Admiring sky is path to self reflection

By Mariam Shalaby / Columnist

Apparently, my expression is usually pretty vacant.

“Your head is always in the clouds,” a friend playfully told me.

I wouldn’t say “always,” but there is truth to that statement — literally. I find myself looking at the gloomy Pittsburgh sky quite often, even though it’s far from star filled.

I guess my friend was confused. Why would I tilt my head up and stare at the sky, when I can look to the side for a conversation with a friend, or look down toward my phone.

You’d be surprised. Even looking at the Pittsburgh sky can give you a dizzying feeling of awe. Regardless of where a person stands, they can develop their thoughts and increase self-awareness by taking time to themselves and admiring their surroundings. It’s actually more beneficial than filling that time with other tasks that may seem more productive at first glance. It helps a person cultivate their own sense of identity and their own opinions, without outside intrusion.

Though a place like Sedona, Arizona, has a more traditionally beautiful night sky — filled horizon to horizon with stars — Pittsburgh’s sky offers a clean canvas for thought.

Similarly, checking Facebook, texts and email seem like more valuable ways to spend time — but we’re just conditioned to think so.

I’ve found that when I take time to myself without my electronics or other stimulating factors, I end up feeling more self-aware and less stressed — even if it’s only been a 10-minute walk from Chevron to Hillman.

The communities we live in are in constant motion. We see a productive person as someone who’s always completing tangible, concrete and visible tasks. In short, physical, instant feedback — like what we receive at the tap of a screen — makes us feel accomplished on a small scale.

But the truth is, those taps and swipes and micro-communications with each other aren’t as great as they seem.

I’ll admit it. Especially when I have a lot on my plate, I’m one of the students in the crowd walking with their nose buried in their phone screen. I race to finish replying to as many emails and texts as I can. I even try to squeeze in some scrolling through Facebook in the walk to my next class.

Constant interaction and bite-sized stimulations govern our current social existences. We live in a world where information is continuously shared.

But don’t get me wrong — I love it. The easy access I have to opinions from all over the world and from my own social circles is mind-boggling. I like that those opinions are available to shape my own. But I also like to hear my own thoughts by themselves sometimes.

When it’s just me, myself and I in my own head, I call it a thought bubble. Yes, kind of like in a comic strip. But don’t laugh — using a thought bubble is good for you, not crazy. I swear.

So, what’s the difference between a thought bubble and any other sort of bubble? Aren’t people on their phones in bubbles?

Well yes, they are often tuned out to what’s going on around them in physical space. And yes, a thought bubble does that too. But the difference lies in their content.

The kind of bubble I’m talking about is a sanctuary. It’s safe from intrusions by outside opinions or thoughts.

How does one get into this personal thought bubble? And why would looking at the sky be any better than looking at the pavement to open up that bubble?

People have used the night sky as a vehicle for thought since long, long ago. Archeologists have found recordings of constellations all the way from Mesopotamia in 3,000 B.C. The classical Greek constellations and their stories are familiar to many. They’ve fascinated people and encouraged introspection for generations.

The sky is not static. Clouds shift from shape to shape, and stars seem to rotate about us as the earth spins. But the scene moves slowly enough that the brain isn’t itching to see a changing stimulus. Information we glean from the sky is largely interpretative. Rather than expecting anything in particular to stimulate us, we just absorb the expanse around us. In other words, we experience awe.

Why is this important? Awe is what lets a person fall into the thought bubble, kind of like the rabbit hole to Wonderland.

According to a study published by the journal Cognition and Emotion, two themes are central to awe. The stimulus should be “vast,” and awe requires accommodation.

It’s obvious that the sky is vast. But how do we prepare our minds to accommodate awe?

Personally, concentrating on the thought of an omniscient God can leave me overwhelmed and small in comparison to the universe I live in. That dizzying feeling is beautiful and is a great gateway to awe, and my thoughts.

According to this study, inspiration through awe is possible, probable and beneficial even for those without theistic faith.

Spirituality and a natural tendency toward admiring the world is something inherently human. Looking at the sky to inspire awe is a brilliant way to spend time regardless of religious conviction.

Looking at the sky, procuring and spending time in our personal mental space allows us to more easily develop our own opinions. It helps us take a rest from the constant influx of information, and also just feel good.

We’ve been conditioned to feel productive when we check and re-check our screens for updates on the world around us.

But admiring the sky — being in awe of it — gives us a chance to reflect on ourselves and the vastness of the Earth we live on. And that’s regardless of whether the sky is full of stars or not.

So the next time you find yourself reaching for your phone — look up. You might learn something new about yourself.

Mariam Shalaby primarily writes on social change and foreign culture for The Pitt News.

Write to her at [email protected]