We parked the van, hid our valuables, did the prerequisite tucking and preening to prepare for our trek, and charged with anticipation made our way to the lookout at the start of the trail. The promise of a big horizon is always an exhilarant. Coffee for the soul.
Staking our claim at the worn guard rail, we jostled uncomfortably with the multilingual others, for a shot at the view. From undulating valleys our eyes hovered over wooded hills, to naked granite bluffs. A gorgeously quenching cascade washes the boulders way below us. But inside me, there is disquiet, not the usual joy I had come to expect in such a place. My head is abuzz with voices, like a busy subway station. “Nice. But it’s nothing like the sandstone from Home.” “Not as beautiful as my mountains”. “Maybe I’m a sandstone tragic!”.
Triggers and past associations, like insect swarms, relentlessly afflict the mind. Scanning the wide panorama from our clifftop, I’m right back at the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, listening to Bellbirds. Algorithms in my brain run instant comparisons; with Govett’s Leap, Evans Lookout, Wentworth Falls, The Three Sisters. I’m missing the majesty of Blue Gums, the familiar brackens that cushion the slopes, the ruby kiss of Waratahs in spring.
I notice there is a kind of nasal tone to that voice in my head. Like the whine of an old engine, clinging to its past. I also notice I am unable to take-in my surroundings. Vision clouded by regret, insecurity.
Sure, I’m enjoying this place, but at best it’s a luke-warm pleasure. A perfunctory appreciation fit for ticking boxes on a tourist trail. As impressive as these walls are, they are made of granite – granite? bah! charcoal and beige. I can’t seem to find a way to give-in to the foreign aesthetic. I can’t relate to this country! My eyes search in vain for the vivid lichens that adorned every bush-rock – sandstone! – back in what used to be my weekend playground.
Soon, I begin to tire of the griping in my head. But I can’t find the ‘off’ button. The creeping idea of trying to ‘be present’ – damn sanctimonious New Age adage! – just rubs me the wrong way. Now I’ve got the pesky inner voices – and the futile battle to shut them up.
Saints and sages from every civilization have grappled with the human striving to quieten the mind, or to ‘live each moment free from the last’ as Neil and Tim Finn would say. So much has been written on the subject, there is a deluge of the stuff. I don’t know about you, but the usual breathy, auto-suggestive tricks don’t do much for me. I failed Eckart Tolle class. I’m the worst kind of dilettante to the Here-and-Now – particularly when I’m in this febrile rush of homesickness. We try so hard to just stop thinking. Say Om. Get into Shavasana. Stare at the mandala. Sometimes, a satori moment does arrive – but only when unexpected. Never through striving.
But what if our state of mind is not only up to us? Could it be that sometimes there is a little help in our surrounds? As I was to see soon afterwards, Nature weaves a profound magic. She does for us what we find hard to do for ourselves.
We walk on. I give up on tangling with unmoving mood and thought, and let my legs take over, as we work our way down winding paths and bush-steps into the gorge below. My inner screen is soon crowded with new experiences. Watching carefully, not to trip. The warmth and strain of physical effort. Breath comes deeper now. Through the occasional break in the canopy, the sting of summer sun on my arms. A buzzing fly. The eyes want to scan for surprises, searching for the owners of some interesting birdcall. Trying to catch a glimpse of what just slithered among the leaf-litter to our right. Whoa, there he is! An enormous and well-fed monitor lizard, fleeing our company.
Soon, a kind of intoxication begins to waft through me. A blessed relief, as little by little, I forget to think. My immediate surroundings have begun to beguile me, an almost imperceptibly subtle act of seduction. One pixel of my attention at a time. Once we’re in the arms of Nature, She will win every time. She wipes clean our mental slate. Matter over Mind.
We turn a corner, deeper into a ravine. Suddenly, a distant and fleeting sound hinting of water – downslope. The light dims just a little, our skin revelling in the moister air. There is a hush now. We have entered a magical fernery, guarded by majestic, elvish-looking strangler figs and rows of palms. I give in. The beauty is too compelling. The silence all-enveloping.
I love that moment, when Nature overwhelms our senses. She cancels the inner chatter, overrides memory, imposes Her presence. I can only think of that alchemical moment as magic. Inside this forest my body is flooded with the pure, animal pleasure of being. The roots of trees are like writhing snakes frozen in time. Ageless epiphytes weave complex tapestries, kaleidoscopic webs, as if Giants had yarn-bombed the trees.
Walking on, we are lulled into a quiet rapture. Refreshed by the cool air. Soon, the approaching roar of water signals we are nearing our destination. The path ends and we find ourselves clambering over rocks, greeted by glistening pools and rivulets. We rest, waiting for a group of fellow pilgrims to pass. When the time is right, we make our way gingerly over a final boulder, and then … wow! We can only gasp. Hinting to its power, it had been growing louder as we approached, and there it finally stands. The mighty waterfall in its full majesty. An imposing, unscalable granite wall staring down at us. A water course lifted on Atlassian shoulders, shunted skyward by ancient tectonics, forever to pour into a dark pond at the base. Are there words for that thrill that rises, when we’re suddenly face-to-face with the forces of Creation; made so small and ephemeral?
