Autumn - Awe Inspiring Health
A recent study shows the power of intention and wonder: Two groups took 15 minute outdoor walks once a week....those in the 'awe walkers' group were asked to explore new areas and focus on details around them, looking with a child's "fresh eyes". Both groups were asked to bring their cellphones and take "selfies" along the way.
Awe and inspiration are highlighted in Chinese medicine as virtuous expressions of Autumn, the Metal element. The emotional continuum from awe to grief ~ the movement from inspiration to letting go ~ is amplified in the Autumn as we witness the transformation in nature from the fullness of summer into dormancy. Have you noticed these emotions coming up more strongly this time of year?
Even though we may consider grief an 'unpleasant' emotion, it is a natural response to being in tune with seasonal changes. Part of why grief may feel unpleasant is that letting go into loss can feel limitless and overwhelming. Consider this metaphor: in the dryness of Autumn, the leaf breaks off from the branch and floats to the ground. The letting go is clear and the landing is clear, but the free fall in between those points of contact, in the moment, feels infinite.
Leaves also provides a metaphor for awe and inspiration. Did you know that gorgeous reds, golds and oranges are simply the result of green pigmentation decaying? It's not that the leaves are "making" new pigments, it's that the non-green colors that have been hidden during the summer months while the trees focus on growth are coming to the surface. Chlorophyll gives leaves their green color and its job is to capture sunlight for the production of food. As the sunlight wanes and trees move into dormancy chlorophyll degrades and sap sinks to the roots so that the tree can survive the winter. We see the vibrancy of colors, creating a heightened sense of awe as we tune in with the precious just before the loss.
"Not surprisingly, researchers found that the awe walkers seemed to have become adept at discovering and amplifying awe. One volunteer reported focusing now on “the beautiful fall colors and the absence of them among the evergreen forest.” A control walker, in contrast, said she spent much of a recent walk fretting about an upcoming vacation and “all the things I had to do before we leave.” The researchers also found small but significant differences in the groups’ sense of well-being. Over all, the awe walkers felt happier, less upset and more socially connected than the men and women in the control group. The control group reported some improvements in mood, but their gains were slighter. More startling, the researchers noted a variance in the groups’ selfies. Over the course of the eight weeks, the size of awe walkers’ countenances shrank in relation to the scenery around them. Their faces grew smaller, the world larger. Nothing similar occurred in the photos from the control group."
A healthy metal element allows us to honor and value our place in the world, with a healthy sense of worth. That the awe groups' selfies changed is interesting because it suggests that the cultivation of awe shifted their perspective from inward to a more inclusive view. While the control groups' thoughts stayed focused on themselves, the awe groups' focus turned more outward. While self awareness is important, pre-occupation with self can lead to missed experiences and opportunities. A sense of awe and a healthy metal element cultivates our awareness of both our own inherent value and the vastness and mystery that surrounds us; it is a breath of fresh air and a cleansing to brighten what may feel tarnished and soften the edges that cut sharply.