“If a man would be alone, let him look at the stars,” philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his 1836 essay, Nature. “The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and what he touches.” Emerson considered the stars, through their “perpetual presence of the sublime,” as portals to complete absorption with something greater than ourselves.
“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years,” he adds, “how would men believe and adore and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.”
Humans have gazed at the night’s sky in fascination for millenia. Its vastness, humbling. Its enigmatic expanse, awesome. Ancient civilisations, from the Mayans to the Babylonians, were starstruck and enchanted by the cosmos. The ancient Egyptians even used the stars to accurately align the Great Pyramids with the Earth’s four cardinal points.
I wonder what Emerson would think of modern culture. Common gaze is downcast, transfixed by admonishing smartphones. The stars’ sparkle is second-best. We don’t notice the great lengths they travel to illuminate the night’s sky. But the ancients prized something we fail to recognise. Stargazing is free therapy. And the cosmos reveals our true nature.
If we care to look.
The Stars Lost Their Magic…
When I was young, I’d recite Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, before sleep… Twinkle, twinkle, little star. Its words, comforting… How I wonder what you are… The existential somehow innately known, understood… Up above the world so high… As if a part of me belonged to the stars… Like a diamond in the sky.
Like all children, I was fascinated by the twinkle of diamonds in the sky. But as I aged, the stars’ significance dimmed. As I became disenchanted, I didn’t give them a second glance. As I became depressed, I considered space a terrifying vacuum of meaninglessness. I was overwhelmed by existential dread.
How naive I was — there’s nothing magical about space, I thought. I was wrong.
A Vastness Felt, Not Intellectualised
It’s impossible to grasp the vastness of space with the intellect — it lacks adequate processing power. Much of space’s magical qualities are felt, not comprehended by the thinking mind. Take the measurement of the speed of light. To our senses, light is instantaneous. You flick a switch, light appears. Its speed is unfathomable.
Imagining a light-year is next level. Applying the switch-flicking speed to how far light travels in the 365 days it takes the Earth to orbit the Sun. If I flicked a light switch and had a magical bulb projected into space, one light year is how far this light will have travelled by September 2020. I guess that’s… pretty far?
Even light from the Sun takes eight minutes to reach Earth. That’s a brief sojourn compared to the distance light travels from distant stars to illuminate the night’s sky; when contemplating the journey of those “envoys of beauty,” the unfathomable becomes unfathomable-er…
The Universe Is Big
Know where to look, you’ll see Sirius (from the Greek seirios “glowing” or “scorching”) the brightest star visible to the naked eye. From Earth’s perspective, Sirius will shine brightest for another 210,000 years. It’s 8.6 lightyears away. The light you see tonight has travelled since January 2011, near the start of the 2011 Egyptian revolution.
Proxima Centauri is the nearest known star to the Sun. From its constellation Centaurus, light takes 4.24 light years to reach Earth. Light from this neighbour star started its journey in June 2015.
Located in the constellation Carina, Eta Carinae is a stellar system of at least two stars, 5 million times brighter than our Sun. It’s visible to the naked eye from 7,500 lightyears away. The light reaching your eye started its journey 4,000 years before the estimated origin of ancient Egypt.
The Andromeda Galaxy is visible to the naked eye from 2.25 million lightyears away. This light started its journey before Homo erectus (“upright man”) evolved.
Modern technology takes us farther into the past. Last year the Hubble Telescope — launched in April 1990 — discovered Icarus. The blue giant is the most distant single star ever detected. It resides in a spiral galaxy 9 billion lightyears away. The most distant galaxy detected by Hubble is 13.3 billion lightyears away. At the dawn of that light’s journey, the universe was “only” 500 million years old.
The Universe Of Mind
“As above, so below, as within, so without, as the universe, so the soul…” — Hermes Trismegistus
On 25 August 1609 Galileo made the worldview-shifting discovery that the Earth isn’t the centre of the universe. It rotates around the Sun. The Roman Catholic Inquisition deemed Galileo’s belief in this discovery as heresy and warned him accordingly. In 1633 he was placed under permanent house arrest after publishing his paper Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.
A number of leading astrologers, philosophers and scientists at the time opposed Galileo’s discovery. They refused to look through the telescope. In a letter to German philosopher Johanne Kepler in 1610, Galileo bemoaned his peers: “Truly, just as the asp stops its ears, so do these philosophers shut their eyes to the light of truth.”
Meditation is the telescope enabling us to see the “light of truth” of the Mind. The intricacy of Mind is defined through spiritual practice, concentration, study, insight, understanding and wisdom. Observing the Mind with non-judgemental curiosity allows us to witness its nature with great clarity.
The deeper the journey within, the more lucid the experience. An inner-universe reveals itself. Perspective shifts as subtle elements of Mind become observable; from a Hubble Telescope image of distant stars, to the quantum waveforms of atoms. Galaxies of thoughts, images, sounds, voices, emotions, sensations appear, worlds within worlds. Not as dense, gross structures, but fleeting, impermanent, empty forms.
In observing Mind in this way, we become the canvas behind all of these galaxies, the empty space, the spirit behind form, the bridge of connection to the vastness of the universe.
The nature of Galileo’s discovery mirrors this spiritual discovery. Perceiving the separate “I” as the centre of the universe is egoic narcissism, like mistaking Earth as the Universe’s centre. Meditation is the courage to look through the telescope and see the truth.
You are not the centre of the Universe — you are the Universe.
Depression: The Existential Without The Framework
Galileo and Kepler were early proponents of understanding the Universe as a mechanical machine, comparable not to “a divine organism but rather to clockwork.” This nihilistic worldview strips the Universe of spiritual meaning. I believe this existential lifelessness contributed significantly to my periods of disenchantment, depression and anxiety.
