The Overview Effect, as Seen from Earth

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Image of Mars taken by Curiosity Rover. Image credits: NASA.

Cascading interference patterns ripple through the water, lapping against nearly submerged pink-granite boulders. The granite rocks in these lands, and their intricate internal molecular latticework, have existed in their form for billions of years. They are older than some of the stars illuminating the night sky. One star is the grandest in humanity’s common experience: at the distant center of our solar system, our Sun has been in intimate interplay with every being that has lived on planet Earth. It bursts its rays out into the cosmos. Some of those rays speed down to meet the granite boulders and cedars at the water’s edge—photons calling the particles of matter to the dance of life. Cosmic radiation that is harmful to the dance of life is elegantly filtered by atmospheres and fields of planetary protection. Kept safe by such protective mechanisms, our Pale Blue Dot shimmers as a precious jewel of the cosmos. Its reflected light reverberates through the cosmos, dancing in cosmic fields like the interference waves of the water’s surface caressing the pink-granite boulders. Right here on Earth, immersed in the dance of life with the rocks and trees at the water’s edge, I am met with a wider, cosmic perspective. Right here on Earth, the Overview Effect is possible. 

First coined by Frank White in 1987, the Overview Effect is the most prominent and common aspect of astronauts’ experience: they describe it as unexpected and overwhelming emotion; an increased appreciation and perception of the beauty, precarity, and preciousness of Earth; and a sense of connection to other people and Earth as a whole. The Overview Effect has been understood in terms of awe and self-transcendence, described as “among the deepest and most powerful aspects of the human experience.”[1] This awe for our home planet is charged with a responsibility to take care of it.

An awakening to my own belonging in this greater cosmic dance changed the course of my life. As an ardent rational scientist, the awakening shifted my sense of context; my sense of self widened to a cosmological and ecological self  that included other beings on Earth, cosmic and planetary spaces, and even forces.[2] This was an existential crisis that redirected my life’s work to advocate for those who have not been granted voice in modernity and to share the abiding joy that comes with tending to the wider self. This tending work is also an act of resisting the structures of modernity, which have championed brutal extractivism of both nature and human spirit. We are at a point of transformation that necessitates a different relationship with ourselves, one another, and the natural world. Here on Earth, the Overview Effect is available as an experiential journey in healing the core wound of humanity: the false idea that humans are separate from nature, a parasite in paradise. This wound of separation, manifested as modern individualism and anthropocentrism, is stitched into the very fabric of our thinking and leaves out entire worlds that are not only alive but also intelligent and agential. I came to find that healing this wound in myself brought me purpose and pervading joy. 

As a child, I carried a strong sense of awe and belonging with the natural world. Like many of us, as a child my naturally empathetic connection with the nonhuman world was not well understood. As a seven-year-old in Kentucky, I remember gazing for hours up at the shining stars of the Milky Way beaming overhead in the Appalachian skies. I had an epiphany. A secondhand telescope revealed to me that Saturn, its rings and moons, were not merely pictures in my classroom science book. They were real, as real as I was. I was in awe that I, a little girl, was part of the dance of active, dynamic bodies in the cosmos, all part of the same dance of life. It seemed only reasonable that the land I lived on was alive and, like the planetary bodies, carried stories and agency of its own.  

By young adulthood, I had become swept up in the modern sensibilities of disconnection and disillusionment. I was actually lost for years in an internal battle of personal trauma. Emotionally, I was barely getting by. But science was my safe haven, my tether to predictability, and through it, I kept the awe I had held for natural spaces as a child. During my work on an operations team for a Mars-orbiting spacecraft, I became enamored of the vast lands on the Red Planet’s surface. Part of my duties involved assessing every new image that beamed through the universe to the Deep Space Network antennas on Earth. This meant that, hundreds of times each day, every day, I observed every intimate 1.5-meter snapshot of the Martian surface, revealing details never before seen by another human. It rekindled the joy that I felt being present with other planetary spaces, understanding them, connecting with them. 

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The rocky central peak of Ritchey Crater, Mars.[1]

Earth has always been my first love. It is our first relation—our Mother, the womb of life, the container that makes our inexorably interconnected life possible. Coming to terms with the sobering realities of our own quickly changing planet, our precious Pale Blue Dot, was simply unavoidable. We are on the brink of ever-hastening climate change and ecosystem collapse and a Mass Extinction Event. This is only the sixth such extinction event during the four-billion-year history of our planet—and the only one directly caused by ideologies. The ideologies of individualism and anthropocentrism have radically displaced the modern human mind from its tether to the cosmos, to Earth ecosystems and climate, and to its belonging in the web of life. 

