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A depiction of the known universe with text and a line pointing to the Virgo Supercluster, which includes our Milky Way galaxy.

Depiction of the known universe, with text and a line
pointing to the Virgo Supercluster of galaxies,
which includes our Milky Way galaxy

Seeing With a Cosmic Eye

A Portrait of Existence
in a Mind Boggling Universe

by Ken Sanes

It is a cool clear night. I am sitting on a bluff, looking down at a long stretch of beach as it disappears into the distance. Overhead, there is a full moon and the sky is full of stars.
As I look out at this awe-inspiring scene, I think to myself that everything is so still, it could easily be mistaken for a painting.
In fact, there is only one source of movement that I can discern: the dark outline of someone jogging on the beach, with a frisky dog running alongside, its silhouette of a tail wagging in the air as it looks up at its master.
The only sound is the dogís bark, which is muffled by the distance, and the intermittent blaring of a horn from a ship at sea.
As I continue to look and listen, my instincts tell me that I should be observing this landscape in a state of quiet contemplation. But my mind is too active for that and, instead, I begin to think of this scene as a symbol for the mystery of the world. And I ask myself how artists and spiritual seekers in the past have tried to convey a sense of this same mystery.
Then, in response to my question, my thoughts begin to span eras in history and civilizations. They pass over the prehistoric wall paintings of Lascaux; gothic cathedrals with expansive sacred spaces; and Zen gardens that are intended to convey a sense of the simplicity and perfection people experience in a state of enlightenment.
Finally, my thoughts alight on Rome during the Renaissance, where Michelangelo painted frescoes in the Sistine Chapel to tell the story of first and final things. Of all our attempts to say something about the mystery of existence, this was the most exceptional, with ceiling panels that picture the creation of the world and the exile from paradise, and a mural that portrays the righteous ascending to heaven at the end of days as the damned are ushered into the depths of hell.
It is an awe-inspiring vision, especially since Michelangelo populates this panorama with his true subject: suffering humanity, trapped in a fallen world and in the prison of the self.
I think to myself that each of these creations offers a way of seeing the world. And each offers a source of hope, even when they seem to reduce the observer in size or present a disturbing portrait of life.
But then, as my thoughts continue, I realize that our own age has produced a vision of a very different kind.
It comes not from religion or art or architecture, but from physics and astronomy, which tell us that the universe was born not quite fourteen billion years ago from a small point, in an explosion of space and time that is still exerting a force today. And beyond the protective atmosphere of the Earth and the vastness of our solar system and Milky Way galaxy, this same universe is now a cosmic web of tens of billions of galaxies, separated by voids of space.
Of course, physics and astronomy also tell us that this is only the part of the universe our eyes and instruments can see. No one knows what is beyond a certain point, which means the cosmic web could extend to infinity.
Not surprisingly, this vision can leave us feeling reduced in size to an extreme degree. In fact, what astronomy has discovered is so vast and so all-containing that our Milky Way galaxy, with an estimated 200-400 billion stars, is too small to be visible in depictions of the known universe.
In the face of this immensity, we inevitably wonder how we can compare anything we have accomplished to the true scale of existence.
How can we compare the Sistine Chapel to the massive sheet of galaxies known as the Sloan Great Wall or the Pantheon in Rome to the Pillars of Creation, where new stars are forged?
How can we compare Lascaux, the Golden Gate Bridge, Borobudur, Tikal or the Burj Khalifa to a universe that is like the grains of sand on the beach below me, in which every grain is a galaxy filled with stars?
And how can we compare the single moment of our lives to the life of the universe, which will continue for billions of years before it comes to an end.
But even all of this may represent only an infinitesimal point in the order of existence because there may be trillions of universes. According to a well known theory, every possible outcome of events may be realized in every moment, everywhere, with each outcome generating an alternate universe, so that universes perpetually branch off from each other and then branch again.
If that is correct, it would be as if every grain of sand on the beach below isnít merely a galaxy but a universe. And the grains of sand would quickly pile up, generating a cosmos of universes and a universe of alternate worlds.
At least thatís what I'm thinking when I look down and notice the way the beach forms a thin line of sand that disappears into the distance, wedged between the ocean and a wall of cliffs
Then something else catches my eye and I realize that the jogger has left the beach and is running on an upward diagonal path along the side of the bluff, toward where Iím sitting, with the dog following close behind.
But the sight of the jogger heading my way only knocks me off my reflections for a moment, as I think to myself that we can now peer down into the fine grain of the microscopic world and discover another realm of existence that also doesnít have anything in common with the comforting certainties we are familiar with.
It is a realm in which the things we know from our surroundings turn out to be mostly space, and there are particles that donít occupy a specific place.
So how should we respond to a world that has so little in common with our everyday perceptions -- a world in which we seem to barely exist compared to the scale of space and time?
Is there a framework of understanding we can use to make sense of our lives or evoke a feeling of hope when we are now in a state of radical doubt, and the certainty of life is a flame that science has unceremoniously put out?

