“It’s always taken a lot to get me upset. It’s all about perspective and what’s important.” – Yogi Berra
“The universe is wider than our views of it. […] What distant and different beings in the various mansions of the universe are contemplating the same [stars] at the same moment!” – Henry David Thoreau
A Point in Space
I love looking up at a clear night’s sky, and marveling at the light that traveled for millions of years to reach my eyes. It always fills me with wonder and awe.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by how seemingly insignificant we seem on a cosmic scale, the vastness of which is difficult to appreciate. NASA recently focused on an area of the sky about the size of a square millimeter held at arm’s length, and captured an image referred to as the Hubble Ultra Deep Field. It’s an amazing picture containing an estimated 10,000 galaxies.
Since space is the same in every direction, astronomers estimate that the observable universe has at least 100 billion galaxies. With an estimated 100 billion stars per galaxy, that means there are a lot of stars; 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 of them, or a 1 followed by 22 zeros. It’s a lot. Our humble planet is spinning around one of them. As Thoreau reminds us, “this whole earth which we inhabit is but a point in space.”
Living on the Earth
Our brains weren’t built to handle astronomical numbers, so let’s bring it down to earth.
Whether you believe in creation, or evolution, or some combination of the two, human beings have only been on this planet for around 200,000 years – a short fraction of it’s 4.5 billion year history. The earliest civilizations didn’t form until around 5500 years ago, and we didn’t use electricity until around 150 years ago.
Each of us, if we are lucky, will get just under century of living to do (the average modern life expectancy is around 70 years). In the whole history of the universe it’s an infinitesimally small amount of time, and it’s finite. “You’re impermanent,” shares Zen master Jun Po Denis Kelly Roshi. “Everything in the manifest universe, without exception, is impermanent, all arising out of emptiness.”
This may seem like a negative, but it can also be liberating. Life is a gift. Each day, for whatever magical, mystical reason, we have the opportunity to experience living. Even if it’s only brief, we get a chance to appreciate the present moment and the complex systems which allow us to see, hear, smell, taste, feel, learn, laugh, love, and create. How cool is that?
Shift Perspective and Appreciate the Gift
We’re all human. We’re emotionally driven, focused on the short-term, and easily overwhelmed by the small stuff. We can get worked up over a stranger’s passing comment, bumper-to-bumper traffic, or not being able to impact events outside of our control. The other day I spent a good amount of time yelling at my dog because he wouldn’t drink water before we went on a walk, and then I couldn’t get him to stop eating snow. I literally crouched down to get on his level and shook my finger at him while screaming – and he’s a dog!
It’s not that these things don’t matter or are easy to ignore, but if we manage to catch ourselves, take a deep breath, and shift perspectives, it has a huge impact. It can be tough to do in the moment, so use small reminders to help keep the practice in mind. Try writing a message on a well placed sticky note, changing your computer password to a meaningful word, or remembering to pause and slow down when you look at your watch or cell phone.
“Perception determining happiness. […] The ability to shift perspective can be one of the most powerful and effective tools we have to help us cope with life’s daily problems.” – Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama
Weigh whatever event is challenging you against your own impermanence, and the simple fact that you hit an infinitely small probability of being alive and aware. We are each one of 7.2 billion people living in an age when it’s possible to fly around the world in a day, communicate instantaneously, and live better than royalty could have even dreamed of just a few hundred years ago. Against astronomically enormous odds, we get to experience living, and living well!
Seriously. How cool is that?