How “Awe,” “Ritual,” and “Risk” Are Psychological Necessities

Part of the blog series for the 2017 theme, Radical Ritual.

We don’t usually think of “Awe” as one of the essential human emotions, but licensed psychologist and American Psychological Association Fellow Dr. Kirk Schneider’s research suggests that we should.

Schneider, President Elect of the Existential-Humanistic Institute and past president of the APA’s Society for Humanistic Psychology, says that awe is a contradictory emotion — one which makes us feel both elevated and fragile, elated and terrified — and that without it, life becomes rote, even mechanical, a process of just going through the motions. We need experiences of awe to live as deeply as we can.

The trouble is that most of modern life is designed to filter out awe — because people who have experienced awe become less interested in being cogs in a machine.  The more awe you can filter out of people’s lives, the more you can give them the illusion that they live in a bubble where everything is controllable and nothing stirs the soul, the more likely they are to think consumption and obedience are the only things that matter in life.

Schneider’s never been to Burning Man, but his recommendations for how to put awe back in your life — exposure to art, to nature, to communal rituals — sound distinctly like it.  Especially when he talks about the way in which these activities are at their most potent when they have an element of risk. Just going through the motions is the opposite of awe, but a ritual that takes you out of your comfort zone and exposes you to forces greater than yourself can put you directly in an experience of the sublime and awaken a slumbering psyche.

Kirk Schneider discusses awe, ritual, and risk on this Philosophical Center podcast.

Photo by Luke Szczepanski

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat Magister

A member of the Burning Man Project's Philosophical Center, Caveat served as the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca from 2008 - 2013. He is presently working with Burning Man's education department on a cultural studies curriculum for Burning Man culture. Caveat is the author of the short story collection A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City, which has nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

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