We Are Stardust

The Antennae Galaxies in Collision
The Antennae Galaxies in Collision from NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day

We subscribe to New Scientist, the British science magazine that provides short reports on newsworthy bits of research worldwide, several excellent columnists, and a couple of deep dives into important topics each week.

Reading each issue will remind you that our Earth is complex and interconnected and that we human beings have not come close to knowing everything there is to know about the place or, indeed, about ourselves.

Likewise, each issue will make it clear that the Universe is so vast as to be far beyond our comprehension and knowledge, at least now. We have only bits of knowledge about our little solar system, much less the Milky Way galaxy in which we reside, and both those are small potatoes within the Universe as a whole.

I also practice meditation. Of late, I’ve been meditating in the way taught by Master Li Junfeng of Sheng Zhen, which translates as the path of unconditional love, and am currently taking an online class from him to learn a form known as Heaven Earth Heart Contemplation.

When we meditate, we draw on the Earth and the Universe. As I start, I often think of the Earth – its molten core, the tectonic plates, everything from mountains to deserts to wetlands, the oceans and all the creatures – and then go out toward the Universe until I feel that I am one with the Universe.

And at the same time, I feel like I am a tiny speck in that Universe, that even the Earth is a tiny speck in it. Oddly, I find this very comforting. All those things we take so very seriously – even those on the level of life and death – don’t matter so much when I feel like this tiny bit of stardust.

That is, I come to the same place from both meditation and thinking about physics.

I do not mean that what we do in our lives is not important. Life itself is a fascinating thing and we should all do what we can to enjoy and savor it.

Also both Buddhists and physicists have been known to actively work for social change, particularly in relation to violence and justice. So being aware of the vastness of the Universe is not an excuse for ignoring the realities of the world around us.

But it is important to realize that our short human lives are only a blip in the larger reality. There must be many other forms of life out there. Some might be much longer-lived and powerful than us, though I suspect many forms will be, like us, just another tiny feature of the vast Universe.

Life as we understand it might not even be the most important thing going on in the Universe. (Now there’s a story idea I hope someone can wrap their head around.)

It may be that the period of life on Earth defined by humans will be a small blip as well. Modern humans have only been around for about 200,000 years. Our predecessors go back about 6 million years.

By comparison, the dinosaurs, though not all of any one species, roamed this planet for 165 million years.

Who knows how long we’ll be around in something like our present form. Or how long any successor species will be here.

It takes a lot of hubris to assume we’ll be around “forever,” though I think most of us (even those of us who know better) have a tendency to assume we’re the end point of evolution.

Many of us want to create stories or art or laws or empires that will bring us a kind of immortality. In truth, the longest anyone has been “remembered” is for a few millennia, at least so far. That’s a nano-second in Universe terms.

Thus the idea in meditation of being in this moment right now. In truth, it’s the only one we’ve got.

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