Death is in the air, and all is well

woody_allen_love_death

Boris: Nothingness… non-existence… black emptiness…

Sonja: What did you say?

Boris: Oh, I was just planning my future.

Woody Allen, Love and Death

Just when I thought I was done with reflecting upon the impact of my mother’s passing last year, Oliver Burkeman’s “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking” gave me a ton of material on the life-infusing properties of death to mull over.

And while death is always present in the news all over the world, the book arrived to me at a moment when two particular news stories about death felt particularly close:

Last week, here in Buenos Aires, prosecutor Alberto Nisman’s body was found in his apartment, triggering a political crisis of gigantic proportions.

Two days later, AK Canserbero, a rapper from Venezuela whose work I had just discovered and encouraged me to look further into the emerging hip-hop wave of my native country, jumped from the 10th floor of a building after stabbing his friend and manager, Carlos Molnar, to death.

vidamuertecan

The book draws from cognitive psychology to classical philosophy and literature to demolish the foundations of the positive-thinking cult that underpins the modern self-help industry. And to top it all off, Burkeman does this with great storytelling and generous doses of stark British humor.

To illustrate the futility of positive thinking, Burkeman reminds us of the perennial challenge proposed by Fyodor Dostoevsky in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions:

“Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”

After several years reporting on the field of psychology as a journalist, it dawned on Burkeman that what united the psychologists, philosophers, and even the occasional self-help guru whose ideas seemed to hold water, was the realization that the Dostoevskian polar-bear challenge was a great metaphor for what’s wrong with most of the popular recepies for happiness.

For example, the work carried out in the field of ironic process theory shows that our uniquely human capacity for “metacognition,” for thinking about thinking, if abused, short-circuits in peculiar ways:

When you try not think of a white bear, you may experience some success in forcing alternative thoughts into your mind. At the same time, though, a metacognitive monitoring process will crank into action, to scan your mind for evidence of whether you are succeeding or failing at the task. And this is where things get perilous, because if you try too hard… [t]he monitoring process will start to occupy more than its fair share of limelight on the cognitive stage… suddenly, all you will be able to think about is white bears, and how badly you’re doing at not thinking about them.

There is a good deal of evidence that this is very similar to the process that frustrates most of our efforts to feel positive:

[Havard University’s Daniel] Wegner’s research, and that of others, has turned up more and more evidence to support that notion. One example: when experimental subjects are told of an unhappy event, but then instructed to try not to feel sad about it, they end up feeling worse than people who are informed of the event, but given no instructions about how to feel. In another study, when patients who were suffering from panic dissorders listened to relaxation tapes, their hearts ran faster than patients who listened to audiobooks with no explicitly “relaxing” content… people instructed not to think about sex exhibit greater arousal, as measured by the electrical conductivity of their skin, than those not instructed to supress those thoughts.

From this perspective, most of the self-help industry’s favorite techniques for achieving happiness and success, like positive thinking or visualizing goals, suffer from an irremediable flaw. And Burkeman proposes instead to embrace the work of thinkers who promote an alternative, “negative path” to happiness that encourages us to be willing to experience more negative emotions, or at least to stop running so hard from them.

Besides recent work in cognitive psychology,

You’ll find [this view] in the works of the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome, who emphasised the benefits of always contemplating how badly things might go. It lies deep near the core of Buddhism, which counsels that true security lies in the unrestrained embrace of insecurity… the same “negative” approach to happiness also helps explain why so many people find mindfulness meditation so beneficial, why a new generation of business thinkers are advising companies to drop their obsession with goalsetting and embrace uncertainty instead…

The word “negative” here doesn’t necessarily refer to unpleasant experiences and emotions: “…some philosophies of happiness are best described as ‘negative’ because they involve developing skills of ‘not doing‘ — of learning not to chase positive feelings so aggressively.”

Via Flickr: https://flic.kr/p/b2ozz6
Via Flickr: https://flic.kr/p/b2ozz6

But there is a thought that our minds are exceptionally successful at suppressing: that of our own mortality.

The more you reflect on this, the stranger it seems. We are perfectly capable of feeling acute self-pitty about more minor predicaments, at home or at work, on a daily basis. Yet the biggest predicament of all goes by, for the most part, not consciously worried about. ‘At bottom,’ wrote Freud — sweepengly, as usual, but in this case persuasively — ‘no one believes his own death.’

