Conversations on Healing

Dr. Michael Amster

The Power of Awe: Finding the Extraordinary in the Ordinary

Pain Management Specialist

Dr. Michael Amster is a pain management specialist with over 20 years of experience in the field. He is also the founding director of the pain management department for Santa Cruz Community Health. Dr. Amster co-authored the book, The Power of Awe, with Jake Eagle which outlines how people can harness the power of awe in their lives. They coined the acronym A.W.E., standing for Attention, Wait, and Exhale/Expand, which was developed during the pandemic and has been shown to significantly reduce depression and anxiety. Dr. Amster has been a student of meditation for over 30 years and is also a certified yoga and meditation teacher.

In today’s episode of the Conversations on Healing Podcast, host Shay Beider talks with Dr. Amster to define awe and the effects awe has on wellbeing. He talks about his development of the awe method with Jake Eagle and its incredible effects on increasing consciousness while resetting the nervous system during times of stress. Michael defines awe in terms of both perception and cognitive shifts in perspective that allow for internal healing. After working with chronic pain patients for over 20 years, he shares how this transformative practice can decrease inflammation and pain in the body, as well as raise awareness to the vaste wonder of everyday life.

Listen to the complete episode by clicking the player above. Transcripts for this episode are available at:

Introduction (00:00:02): Welcome to the “Conversations on Healing” podcast, where host Shay speaks with renowned healthcare leaders, practitioners, and thought leaders to explore the world of wellness, the incredible powers of self-care, and what it truly means to heal today. Join us on this journey to become more whole healed and connected.

Shay Beider (00:00:21): Hi everyone! This is such a fun conversation, I cannot wait to share with you today. Welcome back to the Conversation on Healing Podcast! I am host Shay Beider. And today I have with me, Dr. Michael Amster. He is a physician with twenty years of experience as a pain management specialist and he’s currently the founding director of the pain management department at Santa Cruz Community Health. Michael has been a student of meditation for literally over thirty years, as well as a certified yoga and meditation teacher. So his book, “The Power of Awe”, written with co-author, Jake Eagle, combines his passion for microdosing mindfulness with overcoming burnout, anxiety, and chronic pain. In this episode, we get the opportunity to practice The Awe Method, It’s A.W.E., a fun little acronym. So Michael and I actually go through the practice and you’ll also hear some excerpts from his book, “The Power of Awe”. This practice will be such a beautiful, simple and easy way to evoke awe into your life and really integrate it into your daily routine. I cannot wait for you all to experience Awe with me, so let’s get this conversation started!

(00:00:35): Hi Michael, welcome to the “Conversations on Healing” podcast.

Dr. Michael Amster (00:00:40): Hi, Shay, it’s a pleasure to meet you and your community of listeners. Thank you. I’m honored to be here with you today, <laugh>, I’m just thrilled for this conversation. We’ll get to have on, on awe.

Shay (00:00:50): Exactly. It’s gonna be amazing. I read your book “The Power of Awe”, and there is so much to dig into about what awe is, you know, kind of explaining it, and it’s incredible from the research findings, how it takes literally like 15 seconds to transform so many things in terms of our health outcomes. So we’ll dive into all of that in our conversation, but I thought it would be nice to just begin with how in the world did you get involved in studying awe? Like, just tell us a little bit about what drew you in to this work and into this field.

Michael (00:01:30): Yeah, that’s a great question. So, um, I am a pain management specialist and double boarded also in family medicine. And for about 20 years I’ve been, uh, teaching mindfulness to patients, um, as one of the tools to help them with managing their chronic pain. And I’m sure I, I might’ve, I’ve, I’ve seen some of your podcasts and people have talked about this on your previous shows, so, um, I know it’s something that you’re, you’re quite passionate and familiar about as well. And I, um, have a really dear friend and colleague, Jake Eagle, who’s my co-author of the book, “The Power of Awe”, and we’re both mindfulness teachers. And about four years ago, I had a conversation with Jake after attending one of his classes that he was teaching called “Thrilled to Be Alive”. And as part of the class, he was asking his students to do a 10 minute meditation a day.

(00:02:26): And very common is what meditation teachers will experience, is that our students have a really hard time developing a consistent mindfulness practice. And so out of this conversation came up the idea of what we call microdosing mindfulness. So what if we could come up with little micro doses of mindfulness that people could take with ’em throughout the day and not have to actually have a sitting formal practice that takes 10 minutes to do? Um, which is so hard for people to do these days with our busy lives. And so, uh, Jake actually lives in Hawaii, which is an extraordinarily beautiful and awesome place to go see. And I flew out there and we spent a week investigating what would be, if we could design this perfect microdosing mindfulness practice, what would that be like? And of course, Hawaii’s filled with a lot of extraordinary awe.

(00:03:17): The rainbows, the ocean, the mountains, the food, everything is extraordinarily awesome there. But it was actually in this very ordinary moment that I had this, what I call an awe-piphany where I was making pancakes for Jake and Hannah one morning, and I poured the batter and I just stood there with my full undivided attention and watched these pancakes turn from a liquid to a solid. And I’m sure like most people, when we make pancakes, we pour the batter and then we run off and we do something else. We’re like making sausage or orange juice or coffee. We’re making our kids their lunches for school, like we’re multitasking and we’re never really fully present to that one thing. And so I had this really phenomenal awe experience where just watching and witnessing in this transition of a liquid batter to something that was fluffy and solid just gave me this full intense experience of awe and wonder.

(00:04:14): And so from that, Jake and I had a conversation and we dissected what had happened. And from this we created this technique that we call The Awe Method. And it’s a technique that takes 15 seconds to do, to teach people how to have profound moments of awe in the ordinary. And, um, we both did two pilot studies where we taught this to 15 of our own patients in, um, a 21 day program and followed different metrics like anxiety and depression, chronic pain levels, um, overall sense of wellbeing. And our results were tremendously, uh, powerful and successful. So I tracked down Dachner Keltner, who is the, the founder of what’s called the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. And he’s a, a research psychologist, and he’s been studying the emotion and the law since 2003. And people really think of him as the granddaddy of all our research.

