“The sublime is rendered by prodigious power or by enormous space: when you reach a mountaintop, for instance, and the world breaks open: a motif that is used in Buddhist art a great deal, and the reason temples are put on the top of hills. In Kyoto, there are gardens where you are screened from the expanding view while climbing, and suddenly – bing! – the whole vista opens up before you. That’s sublimity. So, power and space are two renditions of sublimity, and in both cases, the ego is diminished. It’s strange: the less there is of you, the more you experience the sublime.”
Reading this, it seems true by examination. We’ve all had these kinds of experiences. On the mountaintop, or looking out over a seemingly infinite body of water, or finding yourself on a dark lake on a clear night with the full moon on the water or the Milky Way arcing overhead, the awesome awareness of our own powerlessness and insignificance is the source of a sublime feeling of expansive connectedness. I witnessed the birth of my girls and am forever struck by the mystery of such infinite complexity, driven so repeatably; everyday miracles of stunning scale, countless times a every day, everywhere on Earth.
How easily, though, we slip back into the ego-centric. Once back down from the mountain, back in the Real World, we’re self-concerned again. Back to work on Monday, with the demands, deadlines, and personalities that we engage and entangle with. That was a cool experience, but this is the Real World and I have to feed my family, after all.
Art and meditation and contemplation allow access to that ego-reduced experience of the profound, for those of us who can’t go on vacation and climb a mountain every day. A shared moment with a family member or friend, a painting or a piece of music, a well-written metaphor, quiet minutes looking at a tree or looking inward with eyes closed.
“It’s strange: the less there is of you, the more you experience the sublime.”
Quotation from ‘Reflections on the Art of Living, A Joseph Campbell Companion,’ page 136.