Chasing Awe

Eclipse GlassesEvery eighteen months or so, the heavens align to give us a lesson in awe, desire, and addiction.

In February 1998 on the island of Aruba, science writer David Baron experienced a religious epiphany.

He gathered with others behind his hotel to stare at the sky with cheap dark glasses. When the lights went out, a cheer erupted from the beach. He had never seen a sky like it. Up above was a deep purple gray like twilight. Bright stars and planets came out. On the horizon it was orange like sunset in all directions. This glorious, bewildering thing looked like a wreath woven from silvery thread. He could see the sun and the planets and how the planets revolve around the sun. For the first time in his life he felt viscerally connected to the universe. Time was nonexistent. It felt like a vision. It was all over in 173 seconds. The world had returned to normal, but he had changed.

“I am not a spiritual person,” Baron said in his TedX talk. “I don’t believe in God. I wish I did. But when I think of my own mortality – and I do, a lot – when I think of everyone I have lost, my mother in particular, what soothes me is that moment of awe I had in Aruba. I picture myself on that beach, looking at that sky, and I remember how I felt. My existence may be temporary, but that’s OK because, my gosh, look at what I’m a part of.”

I won’t dispute Baron’s claim that, for him, a total solar eclipse is the most awe inspiring spectacle in all of nature. I won’t dispute the research on the psychological benefits of awe mentioned in The Greater Good Science Center’s The Science of Happiness course.

Awe has a way of lifting us out of self-preoccupation. It makes us feel more connected, more generous, gives us a sense that we have more time. Awe is especially helpful when we feel bogged down by everyday minutiae.

But, one aspect of the eclipse talk that made me uneasy was the advice to chase the path of totality. In eclipse lingo, that’s the trajectory that the moon’s shadow follows. While awe may unite us, the opportunity cost of the path of totality can be divisive.

In Oregon, access to the path for the April 21, 2017 eclipse led to hotels dropping reservations to re-book rooms at higher rates. One organic farm on the path offered four-night double occupancy accommodations with meals for $1200. Bring your own tent.

On an ordinary day, it would take me no longer than an hour to drive from Portland to the path of totality. But, with projections that the population of Oregon will increase by 25 percent, all vying to occupy the same moon shadow at the same time, I wouldn’t dream of getting in my car.

A few years ago, I did my best to chase awe by planning hikes in Glacier National Park. I booked a room at the lodge eleven months in advance. It is indeed an awe inspiring park as viewed from the car window through the rain. The trailhead to every hike I’d planned to take was full.

While awe may have its limited social benefits, awe in limited supply has its social costs. I don’t doubt that Baron’s Aruba eclipse had a profound impact on his perception of his role in the cosmos. But, the fact that it transformed him into an umbraphile, into arranging his work and finances to chase total eclipses around the globe simultaneously transformed that healthy sense of wonder into an addiction.

Dr. Kate Russo in her books Total Addiction and Being in the Shadow has classified human interaction with total eclipses under the acronym SPACED.
S: Sense of wrongness.
P: Primal fear.
A: Awe.
C: Connection to something greater than ourselves.
E: Euphoria.
D: Desire to repeat the experience.

The D in the acronym, desire, must always be accompanied by dissatisfaction. If there were something genuinely satisfying about the experience of witnessing a total solar eclipse, it wouldn’t leave us wanting more. We don’t usually think of desire as dissatisfaction, but if a desire is not satisfied, we feel disappointment. And, if a desire is satisfied, a new desire soon takes its place.

Author Robert Wright discussed an experiment that illustrates this endless cycle in his interview with Terry Gross.

Researchers put fruit juice on the tongues of monkeys and measured them for dopamine, a neurotransmitter that corresponds with the experience of pleasure. At first, the fruit juice led to a burst of dopamine. The researchers then linked the dispensing of the fruit juice to a flashing light. Soon the monkeys received their dopamine boost when the light flashed. But, the dopamine level associated with the actual contact with the fruit juice diminished.

While it would have been redundant for Baron to detail his experience of each total eclipse he has witnessed, the one he draws comfort from is his first. There’s no way to gauge whether he’s driven back to the path of totality again and again by anticipation or by the experience itself.
I don’t think that awe is a bad thing. I live in Portland, Oregon where I’m surrounded by every day awe. On a clear day, I can see Mt. Hood on my way to buy groceries. I can see Mt. St. Helens from a vantage point a couple blocks from my house. Every summer I try to get out to the Pacific Ocean. Living in the shadow of these giants gives me a sense of perspective. In “Forest Therapy-A Natural Antidepressant,” I wrote about a kind of awe I try to practice on a regular basis.

I have never in my life felt a sense of deprivation or resentment that no eclipse has ever crossed my path. But, to show I’m not anti-eclipse, this time I went to the library, got my free pair of eclipse glasses, and looked both ways before crossing the street to view the event with my neighbors in the field behind the school. It’s healthy to share in the delight of others, as I wrote in “Making Community Happen.”

Eclipse Neighbors

I chose to see my glass as 99.2% awe, and topped it off with gratitude. Seeing it as 0.8% empty would only have sent me chasing shadows.

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.