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What is the ‘overview effect'? How the feeling of separateness brings connection

Will Duncan speaks on the topic of “Awe-some: A Buddhist Look at Awe, Conservation, and the Natural World” at the Natural History Institute in Prescott. (Sue Tone/Courier)

Will Duncan speaks on the topic of “Awe-some: A Buddhist Look at Awe, Conservation, and the Natural World” at the Natural History Institute in Prescott. (Sue Tone/Courier)

If people didn’t care so much about the environment and Earth, they wouldn’t feel so awful when bad things happen, right? For those in touch with nature, the loss of ecosystems brings pain.

Will Duncan, Skull Valley lavender farmer, explained to an audience of about 65 people at Prescott’s Natural History Institute how both compassion and emptiness are essential when it comes to conservation efforts in the world of nature.

In fact, he said, the word conservation comes from Latin words meaning to keep watch over, maintain, protect; and with, as in “to be with in the protecting.”

In his presentation earlier this month, “Awe-some: A Buddhist Look at Awe, Conservation, and the Natural World,” Duncan talked about the “overview effect” first described in 1968 by Bill Anders when he looked back at the earth from space.

Learn history of early Mormon Church, now Natural History Institute, Dec. 13

Architect Bill Otwell will speak on the history and renovations of the building located at 126 N. Marina St. between the Hassayampa Inn and the former Arizona Public Service building.

Otwell’s talk, titled “One Building, 90 Years, Many Stories,” takes place at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 13.

The building which now houses the Natural History Institute is on the National Register of Historic Places, having been nominated in 1983 by Billy Garrett and Elizabeth Ruffner. Its original architects were Joseph Scott and Oscar Despain, the registry’s nomination form indicates.

Author Frank White coined the term that describes a shift in awareness where a person is overwhelmed and awed by the vulnerability and unity of life – the bigger picture that leads to feeling connected with something larger than oneself and the desire to take action.

Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell said, “You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it.”

Even before the Apollo missions, British astronomer Fred Hoyle predicted this effect, in 1948. “Once a photograph of the Earth is available… a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose,” Hoyle said.

While not everyone will have a chance to travel through space, Duncan said the most effective way to reach that sense of awe is through interacting with the natural world; it can lead to a sense of homecoming. “Everywhere you are, you are at home,” he said.

Experiencing awe has several benefits to the individual. It brings a sense of vastness and humility. It reduces inflammation and increases a sense of well-being. It undermines an “us versus them” kind of thinking, and increases problem-solving abilities.

With this larger sense of compassion and connectivity comes feelings of anxiety and vulnerability – rather like the feelings a mother gets immediately after giving birth. “Her capacity for suffering has just doubled,” Duncan said. “Love brings a deep state of vulnerability.”

Life is a fluctuation between the two – compassion and vulnerability – and there is a need for both, he added.

“The greater your access to awe, in the macro sense, the better you can deal with the micro.”

Following the talk, Liz Faller, 66, said she thinks “it takes courage to feel.”

“I have an awareness of how important for we as human beings to seek out experiences of awe, and take the time and presence that is essential to caring. I’m becoming more and more numb to caring about all the people on the planet. It’s so daunting,” Faller said.

A younger listener, Will Abbottsmith, 22, said he came to hear the talk because of an interest in Buddhism and the practice of mindfulness. “I had never heard of the idea of emptiness and compassion, but it confirmed what I know,” he said.

Tom Fleischner, executive director of the Natural History Institute, called Duncan “a wise and agile thinker of these things.” He described natural history as a practice, a verb, not a noun. “It’s all about attentiveness and a practice of receptivity.”

Observation and openness, like what the astronauts brought with them 50 years ago.

Follow Sue Tone on Twitter @ToneNotes. Reach her at or 928-445-3333, ext. 2043.

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