For the past several years, I have spent most weekday mornings watching the news as I eat breakfast. At some point, I realized this habit wasn’t doing me any favors.
The never-ending churn of stories of murders, disasters, shootings, missing persons, and political missteps, and the commercials about the many ways my body and mind could go haywire had produced a chronic, low-level anxiety.
I needed to replace the news with a fresh morning routine. I wanted a TV show that was enriching, nourishing, something that would calm me down, not rev me up.
When I found the Discovery Channel’s Sunrise Earth on YouTube, I was spellbound. The nature documentary TV series, which started in 2004, has a simple premise: Put cameras in beautiful geographic locations all over the world—lights go up at dawn.
The sixty-four episodes run about fifty minutes and include stunning high-definition videos with titles like Cloud Forest Waterfall, Buddhists of Wat Svay, Yellowstone National Park, Swallow Sea Cave, a Mayan pyramid, and Argentinean Seal Pups.
Refreshingly, there’s no narration. No music. The show is reality television of the natural world. According to Wikipedia, the genre is “experiential TV,” which the TV critic Tom Shales describes as “crazily uneventful and thoroughly wonderful.”
My first episode was “Andean Dawn at Machu Picchu,” set in the ancient Incan city in the High Andes. The episode begins in near darkness at 5:14 a.m. in Urubamba, Peru, 8,000 feet above sea level. Shots last about 30 seconds.
The sky is blue-gray. Mist swirls around jagged cliffs. Crumbled white granite blocks surround green paths. Birds chirp, hidden creatures squeak, a lama rests alone. There’s an expansive hum from the Urubamba River below.
Does this magnificent spectacle really happen every day? I’m enchanted by the events of this mystical place. In Sunrise Earth, I found a morning dose of awe.
What is awe, though? In an article in Philosophy Now, author Robert Clewis cites the psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt, who wrote that awe “involves a response to something larger than oneself—a perceived vastness—and a need for accommodation, referring to how we make sense of and adjust to what we experience.”
Later in the episode, the magical world has awakened. The sky has brightened over Machu Picchu. A massive sun engulfs the screen. In high-definition zoom, a tiny bird perched on a cliff pecks at browning grass. So close, I study the swirls of gray, orange and red in its feathers.
In his article, Clewis adds that the sublime, or awe, is a “complex, mixed feeling of intense satisfaction sensed before a striking or inspiring object, event, or act. It includes the positive feeling of exaltation before a vast or powerful object, such as a natural wonder . . .”
At 6:15 a.m., the sun has climbed higher. Human visitors trickle into the ancient ruins. The camera holds on an orange-colored plant nurtured by moisture from the cloud forest. A falcon floats on a thermal updraft. A lama yawns, lowers its head to pull grass from the earth. I examine tiny hairs on its cheeks.
Sunrise Earth gave me a much-needed break from the extreme weather, the misconduct, and missing persons. It gave me relief from words like “dangerous” and “terrifying” and “tragic.” It provided escape from images of bleeding gums, eroding joints, and overactive immune systems.
But there was another unexpected antidote.
“Awe draws attention away from the self and toward the environment,” Clewis writes, “and the brain regions associated with self-awareness are deactivated, not activated.”
For years, the news was the perfect drug for my conscious mind’s endless quest for excitement, but another part of me—call it my soul, perhaps—craved the sublime. An experience of awe. A taste of the divine.
Sunrise Earth gave me a break from the everyday affairs of the world, but it also gave me a break from myself, and maybe that’s what I was searching for all along.