Depiction of the known universe, with text and a line
pointing to the Virgo Supercluster of galaxies,
which includes our Milky Way galaxy
Seeing With a Cosmic Eye
A Portrait of Existence
in a Mind Boggling Universe
by Ken Sanes
It is a cool clear night. I am sitting on a bluff, looking down at a
long stretch of beach as it disappears into the distance. Overhead,
there is a full moon and the sky is full of stars.
As I look out at this awe-inspiring scene, I think to myself that
everything is so still, it could easily be mistaken for a painting.
In fact, there is only one source of movement that I can discern: the
dark outline of someone jogging on the beach, with a frisky dog running
alongside, its silhouette of a tail wagging in the air as it looks up at
The only sound is the dogís bark, which is muffled by the distance, and
the intermittent blaring of a horn from a ship at sea.
As I continue to look and listen, my instincts tell me
that I should be observing this landscape in a state of quiet
contemplation. But my mind is too active for that and, instead, I begin to think of
this scene as a symbol for the mystery of the world. And I ask myself
how artists and spiritual seekers in the past have tried to convey a
sense of this same mystery.
Then, in response to my question, my thoughts begin to span
eras in history and civilizations. They pass over the prehistoric wall
paintings of Lascaux; gothic cathedrals with expansive sacred spaces; and Zen gardens that are intended to convey a sense of
the simplicity and perfection people experience in a state of
Finally, my thoughts alight on Rome during the Renaissance, where
Michelangelo painted frescoes in the Sistine Chapel to tell the story of
first and final things. Of all our attempts to say something about the
mystery of existence, this was the
most exceptional, with ceiling panels that picture the creation of the
world and the exile from paradise, and a mural that portrays the
righteous ascending to heaven at the end of days as the damned are
ushered into the depths of hell.
It is an awe-inspiring vision, especially since Michelangelo populates
this panorama with his true subject: suffering humanity, trapped in a
fallen world and in the prison of the self.
I think to myself that each of these creations offers a way of seeing
the world. And each offers a source of hope, even when they seem to
reduce the observer in size or present a disturbing portrait of life.
But then, as my thoughts continue, I realize that our own age has produced a
vision of a very different kind.
It comes not from religion or art or architecture, but
from physics and astronomy, which tell us that the universe was
born not quite fourteen billion years ago from a small point, in an
explosion of space and time that is still exerting a force today. And
beyond the protective atmosphere of the Earth and the vastness of our
solar system and Milky Way galaxy, this same universe is now a cosmic
web of tens of billions of galaxies, separated by voids of space.
Of course, physics and astronomy also tell us that this is only the part
of the universe our eyes and instruments can see. No one knows what is
beyond a certain point, which means the cosmic web could extend to
Not surprisingly, this vision can leave us feeling reduced in
size to an extreme degree. In fact, what astronomy has discovered is so
vast and so all-containing that our Milky Way galaxy, with an estimated
200-400 billion stars, is too small to be visible in depictions of the
In the face of this immensity, we inevitably wonder how we can compare
anything we have accomplished to the true scale of existence.
How can we compare the Sistine Chapel to the massive sheet of galaxies
known as the Sloan Great Wall or the Pantheon in Rome to the Pillars of
Creation, where new stars are forged?
How can we compare Lascaux, the Golden Gate Bridge, Borobudur, Tikal or
the Burj Khalifa to a universe that is like the grains of sand on the
beach below me, in which every grain is a galaxy filled with stars?
And how can we compare the single moment of our lives to the life of the
universe, which will continue for billions of years before it comes to
But even all of this may represent only an infinitesimal point in the
order of existence because there may be trillions of universes.
According to a well known theory, every possible outcome of events may
be realized in every moment, everywhere, with each outcome generating an alternate universe, so that universes perpetually branch off from
each other and then branch again.
If that is correct, it would be as if every grain of sand on the beach
below isnít merely a galaxy but a universe. And the grains of sand would
quickly pile up, generating a cosmos of universes and a universe of
At least thatís what I'm thinking when I look down and notice the way
the beach forms a thin line of sand that disappears into the distance, wedged between the ocean and a wall of cliffs.