(00:05:09): And we shared our initial findings with him and he said, this is the future of mindfulness. Like you guys have nailed it. You found a profoundly transformative practice that changes people’s levels of consciousness in a matter of 10 to 15 seconds with, um, incredible results in terms of improvement of, um, mental and physical health. So right after I had that conversation with Dr. Keltner, the pandemic started and Jake and I contacted him and said, Hey, we wanna teach this Awe method to hundreds of people that are right now struggling and suffering with the pandemic ongoing. And so we recruited in two very large robust studies, 300 primary care patients, um, from around the United States, but primarily in a, a healthcare system in Northern California. And then we also recruited doctors and nurses in a different study around, uh, the country, uh, that were at the height of the pandemic.

(00:06:06): The study commenced in June of 2020, and we taught this Awe method that we’ll get to talk a little bit more about today to all the participants and followed them with daily metrics and then some longitudinal metrics and saw incredible outcomes in terms of people’s, um, improvement of mental and physical health. For example, we saw a 35% reduction of depression, which is really incredible considering at that time, depression was on the rise. Um, we saw incredible decreases in anxiety about 25%, um, from the simple technique that takes people about a minute a day to do. We asked people in the study to practice The Awe Method three times a day, and each process of the method takes about 15 seconds to do so. And what was really exciting was our, our outcomes with the medical professionals because as, as you know in the conversations you have on this podcast, you know, our physicians need to take care of themselves.

(00:07:06): The nurses, all, everyone in the healthcare system is facing empathy, fatigue, compassion fatigue, um, burnout on these incredibly high levels. Uh, uh, an AMA study done, the American Medical Association study that was done during the pandemic of 20,000 doctors surveyed, showed that over 50% were on the verge of serious burnout and ready to quit medicine. And we, we need our healthcare force to be as robust and healthy and and available to, to take care of everyone in our community. So, um, the fact that our study has such profound help with people’s burnout was really exciting. Um, and then from that we wrote our book, uh, “The Power of Awe”. Um, we were encouraged to write the book. We’d actually never set out to write a book. It was just our desire to help people with this technique that we thought would be so transformative.

Shay (00:07:59): That’s great. And it might be nice for our listeners to have you kind of define awe. And the other feature that I thought is interesting is that you described there’s like a spectrum to awe. Um, so maybe you wanna kind of address those two points?

Michael (00:08:15): Yeah, sure. So when most people think of awe, they think of, um, an extraordinary moment of awe. Let’s say, you know, the time maybe you went to the Grand Canyon and you looked out at that vast vastness of the vista, the view or maybe the time that you witnessed the birth of your child or attended to someone who was passing away and witnessing them in their transition, in their final moments of life. You know, all these profound moments can be deeply awe inspiring and transformative for us. And what’s really unique about our work is that we’re teaching people to have an experience of awe in the ordinary moments. And prior to developmental Awe method, all the research on awe that was done was always looking at extraordinary moments of awe. So teaching people, um, uh, through virtual reality experiences like how people wear goggles and seeing themselves fly over the Grand Canyon, or going to Yosemite and then eliciting moments of awe.

(00:09:12): But again, that’s not a sustainable practice. So we’re teaching people through this technique to have moments of all in the ordinary. So scientifically, when we think about what awe is, there’s two parts to the definition when we measure this as a unique positive emotion. So first of all, it gives one a sense of perceptual vastness, and it can be vastness outside of ourselves. So if we think of the Grand Canyon, you know, it, there is that sense of vastness or a beautiful sunset. It can be vast looking over the ocean. But more important than the external vastness is that it creates a sense of vastness within ourselves that we feel vast, our, our egoic identity, our sense of self diminishes, and we feel connected to whether you want to call it God or a universal consciousness or the, the connection of all life on earth.

(00:10:08): We feel that our sense of self expands in a certain way where we feel vast and connected to all life on the planet. And then the second way we look at awe’s unique emotion is that it does what’s called cognitive accommodation, which means that in the moment of having an awe experience, it really shifts our perception of how we see the world. It um, it kind of gives you a new way of seeing things that opens your eyes, you feel wonder, amazement. Um, you know, for example, if you think of if you’ve ever been to Yosemite and you, you witness those sheer granite cliffs that go for 3,000 feet vertically, like how is that possible that rocks can suspend in the air like that, you know, with that way, you know, billions of pounds. It’s just, it’s just mind blowing. And that’s what awe elicits. Um, in our book we talk about a very simple definition of awe, which is an emotional experience in which we sense being in the presence of something that transcends our normal perception of the world. So how about you? Have you had a moment of awe recently? Shay?

Shay (00:11:18): I have had so many, I think <laugh>, as I was reading your book, I’m like, I am so lucky <laugh> because I have this all the time, like every day. Um, and it’s really interesting because this idea of like microdosing mindfulness, you know, where there is some, I think so much of this is like a practice that then it just starts to occur naturally, right? So the more that we are doing those little kind of microdosing exercises, so to speak, the more that naturally, you know, that like pancake bubble moment happens, right? Where you’re suddenly like, this is so beautiful and it just sort of like comes, it’s seemingly out of nowhere. But as I was cataloging, like the moments in my own life, I really related to that spectrum element. Yeah. Cause I was like, I have had moments of awe that shook my entire universe, you know, that like literally changed the rest of my entire life.

(00:12:25): Um, and where, where also, and this piece, um, I find really interesting, for me, kind of the most profound moments of awe that I’ve had, it’s actually how I experience it is almost like a downloading of information where I’m actually like receiving something. And so it is an experience for me of actually receptivity where I’m receiving. And in that receiving, that’s what for me creates the transformation because there’s like a higher level of intelligence that’s sort of being distributed into my system. And, when that happens, like I learn something or something grows inside of me that then helps me to live a better life. You know, that’s like internally, um, transforming in a positive way. And that was the other piece that’s like, it’s very positive, right? If you know, you’re placing it on the emotional spectrum. It’s obviously positive emotion

Michael (00:13:26): <laugh>. Yes. Well, I really love how you shared that, the idea that receptiveness the openness that happens and that’s that sense of vastness that we talk about in the definition of awe. It’s like the, you do, you feel like a, an open vessel to really welcoming in all the beauty and grandeur of life. Yeah. And I, and I also love how you talk about the, the spectrum. I didn’t address that in my last answer, but it’s a really important idea I think that helps people as they start to develop this practice we call developing your awe muscle, is that ah, does happen on a spectrum. So sometimes it’s that real subtle sense of just feeling maybe like a simple shift of your consciousness where you’re like, oh wow. Or you know, maybe the colors are brighter. Um, you’re listening to piece of music and it’s just got a richness to it that you just have never felt before.

