Telluride Daily Planet Sunday, August 19, 2012
The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical. It is the power of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is inpenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. – Albert Einstein
We are standing at the top of Imogene Pass witnessing the longest lasting set of god-rays (haloed fingers from the sun) I’ve ever seen. As their angle widens further and further, we stare, silenced, this speck of us on the talus field surrounded by bits of moss and tiny, hardy plants. This speck of us perched on an equally tiny road carved into gigantic jags of granite.
In the hours just before dusk, amid a spectacular mix of patchy rain, bright-rimmed clouds, and lavender ceiling paint with watery tones seeping down from the bright blue dimension, we breathe in the rarified air, poised to swear oaths to the unexpected grandeur of the world. Despite our glaring limitations as humans, we nevertheless have just enough sense to sense – as people here do — the power of something bigger than ourselves, of nature dancing for the sake of its harmonic dance.
It is awesome, and we are in awe. Rapt, wrapped, and rapped.
My niece, a PhD candidate in psychology, has informed me in a recent phone conversation that awe is currently a hot topic. The day after the call, in one of those learn-a-word-and-it’s-everywhere things, I read about a Stanford business grad student whose just published paper shows how inducing awe gives people the sense that they are not as pressed for time, that the current moment is more expansive. It is specifically awe that causes this to occur rather than affiliate emotions such as joy or wonder.
This is important information for all of us scurrying about our days, especially given the potential for awe only minutes from our doorsteps. Who doesn’t want to slow down time? Enter the portal of a mystical moment? There’s always so very much to tick off, every week, every day, every hour. And even when we are granted more time, activity inevitably expands to fill it with chinking, leaving little if any wiggle room at all. Our truce with the present moment – the razor’s edge of now — is at best stubborn and uneasy.
Up top, on Imogene, the god-rays micro-morph, and the mountain facades, crags, and spires lick up the light spun onto them then recede into shadow again in a show captivating enough to rivet every ounce of our attention. It is quiet except for the intermittent slurry of rocks giving way to gravity, cracking together hollowly as the massive peaks self adjust. There is a sense of having landed in a holy place, and we take whatever moments are granted us.
Yes, there is a sense of time expanding, but what else? What are these breath-catching things inducing awe, encompassing awe? Does it have to be big? Somewhat fearsome? Unexpected? Does it make us humble, and why would feeling humble feel so right? Does our expanded consciousness splice new neural fractals, far more delicious and interesting than before?
Whatever this feeling of awe might hint at, why ever we might seek it over and over again, we should by now have at least deduced what it is not. Dinner, for instance. Dinner is probably not awesome. And neither are expensive goggles, or a teeth cleaning, or your brand new dog. It also seems remarkably incorrect to use the A word in reference to ourselves. Because unless I find myself talking to a gnat or field mouse, or have recently turned into a Greek Titan, or have just pulled a Volkswagen off someone, I am probably not awesome. It simply is not a self-appointed state.
The true sense of the word, however, is available to us. We are the lucky ones, the ones surrounded by the elemental powers of the natural world, whether in witnessing an avalanche pulling its whiteness down a chute, the last rays of sun-lapped pink on a mountaintop, or a shooting star arcing its way across the deep black velvet of the August sky at night.