The cosmic perspective and its consolations
By Dr. Joseph Chuman
I am suffering from outrage overload. Given the macabre and oppressive political times we endure, I am not the only one. Many people, no doubt, seek modes of relief and escape. While I assiduously read the papers and magazines of opinion (these I can control), I find that I often turn away from television news. It feels like a bombardment. Others retreat into their private lives. Some seek psychotherapy.
The tightening grip of the political environment compounds the stresses of daily life—work, money anxieties, domestic strains, the commercial culture, and the demands of decisions to be made, large and small. There are the slings and arrows of enduring insults, the presence, real or small, of tragedies looming.
All this and much more require that we attend to the here and now, that we perpetually solve problems and invest ourselves in the details of living. Life can be stressful, and at times painful, and sometimes we may even ask ourselves: Is this all there is? Is there a way to get beyond the rat race, escape the grind and rise above the tedium?
These are age-old questions as attested to by the insights of ancient religions and venerable philosophers.
While I believe that our consciousness is molded in great measure by the material conditions in which we live, there is, nevertheless, some fluidity here. To some extent, I believe we can mitigate the pains and tedium of life by shifting our perspective.
Hanging on the wall in the basement of my home is a framed poster that, when I look at it, continually tweaks my intrigue and inspires my thought, if only for a short while. It’s an amazing photo taken just of a few years ago by the Cassini spacecraft in one of its many orbits around the planet Saturn. The photo was taken when the planet, with its extraordinary rings, was between the spacecraft and the sun. The planet’s surface is dark and the rings aglow. And there in the lower right-hand corner of the photo, surrounded by the frigid, infinite blackness of space, 880 million miles in the distance, is a tiny blue dot. That’s the planet Earth. That’s us!
My conclusion, which I suspect would be nearly universal, is that in the scheme of things, how very small, how fragile we are. Every war that has been fought, every cause that has been championed, every thought pondered, every feeling felt, every act of love, every pompous egotist who has felt himself entitled to lord his power or stupidity over others, every human foible and folly, has taken place on and confined to this minuscule, little speck floating in space.
Such a realization is paradoxically deflating and liberating at the same time. It provides a necessary reminder that what we construe as so large and consequential in the greater scheme of things is not. Yet in that diminishment, there is also a type of freedom from the burdens of those matters that, in the smaller interstices of daily living, we otherwise construe as so weighty and significant.
Taking the long view—being philosophical—can mentally put us in a different place. In Buddhist teaching, our suffering comes from “attachment,” our clinging to things, desires and, ultimately, our egos, all of which are fated to pass away. In letting go of attachments (not an easy process), we free ourselves from the desires that enslave us in cycles of frustration and loss. In the thought of the 17th Century philosopher Spinoza, we, and all else, are part of a great, deterministic chain of events. We are but small manifestations of an infinite system of causes and effects. All that happens to us does so by necessity, and in the great scheme of things there is no freedom. This insight, rather than depressing, canbe liberating, because it lifts an unnecessary burden of responsibility from our shoulders. In modern psychology, there is the notion of the “observing ego.” It is the process by which we cognitively remove ourselves from what is happening to us and look upon this action as if from a distance, as if it were happening “out there,” or to someone else. This perspective also brings with it a sense of relative tranquility, which helps to make our turbulent lives, filled with anxiety and demands, more tolerable.
I will develop these philosophical notions further, drawing from both Western and Eastern thought, in my address of Feb. 4. I have entitled it “The Cosmic Perspective and Its Consolations.” I hope you can join me then.