I can still vividly remember the crisp morning air, and the mountain range that faded far into the horizon. Miles away from the busyness and obnoxious sounds of the big city, I was on a vacation in Banff, Alberta.
It was on a hike in beautiful Lake Louise where the anxieties and trivialities of modern life faded into the abyss. Gazing at the crystal blue water, I was filled with a sense of wonder and reverence for the beauty of the natural landscape.
We often fail to find the right words to describe these temporary encounters with the sublime, however one term that does come to mind is ‘awe’.
Be it the grandeur and beauty of a medieval cathedral or the peaceful solitude of spending time in alone in nature, many of us have had moments which leave us speechless. Moments which jolt us in to the present moment and connect us with something greater than ourselves.
It is only after these experiences we can more deeply appreciate the seemingly esoteric language of the great poets and mystics. For the transcendentalist writers (Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson) of the 19th century, the divine was to be found in the natural world.
As Emerson famously writes in his essay Nature,
Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed in the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I become a particle of God.
So, what exactly is this feeling of awe, and why does humanity yearn for these ecstatic events?
While the moments and events which elicit awe differ from person to person, the psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Dacher Keltner classify two key attributes which one feels during an experience of awe – the need for accommodation and vastness.
Need for Accommodation
Breath taking moments of awe shatter our existing mental models of the world. They force us to shift our perspectives to accommodate these new cognitive paradigms.
This temporarily puts a pause our rote automatic thinking we have been accustomed to in our adult lives. We are filled with a sense of wonder, and as Michael Pollan puts it, “precisely the kind of unencumbered first sight, or virginal noticing, to which the adult brain has closed itself.”’
Looking at earth miles away in space, astronauts have reported that seeing the planet from this vantage point is a highly transformative, and one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives. From this perspective, one reveres in the beauty of our planet, is overwhelmed by its vastness and is more deeply connected to all the species which inhabit earth.
As Yuri Artyushkin from the Russian space program notes,
The feeling of unity is not simply an observation. With it comes a strong sense of compassion and concern for the state of our planet and the effect humans are having on it…. You are standing guard over the whole of our Earth.
Philosopher Frank White coined the term the ‘overview effect’ to define the shift in awareness and perspective astronauts describe when they glance as the earth from space.
Overwhelmed by emotions and feelings of self-transcendence – many space explorers note that words are inadequate to describe what their feeling.
Our attention shifts from inwards towards the broader environment evoking a religious or spiritual sense of connectedness to the outside world.
This is akin to the mind of a child, a truly ‘Zen-like’ experience.
While connecting more deeply to the external environment, our egotistical self-interests seem a little less important. We feel small in comparison to the vastness of the cosmos. Consequently, studies have demonstrated that feelings of awe are associated with pro-social behaviour including greater altruism, and an overall increase in well-being.
In a time where our individualistic society increasingly drives us towards narcissistic tendencies, perhaps a bit more awe is just the right medicine we need.