First recorded in the Historia Brittonum in the 9th century, awen is a Welsh word for what we might call poetic inspiration. It’s also interpreted as instinctive knowledge, a muse, a breeze, or a flow.
Getting in the Flow
Writers, musicians, and artists talk about getting “in the flow” when they’re doing their work. So do athletes, scientists, artisans, and workers of all stripes. Being in the flow is being so wrapped up in what you’re doing that you lose track of time. Doing what you love immerses your senses until you’re actually in a kind of trance state. (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it “flow.”) People tend to be at their most creative when they’re in flow state.
Inspiration from Beauty
Besides doing what I love, I’m also inspired by the beauty I sense from outside myself. The sound of wind blowing through tree limbs, certain lines in the poetry of Borges, and the opening strains of the Pastoral Symphony from Handel’s Messiah. Awen strikes when I’m paying attention, all of my senses attuned and alert to the beautiful and true.
Awen also strikes suddenly, sometimes interrupting my absentminded train of thought, when something lovely or unexpected catches my attention and gives me the shivers.
The Good Kind of Shivers
Scientists who study frissons, or “skin orgasms,” say that these shivers are physical responses to environmental stimuli such as nature, music, and art. But in order for the physical response to happen, one’s brain must be cognitively immersed in that sensory experience in the first place, and people who are capable of becoming immersed like this are more open to experience.
The good thing about openness to experience is that anyone can learn it. Some of us may take to it more naturally than others thanks to personality differences, but everyone can practice openness to experience— and thus, openness to awen— in everyday life. We can all slow down, look around, gaze deeply and appreciate the beauty around us, making space for our creativity and gratitude to arise from within.