Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Awe Circuit Breaker

Two people stand on a mountain top.  In the distance a chain of mountains fades into the horizon, clouds stretch their wispy fingers as if grasping for the distant sun.  Color is scattered across the world.  It is a sight that neither of the individuals have seen before.   Both recognize that this experience is rare, and enjoyable. 

Both experience a kind a question as they look at this site, although they may not ever put it into words.   Both wonder: How could this be?  A chill rises in them.  Here they are both on the threshold of Awe.  At this stage awe is only pending.  There is an opportunity for awe, an invitation.  But this is no guarantee.  One will feel it.  And the other will flip the safety switch, and awe cascade, and its accompanying fear will be terminated.  

The experience of each person would be different and unique.  I do not propose the following as a recipe for awe by any means.  But let us suppose that the thoughts of one person follow this train of association: 
 How on earth could there be such large mountains?  Where do they come from?  I recall now.  The plates of the earth are moving.  Imagine that, that such massive things as continents can move! And over time they collide and they buckle, and rise.  Amazing.  But what makes the plates move?  Isn’t it the forces of heat within the planet?  That is fascinating to think about as I look at these mountains.  But this is only the end of a very long process.  The universe is complex and fascinating.  I want to know more about it.  I want to understand this world that I live it.  I want to remember this feeling.  

The other person is not prepared for this little mental journey.  Instead they cancel the awe.  Maybe they think something like: 

Look at those mountains!  Wow.  I wonder what is for lunch.  

And just like that their mental journey is over.  There is no mystery left to ponder.  There is no cascade of wonder.  There is no life changing experience.   I really wonder what it would take to rid us of our awe circuit breaker.  To leave us more susceptible to the experience.  I think that much of our popular culture protects us from true awe.  It provides us with trite answers.  It hides the complexity and wonder of the world away behind ADHD-compatable soundbites, and fundamentalist-friendly conversation killers.     

I believe that at least a basic understanding of science is necessary to see the world as it really is.  And that it takes a bit of work to climb those steps.  But trust me.  The view is totally worth it.  

Monday, April 18, 2011

What is Awe?

Awe is an emotion, although it is not often listed as such.  Awe is perhaps the rarest of all sensations.  It is like a radiant jewel in a handful of dull stones.  Awe is difficult to describe…But not impossible.   Webster’s does a decent enough job:

“Awe (Ă´)-n. An overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc. Produced by that which is grand, sublime, or extremely powerful or the the like.”

When was the last time you felt Awe?  Whereas most other emotions show up for work nearly every day of the week, Awe makes only the occasional cameo in most lives.  
Awe is not part of the typical routine.  It shatters our experiential template.  It shakes us free of the sticky monotony and awakes something deep in side of us.  In some way, each time Awe touches us, we have been changed forever.  And while Awe is whacking us in the head, it feels more good than bad, more pleasant than painful.  But Awe is not joy.  Awe is not bliss.  Awe is not love.  Awe mixes something terrible with something euphoric and profound.  Its like dark chocolate…bitter and sweet.  
Why would such an emotion exist?  Why are we preprogramed to experience beauty mixed with dread?  (I will come back to this question another time.  For now I will just let it linger.)  
Sometimes people experience Awe at the site of a grand vista…perhaps mountains stretching into the distance.  A sky full of shimmering stars?  The expanse of the thrashing ocean…  
But awe is not limited to sights of the rare or grand.  In the proper context, a drop of blood on your finger, a single word, or a solitary ant crawling on a blade of grass can launch your mind into the awe cascade.  Awe is the result of a realization: Reality is Grand.  But if Reality is Grand, then we are small.  Hence the fear.  Awe is overwhelming and it threatens to swallow everything.  Faced with the expanse we feel shaken loose from our mooring.  Robbed of the grounding comforts of familiarity―the universe shows us how small and tiny we are.   But for some reason part of us hungers for it.  Awe is a grand prize awaiting those most bold of perspective.   It alone can leave you forever enthralled:  tears running down your cheeks.  Jaw slackened.  Mind reeling.  Heart pounding in terrible ecstasy.

That is awe.  

And here is my thoroughly un-testable hypothesis:  Awe is the proper emotional reaction to experiencing reality.  And if the way you live your life hasn’t brought you past  the threshold of awe lately, well than you are just doing it wrong.  

Sunday, April 17, 2011

About this blog…

  The title of this blog, and much of my inspiration for these writings comes from Carl Sagan.  The spirit I shall endeavor to capture is summed up in the following passage…

“In  the last few millennia we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the Cosmos and our place within it, explorations that are exhilarating to consider.  They remind us that humans have evolved to wonder, that understanding is a joy, that knowledge is prerequisite to survival.  I believe our future depends on how well we know this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dusk in the morning sky.  Those explorations required skepticism and imagination both.  Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were.  But without it, we go no where.  Skepticism enables us to distinguish fancy from fact, to test our speculations.  The Cosmos is rich beyond measure―in elegant facts, in exquisite interrelationships, in the subtle machinery of awe.”

Excerpt from Cosmos (1980) by Carl Sagan

Imagination…skepticism…curiosity…awe.   These shall be our pallet.  Let us see what we can make of them.