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Being Moved: A Review of Literature on the Therapeutic Value of the Awe Experience and the Awe-based Lens from An Existential-Humanistic Psychology Perspective

The transformative ability of awe can be described through the way its experience necessitates a ‘stepping-out’ of one’s typical way of encountering reality. In this way, awe temporarily separates one’s experience of the world from the biases, projections, and reductionist appreciations individuals by human nature impose upon experience. Unhindered by these impositions, individuals are exposed to a true sense of interconnectedness to experience. If only for a moment, the experience of awe invites an embodied witnessing of life for exactly what it is. This phenomenological encountering entails a simultaneous thrill in glimpsing life’s vital mystery, as well as a sense of aliveness in the unhindered experience of ‘truth’ or ‘clear-seeing’. Liberated from the weight of the mechanism’s individuals have strategically developed in attempts to parsimoniously make sense of an albeit complex human experience, a sense of possibility is invoked. Opportunities for new meaning to emerge within this experience of ‘true-seeing’ present themselves.

Being Moved: A Review of Literature on the Therapeutic Value of the Awe Experience and the Awe-based Lens from An Existential-Humanistic Psychology Perspective

March 6, 2022







Being Moved: A Review of Literature on the Therapeutic Value of the Awe Experience and the Awe-based Lens from An Existential-Humanistic Psychology Perspective

Humanistic and transpersonal psychologists seem to be those within the theoretical and licenced clinical psychotherapy profession with the greatest awareness of the “dividends of transcendent consciousness catalyzed by awe” (Pierson, 2015, p.xxviii). In the beginnings of the Humanistic revolution, contemporaries asked questions like, “can we use the higher forms of human behaviour to illuminate the lower ones instead of basing all psychological understanding on laboratory rats and the mentally [unwell]?” (Moss, 2015, p.4). Shifting emphasis away from the disease-based medical model, the field of Existential-Humanistic Psychology (EHP) was born with a focus on both:

“(1) what it means to be fully experientially human, and (2) how that understanding illuminates the fulfilled or vital life” (Schneider et al., 2015, p.xix). 

In a Clements (2016) article regarding a proposed transpersonal model of psychological health and transformation, Clements speaks to the space for awe induction-like practices within contemporary psychotherapeutic models. With emotional health as the goal, Clements contends that it would be more easily achieved if the traditional view of emotional well-being were to shift its focus from what it means to be unwell to a wellness-based perspective, while “encouraging psychotherapeutic interventions that stimulate transformational adaptation responses to emotional pain” (Clements, 2016, p.59). Focusing on perpetuating the evolution of emotional and spiritual psychological health, the EHP therapeutic practice supports individuals in deepening health-promoting experiences and ways of being in the world through, for example, an awe-based practice, rather than focusing solely on alleviating symptoms of malaise. The purpose of this narrative literature review is to further elucidate in what ways experiences of awe and awe-based perspectives are seen to have transformative value within the EHP field of psychology. Rather than seeking to collect data on the exact constituent parts of the awe experience, this analysis seeks to deepen understandings of academic (theoretical), clinical (professional) and personal (experiential) accounts regarding the far-reaching therapeutic quality of the awe experience. 

Shepherding the Awe-based Paradigm Within Existential-Humanistic Psychology

Representing this positivistic evolution of the movement of humanistic psychology, Pierson (2009) models developments of the appreciation for the therapeutic potentiality of Awe amongst the theoretical orientation of humanistic psychologists. Mentioning the most instrumental contributors of; Abraham Maslow, James F. T. Bugental, Sidney Jourard, Rollo May, Anthony Sutich and Carl Rogers, she speaks of their dissatisfaction with the dominant theories of the time including psychoanalysis and behaviorism (2009). Ultimately inspiring the expansion of “psychology as a science to include the full range of human nature, especially the "higher reaches," such as awe, peak experiences, self-actualization, love, truth, beauty, joy, the transpersonal, and the mystical” (Pierson, 2009, p.75).

Professionals in the EHP field were themselves exemplary of their understanding of the healing power of the experience of awe and the lens of awe-based practice. Using the words of James Bugental, Pierson (2009) describes the unique willingness of these psychologists to ‘truly encounter mystery’' as well as how they “shared the guiding principle of standing in awe of their subject matter, the human being” (Pierson, p.75). This was exemplified through the embodied reverence, respect and appreciation for the client their awe-based encounter allowed. Also speaking to the facilitation of psychotherapy through an awe-based lens, the licensed psychotherapist Hershman (2009) contends that, “even brief encounters, when awe-based, can have a restorative effect on the therapeutic profession,” not to mention all human interactions (Hershman, p.87).

