Searching for the Sublime: the power nature holds to inspire awe and change your life



"To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars.

The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime."


-Ralph Waldo Emerson


It’s easy to get caught up in the chaos of the modern world. Our phones are constantly buzzing, advertisements ooze through every crack they can find, whether they’re on the television, in our mailbox, or on billboards plastered sky high every time you go for a drive. It’s easy to become accustomed to this modern way of life—we’re all creatures of habit, and it can be hard to break out of the routines we’ve created for ourselves.


Especially if you, like me, are caught up in a whirlwind of digital distractions that seem to dictate your days, it’s so important that we take a step back every so often, and turn to nature to help us escape. Nature isn’t just an escape, either—it’s who we are. The divide between humanity and the environment is an interesting phenomenon… but what is nature, exactly, if it is not us?


How did we reach the concept of ‘nature’ that most often separates humanity from the rest of the world, and what are some ways we can overcome that perceived gap?


The (perceived) gap between humanity and nature

The ideological separation of humanity and nature began around the same time as the industrial revolution. As cities grew more sprawling, so did the human impact on the land—farming, smog from factories, manure in the streets—and this increased the perception that these smog-filled cities were no longer a part of nature. The below painting, done by artist Thomas Cole in 1836, is one of the quintessential examples of this ideology beginning to arise.





Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, 1836, oil on canvas, 51 1/2 x 76 inches / 130.8 x 193 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)


A popular analysis of this painting writes that “when looking at The Oxbow, the viewer can clearly see that Cole used a diagonal line from the lower right to the upper left to divide the composition into two unequal halves. The left-hand side of the painting depicts a sublime view of the land, a perspective that elicits feelings of danger and even fear.” “It is wild, unruly, and untamed.” “If the left side of this painting is sublime in tenor, on the right side of the composition we can observe a peaceful, pastoral landscape that humankind has subjugated to their will.” “What was once wild has been tamed.”2


Essentially, this infamous painting depicts the growing perception at the time that the outdoors is separate and distinct from areas that have undergone human-induced changes. As this perceived divide began to widen, though, so did the debate that questioned this idea that humans are, in any way, separate from the great outdoors. In fact, many claim that this ideological divide is, in essence, nonsense.


Humanity is not an alien life form that arrived on this planet earth just to ravage its natural beauty and resources, although it may sometimes feel that way. We are animals, living and breathing in the same environment as every other animal here. The more we refer to the environment we live in as ‘wild,’ or ‘natural,’ the more we forget that we, too, are a part of the earth’s ecosphere. We, too, are natural beings, whose habitat, while often much more harsh and unforgiving than other places, is still a part of nature. We must remember that this divide we’ve made up is just that—made up, imaginary, nonexistent. That’s the first step towards reconciling ourselves with the rest of the world, and doing so can bring you a profound sense of peace. We’ll soon explore some of the benefits that can arise from bridging this perceived gap between humanity and nature, but first, a little more on the reason why this gap still exists.


Humanity’s impact on the world


This almost goes without saying—while humans are still part of nature, the effects we have on it today are detrimental to its long-term survival. This is why it is so much easier to connect with the environment when you’re walking through the forest and while the breeze caresses your face, or sitting on the beach feeling the waves pounding away at the shore. The areas that humans do not inhabit are by far healthier, because while humankind may be a part of nature, we’ve lost much respect for it. From the animals that we live with to the plants and landscapes that give us all life, humanity, as a species, has lost our reverence, even our respect, for the earth as it was before humanity’s impact began to spread.


While climate change continues, deforestation spreads, our oceans are overfished, and the environment we need to survive is ravaged for our short-term benefit, most of us do see the extremely harmful impact we’re having. We’re working on mitigating some of the more harmful effects humanity has, and while that can be chalked up to the human desire to survive longer than the next 50 years, it also has to do with something far more powerful—our connection to the sublime.


What is the sublime?


The sublime occurs in those experiences we have that remind us that we are not only a part of nature, but merely a small part of a much greater, and older, world. This is the true gap that artist Thomas Cole identified in his painting. Not humanity’s distinct divide from nature, but rather, our detrimental impact on the sublime—the most beautiful, wild, and untouched parts of this earth that remind us of our deep and profound connection to nature. We’ve had horrific effects on the earth, and that’s taken away from our ability to enjoy the sublime, but it has not eradicated it quite yet. Author Anthony Doerr, in his 2008 essay Butterflies on a Wheel, discusses one of his greatest experiences with an awe-inspiring force of nature, a migration of butterflies he encountered as he drove his car down the highway.


“There was hardly any traffic, only a long hauler now and then flying along in the

right-hand lane. Up ahead, the air grew abruptly darker, a thick band of gray- as if a long opaque ribbon was being pulled along above the road. Within a few seconds, butterflies were exploding across the windshield, the air was thick with them. They cartwheeled over the hood, pieces of their wings lodged and vibrated in the wipers. For maybe a minute, at 60, then 50, then 40 miles an hour, this kept up- thousands of butterflies breaking over the front of my Subaru. “Sometimes their bodies seem to simply pulverize, as if there were no liquid element to the creatures at all, just a wash of grey powder across the glass.”