The Pillars of Creation where new stars are formed

The Pillars of Creation

Is it Runner? Yes it is! Thatís a good boy, Runner.
It turns out that the dogís name is Runner. Heís a friendly German shepherd who keeps jumping on me and trying to lick my face. I donít care if he is mostly space, he instantly wins me over.
As for the jogger, she turns out to be a thin young woman in a long-sleeve T-shirt and sweatpants, with short brown hair, who is briefly running in place to keep her heart rate up while I make friends with her dog.
Then theyíre off again, heading inland away from the bluff, with Runner giving me a last wistful look back.
As I watch them disappear into the distance, my reflections make their way back to the center of my attention, and I think to myself that our view of the world inevitably changes when we recognize the true nature of things.
It changes because we have a more complete understanding of what the world really is -- an understanding that was inaccessible when artists and architects created those earlier visions of existence.
But it also changes because we are aware of all those monumental formations looming in the distance, such as the Sloan Great Wall and the Pillars of Creation, that are pure physicality without intention -- spectacles burning in the aloneness of space.
We then more fully understand that the universe is an inferno of creation and destruction;
it is matter and energy, searing cold and fire, darkness and light, in a void of meaning that seems to mock our yearning for a world filled with humanity, governed by right.
But if we are merely specks in an inhuman universe, and our telescopes and equations fail to reveal a moral code that comes from anywhere on high, and we know that our lives are only a spark of awareness before we die, then questions inevitably arise: Why should we be good? Why pretend that life makes sense?
After all, if science has revealed a universe without a heaven or salvation, then isnít everything we were told a lie? And, if so, then what is forbidden?

Charlie Chaplin plays in The Great Dictator, holding a model of the earth.

Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator

Sitting on this bluff, I continue to reflect on the ways that science is changing our perceptions of the world. But something has happened: I feel like I have taken a step back from my usual point of view. Itís as if Iím suddenly out there in the expanse, looking back at life on Earth and seeing things with a cosmic eye.
What I see is a planet at a very small scale that is teeming with people, all of them trapped in their own point of view, able to perceive only a fraction of their surroundings in a distorted way. I see them absorbed in their own pursuits, lured on by one thing after another, driven by forces inside that they donít understand.
I see some of them crawling over each other in a desperate effort to get ahead, and worrying obsessively about blame, as they pass the buck and pass it again, striking back for even minor slights to their self-esteem, bicker for bicker and hate for hate because something in our temperament is a twist of fate.
As I look at the Earth with a cosmic eye, I also see the self-aggrandizers trying to inflate themselves beyond their normal size, in a futile attempt to undo the truth about their place in nature and time, lifting their voices to worship at the altar of themselves, demanding adulation, while many of their admirers enthusiastically comply.
Sitting on this bluff, at a reduced scale, myself, and looking down at things from somewhere in the expanse, they are even smaller than I expected: all the posers, strutting around, puffed up, with their coteries of hangers-on, as they position themselves for the cameras, using clever techniques of rhetoric and theater to win over the public;
and the demagogues look smaller still, whipping the crowd into a frenzy of hate as they radiate the sallow yellow light of a false glory.
Of course, I know that this experience isn't unique. A great many people have expressed similar ideas. I feel a sense of commonality with them, a bond that links us across centuries and continents.
I also know there is a danger that the kind of experience Iím having can take us beyond an understanding of our limitations and further into nihilism and the depths of absurdism, sociopathy and despair.
It can lead us to see ourselves with a jaundiced eye, as we look at billions of people, like dots on an ant hill globe suspended in space, the perpetual motion of the human race.


