When an owl peers through your window during a global pandemic, you tend to stop and take notice. That’s exactly what happened at my house in early April, as my family and I (like countless people across the world) sheltered in place during the quarantine.
I’m a night owl by nature, and over several late evenings, I’d heard something hooting very close to the windows that overlook our wooded backyard. When I investigated, I never saw anything in the darkness outside.
Then, one afternoon, I heard something tap the window as I was working at my desk. The sun was still up, so I wasn’t expecting anything other than the usual songbird staring back at me. To my amazement, there was an owl. Its preternatural yellow eyes watched me, unblinking and intense.
I called out to my wife and kids to come to see this miraculous visitation. We spent the next hour gazing at the magnificent bird as it also inspected us. I noticed it had a fluffy coating on some of its feathers, and realized it might be a fledgling, and therefore still learning to fly. The logical conclusion was that this young owl was still testing out its wings and had made an “emergency landing” on our back porch.
But when such an unexpected event happens, there’s something in us that often finds a less logical conclusion appealing. While many of us may reject this impulse as a superstitious urge, there is growing science exploring why we as a species crave wonder, mystery, and awe.
The Biology of Awe
We tend to think of awe as a purely “disembodied” concept, something that exists in the abstract realm that we sometimes call “mind” or even “the soul.” But research strongly suggests there is a biological motivation behind the pull toward feelings like wonder and awe, which are often linked to spirituality. Participants who took oxytocin—the human hormone that promotes prosocial behavior—in a Duke University study reported a heightened sense of spirituality and the feelings we usually associate with it, including awe.
If we augment the influence of oxytocin with mindfulness practices like mediation, gratitude exercises, or prayer, we have the potential to create a “virtuous cycle,” where the hormonal reaction and mental exercises form a positive feedback loop: the chemical genesis of awe inspires the mental appreciation of the feeling, then the mental focus on awe causes the further release of oxytocin.
So, seeing the unexpected daytime owl gave my family and me a shot of awe-inspiring oxytocin. But the incident could have just been written off as “mere coincidence.” Any deeper meaning for the event would need to come from within us. That’s the next crucial step in the recipe for life-affirming wonder.
Born To Make Meaning
Human beings self-generate the vast majority of the meaning we glean from the things that happen to us. Our perception of circumstances creates our reality. The realization of our power to create meaning is vital to feeling that we’re in charge of our destiny and, therefore, our overall well-being. We may not always have control over what happens to us, but we can learn how to control our reactions to what happens.
In the case of the owl visitation, I chose to make use of it for my own personal development. I decided to use it as a mindfulness tool, a reminder to take a step back from the stress of the pandemic and tune back in to hope for the future. To me, this serendipitous owl became a “sign” it was time I recommitted to gratitude for the good things in my life even amidst the crisis, and to use this strange moment in history to refocus on my goals. It was a welcome jolt to break me out of the rut of going through the motions of life unconsciously.
Some might call this process “self-deception,” but unlike superstition, making conscious use of coincidences and the unexpected doesn’t need to involve belief in mysticism or the paranormal. Rather, it’s a rational self-awareness exercise. However, if you are spiritually inclined, you can indeed use this technique in conjunction with your particular belief system. Either way, you’re using the unexpected to give you a richer life experience.
Spirituality, Secular or Otherwise
As with awe, we traditionally view spirituality as something separate from the body. But research suggests spirituality may also be rooted in our evolved survival instinct; the bond of spirituality increases the likelihood of cohesive communities, and greater numbers of united individuals have better chances of survival.
The implications of biologically motivated spirituality shouldn’t be discounted. If you’re not religiously inclined, chances are you’ve still had transcendent experiences that tapped into oxytocin’s ability to broaden your appreciation of life. Perhaps you felt awe witnessing the birth of a child, finishing a marathon, reaching the top of a mountain, seeing the ocean for the first time, or skydiving. If so, you’ve had what is known as a “peak experience.”
So even if you’re an atheist, transcendence and awe are still a part of your genetic heritage. Awareness of this can give us a deeper respect for wonder as an important life-enhancing emotion. Whether you believe in a god (or gods) or not, you can still use knowledge of biological spirituality to make the most of awe-inspiring moments. The benefits are the same either way.
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Photos courtesy of the author