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The Spaciousness of Metta
Welcome to the latest chapter of the Lily Pad Sutra, a column that explores my many years combining meditation practice with location-independence—what I call “lily padding.” Inspired by both the recent release of the Neil Armstrong biopic First Man and Virgin Galactic’s update that it is “tantalizingly close” to reaching space within weeks, this month’s article extends my exploration of inner space to its furthest reach . . . outer space!
I was recently listening to an interview with cultural anthropologist and futurist Elizabeth Wood, who has theorized that there may be some 900 species of extraterrestrials currently living on Earth! Apparently some are here with peaceful intentions and some are not. For the most part, they’re simply visiting as information-gathering “watchers.”
This tickled my meditator’s imagination for days afterwards.
Regular readers might remember an earlier Lily Pad Sutra, Shoshin and the Fear of Others, which describes my years as a housesitter (i.e. landing again and again as an “alien” in new surroundings), and how adopting shoshin (beginner’s mind) and generating metta on arrival helped me better integrate and deal with the fear of others in new communities. Elizabeth’s estimate had me wondering what if the role of these “watchers” was to housesit too . . . only not a house, but Earth itself—a planet sit of sorts?
As I went about my day-to-day life, I imagined each stranger I passed in the street as possibly belonging to one of the 900 extraterrestrial species. I must admit, far from the notion scaring me, it felt oddly reassuring (and frankly hilarious) that the sitter tables had finally turned! It also seemed a kinder explanation for behaviors that have baffled me: rather than dismissing or condemning it, perhaps it was the “done” thing elsewhere in the galaxy?
And as I sat in meditation with this new perspective, I remembered a university microbiology lecture. As slide after slide appeared on the overhead screen, the audience became increasingly restless: squirming in their seats and scratching their arms and necks. At the end of the hour, our professor explained that the human body was in fact made up of more resident microbes than human cells at a possible ratio of . . . 10:1! That estimate turned my world upside down for days afterwards, just like Elizabeth’s more recent one had. My fellow students, however, had a different response. Over lunch the next day, many sheepishly admitted that the first thing they’d done that evening was go home and do laundry. While I suspect that that was our professor’s primary objective, it led me to explore further.
I soon discovered an evolutionary biologist who became one of my scientific heroines: Lynn Margulis who spent her career championing symbiosis—rather than competition—as the driving force of evolution. Much of her research focused on the hypotheses that mitochondria (the generators of power in our cells that convert oxygen into energy) descended from bacteria and chloroplasts (the generators of oxygen in plant cells that photosynthesize) descended from cyanobacteria. Essentially, that these symbiotic relationships made life on Earth as we know it possible: symbiogenesis.
Margulis’ groundbreaking research caught the attention of another one of my scientific heroes: James Lovelock, an independent scientist and futurist who developed the Gaia hypothesis while designing scientific instruments for NASA in the 1960s. This hypothesis proposes that living and non-living parts of the Earth form an interactive system that can be thought of as a single organism and that the biosphere has its own equivalent of homeostasis sustaining life.
Back in 2018, contemplating the possibility of sharing Earth with 900 extraterrestrial species, I wondered what might happen if I extended generating metta for all sentient beings to include these “alien sitters” within (symbiosis) and without (Gaia hypothesis)?
The peace I felt was extraordinary, like discovering a new room in a house I thought I knew inside-out. And I began to wonder that maybe instead of trying to ultimately “purify” myself through meditation it was more about welcoming all? Perhaps Pureland was in fact Welcomeland?
Exploring Elizabeth Wood’s website further, I found a link for a galactic forgiveness meditation. Her recording had a profound effect on me: although not overtly Buddhist, it follows the same sequence a traditional metta meditation does, starting with one’s own self and extending outwards to encompass all. However, this takes the idea of welcoming all a step further by forgiving all. Forget discovering new rooms within me, this approach opened up whole new galaxies!
If you’ve never seen a photo of Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spaceship, its logo (and the logo of Virgin Galactic) features Stephen Hawking’s eye. Like Margulis and Lovelock, Hawking was an independent scientist who, in his own way, pushed the boundaries of human knowledge to infinity and beyond.
It makes me smile when I imagine that any day now (with the launch of the Virgin Galalctic spaceship) the cosmic tables will turn yet again, with Hawking’s retina representing humanity’s galactic “watcher.”
So, in the spirit of Neil Armstrong’s first moon landing and VSS Unity’s virgin voyage, I invite readers to join me in welcoming and forgiving all by taking one small breath for loving-kindness, and one giant leap for all kinds.
Elizabeth Wood’s Galactic Forgiveness Meditation (Seer and Scientist)
Related features from Buddhistdoor Global
The Art and Nature of Meditation with David Kimball Anderson
Bringing Awareness Practice from Retreat into the World
Into the Ineffable Center of Space with Pilar Martin
Tibetan Book of the Dead, Part One: Cosmic Jumper