(00:14:24): Um, all the way to the far end of the spectrum where you might start to cry or your whole body tingles or chills. Um, we call that far end of the spectrum, the an awe-gasm <laugh> where you really, you know, it just excites all your senses and you feel it everywhere. You’re, you’re just tingly and chills all, all over. Um, and what’s really nice with this practice and what we’ve seen with people, and we know from our study and our research is two things. One is that the more you dose these micro doses, these micro moments of awe, the more benefit you get. So there was a dose response that we saw in our study that the more times you dose throughout the day, the more improvement we had in physical and mental health, which is really incredible. And I know we’ll get into the science a little bit more later about what’s happening in our physiology when we have a moment of awe.

(00:15:14): Um, and the second thing is that’s really what we’ve learned from this research is that awe is easy. You know, a traditional mindfulness practice of having to sit, let’s say for 10 or 20 minutes a day and really focusing on your breath or sensations in the body, it’s a very important practice. And I, and I’m not, I’m not knocking on it. I mean, I, am trained as a, as a Buddhist meditation teacher and did a two year intensive program. So I, personally have benefited greatly from a very intense deep practice. But for many people it’s very hard to cultivate that level of attention and, and focus. And it can be almost a self defeated process sometime. And what’s beautiful about The Awe Method is that it’s simple and easy and effortless. It just takes 10 seconds, 15 seconds to do. And you can do it any place, anywhere.

(00:16:08): I mean, I’ve had some profound awe moments when I’m at a red light waiting for the light to change and just bringing my attention to maybe seeing a bird fly by and being in awe of that. Or, um, I’ve had an awe moment at the airport in line at the TSA checkpoint and just being in awe of people and the, the beautiful diversity and the quirkiness of people’s behaviors, which can be really awe-inspiring. So what we love about this practice is that it can go anywhere. It’s a practice that you take everywhere you are in your life.

Shay (00:16:40): Mm-hmm. Yeah. It’s so portable, which is just lovely cuz you can do it. I was playing with this method and we’re gonna go into the method next so our listeners can practice it too. But I was on an airplane a couple days ago and I just had this moment where I just like looked around and took in the fact that, wait, I am made of stardust and I’m flying in this little bubble in the sky with these other people and were like suspended in the air. And I just like looked out the window, I like took it all in and I was like, this is amazing.

Michael (00:17:18): Yeah. Right.

Shay (00:17:19): How in the world, this is even possible <laugh>. And it just seemed like, wow, this is just the craziest

Michael (00:17:26): <laugh>. I know. I, I mean, I feel like we’re so many of us are just, we’re we’re walk, we’re sleepwalking in our lives, and this is what this practice is about, is about waking you up to this profound amount of amazement and beauty to be held every moment of our day in our lives. I mean, there’s nothing more awesome than flying across the country and transporting in the middle of the air at 400 or 500 miles an hour. I mean, it’s just, yeah. And if, I think if all the passengers had a little bit more of a, sense of awe, like people would start enjoying travel more <laugh>.

Shay (00:18:02): Absolutely.

Michael (00:18:04): <laugh>. I mean, I, I could see an one of the airlines, uh, maybe hiring us to train all their employees on awe. Even the awe back to air travel, you know, I mean, because actually this, this work is really important with burnout. And then everyone in a customer service industry, whether you’re a, a physician, a medical assistant, a nurse, you know, you work at a restaurant, you, you work at a call center, you work for an airlines, and you dealing with a public, I mean, this technique is so helpful because first of all, you can be in awe of people when you’re interacting with them. Instead of being irritating and agitating yourself, you can actually transform that into like kind of this, this amazement. Like, I, I actually can see awe in things that used to maybe trigger myself.

(00:18:47): Um, and then the technique is wonderful because you can reset your nervous system in between an interaction. When I’m done with a patient, I’ll take those moments between going into the next patient room to have a moment of awe to really reset my nervous system. So when I walk into my next patient, I am fully present and I’ve sort of let go of that residue. You know, I’m a, I’m a chronic pain specialist and it’s, it’s one of the hardest specialties of medicine is pain management, you know, and it’s barely transformed my practice of medicine, uh, for my own self-care, but also for my patients because I can walk into a room and we start our visits often with what’s your moment of awe, uh, this week? Or what, what awe have you had in the last few days? And, and when you actually have this conversation about awe, which we’ve, we’ve, we’re experiencing this right now between the two of us, but awe is contagious in a, in a wonderful, contagious way. Because when you share your awe with somebody else, you inspire awe and others and just conversing about awe shifts our nervous system. Like you start to become more present and calm and, um, you know, more experience that vastness and the beauty of all life and wonder.

Shay (00:20:02): Yeah. And I love how in the book you talk about the relationship with the nervous system, and that’s such a key piece. Um, I think let’s go into, you have developed this acronym, so it’s a w e awe, and I think it would be lovely to share that acronym and kind of The Awe Method so that our listeners know at home like, how to do this.

Michael (00:20:27): Yeah, sure. I’d love to share about it. I’m also mindful, I know when I listen to podcasts, I’m, I mostly am driving in the car, so I’ll give an experience of awe, but I don’t want someone to have a, an awe-gasmic moment where they might not drive safely. So I would definitely recommend people go to our website for a lot more resources at the Um, also the book, “The Power of Awe”. And in there we have 30 extended practices that really help you have, um, more of a development of adaptive understanding, like that what you were talking about, Shay, is that there, there’s a beautiful unfolding that happens when you cultivate more and more awe in your life. It feels like you’re peeling off these layers of an onion and you become more receptive and more things stimulate more awe, and then the awe happens spontaneously. But I’ll definitely share the practice right now. So we use the word awe, A.W.E, and we created that into an acronym. And the A stands for the word attention, W is weight and then E is for two words, is a deep exhale and then an expansion. So, um, I’ll go ahead and lead people through, um, a practice right now.