 Earth seen from space.

The Earth viewed from space

A flock of birds flying close to the bluff jars me out of my thoughts. I notice the night has gotten cooler. The moon is also brighter than when I arrived and there seem to be even more stars in the sky.
Then I realize that I still have a sense that I am looking down from somewhere in the expanse, seeing the Earth with a cosmic eye. But there's a difference because now I find myself in a state of awe at the universe with its unfathomable scale and intricacy of pattern.
I am similarly in awe of this speck of a blue-green world, covered with forests, pastures, streams and oceans, and teeming with living things that have the capacity to move and grow and generate more of their own kind, in a web of transformation and exchange that seems to be alive.
And I am in awe of the billions of people who make up humanity, embedded in the same web of life, working and loving to survive, cultivating land and building cities as they try to make peace with the truth about time.
But what is particularly striking is the state of interiority they all have in common -- the moving tapestry of experience that changes from one moment to the next, and the abilities that let them reshape their environment so it reflects what is inside,
making it possible to create art and temples that communicate fear and yearning, ecstasy and surprise, with the capacity to evoke wonder and a sense of the sublime,
because we are matter organized into mind, the same matter as the rest of the universe, but somehow another kind.
There isnít anything else like this in the universe that we know of, certainly not the exteriority of the Sloan Great Wall and the Pillars of Creation. In fact, it is humanity that gives those massive formations their only known meaning by observing them and making them part of its symbolic world.
Seeing these things with a cosmic eye has given me a renewed appreciation for humanity, which has a unique ability to generate symbols and stories that crystallize experience and point beyond themselves.
In fact, many of the creations of the human race are a testament to its ability to reach beyond its limitations, instead of being confined to the cramped space of the self-involved mind.
Knowing all of this can encourage us to treasure what we have built over the centuries -- and protect it -- recognizing how fragile it is and, perhaps, how unique.
At least thatĎs what Iím thinking when I see the jogger and dog heading on an upward diagonal path along the side of the bluff, toward where Iím sitting, and, inexplicably, I am filled with joy over the panorama of the scene that is spread out before me on all sides.

 Reproduction of Guernica by Picasso, the definitive 20th century artistic statement against war and violence.

Reproduction of Guernica by Picasso

Is it Runner? Yes it is!
After the jogger comes over the top of the bluff, we offer each other a friendly greeting. She then tells me that the name of her German shepherd is Runner.
As she is speaking, I notice she has short brown hair and, despite her loose-fitting jogging suit, it is obvious that she is very thin.
But as I start to move forward to pet the dog, it looks at me -- and Iím not entirely comfortable with what I see. There isnít a snarl exactly -- just a look that seems less than friendly.
Maybe Iím being paranoid, but Iíd rather be safe and not regret my lack of caution later. So I step back and she passes by with the dog as it looks back at me. Then they head along the side of the cliff, toward the lights of the town in the distance.
As I watch them get smaller and begin to disappear, I once again see myself with a cosmic eye, somewhere between the vastness of space and the punctuated emptiness that is the stuff of existence, and I think to myself that I accept having to live with these large uncertainties, beyond the closer-to-home uncertainties of everyday life. And I am grateful for the privilege of seeing some of the truth about my place in the world, even if it means knowing that I am almost invisible in the desert of reality.
Looking out at my surroundings, I also feel grateful for all this beauty -- the large red sun falling behind the trees, the hint of a crescent moon already visible in the sky, the deep green forest blanketing the land below me as far as the eye can see, and the snow topped mountains in the distance, lost somewhere in the mist.
I know that it was formed by impersonal forces moving land and water, but I can't help but feel gratitude for the remarkable result. And even if I donít know what the source is, I am still grateful for all of it, which is a gift from Heaven, even when it seems like we are burning in the miracle of a Gnostic Hell, beset by injuries inflicted by nature and other people and ourselves.
Despite all that, I am grateful for the glory of the world and I want a way to express my gratitude to its unfathomable source, even amid the global suffering that life produces in every instant, and the madness of crowds surging forward, filled with righteous indignation, searching for victims, with a chorus of voices screaming in anguish,
to you I give thanks.

