the trailer below.

“An unassuming man who shunned attention, Saul Leiter photographed on the streets of New York, mostly within a few blocks of his East Village apartment. With their rich layering and swaths of beautiful color, Leiter’s images induced moments of quietude and contemplation amid the bustle and chaos of New York City street life.” – David Walker, PDN News

Saul Leiter’s photography resonates with me deeply. He was a New York City street photographer, who did fashion shoots to earn a living. Yet, he has become known for his impressionistic colour work on the streets of the city. Leiter lived in the same neighbourhood for over sixty years.

According to one article from Photographers Speak, he was a “quiet iconoclast,” working in colour at a time when most fine art photographers worked in black and white.

He shot vertically rather than horizontally most of the time.

He used telephoto lenses to compress perspective rather than the more typical wide angle for street photography.

Here are a few of my favourite quotes from the film.

“Everything is suitable to be photographed. A photograph of a window covered in raindrops interests me more than a photograph of a famous person.”

“I don’t plan to photograph certain things, I come across them. I enjoy catching certain moments. I tend to react to what I find.”

“There are the things that are out in the open and then there are the things that are hidden, and life has more to do, the real world has more to do with what is hidden, maybe. You think?”

Below are links to some wonderful articles about Leiter and the quotes that stood out to me.

An Interview with Saul Leiter from Photographers Speak

“He had a distinct visual grammar that featured off-center perspectives, compressed spatial dynamics, and a predilection for breaking up the frame in unpredictable and exciting ways.”

“I admired a tremendous number of photographers, but for some reason I arrived at a point of view of my own.” ~ Saul Leiter

“I never felt the need to do what everyone else did. And I wasn’t troubled by the fact that other people were doing other things.” ~ Saul Leiter

“I don’t have a philosophy. I have a camera. I look into the camera and take pictures. My photographs are the tiniest part of what I see that could be photographed. They are fragments of endless possibilities.” ~ Saul Leiter

7 Lessons Saul Leiter Has Taught Me About Street Photography by Eric Kim

“I think I’ve said this before many times—that photography allows you to learn to look and see. You begin to see things you had never paid any attention to. And as you photograph, one of the benefits is that the world becomes a much richer, juicier, visual place. Sometimes it is almost unbearable — it is too interesting. And it isn’t always just the photos you take that matters. It is looking at the world and seeing things that you never photograph that could be photographs if you had the energy to keep taking pictures every second of your life.” ~ Saul Leiter

A Casual Conversation with Saul Leiter – Time Magazine

“Max Kozloff said to me one day, ‘You’re not really a photographer. You do photography, but you do it for your own purposes – your purposes are not the same as others’. I’m not quite sure what he meant, but I like that. I like the way he put it.” ~ Saul Leiter

Postscript: Saul Leiter (1923-2013) via The New Yorker

“The overriding emotion in his work is a stillness, tenderness, and grace that is at odds with the mad rush of New York street life.”

“The content of Saul Leiter’s photographs arrives on a sort of delay: it takes a moment after the first glance to know what the picture is about. You don’t so much see the image as let it dissolve into your consciousness, like a tablet in a glass of water.”

A Short Interview with Saul Leiter via In-Public

Obituary, Saul Leiter, Legendary Colour Artist

There’s a nice collection of photographs at this New Yorker article. Or watch this 5 minute meditative slideshow set to the music of Miles Davis.


There are many videos online with Saul Leiter. Here are a couple.

Saul Leiter on Vimeo – a 14 minutes interview from a year before his death

Saul Leiter in Conversation with photography critic, Vince Aletti

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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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Inspired by … Sophia Roberts

Every time I finish a workshop, I marvel at the people who are a part of them – thoughtful and kind, as well as excellent photographers in their own right. They all seem to have a thirst to continue to grow and evolve, and to do it with others. We really do learn from each other.

In this series, I feature some of these wonderful people on this blog – to show you their work, and allow them to tell their photography story.