(00:21:43): So, uh, just just take a moment to intentionally, you know, let go of the busyness of your day and all the different thoughts that you’re thinking of right now. And I want you to bring your attention to something you value appreciate or, and find amazing. So in the room you’re in right now, there’s things that you can look at that you can have to inspire. Awe, it could be something maybe on your desk. Um, I, I’m looking at Shay on the screen and I’m just in awe of the beautiful artwork behind her. These line drawings of it looks like calla lilies, um, that it are, are just really awe-inspiring to me. And so I’m bringing my full undivided attention to that, that thing, it could be even be an idea, it could be, it can be a thoughts or memories of a family member, someone that you love or of a pet.

(00:22:36): Um, you can hold them in your mind and have a, a moment of awe with them right now. So you’re bringing your full attention, undivided to something that you value appreciate and find amazing, and then you’re gonna wait. And the idea of a weight, I think of it is almost as though you’re really, you’re gifting yourself this moment of a pause and really allowing yourself to be present and to feel in maybe sensations arise in the body, warmth, tingles, whatever that might be. A calmness, a stillness. You’re just being aware of your breath and being fully present with just that, that idea, that object that you brought your attention to. And then take a detail, inhale in and a longer exhale out. When we take a longer exhale out, we’re stimulating our vagus nerve. And the vagus nerve is the master computer of a part of the autonomic nervous system.

(00:23:32): It’s that part of our nervous system that operates without any conscious thought. It’s the part of the nervous system that controls our heart rate, our blood pressure, our breathing rate. You know, when we’re sleep at night, we’re not thinking about I have to breathe or my heart has to beat. It just does, all happens automatically. And so this part of the autonomic nervous system connected with the vagus nerve is the part of us that heals. It rests, the restore state. It’s the calming presenting state of the nervous system. And so when we have a long exhale, it stimulates the vagus nerve because it’s connected to our diaphragm. And so that long, you can even make the sound of an awe and that stimulates your vagus nerve right there. And you often feel immediately that sense of calmness and presence. So the other part of the, the E is expansion.

(00:24:22): And so what we’re allowing ourselves to do is to really letting that moment of the awe expand within us, and that’s cultivating that sense of perceptual vastness that we talked about, the sense of self diminishing. And for some people, and there’s different tools that we develop as we, as we use The Awe Method, but I’m very visual in my mind. And so I can imagine almost like an orb of light, like the, this experience of awe is a, is a, a light within me that is expanding and that actually expands outside of my physical body, like within the shell of Michael. And it goes out into a vastness of space. And and that’s often for me when I get those, those experiences of the chills or the tingles that happen, um, in that moment. And then when we’re done with having that, that process of The Awe Method, it’s often nice to just reflect for a minute or, you know, a few, few seconds and just be like, huh, like noticing how your nervous system has shifted.

(00:25:15): Um, because really in the, in the background of what we’re doing here is we’re changing our level of consciousness. We’re shifting our physiology from our normal, uh, state of consciousness that we call in our book. We talk about these three levels of consciousness, but most of us are living day to day, 95%-99% of the time in what we call this level of safety consciousness, where we’re taking care of all the tasks and things of managing and running our lives. But a is that respite, it gives us a higher level of consciousness and takes us in that place of spaciousness to, for those that have studied any of the eastern religions, this like state of nirvana, this transcendent state where time expands almost stands still for a brief moment where our thoughts stop, we’re fully present, um, and we feel open, receptive, like you talked about, you know, to, to the vastness of all beauty and wonder on of life on this planet.

Shay (00:26:13): Mm-hmm. Yeah. It’s such a simple process and practice that you’ve developed. So I love that it’s so portable, so easy to do. Like you said, you know, roughly 15 seconds, you could do it three times a day. Um, and boom, you’ll what your, what your research has shown is quite outstanding. So let’s talk about that. Let’s talk a little bit about the science and some of the findings and the outcomes that are related to just practicing The Awe Method and what you’re discovering.

Michael (00:26:43): Yeah. So I did share a little bit earlier about the, the two studies we did, um, in total of almost about 500 participants between the two studies. And so we did see, um, in terms of the metrics we looked at, we saw on average of about a 35% reduction of depression, which is from those that know the science around depression research, it’s really on par, uh, of equal benefit of taking, um, an antidepressant medication, um, and, you know, more beneficial than a placebo. So it, and the beautiful thing is this has no no side effects, <laugh>, you know, and it only takes a minute a day. It’s almost as though it takes just as long to swallow pills it takes to do these practices three times a day. Um, we saw a decrease in anxiety of about 25%. Really interesting. We saw a decrease in loneliness, and this is at the height of pandemic when people were sheltering in place and very alone and feeling very isolated.

(00:27:38): And what’s special about the emotion of awe is that it does connect us to that sense of vastness to whether you want to call it God or a universal consciousness, it makes you feel connected to the vastness of all life on earth. And so you can be practicing by yourself and yet still feel a connection and not alone anymore. Um, we saw a decreases in people’s level of stress with decreases in chronic pain and other chronic health symptoms and improvement, um, in a sense of overall wellbeing. Um, what we’ve, what we’ve come to conclude with our research is really that The Awe Method is more than just a mindfulness technique. It’s actually a medical intervention. I mean, it, it’s a tool that you can use, um, when, when faced with, you know, hard times in our lives. And we have a whole section of our book where we talk about this, about, you know, this isn’t just a technique to do to just feel good.

(00:28:31): It’s actually an intervention that we can use when we’re struggling with depression or anxiety, or we’re dealing with existential issues of end of life care. I mean, this is a wonderful, um, technique and remedy to help people in those different challenging times of our lives. Um, other people’s research have looked at all these different psychological measures and awe has thought of what’s called a pro-social emotion. And what that means in many ways, it’s sort of the, the, the lock and key, the master of all these other positive emotions. So when we experience awe, we’re more generous, we’re more likely to give to strangers, we’re more likely to give bigger tips at a restaurant. Um, we’re more likely to give of our time and of our energy to, to people that need help. It, um, cultivates a sense more of gratitude, um, more compassion, you know, kindness and love and connection.

