There’s been a flurry of stuff about outer space recently with the new landing on Mars. When I was growing up I assumed we would be living on Mars by now and it’s odd that the technology employed by NASA in the 1970s engenders a kind of nostalgia, as though progress was going backwards. It isn’t of course, as the Mars landing demonstrates, it’s just taken some unexpected turns.
I’ve also been re-reading Douglas Adams’ 1978 book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It is full of wondrous and laugh-out-loud moments, here is one on the vastness of space:
“Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.
When confronted by the sheer enormity of the distances between the stars, better minds than the one responsible for the Guide's introduction have faltered. Some invite you to consider for a moment a peanut in Reading and a small walnut in Johannesburg, and other such dizzying concepts.”
Such a dizzying concept is ably demonstrated in the Natural History Museum in Oxford where, in the café on the mezzanine floor, there is a ball bearing in a glass case. On the opposite side of the mezzanine, about 50 metres away, there is a gilded sphere about the size of a grapefruit. This represents the Sun, and the ball bearing is the Earth, all to scale. I think Douglas Adams would have loved it.
The Mars landing has triggered the usual reaction about whether space travel is worth the jaw-droppingly large sums of money that are involved. Manned spaceflight is of course even more expensive, which is why the Apollo programme was stopped in the mid-1970s, but at the end of the truly awful year of 1968 (Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King both assassinated, the Vietnam War at its height, rioting around the world) the Apollo 8 mission photographed the Earth rising above the Moon’s horizon. It stunned the astronauts to see their home, along with everything they knew and held dear, looking so vulnerable and isolated in the vastness of space, as it did the rest of humanity. It may have been the most existential moment in our history: to see, for the first time, ourselves as we truly are: just a few billion tiny bipedal carbon-based life forms floating together in the endless loneliness of the Universe, and it started to sink in that we are going to have to learn to get along together. In my view that photograph alone justifies all the expense.
In mindfulness practice there are often references to the ‘inner space’ that forms the field of our consciousness and also something called ‘spacious awareness’. What does this mean, and how can we create an awareness that is ‘spacious’? Perhaps it is easier to imagine the corollary of this when our minds become ‘contracted’. We grab on to the worrying thought, or pain, or negative feeling until everything else disappears. We feel like there is no space, the problem at hand fills it all. The trick is to imagine instead a spaciousness, that there IS room where we can negotiate around the difficulty. Easier said than done perhaps, but if we can suspend our restricted point of view for a minute and see ourselves as if from another person’s point of view we can cultivate the ability to empathise with ourselves - looking back at ourselves as if we were in that Apollo 8 spacecraft.