The power of Awe: How nature changed my outlook on my place in the world

By Ella Gregory

Nature has an almost hidden power to elicit grand emotions from us. This concept, in literature, is called the sublime and is defined by the Tate as ‘a quality of greatness or grandeur that inspires awe and wonder…a source of inspiration for artists and writers, particularly in relation to the natural landscape.

This feeling of reverence, one that is so consuming it is almost indescribable, has featured in many great works of art and literature, including The Prelude by William Wordsworth and Romantic art, like that of Joseph Mallord William Turner. Works of art that capture the sublime have the power to produce overwhelmingly strong reactions from the observer, usually accompanied by a recognition of how small we as individuals are. 

The truly magical thing is that nature inherently has this power, without needing to be sculpted or created nature can remind us simultaneously of how small and how important we are. This reaction is characterised by a feeling of awe, sometimes including both a fearful feeling and one of great amazement.

Awe surpasses the traditional dichotomy of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ emotions and offers a unique experience. A lot of research has been done into the importance of feeling awe, the effects it can have on our life and outlook. “Awe walks” are an activity that we can all take part in and have shown to “reduce self-focus, promote social connection, and foster prosocial actions by encouraging a ‘small self‘.” Awe is an emotion, that one we open ourselves up fully, can be felt in most areas of life, but it is most easily felt when we are in nature.

A truly incredible example of an awe-inspiring experience is described by ‘The Overview Effect’. It is an experience had by astronauts viewing the Earth from space, that promotes greater clarity and interconnectedness. Some of these astronauts went on to experience profound shifts in their worldview that stayed throughout their lives. Edgar Mitchell, an astronaut on Apollo 14, described the effects of seeing the Earth from space: “You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.” He spoke about it being an ‘epiphany’ and that the feeling of being in a ‘larger reality’ inspired him to change his life back on Earth. Most importantly Allen felt that his ‘role in the universe completely shifted. I saw myself as part of a bigger cosmic picture.’ This inspired him to think about our global lack of sustainability, which should worry us all, and realise that what could combat this is a ‘love of nature’ and ‘love of each other’.

The feeling of awe for many has a direct spiritual connection. It is a key feature of mystical experiences, and the feeling of vastness and oneness is one typically embraced by those following a spiritual path. However, this new research into awe is showing us that it needn’t be reserved for those who believe in some sort of higher power, and that awe has the ability to help us shape a kinder society for all. It has also been suggested that awe-inspiring experiences can open us up to further personal growth.

I have experienced this myself through meditating and walking in nature. The ‘vastness’ that often accompanies these experiences is both terrifying and humbling and I have walked away with a renewed sense of my place in the world and a determination to do good.

These benefits of awe show us another reason why greater access for nature is needed. We should all have the chance to improve ourselves and to feel such beneficial emotions. This is why our campaign ‘Nature Nearby’ is so important, we are calling on the UK government for better access to nature so that people across the UK have access to nature’s benefits, of which awe is one of many.

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