Essay Awe

Look Up!

Slowly, making my way along the rutted dirt path, I reached the top of the mesa, set down my backpack, leaned against a nearby log, and looked up at the sky and clouds. In that moment, everything changed.

Arriving at that moment took a very long time, and here’s why.

I grew up in the People’s Republic of Brooklyn, far away from the grandeur of the natural world. At that time, Brooklyn wasn’t the swanky place it is today. There were no yoga studios or latte shops. Growing up low-income and locked in the inner city, I wanted to escape Brooklyn, and everything I thought it represented. So, I did a lot of running from Brooklyn to undergraduate school, graduate school, law school, and to ‘The Big & Important Job’ as a lawyer-lobbyist. The only problem with the ‘Job’ was that it was killing my spirit and my soul.

Like many people in a high-pressure, high-stress, burnout job, I decided to take a vacation to the desert and mountains, far away from the daily grind. That day, when I reached the mesa top and looked up, I was awestruck. I noticed the sky and the clouds, perhaps for the very first time. I stayed looking up long enough to watch the clouds drift slowly through the sky. Clouds move! Exhaling, the moment felt timeless. The tension I carried in my body up the mesa evaporated as I felt myself becoming ‘cloud-like’—light and free.

I had spent so much time running from Brooklyn, trying to ‘be successful’ that I had forgotten to look up, to look at the natural world that surrounded me, to be grateful for my eyes and sight. I was alienated not only from the natural world; I was alienated from myself. That was a wake-up call.

Today, as a retreat leader, executive coach, writer, and Dharma teacher, I work with people who are seeking to create their most genuine and authentic self and service in the world, to live in greater harmony with the living Earth, and to cultivate compassionate relationships.

My mesa top experience was one of awe. Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world. Dacher Keltner and other researchers at the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley have linked feelings of awe not only to grand moments like my mesa top experience, but also to the mundane. Keltner and colleagues say that awe as an emotional response is an evolutionary adaptation. “Awe binds us to social collectives and enables us to act in more collaborative ways that enable strong groups, thus improving our odds for survival. Other studies have found awe-altruism link: being in the presence of vast things calls forth a more modest, less narcissistic self, which enables greater kindness toward others.” Even brief experiences of awe redefine the self in terms of the collective and orient our actions toward the interests of others. These momentary experiences of awe stimulate wonder and curiosity, and studies show that this is good for our immune systems.

These findings come at a time when our society is awe-deprived. Too many of us have a near addictive relationship with our devices, which means looking down at screens, significantly deteriorating relationships. We spend way too much time working and too little time in the beauty of the natural world. And, even children have little unstructured leisure time to cultivate curiosity and wonder.

Looking up is good for our bodies, our relationships, and our experience of the world around us. Looking up is the power to change perspective, to appreciate our lives, whether that is the streets of Brooklyn or mesa topped deserts. Looking up at clouds is now one of my daily spiritual practices, and my mantra is “Clouds move,” reminding me, that life is brief, always changing, and that beauty is as close as re-orienting my vision. Looking up takes very little time and yet feels timeless. Looking up restores kindness for ourselves, each other, and our relationship with this living Earth.

About Valerie Brown

Valerie Brown is a leadership coach and an international retreat leader. Her commitment and passion is rooted in her belief that mindful awareness is the foundation for happiness and understanding, supporting more resilient leaders, peaceful schools, and healthier workplaces. A Quaker, Valerie also has been ordained by Thich Nhat Hanh.

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