16 October 2006

Is the Universe already teeming with intelligent life?  Or is the emergence of life a rare event?  Or is life quite common across the Universe, but generally content to remain in single-celled forms?  Martin Rees, a senior astronomer at Cambridge, is fond of contemplating the consequence if this planet is the unique place in our vast universe where intelligent life has evolved. 

“More time lies ahead than has elapsed in the entire course of biological evolution. In those aeons, Earth could be the seed from which post-human life spreads through the galaxy. The fate of humanity could then have an importance that is truly cosmic: what happens here might conceivably make the difference between a near eternity filled with ever more complex and subtle forms of life and one filled with nothing but base matter.”
~ Martin Rees, from a reprinted article in New Scientist, offering a balanced answer to the question How good are the prospects for success of SETI, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence?

Ever since the Copernican Revolution, mans place in the Universe has seemed small and peripheral.  But Rees also sees the opposite possibility: if human life has the unique opportunity to colonize space, then the fate of our civilization in the 21st century could have cosmic significance.

“Once the threshold is crossed when there is a self-sustaining level of life in space, then lifes long-range future will be secure irrespective of any of the risks on Earth (with the single exception of the catastrophic destruction of space itself). Will this happen before our technical civilisation disintegrates, leaving this as a might-have-been? Will the self-sustaining space communities be established before a catastrophe sets back the prospect of any such enterprise, perhaps foreclosing it forever? We live at what could be a defining moment for the cosmos, not just for our Earth.” 
~ Our Final Century by Martin Rees

15 October 2006

How I Meditate, part IV

When I meditate on Peace, Love, Joy and Immortality, I follow an elaborate script, amplifying each image with variations from diverse traditions:

Shalom: A Hebrew greeting, hello and goodbye.  A reminder that peace means no violence.
Pacem: From the Latin mass, Dona nobis pacem is a classically sincere wish for inner peace.
Shanthi: The Sanskrit word brought into the English language by T.S. Eliot, who translated ‘peace that passeth understanding.’  

Inner peace implies an appreciation of the world’s perfection, because pure peace is only available to those who renounce all desire to change their circumstances.

Agape: Greek philosophers counseled an attitude of loving kindness toward all people with whom we have contact.
Kai-shin: A Chinese word for ‘happiness’, meaning literally, ‘open-heart’.  An emotional vulnerability and willingness to let myself be touched by people around me.
Ich-du:  From Martin Buber’s book, I and thou.  Entering a primary relationship with another person, a recognition and acknowledgment between my soul and yours.

Jyotir: The Sanskrit word for ‘light’ happens to begin with a sound reminiscent of ‘joy’ in English.  I imagine a light of joy within myself.
Götterfunken:  From Schiller’s Ode to Joy, set by Beethoven in his 9th Symphony.  Freude, schöne Götterfunken, tochter aus Elysium means ‘Joy, beautiful spark of God, daughter of the heavens’, a reminder that I cannot choose joy, but can open myself to the gift of joy, and prepare to accept it when it is granted.
Ananda: (again from the Sanskrit).  The state of bliss that follows upon enlightenment, which, in the Hindu tradition is granted the humble and sincere practitioner.

Wan sui!:  Literally  ‘10,000 years!’, this is the form used in Chinese which is translated as ‘Long live!’, as in ‘Long live Chairman Mao and the People’s Republic!’.  I visualize a reversal of aging in my own physical body, at the cellular level.  I contemplate myself as a healthy and vigorous man many years hence.
Ewige freude:  I hear the words ‘everlasting joy’ from the Brahms German Requiem, and remind myself of the contradiction implicit in infinite time.  We have finite brains.  There is a vast but finite number of possible experiences.  What can it mean to live forever?
Magnum mysterium: Victoria’s anthem, ‘O Great Mystery’.  We know not what sorts of being we are, our relationship to each other, to the Universe, or our place in time.

14 October 2006

On Balance

“A good place to look for wisdom is...where you least expect to find it: in the minds of your opponents. You already know the ideas common on your own side. If you can take off the blinders of the myth of pure evil, you might see some good ideas for the first time.”

Jonathan Haidt

13 October 2006

I remember being made
to stand in the corner for punishment
because it would be dull and empty
and I would be sorry.
But instead it was a museum of small wonders,
a place of three walls
with a weather my breath influenced,
an archaeology of layers, of painted molding,
a meadow as we called them then
of repeatable pale roses,
an eight-eyed spider in a tear of wallpaper
turning my corner.
The texture.  The soft echo if I talked,
if I said I am not bad if this is the world.

~ from Private Lives, by Allan Peterson

12 October 2006

Ralph Vaughan Williams, born this day in 1872, was ever the mentor to younger composers, ever the proponent of traditional and folk music, ever wary of promoting the wide range of composition that he produced himself.

In the next world I shant be doing music, with all the striving and disappointments. I shall be being it.

Listen to Vocalise for voice and clarinet, performed by Sarah Walker and Roger Vignoles

11 October 2006

“One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes. In the long run, we shape our lives and we shape ourselves.”

“We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face... we must do that which we think we cannot.”

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” 

Eleanor Roosevelt, pacifist, humanitarian, tireless advocate for human rights, was born this day in 1884.

10 October 2006

“In the beginning of a change the patriot is a scarce man, and brave, and hated and scorned. When his cause succeeds, the timid join him, for then it costs nothing to be a patriot.”

Mark Twain, Notebook, 1904 

9 October 2006

“The man who lives in his religious centre of personal energy, and is actuated by spiritual enthusiasms, differs from his previous carnal self in perfectly definite ways.  The new ardor which burns in his breast consumes in its glow the lower ‘noes’ which formerly beset him, and keeps him immune against infection from the entire groveling portion of his nature.  Magnanimities once impossible are now easy; paltry conventionalities and mean incentives once tyrannical hold no sway.  The stone wall inside him has fallen, the hardness in his heart has broken down.  The rest of us can, I think, imagine this by recalling our state of feeling in those temporary ‘melting moods’ into which either the trials of real life, or the theatre, or a novel sometimes throw us.  Especially if we weep!  For it is then as if our tears broke through an inveterate inner dam, and let all sorts of ancient peccancies and moral stagnancies drain away, leaving us now washed and soft of heart and open to every nobler leading.”

– from The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James