I never thought much about the difference between awe and mystery until I started hanging out at the proverbial kitchen table of Kitchen Table Wisdom author Rachel Naomi Remen, MD. Soon after I bellied up to that table, awe and mystery, along with a side dish of wonder, started showing up on the menu. I don’t know why I never thought much about awe and mystery before meeting Rachel. After all, just like her, I was trained as a doctor. Doctors are blessed with a front row seat on awe and mystery. Over 10,000 times, I was the first human a new baby saw after slipping out of Mama. At least 100 times, I was the last person someone saw before transitioning to the other side of the veil. Countless times, mystery showed up in ways I couldn’t explain—like how I would know something about a patient that I couldn’t possibly know with my five senses or the results of any laboratory tests, and yet very often, what I knew would save a life.
Why did I not stop to marvel in awe? Why was I not more enchanted with the mystery? Did I get so burned out, busy, and out of integrity with my own inner truth that I failed to notice the beaming face of a soul who hadn’t yet fully incarnated into a new baby body? What led me to miss out on the wonder that should always accompany new life or the perfectly peaceful death that happens when someone has lived a fully expressed, optimally loving life with no regrets?
Meeting Rachel changed my life in a thousand ways, but this one simple thing—the ability to recognize when awe and mystery show up—touched me deeply and touches me still in everyday ways.
What Is Awe?
Dictionary.com defines “awe” as “an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc., produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful, or the like.” I like the word “reverence” as it relates to awe. When I feel awe, I feel that reverence in my heart. It’s like a combination of devotion, gratitude, and feeling lucky as hell, like I somehow hit the jackpot without doing anything to deserve it. Awe makes me think of the word “grace,” which is one of my favorite words. Grace is unearned blessings. That which strikes me with awe always feels like grace.
Awe is a function of aliveness, and it’s not extraneous. It’s a core need, without which we weaken our life force. We need to feel awe as much as we need food and shelter. While food and shelter are physical needs, awe is a soul need. The soul becomes present to us in a moment of awe, and when we are awe-deficient, we are at risk of soul sickness, which can show up as physical illness, depression, anxiety, or simply a feeling like something is missing (because it is). Just like your body needs exercise every day, so does your soul. Awe gives your soul a workout and reminds you why you’re here and how blessed you are to be human.
What Is Mystery?
Mystery is defined as “something that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain.” Mystery encompasses not just everyday mysteries, like all the things science tries to explain but can’t, but also the mystical, magical, miraculous experiences the mind can’t quite comprehend and science doesn’t even try to touch, like near death experiences, psychic phenomena, spiritual superpowers that can emerge through meditation, communication with people who have died, dreams that predict the future, and spontaneous remissions from seemingly “incurable” illnesses.
Mystery tends to offend the cognitive mind because it’s not explainable, and we get scared of things we can’t explain. Mysteries threaten our world view and make the ego feel out of control. Unlike awe, mystery is not a need. It’s part of the natural world. Mystery just IS. Life is inherently mysterious, so we’re always surrounded by mystery, and yet, we don’t like mysteries. We like solving mysteries but we get uncomfortable with unsolved mysteries. They make us feel unstable. We like to tie everything up in a nice little package that we can explain. A little mystery makes the world excited, but we tend to get nervous when life is filled with too much mystery. Mystery makes us wonder what is real, and we don’t like having our sense of reality threatened. Mystery makes no SENSE, and this can be uncomfortable.
Yet life is filled with mystery. I was trained as an OB/GYN and yet we still don’t know what causes labor. All this science, all these medical advances, and we still don’t understand the most basic thing about how a baby comes into the world! If only we could know what causes labor, perhaps we could control when it happens and make sure it doesn’t happen too early. But alas, labor is still a mystery. We hate that. We want to know. Knowing makes us feel safe. Not knowing makes us feel uncomfortable.
But when we start to open ourselves to mystery, when we feel less frightened by it, mystery starts to become seductive. If you don’t know . . . anything is possible! Mystery can be exciting when you don’t resist it.
