To experience a sense of awe, of wonder, of being overpowered by the experience or sudden realization of something, is strangely absent from much contemporary discourse. I can’t think of the last time in which I heard someone describe a personal experience of something that truly stopped them in their trackes.
Our over-used word “awesome” has obviously been drained of this meaning, and probably has a lot to do with the decline of related uses of the word “awe”. Aside from the word itself, I still think there has also been a reduction in instances of the sense of awe, the experience that it describes.
When was the last time that you felt such a moment? When the world tapped you in the middle of the forehead and made you rethink the situation you were in, and see again with new respect or understanding?
Shinto religious and spiritual traditions out of Japan are founded around a concept of shrine worship. Shrines are dedicated to powerful spirits that represent natural forces of the universe and can reside in any object, location or even within cultural conceptions and ideas. Traditionally they were related to elements of the natural world: mountains, forests, rain, wind, thunder, etc.
The 18th century scholar and writer Motoori Norinaga described Kami as the shrines that people worshipped but also:
“…all other aweinspiring things—people of course, but also birds, beasts, grass and trees, even the ocean and mountains—which possess superlative power not normally found in this world. “Superlative” here means not only superlative in nobility, goodness, or virility, since things which are evil and weird as well, if they inspire unusual awe, are also called kami.”Kojikiden
The existence and nature of Kami are a bit fluid and cannot be precisely defined, but when talking bout Kami one is talking about the embodiment of the spirit, not just the abstract spirit. Kami isn’t the spirit of thunder, so much as it is the thunder as it splits the sky over your head. It isn’t the spirit of river in general, rather then specific rushing and roaring of experiencing the river’s power, or gentleness, depending on the moment. That is the key, that Kami are experienced as moments, as encounters, as dynamic expressions that strike awe into us due to being beautiful, or terrible or simply otherworldly.
It is this aspect of Kami that I find particularly useful, essentially a synonym for Awe, a word for the encounter of something so outside your previous experience or scale of understanding that it causes a kind of overwhelm and reverence.
When I talk about curiosity, I talk about the willingness to follow a thread of something into unknown territory. I talk about this idea that what you might discover may have the power or consequence of challenging your beliefs about the world.
I think there is a case to be made that this sense of Awe that comes from encountering Kami, the original sense of awe as something which forces us to reconsider what we thought we knew, must be related to this kind of curiosity. Awe cannot be the same thing as simply being “impressed”. It isn’t the same as seeing the best of something. It isn’t the upper (or lower) limit of what we might expect. In order for something to truly instill a sense of awe, it needs to break the limits. It needs to reset what we thought we knew. It isn’t just the tallest, or grandest, it is something so tall that we didn’t think things could reach that height, or so grand that we now have a whole new perspective for what that word might encompass.
In this way, the idea of Kami as something to worship lines up well with my passion for following curiosity. If curiosity is the mechanism by which we are seeking to broaden our perspectives, then these Kami are the milestones by which we can tell that we are on track.
Spirits of Nature
Given that the roots of so many spiritual traditions first came into being as forms of nature worship, it can be easy to think about this reverence for nature as the first step on the road, a proto-religious experience, or the first draft of awareness of something larger. I want to make the case for another perspective. That it is our exposure to nature that drives the most examples of being awe-struck.
Our world has become more constructed over time. Each layer, each addition, is man-made and comes from the cultural imagination. We can certainly create things to inspire one another, and things that inspire awe, but in order to truly get outside of human influence and into a space where objects and creatures can operate according to an entirely different set of rules, we need to look outside of human culture.
Nature wasn’t the fist step on the road, it has always been the ultimate “other”. Does knowing the physics of thunder and lightning make it any less impressive? Perhaps it is our developed sense of “spirit” that gets in the way. Some idea of consciousness, or again, a resemblance to human cognition. We think that these spectacles of nature are less important because they seem to be without life, without a directing force.
That is why this description of Kami appeals to me so much. It is a return to the direct connection between man and what moves our spirits. That is what this is really about. Not the true aspect of what we are experiencing, but what the experience itself will inspire us to do. It is the question of what we take away from the moment, and how we let is shape our thinking moving forward.
Now more than ever we need a strong connection to the natural world. We think we have it figure out, but there is no substitution for the awesome moments it produces within us, and the ability those encounters have to fuel our own curiosity and creativity.
I would love to see a return, not to nature worship, but nature seeking as a purposeful way to get ourselves in touch with the aspects of the world that can really inspire us. Seeking Kami in our lives could be a useful way to think about seeking Awe, not as an accidental occurrence, but as a goal for us to be reminded of and to make time for.