Finding Your Sense of Awe Again
Last week, in ‘The Importance of Awe’, I stated that awe is a “a basic human need, which seems to transect and transcend Maslow’s hierarchy” and that the experience of it “[b]reak[s] down our phenomenlogical barriers to experience unmediated existence — or mind-at-large, to use another of Huxley’s phrases — allows us to rebuild those barriers with awareness, rather than drift on the inertia of the default settings.” I outlined some of the benefits for health and mind, indicated some of the obstacles to it inherent in modernity, and concluded on an invitation to surmount those obstacles.
Now, with the benefit of a fresh start, we can discuss how to achieve those experiences. The first of these ways is, of course, to stop the car no matter where you’d headed, switch off the engine and go out into the world for a few minutes. You might be on the way home from work, you might be on a road trip, but if you only stop at gas-stations and rest-stops, you’re missing what the world has to show you. Find a layby, park and go walkabout. Doing things like this might seem crazy, but they could be the only way we have of staying sane.
Remember, this is only one of the ways. Below, we’ll discuss the rest. You can do each of these things separately or combine more than one for more pronounced effect. Consider them and see. It’s your choice.
The second way, like the first, is easily done: visit any forest near you. Our forests are the last refuge of the undisturbed Sacred. Once you’re deep into the trail, the canopy is like a second-home (—maybe it was our first — ) and you feel like a child again, in the security and joy of the original wonderland. There’s no substitute anywhere else on this planet for the warm, muggy, arboreal musk under that leafy ceiling. You might discover the only eco-system which contains a certain species of wasp or a mushroom that’s never been studied. It’s worth spending a day in the woods just to discover what you’ll find all around you — and that’s before we take into account what you discover about yourself.
In ‘The Importance of Awe’, I mentioned Ernst Jünger’s essay on ‘The Tree’. This isn’t his only engagement with the forest or even the most involved. He also wrote a book called Der Waldgang — translated into English as The Forest Passage —which describes the process of forest-fleeing or ‘going native’. Unfortunately, the “passage” part of “forest passage” captures almost nothing of the gang in Waldgang. The Waldgänger — the one who withdraws to the forest —escapes the totalitarian monotony of the city of pure technicity and returns to the primordial possibilities of the forest. It is not only a retreat to the space of the forest, but a return to the timeless time of the forest.
When you go experience awe in the forest you find something else as well—the wild man of the forest, the sylvan helper within — what Robert Bly found in the Grimms’ fairytale of Eisenhans (‘Iron John’). This gives us our first inkling (and I hope it won’t be our last) that awe-inducing experiences are often also archetypal ones.
Re-discover and recover your wildness in the forest.
The third way is a bit more challenging, but still attainable: ascend, climb, overcome. Hiking and mountaineering in particular are fantastic ways to explore the emotion of awe. They are virtually methods of awe-induction on command. When we ascend, we accept the challenge of the open sky, that “abyss of light” in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, an infinite expanse of openness and brilliance.
Experiences of awe are deeply personal, but at the same time they take us out of ourselves. Between the background of our world and the foreground of our lives, they create an important middle-ground bridging both to complete the picture, the middle field into which we are drawn and whence we draw back deep learning. These experiences make our wider circumstances real. This is especially so on the peak or mountainside. We are awash with a strangely lucid delirium —the surrealism of presence. We, like Zarathustra, surmount all peaks ultimately to reach and retain that feeling.
For highly intelligent intuitives, who sometimes think that they know everything because they can intellectualise everything, this is a necessary cleansing and awakening, like jumping into an ice-hole after a Finnish sauna. Sometimes we can repeat some things glibly, as ‘facts’, without having let them sink into us and inform our behaviour — and we can do this for years. We know things, but we don’t really know them first-hand.
Standing at the summit, though, you know that you know.
The artistic imagination connects mountaineering with transcendental experience for good reason. Infamous occultist Aleister Crowley mountaineered on five continents. Controversial Italian writer Julius Evola considered mountaineering, as an extremely active form of this experience, a profound educational process. We learn our limits, but also our hidden potentials, as we literally and spiritually ascend the mountain.