Today, you’ll hear from Sophia Roberts, who has been a very active participant in The 50mm Project, Going Abstract, and Adventures in Seeing workshops.

She will also be a part of the new visual journaling workshop coming up in March. As you will see below, she has a background in writing and is interested in combining writing with her fine art photography.

Meet … Sophia Roberts


©Sophia Roberts

©Sophia Roberts

How and when did you get started in photography and what drew you to this medium?

I developed a passion for photography late in life. Whilst I had always been attracted to the visual arts – and to photography in particular – I had never been interested in taking snapshots or in documenting my life. My interest was, and is, fine art photography, which was beyond me until I bought my first digital camera.

Describe your evolution as a photographer. Who are your mentors?

I learnt that photography is the visual art form, for me – and that I should take it seriously – when I took Andrea Scher’s SuperHero Photo on-line course in the summer of 2013. I was attracted by her philosophy that “photography is more than a hobby — it’s a way of seeing & experiencing the world. And it’s not about technical skill, or having the latest lenses & gadgets — it’s about chasing light, capturing delight, and shifting our perspectives — literally and artistically.”

To say it transformed the way I took photographs is an understatement, because it also transformed my life. I had been suffering from crippling depression, but it got me moving again. Further, I was engaging with the world by really seeing it, afresh. I began to take my compact camera everywhere I went.

And then, following the very positive feedback I received on the photos I took whilst in travelling in Poland and Oman, I felt the time had come, in the summer of 2014, to invest in a digital SLR camera.

I considered, after the summer of 2013, that I had all but exhausted the subject of my house and garden. Not a bit of it. I went on to see more and more after discovering Contemplative Photography in 2014; and in particular the work of Patricia Turner. She advises the Contemplative Photographer “to make meaning from what you perceive … at that particular moment.” Accordingly I learnt to stop, to see and hear – to engage – with what was in front of me before pressing the shutter.

I enjoy looking at her work as well as the photographs of Ansel Adams, Verner Bischof, Edward Weston, Tina Modotti, Freeman Patterson, Michael Wood, David DuChemin, and Guy Tal, to name but a few. It helps enormously that there are so many good blogs and web-sites available; otherwise my library shelves would be in serious trouble!

© Sophia Roberts

© Sophia Roberts

Why do you photograph and what types of subjects are your favourites?

Increasingly I photograph in order to see. Thereafter I like to express what I have seen, so that I can communicate it. One of my maxims in life is that it’s a waste if you don’t share it. Fortunately the internet makes this very easy to do.

Because I am housebound, with MS, I usually choose to take pictures of what’s available within my home or of what I see when I look out of the window. However, when I look back at my work it’s apparent that I probably enjoying capturing landscape most, wherever I am. I also enjoy taking portraits, because I enjoy engaging with people.

What would you like to explore next with photography?

My next challenge will be to combine words with photographs. I’ve long since been fascinated by the relationship between text and image and this year I intend to explore it. My aim is to use macro photography to consider as many aspects of a subject as I can. Thereafter my focus will probably be metaphor.

I am also very interested in Photo Impressionism and painterly images. I was torn, when younger, between being a poet and an artist. I chose writing, because I wasn’t a good enough draughtsman. Photography should enable me to redress the balance.

Above all I want to do justice to what contemplation is enabling me to really see, whilst learning – over and over again – to say “No”. For, as David DuChemin says, “What the photographer leaves out of the frame is as important as what he leaves in.”

© Sophia Roberts

© Sophia Roberts

Where can we find your work online?

I intend this year to set up a blog. My focus will be on “using my poetry and photographs to elevate the ordinary.”

In the meantime I have lot of photographs available on Facebook and also on Flickr.

Thank you, Sophia. You’ve been an inspiration to me as well as others in my workshops, for your willingness to really engage the materials, your generosity in commenting and your incredible images.

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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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