The summers here in Ontario, Canada, welcome heart-achingly beautiful loon cries amid the towering and wise spruce Mother Trees of the dense forest and some of the oldest rocks on Earth. The lands and the people here are held by the core of the Canadian Shield: an 160-mile-thick section of tectonically stable continental crust nearly as old as Earth herself. High cliffs of pink granite wall either side of snaking channels that connect thousands of dotted lakes and wetland refuges as they flow toward the Great Lakes, providing a bountiful 20 percent of Earth’s total freshwater. Living on these lands, in traditional Anishinaabe territory Nogojiwanong, “the place at the end of the rapids,” I was gifted with experiences that reconnected me with who I was: that grounded, connected child. Historically, the lands were a meeting place where different First Nations exchanged knowledge and ideas, but who I met here was myself. At a local Anishinaabe Gathering Space, elders spoke about the spirit and wisdom within each individual part of nature, and about the reverence for all things as a way of life, so deeply connected that it wasn’t a religion or belief—it simply was. It was listening, not asserting. It was humility. This experience was the first time in my life that I was blessed enough to hear someone articulate what I’d always known but had hidden from myself. I understood that there was nothing wrong with me for weeping with a dying snake, for holding leaves on a tree as gently and with as much love and compassion as if I were embracing another human hand, for collecting rocks and plants as precious symbols of a being smitten with Earth. As Pat McCabe (Diné, Navajo) has beautifully said: “It is not a madness. It is a deep love affair with the Earth . . . that you can’t do by intellect . . . but with an expanded ability to perceive.”[3] 

The profound reconnection with the core of who I was broke my heart wide open. My sense of reality was upended as I faced these newfound truths. My entire adult life, I had rejected my own true human nature. I suddenly found myself unable to forge on with my life’s trajectory. In a move that did not seem logical, even to me, I left for a new journey in my tiny white van-home with very little besides intuitive force. The six months of solitude that followed was an unplanned, uncharted, utterly surprising immersion in nature. I soon found that I had eased into participatory consciousness, navigating through a sense of oneness and participation with all of reality. More plainly: I got out of my mind and fully into my body. I became reconnected to the senses in my body in full presence with nature. I began to learn from a source of power other than human agency: the moving and motivating force that is “interbeing.”

In the Engaged Buddhism wisdom tradition, Thich Nhat Hanh eloquently and simply articulated interbeing as both a verb and a noun to more accurately describe reality: one can never exist independently; “everything relies on everything else in the cosmos in order to manifest—whether a star, a cloud, a flower, a tree, or you and me.”[4] Known and unknowable forces manifest energy into matter, shaping our existence and experience. Particles of matter endlessly collide. All constituents of the cosmos move together as a wave, unfurling as space-time expands.

Interbeing, for me, has the texture of the great mystery of life in dialogue with Itself. 

Just talking with others about interbeing, participatory consciousness, the lived experience of the interconnection of life and the cosmos—it all starts to make people feel, understandably, uncomfortable. For most of my life, I was there, too. However, to the utter joy and unexpected delight of this scientist (who had actually been quite condescending about the absolute truths of rationalism)[5], during my extended time spent in solitude with nature, my senses came alive. I became aware of an agential reality outside of myself. The sentiments I feverishly journaled while in solitude were later reflected back to me in the works of Thich Nhat Hanh, Charlene Spretnak, and so many others, like philosopher Michael Polanyi. Polanyi’s vision of a science moves toward truths by more accurately describing the limits of fact-based knowledge and integrating tacit and embodied knowing. Such understandings can expand our contact with certain realities by encouraging participation with the “wider-than-human mind.”[6] I now see that my modern persona had crippled my own understanding of the world, dismissing agency and intelligences of the other than human and reducing them to a reality that could be known, detailed, mapped, and thus controlled. 

Yet in solitude in nature, I found myself. And what I found, I fell in love with. To my utter surprise, I discovered that my deepest motivations and drives were not so bleak—life was not simply about a set of self-serving, survival-based, mechanistic processes. What lay beyond my reasoning and cultural narratives was an ineffable longing for all beings to be free—to be given the respect to exercise innate agency, without domination and control; to honor and respect the evolutionary wisdom from which that agency arises. In the deepest recesses of my being was unconditional love for all life. This love was beyond any emotion that was generated within me. I was immersed, marinated, held in it as cosmic ether.[7] To me, love and joy emanated from everything. I still get the instantaneous sensation in my body from a cedar tree or a flower, which then becomes words in my mind: so sweet, so kind. The cedars themselves feel like love.

