How to Make Room For the Sublime in Your Life

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I recently came across some interesting commentary from researchers about experiences with the aesthetically sublime: those rare moments when you encounter something beautiful in a deeply touching way.

If you’ve ever had one, you may have recognized it by the way your breath caught in your throat, or the hair on the back of your neck stood up. They are “wow” moments, when you feel connected to something greater than you, and they can open the door to new ways of seeing the world or yourself.

These moments might be rare, but it so happens that the conditions for experiencing them are pretty common—they just don't come together in just the right way very often.

I’m also struck by how well the prerequisites for these awesome experiences work as guidelines for having mind-expanding, self-actualizing experiences of all kinds—the types of experiences that help you have a rich, meaningful, Right Life. Let’s take a look.

Prerequisite for the Aesthetically Sublime: 
Being in, or otherwise being connected with, vast spaces. These can be man-made, like a towering cathedral, or natural, like the Grand Canyon. 

How It Relates to Having a Right Life: 
Taking guidance from your heart and your larger, deeply-held values is how you connect with your core self. It places the day-to-day vagaries of your life into perspective and supports long-term well-being. 

The alternative is operating within a small-minded, ego-driven framework. For example, being motivated by extrinsic rewards like money or power, and being reactive rather than responsive. These things make your core self claustrophobic.

Prerequisite for the Aesthetically Sublime: 
Having a sense of personal safety. Even if you're witnessing a sublime thing that is violent and dangerous, like Niagara Falls or a tornado, in order to appreciate it you need to feel like you aren't going to get hurt.

How It Relates to Having a Right Life: 
When you’re in danger, your primitive neurobiological survival mechanisms kick in and trump your desire to savor nice elements of the experience. Something similar happens when you don’t feel comfortable in your own skin and with those around you. 

Without this security, your energies are more likely directed toward those small-minded, self-protective, fear-based measures that keep your core self locked inside, rather than to wise actions favoring your true values and needs.

Prerequisite for the Aesthetically Sublime:
The right context. One researcher points out that the Mona Lisa might lose some of its luster if it were displayed in a museum less magnificent than the Louvre. However, were it to be displayed in a dirt-floored fisherman’s cottage in Southeast Asia, the juxtaposition of the artwork and the setting might well yield an even more sublime viewing experience than you might have in Paris.

How It Relates to Having a Right Life: 
This is what resilience and meaning-making in the face of setbacks is all about: staying light enough on your narrative identity “feet” to be able to interpret the events of your life in alternate ways, rather than staying with the rationale that your brain may naturally settle on first.

Your brain is wired to give preference to the negative, which is good for surviving but bad for thriving.

Prerequisite for the Aesthetically Sublime: 
A complete disruption of your existing understanding of things and the need to form a new understanding. Not that you need to be successful at doing it, but that a reworking of your understanding is called for. In other words, your world is rocked.

How It Relates to Having a Right Life: 
Setbacks that provide an opportunity for meaning-making are just one way to arrive at a new understanding of things. Any time you are exposed to something new, take a chance, or push yourself to a higher level of performance, you’re leaving your comfort zone and opening to change.

The sublime life

Whether the experience of being awestruck and disoriented in a perspective-expanding way occurs by seeing something or through some other type of event, these are examples of what Abraham Maslow called “peak experiences.”

They are memorable, light-bulb moments that you could view as the basic units of self-actualization. So, the more of them you can have, the better, and you can improve your odds by creating the conditions in your life that favor them.

You’ll need the sense of being safe and secure, which you can get from the supportive people in your life. You can also develop this resource internally, in a couple of ways. One is by cultivating kindness and compassion for yourself.


The other is by pursuing goals aligned with your core self, which can give you a boost of confidence. It’s a sort of circular process, and a little counterintuitive, too. You’ll feel more secure the more of your core self you reveal, and the more secure you feel, the more empowered you’ll feel to act in the interests of your core self, even when doing so is difficult and risky.  

That second part is very important, because having security at the expense of an adventurous spirit will keep you stuck. Self-actualization requires providing yourself with a steady stream of fresh, new input to incorporate into your life.

That means you can’t just look in the beautiful places and hope to see something beautiful. You need to look in the beautiful places and the ugly, scary, and unfamiliar places too, and hope to see something unexpected.

The same old-same old isn’t going to rock your world. You need to step outside of your comfort zone in as many directions as you can, because your epiphanies will often come from the last places you’d expect. Once you integrate them with your existing understanding, a new part of you will be active in the world, and stay active.