This August, you’ll get a chance to have a truly strange and otherworldly experience, when normal daylight suddenly turns to eerie twilight and a black sun hangs high in the sky, like the eye of some seldom-seen God radiating waves of luminous, life-giving energy to humanity.
On August 21, 2017, the mainland United States will have its first total eclipse of the sun since February of 1979. Because of this nearly four-decade-long period without a total solar eclipse in the contiguous United States, most people have no idea exactly what’s coming, but many sense it’s going to be an amazing peak experience—and they’re right. A total solar eclipse is nature’s greatest spectacle, and it can be so moving as to change lives and even the course of history.
A total eclipse of the sun is so uniquely novel and profound that this phenomenon has compelled me to travel the world to experience it. I have seen every total solar eclipse since 1994, and I hope to see every one in my remaining lifetime.
The short period of time during which one can safely look directly at the eclipsed sun and see the light of life—the corona—is called totality. For me, seeking totality is a kind of shamanic pilgrimage. Over the course of 27 years seeking the transcendent experience of totality, I have traveled to some wonderfully enchanting and distant locations, including Hawaii, Chile, Thailand, Mongolia, Aruba, Hungary, Zambia, Australia, Antarctica, Tahiti, Turkey, the South Japan Sea, the Arctic Circle, Fiji and, most recently, Borneo.
I’m not alone in my pursuit of totality. Although different people travel to eclipses for different reasons, the common denominator of the obsession is experiencing the absolute awe and amazement that an eclipse inspires. Those of us who are eclipse nuts are more politely referred to as “eclipse chasers” or “umbraphiles.” There are many of us, but the hardcore group that travels to every totality probably numbers fewer than 100.
A total solar eclipse is not just something that is thrilling to watch; it’s an all-encompassing experience that involves sight, body and mind. The eclipse experience starts with first contact, the moment when the moon initially encroaches on the sun’s disc. Suddenly, part of the sun’s curvature looks off, and then a tiny nibble appears that grows into a dark bite in our star. During this and all subsequent partial phases, you must use protection like eclipse shades to prevent damage to your eyes or even blindness.
Nothing much happens for the next 40 minutes or so except that the dark bite grows larger, but when over half of the sun’s disc is covered, things begin to get strange—very strange. The sunlight starts to change, and it is unlike any type of light you’ve ever seen. The entire environment is profoundly transformed: Colors drain away from plants, the light takes on a metallic quality, the sky deepens in its blueness, and shadows are sharply defined.
Bizarre crescent patterns of light appear beneath any nearby trees. These are pinhole projections of the partial eclipse created by spaces between their leaves. Usually these are just dappled and irregular blotches of sunlight, but during a solar eclipse they become uniform, fish-scale patterns.
As the eclipse deepens toward totality, the temperature begins to drop, and this sensation, along with the perception that the predictable nature of reality is disintegrating, frequently causes people to have goose bumps and experience their hair standing on end. Your rational mind understands what’s happening, but your instinct and body have involuntary responses that override it. Although you’re watching it happen, your mind is thinking, “This cannot be happening.” Then the weirdness begins to accelerate. At this point, the eclipse experience reminds me a little of the aspects of an LSD or mushroom trip. The changes in the perception of light, the strange patterns on walls or the ground, the rising sense of awe and wonder, and a cascade of metaphysical thoughts about humanity, the universe and life mimic some of the best aspects of early psychedelic states.
The strange bleeding away of light increases, as if some god’s hand were turning down a celestial rheostat. The sun shrinks from a wedge to a curved filament of light. At this point, if you have a clear view of the western horizon, you can lift your shades to see a line of deep indigo blue appear between the land and sky, rising up like a swift-moving thunderstorm, although silent and much faster. It quickly becomes a wall of darkness rushing toward you. This is the shadow of the moon moving faster than the speed of sound. Inside this wall of darkness, totality has already arrived.
With your shades back on, you can look up to see the tiny, remaining arched filament of light begin to break up into beads because of the moon’s mountains and valleys. At this point, you can remove your shades and watch as the last ray of light flares out from the deepest lunar valley, creating what is possibly the most beautiful sight in all of nature: the diamond-ring effect. The black moon is encircled by a thin ring of coronal light, looking much like a wedding band, while the flash of that final ray looks like a diamond throwing off a sparkle. At this moment, the shadow arrives and you are in totality.
