Dear Still Water Friends,
In 1981, as the Voyager 1 space probe was passing Saturn, the astronomer Carl Sagan encouraged NASA to have the probe turn its camera around and take a photo of the Earth. Although the photo would have little scientific value, Sagan believed it might help humans better understand their place in the cosmos and help them rise above narrow concerns. After ten years of resolving bureaucratic and technical issues, the picture was finally taken when Voyager 1 was 3.7 billion miles from earth, at the very edge of our Solar System.
In his book, The Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, Sagan explains:
From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
In the tradition of mindfulness practice, the Three Touchings Of The Earth have a similar purpose. They offer us an opportunity to understand our place in the cosmos and to rise above our narrow concerns. The first Touching directs our attention to our spiritual and blood ancestors and to our descendants. Rather than judge them, we are encouraged to accept them, and to accept ourselves. We recognize that we are the way we are, with our urges and capacities, because of how others have been before us. “I open my heart and accept all my relatives, my blood descendants, and my friends and acquaintances, with their good qualities, their talents, and also their weaknesses.”
The second Touching reminds us of our connectedness with our contemporaries, sharing happiness and suffering. We are encouraged to develop confidence and commitment: “I am someone who has enough peace, joy and freedom to offer fearlessness and joy to living beings around me.”
The third Touching points us to the ultimate dimension, the underlying oneness of all life: “I have gone beyond the idea that I am a body that is separated in space and time from all other forms of life.” With an attitude of equanimity and transcendence,we identify with the ocean and not just with a single wave.
This Thursday evening, after our sitting, we will practice together the Three Touchings of the Earth. We will begin our Dharma discussion sharing how we are encouraged, or challenged, by the Three Touchings. You are invited to be with us.
My interest in the Pale Blue Dot came from a wonderful illustration of the quote by the cartoonist Gavin Aung Than — part of his Zen Pencil series. It is a great site to mosey around. (The Roger Ebert quote is one of my favorites.)
A quick reminder that the Mindful Family Feast is Saturday, September 28; the Settling Into Silence: Still Water Practice Retreat is Friday, October 4 – Sunday, October 6; and the Special Tour of the Sackler Gallery’s Yoga: The Art of Transformation exhibit is Saturday, November 2, 2013. Links are below.