The World At Night (TWAN) is a program to create and exhibit a collection of stunning photographs and time-lapse videos of the world’s most beautiful and historic sites against a nighttime backdrop of stars, planets and celestial events. TWAN is a bridge between art, humanity, and science. The eternally peaceful sky looks the same above all the landmarks and symbols of different nations and regions, attesting to the truly unified nature of Earth as a planet rather than an amalgam of human-designated territories. Those involved in global programs learn to see humanity as a family living together on a single planet amidst the vast ocean of our Universe. This global perspective motivates us to work for a better, more peaceful planet for all the world’s inhabitants. Astronomers Without Borders was created to work toward this goal. TWAN is an innovative new approach to expanding this global perspective.
Forty years ago this Christmas, something amazing happened: we visited the Earth’s moon for the first time.
For the last forty years, we have been familiar with photos of Earth from space. And also the often transformative experiences of astronauts and cosmonauts. (Especially the ones who left Earth orbit.)
It has nudged us to recognize the Earth as one whole. As a living system. And as tiny even in the context of our own small solar system.
In many ways, seeing the Earth from the outside is a recent step in our collective deprovincialization. It is an invitation for us to grow up a little more as a species and global culture.
I noticed the DVD set of Cosmos at the library a few days ago, and thought it would be fun to watch one or two episodes again (it made a big impact on me when I watched it as a kid.)
The episode I watched was The Edge of Forever where Carl Sagan explores some of the most basic and universal questions about our existence, such as where does the universe come from? When did it start, or did it have a beginning? How will it end, or will it end? Does it have an edge or boundary? What happens if we continue infinitely in one direction? Will we end up where we started?
He spends a great deal of time on the Vedic cosmology, which in many ways parallels modern scientific cosmology.
So how did the universe, or space and time, begin?
Emptiness, awakeness and form
When I look at it for myself, right here now, I find that space and time arise within and as the timeless.
There is empty awakeness here, which time and space and all forms arise within, to and as. And this empty awakeness has a definite sense of timelessness and spacelessness. It is distinct from time and space, not touched by time and space, which is why it can allow time and space and any forms to arise within, to and as itself.
It is very simple, and (most likely) alive in the immediate awareness of all of us, yet we typically don’t notice it, or we only notice it as a glimpse, which is then covered up by attachment to the many different stories about who we are and how the world is.
And I also notice that the world of form is in flux. Nothing stays the same. It is always fresh, new and different, and that is especially alive when the empty awakeness is aware of itself. When timelessness comes more to the foreground, the transient nature of forms similarly comes to the foreground.
So in a sense, the universe is born right here now. It continuously dies as it was, and is reborn in a fresh and different way. (There is obviously enough continuity in the processes of the world of form so we can use ideas to orient, make models, predict and analyze what is going on.)
If we assume that the universe as a whole, as it unfolds in space and time, follows a similar process, then there are two pretty obvious options for how form relates to the formless.
Existence “started” with this timeless empty awakeness as a “ground” state. Then, the form aspect emerged from it and the universe was born. At the large scale, form was birthed from the formless, as it is right here now in immediate awareness. Here, there was of course not any “before” because form (and space and time) did not exist then.
Or, emptiness, awakeness and form have always been. The timeless and time, the spaceless and space, the changeless and changing, the formless and form, the empty awakeness arising as the world of phenomena, always are, as two aspects of the same whole, beyond and including all polarities.
Both of these versions are independent on any specifics about how the form aspect unfolds. Today, the Big Bang (or inflation) models are most frequently used, and these easily fits into both of the views mentioned above.
In both versions, we account for the empty and awake and the form aspects of Existence, which is beyond and includes any and all polarities.
And in both versions, we extrapolate from what is alive in immediate awareness to the larger scale, here the birth and cycles of the universe as a whole. (This is of course what many of the spiritual and mystical traditions do, in many more areas than just cosmology.)
The universe forms itself into matter, galaxies, nebula, solar systems, planets, life, awareness organs (living sensing beings), culture, technology, science, computers, telescopes, rockets…
And it gawks at itself… It is amazed by itself. It brings itself into awareness in always new ways.
The universe forms itself into the seen, the technology used for the seeing, and the organisms the seeing occurs through. And all of this and the seeing itself arises all within and as Ground, as Big Mind, Spirit, Brahman, Divine Mind.
There are some major questions in each of our lives, whether we explore these or not. The main one is probably who/what am I? And another is are we, as human beings, alone in the universe?
It is interesting that very few schools spend much or any time on the first question, whether it is through conventional western style philosophy or more direct self-inquiry. And it is also interesting that only a minuscule amount of resources is spent on the second question, are we alone in the universe? No governments, as far as I know, allocate any money to SETI, and the private funding is very limited as well.
I am not sure what that tells us about who we are at this stage in our evolution. Maybe that we are easily distracted. Maybe that for many of us, other issues appear more urgent. Maybe that our natural curiosity is out competed by other impulses or goes in other directions. Maybe that we have trouble peeling off the layers down to the really big questions.
In any case, I have been fascinated by SETI since I first heard about it in my early teens, became a member of the Planetary Society a little later, and was among the first to sign up for SETI@home. Now, after a while of not running the SETI@home screen saver, it seems time to participate again.
It is difficult to imagine any other discovery that will have a more significant impact on how we see ourselves, and eventually the course of our own evolution. Just knowing that we are not alone will be another nudge in our deprovinsialization of ourselves. And any exchange of real information, although it may take a long time before it gets going, will change our culture and evolution deeply.
Just the question itself, and contemplating the consequences of contact, or of not finding anything even after a thorough (still far into the future) search, is hugely important. The question and contemplation itself will change how we see ourselves.
I recently watched Contact again, and it brings up several things for me…
Mostly, the incredible beauty and awe that comes up from realizing that we are this universe bringing itself into awareness. And the deep sense of humility and belonging that comes from realizing that we, as human beings, are infinitely small parts of this infinitely large and rich universe.
Also, the continuing de-provinsialization in our culture, as it shows up in so many areas – going towards deepening worldcentric views and experiences of the world. From anthropocentrism to biocentrism and possibly beyond. From ethnocentrism to ethnodiversity. From rights for a few to universal human rights. From seeing this planet as the center of the universe, to seeing the sun as the center, to seeing this galaxy as the center (or rather all there is), to realizing the infinite number of galaxies out there – everywhere a center to itself. And how even the thought of life other places in the universe brings us even further out of our provincial outlook, to acknowledging that this planet may be one of a large number of living planets out there.
And also, slightly disappointing maybe, the orange (in Spiral Dynamics) view on science and religion which the story is filtered through – making it appear to be a choice between the scientific methodology and faith, or maybe both although for separate realms.
In any case, when I saw the movie the first time it brought me straight into Big Mind, and it still does. It reminds me of the big picture – that we, as humans, are stardust. That we are the universe temporarily reorganizing itself into humans, human culture, human technology, cities, thoughts, emotions, feelings, sensations, animals, plants, mountains, stars, oceans, clouds, rain, rocks, beaches, trees, the living Earth, this solar system, this galaxy, and all there is. That we, along with everything else that is, are the leading edge of the evolving universe. That all this is, with a center everywhere and nowhere, one seamless unfolding process – where there are no separate individuals, no separate doers, thinkers, seers, experiencers. Everything belongs, everything is the local movements of the whole – beyond and including all polarities.