Above you is what the ancient alchemists called “the marriage of sun and moon,” with the black sun emanating waves of light—the light that creates and maintains our world. With the direct, eye-burning rays blocked, you can stare in wonder and awe at this light of life. Also visible are the prominences—bright-red filaments and loops projecting out into the glow of the corona. These are jets of hydrogen gas erupting thousands of miles above the surface of the sun, and they’re best viewed with binoculars or a telescope. With magnification, you can literally see the structure of the energy waves emanating from our sun.
In the rare daylight darkness, planets come into view: Venus, Mars and Mercury should all be visible during the August eclipse. Stars can also be seen, but you don’t want to spend much time scanning for them when you can gaze at the glory of the corona. Another surreal aspect is the 360-degree sunset effect surrounding you. During totality, you’re under a shadow cone projected by the moon, and light creeps in at the horizons, producing the circular-sunset effect.
All of this immense and sudden strangeness combines to create what the theologian Rudolf Otto called the numinous, meaning something that is mysterious and awe-inspiring and evokes a sense of the mystical. One of the big appeals of psychedelic plants and substances is their ability to trigger an overwhelming numinous experience—the “Oh, wow!” moments. We hunger for such awe-inspiring experiences, and they can actually be vital to our mental and physical health. Professor Dacher Keltner found that having an awe-inspiring experience correlated with a greater sense of well-being for weeks following the transcendent event. Similarly, studies with psilocybin—the active component of magic mushrooms—have found that psychedelic experiences create a heightened and lasting sense of well-being and contentment even in patients in the late stages of terminal illness.
Unfortunately, the totality phase doesn’t last nearly as long as an awesome mushroom or LSD trip; it’s more like the length of a DMT flash. The longest period of totality possible for a solar eclipse is seven minutes and 21 seconds, but there won’t be one that long until July 16, 2186. In 2009, I was at sea near Iwo Jima for the longest totality of this century: six minutes and 49 seconds under perfectly clear skies.
The longest totality phase for the August eclipse will last two minutes and 40 seconds at maximum, and that occurs in the area around Carbondale, Illinois, and Hopkinsville, Kentucky. In Oregon, totality will be about two minutes, depending on your location. Because the moon’s shadow is elliptical, like an egg, the closer you are to the center, the longer totality will last. At the edge of the shadow, totality drops to mere seconds. An interactive map at eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov allows you to drag an icon around the path of totality to find out how long it lasts at any given location.
One of the biggest complaints of eclipse chasers is that totality doesn’t last long enough—but marijuana can definitely help here. The wonderful quality that cannabis has of seeming to slow the passage of time, sometimes called “space-time distortion,” can really optimize eclipse viewing.
Another wonderful eclipse-enhancing quality of marijuana is its nurturing effects on eyesight. Regular cannabis users can testify to how certain strains improve their clarity of vision as well as color perception. Before the discovery of cannabinoid receptors in the brain and certain parts of the eye, these effects were dismissed as the delusions of intoxication, but we now know that using marijuana or hash actually encourages eye health and improves vision. Allen Ginsberg called these effects “eye kicks.” And sharpened vision is great for enjoying the changes in color, lighting and patterns during a total solar eclipse.
My favorite strain, largely because of its effects on one’s vision and mental state, is SAGE from T.H.Seeds. When I took a group tour to Prague and then Hungary for the European total eclipse in 1999, I knew that the Czech Republic was tolerant of personal-use amounts of cannabis, so I took an ounce of SAGE with me.
We experienced that eclipse on a hillside in the ruins of a 13th-century castle overlooking Lake Balaton, the largest freshwater body of water in Europe, while smoking SAGE. One quality I really love about SAGE is that it enhances my peripheral vision so that my eyes seem like they’ve stretched around to my ears. It was the perfect strain for taking in the Old World panorama surrounding our hilltop castle: bucolic hay fields, vineyards and thatched-roof villages. The sky was crystal clear, and we had a soul-rocking view of the moon’s shadow spilling into the valley below and rushing toward us. The corona was ethereal, and there were intensely bright prominences encircling the black disc. As the eclipse ended and light returned, shadow bands—alternating strips of light and dark—fluttered across the ground. It was the perfect day.
