Seen from space, our blue planet is remarkably alive—a living paradise suspended in a vast and hostile universe. It almost looks like one giant living, breathing organism. Seeing its beauty and wonder, we can’t help but feel great love for the whole Earth. I mean we know billions of people are living out their lives on this little planet, with all their joy, happiness, and suffering. They see violence, wars, famine, and environmental destruction. At the same time, they see clearly that this wonderful little blue planet, so fragile and precious, is irreplaceable.
That which the American astronomer, cosmologist and astrophysicist, Carl Sagan, described so eloquently as the Pale Blue Dot: “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam…”
Science is the pursuit of understanding, helping us to understand distant stars and galaxies, our place in the cosmos, as well as the intimate fabric of matter, living cells, and our own bodies. Science, like philosophy, is concerned with understanding the nature of existence and the meaning of life.
Spirituality is also a field of research and study. We want to understand ourselves, the world around us, and what it means to be alive on this pale blue dot. We want to discover who we really are, and we want to understand our suffering. Why?
I think mainly because understanding our suffering, can give rise to acceptance and love, and this is what determines our quality of life. Having a spiritual dimension in our lives does not mean escaping life or dwelling in a place of bliss outside this world but rather discovering ways to handle life’s difficulties and generate peace, joy, and happiness right where we are, on this beautiful planet.
And I know of no better way than practicing mindful concentration, not only to understand but really to discover life. Without moving very far from the spirit of science. Yes, we may not use expensive instruments but we use our clear mind and our stillness to look deeply and investigate reality for ourselves, with openness and non-discrimination.
And as with science we also want to know where we come from and where we are going. And most of all, we want to life a meaningful and happy life. Humanity has given rise to many talented artists, musicians, sports men and woman, architects, engineers etc. but how many of us have mastered the art of creating a happy moment—for ourselves and those around us?
Like every species on Earth, we are always seeking the ideal conditions that will allow us to live to our fullest potential. We want to do more than just survive. We want to live. But what does it mean to be alive? What does it mean to die? What happens when we die? Is there life after death? Is there reincarnation, heaven and hell? Will we see our loved ones again? Do we have a soul that goes to heaven or God? These questions are in everyone’s hearts. Sometimes they become words, and sometimes they are left unsaid, but they are still there, pulling at our hearts every time we think about our life, about those we love, our sick or ageing parents, or those who have already passed away.
How can we begin to answer these questions about life and death? A good answer should be based on evidence. It is not a question of faith or belief, but of looking deeply. To meditate is to look deeply and see the things that others cannot see, including many wrong views and beliefs that lie at the base of our suffering.
When we can break free from these inaccurate and flawed views, we’ll be able to master the art of living a meaningful and free life.
So, what are these wrong or flawed views I’m talking about? Let’s look at them together.
The first wrong view we need to liberate ourselves from is the idea that we are a separate self, cut off from the rest of the world. People commonly believe that they have a separate self that is fixed and unchanging, an inside core that is a me. Despite noticing that thoughts, feelings, perceptions and body sensations change every instant, it is believed that there exists a separate self that remains the same.
So, one holds on tightly to this identity of a me and therefore to the mine for fear of grave loss, leaping from one imagined cliff to another. However, that very attachment and that very strategy, spreads the fear. It is a painful feedback loop and an unnecessary one, as it is driven by the illusion of the separate self.
As long as we have this wrong view, we will suffer; we will create suffering for those around us, and we will cause harm to other species and to our precious planet.
The second wrong view that many of us hold is the view that we are only this body, and that when we die we cease to exist. This wrong view blinds us to all the ways in which we are interconnected with the world around us and the ways in which we continue after death. We are not only connected to other people, but to the air through our breathing and to the universe through light. We are interconnected beings.
Therefore, these interconnected relationships should be interdependent. In the case of the environment, if humans want to develop nature, they need to do so within nature’s ability to recover. Equally, if nature is developed beyond its ability to recover, all beings will eventually be destroyed.
The third wrong view that many of us have is the idea that what we are looking for—can be found only outside us in a distant future. We may spend our lives chasing after and waiting for these things, not realizing that they can be found within us, right in the present moment.
What the 13th-century Persian Sunni Muslim poet, Rumi described as: “Do you know what you are? You are a manuscript of a divine letter. You are a mirror reflecting a noble face. This universe is not outside of you. Look inside yourself; everything that you want, you are already that.”
There are three concentration practices that can help liberate us from these faulty and wrong views. It can offer us a deep insight into what it means to be alive and what it means to die. It can help us transform feelings of grief, anxiety, stress, loneliness, and alienation.
It has the power to liberate us from our wrong views, so we can live meaningfully, and face dying and death without fear, anger or despair.
These three are concentrations on impermanence, non-craving and letting go.
The concentration on impermanence helps free us from our tendency to live as though we and our loved ones will be here forever. The concentration on non-craving is an opportunity to take time to sit down and figure out what true happiness really is. We discover that we already have more than enough conditions to be happy, right here in the present moment. And the concentration on letting go helps us disentangle ourselves from suffering and transform and release painful feelings.
Thich Nhat Hanh ads to this with: “Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything—anger, anxiety, or possessions—we cannot be free.”
Looking deeply into these concentrations we are able to touch the power and freedom of being truly calm and at peace. These three can awaken us to reality. They can help us cherish what we have, so that we can experience true happiness in the very here and now. And they can give us the insight we need to treasure the time we do still have, reconcile with those we love, and transform our suffering into love and understanding. This is the art of living mindfully.
We need to use our mindfulness, concentration, and insight in order to understand what it means to be alive and what it means to die. We can speak of scientific and spiritual discoveries as insights and the practice of nourishing and sustaining those insights as concentrations.
With the insights of science and spirituality, we have an opportunity in the twenty-first century to conquer the root causes of suffering in human beings. Meditating on the three concentrations can enable us to see everything in the light of interdependence, freeing us from our wrong views and breaking down the barriers of a discriminating mind.
The freedom we seek is not the kind of freedom that is self-destructive or destructive of other nations or the environment, but the kind of freedom that liberates us from our loneliness, anger, hatred, fear, craving, and despair.
Let us explore how the three concentrations—deep insights into reality—can shine light on our situation, our suffering.