Burkeman cites Ernest Becker’s magnum opus, The Denial of Death (definitely on my list of books to read in 2015) as containing one of the most persuasive explanations of this remarkable capacity of our minds:

The lack of serious thought we give to mortality, for Becker, is no accident or oversight: it is precisely because death is so terrifying and significant, he argues, that we don’t think about it… but the consequence is that we dedicate our lives to suppressing that fear, erecting vast psychological fortifications so that we can avoid confronting it.

In Becker’s view, a huge amount of human activity is “designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man.”

The main reason we manage to deny our mortality to such an extent, Becker explains, is our capacity for constructing a symbolic self that coexists in our minds with the perception of ourselves as physical beings:

And while it is inevitable that the physical self will perish, the symbolic self — the one that exists in our minds — is quite capable of convincing itself that it is immortal… in Becker’s view, all religions, all political movements and national identities, all business ventures, all charitable activity and all artistic pursuits are nothing but ‘immortality projects.’

Deep down, we see ourselves as immortal heroes. From this perspective, even the most recalcitrant atheist depends on a notion of the afterlife. For Becker, failing do so results in mental illness: the main cause of depression is some people’s failure to shield themselves from the truth that they are not cosmically significant heroes.

Furthermore, immortality projects are a great creative force that allows for “great architecture, great literature, great acts of philanthropy, great civilisations,”

…but in Becker’s view they are simultaneously the cause of the worst things, too… War represents the ultimate clashing of rival immortality projects: if my sense of immortality relies on my nation’s triumph, and yours upon yours, we’ll fight longer and harder than if we were seeking only territory or power… philosopher Sam Keen, paraphrasing Becker, [says that human conflicts] “are life-and-death struggles — my gods against your gods, my immortality project against your immortality project.” In other words, we will fight so hard to preserve our symbolic immortality that we will sacrifice our physical lives.

Luckily, there is a way to exorcize ourselves from our deep-rooted death-denial mechanisms without falling into an abyss of depressive existential despair.

According to Burkeman, the very first step in this direction is embracing the teachings of Epicurus and realizing that there there is no need to fantasize that life continues beyond death:

“Death is nothing to us,” [Epicurus] says, “since when we are, death has not come, and when death has come, we are not.”… Death spells the end of the experiencing subject, and thus the end of any capacity for experiencing the state we fear. Or as Einstein put it: “The fear of death is the most unjustified of all fears, for there’s no risk of accident to one who’s dead.”

However, necessary as it is, Burkeman thinks the Epicurean maxim is not sufficient:

No matter how persuasive you find Epicurus’s arguments against fearing death, it doesn’t follow that death is not bad… coming to understand death as something that there is no reason to fear, yet which is still bad because of what it brings to and end, might be the ideal middle path. The argument is a thoroughly down-to-earth, pragmatic, and Stoic one: the more that you remain aware of life’s finitude, the more you will cherish it, and the less likely you will be to fritter it away on distractions.

For building the habit of remembering our mortality and thus strengthening our capacity to focus on meaning, Burkeman recommends a simple exercise suggested by psychologist Russ Harris:

[I]magine you are eighty years old — assuming you are not eighty already, that is; if you are, you’ll have to pick an older age — and then complete the sentences “I wish I’d spent more time on … “, and “I wish I’d spend less time on … “. This turns out to be a surprisingly effective way to achieve mortality awareness in short order… it is precisely through such mundane and unassuming rituals that we can best hope to enfold an awareness of death into the daily rhythms of life, and achieve something of Epicurus’s calm rationality in the face of mortality.

Burkeman also reminds us that the relationship of the Western world to the concept of mortality wasn’t always as unhealthy as it is nowadays:

[In ancient Rome], according to legend, generals who had been victorious in battles would instruct a slave to follow behind as they paraded through the streets; the slave’s task was to keep repeating, for the general’s benefit, a warning against hubris: memento mori, “remember you shall die.” … The specific motivation for contempalting mortality differed from era to era, and culture to culture. In the ancient world, it had much to do with remembering to savour life as if it were a delicious meal… for later Christians it was often more a case of remembering to behave well in anticipation of the final judgement.

sylviajiidiadelosmuertos

But traditional rituals for reconciling life and death are still alive in the 21st century, and Burkeman sees the Mexican Day of the Dead as one of the most powerful ones. As part of his research for the book he visited the Mexican village of San Gregorio Atlapulco during the celebration of the holiday:

The Day of the Dead is not an effort to remake something horrifying as something unproblematic; it is, precisely, a rejection of such binary categories. What was happening in the cementery was memento mori at its most powerful – a ritual that neither repressed thoughts of death, nor sought, in the manner of American or British Hallowe’en, to render it saccharine and harmless. It was about letting death seep back into life.