“Butterflies, a long, shimmering curtain, millions of them, they practically blotted out the sky. I felt as if some secret had torn free from the earth, something very private and old, something much larger than myself.” “I stood on the shoulder of I-80 for maybe 15 minutes, watching the tail end of the swarm, staring up into a river of insects, staring up into the limits of my own understanding.”


In Doerr’s essay, the presence of the sublime is clear. Its presence is found in “these moments when the world, for a moment, shows you how beautiful and mysterious and complicated and unknowable and huge it is.”3 These are the experiences that allow us to gain some much-needed perspective. Once you begin to reconcile with the imagined divide humanity has created that often blinds us from finding these moments—much like the blind 18-wheelers who plowed through the butterfly swarm in a hurry to complete their journeys—you’re able to discover moments like these, the perpetual presence of the sublime that lurks beneath the surface of our lives.



The scientific benefits of connecting with nature


Reconnecting with your sense of the sublime allows us to gain a greater perspective of the world, it inspires reverence, amazement, wonder, it brings us inner peace. This isn’t just a claim, though—these feelings, and the benefits that arise from them, are rooted in scientific studies.


1. Less aggression, better cognitive functioning


Researchers Frances Kuo and William Sullivan found that “residents living in 'greener' surroundings report lower levels of fear, fewer incivilities, and less aggressive and violent behavior.” 4 Not only that, but the higher the number of trees, the lower residents’ mental fatigue and stress. Another study even found that “green views from home and nearby nature have a beneficial effect on children's cognitive functioning.” 5


2. Improved attention spans


Being exposed to ‘restorative environments,’ or nature-centric photographs, has also been found to improve one's attention span. A 2005 study found “that restorative environments help maintain and restore the capacity to direct attention.”6 Turning to less human-dominated environments doesn’t just reduce crime, mental fatigue, and stress, as well as improve cognitive functioning and attention spans—it’s been proven that it also induces feelings of awe (the sublime), which has monumental effects on our mental and physical health and wellbeing.


3. Increases prosocial emotions


A 2015 publication in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology “tested the hypothesis that awe can result in a diminishment of the individual self and its concerns, and increase prosocial behavior.” In their first study, they found that when one experienced awe, it “predicted greater generosity in an economic game above and beyond other prosocial emotions (e.g., compassion).”


In further experiments, the article writes that inductions of awe resulted in “increased ethical decision-making, generosity, and prosocial values. Finally, a naturalistic induction of awe in which participants stood in a grove of towering trees enhanced prosocial helping behavior and decreased entitlement compared to participants in a control condition.” The positive effects that awe has on our social skills “are explained, in part, by feelings of a small self. These findings indicate that awe may help situate individuals within broader social contexts and enhance collective concern.”7 Our connection to the sublime has a host of proven and studied benefits, and its value cannot be understated.


Now... get out there!


Enough reading for one sitting—put your newfound knowledge into action, and get yourself outside, however you can manage. Remember, you are as much a part of nature as anything else, and even further, you’re just a small part of a much greater existence. Revel in the beauty that surrounds us, and take the time to appreciate the many benefits our world, and everything that inhabits it, can bring you.


The learning doesn’t stop here. Take a deep dive into finding your inner peace by exploring how to best utilize nature, positive and narrative psychology, as well as elements of ancient wisdom with us at the karuna school of happiness. Make sure to sign up for our newsletter so you can find out exactly when our first program, ACCESS Your Inner Peace, will be available. Happiness lives here. Welcome home.



References


1 Emerson, Ralph Waldo, and Joel Porte. Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Literary Classics of the U.S., 1983.


2 “Thomas Cole, The Oxbow (Article).” Khan Academy, Khan Academy, www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/later-europe-and-americas/enlightenment-revolution/a/cole-the-oxbow.


3 “Witness: Butterflies on a Wheel.” Granta, 31 Jan. 2020, granta.com/butterflies-on-a-wheel/.


4 Kuo, Ming & Sullivan, William. (2001). Environment and Crime in the Inner City: Does Vegetation Reduce Crime?. Environment and Behavior - ENVIRON BEHAV. 33. 343-367. 10.1177/00139160121973025.


5 Lin, Jiawei. (2021). Benefits of viewing nature: a review of landscape health research. Journal of Architectural Environment & Structural Engineering Research. 4. 10.30564/jaeser.v4i1.2227.


6 Rita Berto, Exposure to restorative environments helps restore attentional capacity, Journal of Environmental Psychology, Volume 25, Issue 3, 2005, Pages 249-259,ISSN 0272-4944, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2005.07.001.


7 Piff, Paul K., et al. “Awe, the Small Self, and Prosocial Behavior.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 108, no. 6, 2015, pp. 883–899., doi:10.1037/pspi0000018.