The Difference Between Awe & Mystery
Awe doesn’t disturb the cognitive mind the way mystery does. Awe feels much more comfortable than mystery. Mystery can include awe- especially when miracles happen—but awe doesn’t necessarily include mystery. The same way we resist the mystery in ourselves, we resist the mystery of the world. But we don’t tend to resist awe the same way. We tend to keep mysteries secret. I’m constantly in awe of how many people keep their miracle stories private because they fear they will be considered crazy if they tell the truth about the mystery they’ve experienced. But awe is not something we’re afraid to share. We don’t resist awe the way we do mystery. Awe is not a secret the way mystery tends to be.
Most of us don’t realize how essential awe is to the human condition. Awe is not seen as something necessary. We think of it like icing. Awe is considered a luxury. But awe is a real need—it’s a need of the soul. If you didn’t have a soul, you couldn’t experience awe, and if you want to experience your soul, look for awe. You’ll be able to experience your soul every time you find it.
Awe & Mystery in Everyday Life
My daughter Siena and I are spending three weeks together in Byron Bay, Australia on a little mother-daughter holiday before my book The Anatomy of a Calling launches December 29 (you can still qualify for the preorder bonuses here). She has been feeling under the weather, so we’ve been laying low, but this afternoon, we stopped by a farm where, for thirty Australian dollars, you can pick for yourself a box full of veggies at an organic farm. As we dug up carrots, beets, and potatoes, picked vine ripened heirloom tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers, and harvested fresh lettuce, kale, and basil, I felt awe, not just awe at Mother Earth’s bounty, but awe at how blessed I am, how beautiful the sky was, how magical the earth is for being able to transmute little seeds into big ripe vegetables, how wondrous the noisy birdsongs are in Byron Bay in the area where I’m staying, deep in the rainforest. Mostly, I felt awe at the glee on my daughter’s face, even when she has been leveled with a virus.
As we were rustling around the farm, somehow, the key of my rental car tumbled out of my pocket and disappeared—Lord knows where, among the piles of soil, plants and vegetables I had been kneeling among. I walked up and down a few aisles, feeling hopeless and wondering how in the world I would get back to our cottage when my phone doesn’t even work in Australia. Then I remembered that I don’t have to control my life. (I have to remind myself at least a dozen times per day that I don’t have to handle my problems alone.) I stopped to practice the surrender practice that has become a daily prayer. Making the lost key an offering to the Divine, I closed my eyes, visualized the burden of the lost key as a weight on my heart, prayed that whatever is in the highest good will come into being, and cast the burden to the Divine as my beloved partner in co-creation. Then, feeling trusting and knowing that whatever happened, whether I found the key or not, everything was going to be okay.
Two seconds after my prayer, I looked to my left, and right there, floating atop a cluster of tomatoes, was my car key. That is mystery—right there. My soul has been well fed today.
Experience Medicine for the Soul for 50% Off
These are the kinds of awe and mystery-inspiring soul challenges Rachel and I share together in a program we co-created—Medicine for the Soul. Rachel and I know the holidays can be rough, and the soul can suffer, especially when you’ve lost a loved one, endured a divorce, struggled with a physical illness, or experienced disappointment, heartbreak, or loss. Yet we also know that the soul is incredibly resilient, and sometimes all it takes is a boost from within in order to ignite the part of you that knows how to heal, cleanse, and thrive. This is why we’ve discounted Medicine for the Soul 50% off for just one more day—until December 6, 12:01 a.m. PST. Learn more about Medicine for the Soul & register at half price here.
If you haven’t already had your daily dose of awe today, treat yourself to something that will feed your soul. Get outside. Watch a sunset. Read a Rumi or Hafiz poem. Explore a new hiking trail. Contemplate a tree. Explore a flower. Watch your child with magical eyes. Experience a kiss like you’ve never had one before.
Where can you find awe today?
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