A rendering of a small portion of The Last Judgment painted in the interior of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo

A rendering of a small portion of the painted
interior of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo

My inner sense tells me it is almost time to go back to my life in town.
But first I want to think about the individuals in history who offered an axial vision that helps make sense of our lives. They were teachers and prophets, such as Siddhartha Gautama and Socrates, whose ideas ushered in the age of world religions and the systems of ethics and philosophy that are still with us today.
Their ideas varied, and some offered a more comprehensive understanding of life than others. But collectively they revealed that there is a battle going on inside us between love and hate, truth and illusion. And very essentially, between our authentic self and our egoism, which wreaks havoc on the world and forces us to live on the confused surface of our lives.
Their message was that we should take sides in this battle and develop what is deepest in us, which has the capacity for clarity, awe and compassion, instead of aggrandizing ourselves and becoming immersed in our own point of view.
Realize the truth about the world, they said, and treat people as you want to be treated, recognizing your common humanity with others who suffer like you.
This philosophy comes up so consistently in different times and places, and it has been espoused by so many remarkable people, it clearly offers an essential insight into our lives.
It can be found today in all of the worldís major religions and in the work of writers and thinkers, such as the seventeenth century philosopher, Benedict Spinoza, who pierced through the veil of appearances and called on us to see the world in the light of eternity.
I think it is safe to say that Spinoza, like many of these axial teachers, had the capacity to see the world with a cosmic eye, even though he knew less about it than we know today.
In the twentieth century, one of the inheritors of this vision was the physicist Albert Einstein, who was quoted as saying that his beliefs were based on loving your neighbor and loving the first cause of all things.
I can hear Einsteinís words clearly in my mind as if they are being spoken in his voice. The individual who has a ďcosmic religious sense,Ē he says, ďfeels the vanity of human desires and aims, and the nobility and marvelous order which are revealed in nature and in the world of thought.
ďHe feels the individual destiny as an imprisonment and seeks to experience the totality of existence as a unity full of significance.Ē
Some four centuries before him, Michelangelo painted his grand vision of history in the Sistine Chapel, from the creation and fall to the end of days, precisely because he sensed that his individual destiny was an imprisonment, and he wanted to experience the totality of existence as a unity full of significance.
Now, I have been lucky enough to tap in to the same kind of experience that moved people like Michelangelo and Einstein, and it has given the things I know a new and deeper meaning.
But all of us are inheritors of this vision because it is an essential part of our inner selves, which have an aesthetic revulsion to unfairness and suffering, and a desire to affirm life and love -- and know the truth about the world.
It is the part inside that calls on us to live up to what we are -- matter organized into mind, imbued with spirit -- even if we donít understand how that is grounded in the universe.
It is also the part that has a way of showing itself when we enjoy a richness of experience and feel the most authentic, which means it is who we are in a state of psychological health.
Of course, we are also the inheritors of another vision, which calls on us to regress and hide from the truth, to exploit other people and be imbued with hate. It also speaks to us in an insistent voice, telling us not to experience the totality of existence as a unity filled with significance, but to act as if we are the totality of existence -- or at least its center.
So now it is our turn in our own brief moment of history to fight this battle between the two sides of human nature, and feel compassion for a lost humanity -- and the lost self.
It is our turn to experience awe at this titanic impossibility of a universe, and recognize that we are governed by a moral law, even if science can't find the lawgiver or confirm our belief that goodness is something objective beyond ourselves.
And it is up to us to say that, even if science hasn't produced any evidence that there is anything beyond our world that cares about suffering, we care -- and that matters.
That means the burden now falls on us to try to redeem the promise contained in the words said over so many victims of violence who were buried before their time and over the corpses that fell back into the earth on fields of carnage.
Perhaps it will even be possible for some people to take the axial vision further than this and experience an all-embracing love for a difficult humanity and an impossible universe.
Unfortunately, we are held back by our own flawed humanity, as the cry goes out from each of us -- ďMe! Me! Me!Ē Ė even though we recognize thereís another way to know and another way to be.

