One of my earliest spiritual experiences was one in which I became clearly aware of my smallness in the Universe. As a fledgling meditator of 12 years of age I panned back from my room, my street, and my country until I felt as though I was looking down on a distant blue ball suspended in the dark vastness of space.
I was recently reminded of this experience as I watched Neil Degras Tyson describing the unfolding story of the Universe’s development. In listening to his wonderful reworking of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos”, I was left awe struck at the scale of the Universe both in terms of its expanding dimensions and the relative brevity of human evolution when mapped against known time.
As I gaze out at the night sky, I find myself unable to find lasting meaning in any prevailing Metaphysical position, be it a theistic one or that of the strict rationalist. The mystery and expansiveness of space seems to empty me of the trite and obvious. My sense of awe seems to both induce a sense of mild panic as I glimpse the limits of my control and understanding, while at the same time beckoning me onwards into the depths of the unknown.
While I personally find little of value in the astrological preoccupations of many ancient civilisations, I can appreciate the sense of power and significance that they attributed to the movement of heavenly bodies against the silent blackness of the night sky. In the midst of life’s busyness and apparent chaos, the steady track of the stars told us stories of an on-going struggle and cosmic return.
The occult sciences as an expression of our humanity, have attributed an almost endless array of complicating correspondences. Whether the planets become gnostic archons or we are trying to glean the significance of “Saturn being in Taurus”, in our attempts to invest meaning and divine causation we may be in danger of producing even more cognitive clutter.
If we can set aside our constructs and schemas in order to embrace a Zen-like “beginner’s mind” what might we find ourselves encountering? Far be it from me to dictate your experience, but in gazing at the darkness of Space, I continue to experience a sense of vastness, transcendence and terror!
In grappling with the limitations of what we can perceive, we cannot help being moved by vastness. Concepts and control are threatened by the limitations of our knowledge and the sense of mystery that Space seems to hold. My friend Aingeal has shared some of her helpful thoughts on vastness here.
I heartily agree regarding her insight that our longing to explore these realms mirrors the initiatory drive to create and explore a greater sense of spaciousness within ourselves. Such exploration has been a key part of my own spiritual journey, and the rationale for integrating Zen sitting into our Hearth meetings has been to allow our entry into such expansive realms. The integration of such apparently disparate pagan and Buddhist inflected perspectives aims to enable us to both embrace the Self while acknowledging the benefits of loosening our hold on certainty.
Gazing upwards at the Cosmos, at that which appears spatially “up” and beyond our lives in all their messiness, our creative engagement with Space can also fuel our longing for the transcendent. In both Ken Wilber’s integral teachings and Gurdjieff’s neo-hermeticism, the Cosmic (or Kosmic) represents a move away from the temporary material realm and toward the unified and eternal. Personally speaking, while I tend not to buy into such dualism, such spatial metaphors can provide us with potent psychological tools for triggering personal transformation. The sense of “otherness” and potentiality that the Cosmic “up” can represent, need not be a move away from our Earth and our bodies, but it can act as a catalyst in driving us on toward those hopes or aspirations that currently feel so distant. Cosmos contains within its “spaces” the chaotic potentiality of the void; as we shape this dark matter through the skilful application of will, so strange new things become possible.
While my star-gazing has thus far has sounded quite chirpy, it can also be terror-filled. To experience a sense of our smallness and brevity can trigger all sorts of existential despair! No one ever promised that the process of waking up was either easy or pain-free. Unsurprisingly, I am not the first gnostic explorer to make such observations and one could hardly imagine a chaos current without the horror filled vision of Howard Philips Lovecraft.
For me the world of Lovecraft embodies our sense of terror in response to the Universe’s vastness and uncertainty. The monster-gods of the mythos – Azathoth, Nyarlathotep et al provide us with a potent set of shadow archetypes that give form to our profound sense of dis-ease. On one level “the mythos” seems to have little sense of comfort or redemption, but I wonder whether they, like wrathful Buddha-forms, can be sat with and glanced at side-ways. By naming our terrors and giving them shape, arguably we accomplish some degree of containment. They may well still lurk in the stygian depths or between the blackness between the stars, but giving them form may make them (slightly) more manageable. For those wanting to explore this territory further, I commend to you this post by Nikki and the recently reviewed Epoch by Carroll and Kaybryn. Ia! Ia! Cthulhu Ftagn!
The vastness of Space invites us to both wonder and explore. Despite the fear that we might experience, its allure and mystery call forth the adventurer within that we might “boldly go where no one has gone before….”
I’ll conclude with some words of wisdom from the awesome doom-metallers Neurosis:
“Recognise this as your own nature
Abandon the fear
Abandon the terror you project
Let your mind rest beyond flesh and bone
Look from a place of understanding
Your mind is a conduit
Your mind is as vast as the universe
Rest in this
In the clear light of existence
This light is divine.”
“Prayer” from the Sovereign E.P.