One of his ‘peak experiences’ as a climber came on an Alpine trip with friends by the Tyrolese stretch of the Reschen Pass (Meditations on the Peaks, pp.73–6). After several hours of walking from the train station at Malles (or, auf Deutsch, Mals) and then climbing up into the mountains, which took them from mid-afternoon into the evening, they make it to the valley of Resia (or Reschen). This is a remarkable part of the world. Given the right elevation and facing the right way, you have a panorama of Switzerland, Italy and Austria at the same time.
In the re-telling, Evola takes a moment to register his surroundings. “The valley of Resia is a pass totally open on its northern side,” Evola tells us.
The actual peak (literally and figuratively) of this peak experience occurs after the climax of the ascent, during the apparent denouement of the journey — actually the culmination of the whole experience for Evola.
He describes the lake as “an immense sheet of black crystal, as levigated as a mirror, extending for miles”. Having already drank more than their share of rum and kirsch, the mountaineers walk a slippery path onto the ice, farther and farther from the shore.
Of course, any sudden sound can evoke awe, as Burke says in his Philosophical Enquiry, even something as mundane — in Burke’s example — as a chiming grandfather clock. Feeling the world itself seem to crack and roar beneath one’s feet suddenly gives one a sense of the tenuous and precarious quality of human life. We are suddenly brought back to a humbling context, showing us our place in the scala naturae, the Great Chain of Being. Infinity above, infinity below and the eternity of indifferent winds scouring everything.
All you need to do is climb.
The most important thing we can do, though, is to make the boring, everyday changes. We can do something simple but powerful: switch off the smartphone and stop the brain-drain. Lasting alterations of habits — good habits — re-wire our brains and renew us as conscious beings; they re-connect us with the world. This change is all the more pronounced when it’s giving up the smartphone.
The decision is unavoidable, though. We have to decide where to direct our energies. Why trade rivers of our innermost gold to get ounces of lead in return? Is it really such a good idea to pour the best of ourselves into the void of newsfeeds for a quick fix of instant gratification and ego-candy? Aren’t smartphones the antithesis of smart souls? Still, we do all this in service of the Machine-God. Why let the tool rule the tool-maker?
It’s not hard to switch off the smartphone itself — the long click of a button. However, giving up the addiction is another matter.
The smartphone is like an umbilical cord. Except, instead of nourishing you, the flow goes the other way — it’s a conduit through which the pseudo-world of the algorithm vampirises you. The smartphone is, as my friend Scott Locklin says, nothing but a “nerd dildo”. It is to proper social and worldly engagement what sex-toys-for-one and pornography are to a healthy sex-life — that is, more often an impediment than an aid.
The best thing you can do is switch it off and direct yourself world-ward. But what if there’s an emergency? What if someone needs to call? Well, if that’s your rationalisation, why not use a 3310, which lasts way longer than an iPhone (both in battery expenditure and lifetime) and lets you take those emergency calls just as well? Sure. You know what? That’s a fantastic idea: bring along a 3310. You won’t have to worry about charging it and you still won’t be able to feed Moloch’s newsfeed. The 3310 can distract your attention for a few minutes at a time, but it can’t consume your awareness — your very consciousness — in the brain-alteringly harmful ways that smartphones can do so. It’s the way-lesser of two evils.
Seriously, though. You don’t need a cell-phone, full stop — much less do you need to carry one around during outdoors activities, like a millstone of defeated purpose while seeking the world. Something which takes away your ability to be present takes away your ability to feel awe. You might as well not take that trip to the Grand Canyon or the lush Hawaiian hinterland.
It doesn’t matter how many pictures of how many waterfalls you snap and upload to Instagram, your mind and heart are in the wrong place — Instagram — and your being is absent. A walk in the park without a cell-phone will do you more good than a vacation with one. The girl feeding the ducks is way more ‘plugged in’ to nature than you are.
Do what she’s doing right; stop doing what you’re doing wrong. Switch off the machines and switch on your brain. Feel the ground beneath your feet, imagine the thunder of the cracking lake, look at the world around you, see the eye-hurting blue of the infinite sky, find the wild spirit within—and remember to be.
The burning question of our time is not, as the machine-serfs say, Can technology reach genuine awareness? but rather Can we?
Go for a walk — find out for yourself.
Finding Your Sense of Awe Again
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