A Final Frontier

We are, each of us, a little universe. — Neil deGrasse Tyson

Photo by Roberto Nickson from Pexels

I have always gazed at the stars, longing with the beating of my heart for some greater connection to our cosmos. My childhood was filled with science fiction, astronomy, and glow in the dark stickers of constellations on my bedroom ceiling that I spent hours arranging. Even as an adult, I yearn to see our planet from above.

Space is potential and possibility, a garden of infinity. It is a great treasure of wonder and knowledge. The Universe is mostly space, and yet at our scale, it appears to be so crammed with life, and stuff, and objects that we can often feel claustrophobic, especially in our cities. Everywhere you go, there you are, bumping into things and people. Then, you scale up, and even the distances from here to the next nearest star system, are vast and unimaginable. And what’s in that space between the Stars?

Nothing?

No, not nothing. Potential.

In the last several years, I’ve been asking myself. Why do I desire the stars so desperately? Is it my curiosity of the unknown? Am I hungry to see with my own eyes, the grandeur shown to us by instruments like the Hubble telescope? Maybe it’s just too many hours consuming Star Trek, Star Wars, Stargate, the Expanse and countless other favorite sci-if films, shows, and books.

Is it that final frontier I crave? Is it an escape from the present and difficult state of humanity? Am I running away? Am I a coward?

What is it?

And then, I remember this quote from one of my favorite books, The Tao Te Ching,

“Do you want to improve the world?

I don’t think it can be done.

The world is sacred.

It can’t be improved.

If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it.

If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.”

I always pushed back against that quote, especially during my time as an activist, but what I have come to understand is that quote is about space. It is about potential and possibility, about the desperate need to turn inward and consider the space between thoughts and emotions. We run around trying to fix things in our lives for the wrong reasons. Our rush to change things, is a kind of running away, a distraction from what we really need.

Many of us run our lives ragged. This culture, this American drive for more, tells us that if we work hard, that if we grind and grind and grind, somehow we will come out on top. But it’s not true. Most people will stay in the same position they are born in and in fact, according to the research of American Economist Raj Chetty, social mobility is far more limited in this country than we think.

It is so easy to get lost in the hustle, the desire to improve our space in this place. We are gig workers chasing a way to eek out a living on top of our full time jobs. Though we may do everything right, we still fail. It feels, overwhelming and sometimes pointless. We drown in our desire, filled to the brim with a hunger that can never be satisfied.

Why can’t we just breathe and be?

Why do we chase the American dream? Why do we idolize those who have so much? Why do so many of us play the lottery and fantasize about what we would do with all that money? How do millions of people get sucked into Multi-Level Marketing schemes? Why do books like The Secret or Think and Grow Rich sell so well to those dispossessed in this capitalist system?

The answer is, that what we really crave is freedom and potential.

We feel that if we had the economic resources, the space, and time, we could become our best selves. But we don’t have to go anywhere to be our best selves. If we want to change the world, the best place to begin is within. We only become our best selves by making space in our minds and hearts, by contemplation and learning from our mistakes.

What comes from working on ourselves, from engaging in that final frontier within? If we look at history, at the great periods of science and learning, we see that diversity, contemplation, exploring our humanity, and questioning everything, lead to the illumination of the human experience. We made progress when we were allowed to play with knowledge and people who were different than us.

When I read about the International Space Station, and the cooperation between many countries that it requires, all in the name of something bigger, I feel hope for our species. Here, in space, is another place for great human questions and the power of diverse thinking. Space within, and space out there, are both necessary for humanity to grow beyond the shackles of materialism and empty promises in ad campaigns.

What I really want from this world most is the opportunity to explore beyond the bounds of greed and the lust for more. Space to me, represents everything wonderful about what it means to be human. Exploration, discovery, research and the pursuit of knowledge are, in my mind, the greatest of goals.

On our planet, and in particular in the United States, there is so little space for poetry, sculpture, theater, and other wondrous explorations of our inner lives. If it cannot easily be commodified and turn a tidy profit, it’s considered to have little importance. We see the demoralization of artists, writers, poets, and scientists. People who dedicate their lives to trying to understand the big questions, rather than the pursuit of a stock portfolio, are dismissed as idealists at best, and unproductive leaches on society at worst. We have become the dispossessed of our humanity. What happened to the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake?

Yet, what did you consume during quarantine? What treasures did you find in isolation? All were the spark of space and being, the talent of so many creators and the fruit of the research of scientists.

We, as a civilization have lost ourselves in the pursuit of the temporary high, the cult of happiness, instant gratification, gifted to us by the propaganda on endless commercial breaks and targeted algorithmic ads. Where do we have space to be human? I believe it’s out in the Stars but also within. After all, we are made of star stuff. We are a mirror to the wider universe, a fractal of knowing.

