In Search of Awe: On the Psychological Motivations to Witness a Total Solar Eclipse

The days are rapidly counting down to the total solar eclipse that will speed across the continental United States on Monday, August 21, and in my home, we are in full preparation mode, gearing up for a journey to the wide open skies of Eastern Oregon.

For what would normally be a two-hour drive from home, we are necessarily taking a survivalist approach, planning for the worst sort of gridlock and possible infrastructure breakdown (shortages of fuel, water and food; loss of cellular and internet services, which means you need maps and cash…). We are preparing for what I have come to think of as “The Eclipolypse,” one potential outcome when an estimated million or more people in Oregon, such as myself, try to enter the zone of totality, where the moon casts its 60-mile-wide shadow on the Earth’s surface.

I suppose it’s reasonable to ask why anyone might do such a thing. Why brave such crowds and potential circumstances just for two minutes in the umbra, the shadow cast when the moon completely blocks the light emanating from the sun?


(c) Can Stock Photo / Ig0rZh

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know what I’m seeking. In addition to an experience of sheer cosmic scale, beyond an opportunity to see the sun’s shining and dancing corona otherwise invisible to us, there is the emotional depth of the thing I seek: an experience of awe.

As I approach 50, I realize more deeply with each passing year what a rare and tremendous thing it is, in this information-saturated and increasingly desensitized culture, to feel a genuine sense of awe.

I know it as a feeling complex beyond words, but some of them I can easily apply: surprise, mixed with a touch of fear, mixed with a rapid and dramatic revision of my personal sense of scale of space or time, mixed with a deep respect and abiding gratitude for the chance to experience or witness whatever lies before me, mixed with the grabbing of my consciousness right out of its skin and shaking a new sensibility into me that leaves me feeling pretty damn good.

I know I could use a little of that right about now. This entire country could.

Is that too much to ask of the Sun and the Moon?

I really don’t think so.

Trees have done it for me in the past. So has lava.

The first time I stood in a grove of giant sequoias — by which I mean the rotund and towering trees of the Sierra Nevada, not the slender spires of coastal redwoods in Northern California — I was struck immobile and silent by the most shocking sense of scale and time yet in my life. Far and away, beyond the depths of the Grand Canyon or the robust snow-capped Alps of Switzerland which had previously informed my personal scale on planet Earth, the giant sequoias quietly and harmlessly shattered my ballooning sense of self-importance as a young journalist.

They did this by being tangible. I could walk the entire circumference of a giant sequoia (the largest is 102 feet around), touch them, see their crowns rising and puncturing the forest canopy 250 feet above — and know that some have been around for about 3,000 years, predating both the Buddha and the Christ. These singular living entities, these groves of sequoias in that rarified mountain air, put the entire span of my life into a small blip. Whatever problems were at hand that first day I walked into the grove, they all grew considerably smaller in that moment of understanding.

I felt awe. And I felt relief. I was able to give something of my self-importance up to Time, to let it wipe away the idea of anything I do or experience being “lasting.”

That was 1992.

It was more than 15 years until I once again felt such a singularly concentrated experience of awe at the hands of Mother Nature, this time on the Island of Hawaii.

My sweet and daring much-younger cousin Julia and I left our family’s home in the dark and pouring down rain late one night, in pursuit of an active lava flow that we’d just learned through the grapevine had crossed an accessible road nearby.

We found the lava just before midnight. Following the remains of an old pahoehoe flow, it had a relatively clear path toward the ocean and was oozing its way across an open void of blackness. Above us was a large opening in the clouds, through which we could see the star-filled sky. Somewhere far in the distance, we could hear the hum of the ocean, whose cooling breeze blew the ambient heat of the molten river away from us, allowing Julia and I to get within about 6 feet of the creeping lava.

Up the mountain, we could see the lava’s path as it twisted and found its way downhill. Near the top, a large dramatic wall of it spilled like a bright orange waterfall of molten glass over a cliff.

Near our feet, the cooling lava was covered by a blackened crust that perpetually cracked and split open, allowing molten rock to ooze forth from the fissures. The hot air literally crackled and snapped. At random intervals, gaseous jets of blue or orange or green flames shot up into the air, some as high as 20 feet. I could easily see where the depictions of hellfire and brimstone had come from in humanity’s various spiritual mythologies, and I naturally felt both respect and trepidation in the presence of this intense and shifting landscape.

I could not stop soaking it all in, and Julia and I easily passed two hours consuming the entire scene. I was overwhelmed by the sheer scale of it all, by the power and heat of the planet’s interior.

Eventually, reluctantly, we decided to leave. As we were about to enter a mango grove and lose sight of the lava, I turned back one last time to take in the whole scene. Looking up at the jet black sky overhead, the spectacle was sent into hyperdrive when a pair of shooting stars streaked across the field of lava.

Suddenly, there it was again! That unpredictable, heart-stopping flush of awe.

This time, it came with thundering insight about the nature of Earth and Sky, of Creation and Destruction. Their integral and seamless interplay. Their pure essentiality. Not just as forces of Nature, but within my very daily life. It was cosmic and personal at the same time.

In that moment, I laughed. I laughed with genuine pleasure about the boon of manifestation and the necessity of loss. I laughed with delight at this gift of seeing. It was relief and pleasure and surprise and insight all compressed into one little nibble of time in the infinite cosmos. It felt like the thing that makes life worth living even in its worst moments.

I cherish the memory. On good days, as today is, it is a fun story to share. In darker times, the memory soothes my soul, inoculates me from too much despair.

Such is the value of awe.

I’ve been fortunate a time or two elsewhere along the way to know this amazing sensation and and feel the power of insight, but those stories are more complicated, esoteric. Far more accessible are these experiences — of trees and lava — these gifts of Mother Nature, of Gaia, of the Cosmos itself, which are available to those who seek them out.

I have never witnessed a total solar eclipse, but I understand from those who have that the experience of awe is a rather common response. To me, such feelings are a huge booster shot to mood, such insight helps keep my grandiose ideas of Self in check and puts my anxieties about life into perspective.

Why wouldn’t I seek that out? Especially when it’s coming so close to home.

For that matter, why wouldn’t you?

….

(If you do go, be well-prepared, as Oregon’s infrastructure is not expected to fare well under the immense burden of traffic. Here’s one article to understand potential problems.)

Tamara Webb, LPC, LMHC, is a psychotherapist and writer in Portland, Oregon. Email her at tamara@fivebodiescounseling.com.

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