Effectively consolidating the revolutionary EHP psychologist Buber and other 20th century philosopher’s concept of the “I-thou” relationship in practice and in life (Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 2020).

Psychotherapy then can be seen as a ripe environment for setting the conditions for the spontaneous awe experience or deepening healing in relationship through an awe-based approach to practice. Highlighting Ackerman’s description of psychotherapy as a unique form of deep play, Pierson (2009) comments on the window for awe evocation within the therapeutic encounter. Stating, “Engagement in ‘deep play,’ is described by naturalist Diane Ackerman as an ‘ecstatic form of play’ that involves ‘the sacred and the holy” (p. 79). She describes the psychotherapy experience as a form of deep play and a way of inviting the awe experience, for the ways the intentionality of the relationship involves “a sacred encounter and a sacred mission: the care, tending, and emancipation of the client's psyche ‘toward the farther reaches of human nature’” (p.79). 

Humanistic psychologist David Elkins affirms this contention of the psychotherapy environment as ideal for cultivating and relishing in the latent healing material of encounters with awe, as well as for awe-based practice. He suggests:

"One of the responsibilities of psychotherapists is to ‘[help] people to recognize these little moments of ecstasy.’ Doing so, Maslow hypothesized, facilitates the process of opening to one's full potential and full humanness” (Pierson, 2009, p.78).

Similarly, recognizing the intrapsychic, interpersonal and environmental conditions present during the awe experience sets a foundation for continued participation in the therapeutic change agent. In the same breath, Pierson (2009) extends this hypothesis of Maslow’s to articulate helping professions which embody this paradigm within their practice, contending “depth psychotherapists, physicians, clergy, mystics, shamans, sages, and others who honor personal experience [also] draw upon the power of awe in their varied approaches to the promotion of recovery and healing” (Pierson, 2009, p. 78). 

In his journal article Rediscovering Awe (2008), Schneider sets a discernable tone for contemporary understandings of the value of the awe experience and the awe-based lens. “This ‘awe-based’ psychology,” he writes, “welds the zeal and exaltation of religion with the scrupulosity and skepticism of science” (p.73). Undertaking an impassioned philosophical and scientific exploration of the “therapeutic implications of the spiritual capacity for awe”, Schneider has blazed a credible trail towards further elucidating the healing potentiality of awe while deepening the theoretical argument for the psychological phenomenon’s experiential merit (p.73). Presenting awe as evoked within, reflected on and brought to one’s way of approach to the therapeutic hour. Serving to empower an embodied awareness of an alternate mode of being in the world, or rather, of being-with the world in contrast to turning away from, awe embodies the existential facticity and beauty of life’s continuously unfolding mystery. 

Differentiating between awe-informed healing practices and the spontaneous awe experience, Pierson (2009) writes, “Psychotherapy, religious and spiritual belief systems, and other recovery and healing philosophies serve to guide and invigorate the transmutation [healing] process” (p.81). In line with Clements (2015) previous contention of the awe-based potentiality within transpersonal or EHP models of healing, Pierson writes that “Awe offers a font of meaning under the auspices of any of these guides” (p.81). Alternatively, “Surprised by awe, one may be catapulted into a fresh, life-enlarging perspective, brimming with new meaning” alluding to the many possible angles awe may stimulate, inspire and evoke therapeutic transformation (p.81). Summating this essence in the maxim: “This is what Albert Schweitzer experienced as it became apparent to him that “reverence for life is a universal ethic” (2009, p.81).

Lived Encounters with The Awe Experience and the Awe-based Way of Seeing: Clinical Practice and Beyond

My encounters with awe as a professional artist provide a bespoke example of the latent therapeutic possibilities within the experience, as revealed through approaching life from an awe-based lens. Awe is evoked within the confines of my studio in a similar fashion to its evocation during my time spent marveling at the millions of glimmers of refracting light within any single square inch of the moving ocean’s coast. As I approach  my paint spreading tools and materials through an awe-based lens, a refined quality of presence around the unfoldment of the moment serves to shift my locus of awareness naturally outside of my self-occupied inclination, beyond myself. Through this absorption in the experience of expression, I connect with my artistic process in a way which promotes the same positive health behaviors of self-transcendence and feelings of interconnectedness with my creation that the awe experience entails (Yaden, D. B. et al., 2017).

Pierson (2009) reflects on her experience of awe as a clinician through the lens of a humanistic psychologist who, she writes, “might call my moonlit revelry an example of ‘poignant moments,’ a common type of sacred experience along a continuum of intensity culminating in mystical encounters” (p.77). Chirco and Yaden (2018) describe mystical experiences as “rated among life’s most meaningful moments” (p.227). They explicate awe as existing on a continuum which self-transcendent experiences such as the more common ‘peak experiences’ or ‘mystical experiences’ exist within, ranging in felt intensity. Pierson states,

“Maslow thought that almost everyone has these special experiences but that some people may not be cognizant of them or may discount them” again speaking to the fertile space for relishing in the fruits of the awe experience within the therapeutic encounter (p. 77, 2009).