Photograph of Einstein, who was in awe of the universe.

Einstein was in awe of the
order of the universe

Sitting on this bluff, I feel as though Iím filled with the world. Unfortunately, I can also sense that this experience is almost at a close.
But before it ends, I want to think about progress -- because progress is what a lot of this is about. And it is obvious that progress is something real, even though it happens in fits and starts, and the power it gives us can be used for good or evil.
Most notably, it is the progress of science and technology that has made it possible for us to have a more complete understanding of the world and use our knowledge to improve our lives. And it is the same scientific progress that has given grandiose and malevolent leaders more effective tools to engage in mass murder and carry out their evil designs.
In the future, we will undoubtedly witness a great deal more progress as science reaches into space and into the fabric of matter, life and the mind to reveal many of the secrets of existence.
These discoveries will give us an unprecedented degree of control over the world.
But many of these same discoveries will also give us the capacity to act out our pettiness and meanness on a grander scale, dehumanizing and enslaving other people, and grinding civilization into ruins.
So now that history is turning on its axis again and ushering in a new age, it is up to us to update the universal message of the teachers of the past and use it as a guide for science.
That means it is up to us to infuse science with a philosophy of benevolence so it will be a more effective tool to repair the world, and to support life in its battle with death and with the living death of the hateful soul. Taking an idea from Einstein, it is up to us to use science (and spirituality and the arts) to cultivate a sense of awe and humility at the mystery of existence.
It also means that progress isn't enough. Controlling the world that now overwhelms us isn't enough, unless we also find a way to straighten the crooked heart and make the shattered self whole.
Of course, it is possible that the experience of sitting here, looking out at this clear moonless night, has inspired an idealistic vision in me that goes a little too far.
By way of counterpoint, it might be good to recall the words of the philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, who said that the adventure of the universe starts with the dream of youth and reaps tragic beauty.
Perhaps he was right, and these reflections are just a dream of youth and a prologue to all the tragic beauty that is about to be reaped.
I hope not. But I have to acknowledge that possibility.
This thought almost brings my reflections to a close when there is one more surprise: a feeling of tenderness washes over me as I observe a jogger running on a path along the line of houses below, with what looks like a frisky German shepherd circling her as she goes.
From my vantage point high on the bluff, she looks small and vulnerable, and I have an irrational desire to protect her from the world.
In fact, she looks so small, I think to myself that she could easily be erased from the scene and the world would barely notice.
An odd thought. But since it isnít directly related to these ideas, I turn back to my reflections for the last time and think to myself that one day we will bring our fullness of conscious feeling to an empty universe
or (who knows?) maybe we will bring the empty universe itself to the fullness of conscious feeling,
because our role in life is to fill every corner of the universe with good, and fit together the fragments of a broken world.



Images and information on images are from Wikimedia Commons
Some of these should be considered photo illustrations
Images are:
A depiction of the known universe with a line pointing to the Virgo Supercluster, which includes our Milky Way galaxy
Image of Pillars of Creation, with some cloning to create a more complete looking image
Charlie Chaplin as megalomaniacal dictator in the movie The Great Dictator
Reproduction of Guernica by Picasso
A small part of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo, which shows the end of days
Albert Einstein 1931
* ďÖour inner selves, which have an aesthetic revulsion to unfairness and suffering,ÖĒ This idea is inspired by something written by Herbert Marcuse, although I donít have the reference available at the time Iím posting this.
* The axial age and axial philosophies: see work by Karl Jaspers and Karen Armstrong.
* William Hermanns quotes Einstein as saying that a cosmic religion (and his own beliefs) are based on the idea of loving your neighbor and the first cause of the universe.
William Hermanns, Einstein and the Poet: In Search of the Cosmic Man (Brookline Village, MA: Branden Press, Inc., 1983) p. 109
* Quote from Einstein defining cosmic religious sense:
Albert Einstein, Cosmic Religion, with other Opinions and Aphorisms (New York: Albert Einstein, Cosmic Religion, with other Opinions and Aphorisms (New York: Covici-Friede, 1931) p. 48

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