On the Importance of Feeling Small


Over and over again on my holiday road trip through California I had this uncomfortable feeling. I was continually in awe of everything that we were seeing: the stars in the new moon sky over Joshua tree, the golden light of sunrise against it’s sandy rocky expanse, the sorbet pink sunsets against the purple mountains of Ojai, hidden waterfalls and rainless rainbows in Big Sur, the power of the Pacific smashing into the rocky coast along the PCH, and the thick energy of the Redwood Forest; however beautiful and inspiring, I couldn’t help but notice, I felt like I was having my buttons pushed. About half way through our trip, I finally realized what it was. I felt small. I would react to situations in a regular Caroline way, but was very clearly met with the reality that my regular old way didn’t apply or straight up wasn’t working. Having my way of existence challenged by circumstance was something I was not accustomed to and in the face of Mother Nature’s beautiful mood swings I felt humbled by the realization that what I thought I knew, wasn’t relevant.

What I am trying to say is that there is something to the idea of feeling small. Not in the sense of being made to feel small by someone else, but through exposure to the vast subliminality  (I think I just made up my own adjective version of sublime…???) of the natural world. In the face of the power of the ocean, the expanse of the desert, the height of the mountains, the sheer face of a cliff, the quiet wisdom of the forest – there exists the opportunity to feel small. It is in these moments that we experience a total withdrawal of our own outer landscape and are left speechless. It is the feeling of having your breath taken away... or a moment in which you are confronted with complete inadequacy of language to describe your experience. The sublime. Without words, without the power to express ourselves who are we? When we lose the ability to describe who we are in relation to what we are seeing, feeling, and experiencing there is the strong and indisputable impression of smallness. What an incredible gift.


In those moments there are no preconceived notions about what we are supposed to do, there are no predetermined habits or pathways dictating our reactions. There is no sensation of needing to do more to be more.  It is when our reactive brain (also know as the limbic or ancient brain) is silenced that the door is open to become really really present and sit in not knowing. It is strange to observe, completely observe, without labeling, defining, contextualizing, comparing, or compartmentalizing our experience into the box of familiarity. What if, even if just for a moment, we didn’t feel the urge to understand something against the context of what we already knew or previously experienced. Is this even possible on its own without the limitlessness that we face in nature? I’m not sure.

But on this trip I felt it. I felt small. I felt the need to understand and when I couldn’t I felt challenged. It took me days of discomfort, frustration, aggravation, confusion, and even anger, often misdirected, to figure out. And even once I realized what was going on I didn’t quite know what to do with it. This concept has been the source of my mediations and journaling sessions for the past 6 weeks as I grapple with its importance in my life.

I recognize that this could be a point for a lifetime of Svadyaya (study), but I will share what I know to be true for right now.


It is in this moment when our outer-landscape (image and ego) is dwarfed that the door to our inner-landscape (the knowledge of the heart) is opened. It is when we remove the need to contextualize by way of experiencing the sublime that our “I-ness” shrinks. It is in the process of “I-dentifying” that our ego grows, effectively eclipsing out our “one-ness” (non-I-ness) aka: unification, absorption, non-othering. Divisiveness and separation live in the habit of “I-dentifying”.  It is this habit that isolates us from each other and ourselves.

When we intentionally (or unintentionally) place ourselves into a situation where we feel small in relationship to the world, it is uncomfortable and in the process of feeling uncomfortable we have two options. 1. To define and separate. Build a wall of protection or 2. Merge with it and see what happens.

The human capacity to merge with something identified as foreign is (perhaps only) available to us through Love. It is true beyond a doubt that Love has the power to create a sense of unification and belonging when we are faced with something (anything) that is beyond our ability to perceive or comprehend. With it, an inherent ability for acceptance and understanding.

I will never forget seeing my husband moved to tears by the dynamism of the ocean. The incredible experience of a man reckoning his place on earth juxtaposed against the power and the beauty of Mother Nature. It was the in witnessing that moment that I truly understood what I was experiencing as well.

The formula presented itself as this: Start with the willingness (and vulnerability) to feel small. Get grounded in the present moment. Compassionately bear witness (to yourself or others). Open up to love. Give love. Gain clarity. Receive wisdom. Repeat. 

In the end, Love is all we need.

Happy Valentine's Day.

Caroline McConnaughey