Awe and Ache

Awe and Ache

Awe and Ache

Awe and ache – one of those examples of the yin-yang of the human condition, these days, in all days.  The fullness of one always containing the seed of the other. 

Gratitude and grief is another example – dive deep enough into gratitude for what is; there will come grief for its eventual, inevitable loss.  Dive deep enough into grief, eventually there will arise gratitude that anything exists at all, that beauty and kindness and peace exist at all.

The poignancy of awe and ache was evoked for me last weekend visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a venturing into a possible post-pandemic world.

The world-renowned Aquarium sits on the edge of the Monterey Bay submarine canyon, water as deep (5,000 feet) as the Grand Canyon. It pioneered the creation of one of the largest national marine sanctuaries in the United States and through its research arm, the Monterey Bay Area Research Institute (MBARI) leads world-wide research in deep ocean marine life. 

Awe-inspiring to maintain eye contact with a giant octopus for a good fifteen minutes, scratch the belly of a friendly bat ray, and watch the playful otters learn to open the plastic toys that contain snacks of delicious squid and mussels. (Enhances the neuroplasticity in their brains, explains the staff.)

And the ache: staff at the Aquarium work hard to rescue and raise endangered species like those playful otters and the not so cuddly purple-striped jellies, educate the public about the trashing of plastics in our oceans (drifting down to the very bottom of the canyon), and maintain the Seafood Watch program, the leading website/app to inform the public about which seafoods are sustainably raised/harvested and which are not.

Awe-some to immerse in learning about the abundance of life in the oceans (MBARI discovering previously unknown species literally almost every week). The ache, simultaneously, of how much we are endangering life in the oceans through pollution and over-fishing, even before we’ve fully explored it.


The essential practice to hold awe and ache simultaneously in the heart-mind is, of course, equanimity. To be at peace in the awareness that life is always a flow of ups and downs, comings and goings, that the yin-yang seeds of change are in all seeming contradictions. 

Equanimity is simply being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it were different; enjoying the pleasant without holding on when it changes (which it will); being with the unpleasant without fearing it will always be this way (which it won’t).

– James Baraz

In Buddhist contemplative practice, equanimity is considered one of the four heavenly abodes, one of the seven factors of enlightenment, one of the ten paramitas or perfections.  One of the very first newsletters I ever posted was Equanimity: The Invisible Fulcrum of Conscious, Compassionate, Connection, with reflections, stories to learn from, quotes, and exercises to illustrate that equanimity is a learned capacity and a lifelong practice.

Here’s an exercise to cultivate equanimity from my book Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being: useful in holding the yin-yang of awe and ache:

1. Settle your body into a comfortable position, sitting or lying down. Settle your awareness into a sense of presence, relaxing into this moment, here, and now.

2. Notice anything you are experiencing in this moment — the pressure of the chair or floor against your body, a realization you forgot to buy toothpaste at the store yesterday, an anxiety about paying the tuition for the liberal arts college your daughter has her heart set on attending; concern about early signs of dementia in an aging parent. 

3. Notice your reaction to what you’re noticing. Notice your reaction to forgetting the toothpaste, notice the anxiety about the tuition, notice your concern about the dementia. Then…Notice any further reaction to those reactions, any judgments or worrying or planning in response to the initial reactions.

4. For the purposes of this exercise, choose to let go of all of that reacting and noticing the reactions. Return your awareness to simply being in this moment, breathing here and now. There are many times when it’s appropriate and necessary to focus on a problem and try to resolve it. This exercise is teaching your brain to choose to return to a state of equanimity as a prelude to any skillful problem solving later.

5. Continue to practice noticing your reactions and your reactions to your reactions and then letting them go, returning to equanimity, over and over and over. You are re-training your brain; be persistent.

6. Note: if it seems impossible to find the calm of equanimity at all, seek a place in your body that is calm. Find some place out of the vortex of worry and focus your attention there. This could be your elbow or your big toe. Return your attention there when you let go of your reactions and your reactions to your reactions.