Mother Na­ture’s Art

Chicken soup for the awe-de­prived soul

RSWLiving - - Contents - BY DR. RANDALL H. NIEHOFF Dr. Randall H. Niehoff has been at home on and around Sani­bel Is­land since 1991.

“… na­ture can ex­ist with­out art, but art can never ex­ist with­out na­ture.” —Alois Pod­ha­jsky, The Com­plete Train­ing of Horse and Rider, 1967

This strik­ing philo­soph­i­cal truth comes from the mouth of a man rid­ing by the seat of his pants, in­ti­mately in con­tact via limbs and fin­gers with a pow­er­ful force of na­ture be­neath him we call a horse. A bril­liant prac­ti­tioner in the art of dres­sage (Olympic medal­ist and di­rec­tor of the Span­ish Rid­ing School in Vi­enna), Pod­ha­jsky drew inspiratio­n from the source to which all great artists turn: di­rect ex­pe­ri­ences of awe.

Awe is the “wow” fac­tor, a sense of won­der that erupts when con­fronted by the mar­velous, mag­nif­i­cent or mys­te­ri­ous. While the feel­ing of as­ton­ish­ment can some­times arouse fear, the shock of be­com­ing aware in an un­ex­pected way al­ways chal­lenges our abil­ity to ex­plain what hap­pened. Moved to cre­ate sub­lime verse, Robert Frost taught that po­etry be­gins with a feel­ing in the gut that prompts a thought—then the poet strug­gles to find the words to ex­press it.

And so it goes with all the arts. Awak­ened by our con­nec­tion with na­ture’s world, we are driven to find ways to ar­tic­u­late it: through im­ages (paint­ing, sculp­ture, ar­chi­tec­ture); sounds (mu­sic, speeches); move­ment (dance, ath­let­ics); or drama (stage­craft, screen­play), which is a com­bi­na­tion of all of the above. Works of the artist in turn elicit more awe in the be­holder—if we are will­ing to take the time to em­brace it with our senses.

Un­for­tu­nately, as wise ob­servers of the spirit of our times tend to agree, our cul­ture is be­com­ing awe-de­prived. Adults are spend­ing more time work­ing, com­mut­ing, running er­rands and fol­low­ing sched­ules—and less time out­doors in na­ture. Paus­ing to re­flect is rare even in­doors: at­ten­dance at arts events (live mu­sic, the­ater, mu­se­ums and gal­leries) has dropped in re­cent years. The same is true for children: There are fewer oc­ca­sions for un­struc­tured ex­plo­ration out­side, while on the in­side, arts and mu­sic pro­grams at schools are be­ing dis­man­tled.

For­tu­nately, wise psy­chol­o­gists and en­ter­tain­ers are draw­ing at­ten­tion to the sci­ence and art of awe. Pro­fes­sors Dacher Kelt­ner (UC Berkeley) and Jonathan Haidt (NYU’s Stern School of Busi­ness) argue that awe is elicited es­pe­cially by na­ture, art and im­pres­sive in­di­vid­u­als or feats, in­clud­ing acts of great skill or virtue. As to the benefits of such awe-filled ex­pe­ri­ences, note the find­ings of the neu­ro­science re­search group Lab of Mis­fits, which stud­ied the brain func­tions of au­di­ence mem­bers dur­ing and af­ter Cirque du Soleil per­for­mances. The results were dra­matic: Ex­pe­ri­enc­ing awe can in­crease tol­er­ance to risk, boost cre­ativ­ity and com­bat stress by putting the brain in a state of bliss that can even re­shape our feel­ings about the fu­ture.

More for­tu­nately, even if you can’t get out­doors, all that’s needed is the will to use a watch and a win­dow—the watch to set aside time to be mind­fully still and the win­dow to focus on the many acts of the big­gest show on earth. With de­clin­ing mo­bil­ity my father-in-law aged grace­fully and was con­tent to be thor­oughly “at home” wher­ever he was—es­pe­cially when listening to his mu­sic or watch­ing his sports. His fa­vorite quip when be­ing en­cour­aged to go some­place else for en­ter­tain­ment was, “I don’t need a three-ring cir­cus!” That’s awe­some.

Ex­pe­ri­enc­ing awe can in­crease tol­er­ance to risk, boost cre­ativ­ity and com­bat stress by putting the brain in a state of bliss that can even re­shape our feel­ings about the fu­ture.

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