Berkeley Talks transcript: How an ‘awe walk’ helped one musician reconnect with her home

[Music: “Contrarian” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Anne Brice: This is Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast that features lectures and conversations that happen at UC Berkeley. You can find more talks at news.berkeley.edu/podcasts. And you can subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.

Dacher Keltner: Hi there, it’s Dacher Keltner. Before we get started today, I have a favor to ask of you. The Science of Happiness is conducting our annual audience survey, so we can learn a bit more about you, and we’d really value your feedback. Could you take a few minutes and tell us about yourself and share some things you like about the show? The survey is really important to us. It attracts sponsors and that helps us keep our podcast running smoothly. And knowing what you think and what you’d like more of helps us create episodes that will best bring you happiness. And that’s why we’re here. Please visit surveynerds.com/science to take the survey today. Thanks.

[Music: “Bajo El Sol” by Diana Gameros]

Diana Gameros: I moved to the United States when I was 13 years old to live with my family in Michigan, and then I spent two years here and then went back to Mexico and then decided to return in 2003.

When I moved to the United States, I found inspiration or I found this motivation o write about the things that I was feeling about being away and I think, you know, I was inspired by folk music to create these songs.

For me it’s very humbling to know that some of the stories and the messages I give, or that I sing about, are resonating with other people whose stories are similar to mine. And I began to notice that they became a source of inspiration and of empowerment to them. And so I also see it as a as a responsibility to use my platform. I have a microphone. I have an audience. I have a stage. And so, for me it’s a way to give voice to those who don’t have a means to express it.

Dacher Keltner: She spent years writing songs about longing to go home to Juarez, Mexico, and the experience of undocumented immigrants in America. Today, singer and activist Diana Gameros joins us as our “happiness guinea pig.” On each episode, we have a guest try a practice shown to increase happiness, connection and kindness. Diana is the first to try the same practice both in the U.S. and in Mexico, where she recently visited for the first time in 16 years.

Diana, thanks for joining us on the “Science of Happiness.”

Diana Gameros: Thank you so much for having me.

Dacher Keltner: Much of your music, I was blown away by it. I was lucky enough to grow up with Mexican folk songs in my home and it seems like you’re carrying on that really deep and rich tradition with a contemporary lenses on it. Your songs really are really about about being separated from your family in Mexico.

Diana Gameros: Yeah. And perhaps more than being separated from my family being separated from my culture altogether and from my from a country that I very much love and that I got to explore as a kid and as a teenager.

[Music: “Como Hacer” by Diana Gameros] 

Dacher Keltner: Your song “Como Hacer?” is about that the desire to return to Mexico. What inspired you to write this song?

Diana Gameros: Most of my songs, I could say 99% of my songs, I present maybe a conflict or a longing but then I always resolve it to, “We’re gonna be victorious and everything’s gonna be okay. And life is beautiful and I’m grateful.” But in this song, “Como Hacer,” I allow myself to be vulnerable and to just be with the pain and with the questions.

The song is made up entirely of questions, and these questions came up from my need of home, and forgiveness. Some of these lines say, or translate into, “How can I make life last? How can I dissolve borders? How can I make my land forgive me? How can I make her garden flourish again?” A dear aunt, my mother’s sister, had just passed away from cancer and because of my immigration status I wasn’t able to go to Mexico and attend the funeral. And, you know, I wasn’t there to fight for my city and console my friends and be with my father and my sister as they experienced direct violence. And so I just allowed myself to feel that pain. And yeah, don’t resolve it, and hope that the answers would come someday.

Music has been really healing for me and therapeutic and certain sounds, certain progressions and, you know, my voice vibrating and releasing these sounds and it’s all helpful, and it all helps the process of coping with the pain, staying with the pain, releasing it.

Dacher Keltner: Diana, you chose a practice from our site that I hold dear to my heart, the Awe Walk. And you had the most unusual twist on it which is you did it both in Mexico City and Northern California. Thanks for doing that. Can you walk through the steps of the Awe Walk. What did you do?

