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Posted: April 26, 2006

Spiritual Caregiving

Cultivating Awe in Four Stages

Drawing from the principles of my own therapy, I have identified four stages in the cultivation of awe. These stages are relevant to any moral or ethical dilemma. So long as there is time, safety, and the willingness to explore internally (often in the presence of a supportive witness), they can be accessed in virtually any setting, from home to work to school, and even in the realms of religion and government.
All that is needed is the imagination to prioritize such ventures and the will to implement them. Try it with your caregiving.

1. Appreciation
Appreciation is the whole-bodied immersion in or presence before a problem. Sally has led a double life. On one hand, she is passive and suppressed. When a person cuts in front of her in line, she seethes in silence. When strapped for money, she becomes paralyzed and stews in self-devaluation. However, she can also be a tyrant. If she is at her emotional limit, she will lash out or drink until obnoxious.
Sally is "beside herself" and yet she feels helpless to change, to address her fear of "standing out" and asserting herself in life. She believes she has two options -- cower and acquiesce, or explode. Yet both are compartmentalizations of herself, of her larger capacity to live. Both reflect a shrunken capacity for awe and keep her from being engaged and fascinated by life.
In therapy, I invite Sally to stay present to the rival sides of herself -- the side that shrinks or rages and that part that yearns for a different life.
2. Struggle
In the next phase of our work, Sally struggles with herself. Back and forth she wavers, between helpless passivity and budding empowerment, between blind rage and conscious discernment. Gradually, and with many returns to her battle, Sally begins to develop a connection with herself and her fuller priorities. She gives in to her first impulses less often -- impulses which are mostly associated with early childhood trauma. She is increasingly attuned to her feelings, such as the desire to stand up for and fulfill herself. She becomes bolder, making the most of her life and embracing the diverse and deepening experiences that life has to offer.
3. Responsibility
As Sally becomes more attuned to herself, it is not enough for her to simply be aware. She is now impelled to take action on that awareness -- at home, with friends, and at her job. She realizes that there is much more to her life than her shrunken reactions, and she now must live out this "more" if she is to thrive. In turn, Sally begins to act from the center of herself, rather than from the periphery of old assumptions about herself. She finds it necessary to face, access, and express all that deeply matters, both within herself and in the world. She moves from being cornered by life to being engaged by and even fascinated with it, which in turn empowers her to choose, more or less, the life she desires to lead.
4. Relinquishment
Sally has gained much from her bold redefinitions of herself, but not all, and it is this "not all" that summons the fourth and final phase of Sally's awe-informed course -- cosmic trust. As Ernest Becker said (on his deathbed, no less!), at some point we must all "give in." The question is when and how. For Sally, as for Becker, giving in to the tremendous creative energies of the cosmos -- living at the very limit of her earthly powers -- was one of the most exhilarating experiences that she could know -- and this led her to awe-informed faith, transcendence, and love.
Kirk J. Schneider, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor at Saybrook Graduate School, editor of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, and author of Rediscovery of Awe: Splendor, Mystery, and the Fluid Center of Life (Paragon House, 2004).

This article originally appeared in Spirituality & Health magazine, For subscriptions call 1-800-876-8202 or see Editor Stephen Kiesling and his staff contribute weekly columns, features and articles published every Friday as "Spiritual Caregiving" at Contact staff directly via email at

© 2006 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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