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Mindful : August 2018
Yet Kant says we can take pleasure in this feeling when we realize the sub- lime poses no present threat to us. The pleasure of relief that arises when we stop feeling uneasy before the sublime results in a state of joy. That’s awe. Of course we feel awe when view- ing something vast like the Grand Canyon or beholding the Milky Way in the night sky—and camping offers access aplenty to those kinds of expe- riences. But evolutionary psychologist Dacher Keltner says it’s also possible to encounter awe in the more mun- dane observations of daily life. It’s possible to find awe in the small, even boring, rituals of camping—scour- ing the ground to choose your site, noticing the wind as you set up your tent, watching the flames of a fire as you cook your meal, washing up in a babbling brook. Everything once taken for granted requires attention. I love seeing my breath on a cold fall morning. Or watching the sun melt the frost on the grass. Once the tent is up, there’s cinnamon corn whiskey. The benefits of cultivating awe are profound, says Keltner. In studies at his lab at the University of Berkeley, researchers have found that people who have just momentarily experi- enced awe—by gazing at tall trees or watching expansive images of Earth— tend to be more curious, altruistic, and cooperative. He speculates that seeking out experiences of awe may have allowed early humans to make the shift toward living in social collec- tives. Awe, Keltner points out, creates a virtuous circle: Awe makes us kinder, and acts of kindness inspire awe. Awe creates a virtuous circle: Awe makes us kinder, and acts of kindness inspire awe. So on the camping trip to Cape Breton, I try to cultivate awe, not terror. Jesse, Ben, and I are hiking the Skyline Trail that hugs the dramatic coastline, and the weather’s turned bad. A sign before the first lookout point warns visitors to turn back during high winds. Waves of miserable people trundle by us in the opposite direction, clad in soaking wet shirts and garbage bags. A woman laughs hysterically when a strong g ust billows her coat out like a sail. I look down at the cars and trees below—now the size of toys—then out at the vast ocean and feel a strong sense of vertigo. It’s there, the familiar anxiety, but there’s something else too. Courage that I can do this. Maybe I can feel both things at once. I push forward on the wooden steps built into the steep cliff. The wind kicks up and more hik- ers turn back with concerned looks on their faces, but others keep going, and we follow. At one point I let out a maniacal scream-laugh and Ben locks elbows with me as we forge ahead. It’s a sign of how far I’ve come that I actually go off the marked trail, awkwardly straddling an ancient, rotted log that will lead me to the base of a small gorge. I shimmy on. I begin to trust that a tree trunk can be both rotted and sturdy at once. My com- rades are waiting for me at the top. I’m almost there. ● August 2018 mindful 63 get real