And you can tell the Day of the Dead had a strong impact on Burkeman because his writing shines the most when he elaborates on his first-hand experience of it:

The strains of the mariachi band drifted over from the other side of the cemetery. I looked out over it, strewn with marigolds and crowded with huddled figures. Beyond its edges, no lights illuminated the blackness, but inside, the fires and the hundreds of clickering candles lent the night a kind of cosiness, despite the chill. The musicians carried on playing. Death was in the air, and all was well.

The Year of Energy

Via Flickr: https://flic.kr/p/8hfbmZ
Via Flickr: https://flic.kr/p/8hfbmZ

2014 was an intense year for me. My mother passed away in February and my wife became pregnant in May. Our baby daughter will be born a few days after the anniversary of the passing of her grandmother.

Going through the joy of the arrival of a cherished being and the pain of the departure of another are deeply transforming experiences in their own right. But I guess the transformational effect is substantially magnified when one lives them almost simultaneously.

Be it the consequence of embracing the cycle of life or not, the fact is that 2014 brought enough important and positive changes to make it a momentous year for me:

  • I became a full-time freelancer. I can now say that I live off my interpreting, translation and writing work. Wow. It is only now that I am writing this that I realize how big of an achievement this is for me, and that I have not celebrated it appropriately. I still don’t earn as much as I like, but it’s been enough to live comfortably throughout the year even after my wife stopped working to concentrate fully on having a healthy, relaxed pregnancy. That, of course, on top of all the little perks that come from working or yourself: no commuting, no boss, no dealing with the Dilbertian little problems of corporate life, and no fixed schedule.
  • I broke through the barrier of physical resistance and have finally installed the habit of regular, intense exercise in my life. As soon as I landed in Caracas to be with my mother during her last days, I felt a pressure in the back of my knee that refused to go away. When I arrived back to Buenos Aires, it had mutated to a nagging pain that my doctor diagnosed as a moderate meniscus tear. He said the cause were the pistol squats I did during my (restrospectively unwise) attempt to start a minimalist workout routine based on the rather extreme calisthenics regime of the fabulous Al Kavadlo. After three months of almost zero physical exercise and 15 kynesiology sessions, I started all over again, progressing slowly but surely, and when I felt strong enough, I spent some time researching for a calisthenics program that was challenging but not as extreme as Al’s. And that’s how I found Freeletics. I am about to finish my 15th week on the program and can fairly say the results have been nothing short of amazing: It had been years since I hadn’t felt physically so strong and energetic, all while loosing fat and gaining muscle at a fast and sustained rate.
  • I kept writing regularly. Certainly not on this blog, but mostly thanks to an enriching collaboration with my friends from Las Indias (in Spanish).
  • I started to meditate again. The habit is still not as ingrained as I would like: I want to reach the point of being able to sit every single day for a at least 10 minutes. But I’m getting there, averaging 4 times per week. In great part I owe the change to Sam Harris’s latest, awesome little book. This is perhaps the most important achievement of the year for me. I seriously doubt I would have been able to navigate the loss of my mother, the preganancy of my wife and the transition to full time freelancing without it. I can also feel its effect in my mood and in a connection to a spiritual sensitivity of sorts that I hadn’t felt since 2009. (Yes, I just used the word “spirituality” after years of struggling with it. Again, it was Harris’s little book that reconciled me with the term, as well as Alain de Botton’s “Atheism 2.0,” whose work I have been absorbing mainly through, again, my good friends from Las Indias).
  • I started reading voraciously again. My appetite for reading had waned somehow, but it came back with a vengeance a couple months ago and I think it is here to stay. It probably has to do with the energy boost provided by my renewed meditation/exercise routine and I look forward to start reviewing books in this blog every once in a while. Right now I am reading Dan Arieli’s “Predictably Irrational” and “Mindfulness in Plain English” by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana. In the fiction department, I am re-reading George Orwell’s 1984, and Lexicon by Max Barry.
  • I went back to Facebook. This is of course not an achievement, but I felt like including it in this post as I was quite vehement about my reasons for leaving it. I still dislike many things about Facebook that I disliked back then and I don’t log in as often as I used to, not even close. But the fact is that Facebook is so tremendously huge that there is simply no other way to contact some people nowadays. Many of my dear old friends that are scattered around the globe have it as their main online presence, and I must admit that being able to see what they’re up to from time to time puts a big smile on my face that more than compensates the violations of privacy and annoyances that it subjects me to from time to time. And of course, there are also amazingly great people that publish most of their amazingly great content on Facebook. I remember several people warned me back then that I probably would end up going back to it for exactly these reasons, and I dismissed their warnings with a bit of an arrogant tone. If you are reading this, I apologize.