(00:29:28): Um, it also very important in this day and age where people become very polarized with their ideas politically, is that awe opens our minds. It helps us to see other people’s points of view and to really try to understand the whole container and the vastness of different ways we, in which we can, you know, view things in the world politically or socially. Um, now we can talk a little bit more about like, you know, how what’s actually going on in the body and physiologically when we have a moment of all, and there’s sort of four areas that we can look at. So first of all, as I showed a little bit earlier, is that a moment of awe stimulates the vagus nerve, and that is that rest and repair state of the nervous system that we really need to cultivate to feel safe.

(00:30:15): You know, we’re, we’re also busy in this very connected wire technological world, and in many ways we’re, our minds that have they never shut off. And this is a, a chance of respite, of an opportunity to like really ground and settle and to give ourselves a gift of presence. Um, secondly is that an experience of awe slows down what is called the default mode network. And the default mode network is a different areas of the brain that together, um, operate the part of the brain that is a very self-absorbed, reflective, ruminating mind. It’s like the monkey mind that just never stops chattering throughout the day. Like when you have random thoughts and they’ve, you know, scientists have measured that these random thoughts happen many thousands of times a day. We’re just always in the stream of random thinking and obsessing on things. Well, the default mode network slows down when we have a moment of awe.

(00:31:16): And it’s, and this is part of that experience of why we experience that vastness because our egoic self, that constant chatter slows down or diminishes to the point where then we capture pure presence and, um, we’re no longer self-absorbed, so to speak. Right. Um, we also know that, awe, increases the, uh, the delivery of oxytocin, which is the trusting bonding hormone. That’s an important part of our overall health and wellbeing and our immune system. And then finally, what is really, I think, some of the most awe inspiring aspect of how the emotion of awe works in our body is research that was also done at UC Berkeley, where they measured blood levels of people’s inflammatory cytokines. And I’ll share what cytokines are just to give people a little bit of an understanding. And I think, you know, just talk about cytokines is, is a moment of awe.

(00:32:15): So when life evolved on earth hundreds of millions of years ago, we, the, the niche, the original life forms were a single cellular organisms. And the way the communicated with each other was through secretion of these protein molecules that are called cytokines. And as life evolved into multicellular organisms and organisms with different organ body systems, like we are extremely complex. I mean, we have like 4 billion years of earth engineering to create this incredibleness of awe bundle of human life that we are, we still have this very ancient communication system of these cytokines that circulate our body. And basically cytokines come in two forms. There’s safety cytokines, which tell us that we’re safe, and it gives the sense for our body that we can rest and repair and build up tissue and, and be strong and nourished. And then there’s what called threat cytokines. And those are the ones that are all the alarms go off when there’s a threat, like an infection of a bacteria or a virus.

(00:33:27): But the problem with our, our lives today is that we actually are feeling like we’re under threat all the time. Our physiology feels that way. And so elevations of these inflammatory cytokines, particularly what’s called interleukin six, and I don’t know for those that have followed a little bit of the media around covid, but people were dying of covid with a cytokine storm. These inflammatory cytokines overwhelm the system and people were dying, their body systems were shutting down. But on a chronic day-to-day basis, when we’re constantly faced with these inflammatory cytokines, it causes inflammation in the body, which results in heart disease, it results in diabetes, it results in different autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and Sjogren’s syndrome, lupus, and it also results in cancers as well. So awe is the only positive emotion that significantly reduces inflammatory cytokines in our body. And that’s just truly awe-inspiring, right. That this simple emotion has these profound effects on our neurophysiology and our biochemistry on a level that has profound implications on our overall sense of, of wellness and wellbeing, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It’s, it’s really, it is perhaps the most, you know, it is the most powerful of all positive emotions to cultivate a complete healthy life.

Shay (00:35:01): Yeah. I, I found in reading the book, that was one of the most powerful sections to me. Um, when you talked about the cytokines and how awe can elicit that, uh, response, I just thought, oh my goodness, what an important understanding to do such a simple practice that could then have such important connection to basically the entire experience within our system of safety that then settles, you know, all those negative kind of stress responses down so that we’re not in a chronic inflammatory state like so many of us are. So it’s just, it’s so powerful again, to realize, oh my goodness, super simple practice. So <laugh>, everyone listening, like, we’re not saying you have to do this for 12 hours a day. It’s like super simple practice less than a minute a day. Yeah. And really have some powerful benefits. So I think it’s exciting.

Michael (00:35:59): Yeah, it really does. I mean, it’s extremely exciting and, and what we’ve heard from people who’ve read the book like you and who are super inspired by our work is that this really is helping people. Um, and it’s beautiful to see how it helps people that are going through really hard times that are faced with, you know, a chronic illness or cancer. Um, and that bringing on to the equation of one sense of wellness and wellbeing and connection to the vastness of all life, it just, it, it’s like a soothing balm that is really deeply resetting and healing the nervous system in the body in general. We talk about in our book, um, how for healing to really happen, we have to feel safe. And it’s, it’s sad to say this, but in a lot of ways our current healthcare system doesn’t often cultivate a sense of safety. Um, quite often people feel, you know, um, a fair amount of fear, uh, and they’re scared when they have to go to a doctor or to think of even going to the hospital.

Shay (00:37:05): Mm-hmm. Yeah. For me, this is actually one of our biggest misunderstandings, I think in our modern medical system, is that we don’t heal nearly as well when we’re in a state of fear and all of our stress hormones are being released and we’re completely triggered. And just that one shift, just really consciously designing into our healthcare systems themselves, a conscious awareness of people heal much more effectively, much more deeply in a much more profound way when their system has an opportunity to move into a place of safety. and just that like fundamental understanding, I feel like has the potential to radically impact health outcomes, but we are often not paying attention to it. And what’s I think beautiful about this methodology is, you know, as you know, as someone who works with pain management and palliative care and has obviously treated people with chronic conditions and terminal conditions, you can be dying in a bed with cancer.

