Let me tell you something beautiful today.
On the banks of the Peruvian Amazon, butterflies are drinking the tears of river turtles. The basking reptiles calmly tolerate this fluttering kaleidoscope, lucky for the butterflies, because the western Amazon is so low in sodium, these tears are the tiny flying herbivores’ only source of vital salts.
Sometimes the Caiman crocodile gets attention too.
Scientists are yet unclear what benefit the reptiles receive by indulging this behaviour. Perhaps it simply makes them feel less sad, and more fabulous. Image: Mark Cowan
Nature is full of delightful collaborations
In the coral reefs off QLD, giant manta rays have ‘cleaning stations’, where schools of suckerfish come to devour parasites off their skin and gills. In Turkey, shaggy water buffalo welcome colonies of frogs to hitchhike in their fur, feasting on pesky flies in exchange. In our back garden, the jasmine is blossoming to entice hungry bees, who in turn carry and spread its pollen. All living things are woven into each other with a kind of symbiosis.
Humans are no different. We may not have tiny fluttering therapists, but we do have very helpful microbes abiding on and inside us by the trillions (slightly more microbial cells than human cells, in fact). Over 1000 different species airbnb in your belly alone. And you depend on these intestinal dwellers for essential functioning (digestion, immune system, heart, brain).
You are technically a ‘we’. A moveable zoo. A crowd of aliveness. And your bustling ecosystem is breathing and eating and metabolising the world around you non-stop. Your inner community is dependent on trillions of connections in your outer community. Consider the consortium of soil-dwellers and rain-makers and garden-tenders and truck-drivers and supermarket-shelf-stockers that contributed to the arrival of the last food that passed through your lips. The coffee beans. The wheat field.
This is what Thich Nhat Hanh describes as ‘inter-being’.
“There are…no solitary beings. The whole planet is one giant, living, breathing cell, with all its working parts linked in symbiosis. Everything relies on everything else in the cosmos in order to manifest—whether a star, a cloud, a flower, a tree, or you and me.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
This is wonderful because it blurs our edges
and hints that our existence is more expansive than we may have appreciated. Buddhist wisdom calls this notion ‘anattā’. It’s the understanding that we are not separate self-entities but processes of being, interwoven with the complex systems of life that surround and sustain us. Our selfhood is re-emerging moment to moment, in relationship with our fluctuating environment and timescape. We are each continuations, bordered by commas and ellipses. Less full stops. Less finite.
Traditionally the Buddha called this ‘interdependent arising’. Some modern thinkers and writers (listen to Robert Macfarlane and Ross Gay in the links below) are using the term ‘entanglement’, which I love.
Call it what you will, this sense of vastness offers an opening into a new perspective. The insight that our being does not end at the body horizon.
The Overview Effect
is a term given to the experience of astronauts when looking back on the earth from space. It’s a kind of cognitive shift, marked by an overwhelming sense of our shared smallness within the cosmic arena. A sudden realisation of the ineffable relativity of human scale in the face of deep time. The terrifying beauty of our delicate interconnectedness. Unsurprisingly, said effect is rather transformative, leaving fundamental changes to the observer’s self concept and value system.
This is why I like to keep a little astrophotography around the house – to maintain the view.
One of my favourite such photos is the iconic ‘Pale Blue Dot’. Taken as an afterthought on a 90’s NASA mission to document the solar system, Carl Sagan suggested they turn the camera around for a final self-portrait. He went on to elucidate this effect in a famously beautiful passage.
“Consider that dot. That’s here. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives … on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.”
– Carl Sagan
The Pale Blue Dot: Captured from 3.7 billion miles away, Earth appears as a tiny dot halfway down the orange stripe on the right. If you look closely enough, you might even see yourself, peering at this screen. Image: NASA
I find great solace in such images. To wonder at the mystery of being alive here on this dot together is a clarifying pastime. One that elevates our minds from the weediness of daily to-dos and up onto a more sweeping vantage point.
This alchemic shift of perspective is available without a galactic passport. It is entirely possible to blow our own minds by getting intimate with the veins of a leaf. Or watching an ant heroically haul 5000 times its body weight across the kitchen floor. Or feeling the way your breath compels itself unconsciously onward, assimilating a specific gas from the thin film of atmosphere that also dusts snow off the Himalayas and surges hurricanes across the South Pacific.
By opening to our entanglement with all of life, we unfold ourselves into a feeling of kinship with the world around us. We discover a sense of belonging, like the butterflies to the turtles, the frogs to the buffalo, the microbes to our colon (eeew).
The science of awe
Scholars who study human emotions define awe as ‘the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world’. And these experiences promote a greater sense of well-being and connection with humanity.
Dacher Keltner, Professor of Psychology, founding director of the Greater Good Science Center, and my current research-crush, champions how we can find awe in everyday experiences. Like the moral beauty of kind humans, or the collective effervescence of community momentum.
Awe breaks down our sense of separateness and helps us place the stresses of life within larger contexts. In psychological terms, feeling small in relation to something vast is known as ‘self-diminishment’. And it’s been shown to have enormously beneficial effects.
How does awe transform us? By quieting the nagging, self-critical, overbearing, status-conscious voice of our self, or ego, and empowering us to collaborate, to open our minds to wonders, and to see the deep patterns of life. -Dacher Keltner
When we’re pulled out of our usual self-referential states, regions of the brain associated with excesses of the ego, including self-criticism, anxiety, and even depression, quiet down. Keltner suggests awe is an antidote to the biochemistry of disconnection. Helping us to heal from perceived social threats like shame, loneliness, rejection or prejudice. Everyday awe has been shown to lower inflammation, increase prosocial behaviour, help PTSD recovery, and one study even found participants were deemed more humble by their friends.
Image: Anjali Chandrashekar for The New Yorker
These are the ideas that inspired our newest retreat offering coming up this summer in Byron Bay. I wanted to call it ‘Unselfing into the Vastness of Being’. But we thought that might be a bit complex. So we just called it: Open.
Romancing the mystery
I will go as far as to say that it is necessary, for psycho-spiritual survival in the late Anthropocene, to turn towards wonderment. As a counterbalance to the age of the doomscroll, and the weight of the work ahead. Of course going away to the forest is nice, but it’s not necessary for finding wonder.
We can practise being delighted as a kind of discipline. All of life is sacred, and beauty is so often nearby. Keep turning towards the vast mysteries of life. They are in the patterns of a spider’s web, the navel of a flower, the mutualism of mosses metres beneath your feet, or the iris of your loved one’s eyes.
This is not about distraction or escape. It’s about getting closer to the revelation that we are the river turtles, and we are also the butterflies; entangled in kinship with the entire world around us. And once we really get it, we no longer see any part of our ego eco system as ‘other’. This naturally restructures what we care about, and want to take care of.
Let this way of looking be a refuge. Let the size of the sky bring you solace. Romance the mystery. Look up. Be astonished.
Let me leave you today with this murmuration of starlings. Consider it a self-portrait.
Yours in wonder,
References & Inspo:
– The Science of Awe – A white paper by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley
Thich Nhat Hanh on Interbeing.
Robert Macfarlane in conversation with Krista Tippett on her podcast.
Ross Gay in conversation with Glennon Doyle on her podcast.
Dacher Keltner’s book, Awe: The Transformative Power of Everyday Wonder.
Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot speech.
Why Does Awe Have Prosocial Effects? New Perspectives on Awe and the Small Self