It is quite evident that if there is a common thread to all these developments I experienced during last year it can be described quite well by the term “energy.” Focusing on the management of physical and mental energy made an important difference for me during 2014, and I look forward to sharing what I learn during 2015 as I keep on working and experimenting in that direction.

Getting Things Done with Evernote, an Update

This is a long due post about my Evernote-adapted GTD system.

Since I last wrote about it, my system has actually evolved to a point where I dont think it can be called a GTD system anymore: I no longer organize my pending tasks as “next actions” to be performed in specific contexts. And my tickler file has been completely substituted by properly programeed entries in my calendar.

GTDnotebooksSo nowadays my system consists of three notebooks, named according to basic GTD terminology: Projects, Reference and Support Materials, and Someday/Maybe.

(Haven’t read the book? Trust me, it’s still one of the very few personal productivity gems out there, so go for it, and then come back so that the terminology I use here makes sense to you.)

GTD TagsI also use an analogous tag structure: three groups of tags, one corresponding to each notebook, and thus named accordingly.

The Projects notebook

Each project I’m working on gets at least one “General” note where I keep track of all the pending tasks that need to get done for the project to move forward, and not much more than that. If one of the tasks is complex enough to be treated as a sub-project, I create a separate note for it.

All the notes in this notebook are numbered according to the priority of each particular project (which mainly reflects importance, but can also take into account urgency to a certain degree). Each sub-project note inherits the number of its parent project, with an additional digit to the right, e.g., sub-projects of project 02 would be numbered 021, 022, 023, etc.

Projectsfolder

I use the “Projects” group of tags to visualize all the notes related to a single project separately:

Projecttags

If a sub-project gets complex enough that it originates its own sub-projects, then I will create a tag for it so that I can visualize that sub-project with all its sub-sub-projects separetly, and so on.

The Reference and Support Materials notebook

In this notebook I file notes to be used as reference and support for current or future projects, but also any note that I take for whatever reason, about any subject that I might be interested in.

This reflects in the tag structure associated with this notebook, which is based on a simple alphabetical order in which each project represents a subtag, e.g., I might take a note about my reflections on the beauty of flowers during spring in Buenos Aires, which doesn’t have anything to do with any project whatsoever, so it simply gets tagged with an “F”.

On the other hand, whatever notes I take related to freelance writing in general get filed under the “Freelance Writing” tag. And if I create several notes related to a particular freelance writing project, e.g., an online course on how to write killer query letters, I would create a sub-tag under Freelance Writing named “Killer Query Letter Course” so that I can eventually visualize them separately if needs be.

Referenceandsupportmaterialsnotebook

I no longer use the Reference and Support Materials notebook as my default tool to archive interesting online materials, so in any case I only save material which is clearly related to a particular project in, tagging it with the name of the project or sub-project that it relates to.

For archiving all other kinds of interesting online materials I might come accross, I use a similar structure in my Mozilla Firefox bookmarks manager:

Bookmarksmanager

The Someday/Maybe notebook

In this notebook I keep notes on stuff that I might want to do some day. I also keep a tag structure for this, albeit a much more simple one. The idea is to have a place to write down thoughts about possible projects to take on in the future, books I might want to read, movies I might want to watch, etc.

Somedaymaybenotebook

And that’s pretty much it. I guess that when it comes to personal productivity systems, the trick is to be flexible and modify it as time goes by, so that by a process of trial and error we can keep what works for us, discard the rest, and end up with a unique and highly customized tool that fits our day-to-day needs like a glove.