(00:38:16): You can be suffering from serious pain, and you can still do this practice and you can still experience something very positive, um, in the face of all of that pain and suffering. So I love that. Yes, of course we can use this to sustain health and wellness and we can also use this in the face of illness, pain, suffering, even death and dying. And you can have these awe experiences in all of those places. And I think that’s really like lovely, you’re, you know, and that piece you talked about with loneliness, that was it too. You recount a story in the book about someone who was very isolated, alone and ill, and they were using this practice to help them feel connected so that they didn’t, you know, just suffer like in a little, you know, tiny space of, um, I’m all by myself, edness, you know, like they had this capacity by using the all method to create a more expansive, right. That expansive piece. Oh my goodness. I am connected. I’m connected to this universe in which we live. I’m connected to others, I’m connected to everything around me. I’m connected to the natural beauty. Um, and there’s just so many possibilities there, even sitting in a bed in a hospital or in your home. Um, and that’s lovely.

Michael (00:39:50): Yeah. I’d love to read a, uh, just a paragraph from the book that I think really illustrates what you’re talking about. Um, because awe is, is really unique as an emotion because, um, and I’ll, I’ll read this right now, but it, it talks about how it can connect us, um, to a different level of consciousness, even when we’re feeling really depressed, um, or sad or we’re sick. Um, and in, in this part of the book, we share a little bit of a story of Victor Frankel, um, and he who was, uh, the author of “Man’s Search for Meaning”. He is a physician, a psychiatrist who lived through Auschwitz. Um, and his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”, was probably one of the most important books of the last century. Um, in terms of really understanding about human development and human consciousness. “Awe is a special emotion because it can reconnect us to what is precious, in part because it has the unique ability to be present with other emotions, including as Victor Frankel and as prison mates experience hopelessness when we’re happy, for example, we may not be able to access happiness at the same time, and when we’re anxious, we may not be able to relax at the same time. But whether we feel unhappy or happy, anxious or relaxed, we can also feel awe that we have the capacity to be in awe when experiencing difficult emotions gives us a great deal of influence over our suffering”(The Power of Awe).

Shay (00:41:27): Yeah. I think that that last line there gives us a great deal of influence over our suffering. And isn’t that like, sort of in a way, the essence of this? It’s like we have a great deal, there’s a capacity for a great deal of influence over our suffering. And I think about this all the time because so much of my work, you know, the healing center that we’re creating and all the different healing work we’ve done in hospitals and in communities, like, so much of it is centered around helping people to understand that one point, like that simple concept that we have tremendous capacity to influence our own suffering. And that ironically, as you’re describing through your book and this method, it’s actually not even crazy complicated. Like, it’s not even like that it’s something super fancy, super hard where you have to like necessarily study for years and understand, but actually it can be sort of boiled down or condensed into some very simple practices, um, that then we’re also seeing have like sustaining effects. So that’s inspiring.

Michael (00:42:43): Yeah. In fact, what we’ve learned from our, our research is that, um, that this practice is easy. And when you try hard, when we put a lot of effort in our normal lives, we’re using force all the time. We’re, we’re efforting and pushing things hard to make things happen. And the beautiful thing about this practice is that the most profound moments of awe happen with no effort whatsoever. And in fact, any effort at all tends to be an impediment for having a moment of awe. This practice is actually teaching us to learn to live our lives with ease and presence. I mean, what a gift. Like we need this more than ever and this crazy world of constant, you know, of, of, of data being thrown at us, our devices, the stress of the news. And it’s just such a wonderful healing gift to give ourselves a practice that actually is teaching us to let go and to be present and just to allow things to arise.

(00:43:50): And when you are in that state, that receptive state, and you talked about this earlier being about receptivity, you know, that’s when these are moments of awe really bubble up. We have to be in that receptive state. We just, you know, like you think of like leaving, you know, your hands, being open like a vessel and, and, and welcoming these moments of, of beautiful awe and wonder to just come into our lives. And this practice is just so simple and easy and effortless compared to like a traditional mindfulness practice. You know, maybe after people listen to this podcast, I would invite you to go outside and go on a, go on a short walk of awe, just for two minutes. Just walk down your street, and just be open like an open vessel and experience sensorially all the awe to be had the, the sounds of maybe the wind or the birds chirping, noticing the colors of the leaves, touching a leaf, feeling the texture, grab a piece of a plant and smell it, you know, smell what it, something green in a alive, you know, that unique smell of, of maybe rosemary or jasmine, you know, smells like, um, be appreciative of your body being able to walk or to be able to take a deep breath in.

(00:45:04): Um, that can elicit a moment of awe, I mean, there’s just an endless amount of awe to be had in every moment. And that we can, we, we, this is a gift we have. This is a gift of how our physiology was designed as humans. You know, this is something that’s been engineered for billions of years on this planet of life on earth. And here we are, we get to have this positive experience of awe that is healing of our minds, our bodies, and our spirits.

Shay (00:45:32): And something I wanted to ask you about, Michael, I know in the book you talk about awe as an emotion, but as we discussed that spectrum of awe, there’s kind of a place, you know, maybe on the far end of the spectrum that for me really feels like beyond emotion. It’s that place of, you know, kind of like, I think a lot of spiritual experiences fall into this domain. It’s the transcendent, it’s, it’s beyond emotion. It’s into something that’s sort of, you know, um, essentially transforming, but it, it’s, it’s beyond, um, what at least I would identify within kind of the language or confines of emotion. And so I wonder how do you place those like peak experiences that are on that like far end of the spectrum? How do you, how do you understand that?

Michael (00:46:27): Yeah, that’s a really great question. I think that when one is experiencing that, that pureness that level of what we call in our book spacious consciousness, which I think is really that, that state that the Buddha and other spiritual masters talk about. It’s like the idea of nirvana, which is when for a moment we visit the state and it’s where time stands still or that expansion of time, our thoughts completely stop. So we’re not thinking or labeling this as an emotion or even labeling this as an experience. It’s just raw experience, pure, pure awareness, a field of awareness where we feel deep peace. Our physiology is in that rest state with a maybe a little bit of sympathetic activation just because there is that sense of like jubilation and kind of joy that happens when we’re in that state of, of nirvana or transcendent state.

