By Wayne Saalman
[Photo by Casey Horner]
THE CATHEDRAL OF STARS that fills the heavenly firmament in the night is the greatest wonder that nature has on offer. While our planet is exceptionally blessed with majestic forests, beautiful mountains, rivers and oceans, with staggering windblown deserts and gleaming, snowy white landscapes, one must remember that there are worlds numbering in the billions in the Milky Way Galaxy alone, and quite possibly numbering in the trillions in this vast universe of ours as a whole.
Whether those worlds contain life forms or not, the planets that orbit about the stellar orbs that populate the cosmos are still magnificent and spectacular.
To imagine such worlds while out under the stars at night can be about more than briefly gazing on a dazzling celestial light show, however. It can actually turn into a healing and transcendent experience if one is willing to spend more than a few cursory minutes looking up in awe, for such an experience can have genuinely regenerative and therapeutic benefits.
When we are down and out, so to speak, this state of affairs generally comes about because one is overwhelmed by the events in one’s life. The mind, obsessed with a particular problem, can have one feeling as if the walls have closed in and that one is trapped. The whole world can then seem to be only about the particular problem that has brought about this state of affairs. As a result, the same thoughts keep swirling round and round in the head like an agitated whirlpool, one from which there seems to be no escape.
There is an escape, however, even if one feels at “rock bottom”.
Rock bottom is actually a great place to start looking up at the stars at night and remembering the celestial connection that unites humanity to absolutely everything in the entire cosmos.
This feeling of unity offers a constructive contrast to the isolation that can dog one when one is feeling trapped in a vortex that swirls round and round within, generating pressure and stress, and even a sense of hopelessness.
Going out under the stars at night is a positive way of escaping our problems. Once we are out in the peace of the countryside, the landscape and the sky can open us up.
Neuroscientists have discovered that the brain contains what are called “mirror neurons”. These neurons mimic what is perceived by the person. When we see people struggling with difficult circumstances, for example, the mirror neurons within us fire in such a way as to trigger a sympathetic response. Or when we empathize with people when they speak to us and tell us whatever their particular issue of the day is, that empathy occurs owing to neurotransmitters and electrochemical activity that cascades down through the body and suffuses us with a strong emotional reaction to the person’s situation.
Obviously, there can be a positive or a negative reaction to events. On the positive front, serotonin, dopamine and endorphins can put us on a high and block pain. On the negative front, there are stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, that can affect us.
Most of us, of course, desire pleasure over pain and make every effort to pursue the former and avoid the latter.
One simply cannot live in today’s world and not experience both ends of the spectrum, however. No one, not even the exceptionally wealthy can avoid some level of pain, some level of disappointment, some level of agony concerning the events in their lives, even if they only listen to the news, for their mirror neurons are going to cause a reaction within. The job of these “molecules of emotion” is to trigger adrenal cascades and cause the person to feel empathy or sympathy, even though none of the problems depicted may ever be of direct concern.
The proof is easy enough to experience just by watching new clips of people in war-torn countries trying desperately to escape the murderous and destructive ways of military and paramilitary groups.
We may frame war in today’s world as a “third world” problem, but the so-called “first world” is brimming with serious mental health issues. The violence, murder and suicide rates are quite simply through the roof, so to speak, and our newspapers and news broadcasts reflect that in all too graphic a manner.
This is precisely why we all need to get out under the stars once in a while and gaze up at that awesome spangling of celestial wonder that hovers above us. The heavenly vista is there to be seen, night after night, but it is up to us whether we choose to enjoy and appreciate it or not.
No matter how it came into being, the cosmos is the source of our physicality and to be intimate with it is, far and away, the ultimate expression of appreciation for the life that we humans have been given.