Last summer I had the pleasure of participating in SMC’s Contemplative Astronomy program: Big Sky, Big Mind, led by astronomer Andrea Schweitzer, Ph.d , and Jim Tolstrup, Executive Director of the High Plains Environmental Center and former SMC Land Steward.
The program was an engaging variety of practical lessons about our universe, (ranging from night sky constellation viewing to kinesthetic astronomy, in which we examined the spatial relationships of our solar system and the earth’s rotation using inflatable planets), and spiritual explorations of our relationship to the stars, as individuals and as a culture — through nighttime meditation, discussions, and a presentation by Jim on ancient Lakota star knowledge.
As a space nerd myself, proudly sporting my NASA t-shirt, I was ecstatic to be part of this program. It significantly expanded my understanding of the glorious night sky but also deepened my sense of connection to the magic of our existence on this planet, by exploring how the pull of the sun’s gravity on Earth affects our daily life and perception of seasons, time, and direction — something so fundamental that it’s easy to take for granted, but our physical place in the cosmos affects everything about our life — it is what allows us to exist.
One of the moments that made the most profound impression on me was during our second night, when we were blessed with another auspiciously clear sky to view the Milky Way. Andrea led us through a meditation, first asking us to imagine that instead of looking up at the stars, we were looking down into the depths of space from above. I laughed out loud at the sensation, and at how distinctly it demonstrated the striking three-dimensionality of our existence as we spin around the sun — upside down and right side up all at once. She continued by asking us to take notice of the space between the stars — the darkness — and consequentially, the space within our own mind, between the thoughts, sparkling scattered, and burning with light. As above, so below — what is in heaven is also on earth.
Other highlights of the weekend included seeing Saturn (amd its rings) rise in the southern sky through the telescope, learning about native plants and natural history of the land on an afternoon walk with Jim, and watching the International Space Station pass above the horizon, lit by the reflection of the sun on its solar panels, and just as quickly fading out of our line of sight. (Fun fact: the ISS orbits the Earth every 90 minutes!)
The last day of the program ended with a potent discussion about the current state of our world, and how we can bring an appreciation for earth and our universe back into our cultural value system, back into our daily lives, somewhere in between paying the bills and navigating the fluorescent lights of the city. How to regain the ancestral wisdom of ancient cultures who, like the Lakota, founded their whole lifestyle around the movements of the celestial bodies, who understood the innate interconnectedness of all nature, and that our world is not a place to be feared, but a profound network that requires mutual respect for all beings. Ultimately, we are all indigenous to this planet, and all have the ability to rediscover the tremendous sky inside each of us.
Shambhala Mountain Center hosts Big Sky, Big Mind with Andrea Schweitzer and Jim Tolstrup on September 2-5, 2016 — click here to learn more
About the Author
Rachel Zetah Becker is an artist, designer, occasional poet,
& aspiring astronaut. Her interests include adventure, human spirituality, fried egg sandwiches, and saving Planet Earth.
See more of her work here: www.rachelzbecker.com