Like these comparable higher states of consciousness, social psychology researchers Yaden and Haidt describe his research regarding the experience of awe as positively correlated with well-being (Yaden, D. B., Haidt, et al., 2017; Chirico, A. & Yaden, D. B. 2018).

This awe-based lens is exemplified similarly through my professional existential coaching practice through the presence of reverence I bring to my interactions, allowing me to deliver a tangible feeling of connectedness with whomever I work with. Likewise, introducing clients experientially to conceptual thought practices which catalyze the awe-based lens also exemplify possibilities for evoking the awe experience within practice. I often activate the energy of awe by way of inviting individuals to experience something mundane as if for the first time. This way of being-with the other streamlines into inspiring an alternate mode of being-with the world, within the other. Awakening within individuals their intrinsic ability to see the sacred in the ordinary or experience an awe-based reality through their own volition. Ultimately evoking a mode of being akin to Hershman’s (2009) description of the everyday experience of awe through a character portrait of her father:

My father has an enthusiasm for life and manner of looking at things and people through fresh eyes […] A walk on the beach with my father is much akin to a return to childhood. He picks up the same type of seashell that I must have seen a hundred times in my life, and one would think that he just found the key to Davey Jones’ locker.

What comes to mind for me are the lines from the T. S. Eliot poem "Little Gidding" which speak of relentlessly exploring something-even for a lifetime perhaps- and at the end of all the searching getting to know that something as if it were the first time one laid eyes upon it. This is the [way] my father experiences the world, as if he is seeing something wonderful that he has never seen before, regardless of how many times we have been there. (P.84)

Providing individuals with an invocation to be with their experience entirely, evokes a remembrance of one’s inherent existential connectedness to life’s continuous unfoldment beyond the confining borders of ego-assumed identities. The self-enlargement that glimpses of this transcendent awareness the awe-based lens or the awe experience foster can be inspiring, empowering, re-orienting and affirming of the sacredness and potentiality for deeper fulfillment within one’s own human existence. This is the therapeutic value of the experience of awe, appearing to communicate to “human beings something about themselves and about the world that is the same truth, and that becomes the pivot of value and an ordering principle for [the individuals’] hierarchy of meanings” (Maslow, 1971, p.xvii).

The Transformative Value of Awe from an Existential-Humanistic Perspective: Meaning- Making Systems.

This ability to inspire a re-evaluation of one’s life values or meaning-making systems is a recurring theme falling under the transformational value of Awe from the EHP perspective (Pearsall, 2007; Rich, 2005; Maslow, A., 1971; Schneider, K. J., 2009). As conveyed through this excerpt written by Pearsall (2007): 

True awe raises more questions than it does answers and challenges faith more than confirms it... Awe is when life grants us the chance to think differently and deeper about itself, so that we are not left squandering its gift by languishing it away. Being in awe can make a real mess of our lives by disrupting our certainty about ourselves and the world, but it also enlivens and invigorates our living and can change how we decide to live. (p. xviii)

In Rich’s (2005) dissertation study, he describes self-transcendent experiences of awe as embodied experiences of ‘direct knowing’. These experiences occur in the realm of non-discursive or pre-verbal thought. Ultimately revealing that such experiences have profound transformative effects, including “symptom reduction, deep satisfaction, equanimity, increased aliveness, and enhanced awareness” (p.iv).  Rich describes the transformative effects of experiences of direct knowing as including a “sense of interconnection, oneness, awe, sacredness, and blessedness; clarity regarding profound truths such as love, compassion, and the existence of a unitive reality; increased ability to perceive transpersonal realities; and inspiration and resolution to serve” (p.iv). 

Further describing these experiential understandings as occurring separate from intellectual processes, Rich (2005) states that said experiences contain a feeling of authority that is compelling for the experiencer, even though there may be no rational foundation for the feeling of knowing. Exposing individuals to a visceral mode of being that has a heightened emotional tone and aliveness reminds them what is possible and further what it’s like to remember the existential truth of one’s embedded connectedness within life. Rich’s description of the intrapsychic authoritative nature of the Awe experience further supports the ways in which Awe-based reform may catalyze new interpretations of one’s life values or meaning-making system (Schneider, K. J., & du Plock, S. 2012).

Similarly, Maslow “identified awe as a core moment in the process of change or as the spark to initiate transformation” describing the experience of Awe as cataclysmic to individuals’ inner evolution (Chirco , A. & Yaden, D. B. 2018, p.228).