This felt sense, this observation of the texture of reality, when seen could not be unseen. This is the Overview Effect as seen from Earth—it is an entry point into a different relationship with the natural world. It is self-transcendent and certainly must be one of the deepest and most powerful aspects of the human experience. This is an entry point that goes deep into the genetic inheritance of our felt senses, our bodies, and the wider-than-human mind. In the tradition of my Celtic ancestors, Diana Beresford-Kroeger writes that this recognition of sentience, a felt presence of nonhuman life, was known as mothaitheacht.[8] Acknowledging this sentience, and sensing interbeing, asks us to closely examine modern colonized minds: our very sense of the natural world has been subsumed by post–Industrial Revolution narratives of nature as simply resources, things to be used for consumption and extraction. For the lived experience of interbeing—and the easy, instantaneous experience of awe and joy in everyday life it affords—my experience tells me that the journey of this examination is well worth it. 

What might happen if the modern mind, shaped by cultural narratives of separation, opened to the possibility of participating in a lived experience with nature, recognizing it as our first relation? Those of us who are trapped in the great isolation of modernity have forgotten how to co-exist with nature and how to receive its knowledge. In this beautifully interdependent reality, humans have the precious gift of giving bodily agency to shared consciousness, not only of nature, but of the cosmos itself. For those who have ears that can hear nature and receive her wisdom, it is neither fanciful, fictional musing, nor hyperbole to say that we are the wheat grass swaying in the wind, that our ancestors are reflected back to us in the moonlight. We are all constituents of the cosmos, moving together like individual particles in one wave, unfurling as spacetime expands. In such a self-transcendent understanding of reality, it is my hope that others will also be moved to advocate for life, to tend to their ecological self, to resist modern structures, and to help others build resilience against their destructive forces. 


Image credits:

Featured Image: Image of Earth, taken from the surface of Mars by Curiosity Rover. NASA. https://climate.nasa.gov/climate_resources/89/earth-from-mars/

[1] The central peak of Ritchey Crater, Mars. It is a false color image (mosaic). Created by Christy Caudill from spacecraft data—simulated CaSSIS infrared color image (IRB1) covering the eastern portion of the central peak of Ritchey Crater. The colors indicate the diversity of rock, including Martian bedrock and clay mineral-rich altered remnants of melt rock from the impact event. Image credits would also include: ESA/Roscosmos/CaSSIS, HiRISE NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.

[2] Saugeen Ojibway Nation Territory, Lions Head, Ontario. By Christy Caudill.

Notes:

[1] David B. Yaden, Jonathan Iwry, Kelley J. Slack, Johannes C. Eichstaedt, Yukun Zhao, George E. Vaillant, and Andrew B. Newberg, “The Overview Effect: Awe and Self-Transcendent Experience in Space Flight,” Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice 3, no. 1 (2016): 1–11.

[2] The “ecological self” was described by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess in his 1987 essay “Self-Realization: An Ecological Approach to Being in the World,” to describe human potential to identify with other living beings.

[3] Woman Stands Shining (Pat McCabe), Humanity’s Homecoming, For The Wild (podcast), episode 282, September 2021.

[4] Thich Nhat Hanh, Interbeing, Awakin, https://www.awakin.org/v2/read/view.php?tid=2619#:~:text=We%20do%20not%20exist%20independently,but%20as%20a%20whole%20lineage

[5] C. Lowney, “Michael Polanyi: A Scientist against Scientism,” in Critics of Enlightenment Rationalism, ed. Gene Callahan and Kenneth B. McIntyre (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021), 139–158.

[6] Lowney, “Beautiful Minds: Gregory Bateson on Humans, Animals and Ecological Systems,” in Critics of Enlightenment, 11. 

[7] “Einstein Killed the Aether: Now the Idea Is Back to Save Relativity,” New Scientist, October 2019, https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24432543-300-einstein-killed-the-aether-now-the-idea-is-back-to-save-relativity/.

[8] Diana Beresford-Kroeger, To Speak for the Trees: My Life’s Journey from Ancient Celtic Wisdom to a Healing Vision of the Forest (Toronto: Penguin Random House Canada).

  • Christy Caudill

    Christy Caudill is a Research Associate with the Centre for Terrestrial and Planetary Exploration (University of Winnipeg), where she participates in the Academic Member Network of the United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM). She also holds a Research Associate post at the Institute for Earth and Space Exploration (Western University).
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