'We have calcium in our bones, iron in our veins,
carbon in our souls and nitrogen in our brains.
93 percent stardust, with souls made of flames,
we are all just stars that have people names.'
On the 14th February 1990, a now iconic photograph was taken from the Voyager 1 space probe. Taken at a distance of 3.7 billion miles from the sun, it depicts our planet as a barely perceptible speck, nothing more than pixel sized, floating in a beam of sunlight.
The picture became known as the Pale Blue Dot, which Carl Sagan- a prize winning astronaut and physicist - then borrowed for the title of his book, in which he gave us perspective and called for our awe.
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being that ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor, and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
Carl’s response - as poetic and even profound as it is- is not unique. The near spiritual altering of consciousness that comes from looking back upon the earth and seeing it suspended in space, is apparently nearly universal amongst astronauts. Termed the ‘overview effect’ it is described as the experience of having their perspectives immeasurably widened, and of being struck simultaneously with wonder at the immense beauty of the earth, acute awareness of its fragility and the reduction of everything- big or small- to nothing more than marbled swirls across a glowing blue planet. Things that matter so much on earth; divisions & differences that seem so concrete from the ground are rendered invisible from space and for many this offers up a revelation bordering on the sacrosanct.
Whilst the vast majority of us will never have the luxury of seeing the earth from this angle, zooming out on our quotidian lives can help to reduce the anxiety inducing experience of feeling entangled within its minutae. It is exactly what is meant by the invitation to ‘see the bigger picture’. It can also offer up undoubtedly helpful perspective when faced with larger issues too, be they personal or global. When we put things in their proper context, it is possible to see that much of what we will face - given the fact of impermanence and the inevitable passage of time- will pass. And in all but the most trying of circumstances, we will find ourselves to be okay.
Only last week someone said to me - when i asked how he’d sped with lockdown- that if he’d known everything was going to be okay through lockdown, he might well have been able to relax into a little more. ‘I feel sure there is a lesson in that,’ he said.
When we were at the coal face of lockdown, with death numbers rising at an alarming speed and the nation under virtual house arrest, the writer and thinker Mo Gawdat, ex google executive and known for having devised an algorithm for happiness did a podcast with Elizabeth Day. In it, he suggested by way of perspective that no global pandemic had ever lasted forever. Whilst we are arguably still embroiled in this one, his words have served to offer up genuine perspective- a zooming back- on the days when the experience felt entrenched.
This altering of the lens, and in doing so changing our perspective, works at the other extreme as well. The counsel at the heart of most spiritual traditions is to narrow our focus to rest solely on the present moment, acutely aware that many of the trials of our minds exist in the layers that we impose upon an experience and not the experience itself. Our worries tend naturally to recede when our attention draws down. Developing an acute presence of mind enables us to see the poetry and beauty in the smallest of moments. Not only do we miss much of life because of the disconnect between our bodies and our minds, but we also fail to capture the true gift of mental presence, which is the recognition that in any particular pixelated moment, everything is actually okay.
The difficulty is, that we tend - necessarily- to inhabit a place between these two extremes. Not entirely present to the moment, but neither drawing back and taking in the bigger picture. In many ways, this is for good reason. Grand philosophical perspectives and contemplating our insignificance in the face of the vastness of time and space could quite easily descend into nihilism. And whilst zen monks might counsel entire and absolute presence of mind, turning their every act into a meditation, most of us live resolutely in the temporal world, with the pressing concerns of daily life and our need to make plans and to project our attention forward. Whilst there is opportunity for philosophy in the mundane, you can’t always escape its drudgery.
But acknowledging that our anxieties are often the result of us needing to live in this perspective hinterland can be of help. It allows us to start to see things for what they are- offering a little space around the edges of things. But it also means we can- when we are struck with the overwhelm of a given moment or day - take a moment to deliberately change our field of view, stepping back or leaning in, and use this change as a useful antidote to our very real but thankfully also mutable concerns.