On Awe and Silence

October 16, 2020

I'm reading a beautiful book at present written by Julia Baird, called "Phosphorescence".

The title itself was enough to take me back in my head to night swimming in the clean clear waters of NZ and, night sailing from Russell to Auckland in the NZ North Island Coastal Classic race, plus night diving which is one of my most favourite things to do in the world. AT various times in all these experiences, I have been privileged to experience the incredible phenomenon of bioluminescence or phosphorescence at night. This was due to the millions of light producing microorganisms which shine (in my instances) when sea water was disturbed by my kicking or by the movement of our boat hull.

In her book, Julia talks about many interesting things and I’m only a 3rd way into the book, and two of these things I read about this morning were;

  • the importance of being in awe (the witnessing of something spectacular and often rare), and
  • the power of silence.

I invite you to stop for a moment and ask yourself, when did you last experience one or possibly both of them – if ever, and what ongoing thoughts and feelings did they invoke in you!?

I’m assuming that like me, a lot of you will have experienced a somewhat narrowed focus due to the pandemic over the last few months and in retrospect, I am also assuming that a lot of you may actually have had more time and opportunity to experience both awe and silence due to the reduction in having experiences outside our homes.

Within these limitations though, I wonder if you have not had some experiences of expansion.

Let’s touch on awe first of all.

I find that the more closely I look at things and people, the macro detail I have the space to notice opens up totally new depths of attention and awe, and I wonder why I don’t take the time to do this more often. As much as the perfection of a tiny flower or insect can make me feel in awe, so can the noise and power of a spectacular storm or the peace of a deep dark starry night.

I know when I feel awe, the hairs on my arms stand up, my eyes open wide and I feel completely still. All this despite the adrenalin rushing around my body which helps makes me feel excited, on high alert and, in awe....

The thing that struck me about what Julia wrote was, that it’s in our moments of wonder and awe, that when we realise how tiny we are in the massive scheme of things, and when that happens, somehow our focus expands outside of ourselves and onto others. We stop being so self-involved in the sheer act of lifting our gaze from our navels to the wonder of the heavens and we ask questions of ourselves, others and the world in order to fill the knowledge gaps that Julia says drives wonder.

Is it any surprise then that being outside in nature or watching any type of natural action, event or emotionally touching interaction that causes us to experience awe forces us to regain or maintain our perspective and appreciation of the world and what’s in it and, inspires us to take action to preserve what creates these special and rare moments.

It’s so good for our heart, soul and physicality, I encourage you all to look for things to be in awe about everyday.   

Now onto silence.

The power of silence she also notes, is critical in allowing us to connect more deeply with the tiny sounds in nature, and in fact is critical to our mental health.

The sheer noise of the world and what’s in it crowds our heads such that we can’t even think. I don’t know about you, but in the first few weeks of shutdown, around my place, the sounds of silence were incredibly evident which I personally revelled in.

There are definitely times when I need silence, and despite my neighbourhood being a quiet one, I would normally still have to put headphones on (without the music), or put my fingers in my ears to block out the noises that filter in through my window, but at the start of the pandemic I could find silence without doing either of those things.

Silence is very hard for some people to be in happily so they rush to fill their world with activity and sound, many of you must have found or are still finding lockdown unbearable. Others crave it and choose to live in isolation or communities where choosing to live in silence is normal.

Have you ever noticed that the more quiet it is, the more your focus shifts to the next level down and you notice the sounds of nature that we never have the space to hear otherwise such as crickets, the wind in the trees, water lapping, boards or wood cracking and so on.

Manmade or caused noise pollution is a real problem and it’s continuous presence is creating a massive disconnect from nature and country and even each other. Noise shifts our focus and consciousness away from those things that we need to remain balanced and truly connected to in life, and finding awe.

Julia is a swimmer too, and she reminded me of the moments of bliss I share with her, which is the silence we experience when we sink underwater into the sea or a pool and enter a world that drives our focus inwards to our own thoughts, or outwards to the sounds of silence.