As you’re enjoying the totality phase, you will know the end is approaching when the side of the eclipsed sun where first contact occurred begins to lighten. This is the latest point at which you can safely use any form of magnification, such as binoculars or telescopes. For safety’s sake, it’s best to know the length of totality at your location and set a timer for two-thirds of that time, starting it when totality begins. When the timer goes off, everyone puts away their binoculars or telescopes to enjoy a beautiful and unaided view of the eclipse panorama.
As totality ends, look for one of its most breath-taking aspects: a glimpse of the chromosphere. This edge of neon-bright scarlet/crimson/pink is the layer between the sun’s photosphere and the radiant energy of the corona. It is visible only for seconds, but it’s a shockingly gorgeous sight: The color is one not seen anywhere else in nature. After my very first view of totality, my immediate question was: “What was that neon crimson wall of glowing fire just before the end?”
The emergence of the chromosphere is quickly followed by the blossoming of another diamond-ring effect, as the first ray of returning sunlight slips through the deepest valley of the moon. It’s safe to watch this final diamond ring without eye protection, but as soon as that flash of light shrinks into a tiny arc of sunlight, you need to put on eclipse shades or welder’s glasses. But don’t bother with that: As soon as the diamond-ring effect ends, look to the ground or at a light-colored surface or wall for the shadow bands, those rippling bands of light and darkness speeding across the earth. They’re very difficult to see; I’ve only witnessed them twice out of my 16 total eclipses. Hopefully, you will have a good sighting in August, as they are very strange.
As a long-time devotee of entheogens and shamanic practice, I caution my friends and acquaintances about using heavy doses of psychedelics during a total solar eclipse. The experience itself is so strange and bizarre and awe-inspiring—much like the best psychedelic experiences—that the effects can compete with and detract from each other. I’ve found that it’s best to enjoy totality with just a little marijuana or hash, since this can enhance viewing and slow down time perception a bit. I’ve used mushroom tea once during an eclipse, but I found that it mainly heightened my anxiety about the possibility of getting clouded out.
Microdosing with mushrooms or LSD can be a fun way to enhance the experience, though. The dilation of your eyes can increase your view of the details of the corona, and the slight shift of thought in a metaphysical direction can amplify the sense of awe you’ll already be feeling. Microdosing usually involves taking about 10 micrograms of LSD or a very small piece of mushroom to enhance thought and sensory perception without bringing on a full trip.
If you’re planning to experience this summer’s solar eclipse, I advise getting into the path of totality early. I predict that there will be massive traffic jams on major highways, and many people will be stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic and miss the event. If you can leave early in the morning and make an adventure of it, say with a picnic basket and plenty of patience, then you’ll have one of the most meaningful and memorable days in your life—a bucket-list peak event.
One more piece of advice: Don’t bother trying to photograph the eclipse unless photography is your profession or a seriously pursued hobby. You don’t want to waste precious time fiddling with a camera or smartphone; you want to let your eyes drink in every second of this rare and majestic spectacle.
But if you do plan to take photos, cover your flash with tape: If your flash goes off, it could damage someone’s vision during the period of totality. I’ve never touched a camera during this time: Great images by skilled photographers will be all over the Internet immediately after the event, but none will show the glory that we can observe personally. The human eye is a much more sensitive lens.
One very serious consideration for eclipse watching is eye safety. If you’re careless or negligent about taking the proper precautions, you can seriously and permanently damage your vision. Even when the sun is a tiny sliver, it can burn and scar the retina, leaving a blind spot in your field of vision. It’s only safe to look at the eclipse with the naked eye when the sunlight has shrunk down to a bead. Then you can remove your shades or welder’s glasses and watch the diamond-ring effect.
Eclipse shades will be on sale at many places, but you can order them from rainbowsymphony.com or eclipseglasses.com. You can also use #14 welder’s glasses, which can be purchased at hardware or building-supply stores. Remember that once totality occurs, you can and should look at the marvel of the eclipse with your naked eyes.
I hope this summer’s total eclipse of the sun infuses your life with as much awe, joy and wonder as eclipses have given me. I also hope that this wonderful gift of the universe that will bisect this country in August will be a way to pull people together in the knowledge that life is marvelous and that we are all one, unified by love and awe. We all shine on. Clear skies!
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