Awe: a timeless and borderless human faculty. What is it? When the thing you witness is beyond your containment, outside your understanding. Awe obliterates the ego. It arrives in an instant, through forces beyond our ken. Worries are suspended, as are regrets.
In awe, we are as children before God. Our circuits overloaded, we cease to cope in our ordinary ways. And yet, somewhere in our depths, we drink from this experience like thirsty travellers. When we witness something we cannot comprehend or grasp, we call it miraculous. But what is outside our minds to grasp is precisely what our soul feeds on. The soul craves awe, it demands that our small-self be periodically struck out in this way.
Awe is not a luxury. I think it’s a necessity. We seek it. And like every thrill, we fear it a little. It is the recognition of the uncontrollable, unmeasurable unknown. The Divine shock that draws a ‘Wow!’ from the pit of our bellies, and then … wide-eyed speechlessness.
Awe gives us a welcome reset. As I sit stupefied before this city of stone, I feel myself emptied of the nostalgia that had earlier plagued me. Glorious newness. I may not be home, but maybe I am in some kind of heaven. I am not among the familiar, but I am in amazement. Perhaps this is the very reason I’d felt the call to leave home behind. In search of awe. In search of renewal. I hope the move proves worth the risk.
Awe is a powerful drug. We find it in Nature. In music. In witnessing the Great Phenomena: cellular division, a child being born, the murmuration of birds, a comet, a starry sky.
We concoct so many substances to alter our brain chemistry, desperate to fiddle our hormones, quell our fears, forget our pain, and lift our moods for a day. But these clever substances soon run out, lose their power, make us ill and drive us mad. Addiction for the many: profits for the few. Could it be that we are an awe-deprived society? Most of us seem comfortable, well-entertained … but perhaps in awe-deficit. Our attentional daily-bread is super-fast paced. Everything in bullet points, sound-bytes and rapid-edits. Intolerant of space and allergic to time, we reach for our smart phones the moment we sit down. It’s astonishing to consider it: the act of waiting has virtually disappeared! Boredom tolerance is at all-time lows. How often do we walk outside to stare wordlessly at the stars? How often do we sit with eyes closed and listen to entrancing music? How often do we stop doing – and let ourselves be done to by our surroundings?
Awe moments are medicine. We need to take this medicine. We get stuck in grooves and mood stagnations when we go too long without it. Awe is a necessary experience, I believe it’s integral to human wellbeing and health. We shrivel up, become empty, manic and lost without it. When awe has abandoned us, we become disconnected from our deeper selves, distanced from each other and from the non-human world. Perhaps awe-moments should be prescribed, for those of us who fall into awe-deficiency. In fact there are places that do! I think of the practice of ‘forest bathing’ in Japan. Or the doctors in Scotland who have begun prescribing nature walks.
I believe we need regular doses of witnessing what we cannot language or formulate. The automatic, looping part of the mind needs to be periodically undone, dissolved, gently released without resolution. That is what allows joy through. That’s why surfers crave the thrill of fear, faced with swells larger than comfort size. That’s why astronauts risk their lives to see Earth from outside. That’s why we bathe in music that brings us to tears.
At the edge of awe, watch closely: you’ll notice a moment of fear, a micro-moment of resistance and holding on, and then … a surrender. Our muscles let go, and we are flooded. Awe is climactic, it’s overwhelming – and that is precisely why we crave it. It answers the longing for immersion in something larger than our little selves. For some moments we disappear, our thinking shuts down – and that relief is absolutely sublime. A little death. Delicious annihilation.
Knowing that awe can easily undo my stuck mind brings me great comfort. It cleanses habitual anxieties, dissatisfactions, it reframes my perspective. I sure need to be faithful to this elemental need, and to take myself to awe-provoking places. To remember that I need regularly to expose myself to forces stronger than my habitual mental eddies.
Standing before this glorious cataract, though the place is entirely strange to me, I hear a small, far-away voice. It speaks in feelings, not words. It says: ‘Ah, home’. Not at-home, yet, home. Interesting paradox. I’m ready to keep walking.
To my friends and any folks I care about, I would recommend this: when you are feeling down, stuck in a rut, unable to pull yourself out of a self-defeating mind-loop, take yourself to what awes you. Of course, this is not a panacea, a cure-all, nor by any means the only thing that makes a difference. But there are special times when, if you dare to expose yourself to that experience of awe, it re-organises you. It opens your frame. Shows you new options. Settles your soul, even if your world is troubled. Find a dose of awe, whatever that might be for you, and take it regularly.
So: what brings you awe? Do you take yourself to awe-inspiring experiences from time to time? How are you changed by awe afterwards? I would love to hear your thoughts, feelings and experiences about awe. Jump in!