Diana Gameros: So I turned off my phone and I took a deep breath. You know, to sort of calm down, for one. And then I counted to six as I inhaled, and then six as I exhaled, and I had to keep breathing throughout the walk. And being present and listening to the sounds and have my senses open. And then as I did that I had to keep breathing and coming back to the breath. And also I remember being very intentional about feeling my feet on the ground, too. I think was really important for me to to be so present that I did not forget that I was there. And so connecting with my feet and connecting with my walk and also slowing it down because I think it’s really easy for me to walk fast. And so I had to shift my awareness as well to be open to what was around me.

Dacher Keltner: So you chose first to do the Awe Walk in the zócalo, the central zócalo, right, in Mexico City. So what was that like?

Diana Gameros: Ay, ay, ay! Where to begin?

Dacher Keltner: I mean, that’s a big square, or zócalo.

Diana Gameros: It’s a big square. But I had to do this walk somewhere right? I guess the zócalo for me had a lot of symbolism because it was actually at UC Berkeley where I was invited once many years ago, when I was still undocumented to perform at the zócalo in front of many, many, many people. And yeah, I was pretty devastated to have to say no because my immigration status didn’t allow it. And the zócalo is a very powerful place. It’s a very, very big and colorful and there’s so many sounds and people and so much history. And so, yeah, I chose to do it there.

Diana Gameros: During the Awe Walk so many things happened where I was so tempted to you know to grab my phone. What I did do is, I recorded the audio becauseI wanted to relive that experience, but I put it on airplane mode and I had no access to my camera, like I did not want to break this spell.

Dacher Keltner: Most people go to the quietest solitary place in the world to do their Awe Walk and you perhaps were in the most lively place socially. As you practiced this awe approach of focusing on big and small and quieting the breath and walking peacefully, what popped out at you in terms of sensations?

Diana Gameros: It was amazing to realize that as soon as one turns off the phone and starts breathing how connected you become to the things that you see. So I heard it all and I saw it all. I was in the big city square and in the middle there was a gigantic flag swaying from a very high pole. And I was surrounded by colonial buildings the Government Palace, cathedral, vendors that a long distance from the square. I saw people walking alone and couples, people having conversations in Spanish, kids. And then I also heard distant sounds of an organillero.

[Music: organillero]

Dacher Keltner: What is that?

Diana Gameros: So the organillero is a man who plays the, it’s like a musical box that make songs with a sound similar to that of the high sounds of an organ. And it’s a very distinct sound that you recognize in Mexico in that you see them all over the touristy places. In fact one of the songs that I heard was,Cancion Mixteca, which is you know the hymn for the people that are far away from their land and Cancion Mixteca is the one that says, “Oh land of the sun, I long to see you.”

That square is so Mexican that I mean it was difficult to do the Awe walk in the sense that it was extremely emotional.

Dacher Keltner: And what would arose emotionally for you?

Diana Gameros: Well for one I felt, I guess, that the most important thing for me and I actually am here to tell you thank you for the opportunity to do this because I’m not sure that I would have done it in this way had I not had the invitation to be one of your guinea pigs. And the thing that came up to me was that I finally felt present in Mexico. I had been in Mexico for about a month I believe and somehow I couldn’t I could not feel that I was there or I cannot believe it. Sixteen years of living in the United States sort of numbed me. There’s this thing that I believe immigrants have to do when they’re away from their homeland which is sort of block this emotional connection that they have to their land in order for us to cope. And so I think I did that too. And so you disconnect your senses and remove your mind from this place that you so much love in order to be able to thrive. So coming back to it, you kno, at times I felt like maybe I was in the Mexican part of L.A. or in the Mission District in San Francisco. I didn’t quite feel that I was in Mexico. My family would joke with me like, “Do you feel I’m now, Diana? Do you feel it now?” I mean, a month into being in Mexico, in Juarez, they would ask me like, “How are you doing? Are you feeling it now?” And I didn’t, until I did this practice.