We need room for our imaginations and wonder in order to grow again. We need to value those who help us create the space for curiosity and creativity. There is so much space in the nature of our own existence, so much to the nature of our own magnificent mind. Space is everywhere.

I don’t know if sending more people into space will solve these issues, but I do know that exploration drives human ingenuity. We must however be careful of the mistakes of the past, and remember the horrors and wrongs we committed when exploring our own world, and the endless suffering that we caused to indigenous people. If we let greed be our guide again, we will continue the cycle among the stars.

I believe we can do better. We are worlds, within worlds, within worlds. Not only is our planet full of life, death, growth, and change, so too are our bodies, our minds, our hearts and even our perception. We ourselves are an epic tale of triumph and failure. I believe that we are at a turning point in our species. We can choose to continue down the path of greed and selfishness, or we can turn in, recognize the meaningless that we have created though our missteps, shift our goals, and then explore the final frontier within and without.

The Great Risk of Truly Being

The Great Risk of Truly Being

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about my Buddhist spiritual path and also I’ve been rereading Children of Dune by Frank Herbert. This is because the Dune movie comes out in October 2021 and I wanted to be reminded of why I love that universe. This quote in particular stuck with me today in thinking about my own spiritual path and the way I live my life.

“You, Priest in your mufti, you are a chaplain to the self-satisfied. I come not to challenge Muad’Dib but to challenge you! Is your religion real when it costs you nothing and carries no risk? Is your religion real when you fatten upon it? Is your religion real when you commit atrocities in its name? Whence comes your downward degeneration from the original revelation? Answer me, Priest!” – Children of Dune by Frank Herbert

Children of Dune by Frank Herbert: 9780593201749 | PenguinRandomHouse.com:  Books

Now understand, if you haven’t read the Dune series, it is fundamentally about the nature and dangers of power and of messiahs/heroes. Paul Atreides, the main character in the first book, knows because of his ability to see the future, that a holy war will be waged in his name and there is little he can do about it. The book, and the series as a whole, asks us to consider what we believe, who we have mythologized, and what that says about humanity, power, love, compassion and asks what it means to be human. There is a reason that the book is considered a masterpiece by both the literary community and many sci-fi lovers. Dune is also the best-selling Sci-fi Novel of all time. Even if it’s not for you (because every great work has people who don’t like or understand it and there is nothing wrong with that), it has lots of powerful things to say about the way humans do things.

Stop right now, and think about your life path. Is your path about self-satisfaction? It is about serving your interests? Is it about the arrogance of being right above all others? Or, is your way of knowing the world about self-reflection? Is there a space for growth and change, the transformation into the best version of yourself? Are you taking the risk to truly be or are you buried in a series of identity markers and worried about defining who you are to everyone you meet? Do you focus on comparison? We all fall into these traps, I know I do sometimes and have to catch myself.

So many religious and non-religious people seek a philosophy not out of transformation and growth, but for comfort and safety. They like things that make their life feel cozy and warm. And while the benefits of community (notice the word unity at the end of the word) are important and worthwhile, I want you to sincerely ask yourself, what have you done to grow lately? Have you acknowledged the ways in which you are wrong or at least entertained the idea that you might be wrong? It can be powerful to look at your ideas and consider that you might be wrong about everything (even if you end up being correct) once in a while. Are you doing the work to be a better version of yourself or are you feeding the beast of arrogance and certainty?

You might be thinking, well isn’t a better version of myself a self-serving principle? It is not. Why? Because a better version of yourself will have better daily interactions. It will be less angry, less selfish/greedy. A better version of yourself will listen with patience to others rather than jumping to conclusions and is much more likely to help those in need. A better version will not only suffer less, but cause others to suffer less. A better version of yourself means that your part of the world, and potentially the whole world, is a little better. It might not add up to much, but imagine if everyone was doing this kind of work on at least a semi-regular basis.

So if your religion or ideology or philosophy (secular or non) is about what you can gain personally from others no matter the cost, then you might need to stop and reflect. What do you serve? Some of you might simply say God or Country, but if your service is exclusive only to those who believe what you do, or conditional on whether or not they will act and behave in the way you want them to, then you only serve an idol of the self and arrogance.

Another quote to consider from verse 8 of the Tao Te Ching:

“The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.

When you are content to be simply yourself
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.”