Then something else catches my eye and I realize that the jogger has left the beach
and is running on
an upward diagonal path along the side of the bluff, toward where Iím
sitting, with the dog following close behind.
But the sight of the jogger heading my way only knocks me off my
reflections for a moment, as I think to myself that we can now peer down
into the fine grain of the microscopic world and discover another realm
of existence that also doesnít have anything in common with the
comforting certainties we are familiar with.
It is a realm in which the things we know from our surroundings turn out to be mostly space, and there are particles that donít occupy a specific place.
So how should we respond to a world that has so little in common with
our everyday perceptions -- a world in which we seem to barely exist
compared to the scale of space and time?
Is there a framework of understanding we can use to make sense of our
lives or evoke a feeling of hope when we are now in a state of radical
doubt, and the certainty of life is a flame that science has
unceremoniously put out?
The Pillars of Creation
Is it Runner? Yes it is! Thatís a good boy, Runner.
It turns out that the dogís name is Runner. Heís a friendly German
shepherd who keeps jumping on me and trying to lick my face. I donít
care if he is mostly space, he instantly wins me over.
As for the jogger, she turns out to be a thin young woman in a
and sweatpants, with short brown hair, who is briefly running in place
to keep her heart rate up while I make friends with her dog.
Then theyíre off again, heading inland away from the bluff, with Runner
giving me a last wistful look back.
As I watch them disappear into the distance, my reflections make their
way back to the center of my attention, and I think to myself that our
view of the world inevitably changes when we recognize the true nature
It changes because we have a more complete understanding of what the
world really is -- an understanding that was inaccessible when artists
and architects created those earlier visions of existence.
But it also changes because we are aware of all those monumental
formations looming in the distance, such as the Sloan Great Wall and the
Pillars of Creation, that are pure physicality without intention --
spectacles burning in the aloneness of space.
We then more fully understand that the universe is an inferno of
creation and destruction;
it is matter and energy, searing cold and fire, darkness and light, in a
void of meaning that seems to mock our yearning for a world filled with
humanity, governed by right.
But if we are merely specks in an inhuman
universe, and our telescopes and equations fail to reveal a moral code
that comes from anywhere on high, and we know that our lives are only a spark of awareness
before we die, then questions inevitably arise: Why should we be good?
Why pretend that life makes sense?
After all, if science has revealed a universe without a heaven or salvation, then isnít everything we were told a lie? And,
if so, then what is forbidden?
Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator
Sitting on this bluff, I continue to reflect on the ways that
science is changing our perceptions of the world. But something has
happened: I feel like I have taken a step back from my
usual point of view. Itís as if Iím suddenly out there in the expanse,
looking back at life on Earth and seeing things with a cosmic eye.
What I see is a planet at a very small scale that is teeming with people, all of them trapped in
their own point of
view, able to perceive only a fraction of their surroundings in a
distorted way. I see them absorbed in their own
pursuits, lured on by one thing after another, driven by forces
inside that they donít understand.
I see some of them crawling over each other in a desperate effort to get
ahead, and worrying obsessively about blame, as they pass the buck and
pass it again, striking back for even minor slights to their
self-esteem, bicker for bicker and hate for hate because something
in our temperament is a twist of fate.
As I look at the Earth with a cosmic eye, I also see the self-aggrandizers trying to
inflate themselves beyond their normal size, in a futile attempt to undo
the truth about their place in nature and time, lifting their voices to
worship at the altar of themselves, demanding adulation, while many of
their admirers enthusiastically comply.
Sitting on this bluff, at a reduced scale, myself, and looking down at
things from somewhere in the expanse, they are even smaller than I
all the posers, strutting around, puffed up, with their coteries of
hangers-on, as they position themselves for the cameras, using clever
techniques of rhetoric and theater to win over the public;
and the demagogues look smaller still, whipping the crowd into a frenzy
of hate as they radiate the sallow yellow light of a false glory.
Of course, I know that this experience isn't unique. A great many people
have expressed similar ideas. I feel a sense of commonality with them, a
bond that links us across centuries and continents.
I also know there is a danger that the kind of experience Iím having can
take us beyond an understanding of our limitations and further into
nihilism and the depths of absurdism, sociopathy and despair.
