We all have a sense of our individual identity, some stronger than others. This is the sense that that you exist as a discrete and separate being. This raises a significant problem for every one of us. The core problem of being human – of being an individual – is that as soon as you define yourself as a being of your boundaries, you are making yourself separate form everything that isn’t you. And the moment you consider yourself separate from everything that isn’t you you are confronted by the fundamental problem of that which is very small which is confronted by that which is overwhelming.
How big is the rest of the universe with regards to you? It’s vast beyond description. It is overwhelming. The necessary implication of that which is very small, when it is confronted by that which is overwhelming is to be overwhelmed. This is almost tautological but the point that you must appreciate is that it is part of human nature to be overwhelmed.
At the root of our existence, of our experience that we exist as individuals is absolute, blind terror. To be human is to be terrified because you are a very small being confronted by that which is vast, unmanageable and potentially overwhelming.
But, this root agitation, this terror, which we are fundamentally pickled in as an individual, has a remedy. There is something that takes this horror, and this terror and this fear and dulls it and in fact transforms it. There is a step of reflection that needs to happen that changes the character of the horror – which is a root condition – to something else.
When you recognize, in the first instance that despite the fact that you are very small and you’re confronted by that which is overwhelming, and yet you have not been overwhelmed, the character of the fear that you have when you view the other, changes to awe.
The difference between terror and awe is very small. Because they both have as a root condition this nervousness of that which is very small, compared to that which is vast. Awe does the same thing. But what is inside awe is not the same essence of terror, but it is the essence of appreciativeness.
What enables this transformation from terror to awe and appreciativeness is gratitude. What you must realise is that everything that you are comes from other than you. Your earliest memory – the first time you opened your eyes, you would have seen other than you. So other than you, preceded you. Your last vision as you die will be of other than you. Other than you precedes you, you’ve come from it, it sustains you, and you will go back into it, it is absolutely all there Is. It has granted you everything that you have. How can you not be grateful towards life and the world? Without it you would be nothing. The fact that you are at all is reason enough to be grateful. One should even be grateful for struggles, one should be grateful that you are lucky enough to be alive to experience the struggles, notwithstanding the fact that struggles provide opportunity for you to grow and develop as a human being.
Awe is the highest human experience. There isn’t one greater than that. The human beings perfection lies in this experience. This capacity to experience awe is the highest human attribute.
Now, as people, we have all sorts of strategies that are designed to escape this terror of being that which is very small confronted by that which is unmanageably vast and overwhelming. The first mechanism, the first strategy that we have is that we collude with each other, we build walls and we try to control everything around us.
We cooperate to keep that which is potentially dangerous away. But that creates a bad habit, and the bad habit is that we then think that we can manage that which is overwhelming just by working together. This is an outrageous habit. We must realise that this attempt to control everything will inevitably produce terror. That is because we are trying to control something which is too vast to control.
So, we hide from what is overwhelming by literally creating walls of cooperation. These include literally the walls of buildings, where we don’t have to be confronted by the bigness of the blue sky because we’re in the house. They also however include all the measures we take to stave off what we find threatening.
If you put yourself in a place where you really get a sense of perspective on a very high mountain, get a sense of the view of things, then you know who you are. And you feel very small and you’re either in awe or you’re in terror. But unfortunately we don’t put ourselves in those vantage points where we can see things as they are; we come home and hide inside buildings.
The biggest blessing that we have in this journey of escaping our little collusions of mediocrity with other people is trauma, any trauma. Because what trauma does is that it ruptures the boundaries of your integrity. You have a sense that I’m discrete and then suddenly something penetrates you, something breaks through the barriers. Trauma is the equivalent of a truck coming through the walls. It is something that smashes in through your boundaries.
Every time something truly traumatic happens it gives us the opportunity to reflect. Upon reflection we should come to realise that we cannot control the vastly overwhelming. This realization can have the effect of, temporarily at least, forcing us to detach from our plans to control. We may be introduced into a place where we are just thankful for what we have, knowing that things could be even more catastrophic. If we are smart enough with how we respond to trauma, the aftermath of it is an experience of awe. The self is led to a place where it stops controlling. It turns its gazes to that which is vast and overwhelming, and from the position of gratitude, appreciates its magnificence. This appreciation is awe and it is the highest experience to which a human being can aspire. This is aesthetic experience. For more on aesthetic experience see here.