Sensing the Sublime

Amitha Kalaichandran
4 min readJan 14, 2024

The power of exploring the sublime to journey beyond the ordinary.

Esalen Institute, Big Sur, December 2023

Standing on a cliff at Big Sur in Northern California, I experienced a profound sense of beauty and awe, even knowing that the waves thundering beneath me were among the most treacherous in the world. My inability to articulate this profoundly emotional experience did not diminish its staying power.

I’m not the first to sense it there. Big Sur, meaning “Big South,” is a majestic stretch of beaches, redwood forests, and rocky cliffs bordering Highway 1 from Carmel to San Simeon. In the 1950s, the area became a gathering place for creatives such as Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller. Back in 1962, the Esalen Institue, situated on a Big Sur cliff, had brought together pioneers in fields as diverse as psychedelics (Timothy Leary) quantum physics (Richard Feynman), and political theory (Terence McKenna). In recent years, it’s been a haven for pioneers in tech. Even Don Draper’s character in Mad Men found inspiration there (in the series finale, he meditates on the Esalen hilltop, where it’s assumed he conceives a Coca-Cola commercial).

I had arrived for a retreat in Zen meditation, which involves cultivating a ‘beginner’s mind,’ but left having experienced something more: the feeling of the sublime. In our relentlessly fast-paced and technologically saturated world, moments that pull us into the realm of the sublime are rare. It’s a welcome opposing force to languishing, yet it goes beyond the sense of flourishing. As New Year’s resolutions get abandoned (‘quitter’s day’ is the second Friday of the month, and 80% of people fail to keep them by February), perhaps tapping into the sublime is worth our continued effort.

The sense of the sublime is a multi-layered experience that pulls together awe and reverence with a sense of grandeur beyond human comprehension. This broader connection with the universe is most commonly experienced in nature, as I experienced in Big Sur. However, art, music, and even a feeling of synchronicity can also inspire it. While it’s related to University of California Berkeley professor Dacher Keltner’s definition of “awe” and author Monica Parker’s elements of wonder, it’s not quite the same: the experience of the sublime is both philosophical and sensory. It’s an experience that transcends beauty, sometimes adding a tinge of fear…

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Amitha Kalaichandran

A physician, epidemiologist, medical journalist, and health tech consultant with an interest in the intersection of integrative medicine and innovation.