Mother Nature’s Art
Chicken soup for the awe-deprived soul
“… 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.