How chasing solar eclipses opened me up to the awe of living
Kate Russo, Clinical Psychologist
It is 11 August 1999 and I am gazing up at the Sun, my eyes protected by a flimsy cardboard solar filter. I am completely unprepared for what is to come. In a few moments, my life will turn upside down as I experience my first total solar eclipse.
I am in the path of the Moon’s shadow – the path of totality – that is to sweep in a narrow band across much of continental Europe. My partner and I are in a crowd of 10,000 people congregating along a French beachfront promenade. We hear a multitude of languages as we prepare our patisseries and wine. Through our solar filters, we watch the Moon slowly move in front of the Sun. I know what is to happen – a perfect alignment of Sun, Moon, Earth. And me.
A sense of unease suddenly washes over me. Something is wrong.
Looking around, I notice the oddness of the light. It is as if we are on a stage and the Sun is a spotlight that’s dimming. The colour of the world is draining. My senses widen; I notice the cooling of the air on my skin. I shudder. Dread and terror crawl through my body. This isn’t how the world should be! I no longer understand what is happening. The hair on the back of my neck stands up. I shiver again with goosebumps.
I look around for several minutes with creeping unease. The spotlight above continues to fade. Then, without warning, nature goes haywire in a way that I struggle to comprehend. I let out an involuntary noise as the Moon’s central shadow rushes in with an ominous presence. Suddenly, an eerie darkness envelops us. There is absence of day, the spotlight is gone. Where moments ago the Sun shone, there is now nothingness. We are in totality. My logical brain screams at me: Where is the Sun? We need the Sun!
Around me there are screams, then a hushed silence. My mouth remains agog, solar filters clenched uselessly in my fist. I stare at the black Sun – now an unfathomable black hole in the dark sky. I cannot believe what I see: cannot comprehend the disappearance of our life force. This surely is the end of the world! Another wave of terror passes over me.
As my eyes adapt in the darkness, a halo of ethereal light appears around the eclipsed Sun. A somersault of emotions now replace the terror – excitement, euphoria, amazement and wonder. The world is not ending! Instead, we are witnessing our Universe. A profound awe washes over me in a way I have never felt before. How could such immense, sublime beauty be possible? I notice a deep sensation in my chest, buried within, like a swelling, a knowing.
We are in the Moon’s shadow and the world is holding its breath. The full meaning is finally revealed. This darkness is the shadow of our closest celestial body, our beloved Moon. We are in the Moon’s shadow! I have viewed the Moon thousands of times, but never before have I connected or understood it in this way. I am experiencing the three-dimensionality of our Universe – and it is vast. My mind expands with understanding, and with this comes another epiphany. The totally eclipsed Sun is like a portal, allowing me to fully experience our reality.
Time unravels and unites past, present and future – condensing my existence into this one moment. I am disoriented in place and person. I am here in another lifetime, thousands of years ago, facing the same wonder and terror. I am my primitive ancestors, and also my future selves. Yet I am also present and alive in this moment. How is this possible? It makes no sense, yet this revealed wisdom of unity seems the key to understanding life.
My prior-held understandings of the world seem so limited. Instead, I gain a deeper perspective, a life-changing shift in knowing. I understand that I am part of something so much greater than I could have ever imagined. I am connected to our Universe; to life itself. I am connected to humanity – to those immediately around me, and beyond. I understand I am but one person, a small speck of humanity in this vast Universe. I am insignificant, yet powerful in communion. I am humbled and in awe in a way I’ve never before felt, but I understand now. This experience is what makes us human, and unites us. That swelling sensation in my chest returns. I have an embodied appreciation and gratitude for everything.
I am in this altered state forever, in this strange inbetween shadowland. But somehow the spell breaks and I return to our time-bound Earth. I am aware again of the crowd around me, and the recommencement of time. I sense totality will soon be over.
The crowd screams in unison as the Moon’s central shadow sweeps rapidly over and away. The Sun’s blinding light returns, bathing everything in warmth and colour again. Our life force is back! This fills me with relief, yet an incredible longing to return to where I was, when I was there. I remember to breathe again. I hug my partner, unable to speak, my throat tight with emotion. I turn to take in the world around me. Birds return to the skies. People are hugging, I see their tears. The total eclipse is over. The world did not end. Life as we know it, and always knew it, continues, with every second. Yet I am no longer the same.
What just happened? Totality is an awe-inspiring natural event, surpassing our imagination of what is possible. It triggers an ‘altered state’ in which we are no longer time-bound. Fully immersed in the moment, our egos dissolve.
At a physical level, the experience heightens our senses, and our skin tightens with goosebumps. This triggers a feeling in our core that the American psychologist Dacher Keltner in Born to Be Good (2009) explains as the vagus nerve (which connects the brain and key bodily organs) responding to calm us down. Totality is an example of what the German philosopher Martin Heidegger in Being and Time (1927) described as ‘ecstasy’: moments of eerie darkness triggering our primal fear, which turns to wonder and awe, allowing deep insights into what it means to be human.
The American existential psychologist Kirk Schneider argues that some people will be averse to these experiences: as long as they prize efficiency and a ‘quick fix’ approach to living, they will be awe-resistant – guarded against the chance of transformation. Like him, I believe that, by opening up to awe, we can find meaning in suffering and live a deeper, fuller life. This requires an unconditional acceptance of the experience of being present, and an understanding that we can, and should, just be.
On that day in August 1999, unwittingly, I became an eclipse chaser. I am now part of a swelling movement, a community of chasers – gathering along the path of totality every 18 months or so. We stand united in awe and wonder as the Moon’s shadow plunges us into an uncanny darkness again. We have found what binds us together, and understand our connection. Eclipse chasing is more than a hobby or mere Instagrammable event. It is a way of life, an understanding, a state of being. I am an eclipse chaser.
Totality is the perfect metaphor for life – it is intense, terrifying, awe-inspiring, beautiful, fleeting, and then it is over. Let’s chase these moments that inspire and connect us. Open yourself up to awe, and find meaning in moments that are there for the taking. Make your every second count.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.