“Whatever we do, wherever we go, whatever happens on this crowded surface of interactions constituting our world, there is also the sky. The sky is a familiar – we might even say ‘local’ – representative of space.”
I love this quote from Tarthang Tulku (a Tibetan Buddhist teacher) because it simultaneously puts things in perspective and makes me chuckle. The perspective comes from the reminder that there are things, such as the sky, that are much greater than my personal problems. The chuckle comes from a visual image that popped into my head the first time I read these words. For some reason, my brain zeroed in on the phrase “local representative” and I immediately got a picture of The Sky running for a seat on the U.S. Congress. Just imagine The Sky on the campaign trail…giving speeches, shaking hands, holding babies. But why stop at Congress? The Sky for President! I’ve never liked the phrase “ruler of the free world” but I could get behind it if The Sky were President of the United States. I think we’d have a much better shot at world peace if The Sky was in the White House.
Somehow I doubt that is what Tarthang Tulku meant when he wrote those words.
I think that part of what he is trying to convey is that the sky is our one and only entry point to understanding space. He goes on to point out that “though it can be contemplated in its vastness, openness, and depth, even the sky is related to as a boundary – an enclosing spherical surface. However, no sooner do we relate to it in this way than are we reminded, in that very act, of the even larger, more open space of the solar system, galaxy, and universe” (Time, Space, Knowledge).
Despite modern technology of satellites and spacecraft that we send into space, our only direct experience of space is through interaction with the sky immediately above our heads. Our scientific understanding of the sky – both in terms of atmosphere and celestial objects – has expanded hugely since Galileo gazed through his telescope in 1609. Yet when you let all the facts and numbers fall away, our direct personal experience of the sky remains very similar to our ancestors from millennium ago.
Actually, in some ways we are at a disadvantage compared to our ancestors. Not only do we have light pollution to contend with but the scientific objectification of space can also be a barrier to having a direct experience. It is so easy to gaze up at the sky and focus on identifying and categorizing what you see based on everything that you have learned in the past. There is nothing wrong with this, but it prioritizes a quantitative (objective) experience over a qualitative (subjective) experience. As any good researcher will tell you, both quantitative and qualitative data have value.
The Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course (which is quantitatively proven to have beneficial effects on quality of life) often starts with a qualitative experience in which you eat a raisin slowly, paying close attention to your sense of eating it. Letting go of all prior knowledge, how would you describe the experience of eating the raisin? What does it look like? What does it smell like? What does it taste like? The idea is to immerse yourself fully in the direct experience of eating the raisin.
My challenge to you, should you choose to accept it, is this: The next time you look up at the sky (either in the daytime or nighttime) let go of all your knowledge about it and just experience it directly. What do you actually see? What colors, shapes, movements, textures, sounds, and even smells or tastes are included in your direct experience of space? What does it feel like to gaze at the sky? If this were your first time ever looking at the sky, how would you describe it?
If you do try this out, I’d love to hear how it goes for you. Feel free to share your experience in the comments section below. Happy sky gazing!