We humans are dissatisfied and anxious because we’re inwardly at war. True inner peace eludes us because we’re disconnected from the compassion inherent to consciousness itself. This is much more than a feeling. It’s like an immense, unmovable background of friendliness, present at the root of being, the ‘I’ that knows the same ‘I’ in all. It dissolves tension and fear, even deep existential anxiety, when nothing else really can. No matter what role we each play in meeting the challenges of these times, awakening to this presence of compassion is the most radical step.
M64: The Sleeping Beauty Galaxy
Credit: NASA and the Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI), S. Smartt (IoA) & D. Richstone (U. Michigan) et al.
The North America nebula on the sky can do what the North America continent on Earth cannot — form stars. Specifically, in analogy to the Earth-confined continent, the bright part that appears as Central America and Mexico is actually a hot bed of gas, dust, and newly formed stars known as the Cygnus Wall. The above image shows the star forming wall lit and eroded by bright young stars, and partly hidden by the dark dust they have created. The part of the North America nebula (NGC 7000) shown spans about 15 light years and lies about 1,500 light years away toward the constellation of the Swan (Cygnus).
During the past few decades the sciences have been finding ever more concrete and detailed hints that the cosmos is a vast ecosystem, sublimely tuned for the emergence and proliferation of life. In a sense, the cosmos taken as a whole is itself alive. Apart from the so-called “anthropic principle” relating to physical and cosmological constants, examples include discoveries such as proto-biotic long-chain polymers scattered throughout the interstellar medium, features of galaxies that effectively make them stellar “nurseries”, the complex lives of stars themselves, and even to some extent the experimental confirmation of the Higgs field, in terms of what that implies about the ultimate insubstantiality of matter. This more hylozoic understanding of nature contrasts with a longer-term tendency in science — to demonstrate that life is an epiphenomenon of non-living materials interacting — but it also differs from most forms of religious literalism, which would like to place divinity outside or above a separate, non-divine creation.
NGC 3034, also known as the Cigar Galaxy, located 11,500,000 Light Years away.
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.- Carl Sagan speech at Cornell University, October 13, 1994.
Picture taken by Voyager 1 spacecraft from a record distance of about 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles) from Earth
Sculpted by stellar winds and radiation, the star factory known as Messier 17 lies some 5,500 light-years away in the nebula-rich constellation Sagittarius. At that distance, this degree wide field of view spans almost 100 light-years. The sharp, composite, color image utilizing data from space and ground based telescopes, follows faint details of the region’s gas and dust clouds against a backdrop of central Milky Way stars. Stellar winds and energetic light from hot, massive stars formed from M17’s stock of cosmic gas and dust have slowly carved away at the remaining interstellar material producing the cavernous appearance and undulating shapes. M17 is also known as the Omega Nebula or the Swan Nebula.