Awe, An On-Going Series


My interest in “awe” as a primary human emotion continues, so I took note of these paragraphs pop up in Jon Haidt’s excellent book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

In the 1830s, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered a set of lectures on nature that formed the foundation of American Transcendentalism, a movement that rejected the analytic hyperintellectualism of America’s top universities. Emerson argued that the deepest truths must be known by intuition, not reason, and that experiences of awe in nature were among the best ways to trigger such intuitions. He described the rejuvenation and joy he gained from looking at the stars, or at a vista of rolling farmland, or from a simple walk in the woods

Emerson and Darwin each found in nature a portal between the realm of the profane and the realm of the sacred….The emotion of awe is most often trigged when we face situations with two features: vastness (something overwhelms us and makes us feel small) and a need for accommodation (that is, our experience is not easily assimilated into our existing mental structures; we must “accommodate” the experience by changing those structures). Awe acts like a kind of reset button: it makes people forget themselves and their petty concerns. Awe opens people to new possibilities, values, and directions in life. Awe is one of the emotions most closely linked to the hive switch, along with collective love and collective joy. People describe nature in spiritual terms — as both Emerson and Darwin did — precisely because nature can trigger the hive switch and shut down the self, making you feel that you are simply a part of a whole.

Where are the best star gazing opportunities in the Bay Area?

12 comments on “Awe, An On-Going Series
  • The feeling of being “part of a whole” is a deeply comforting feeling for us as people. A feeling that can make sense out of just about anything life throws us. If nature triggers that feeling, than we must never loose connection with the earth we walk on.

    Once you feel the awe of nature from the electricity in the air of an approaching tornado or climbing the wall of a forty foot wave… it’s easier to find it in a “simple walk in the woods”.

  • To see the stars you first have to get away from the light cone of a major city, so there will be no viewing in the Bay Area. Second, it’s better the higher elevation you get to. So your best bet is to head for the Sierras. Third, you have to gives your eyes time to fully acclimate to the darkness.

    Whenever I am backpacking in the Rockies, away from lights and at 11,000′, I stop for a few minutes during my middle-of-the-night bathroom break to take it in. It’s easy to forget that the night sky is not black, it’s actually nearly full with stars.

  • The re-devolpment of a sense of awe was one of the greatest gifts of my depression. When we allow ourselves to surrender rationality to the overwhelming silence that is shared existence… Well, life gets a lot better. I hope you continue your fascination (a series of reminders?) with it. I almost forgot, thank you.

  • When I was a freshman at Stanford, during one of our ski trips in Tahoe, we climbed up a nearby slope in the middle of the night. I had spent my entire life in cities, so I was amazed to look up and see a sky that was, to my mind, dripping with stars. I still think about that sky all the time.

  • There’s plenty of spots along Skyline Blvd/Highway 35 to stop your car & star gaze, like Russian Ridge (~40min drive from Palo Alto). The elevation can get up to 3000 feet in some areas. The North Bay also has a lot less light pollution, especially near the beach or in the foothills.

  • So Emerson, citizen of the universe, rejected reason (science by another name) and embraced mystical intuition.

    Language may be an imperfect vehicle for apprehending the deepest truths, but it’s all we’ve got to communicate them, should they actually exist, short of Platonic ideas expressed in glossolalia or something.

    Let’s face it: the ecstasies of spiritual rapture and the clarity of mind induced by yogic breath awareness are chemical events in the brain.

    I see nothing wrong with accelerating the attainment of such states (transitory though they may be) by using some of the psychedelics and entheogens so abundantly present in nature, or by synthetic compounds derived in organic chemistry.

    I would say that the feelings of awe gained from ordinary experience are not quite as intense as the ‘awesome’ emotions potentially aroused by LSD, DMT, or 5-MeO-DMT, and by some phenethylamines, endogenous components of the human brain, many of them synthesized and described by Alexander Shulgin.

    Some people disparage the use of these substances as a kind of cheating, providing only an ersatz experience, but they can be very useful in training the mind/body to release the associated neurochemicals at will.

    I do this all the time through the medium of dance, surrendering my body to the vibrations of music, especially roots reggae in all its rhythmic glory, or trance. You really need a good sound system.

    Then the thrills I feel in my spine upon the release of serotonin, surely corresponding to activation of the chakras of Vedanta, are equal in intensity to the ecstasy produced by the purest molly.

    On the other hand, I like to think of the venom of the Colorado River toad as God’s own semen, a communion to partake of in a spirit of reverence for the universe, without the cannibalistic overtones of the bizarre ritual of drinking Christ’s blood and eating his flesh.

    If I believed in a personal creator-God that one could interact with, like Moses receiving divine commands from that insane comedian, the Joker, I mean Jehovah, I would thank him for thoughtfully providing such a cornucopia of hallucinogens to help us deal with this very strange reality we find ourselves in.

  • Ocean beach (and actually Baker, but it closes early) isn’t the best for star gazing, but definitely has been a source of awe for me.

  • I remember one of the first times I felt “awe” like this was actually by looking at a small fountain in one of Toronto’s parks (I hear you’ve got those in the Bay Area too). Looking at the water shimmering and reflecting light in so many directions, I thought to myself: “If scientists wanted to mimic such water effectively, there would need to solve a massive set of equations. The universe just does it naturally.”

    That pond became a portal to the entire cosmos, and humanity’s seemingly futile efforts to understand even basic aspects thereof.

  • As a result of living in the City for the past year (Pacific Heights) and have been immersed and connected to nature’s expansiveness and beauty. The views from Alta Vista Park (and my own sweet balcony) put me front and center with the spectacular beauty of the bay, the stars and often times the rolling fog too. It’s been heart-opening and some days, breath-taking! (both very positive) Being present with nature’s elements is a powerful reminder of our divine responsibility to find *awe*, not just in the stars, but in every minute of our lives. Keep up the good work! I remain one of your many fans!

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