Researchers Chirco and Yaden (2018) echo this understanding as empirically validated through their peer-reviewed analysis of the Awe experience. Concluding that “awe’s transformative function can, perhaps, trigger a restructuring of individuals’ inner world at the most intimate level” (p.228). Maintaining that the font of meaning described earlier by Pierson (2009) is a foundational aspect of the experience’s transformational quality.

The Invocation Towards Self-Transcendence, Feelings of Interconnectedness and Emotional Salience

Another recurring theme regarding the transformational quality of the Awe experience is the sense of self-transcendence or interconnectedness the experience invites. Researchers Chirco and Yaden (2018) affirm the self-transcendent quality of awe as contributing to the experiences’ transformative quality. As demonstrated through my art studio awe-based practice, experiences of reduced awareness of and thus preoccupations with ones identity offer a deeper sense of connectedness to oneself and to the present moment and the surrounding environment. This experiential interconnectedness serves individuals by bringing about a sense of self-enlargement, as conveyed by the experience of vastness that Chirco and Yaden (2018) use to describe awe.

A transformational basis of the awe experience appears to also involve the experiences heightened emotional salience, often involving a unique combination of simultaneous positive and negative affect.  Appearing to increase one’s connectivity to nature and human nature alike, awe can be understood theoretically as the opposite of clinical depression in how it demonstrates to individuals that it is possible to feel again. Moreover,

Awe reveals to individuals that this sort of experience of aliveness is possible. Absorbed unexpectedly in a consummate and fulfilling embrace of what is, the experience of awe uniquely reinstates individuals’ hope for an increased felt and embodied sense of meaning in and connectedness to life. Awe reminds individuals of that intrinsic, omnipresent life force energy within every homo sapien, revealing and affirming its presence.

While expressing the clinical ambiguity around exactly how the awe experience is transformative, authors conclude that awe indeed does appear to have transformative value, with such changes being “deep, radical, and enduring (Gaggioli, 2016)” (Chirco, A. & Yaden, D. B. 2018, p.227).


As underscored through a review of literature regarding the awe experience and the awe-based lens from the EHP movement, experiences of awe reinsert an awareness of the possibilities for prioritizing experiences of aliveness in clinical practice and modern life. Serving to temporarily separate human beings from the structural confines and expectations of their intrapsychic self-consciousness: awe reminds individuals of their humanness, connectedness and beingness. In order to achieve ultimate wellbeing, it is important to look beyond the traditional disease-based model and have experiences that embody, embolden and speak to visceral possibilities for recognition and remembrance of one’s interconnectedness to the continuous unfoldment of life.

Ultimately widening possibilities for new meaning-making systems and self-responsibility, “awe-based experiences affect the way people perceive themselves and the surrounding world” (Chirco, A. & Yaden, D. B. 2018, p.227).

Much of the literature reviewed in this preliminary synthesis is not based on primary research, but theoretical and practice-based observations. Although there is a need for both qualitative and quantitative investigations within the advancement of psychological inquiry, as stated by Chirco and Yaden (2018) there remains greater space for primary research regarding the awe experience. Stating specifically “the self-transcendent and transformational aspects of this emotion deserve more empirical attention” (p.230).

Regarding the prospective future of the EHP movement, Taylor and Martin (2015) pose the question: will the field “awaken psychologists to the construction of a new science that finally addresses the full spectrum of human experience?” (p.23). In contrast to the more contemporary field of positive psychology, further investigations into awe appear to have an ideal place within the EHP field for how the experience captures within its acute affect the holistic and nuanced bipolarity of what it is like to be a human in the world. While possibilities for the field’s advocation for advanced research regarding psychotherapeutic counter-culture are large, if there were a psychology that uniquely “could resurrect the dialogue with psychologists about the growth-oriented dimension of personality, […] reorient the training of clinicians toward education for transcendence instead of a psychology of the neurosis, and could re-emphasize the existential nature of the psychotherapeutic hour as not only the crucible for personality transformation but also the laboratory for a new type of experimental psychology” it would be EHP (Taylor, E. & Martin, F., 2015, p.24). 

Theoretically explorative topics warranting further research on this topic include: How might psychotherapists and mental health practitioners both promote the awe-based lens of practice as well as inspire contemplative transformative experiences of awe within their clients? How can individuals optimize their lifeworld or lifestyle design to increase experiences of awe in everyday life? How might researchers and academics alike increase awareness of available awe induction techniques, making these techniques more accessible and widely understood amongst the general public? Finally, what are possible large-scale societal implications of increasing a culture of awe for topics such as substance abuse disorder prevention and increased mental health and wellbeing?









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