(00:47:27): And then there’s that sense of connection to the vastness of all things. Like you, you feel that the egoic self melts away. Um, the, the small identity of me, Michael, and then I, and then part of this vastness of, of all life on the earth. Like, there’s almost no separation between me and an ant on the, on the, that’s crawling on the ground. Like we are all connected. Um, I mean, I think that’s the state maybe you’re talking about, you know, I’m, I’m using words to describe something that is really wordless. So it’s, it’s hard to use words to describe that transcendent state, but I think when you get there, you know, it, it’s sort of like it, you just drop in and it’s a felt sense of like, oh wow. Um, so I think it is part of this continuum of awe. I think that that, um, it’s not necessarily a different emotion. I think that just that with that spectrum, our physiology and what our felt experience is like, it’s just, it’s part of the spectrum experience of, of awe from maybe a very subtle where you, where you maybe are using words and, and defining it and able to describe your experience all the way to the transcendent state where it’s what we think of as like a meta state. It’s almost as though you’re observing yourself. So the observer, it’s like a, whole heightened level of consciousness, um, that people describe. What, what do you think?

Shay (00:48:58): Yeah, I, feel more than think on this one.

Michael (00:49:02): <laugh>, what do you feel?

Shay (00:49:04): But I, I feel that when I, myself, when I have entered into those states of consciousness, it’s, it’s an experience. Like that’s the key for me. It’s not an emotion, it’s, it’s like a visceral experience of something that I am fully in the pocket of it and there’s like nowhere else I could possibly be. You know, it’s like because it’s immersive, it’s, um, totalizing and every cell in my body, every aspect of my being is like fully engaged in that here and now and, um, alive and awake simply in that lived experience of kind of expanded conscious awareness. And so there’s something just so beautiful about like, literally sitting in the pocket of it um, I love how, you know, this is part of what we get to contemplate in, in discussing this work that you’re engaged in. It’s just like, it’s exquisite, honestly, <laugh>.

Michael (00:50:20): So, so for you as someone who’s been kind of growing what we call your awe muscle, you know, you’ve been practicing this technique and, and, and one thing I wanna share is on a little side note is that The Awe Method is not the end all be all practice. It really is what I think of as training wheels. It’s, it’s helping us develop this muscle, this, this habit instead of, um, you know, of just having these moments of awe that are like sprinkled every month or so <laugh> infrequently when we have had a wonderful hike and we get to that vista point and we’re like, oh, wow, this is awe. But now we’re developing these temporary states of awe to make them a trait, to make them part of our, our wiring of who we are. Um, so I think of The Awe Method training wheels to really get us to having this level of spontaneous awe that happens. And then that spectrum just continues to expand to what you’re talking about, that that pocket of, of that tran pure transcendent awareness and presence. Um, yeah. I’m really curious, what, what, what do you think or you feel around the idea of the spectrum and do you think they’re all sort of the same emotion or do you think we’re sort of touching on different things as you sort of go through that continuum?

Shay (00:51:40): Um, you know, just in my own life and experience, I feel it really differently. So if I’m kind of like at the micro level where I am like actively engaging the process of, okay, I want right now to follow the three step method, right? Like I wanna the attention, okay, got that now I’m gonna wait, I’m gonna do the exhale, I’m gonna expand. Um, so that to me, it’s so beneficial, um, and like such good training ground, like you’re saying, and then at that other side of the spectrum where you’re just like completely immersed in it, right? In a transcendent state. And that also is a training ground because what, at least in my own life, what I’ve experienced is the more I can learn to hang out in the pocket of that for, you know, sometimes hours at a time, the more I can just be in that, that that is, again, this is the received side of it for me.

(00:52:44): Like just being in that state, in that the simple act of being in that state, it says if, and I can’t even fully grasp it in language, like you said, cause this is a little outside of capacity of <laugh>, the English language anyway. Um, but I’ll do my best. It’s like there’s a way in which, in sitting in that, the experience itself is the teaching, the experience, just the simply being the beingness is the, the lesson, the beingness is where that receive is happening and where information is kind of being downloaded is how it feels in my particular system. Um mm-hmm. So I intentionally try to sit in the pocket of that, you know, for sure every day, but sometimes if I can for hours just to get my system into that place of receive, like over and over and over again.

Michael (00:53:46): Yeah, I’ve just been, I’ve been in that pocket, I think, or my pocket <laugh>. Right. And, and hearing your description of that, and I, and I know I know what you’re talking about, um, and I think I visit those, those states as well. Um, yeah, yeah.

Shay (00:54:02): Yeah. And I, I think what’s cool, and like, it’s, I think in a way a beautiful part of this conversation is we all have the capacity to go there. Like these aren’t experiences that are exclusive to any one of us mm-hmm. <affirmative>, and that there are ways that we can build, grow, and develop our capacity to go there. And so that’s kind of fun to understand that peice of it.

Michael (00:54:26): Yeah. We talk about in the beginning of our book, I think it’s one of our first lines, is that we were almost embarrassed when we stumbled upon what we consider to be a shortcut to transcendence and this Awe Method and yeah, <laugh>. Um, because both Jake and I have spent many years of in deep spiritual exploration and work and have done, I know I’ve done 10 day, many, 10 day meditation silent retreats, and it was probably maybe 20 years into doing many of these long retreats that I finally had that that state, I think the pocket maybe that you’re talking about where, uh, you know, and it took decades of work to get there, to really get my mind to that state of calm and presence. And what’s really beautiful with this awe method is I think that it’s not that we want people to what they call spiritual bypass.

(00:55:17): It’s like these shortcuts in a bad way, but it really, if you, if you can get a taste of what the end product is of these contemplative practices, um, and you have the immediate reward, it really helps to cultivate a more dedicated practice. So this is really like the, the training wheels to get you going. And it’s, it’s a wonderful practice. Again, it goes, it goes everywhere. I mean, um, I can’t tell you how many times I hear from people that, you know, I, oh yeah, I was doing this at my kid’s soccer game and, and just how it transformed my experience of watching their, their sports because I was having awe throughout their game and, and awe of my kid and awe of, of community and the sports and the camaraderie and all this stuff. And it’s like, yeah, there’s awe to be had everywhere and wonder. It’s just when you’re living life in that level of consciousness, that higher level, when you’re then at work with you, working with your team, or you know, you’re raising your kids, your conversations, everything changes. You know, as, as we wrap up, I’d love to share a few more lines from the book about this, about how the practice really isn’t just a self-practice, but this is really about a practice of changing the world. Um, that is, I think what really excites me a lot about where this can go.

