Every once in a while, the universe implores us to find ourselves in its immensity. With curious hearts, we cannot resist this ancient summons.
For millennia, countless religions and dogma have centered on ritual and belief relating to the movements of the moon, sun and stars. The appearance of comets appeared to herald auspicious omens to bygone monarchs, who consulted with trusted astrologers for matters of state. Over four thousand years ago, the first poet, Sumerian priestess Enheduanna, saw the divine feminine in the heavens, and recorded her visions for posterity. Before recorded history, astronomy was the first science, instructing the Druids in their construction of altars and temples aligned with the stars. To the Mayans, the concepts of space and time were inexorably linked with the gods, and they invented the first calendar based on the movements of constellations.
No human tradition is as hallowed as looking up at the night skies to find our place in them. The most basic human need, after all, is to belong.
Whether mourning the loss of an infant ten thousand years ago, or feeling dread over the latest news alert this week, every human being since the dawn of time has looked for meaning to our existence and suffering. With last year’s solar eclipse, we were once again reminded to take a moment to contemplate our belonging, and our purpose, in a sometimes frightening world.
A solar eclipse is really more of a cultural phenomenon than a scientific event. Astronomers will gather to collect data, but it is much more significant to everyday folks who rarely stargaze. To the average viewer, this was a rare occasion to enter nature and look up for the first time in perhaps years. Perhaps in this uncertain time of rising tensions and looming wars, a solar eclipse has something new to teach us — or something we learned once, long ago, now long forgotten.
Ask yourself: when was the last time you drove someplace dark to observe a meteor shower? Watched the moon set over the horizon? Or even just watched a sunset?
Why do we deprive ourselves of the gift of looking up? Perhaps it has something to do with how many of us live in areas saturated with light pollution, robbing so many of the magic of the cosmos. Before electricity, everyone on Earth had equal access to the magic of the night. With that access, we capitalized on this cosmic connection, an exceptional gift which filled our daily lives with a sense of wonder and awe.
Surely, this lent itself to regular experiences of reflection on our nature as a species, the mysteries of the gods, and the beauties and vagaries of life and death. We built temples to be closer to those stars, and we constructed traditions and rituals to faithfully ground ourselves in this fascination as we came of age in rites of passage. Those rituals may no longer be present in our daily lives, and we have lost our connection to what some call divine.
On August 21, 2017, the universe offered a singular gift. The stars came out in the afternoon, the skies darkened as if night, and the sun was obscured by the moon. Only those of us on this part of the Earth could view the spectacle. It blessed no other planet. For this, we were acutely fortunate.
Throughout history, solar eclipses were interpreted as negative events, bad omens signaling bad news. Though few folks today may maintain such superstitions regarding an eclipse, it came to us in an uncertain and perilous time.
Dangerous, aggressive rhetoric from the White House about nuclear war. Escalating hate crimes and the terrorist attacks in Charlottesville on justice activists. The police killings of our black and brown sisters and brothers. Every week or so, yet another mass shooting.
Though this eclipse appeared in a conspicuously scientific time, when we fully understand the mechanics of the movements of the orbit of the Earth, sun and moon, we lack a satisfying consensus on human nature. We know nearly so little about the good and evil of humanity as did the ancient Chinese who recorded the first eclipse. Woefully, our science can’t solve this mystery for us yet.
When the moon perfectly aligned with the sun and darkened the skies for hundreds of millions of people, many of us took a moment to marvel at the illustrious magic and mystery of the universe. And for that moment, we regained a sense of our shared humanity.
Those who have viewed total solar eclipses describe incredible scenes that bring people to their knees. In a devastating 1982 essay, Annie Dilliard wrote of a solar eclipse:
I turned back to the sun. It was going. The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were now platinum. Their every detail of stem, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a nineteenth-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded. All the people you see in the photograph, distinct and detailed as their faces look, are now dead. The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver. All the distant hills’ grasses were fine-spun metal which the wind laid down. I was watching a faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages; I was standing in it, by some mistake. I was standing in a movie of hillside grasses filmed in the Middle Ages. I missed my own century, the people I knew, and the real light of day.
It’s impossible to tell how one will react when confronted with this unparalleled scene. Our poor little human egos are not accustomed to such affronts to our significance. But this is the nature of the cosmic perspective versus the ego.