It can lead us to see ourselves with a jaundiced eye, as we look at
billions of people, like dots on an ant hill globe
suspended in space, the perpetual motion of the human race.
The Earth viewed from space
A flock of birds flying close to the bluff jars me out of my thoughts. I
notice the night has gotten cooler. The moon is also brighter than when I
arrived and there seem to be even more stars in the sky.
Then I realize that I still have a sense that I am looking down from somewhere
in the expanse, seeing the Earth with a cosmic eye. But there's a
difference because now I find myself in a state of awe at the universe
with its unfathomable scale and intricacy of pattern.
I am similarly in awe of this speck of a blue-green world, covered with
forests, pastures, streams and oceans, and teeming with living things
that have the capacity to move and grow and generate more of their own
kind, in a web of transformation and exchange that seems to be alive.
And I am in awe of the billions of people who make up humanity, embedded
in the same web of life, working and loving to survive, cultivating land
and building cities as they try to make peace with the truth about
But what is particularly striking is the state of interiority they all
have in common -- the moving tapestry of experience that changes from
one moment to the next,
and the abilities that let them reshape their environment so it reflects
what is inside,
making it possible to create art and temples that communicate fear and
yearning, ecstasy and surprise, with the capacity to evoke wonder and a
sense of the sublime,
because we are matter organized into mind, the same matter as the rest
of the universe, but somehow another kind.
There isnít anything else like this in the universe that we know of,
certainly not the exteriority of the Sloan Great Wall and the Pillars of
Creation. In fact, it is humanity that gives those massive formations
their only known meaning by observing them and making them part of its
Seeing these things with a cosmic eye has given me a renewed appreciation
for humanity, which has a unique ability to generate symbols and stories that crystallize experience and point beyond themselves.
In fact, many of the creations of the human race are a testament to its ability to reach beyond
instead of being confined to the cramped space of the self-involved
Knowing all of this can encourage us to treasure what we have built over
the centuries -- and protect it -- recognizing how fragile it is and,
perhaps, how unique.
At least thatĎs what Iím thinking when I see the jogger and dog heading
on an upward diagonal path along the side of the bluff, toward where Iím
sitting, and, inexplicably, I am filled with joy over the panorama of
the scene that is spread out before me on all sides.
Reproduction of Guernica by Picasso
Is it Runner? Yes it is!
After the jogger comes over the top of the bluff, we offer each other a
friendly greeting. She then tells me that the name of her German
shepherd is Runner.
As she is speaking, I notice she has short brown hair and, despite
her loose-fitting jogging suit, it is obvious that she is very thin.
But as I start to move forward to pet the dog, it looks at me -- and Iím
not entirely comfortable with what I see. There isnít a snarl exactly --
just a look that seems less than friendly.
Maybe Iím being paranoid, but Iíd rather be safe and not regret my lack
of caution later. So I step back and she passes by with the dog as it
looks back at me. Then they head along the side of the cliff, toward the
lights of the town in the distance.
As I watch them get smaller and begin to disappear, I once again see
myself with a cosmic eye, somewhere between the vastness of space and
the punctuated emptiness that is the stuff of existence, and I think to
myself that I accept having to live with these large uncertainties,
beyond the closer-to-home uncertainties of everyday life. And I am
grateful for the privilege of seeing some of the truth about my place in
the world, even if it means knowing that I am almost invisible in the
desert of reality.
Looking out at my surroundings, I also feel grateful for all this beauty
-- the large red sun falling behind the trees, the hint of a crescent
moon already visible in the sky, the deep green forest blanketing the
land below me as far as the eye can see, and the snow topped mountains
in the distance, lost somewhere in the mist.
I know that it was formed by impersonal forces moving land and water,
but I can't help but feel gratitude for the remarkable result. And even
I donít know what the source is, I am still grateful for all of it, which is a gift from Heaven, even
when it seems like we are burning in the miracle of a Gnostic Hell,
beset by injuries inflicted by nature and other people and ourselves.