Shay (00:56:37): Yeah. Feel free to to share that, Michael.

Michael (00:56:40): Okay, great. Yeah. So this is part of our epilogue and, “The Awe Method is more than a self-help technique and the implications of awe go well beyond personal transformation. Awe touches everything and perhaps most telling is the effect it has on others. We’re wired to attune to others’ behaviors and moods. Our nervous systems senses the emotions of those around us. Just as being the recipient of a warm smile can lighten our mood. When we’re in awe, those around us feel it too, awe is contagious. And so practice in The Awe Method is one, not so small way we contribute to the world. In this book, we have covered how The Awe Method is granted in science, and that a whole body of science supports that awe changes lives. So we have a big, simple crash ending to the power behind the simple practice of awe. If practice frequently enough by enough people, a critical mass as it were, everyone would experience a significant heightened shift in consciousness. Awe changes us. And when we share our awe, we change the world. How can we be in awe of someone and physically or emotionally harm them? How can we be in awe of the natural world and destroy it? How can we be in awe of life itself and not live as if every day were a miracle? In awe, the tone of every conversation from the personal to political shifts, from having an agenda to be an open and curious, our conversations impact how we raise our kids, how we help our aging parents, how we treat our spouse, how we participate in community, how we mentor or supervise people, how we govern a city and how we lead a nation. We can think of no downside of practicing The Awe Method because awe is the light, the appreciation of nature and different cultures, the curious and open mind, the generous and giving soul, even during times of darkness these days, we need awe more than ever. Awe awaits you and surrounds you in the ordinary moments of your life, like the view of the stars that fill the night sky. Awe is free and available. All you need to do is pay attention to what you appreciate and find amazing wait and then exhale and expand into the unlimited timelessness of awe”(The Power of Awe).

Shay (00:59:29): Hmm. No doubt there’s, uh, planetary potential within all of this. And what a lovely way to conclude your book, um, as we, as we draw our conversation to a close. Michael, one thing I I wanted to end with is, you know, you have a chapter in the book on the science of healing, and, um, I’m interested to hear your thoughts on how you know, as a physician, as someone who works in the world of healing, the healing arts, how you think awe has transformed your understanding or or definition of what healing is?

Michael (01:00:25): Well, this book has been, um, about a four year journey for, for Jake and I, and from our research, you know, our ideas of exploring this. And then we’ve been part of a community of neuroscience researchers, psychologists, physicians, um, some people like to Tor Wagger, who’s a, a well-known neuroscience guys in our group. Uh, Steve Porridges, a Polyvagal Theory. And I think what’s really transformed for me as a, a deeper understanding about how important it is to feel safe for healing to happen, and I don’t think I really appreciated that, um, until researching awe and, and writing this book and being part of that community. Um, yeah, I can’t, I can’t tell people enough, you know, and, and this is, it ties into like bigger socioeconomic issues in our world. Because people that are in marginalized communities that are dealing with food insecurity, housing issues, um, racial tension, they don’t feel safe in their lives.

(01:01:32): They don’t feel safe in this world. And that that results in, you know, chronic states of diabetes and obesity and other types of health issues, that their bodies are in a state of flight or flight, and they’re, they’re craving holding on to, to, to calories in different states of their physiology that, that create states of obesity and, and diabetes and heart disease. Um, you know, we, it’s, this is a bigger issue for healthcare isn’t just, uh, I mean, healthcare definitely is not a privilege. It’s a human right. And I’ve always felt that way. And what’s since inspired being going to medicine is to really help and serve people. But even more than ever, I see that the health of our, as a whole, that, that people by feeling threatened, whether it’s like through the gun violence that’s happening, that’s outta control in school. I mean, kids are under stress because they’re scared they gonna get murdered going to school.

(01:02:31): I mean, that doesn’t create health or safety, um, racism on a deeper level. Um, you know, xenophobia and, and ways women are marginalized in different communities. I mean, all this stuff ties into all our problems around healthcare. So it’s just given me a much bigger holistic picture. And I think individually for me as a physician, when I work with people, it’s, it’s more and more important than ever that I cultivate a sense of safety in our visit that I really give my full self. When a physician walks into a visit and immediately they just go to the computer and they type in and they’re like literally on a computer, the whole 15 minute visit and barely make an eye contact with someone that doesn’t create a sense of safety. Like your physician needs to come up to you and, and physically touch you and just holds your hand or touch your shoulder and connect with you as a human, even if it’s just for 30 seconds. I mean, that when you have that connection, that resonance between two humans, that creates a sense of safety. So I really appreciate that question. I mean, I think I’m, I’m really excited about this. It’s deepened my practice as a physician and deeper understanding of medicine as a whole importance of, of healing on deeper levels of healing people’s trauma. I mean, that’s a whole nother area. We could, we could talk about <laugh>.

Shay (01:03:53): <laugh>Yes, we could.

Michael (01:03:54): Is trauma as well. Right. And, and the importance of awe related to healing trauma. But, um, yeah. Anyway, I I’m just so grateful for this conversation and I, I really loved, um, these different places that we got to dive into together. Um, and I’m just so inspired and thrilled by your understanding of, of the book and the all method, and I was loved connecting with your community and that people wanna reach out and, and get to say hi to me and Jake. Um, we would love that. Our website is, and you can email us there through contacting us. Um, but our email is, our website, we have a lot of free resources, downloadable meditation, a free ebook, um, some courses we’re offering, and of course the book. But, um, we wanna just get this out there as many people as possible to just to create a movement of spreading on the world to, to promote some deep changes of healing and, and levels of consciousness just in increasing and, um, healing some of these deep problems that we’re having right now. Yeah.

Shay (01:05:02): Well, thank you Michael. I appreciate your work. I appreciate the presence of mind that you’re bringing to it, and, uh, I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation today.

Michael (01:05:14): Well, thank you.

Conclusion (01:05:19): We hope you enjoyed this episode of The Conversations on Healing Podcast. If you haven’t yet, please go to Apple Podcast, Spotify, or your preferred podcast platform and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. It. Hope so, you won’t miss an episode. See you next time.