If you are Christian, you can see a similar attitude in The Sermon on the Mount and a number of other places in the bible. If you’re Muslim, there are words like this in the Koran, or the Hindu Vedas, in many Buddhist Sutras, and so on. The teachings of many religious philosophies overlap in the idea of personal growth is vital, and yet, somehow the worship of the myth structure becomes far more important than the actual practice of working toward being a better person. We often view these ideas as a panacea for the poisons of living in a difficult world and forget that nothing comes without work.

Instead, we see so many religions (and secular ideologies) restrict people’s actions out of a false sense of morality or limited black and white thinking. But the world is full of shades of grey. Even really good people do terrible things. Really bad people sometimes show amazing acts of kindness and compassion. It is so easy to pin a group of people or a culture to a certain standard or ideology, rather than accepting the fact, that no matter where you go, people are just people and all are equally complex.

So ask yourself sincerely, what purpose does your religion or ideology serve? Is it about the betterment of yourself and humanity? If not, it’s just another object to be possessed, a kind of materialism, a limit to the way you think and approach the world. If your heart is closed because of what you subscribe to, then you very likely have missed the entire point.

The work is not comfortable. The work is not easy. The work isn’t about serving the self. The work is risky and sometimes dangerous to your identity. If you have summed up your identity in a few key terms (be it a religious identity, a political affiliation, a gender, a mental state, really anything), then you have forgotten that we are an ever-changing, ever-moving entity. You are not the same person you were when you started reading this short essay, even if you reject all of my ideas.

Personal growth, in my view, is the most important thing we can do. After all, using this life, this precious moment (no matter if you believe in one life or countless lives) seems to me, to be the reason why humans are on this planet. Let your spirituality or philosophy open you up to the wonders of the universe. After all, there is endless beauty and joy to be discovered both out there, and within. You need only take off the veils or masks that we all wear and look honestly.

Thinking About the Tedious

Verse 67 of the Tao Te Ching (via Ursula K. Le Guin’s translation) opens with the following lines:

Inside

Everybody says my way is great,

But improbable

All greatness

Is improbable.

What’s probable

Is tedious and petty.

I think every artist, every researcher, every teacher (or really every human being ever) asks at some point, why do I bother? Why do I bother to create art? Do students even care? Why do I even try? Why am I important anyway? Why do I wake up and go to a job I hate? As anyone reading this knows, self-doubt is a common human experience and for those of us who have chosen to try and create, it is perhaps even more potent and possibly more devastating.

I know I sometimes find those thoughts echoing in my mind as if I was screaming repeatedly into the Grand Canyon, until the feedback of my own mind feel like a high pitched aching distortion of misery. Sometimes, when I stop and watch this, it makes me laugh a little at its utter absurdity. Other times, I allow myself (like many people) to become enveloped by what feels hopeless. It is when we identify with our own thoughts, that we allow this hopelessness to persist.

All identity is crafted from a mix between our internal life, our social interactions and the wider cultural sphere(s) in which we exist. Therefore, identity is ever-changing and ever-moving. You are not the same person you were at the moment you began reading this.

So often, social pressure and cultural history interplay with our own consciousness in such a way that we ignore the small still inner voices that rage so quietly in the back of our mind. We allow the judgements of others, of our wider culture and perhaps most dangerously the wave of expectations from both the outside world and our own ideas of what the world should be, blot out the fact that we have created something beautiful or wonderful or unique. Or perhaps we forget the amazing amount of conditions that have coalesced to create this particular and quite miraculous moment in which we reside.

The easy path is to give up and allow our own misery to wash over us. The easy path is to continue with whatever tedium we have surrendered too. We urge ourselves to repeat the same cycles, because a new one is perhaps too scary or might be harder. But the path towards our own truth, towards the end of suffering is much more difficult. This is the path of honesty, of authenticity.

By the way, I am not going to tell you to take the road less traveled, or present you with some hollow interpretation via Robert Frost because in all honesty, that poem has been grossly misinterpreted.  (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/what-gives-robert-frosts-road-not-taken-its-power-180956200/?no-ist )

We need to be the Hermit, The Shaman, The Buddha, the Christ Figure (or any other symbol of a retreat in the wilderness and the exploration the inner life), seeking to understand the nature of our own suffering and the limitations we put on ourselves. We must ask ourselves, how have we been in our own way lately? Doing so, is the only way we break from the probable, from the tedious, from the petty. That is the only way that human beings as a whole will reach the distance future, for so many systems of suffering have been created by relying on structures we want to last forever, but are in fact impermanent.

In short, find trust in yourself. And for those of us who create, “Do you work and Step Back, The only path to serenity” (via Tao Te Ching verse 9). We must accept that the inner voice or our creations may never be shared with the wider world. That’s okay. Recognition, Fame, Respect, these things are all fleeting. Instead focus on the fact that the mere ability to create is the essence of remarkable beauty.