Astronomers look back in time with their telescopes and see stars and galaxies as they were millions and even billions of years ago. So can self-knowing human beings look back in silence and directly perceive moments in humanity's past?
What does it mean when astronomers say, "Using the Hubble Telescope we're observing early galaxies, near the beginning of the universe, before the Earth even existed?"
They often refer to Hubble and the big telescopes on Earth as time machines. But the idea that "it took the light from a galaxy 7 billion years to reach us," when the Earth is three and half billion years old, is logically and philosophically nonsensical.
What it really means is that all events in the universe, from the Big Bang to the present, remain present in the present. That points to the imperative of being present, since it is the true portal for insight and timelessness.
Measured in man's time, the universe is estimated to be nearly 14 billion years old. As recently reported, "The earliest and most distant known galaxy, discovered by the Hubble, dates to a time only 400 million years after the Big Bang. If successful, the infrared James Webb Space Telescope, now due to be launched on Christmas day, will be able to see back farther, to a mere 100 million years after the Big Bang."
This astronomical news, and the cold, wet and foggy weather in this part of northern California lately, brings to mind an event that occurred some years ago during a meditation at dusk along the rain-swollen stream that runs through town.
Late in the afternoon in question I sat well layered and insulated from the cold, and well protected from the damp by a foam pads under my butt. The meditation deepened as the light faded. The admixture of mystery and fear that comes over one alone in nature descended over me.
The primal fear dissipated with passive observation. Thought yielded to attention, and there was the fact and feeling of timelessness. Effortlessly, one left the known and entered into the immeasurable unknown.
In the stillness of mind and the last light of a cold, damp winter's night, a question seized me: How did indigenous people live in such bone-chilling weather? After all, I had all the benefits of technology - layers of natural and synthetic clothing, foam pads and plastic to sit on, and a car with a good heater less than half a mile away.
Suddenly, swimming upstream against the surging, wave-topped current, a huge salmon quickly sliced by. In 20 years here, I've never seen a salmon in the creek, and the sight of the magnificent animal completely in its element was a shock.
In the split second that the salmon swam upstream with such speed that it looked like it was swimming with the current rather than against it, time was rent, and a scene opened up across the roaring water.
For some moments I stared into a Native American camp. It was full of physical and social warmth, with people who had plenty to eat and were warm and dry in strange shelters barely visible through the fog.
One's mind, being completely quiet, was not projecting some imaginary scene, or conjuring an image from bits of knowledge and experience.
My images and ideas, knowledge and stereotypes were obliterated. To this day, I feel there had been a momentary tear in time, and I was given a glimpse into a bygone reality.
I don't understand how those moments of time travel happened, and I've never tried to repeat the experience. But if astronomers can see back a billion years with their instruments, isn't it possible that a silent human brain could glimpse the human past?
Just as the long dead stars and galaxies are present in the night sky, the past is enfolded in the present, without involving the scrolls of memory in the brain.
That is the crucial distinction we now need to make -- between memory and thought, and direct perception and insight. For we've created thought machines in our own image possessing tremendous memory and speed, and the human brain will by destroyed by "virtual reality" without learning how to effortlessly silence thought.
True seeing and understanding only occur when we directly perceive in the present, with stillness of experience and knowledge. Because all knowledge and experience are of the past, and the unknown is immeasurably greater than our knowledge and experience, and can never be encompassed by either.
More power to the instruments and astronomers that peer back to the beginning of time. However, seeing and understanding do not require telescopes, and have nothing to do with our one-dimensional notions about "the arrow of time."
Indeed, if we are present enough and go deep enough, there is no such thing as time, only the present moment creatively unfolding, containing everything that came before, just as it is in the cosmos.
Non-accumulatively learning how to truly live and grow in the present is what it means to be a human being, rather than a second-rate thought machine chained to the past and time.
Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue. firstname.lastname@example.org
Published with permission of the author. All copyright remains with the author.
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