Seeing the Earth as a whole


Forty years ago this Christmas, something amazing happened: we visited the Earth’s moon for the first time.

It was the first time humans saw the Earth as a blue marble floating in space, and it gave us the first photo of an Earthrise. (Here is a recent interview with the three Apollo 8 astronauts.)

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.

Here is what Carl Sagan said about a similar photo, Voyager’s pale blue dot image from 1991.

Look again at 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.

When we see Earth as a whole, as a single living system made up of social and ecological system, what does that reflect in ourselves? For me, it reflects finding myself – my human self – as a whole beyond mind and body. As that which mind and body are aspects of. And I can find that, as a living experience, through body-oriented practices, meditation and also shadow-and-projection work.

Another aspect of this is who is seeing the Earth as a whole, floating in space?

The three astronauts saw the Earth as a whole, from a distance. Humanity as a whole did, through them and their photos.

We can also – with equal validity – say that the Earth saw itself from the outside, as a whole. It saw itself through some of its parts, and continues to do so through current astronauts and people watching photos and movies of the Earth from space. The Earth evolved itself into lots of different sense organs, and some of these developed science and technology and went into space allowing Earth to see itself at a distance.

And the same with the Universe. The Universe evolved itself into galaxies, solar systems, planets, living planets, curiosity, science, technology, space travel, allowing it to explore itself in always new ways.

And so also with Existence, or God. God continues to manifest, express and explore itself in always new ways, evolving itself into everything we are familiar with – with no exceptions – and a whole lot more. Including space travel.

And of course, if the answer is what is experiencing, we can look here now. What do I find?

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