To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.
Wrote 17th Century poet, William Blake, in one of his most loved poems, pointing us to the extraordinary miracles present in every moment and particle, hidden only by our incapacity to notice them.
Exploring the way we perceive reality has long been spoken of as a gateway to a greater understanding of ourselves and the world, by spiritual teachers, scientists, artists and poets alike. There are infinite perspectives from which life can be viewed, if we can suspend our beliefs about the way things are, and look anew; more deeply, more curiously and more humbly. From such a vantage point, they say, transformative change can become possible not only within ourselves, but in the world, too.
Discovering an Orbital Perspective
NASA astronaut, Ron Garan, first became aware of this possibility as he soared through the inky blackness of outer space in 2008, attached to the remote arm of the International Space Station. Beneath him, planet Earth glowed like a beautiful blue jewel hanging in a vast universe. As he took in this vision, suspended millions of miles from the only home he had ever known, he watched the line that separated day from night move across its curved surface, casting long shadows as thunderstorms flashed. Cities and towns came alive with lights as the darkness of night cloaked them, shooting stars flared across the heavens and curtains of shimmering auroras danced.
Looking at planet Earth from this great distance, seeing it as a whole, living, breathing organism, he experienced himself and this life from a new perspective.
“I was filled with awe. That perspective and vantage point that we [astronauts] have of seeing our planet from space kind of changed everything.” says Garan about the experience. He notes in another interview:
Being physically detached from Earth made me feel deeply connected with everyone on it.
Garan’s experience of profound connection to the Earth as a living being brought with it an equally strong awareness of life’s fragility. He could feel the contradiction between the beauty he was witnessing and the immense challenges that exist on its surface. He writes in his book, The Orbital Perspective:
As I looked down at the Earth–this stunning, fragile oasis, this island that has been given to us and has protected all life from the harshness of space–a sadness came over me, and I was hit in the gut with an undeniable sobering contradiction. In spite of the overwhelming beauty of this scene, serious inequity exists on the apparent paradise we have been given. I couldn’t help thinking of the nearly one billion people who don’t have clean water to drink, the countless number who go to bed hungry every night, the social injustice, conflicts and poverty that remain pervasive across the planet.
The impact of this new perspective gave Garan a sense of the greater whole of which he was an intrinsic part. It awakened a feeling of responsibility within him, guided by what he saw to be both the urgency and possibility of change; of living in a different way.
If we all looked at the world from that perspective we would see that nothing is impossible.
Garan was not alone. Many astronauts have had similar experiences while observing Planet Earth from outer space, as is beautifully documented in the film Overview. This has come to be known as the Overview effect, which is described as “the experience of seeing first hand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, hanging in the void, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere.” These astronauts say:
From space the conflicts that divide us become less important and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this ‘pale blue dot’ becomes both obvious and imperative. Even more so, many of them tell us that from the Overview perspective, all of this seems imminently achievable, if only more people could have the experience!
As a result, Garan was catapulted onto an altered life path, inspired to bring a new attitude to the challenges that face humanity; one rooted in our interconnectedness. Today, he works through initiatives such as Fragile Oasis and Impact CoLab, to inspire, connect and support those hundreds of thousands of people and organisations that are already making a difference or who wish to make a difference, to help them amplify their efforts by coming together.
We have all of the resources [and] technology to solve many if not all of the problems facing the planet… it is within our power to reduce or even eliminate the suffering and poverty that exists.
If only we can work together, says Garan.
Beginning Closer to Home
Of course, most of us will never have a chance to travel into space to experience the kind of perceptual shift that Garan did. But is this necessary, or could these opportunities be far closer to home?
According to Indian visionary, Jiddu Krishnamurti, we need look no further than exactly where we are to embark on such a quest. He spoke of seeing ‘what is’ as an essential step towards any truly transformative change within ourselves and society; one he felt we rarely explore with any serious conviction.
Seeing is the transformation. ~ Jiddu Krishnamurti
In saying this, he is pointing to the potential inherent in looking at ourselves, and the world around us, with greater sensitivity and awareness.