From my atheistic, “science-minded” background, there was no room for anything beyond the material. I scorned childlike awe as childish. In the midst of depression, I’d lie on my bed, stare at the ceiling, paralysed with anxiety about the meaninglessness of existence. Such despair was a form of spiritual emergency.
A lonely search for answers to ultimate questions…
My existential despair is common. Dr. Jeffrey Vittengl, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Iowa, wanted to understand the differences between spirituality and religion. So he studied over 40,000 responses from the United States Midlife Development survey. His research discovered that spiritual people “may be engaging in a ‘lonely search’ for answers to their ultimate questions that, if unsatisfied, increases risk for depression.”
People at risk of serious depression were those who tended to be self-focused, to ponder the meaning of life. Without structure, support and guidance, this search comes up short, as it did for me. Vittengl’s study discovered organised religions provide structure. Within these communities, rates of depression are lower. The “spiritual but not religious” brigade are left to work things out themselves.
Building A Framework For The Spiritual But Not Religious
“You are the universe experiencing itself.” — Alan Watts.
I didn’t know I was spiritual but not religious — I just knew the “not religious” part. I believed in the nihilistic, mechanical universe theory as gospel. This worldview didn’t allow for spirit. This worldview didn’t have space for the so-called irrational. But when I started meditation, I began to experience dimensions at odds with this worldview. My belief system was challenged. It started to crumble.
Quantum physics provides a new narrative. In its unpredictability, it reminds us that the fabric of existence is irrational, beyond logic. And the stars, galaxies, the vastness of space? What we see with today’s technology is just 4 percent of the Universe. The other 96 percent is made of mysterious substances (called dark matter and dark energy) that “astronomers can’t see, detect or even comprehend.”
I slowly rebuilt the paradigm, brick by brick.
Allowing mystical experiences of growing improbability and increased intuition, I knew I needed an all-encompassing context. I slowly rebuilt the paradigm, brick by brick, its building blocks sourced from ancient teachings, philosophy, quantum theory, psychology, shamanism, and more.
Each book, each teaching, a gradual creation of a new worldview matching my subjective experiences. The cosmos was resuscitated.
Now, when I ponder the existential, I feel a childlike wonder. I’m inspired. Spirituality provides an expansive framework for the immaterial, the unseen, the unknowable, the space beyond language. Mysticism connects us to universal consciousness, a benevolent presence, unconditionally loving, calming, a force greater than ourselves.
In expanding my worldview, I expand. There’s room for spirit. There is no superficial glass ceiling. All the pieces of me I’d rejected as unfeasible or untrue or irrational can breathe freely, as my eternal essence soars from its constricted 4 percent, soaring and soaring and continuing to soar, into the mysterious, unseen 96 percent, into the totality of being, into the totality of the Universe.
You Are Stardust
Our connection to the stars isn’t exclusively spiritual. The building blocks of the human body, the atoms and elements, are intertwined with the cosmos, too. “Most of the material we’re made of comes out of dying stars or stars that died in explosions,” astrophysicist Karel Schrijver explains to National Geographic.
Karel and his wife Iris Schrijver, a professor of pathology, co-authored Living With the Stars: How the Human Body Is Connected to the Life Cycles of the Earth, the Planets, and the Stars. Their research combines human biology and astrophysics. “We have stuff in us as old as the universe, and then some stuff that landed 100 years ago,” Karel adds.
Despite what eyes and egos perceive, most of our physical structure is only a few years old. “We’re not fixed at all. We’re more like a pattern or process,” Iris says. For example, we lose 30,000 skin cells every minute, and our entire surface layer is replaced roughly once per year. By the age of 50, half of our heart cells have been replaced.
Cell division is needed to survive and grow. But many cells age and die. These cells need to be replaced.
This is where the stars help out.
“The Stars Died So That You Could Be Here Today”
Over 40,000 tonnes of cosmic dust falls to Earth every year, and eventually makes its way into our bodies. For example, table salt — made of sodium and chloride — formed inside stars that exploded; some billions of years ago, some in recent stellar explosions.
Just like trees and plants, stars are living beings. I’m struck by the correlation; both provide our atmosphere with elements essential for life. Through photosynthesis, trees convert sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide into the oxygen we breathe. Stars are giant nuclear reactors that convert hydrogen into helium. Older stars convert helium into the elements we are made of, such as carbon, oxygen, iron, and calcium — a process called nucleosynthesis.
These elements didn’t exist in the beginning of time. Shortly after the Big Bang, there was only hydrogen, helium, and not much else. “The atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than in your right hand, because 200 million stars have exploded to make up the atoms in your body,” notes physicist Lawrence Krauss, “[…] the stars died so that you could be here today.”
Ego Erodes When Enchanted By The Stars
Like the philosophers and scientists who refused to look through the telescope, the ego refuses to acknowledge its superficiality. It fears annihilation. Filtered through ego, the existential is terrifying. It’s a powerful reminder the ego isn’t the centre of the universe. The telescopic perspective reminds us that our problems and anxieties aren’t the centre of the universe, either.
Enchanted by the stars, the illusion of separation erodes. The filter is removed. The ego is transcended. We stop identifying with the small. Instead, these moments of awe are snippets of our true spiritual nature. The core of us at ease with vastness, at home in the eternal, sings in response. Absorption, as Emerson explains, ignites a mystical unity with existence.
How naive I was, when disenchanted and depressed. I never knew my youthful enchantment was a messenger of truth. I never knew I always belonged to the stars. I never knew the stars gave birth to me. I never knew these heavenly worlds were here all along.
Look up. Do you see?