The Economist on Why We Find Things Beautiful


In this recent interview with The Economist, neuroscientist and pioneer neuroaesthetics researcher Anjan Chatterjee touches upon several topics that are relevant to the ruminations on beauty of my previous post:

  • People tend to see symmetric faces as beautiful, but not perfectly symmetric faces, as this tends to give an impression of artificiality. This seems to be in line with the evidence presented in my last post on people’s notion of a beautiful face not aligning with the classical beauty canon.
  • When presented with many faces of different levels of beauty, people find a face constructed with the average features (e.g., the distance between the eyes of the constructed face would be the average length of all the faces presented to a subject) to be more beautiful than any of the original faces used to do the averaging.
  • The previous point seems to confirm the idea that people’s instinctual sense of beauty tends to conform to stereotyped notions. But Chaterjee also points out that perceptions of beauty are highly succeptible to evolve through theaction of culture and knowledge. For example, he talks about how most people didn’t like impressionist paintings when they first came into the scene during the late nineteenth century, whereas today they are regarded as perhaps the most liked among the general population. While our brains haven’t changed during the last 150 years, something has changed in the way we look at impressionist paintings; and that something is, in Chaterjee’s opinion, how our knowledge of painting has evolved during that period.

So I guess my idea of beauty as unbearable awe fits the model of beauty that needs to be developed with knowledge. As we learn to appreciate the uniqueness and individuality of each person’s character and how it is subtly reflected by the body, it becomes ingrained to a point where it feels as natural as our more instinctual response to facial features that have evolved through sexual selection.

Beauty as Unbearable Awe

kundera

Down at Brain Pickings, Maria Popova reflects on several insights from Nancy Etcoff’s new book, Survival of the Prettiest.

Etcoff argues that our notion of physical human beauty is fundamentally instinctual:

Although the object of beauty is debated, the experience of beauty is not. Beauty can stir up a snarl of emotions but pleasure must always be one (tortured longings and envy are not incompatible with pleasure). Our body responds to it viscerally and our names for beauty are synonymous with physical cataclysms and bodily obliteration — breathtaking, femme fatale, knockout, drop-dead gorgeous, bombshell, stunner, and ravishing. We experience beauty not as rational contemplation but as a response to physical urgency

And she presents evidence supporting the idea that although our conceptions of the beautiful other are quite uniform, they don’t conform to the conventions of the classical beauty canon.

Etcoff cites the work of anthropometrist Leslie Farkas, who measured the facial proportions of 200 people, including 50 models, and asked a large sample of participants to rate their appearance:

The canon did not fare well. Many of the measures did not turn out to be important, such as the relative angles of the ear and nose. Some seemed pure idealizations: none of the faces and heads in profile corresponded to equal halves or thirds or fourths. Some were inaccurate—the distance between the eyes of the beauties was greater than that suggested by the canon (the width of the nose). Farkas’s results do not mean that a beautiful face will never match the Renaissance and classical ideals. But they do suggest that classical artists might have been wrong about the fundamental nature of human beauty. Perhaps they thought there was a mathematical ideal because this fit in a general way with platonic or religious ideas about the origin of the world

Still, Etcoff acknowldges that our basic conception of beauty might be manipulated to make it conform to standards that are as artificial as the classical cannon:

The media channel desire and narrow the bandwidth of our preferences. A crowd-pleasing image becomes a mold, and a beauty is followed by her imitator, and then by the imitator of her imitator. Marilyn Monroe was such a crowd pleaser that she’s been imitated by everyone from Jayne Mansfield to Madonna. Racism and class snobbery are reflected in images of beauty, although beauty itself is indifferent to race and thrives on diversity

This dovetails nicely with what I have said elsewhere: there are strong reasons to believe that perverse social and economic institutions can have serious consequences on attitudes towards beauty.

When the obstacles imposed on genuine economic activity by worng-headed policies and/or discriminatory social prejudices become large enough, people will tend to see marriage as an efficient way to associate with one of the few who can accumulate wealth under those circumstances, and therefore engage in a fierce zero-sum arms race to increase their attractiveness to the opposite sex. And by definition, such arms races tend to be carried out on the basis of strongly stereotyped notions of beauty.

But if Etcoff is right, then what bad institutions do is to exacerbate an innate tendency we have evolved to conform to a socially determined pattern of beauty.