Despite all that, I am grateful for the glory of the world and I want a
way to express my gratitude to its unfathomable source, even amid the
global suffering that life produces in every instant, and the madness of
crowds surging forward, filled with righteous indignation, searching for
victims, with a chorus of voices screaming in anguish,
to you I give thanks.
A rendering of a small portion of the painted
of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo
My inner sense tells me it is almost time to go back to my life in town.
But first I want to think about the individuals in history who offered
an axial vision that helps make sense of our lives. They were teachers
and prophets, such as Siddhartha Gautama and Socrates, whose ideas
ushered in the age of world religions and the systems of ethics and
philosophy that are still with us today.
Their ideas varied, and some offered a more comprehensive understanding
of life than others. But collectively they revealed that there is a
battle going on inside us between love and hate, truth and illusion. And
very essentially, between our authentic self and our egoism, which
wreaks havoc on the world and forces us to live on the confused surface
of our lives.
Their message was that we should take sides in this battle and develop
what is deepest in us, which has the capacity for clarity, awe and
compassion, instead of aggrandizing ourselves and becoming immersed in
our own point of view.
Realize the truth about the world, they said, and treat people as you
want to be treated, recognizing your common humanity with others
who suffer like you.
This philosophy comes up so consistently in
different times and places, and it has been espoused by so many
remarkable people, it clearly offers an essential insight into our
It can be found today in all of the worldís major religions and in the
work of writers and thinkers, such as the seventeenth century
philosopher, Benedict Spinoza, who pierced through the veil of
appearances and called on us to see the world in the light of eternity.
I think it is safe to say that Spinoza, like many of these axial
teachers, had the capacity to see the world with a cosmic eye, even though he knew
less about it than we know today.
In the twentieth century, one of the inheritors of this vision was the
physicist Albert Einstein, who was quoted as saying that his beliefs
were based on loving your neighbor and loving the first cause of all things.
I can hear Einsteinís words clearly in my mind as if they are being
spoken in his voice. The individual who has a ďcosmic religious sense,Ē
he says, ďfeels the vanity of human desires and aims, and the nobility
and marvelous order which are revealed in nature and in the world of
ďHe feels the individual destiny as an imprisonment and seeks to
experience the totality of existence as a unity full of significance.Ē
Some four centuries before him, Michelangelo painted his grand vision of
history in the Sistine Chapel, from the creation and fall to the end of
days, precisely because he sensed that his individual destiny was an
imprisonment, and he wanted to experience the totality of existence as a
unity full of significance.
Now, I have been lucky enough to tap in to the same kind of experience
that moved people like Michelangelo and Einstein, and it has
given the things I know a new and deeper meaning.
But all of us are inheritors of this vision because it is an essential
part of our inner selves, which have an aesthetic revulsion to
unfairness and suffering, and a desire to affirm life and love -- and
know the truth about the world.
It is the part inside that calls on us to live up to what we are --
matter organized into mind, imbued with spirit -- even if we donít
understand how that is grounded in the universe.
It is also the part that has a way of showing itself when we enjoy a
richness of experience and feel the most authentic, which means it is
who we are in a state of psychological health.
Of course, we are also the inheritors of another vision, which calls on
us to regress and hide from the truth, to exploit other people and be
imbued with hate. It also speaks to us in an insistent voice, telling us
not to experience the totality of existence as a unity filled with
significance, but to act as if we are the totality of existence -- or at
least its center.
So now it is our turn in our own brief moment of history to fight this
battle between the two sides of human nature, and feel compassion for a
lost humanity -- and the lost self.
It is our turn to experience awe at this titanic impossibility of a
universe, and recognize that we are governed by a moral law, even if
science can't find the lawgiver or confirm our belief that goodness
is something objective beyond ourselves.
And it is up to us to say that, even if science hasn't produced any evidence that
there is anything beyond our world that cares about suffering, we care
-- and that matters.
That means the burden now falls on us to try to redeem the promise
contained in the words said over so many victims of violence who were buried before
their time and over the corpses that fell back into the earth on fields of
Perhaps it will even be possible for some people to take the axial
vision further than this and experience an all-embracing love for a difficult
humanity and an impossible universe.
