I just returned from my first five-day silent meditation retreat. It was an amazing experience for so many reasons, one of which was the night sky. Living in an urban area, the night sky above my home is brightened by what astronomers like to call light pollution – excess light from streetlights, buildings, cars, signs, etc. I can see the brightest of stars on a regular basis but seeing the Milky Way is pretty much out of the question.
Spirit Rock Meditation Center is located in the hills of Marin County in California. It is an incredibly beautiful setting, with the wood buildings nestled in rolling grassy hills that are dotted with old oak trees. One of the things I love about Spirit Rock is the consideration that is given to creating a contemplative outdoor environment: walking paths lead to unexpected joys such as small altars and strategically placed benches. Each day I enjoyed meditative strolls to welcome the sunrise in the morning and bid adieu to the sun in the evening. The quality of light at these times was astounding – soft, beautiful, gentle rays caressing the hills, making them glow in pink and purple hues. But while the daytime was beautiful, it was the nighttime that I found truly spectacular.
I was fortunate that each of the five nights I was at Spirit Rock there was not a single cloud in the sky. To make the conditions even more perfect, the temperature was surprisingly warm – I didn’t even need a coat on several of the nights. The weather already set me up to have wonderful skywatching experiences, but it was the meditation that really made my experience sublime.
The type of meditation taught at Spirit Rock is vipassana, or insight, meditation in the Buddhist tradition. It teaches us to focus our awareness on the present moment, instead of getting caught up in thinking – always bringing the mind back to the Now rather than lost in the past or jumping ahead to the future. The retreat schedule was composed of alternating periods of formal sitting and walking meditation, interspersed with teaching talks. But we were also encouraged to extend our “practice” to all other moments of our waking life as well.
So it was in this spirit that I took a walk into the hills after the last sitting meditation of the day, long after sunset. I found myself at a wooden meditation platform situated high in the hills, in an area wide open to the sky. Lying down on the platform, I felt as though the hills were holding me in a protected and sacred space. Gazing at the sky, my heart filled with joy and gratitude at seeing so many stars and the Milky Way in such clear definition.
When I worked in a planetarium, I would develop and present whole shows that focused on teaching people how to identify specific stars and constellations – how to use the handle of the Big Dipper to find the North Star, how to recognize the Summer Triangle composed of the trio of stars Vega, Altair and Deneb, how to track the apparent movement of celestial objects across the sky. All this is useful information and an important way to understand the night sky. But this way of understanding the sky depends on activity of the mind. On thinking, cataloguing, and making divisions. On taking something that is whole and breaking it down into component parts. On getting to know the sky by conquering it with the intellect.
What I was learning at Spirit Rock was how to let go of the mind and experience pure awareness. Extending my practice to include star gazing, I found that I experienced the sky in a whole different way. Rather than trying to “make sense” out of what I was seeing, I simply allowed myself to experience the wholeness of the sky. My awareness expanded to include the feel of the cool night air on my skin, the sound of crickets in the bushes, the solidity of the wood platform supporting me, the quality of the breath moving into and out of my lungs. I noticed the line of the horizon where the bowl of the hills met the dome of the sky. But most of all, I was aware of the spaciousness of the sky, the expansiveness and infinity of it. I understood that I am a part of the sky and it is a part of me.
It is well known that we, as humans, are made of “star stuff”. Carl Sagan popularized this fact in his “Cosmos” book and TV series. But knowing this intellectually and experiencing it with pure awareness are two completely different things. I thank astronomy for the wealth of knowledge it has given me in understanding the cosmos with my mind, but now my calling is to experience the sky in a more holistic, integrative, and meditative way.