What is it with sunsets anyway? Why do we line up at Hendry’s or Butterfly Beach to watch something we have seen so many times before? Recently, I took a trip to Big Sur from Santa Barbara. The trouble was, when I left Santa Barbara, no one warned me — not even a hint — of what the last 80 miles up Highway 1 would be like.
Google Maps had calculated the trip at 173 miles. So with the way I drive, I figured it would be a breeze and take only two and a half hours to get there. Well, six and half hours later at seven thirty in the evening, there I was, exhausted and standing on a bluff — staring. Hundreds of other people were with me, though, from all over the world, and we stood there glaring out over the ocean waiting, waiting for the sun to go down — again.
However, although it was beautiful, I really had no desire to drive that winding road alone at night. So before the sun actually set I decided that since I had already missed my turnoff and driven 45 miles north beyond my destination, I had better get back in the car and keep on driving. But as I drove back down Highway 1, peering out over the ocean now to my right, I was compelled to pull over again. This time I was alone at the viewing station, and an absolutely amazing thing happened. I became mesmerized by the sun and ocean dancing. Their glistening, shiny dance filled my eyes with light and water and captured my whole being. I felt like I was peering into another kingdom, and my mind, soul, and body quieted down so much — I actually stopped breathing. Reflecting on the experience I now realize I better understood Zora Neale Hurston’s book title Their Eyes Were Watching God.
When I arrived at the Big Sur hermitage where I was to retreat, I realized I may have already achieved the purpose of my trip. My heart was completely full with the feast of the captivating and awesome beauty of the Pacific realm. One friend totally understood. She said, “My heart beats to the rhythm of Big Sur.”
I wondered what that really means, so I decided to explore the heart and sunsets, and I remembered something. Sunsets and visions of natural beauty actually do relax the heart. The majestic colors and quiet, astounding beauty all trigger what I call the “serenity response.” This response is the opposite of the stress response, which triggers fear or flight and the physiological inflammation that is implicated in so many diseases today, like cancer, diabetes, and of course cardiovascular disease. Serenity is the opposite. It is a parasympathetic nervous system response, and that system quiets, calms, and soothes.
What rhythm is your heart beating to today? Are you galloping with the wild horses of CNN or with the fears of a breakout war in Syria and involving other countries? Or are your last nerves tried by the stress and betrayal of trusted relationships gone wrong in your own home or workplace? Or is it a heart just beating with grief, loneliness, and loss even the midst of plenty? Today, I want to talk to your heart and say, “I love you. Peace, peace, peace — be still.”
Thank you so much for your comments, calls, and emails, and of course your questions. I will use the next article to begin to answer you. Write more, and let me know your heart’s desires.
Akivah Northern is a certified Family Wellness Trainer and holds a Master in Divinity from Yale. Her biweekly column explores the deeper heart in all its dimensions. She welcomes heartfelt questions from readers of all ages at firstname.lastname@example.org.