Dacher Keltner: You know, Diana, as somebody who always looks at statistics and physiology and we try to capture what awe is, I think there’s this bigger idea that you just articulated with poetry which is: awe locates you in a place.

Diana Gameros: One of the beautiful things about doing this practice is that you hear what people are saying, you know. You don’t want to be nosy, but because you’re so aware and you’re so present, you hear what people say. And sometimes these sentences are what you need to hear at the moment, and they come to you. I mean the synchronicity of them is so beautiful. So some of the things that I heard were, ‘Tu tienes ese don para la mecánica,” which means, “You have a gift for auto mechanics.” And I know it may not be much but for me to hear the enthusiasm which this person says it, it would bring a smile to my face because I was so present with what I was hearing. Another one was a man’s voice saying to another person,“Quiero darte un poquito de felicidad,” which means, “I want to give you a little bit of happiness.” And so things like that.

Dacher Keltner: Amazing.

Diana Gameros: It was just so beautiful and so meaningful. Right after I did the practice I had to write something, you know, to be able to finally try to begin to put some of these feelings into words. It was really difficult. I mean, I felt so many things I could write a whole encyclopedia about it. I want to read a paragraph of what I did right after finishing the practice, that has to do with my finally feeling and believing that I was in Mexico. I’m finally here.

So I wrote, “I can feel it now. Estoy aqui. I am here. I am finally here in Mexico. All I had to do was turn them off: my phone, my thoughts, and deeply breathe. Deeply feel and listen. Really listen. And see, truly see. I recognize these voices, they speak my mother tongue. I recognize these colors, I was brought up by them. I recognize that song, it’s the one my grandmother used to sing Torreoncitos, Chihuahua. I re-cognize myself in this place and these sounds, on those walls, and those faces, on that flag. Y ahora soy una con ellos. And now I am one with them. It has finally sunk in. I am here in my dear, dear homeland. Mexico. Y me sienta inmensamente feliz. And I feel immensely happy.”

Dacher Keltner: Yeah, I loved how you phrased it. Which is we can re-cognize who we are and where we are and the relationship between the two.

[Music: “I Begin” by Diana Gameros] 

In my research we’ve collected stories of awe from 26 countries around the world, to get a better sense of the commonalities across awe-inspiring experiences. Some are truly exceptional experiences, like your experience in the zócalo in Mexico City after being away for 16 years. But we can also find awe in everyday life in the ordinary. When you came back from Mexico you tried the awe walk in Berkeley, on your way to the grocery store.

Diana Gamero: Yeah, yeah. Because, you know, I did realize that having done it in Mexico was pretty intense. And I guess I also kind of wanted to prove that, yes, that it is possible because I have sort of done it before, you know, not with the same parameters and all, but I have experienced awe. In the most most ridiculous things and so I thought, “Yeah, I’m going to do it on my way to the grocery store because it’s a walk that I’ve done so many times and so I wanted to do that experiment and it was great. It was actually really fun.

Dacher Keltner: What happened?

Diana Gameros: It almost felt like I was the character in a movie, like in a psychedelic movie, maybe. Because as I begin to you know stay in the breath and breathe deeply and it’s almost like, I am walking but somehow everything becomes slow motion because you’re putting so much focus and intention on what you’re seeing and in what you’re feeling that things are magnified, for me at least. And so I would look at plants because it’s a residential area and so there’s a lot of plants. You know it’s Berkeley, so a lot of really beautiful and wild plants and it’s almost like the plants became a little bit thicker and at some point it almost felt like they were talking to me. I promise I was not under the influence of any drug!

And, you know, I didn’t hear specific words or anything that would make me really crazy but it’s almost like I felt greeted by them. I mean, they became so thick and real and present. And then I also remember seeing buildings and structures that I had never seen that I thought were really cool. And so what once used to be a really tedious walk, and sort of I would just run through it, became, I didn’t want it to end, you know, became a really fun walk. I remember seeing an old lady too and just kind of like, I wanted to talk to her and sort of like greet her with love. So when I read about how, you know, being in a state of awe makes you more empathetic, I agree, because I do feel like connecting to people at a deeper level, because I am not exhausted and worried about my own thoughts, and the chores. So I think I do believe that I was more empathetic as well.

