Beauty & Awe
Albert Einstein once said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”
Awe can be understood as a feeling of wonder when experiencing something greater than oneself. According to Van Cappellen and Saroglou, two Belgium researchers, awe, love, and admiration are self-transcendent emotions because the emphasis is outside the self. Nature (e.g., mountains, vistas, oceans) is the most common cause of the experience of awe. People frequently described a mindset in which the out-of-doors inspired connection to a higher purpose or power. Or, as a research participant more formally put it, “it is hard trying to explain the religious sense in nature. And you can use all the words like wonderful or awe but it is hard to really find the poetics that I think describe nature in words. It is more like communing with the land and this sense of awe that you get …it is kind of spiritual.” (Loeffler, 2004).
Dachner Kelter, a psychologist at UC Berkeley, insist that human benefit from experiences that feel truly “awesome”. His research has highlighted the various mental health paybacks when experiencing awe such as increase in kindness, pro-social behavior, personal growth and re-orientation of values. Bearing witness to something filled with awe, has the potential to take us outside of our habitual way of thinking, the novelty of such a moment transports us into the present moment. Generally speaking, when our attention rests in the here and now, our mental health blossoms.
A person needs not travel vast distances in order to have an experience similar to mine; perceptively witnessing the miracle of a minuscule seed maturing into a palatable herb on your window sill is no less astounding. It is quite intriguing to find that the clear majority of people, regardless of race or culture, consider the world filled with beauty. Is it possible to shape the human mind into such consideration or is it part of our human makeup? Does the possibility exist that our hardwired affection for the beauty of nature is ultimately intrinsic? E.O. Wilson speaks of biophilia – a fundamental human need to connect with the natural world.
The television phenomena “Man vs. Wild” portrays a British man skilled in survival techniques exploring remote areas of our planet. In one episode he reaches a part of the Amazon Rainforest that has never been explored. He experiences an overpowering sense of beauty there and he commented on the fact that this splendor, while completely hidden, fills the purpose of providing pleasure to God. Even in the unseen places, nature cannot help but persistently create beauty.
Charles Cummings, in his latest written work Eco-Spirituality, speaks of the mystical human reaction towards an awe-inspiring encounter in nature. He believes such “creature-feelings” symbolize a person’s perceived littleness and nothingness before the glory of God. Perhaps it is the exposure to the grandeur of nature that provides us with perspective and we become aware of the minuteness of our problems.
In 2018, more than half of American people report feeling lonely. According to a nationwide survey done by the health insurer Cigna, loneliness is on the rise, especially in younger Americans. This recent statistic highlights the magnitude of loneliness felt by people in our society. In fact, loneliness is at the root of most mental health complains. Therefore, many desperately seek relief of their loneliness within the arms of their neighbor but often experience that the relationship lacks sincerity and depth. Perhaps the possibility exists that the uncovering of the existing bond between us and our brothers and sisters of the animal and plant kingdom will ease our suffocating loneliness? Perhaps Nature offers us a sense of authentic belonging, being part of a larger reality. Nature does not pressure us to reveal the cause of our loneliness, but its sacred availability can be felt. If continuous exposure to nature exists, it can guide us to recognize the interconnectedness that we share with all beings, we become aware of our shared origin and our mutual bond.
Jack Kornfield, the internationally renowned author and meditation master, tells about a time where Buddhist teachings focused mainly on the individual mind until logging companies began cutting down a vast number of trees right in front many monasteries. At this point the monks became activist for their forests and consequently woke up to the principles of interconnection. Visionary Buddhist teachers awoke to the fact that the human and natural realm are not separate and a sense of oneness with the mountains and the rivers can lead to extensive spiritual growth Kornfield reflects on the words of a yoga teacher who comments that “the pure mind and the purity of rivers and our air are interconnected”. The newly found realization and comprehension of our interdependence with all beings may bring transformation to our daily life. In this way, care for the earth stems from love not from duty. The realization of interconnection moves us to be care takers of the earth because every burden we leave onto the earth is a burden we cast upon ourselves.
In the early 1990’s a study by Hartig and Evans was conducted where participants were randomly assigned to one of three "treatments": A walk in a natural environment, a walk in an urban environment or relaxing in a comfortable chair. At the end of each exercise, instruments indicated that people who had taken the nature walk had significantly higher scores on overall happiness and positive affect and significantly lower scores on anger/aggression. The beneficial effects of nature are so observable that we cannot afford to overlook the intricate connections between optimum mental health and exposure to the natural world.