Unfortunately, we are held back by our own flawed humanity, as the cry
goes out from each of us -- ďMe! Me! Me!Ē Ė even though we recognize
thereís another way to know and another way to be.
Einstein was in awe of the
order of the universe
Sitting on this bluff, I feel as though Iím filled with the world.
Unfortunately, I can also sense that this experience is almost at a
But before it ends, I want to think about progress -- because progress
is what a lot of this is about. And it is obvious that progress is something real, even
though it happens in fits and starts, and the power it gives us can be
used for good or evil.
Most notably, it is the progress of science and technology that has made
it possible for us to have a more complete understanding of the world
and use our knowledge to improve our lives. And it is the same
scientific progress that has given grandiose and malevolent leaders more
effective tools to engage in mass murder and carry out their evil
In the future, we will undoubtedly witness a great deal more progress as
science reaches into space and into the fabric of matter, life and the
mind to reveal many of the secrets of existence.
These discoveries will give us an unprecedented degree of control over
But many of these same discoveries will also give us the capacity to act
out our pettiness and meanness on a grander scale, dehumanizing and
enslaving other people, and grinding civilization into ruins.
So now that history is turning on its axis again and ushering in a new
age, it is up to us to update the universal message of the teachers of
the past and use it as a guide for science.
That means it is up to us to infuse science with a philosophy of benevolence
will be a more effective tool to repair the world, and to support life in
its battle with death and with the living death of the hateful soul.
Taking an idea from
Einstein, it is up to us to use science (and spirituality and the arts) to
cultivate a sense of awe and humility at the mystery of existence.
It also means that progress isn't enough. Controlling the world
that now overwhelms us isn't enough, unless we also find a way
to straighten the crooked heart and make the
shattered self whole.
Of course, it is possible that the experience of sitting here, looking
out at this clear moonless night, has inspired an idealistic vision in
me that goes a little too far.
By way of counterpoint, it might be good to recall the words of the
philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, who said that the adventure of the
universe starts with the dream of youth and reaps tragic beauty.
Perhaps he was right, and these reflections are just a dream of youth
and a prologue to all the tragic beauty that is about to be
I hope not. But I have to acknowledge that possibility.
This thought almost brings my reflections to a close when there is one
more surprise: a feeling of tenderness washes over me as I observe a
jogger running on a path along the line of houses below, with what looks
like a frisky German shepherd circling her as she goes.
From my vantage point high on the bluff, she looks small and vulnerable,
and I have an irrational desire to protect her from the world.
In fact, she looks so small, I think to myself that she could easily be
erased from the scene and the world would barely notice.
An odd thought. But since it isnít directly related to these ideas, I
turn back to my reflections for the last time and think to myself that
one day we will bring our fullness of conscious feeling to an empty
or (who knows?) maybe we will bring the empty universe itself to the
fullness of conscious feeling,
because our role in life is to fill every corner of the universe with
good, and fit together the fragments of a broken world.
Images and information on images are from Wikimedia Commons
Some of these should be considered photo illustrations
A depiction of the known universe with a line
pointing to the Virgo Supercluster, which includes our Milky Way galaxy
Image of Pillars of Creation, with some cloning
to create a more complete looking image
Charlie Chaplin as megalomaniacal dictator in the movie The Great
Reproduction of Guernica by Picasso
A small part of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo,
which shows the end of days
Albert Einstein 1931
* ďÖour inner selves, which have an aesthetic revulsion to unfairness
and suffering,ÖĒ This idea is inspired by something written by Herbert
Marcuse, although I donít have the reference available at the time Iím
* The axial age and axial philosophies: see work by Karl Jaspers and
* William Hermanns quotes Einstein as saying that a cosmic religion (and
his own beliefs) are based on the idea of loving your neighbor and the
first cause of the universe.
William Hermanns, Einstein and the Poet: In Search of the Cosmic Man
(Brookline Village, MA: Branden Press, Inc., 1983) p. 109
* Quote from Einstein defining cosmic religious sense:
Albert Einstein, Cosmic Religion, with other Opinions and Aphorisms (New
York: Albert Einstein, Cosmic Religion, with other Opinions and Aphorisms (New
York: Covici-Friede, 1931) p. 48
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