Dacher Keltner: Wow, what a description. You know, it’s so humbling to hear your kind of, your deep qualitative impressions of the Awe Walk because in science what we’re finding is just as you’re saying, Diana, is like it makes you more open to people. You become more aware of your connectivity to other beings, plants and trees and the like. And I hope someday the science will be able to capture the deeper stuff that you were talking about in terms of just seeing the human face in a different way, as you described.

Dacher Keltner: I wanted to thank you for your extraordinary music and thank you for all that you’re doing for immigrants and for everybody else here. Thanks for being on our show.

Diana Gameros: Yeah well thank you so much for the opportunity and for the space.

Dacher Keltner: My own research led me to believe that looking for more daily experiences of awe can have transformative effects. We’re learning that these daily experiences of awe can reduce our stress, they can benefit our immune system by reducing the inflammation response, they can also embed our identity in a stronger sense of community. And as Diana Gameros showed, it doesn’t have to involve a trek to the Himalayas or a trip the zócalo — we can find awe in everyday experiences.

Paul Piff is an assistant professor of psychological science at UC Irvine He wanted to to study the benefits of awe outside the lab. The inspiration for Paul’s study came while walking through a grove eucalyptus trees right here at UC Berkeley.

Paul Piff: It’s the kind of grove that you see students biking by, and others running and others walking into class, but not many people are looking up. And it just so happens that this grove of eucalyptus trees it’s actually the tallest and oldest stand of eucalyptus trees in all of North America. And so the question for us was, “OK, if we took people into this grove of trees and had them look up, could we make them feel awe? And so that’s what we did.

We actually ran an experiment where we brought people in and with the flip of a coin decided who it was that was going to spend 60 seconds looking up at these big trees or 60 seconds also looking up but with their backs to the trees looking up at a big building.

So after 60 seconds had elapsed they were approached by the person running the experiment who gave them a questionnaire with stuff to fill out. But in the process of doing that they kind of ostensibly by accident tripped over themselves and dropped a box of pens on the ground. And what we did was just surreptitiously observe and record how many pens participants knelt down and picked up to help this other person out. So that’s our way of kind of quantifying if you will kindness.

And we measured a few other things on the questionnaire like entitlement and ethical decision making and what we found was that participants who spent just 60 seconds of silent, meditative, contemplative focus up at these trees not only filled them with awe but also caused them to pick up more pens to help this other person out who’d dropped them accidentally. They reported less entitlement. They felt like they deserved less relative to others. They reported being more likely to do all sorts of ethical things for the collective good they wanted to be paid less for their participation in this experiment.

Awe seems to be one of those experiences that we as a species have evolved to have that attunes us that shifts our attention away from a focus on ‘me’ toward a focus on ‘we.’

And so what I like to think about is, what would happen if you just took 60 seconds of every day, or five minutes a week, to go out and look at something in a way that you’ve not looked at it before? Whether it’s shadows on pavement, or reflections of light on water, but do something to refocus your attention and look at how complex and puzzling and deeply intricate and beautiful the world is around you, and what kinds of sustained more long lasting shifts even some fleeting experience like that could lead to.

Dacher Keltner: If you’d like to try the Awe Walk, or other happiness practices, visit our Greater Good in Action website. Then email us at greater@berkeley.edu — and tell us how it went.

I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining me on the Science of Happiness.

Our podcast is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRI/PRX, with production assistance from Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our producer is Shuka Kalantari, our executive producer is Jane Park. Our editor-in-chief is Jason Marsh. Special thanks to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Join us for a live recording of an episode of the Science of Happiness and hear from me, Jack Kornfield, and lots of other speakers at our first-ever, three-day Science of Happiness event, held in Northern California near Santa Cruz.