by Janet Curl, Retreat Leader

As I was preparing to go lead the Iceland Trail Running + Wellness Retreat, my boss gave me a special assignment to report back on awe. How was I going to find “awe?” Had I ever really experienced it before? Would I recognize awe if I did? My boss had given me this assignment because I had just attended a book reading near my home in Berkeley, California, in which Michael Pollan interviewed author Dacher Keltner about his new book, Awe: The Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life.

I had found the in-person discussion riveting, but after tucking into my brand-new copy of Keltner’s hardcover book, I didn’t feel that same spark and energy. The book was much more scientific and dry than the live conversation. However, one paragraph did pique my curiosity: “Knowing now a bit more about the what of awe, where we find it, how it feels and how it is part of a broader space of transcendent states, it is time to turn to how awe works. How does awe transform our minds, our sense of self and our way of being in the world?”

I found the question worth contemplating, especially during my week in a naturally “awe-some” country like Iceland.

But once I arrived on the bustling island in the Arctic, there was simply no time for awe. I had things to do, such as learn 18 women’s names with no mismatching of names and faces. I led our shake-out run through the winding streets of Reykjavik where my sole focus was not to lose anyone as I tried to remember whether we turn right on Langholtsvegur Street or Laugateigur Street.

I had mindful running clinics to lead and guests' birthdays to celebrate. I had special gluten-free vegan meals to secure and packed lunches to pick up.  There were maps to navigate and trails to run in all kinds of weather. I also had to support a runner who had fallen on the trail and needed stitches in her knee.

I began to wonder how I would have time for awe when I had serious responsibilities to tend to. Keltner defines awe as “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world.” I sure loved the idea of experiencing awe, but it seemed elusive in the fray of travel, running and fun with new people in a new place.

Running Around Iceland

On day three, our trail run took us up a steep singletrack that ascended the hillside from which Skogafoss (foss is Icelandic for waterfall) cascaded thunderously, carrying glacier meltwater from the Highlands to the Arctic Sea. The further up the trail we went, the more we distanced ourselves from the tourist masses, until we were almost completely alone on a high plateau from which we could see inland mountains in the horizon ahead of us, and the expansive ocean behind us.

Our group felt a collective energy boost from the amazing view, fueling the feeling that we could run forever. Was this awe? Later in the run, after returning to the base of the waterfall, where its spray cooled our sweating bodies, a vibrant rainbow appeared in the fine mist. We couldn’t help but blurt out “oohhhh!” at the sight. We gathered together for a photo with the rainbow and the waterfall. To better capture the elation and energy of the moment, we counted down for a coordinated jump shot. Was this awe?

The next day, the weather shifted dramatically. The sun was gone and rain drenched the seaside town of Vik i Myrdal, where we would be running the bluffs on sheep paths on the edges of the mossy bluffs above the village. We followed our Icelandic running guide, Gunnur, through the dense fog and mist, looking for puffins nesting on the cliffs towering over the crashing waves below.

After the chilly, damp run, we warmed ourselves in the coziness at our hotel, its sleek, modern Scandinavian design with gray and charcoal tones offering soothing spaces to relax and read or gather and socialize. We celebrated a birthday that night at Sudur Vik, a family-owned restaurant a short walk from the hotel along foggy, sleepy streets. From my perspective, the retreat was proceeding nicely, we were getting more acquainted, both on the trail and even more deeply over good food and shared conversation.

How Icelanders Do It

At this point, our group was feeling the natural flow of the retreat. This usually happens when we make time for ourselves and connect over the adventure and shared joy of running together, far from home in a beautiful new landscape. And yet, I knew that it could be even more transformational, though I wasn’t sure what I could do to make it so.

Over dinner, Gunnur shared a tip for seeing northern lights in the summertime, when there is relatively little darkness. We’d never even seen a dark sky since our arrival, as the sun was always casting some light when we went to bed at around 10 and rose at 7 a.m..

“Drink lots of beer before bed so that you’ll wake up in the middle of the night to go pee,” she mused in her lilting nordic accent. “Or water, if you prefer that, but Icelandic people drink mostly beer.”

Sure enough, one woman in our group awoke at 1:30 in the morning to use the bathroom, and on her way, peeked out the window to see shimmering green streaks moving across the night sky. 

She woke up her roommate so she could see the marvel unfolding outside, then she padded down the hallway to my hotel room and rapped on my door. “I think it’s northern lights!” she exclaimed. 

I grabbed my fleece and list of room numbers so I could call around and alert everyone in our group to the magic unfolding right outside. 

With hearts pounding and bodies bundled in thick jackets and blankets, we gathered in the hotel parking lot and gazed upward. We laughed. We marveled. We actually jumped with joy. This was awe; I had no doubt this time.

I was reminded of something else Keltner had written in his book, Awe, as I gazed at the astonishing aurora:

“Wonder, the mental state of openness, questioning, curiosity, and embracing mystery, arises out of experiences of awe. In our studies, people who find more everyday awe show evidence of living with wonder. They are more open to new ideas. To what is unknown. To what language can’t describe. To the absurd. To seeking new knowledge.”

At that moment, I started to understand better what Keltner had tried to distill in scientific terms. Without awe, northern lights were just charged particles colliding with gasses in the Earth's atmosphere to ignite swaths of flashing light. But with awe, I was having a deeply profound connection with the mystery that is mother nature in a way I hadn’t before.

I hugged her and she hugged us in turn. I told her how wonderful it was to see her in Iceland. She laughed across the sky. She danced. That night in Iceland, as we huddled together, partly for warmth, partly to share this moment of awe together, we commemorated it with a photo, because, you know, if you don’t get a photo, did it really happen?

Mother nature did her best to keep us rapt with her beauty and we stayed as long as we could in the Arctic air, remarking to each other how incredible this life can be.

Several days later, when I returned home, I dropped my suitcase on the bedroom floor. I turned to see Keltner’s book sitting on my bedside table; its title jumped out at me: AWE. But then I noticed the cover image below the words, really, for the first time. The image was of shimming green northern lights!

Perhaps it was meant to happen that way. Reading about the science of awe was a bit arduous, but experiencing it was the most natural, effortless thing in the world. I’ll never forget the feeling I had that night in Iceland observing the aurora borealis. That night in Iceland, upon returning to my room and snuggling under the warm covers, my heart had been beating faster than it does when I run. I lay in bed with a full smile on my face and an inner glow knowing I had just experienced the extraordinary. And knowing now how awe truly feels, I will try to stay open to it, and seek it out any chance I get.

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