The cosmic perspective is much akin to unconditional love. There is the cloak of a persona versus the substance of identity. If you can truly know and accept someone for who they are, and love them not in spite of their so-called flaws, but love even those pieces of a person, and when you can unconditionally love someone with such depth and devotion that you don’t demand anything in return, you sincerely know the person in a profound way – without limitation.
So how can you not want to know, and love, the universe? And if you know what is able to be known, how can you feel anything but love for its deep beauty and complexity?
There is much we don’t yet know about the universe, but we know a few things. We know a solar eclipse is not the result of a spiteful god. We know that the sun rises daily, not because we appeased a creator with sacrifice. We know that life emerged and evolved via a complex process, not from an almighty architect.
So if you love someone, do you want to love a mask? An idea? An ideal? Or do you want to love the truth of the person?
Anne Druyan, co-author of some of Carl Sagan’s most beloved works, and his widow and the love of his life, recently shared her philosophies on humanity, the solar eclipse, consciousness, and the cosmic perspective. Druyan called science “informed worship.” Our curiosity manifests inquiry, which manifests data, which manifests knowing, which manifests devotion. To know is to love.
Religion may no longer offer satisfying answers to many of us about the big questions that keep us up at night. Why are we here, what is our purpose, is there life outside of Earth, what is the point of consciousness? But the point of the cosmic perspective is that we do not need faith to be devout.
Einstein is a famous example of this apparent paradox, but these ideas are not as counterintuitive as some might think. He wrote:
The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical. It is the power of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms — this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong to the rank of devoutly religious men.
Returning to the cosmic perspective and the ego, I propose that our consciousness shifts with a cosmic outlook. This is best explained by the philosophy of and limited science available on ego death experiences.
Looking at the stars diminishes our egos, as we recognize our relative insignificance. But that does not need to be hopeless or lonely. On the contrary, it is liberating. We realize that we may not be alone in the universe, and that we are blessed to be alive in the here and now, with all the complex events that took place throughout the evolution and inception of life on Earth, following the formation of the universe.
Here we stand, able to experience this universe with our own eyes and consciousness, for a purpose we don’t yet fully comprehend. Indeed, everything that every happened since the birth of our universe, happened such that we are here now, able to be “the universe experiencing itself,” in the words of Alan Watts.
When the ego dies in a psychedelic experience, brain activity reduces in the areas relating to a sense of self, such as the medial prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex, which regulate introspection and emotion. Meanwhile, neurotransmitter activity increases, facilitating a sense of connectedness to other people, animals, living things, inanimate objects, and the moon, sun and stars. Many have described a cosmic connection, as they sense the movement of the Earth around the sun. Aldous Huxley in his famous essay on mescaline called the brain a “reducing valve” which contributed to limiting how we perceive the world around us. Our senses have often been described as narrow slits which filter through only very specific information, and filter out everything else. When the ego dies, either we are no longer filtering as narrowly, or we are simply better able to receive the information we do perceive.
Could looking at a cosmic event like a total solar eclipse facilitate similar experiences in the brain? Even if not, the results of ego death experiences often can and do result in a shift in consciousness. The overview effect would certainly seem to be a type of this permanent cognitive shift, a kind of ego death which may change the structure and function of the brain over time. How might consciousness evolve as we become a space-faring civilization, and more of us experience the overview effect and the cosmic perspective? Could getting closer to the stars bring us closer to ourselves and one another? It is easy to imagine that such a development for our species could contribute to human evolution, just as the Neolithic revolution and hominid bipedalism.
We have always looked for meaning in the skies. The ancients looked to celestial events as ways to interpret or predict the unknowable, if their nation would win a critical battle, or if the King would bear an heir. Though we no longer attach these superstitions, the cosmic perspective is no less meaningful.
No, in the expanse of the universe, our egocentric models of creation, life and death no longer serve us. We have to make a conscious choice to step outside ourselves and see the cosmos for what it is: a grand place of order and chaos, form and formlessness, energy and entropy, paradoxes and truths, and we absolutely must find hope. This is my devout faith as a Humanist.
When the Mayan astrologer or Druid priestess looked to the stars, she saw a possible future. When a modern astronomer or astrophysicist looks, she sees records of a distant past, as the light takes countless years to reach us, providing a glimpse into a different time.
But what mysteries about our own humanity could be hidden in the stars? What insights could we intuit about ourselves, when gazing up from our limited vantage point, but with all the instruments invented to see deeply into space? As per the old rule of Occam’s razor, perhaps the best hypothesis is the most simple:
For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love. — Carl Sagan