The power of exploring the sublime to journey beyond the ordinary.[Originally published on Medium.com]
Standing on a cliff at Big Sur in Northern California, I experienced a profound sense of beauty and awe, even knowing that the waves thundering beneath me were among the most treacherous in the world. My inability to articulate this profoundly emotional experience did not diminish its staying power.
I’m not the first to sense it there. Big Sur, meaning “Big South,” is a majestic stretch of beaches, redwood forests, and rocky cliffs bordering Highway 1 from Carmel to San Simeon. In the 1950s, the area became a gathering place for creatives such as Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller. Back in 1962, the Esalen Institue, situated on a Big Sur cliff, had brought together pioneers in fields as diverse as psychedelics (Timothy Leary) quantum physics (Richard Feynman), and political theory (Terence McKenna). In recent years, it’s been a haven for pioneers in tech. Even Don Draper’s character in Mad Men found inspiration there (in the series finale, he meditates on the Esalen hilltop, where it’s assumed he conceives a Coca-Cola commercial).
I had arrived for a retreat in Zen meditation, which involves cultivating a ‘beginner’s mind,’ but left having experienced something more: the feeling of the sublime. In our relentlessly fast-paced and technologically saturated world, moments that pull us into the realm of the sublime are rare. It’s a welcome opposing force to languishing, yet it goes beyond the sense of flourishing. As New Year’s resolutions get abandoned (‘quitter’s day’ is the second Friday of the month, and 80% of people fail to keep them by February), perhaps tapping into the sublime is worth our continued effort.
The sense of the sublime is a multi-layered experience that pulls together awe and reverence with a sense of grandeur beyond human comprehension. This broader connection with the universe is most commonly experienced in nature, as I experienced in Big Sur. However, art, music, and even a feeling of synchronicity can also inspire it. While it’s related to University of California Berkeley professor Dacher Keltner’s definition of “awe” and author Monica Parker’s elements of wonder, it’s not quite the same: the experience of the sublime is both philosophical and sensory. It’s an experience that transcends beauty, sometimes adding a tinge of fear in the face of grandeur. Edmund Burke’s concept of the sublime is an embodied, sensory-based experience, whereas Immanuel Kant conceived it as based firmly on reason and intellectual tension. At its core, an encounter with the sublime can have a profound and lasting impact, eclipsing the trivialities of daily life and offering a glimpse into something much larger than ourselves.
A 2019 study published in Frontiers of Psychology described a scale to measure sublime emotions toward nature based on two conceptual components: awe and inspiring energy. A 2014 functional magnetic imagine (fMRI) study published in Frontiers of Neuroscience found that experiencing the sublime—versus simply a sense of beauty—comes with distinctive brain activity. A more recent 2021 study in PLoS One expanded on this idea and found that nature-based stimuli evoked more intense emotional responses than art-based stimuli.
Even if the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic may be past us, 2023 was a year fraught with a surprise war and global economic uncertainty. We need moments of sublime to connect with those moments beyond explanation, moments that help soothe empathetic distress.
Also, 2023 was the year of ChatGPT, which has led to questions about the singularity, expanding on more philosophical questions about the cosmic purpose of the universe, but there were several moments ripe for the sublime: scientists discovered a mysterious star in the center of the Milky Way that seemed linked to another galaxy, a quantum physics entanglement experiment yielded an image of what appeared to be a yin/yang symbol, and a double rainbow appeared on the anniversary of September 11th in New York City.
The sublime experience can last for months: a study from the University of Pennsylvania found that astronauts frequently return to Earth with an increased sense of life purpose and connection to others after experiencing a sense of transcendence in space. The end of life can offer a profound, transformative experience akin to the sublime, challenging conventional narratives about death and dying. One need not go to the coast of Big Sur to find it. Those who are attentive can experience it every day: the quiet beauty of a sunrise, the laughter of a loved one, or a moment of genuine connection.
Psychologically, the experience of the sublime can be a healing balm for the modern soul. In a world where our attention is fragmented by constant digital notifications and a relentless news cycle, the sublime offers a respite. It demands our full attention, pulling us into the present moment even as it lifts us out of the ordinary, offering a perspective that is both humbling and elevating. It reminds us of our smallness in the face of the vast, complex world we inhabit.
This perspective shift can replace egocentric concerns with a sense of unity and oneness with the universe. The sublime is not just an escape from the mundane but a gateway to both a deeper understanding of life and a profound sense of well-being. As we navigate the complexities of modern existence while entering a new year, the pursuit and appreciation of the sublime might be more essential than ever.