On Monday, a rare total solar eclipse will briefly darken much of the United States. A solar eclipse can be a frightening experience, but the only real danger is that someone may suffer eye damage by looking directly at the sun. A major event like an eclipse is a good opportunity to get in touch with nature, and one thing you’ll discover quickly is that human nature protects us by providing an inhibition against looking directly at the sun. This inhibition is so powerful and so useful I would argue that you should heed this inhibition even if you have eclipse-quality sunglasses or the appropriate grade of welder’s glass (obviously, not ordinary sunglasses or tinted glass) to look through. Using your will power or curiosity to overpower inhibitions is generally a bad business and the inner struggle involved can detract from the experience of an eclipse. Instead, look at the sun only indirectly. Far better than looking through a glass is looking at the sun in a very dark reflective surface. For example, if you are improvising, that would not be the windshield of a car, because that would be too bright, but perhaps the glossy paint of a car might provide a dark enough reflection. Be guided by inhibition; if the reflection seems too bright, don’t look at it. I would rather you see the eclipse on television than try to look at the sun directly.
Fortunately, there is no need to look at the sun at all to experience an eclipse. All you will see anyway is the crescent shape of the sun with the moon covering part of it, a geometric shape you have seen in photographs already. If you are in the zone of totality you can then briefly see the sun virtually disappear. That is a moment astronomers wouldn’t miss, a valuable chance to see the sun’s corona separate from the solar disk. The rest of us, though, learn more by looking at our own world as it goes dark.
The first change you notice is the shadows. By the time the moon has blocked 5 percent of the sun, you can see the change in the shape of every shadow. This is the freakiest thing about an eclipse. Even if you haven’t given a shadow a second glance all year, you’ll look at a shadow, any shadow, and say, “Wow, that looks weird.”
Everything is obviously darker by the time the sun is 10 percent covered. This is the otherworldly part of a solar eclipse. We know how bright the sun should be, and if it is a little dimmer, it is alarming or at least unsettling. When the moon is blocking one third of the sun, you see a quality of sunlight that is more like what you would see on Mars than on Earth. When the sun is mostly covered, you are free to imagine that you are on Ganymede. In fact, take this moment to imagine a world, not one that exists, but one that you might create. What kind of world would you like to see? The eclipse is a powerful time to imagine this. A prepared shaman can set aside all practical knowledge of cosmology long enough to experience the total eclipse as the death and rebirth of the entire universe. In this view, your ideas of what kind of world you want to see when the world comes back help shape the new world that is born, so hold those thoughts of the world of your choosing in your attention for a few moments. People around you might be meditating, chanting, or drumming to strengthen their thoughts of the new world.
You can easily find live commentary online or on broadcast media to explain the significance of the stages of the eclipse, but if you want a non-commercial point of view all you need to do is listen to the birds around you, especially songbirds. Birds do not know what a solar eclipse is — they have not lived long enough to remember a previous one — so they discuss it among themselves, and you are free to listen in. Even if you had your eyes closed the whole time, you would know what was happening just from what the birds are telling you.
A solar eclipse is like a touch of night as far as the weather is concerned. You might notice the breezes changing direction the way they do at nightfall. The experience of an eclipse can help you notice how strongly the human sense of time is tied to the regularity of the cycle of days. Day and night is such an ingrained assumption that you might catch yourself afterward thinking of the things that happened before the eclipse as “yesterday.” I remember this happening to me in a previous solar eclipse that darkened the world where I was by only about one fourth. The lesson here is that day and night are not intrinsic parts of the nature of time, but rather are part of our world, an effect of our natural surroundings.
Treat the eclipse as an appointment with nature. Be guided by inhibition and do not look directly at the sun. Notice the shadows and the breezes. Listen to the birds. Imagine a new world. Happy eclipsing!