In any case, healthy institutions aren’t sufficient for a more developed sense of beauty to grow within us, one that liberates us from what Etcoff claims to be the tiranny of our basic, biological drives.

Etcoff highlights the role of art and philosophy in helping us achieve just that:

The most lyrical description of an encounter with beauty — solitary, spontaneous, with an unknown other—comes in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when Stephen Dedalus sees a young woman standing by the shore with “long, slender bare legs,” and a face “touched with the wonder of mortal beauty.” Her beauty is transformative and gives form to his sensual and spiritual longings. “Her image had passed into his soul for ever and no word had broken the holy silence of his ecstasy.… A wild angel had appeared to him, the angel of mortal youth and beauty, an envoy from the fair courts of life, to throw open before him in an instant of ecstasy the gates of all the ways of error and glory. On and on and on and on!”

Ezra Pound had a moment of recognition that inspired him to write a two-line poem “In a station at the Métro,” which comprised these brief sentences: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd: Petals, on a wet, black bough.” Later, Pound described how he came to write it. “Three years ago in Paris I got out of a Métro train at La Concorde, and saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another, and then a beautiful child’s face, and then another beautiful woman, and I tried all day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to me worthy or as lovely as that sudden emotion.… In a poem of this sort one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself or darts into a thing inward and subjective.”

My guess is that we can gradually break free from the chains of socially conditioned notions of beauty by learning to appreciate character and uniqueness — by apprehending the magnetic charm of individuality.

Milan Kundera expressed this exquisitely in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

Tereza tried to see herself through her body. That is why, from girlhood on, she would stand before the mirror so often. And because she was afraid her mother would catch her at it, every peek into the mirror had a tinge of secret vice.

It was not vanity that drew her to the mirror; it was amaze­ment at seeing her own “I.” She forgot she was looking at the instrument panel of her body mechanisms; she thought she saw her soul shining through the features of her face. She forgot that the nose was merely the nozzle of a hose that took oxygen to the lungs; she saw it as the true expression of her nature.

Staring at herself for long stretches of time, she was occa­sionally upset at the sight of her mother’s features in her face. She would stare all the more doggedly at her image in an attempt to wish them away and keep only what was hers alone. Each time she succeeded was a time of intoxication: her soul would rise to the surface of her body like a crew charging up from the bowels of a ship, spreading out over the deck, waving at the sky and singing in jubilation.

Tereza’s soul rose to the surface of her body by the act of contemplating its unique features, but of course, our soul can also reach higher heights by contemplating the uniqueness, character and personality infused in other people’s features.

This way of undertanding human physical beauty is akin to the description that Jonathan Haidt makes of the emotion of awe in his indispensable The Happiness Hypothesis. Looking back in history to what awe has meant through time for philosophers, sociologists and theologians, he finds that

…it has always had a link to fear and submission in the presence of something much greater than the self. It’s only in very modern times… that awe has been reduced to surpirse plus approval, and the word “awesome”… has come to mean little more than “double plus good” (to use George Orwell’s term from 1984).

It is this notion of “awesomness” that I think underpins the more stereotypical concepts of human physical beauty that Etcoff argues are part of our basic instincts and are easily exploited by adverstisers. On the contrary, Haidt argues that genuinue awe happens when (the emphasis is mine)

…two conditions are met: a person perceives something vast (usually physically vast, but sometimes conceptually vast, such as a grand theory…); and the vast thing cannot be accomodated by the person’s existing mental structures. Something enormous can’t be processed, and when people are stumped, stopped in their cognitive tracks while in the presence of something vast, they feel small, powerless, passive, and receptive. They often… feel fear, admiration, elevation, or a sense of beauty as well. By stopping people and making them receptive, awe creates an opening for change, and this is why awe plays a role in most stories of religious conversion

It’s not surprising that Haidt says that there might be a sense of beauty to what he means by awe in more general terms. I suspect that we are similarly stomped and stopped in our cognitive tracks by our incapacity to accomodate the uniqueness of character, of true individuality, and the body’s subtle, spontaneous capacity for expressing it.

And just as Haidt characterizes awe as a catalyst of personal transformation, there’s a deep sense in which the experience of the other’s physical beauty can transform us as well — maybe that’s what it truly means to “fall in love” with someone.

never was so much owed by so much to so little