Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘The Milky Way’

Reaching for the Stars.

In Life, Nature, Philosophy, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas on October 13, 2019 at 8:00 am

Photo by Denis Degioanni on Unsplash

The last few nights in Colorado I got into the habit of stepping outside and looking up at the night sky. Head tilted back I released my attention and simply stared. The Milky Way was a dash overhead, like a pale splash of paint against black felt. I did not try to understand the sky, did not try to identify anything about it. I simply released myself to the vastness and attempted to absorbed it.

The ancient Greeks had a practice of studying the night sky in a similar fashion. For them it was an exercise in humility. When one places oneself in the cosmos the notion of individual place and time slinks away. It is only our ego that positions us in comparison to such unknowable vastness. The ego has it’s own Milky Way and it’s own universe and it is hellbent on convincing us of our individual importance in the grand balance of things. But like much the ego attempts, it is in error, and will only lead us down a blind alley. “But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars,” said Emerson. Look at the night sky, breath it in, and tell me your ego does not run off embarrassed and humiliated.There is no defense against such a vast and empty truth.

You cannot expose yourself to a backdrop of significant beauty and grandeur without a converse arising of self-doubt and humility. Much of life’s larger experiences require that we drop the self-narrative and simply expose ourselves to what is. This is not easy, as we think we know what is. There is a school of thought which suggests the self is nothing more than a stitched together string of experiences, that no such thing as a self even exists. Modern psychology is bearing this out. All that is fine, but still we struggle. We struggle with humility. We struggle with ego. We struggle with a false personal perspective. It is likely hard-wiring. It is how we, as a species, survived. But that does not make it necessarily the reality of things. It is not necessarily what is.

Humans are a mass of contradictions. I know I am. As an atheist I stand under the night canopy and long for transcendence. I pray at the alter of science, yet yearn for the transformative mystic experience. I relinquish myself to a ruling rational perspective, yet sit in meditation attempting to release all cognitive ambition. I have, I think, finally arrived at a place where these opposing factions are no longer warring. We spend too much of life attempting to resolve the inner contradictions. The only resolution is to accept them and face the truth that we will never be rid of them. They are us, we them. Make room for contradiction. Accepting the fluidity of the human condition, moment to moment, requires a release that does not come altogether naturally. For some of us, that release is an ongoing effort, the work of a lifetime. That seems, at the core of things, the essence of being human. Yet we war against it as if attacked by an opposing army. But there is no army laying siege. There is only the vacuous loneliness of the frigid night sky. We can go to war, or we can release. Or better, perhaps, embrace.

Sitting by a stream Margaret Fuller (1810-1850), no shrinking violet, wrote “all was dark and cold, and still. Suddenly the sun shone out with that transparent sweetness, like the last smile of a dying lover.” At that moment “there passed into my thought a beam from its true sun…which has never since departed from me.” And what was the nature of that thought? She later wrote in her memoir, “I saw that there was no self; that selfishness was all folly, and the result of circumstance; that it was only because I thought self real that I suffered.” I think Fuller, like many others before her and since, tapped into a fundamental reality. Let’s not take anything for granted, especially that which we think we know for certain. Skepticism is a loose-jointed stance and resilient because it flexes when pressed. Certainty is uncertain. “What do I know?” said Montaigne. A self? Maybe, maybe not.

There is a natural resistance to release. It is the antithesis of control and we are so very fond of control. In death we all ultimately release. But until then I work to lesson my resistance, it too being a practice. Fundamental to our being is a sense of self. But I see in my grandchildren a construction of the self, a building of self, not an innate revealed being. The ego we construct and the resulting self—can it be released? I believe in, and subscribe to the idea of the purification of human character. Admittedly, there is a degree of the absurd about this. But what is life if not absurd, as Camus noted. There is sufficient evidence as to the worth of transcendence. We are, after all, the stuff of stars, as the poets remind us. Let us celebrate the awkward stance of fully human, a being fulfilled. Let us reach for the stars.

“Andromeda! Sweet woman!”

In Memoir, Nature on April 16, 2010 at 10:10 am


More than a dozen years ago I was outside a hut in the Presidentials. It was night, pitch-black, ink-black, and Don, my hiking buddy, and I were  looking at the night sky. We heard the door to the hut open–I think it was Lake of the Clouds–a sliver of faint light escaping, then creaking close again. A fellow hiker joined us, clamoring over the rocks in the dark, proclaiming that he had to see the milky way at least once a year or he suffered dire consequences.  It was easy to spot, splashed across the sky like sprinkle dust on black velvet. He sighed and spoke of contentment.

Galileo proved in 1610 that the Milky Way consisted of stars. Two thousand years before him Aristotle called it “the ignition of the fiery exhalation of some stars which were large, numerous and close together.” The point being, the night sky and the Milky Way specifically, have been a constant through the ages. As a species, we have existed under that night canopy, traipsed and sailed by its iridescence,  studied it, written poems about it. But, me, I have lost it. Unlike the hiker in the mountains, I never considered it important. There is no prodding motivation for awe. Isn’t that what the night sky does? Instill awe? How can I not want that?

I saw my first meteor shower as a young camper in Northern Michigan. I remember having sunburned my back from a day in a canoe and trying to get comfortable in my open air sleeping bag, my back blistered, when the first rock screamed across the night sky. It was followed by another, then many, a flurry of falling matches from the heavens.  Such things stay with a person. And yet, they don’t. Again, how can I not seek that out?

I’m starting to plan some camping trips for spring summer, which is what prompted this stream of thought. At fifty-four I am taking stock. I am making lists. No more of this rambling through life, not realizing what is important and thinking what isn’t is. There is not enough time to keep loosely hopping down that path. On the list, near the top, is the night sky.

Pascal (Pensées) on the universe:

The Universe is an infinite
sphere, the centre of which is
everywhere, the circumference