A view of Earth from the International Space Station.

The Overview Effect and Ecospirituality

The Overview Effect is that transformative sense of awe and wonder that astronauts report when they are able to view the Earth from space. Seeing the Earth as a whole — as a unique, beautiful and fragile oasis in the dead blackness of outer space — brings forth a reverence that changes lives. Our profound interconnectedness, the lack of boundaries under that thin layer of sheltering atmosphere, is unmistakable from such a vantage.

The sun rising over the Earth, as seen from orbit. Image by NASA. Such images can nudge us toward the ecospiritual transformation that is the Overview Effect.

Essentially, as philosopher (and term-coiner) Frank White defines it, “The overview effect is a cognitive and emotional shift in a person’s awareness, their consciousness and their identity when they see the Earth from space,” As Wikipedia adds, this effect entails “a state of awe with self-transcendent qualities, precipitated by a particularly striking visual stimulus.” That’s what happened to William Shatner, and why he experienced “the strongest feelings of grief” he ever experienced. As he noted, it was “the lifeforce that I saw coming from the planet — the blue, the beige and the white” (as well as the threat of its death).

~ Erik Assadourian, Cultivating the Overview Effect

Humans are Moonwalkers and Earthgazers

July 20th is the anniversary of the day when a human first set foot on the moon in 1969.

Laetoli footprints, dated ~3.6 Million Years Old
Boot-print from Buzz Aldrin on Apollo 11 moonwalk: July 20, 1969

Three and a half million years separate the individual who left these footprints in the sands of Africa from the one who left them on the moon. A mere blink in the eye of evolution.

~ David Attenborough

One of the most treasured outcomes of the Apollo program are the images of Earth from that lunar vantage point.

Earthrise: Luna Surface and Earth Seen from Apollo 8 Spacecraft
Earthrise: Luna Surface and Earth Seen from Apollo 8 Spacecraft by NASA Goddard Photo and Video is licensed under CC-BY 2.0

“Earthrise” is particularly inspiring.

Amanda Gorman, US Youth Poet Laureate, reading her poem “Earthrise”

Erik Assadourian on the Gaian Way blog offered his experiences of the Overview Effect from such imagery. He took a virtual-reality 3D tour of the International Space Station (ISS) at an exhibit called Space Explorers: L’Infini in Montreal:

A view of Earth from the International Space Station.
A view of Earth from the ISS

The most important part of the journey was not the station or the interactions with the astronauts, but looking out at Gaia below me. Yes, literally, as I remained firmly on the ground, but I mean 250 miles below, looking out from the vantage of the ISS. I could see the curve of Earth, the black of space, the horizon, clouds, and ocean. In one overview (as there were several different moments of this) I could see an angry hurricane below—similar to the photos I’ve seen from NASA but much much more. While surely a poor shadow of really being up on the ISS, it was still humbling and beautiful and a way for a far larger number of people to experience the Overview Effect.

~ Erik Assadourian, Cultivating the Overview Effect

Sharing the Overview Effect for Sacred Activism

While very few of us will ever get this vantage in person, the images and stories that come back to us from space can help us to experience the Overview Effect ourselves. We get that glimpse of the Earth in its entirety, realizing that it is all connected. This profound experience of agaya can root our dedication to protecting and regenerating the sacred beauty of Life on Earth.

Earth seen from space. Image: NASA

It is a hope that implores us at an uncompromising core to keep rising up for an Earth more than worth fighting for.

~ Amanda Gorman, US Youth Poet Laureate, “Earthrise”

That resonance with the vast lifeforce of our homeworld can be a source of strength for our sacred activism. Novasutras’ online gatherings are timed based on astronomical phenomena to remind us of our shared fate and power as Earthlings. The phases of the moon, the Equinoxes, Solstices and Cross-Quarters, are planetary events. We experience them at the same time all around the world. They help us to grow a global consciousness.

We also prominently display the Earth flag or use whole-planet images for many of our events. Our playlist of videos on the overview effect is similarly intended to inspire reconnection to that powerful lifeforce.

One might say that our species’ ability to see the whole of Earth came just at the right time: that we found the cure for the disease of industrial civilization just when the symptoms became most severe. The Overview Effect offers a path to rediscovering a reverent mindset of agaya and ubuntu, so essential for transforming the most destructive aspects of dominating cultures.

What are some other ways to evoke the Overview Effect? Have you experienced that sudden shift to a global perspective in your life? Please add your insights in the comments below.

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