For Krishnamurti, seeing of this nature did not happen through the eyes alone, but was a meeting with the outer world through all of our senses. For this, we need to become quiet, letting go of what we believe we know. From this more silent inner space, he said, a shift in vantage point can happen, allowing one to perceive reality in a more expansive and holistic way, as Garan did, and access possibilities that had, until then, been inconceivable.
Looking at a problem through old eyes, it is not only strengthened, but also moves in its well-worn path. This is the miracle of perception, to perceive with a heart and mind that are completely cleansed of the past.
Scientist and writer Donella Meadows arrived at the same conclusion through her lifelong study of systems theory. In her beautiful essay on Leverage Points for System Change, written in 1999, she outlines a series of twelve pathways or ‘leverage points’ of increasing potency through which one can bring about changes within a system–be it a person, a company, a city, an economy, a community, ecosystem or indeed a planet.
Like Krishnamurti, Meadows speaks of the most powerful and elusive pathway to change being the letting go of all preconceptions and assumptions about the way things are; of resting in the humility of our situation as human beings, with our limited understanding of this universe in which we find ourselves. In doing so, she says, we create the opportunity for new ways of seeing to emerge, from which new paradigms, system goals, rules and structures (be they economic, political, informational, technological or social) can be born.
Such a shift within a person can be instantaneous, taking no more than a millisecond. It is the most rare, yet potentially most powerful, source of change she adds.
All it takes is a click in the mind, a falling of scales from the eyes, a new way of seeing.
The Difficulty of Seeing
Of course, seeing beyond all that gets in the way is far from easy. It requires us to acknowledge and begin to engage with the multitude of opinions, beliefs, wounds and attachments that shape our realities, many of which are subconscious.
David Ulrich was an artist who began to explore the nature of ‘seeing’ when he lost sight in one of his eyes in an accident. It became a journey of profound discovery of both himself and the world, and of just how many obstructions exist within us to experiencing ‘what is’.
What we call ‘seeing’ is typically a reflection of our ceaseless inner dialogue, he says, in an article for Parabola.
Our inner dialogue tends to support our particular worldview, our image of ourselves and our subjective beliefs. We know too much; we can name and provide a label for everything under the sun. We have our own agendas, our predisposed attitudes and our own cultural biases. We rarely see the world in a fresh way or question the numerous and often unconscious filters that influence the nature of our perception.
Indeed, these ‘perceptual filters’ of which Ulrich speaks are the lenses through which we engage with the world. They are a reason that my truth isn’t always your truth. They give a form, impact and energy to every impression that comes towards us and in doing so, shape our responses. They are the very ground (albeit shaky) upon which our selves and lives are built, says Krishnamurti, and are a key source of the separation and conflict we experience in the outer world as they prevent us from experiencing our intimate connection with every particle of life. For if we did, we could not help but act for the welfare of all; as we would see every life form as a part of ourselves. As Krishnamurti says in The Urgency of Change:
The whole world is broken up and is as fragmented outwardly as its human beings are fragmented inwardly. In fact this outer fragmentation is the manifestation of the human beings’ inner division.
Starting with this Moment
For Ulrich, the journey of learning to see more deeply lead him to value those moments in which he was able to access this bigger, richer picture–even for a moment. He also came to recognise the inner intention, or willingness, that was required on his part in order to truly open out his capacity to see.
Seeing can be cultivated, indeed must be, if we wish to live full and productive lives, sensitively receiving and richly giving to ourselves and others. It must always be born in our hearts and minds that we are the primary medium of the creative act–not film or clay, paints or words.
From this perspective, seeing becomes a lifelong journey, rather than a destination. One that begins anew with every moment, offering the potential to connect us to hope, new insights and most of all, one another, as we seek solutions to the ever-deepening conflicts we face today. If we are lucky, as we venture on this journey, we may also be touched by the joy and timelessness that Blake discovered in a simple grain of sand.