For my entire life, I’ve had trouble looking at the stars. Something about staring into that unknown, all the expansiveness of the universe, made me both queasy (literally) and uneasy. In recent months, I’ve been able to quell that anxiety by recognizing that in looking skyward at night, we are actually looking back in time.
A recent NPR story (from ‘The World’) highlighted this very fact. The above shot was the subject of the story, a color composite of the UltraVISTA image (taken from the Paranal Observatory in Chile), which shows more than 200, 000 galaxies formed less than 1 billion years after the Big Bang, including some of the most distant galaxies ever seen. The astronomer interviewed, James Dunlop from the University of Edinburgh, gives the following answer when asked what this image is all about (and I recommend listening to the story yourself because Prof. Dunlop has a fantastic Scottish accent which somehow makes all this sound even better):
“So, depending on your point of view, this sort of science is either absolutely useless because it’s back in time and doesn’t affect everyday life, or, it’s one of the most important things we as humans could be doing, trying to get away from the trials of everyday life to get some understanding of where we come from. And this shows us a part of our history—we have all been made, all the elements in our bodies, were made in stars a long time ago, in galaxies like the one you see in this image. So this may seem far-fetched and far-flung, but in some ways it’s personal, it’s our beginnings you’re looking at here.”
So there you have it, folks. We are all made of stardust. Surely makes our ‘differences’ fade quickly when you realize that everyone is made of the same elemental forms. Also makes conflicts seem irrelevant, even silly.
Which brings me to my next point: humanity’s interference with the earth (doesn’t help that I recently started reading ‘The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes’ and learned how terribly birds are being affected by a range of human-caused activity from pollution to climate change to overpopulation—as if I needed to read a book to know that). Nevertheless, this interview with Thich Nhat Hanh gives me hope. Humanity, something we like to think is ever so precious and ‘essential’ to life here on earth, is but a blink of the eye when it comes to the overall cycles of the universe. He notes, in speaking of the fact that nearly 200,000 of earth’s species go extinct every year:
If 6C degrees [of global temperature increase] take place, another 95 per cent of species will die out, including Homo sapiens. That is why we have to touch identity with our in breath and out breath. Extinction of species has happened several times. Mass extinction has already happened five times and this is the sixth. According to the Buddhist tradition there is no birth and no death. After extinction a thing will appear in other forms, so you have to breath very deeply in order to acknowledge the fact that we humans will disappear in just 100 years on earth.
You have to learn how to accept that hard fact. You should not be overwhelmed by that despair. That solution is to learn how to touch eternity in the present moment. We have been talking about the environment as if it is something different from us, but we are the environment. The non-human elements are the environment, but we are the environment of non-human elements, so we are one with the environment. We are the environment. We are the earth and the earth has the capacity to restore balance and sometimes many species have to disappear for the balance restored. Maybe the flood, maybe the heat, maybe the air.
Like my mother said of the 86 degree temperatures in coastal New Hampshire this week: “I mean, it’s nice to have great weather in March, but then you look at the trees blooming too suddenly, at the birds returning early. When you see the confusion in nature, wearing shorts and t-shirts doesn’t feel so nice—what will happen when the temperatures drop next week and everything is thrown out of flux? It’s scary actually.”
Scary, yes, but thankfully we are still here to breathe, appreciate, and look skyward. If only everyone could stop and live so mindfully, I have a feeling humanity would exist well beyond Thich Nhat Hanh’s predicted ‘one hundred years.’ Heck, for proof that living mindfully works, just look at Thich Nhat Hanh. I was astonished to learn he’s over eighty years old. He doesn’t look a day over fifty. So if you think space travel and time travel are science fiction, I’d beg to differ.