We have not moved from our modest neighborhood but our address has changed: it is now Clearwater, Florida, in the Virgo Supercluster of Laniakea (Hawaiian for ‘immense heaven’). Astronomers have discovered that our Milky Way is clumped together with a vast cosmic assembly of 100,000 galaxies five hundred million light-years across. We have finally grasped that our home is an ageless immensity of suns and worlds and voids and black holes, frightening collisions and violent mysteries and endless time. Alas, only a tiny fragment of the universe.
Biological life on earth, including all the remnant populations of wolves, bald eagles, dolphins, elephants, lions, tigers, wild salmon, songbirds and giant sequoias, is surrounded by an untold number of earth-like planets within this newly discovered neighborhood. The sheer number of oceans just within our own solar system indicates that surface and subsurface water is everywhere in space and where there is water, there often life.
If there is intelligent life within our supercluster, we are “the uncontacted”, like tribes of the Amazon forest’s indigenous peoples. Our earth is a small remote village, our human traditions undiscovered and unchallenged, our planet’s non-human life original, innocent and sacred. To date, we have survived on a protected reserve for carbon-based life warmed up by an average middle-aged star, one of billions.
Only very recently have we realized that such immensity severely limits exploration. NASA has planned several lengthy missions to the far side of the moon to prepare for the long trip to Mars, but extending ourselves to the outer solar system, Saturn, Jupiter and Pluto, and then to interstellar space, means we must rely on the evolving technologies of robotics. We will be a multi-planet species with humans on Mars, but we will likely have only a virtual presence, a post biological presence elsewhere.
The mountain of Maun Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii is the best place on earth to see the stars. Thirteen telescopes already dot its summit. Someday, Thirty Meter Telescope, eighteen stories high, its lens larger than any now on earth, will bring into view even more remote planets around even more distant stars. Until then, we have to rely on the Kepler Space telescope which, since 2009, has already discovered well over 1700 earth-sized “Goldilocks” planets, not too hot, not too cold, just about the right distance from their star.
The sheer number of planets resembling earth have made us wonder if there are more ancient and evolved technological cultures. How long might they have lasted? Exactly how many venerable citizens of Laniakea have there been? How long can we expect our own technological civilization to last? What is the average lifetime of a communicating civilization? Earth has used up 4 billion years out of a roughly 5 billion year (life expectancy of our sun) window of opportunity, to create an intelligent species capable of transmitting radio waves throughout space.
Having no one to compare ourselves to, we don’t really know our place in this “immense heaven”. We don’t know the extreme possibilities of biological intelligence, or even its value to the universe, which is why so many modern scientists and philosophers believe that seeking contact should be one of the top priorities on our civilization’s current agenda.
The ultimate irony is that just about the time we are discovering our true place in the universe, our species finds itself in the most dangerous situation it has ever faced in over twelve thousand years of the planet’s peak biological health. The familiar assumptions and conveniences and relatively easy living of modern human civilization, surrounded by a perfectly balanced and self-regulating world, are already a thing of the past.
In sixty-five years of relentlessly scrutinizing deep space through ever more powerful telescopes, we have yet to find one planet with the breathtaking gorgeous dazzle of earth. Three million caribou still migrate across the Arctic tundra in the longest overland migration of any animal; male penguins in 70° below zero Antarctic temperatures still huddle together, keeping their precious eggs warm for four months; three hundred thousand teal still migrate to Korea from the tropics; the Boreal Forest of conifers still supply one third of the trees on earth; the cries of 42 different kinds of birds of paradise still vie for attention in the South American jungles; grass, that miraculous indestructible plant of the East African savannahs, the Central Asian steppe, the arctic tundra, the great plains of North America, still feeds the greatest herds and flocks of wildlife in the world: millions of Mongolian mongoose, wildebeest, snow geese, red qeleala. Snow white clouds still swirl over brilliant blue oceans and red deserts each filled with life forms in the most extreme places.
A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE
A Hindu gentleman was born fourteen years after the end of America’s Civil War and died of cancer in 1950. He left home at sixteen, became fully enlightened at 17, and lived the rest of his life at the base of a mountain called Arunachala in South India. That was basically his life history. Except it was not. He is someone I could point out with pride to an ancient cultured non-human star-person whom we may encounter. He is someone from our own local galaxy embodying the mystery of galactic vastness, someone who might make Laniakea proud.
It is said nobody can understand what human enlightenment really means except another enlightened human soul. So I can only describe this man’s outer characteristics and leave it at that.
Ramana Maharshi saw no distinction between men or women, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, young or old, sick or well, human or non-human. Showing no partiality, he welcomed everyone to his small community with a total spirit of equality, treating all individuals with the same compassion as if they were his dearest relatives.
Surrounded by a thick jungle where plenty of cheetahs and leopards lived among other predators, he showed no fear of any wildlife, rather he possessed an unusual affinity for animals whether they were predators, dogs, monkeys, crows, chipmunks, pythons, cows, or any creature who happened to wander, fly, or creep into his domain. He understood their language and they all acted intelligently in his presence.
Inevitably, people asked him questions about some problem they were having in life. His reply to all questions was ultimately the same. “To whom is this problem happening? When you investigate the nature of mind continuously or without a break, you find there is no such thing as the mind. Look for the one perfect existence behind the mind, behind the personality and feelings. Every creature is an equal manifestation of this perfect existence.” He abhorred being treated as more special than someone else.
Because he perceived that his senses and mind were not the truth, he felt no enmity to anyone, nor did he have any preferences for food or conveniences or comfort. The only thing he owned was a white towel that he sometimes put over his shoulders when the temperature dropped. For fifty years, he had no privacy. Sitting on a cot in a big hall which was open throughout the day and night and always filled with visitors from all over the world, he was accessible to everyone even up to the moment of his death.
It takes a great deal of suffering to make the leap from human to enlightened human. In some instances, as with Ramana Maharshi, the leap seems spontaneous and inexplicable. In other cases, only after years, decades of the most severe and punishing effort, does an individual find the “perfect existence behind the mind” and learn to live there. Such determined individuals occur about one in every hundred million. Perhaps someday such an individual will intimately understand the spirit of an ancient star-culture belonging to the immense heaven around us, and will welcome its citizens with the same compassion as if they were his dearest relatives.
Sir Richard Attenborough, the masterful producer of Planet Earth, summed it all up: “There can be no indifference to life when life looks like this.” This is the sacred reality: a beautiful planet still struggling to teem with life. A neighborhood of stars in the time of humanity.
©2016 Linda Clarke