Find Awe and Be Present – It’s more important than goals

John Powers

Many people ask me why or what kind of websites or are? Eventually they end up jumping immediately to productivity something like Lifehacker or something like that. Yet, I’m not necessarily using goal achievement as my…well…goal of either of these efforts. It’s about happiness, which is attained through presence, which can be attained by finding awe in your life.  Let me explain. 

The aim of many systems is to make people happier, and the belief is that if you manage your life with intention and wisdom, you will achieve that.  We are cautioned to avoid living the unexamined life, but one must also must avoid the never-ending whack-a-mole effort that is goal achievement.  

I really think people who are too oriented towards goal achievement may run into serious existential crises. Either they fail to get there, which mean they’re losers, or they actually achieve everything, and the question of  “now what?” arises.  Perhaps this is why some successful child actors have trouble later in life.

Life is an amalgam of goal setting goal attainment and presence.  That is why I call my blog “happy wisdom”. Wisdom begets Happiness, and Happiness begets Wisdom, and it has nothing to do with material goods. This “happy wisdom” can be found at any rung of the socioeconomic ladder.

Alan Watts

But how can we find more presence? Alan Watts is quoted to saying that accepting insecurity, living your life in the present, is the secret.

When I was in India I saw some of the most happy people do in their daily work that included street sweeping with the primitive brooms made of straw, people dangerously laying out crops on busy highways to get the cars to run over them, to folks in tiny rooms crafting beautiful silk.

India Awe
Small Room, but Lots of Happy

Some of these people were the happiest people I met there. There’s no connection material wealth and happiness providing that you’re beyond the bottom floor of Maslow’s pyramid.  Anyway, lets check out three quotes from the excellent Brain Pickings blog: 

1. What keeps us from happiness is our inability to fully inhabit the present

My daughter and I have this running joke, albeit dark, that there’s this giant maw waiting to consume us. We speak, of course, of death. The Giant Maw.  How can anyone be really, truly, happy when the nashing for metal teeth can be heard in distance?  Mr. Watts had the same question.

If to enjoy even an enjoyable present we must have the assurance of a happy future, we are “crying for the moon.” We have no such assurance. The best predictions are still matters of probability rather than certainty, and to the best of our knowledge every one of us is going to suffer and die. If, then, we cannot live happily without an assured future, we are certainly not adapted to living in a finite world where, despite the best plans, accidents will happen, and where death comes at the end.

Fortunately he doesn’t leave us there.  Watts is a bit opaque, but most mystics are.  Here’s what he says about alleviating this situation, and as much as I can gather, he’s saying- Ignore the Maw!

“Working rightly, the brain is the highest form of “instinctual wisdom.” Thus it should work like the homing instinct of pigeons and the formation of the fetus in the womb — without verbalizing the process or knowing “how” it does it. The self-conscious brain, like the self-conscious heart, is a disorder, and manifests itself in the acute feeling of separation between “I” and my experience. The brain can only assume its proper behavior when consciousness is doing what it is designed for: not writhing and whirling to get out of present experience, but being effortlessly aware of it.”

2. New years resolutions make us distressed

In Mr. Watt’s theory, we must in a way demonize part of ourselves to admit that one of me is bad, and the other me’s mission in life is to improve the Bad Me. Check it:

“I can only think seriously of trying to live up to an ideal, to improve myself, if I am split in two pieces. There must be a good “I” who is going to improve the bad “me.” “I,” who has the best intentions, will go to work on wayward “me,” and the tussle between the two will very much stress the difference between them. Consequently “I” will feel more separate than ever, and so merely increase the lonely and cut-off feelings which make “me” behave so badly.”

3. To understand music, you must listen to it. But so long as you are thinking, “I am listening to this music,” you are not listening

So for him, this is clearly a problem, and ht talks about being insecure and unified in his experience.

“The real reason why human life can be so utterly exasperating and frustrating is not because there are facts called death, pain, fear, or hunger. The madness of the thing is that when such facts are present, we circle, buzz, writhe, and whirl, trying to get the “I” out of the experience. We pretend that we are amoebas, and try to protect ourselves from life by splitting in two. Sanity, wholeness, and integration lie in the realization that we are not divided, that man and his present experience are one, and that no separate “I” or mind can be found.”

Happiness, he argues, isn’t a matter of improving our experience, or even merely confronting it, but remaining present with it in the fullest possible sense.  But how?  I think the key lies in having a health curiosity about the world.  How can anyone not feel awe? We exist on a planet spinning through space with six billion other souls, using minds that are most complex organization of matter known linked together by a network of computers that is hard to fathom, in a universe that is all but unexplored, and we’re not even sure how much of it works (like ,where is all this dark matter?  Light is a wave and a particle?  Quantum mechanics?) .  


 I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else. – C.S. Lewis
Faith is another source of awe, which comes as no surprise. It is also another way I find presence. If I have faith that God is in my heart, that there is some indescribable positive force that has called all of this into being and that has in some way fit us into a narrative, it evokes an awe that cannot be matched.

Awe of the Mundane

But awe doesn’t have to stem from the extreme. Check out this adorable video from “Shots of Awe” host Jason Silva. I’m not sure I would call this baby a “steak with a brain” in front of his mom, but if you know Jason, you understand….

Along with my never-vanishing awe of my own children, I love doing new projects. Recently I started doing more significant home improvement tasks. While mundane to some, I’m terrible at it which makes it exciting. Installing a sink has been an undiscovered country for me.  When I succeed, I can feel awe on many fronts – how easy it was to find parts, how clever people are in creating these systems, and how patient my wife can be when I have to go to Lowes…again.

Let’s call in Albert to close it out:

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.”
Albert Einstein

It is my belief that if you can retain a sense of awe it’ll actually assist you in goal attainment since its easier to have grit when you’re not existentially depressed.

How do you folks find awe in the everyday? Does that help you with presence?  Mention it below – I’ll be in awe if you do !  🙂






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