The moon is 384,000km from earth. That’s a distance of roughly 30 Earths. With our current technology, it takes us 3 days to make the journey. It’s the only place aside from our planet where humans have set foot. The images of earth rising on the horizon of the moon are awe-inspiring. These are the things dreams are made of.
But how did we know that before we got there? What is it that makes space travel so interesting? I think it boils down to two things: exploration and innovation.
First, let’s consider exploration. Not so long ago, there were fuzzy edges on our maps. When we drew the land around us there were areas which we didn’t know about and couldn’t account for. It was compelling. But today we know the shape of the earth. We’ve mapped, measured and photographed every inch. If you want to see what lies on the other side of the planet, open up your nearest browser and, in amazing detail, scroll over canyons, zoom past oceans and pan around cities in 3D. With the earth so thoroughly covered, it’s no wonder we are beginning to search for new places to discover.
Space travel answers that search. It evokes a sense of stepping out into the unknown once again. Just like sailors that set off in search of new lands, it speaks to a fundamental human desire: to understand our place in the universe and feel the edge of humanity’s limits.
Now let’s consider innovation. Space travel pushes our technological capabilities to their very limits. When you go to places no-one has been to before you require tools no-one has needed before too. As a result, we’re forced to innovate and create new technology in order to reach these destinations. And one of the material benefits of this is the ability of technology to filter down to all sorts of other industries:
Cutting edge heart pumps have enabled new forms of surgery and saved lives.
Firefighting equipment has been made tougher, lighter and more reliable in emergencies.
And memory foam has… well, it’s given us a super comfy mattress and many sweet dreams.
All these things were produced as offshoots from technology NASA developed to solve technical challenges. Our desire to explore has demanded we think harder, design more intelligently and pushed us to create better things in the world. Exploration drives innovation, and that leaves us all better off.
The human brain contains somewhere close to 86 billion nerve cells. These neurones process electrical signals like the circuit boards of a computer. While we can see what the brain is made of and measure the electrical signals it produces, we don’t understand much about how it works.
For example, we’ve recently discovered that measuring the electrical signals, or brain waves, of a person, reveals patterns as uniquely identifiable as a fingerprint. So while our hardware might look similar, the software we’re running is very different.
I like to think that these unique patterns represent a whole universe of possibilities within each of us, just waiting to be explored. The question is, how do we go about discovering our own minds?
Unlike scientific method or space technology, which are new tools, humans have developed methods for internal exploration over the past couple thousand years. They allow us to explore our minds in great detail but, just like space travel, mastering them requires dedication and innovation.
With that said, the start of any internal journey may appear quite simple: it begins by sitting down. As many mornings as possible, I sit on a cushion in my living room and stare at the ground about a meter ahead. My left-hand rests in the right and my two thumbs meet at their tip to create an oval. I focus my attention on the belly as each breath comes in. On the out-breath I count: 1, on the next I count 2, then 3, all the way to 10, before starting again.
This is a journey you can take many times over because it keeps changing. There are always new depths to seek out and new challenges to tackle. If meditation has shown me anything, it’s that there is no single answer. There is only experience. When we commit ourselves to any kind of reflective practice, we are picking up the same mantle as those who venture beyond our small planet. We become explorers, attempting to open ourselves up to the truth of experience as it unfolds.
With this reflective exploration comes personal innovation too. Meditation helps us develop the skills to create a better world by becoming better people. If technology creates better tools, meditation creates better humans. We might point to famous individuals who led their lives in accordance with their contemplative practice. Gandhi quickly comes to mind – he led a country toward liberation through his own internal freedom.
And yet, meditation also gives us the ability to improve our daily lives in more immediate and practical ways too. It helps us build trust and empathy – tools that are essential for human culture to operate effectively. It builds patience and the ability to persevere despite external challenges. And most of all, it makes us curious, which is perhaps the most important quality for living a fulfilling life. Because when we are curious, we are open to all sorts of possibilities.
Explore & Innovate
“Don’t go outside your house to see the flowers.
My friend, don’t bother with that excursion.
Inside your body there are flowers.
One flower has a thousand petals.
That will do for a place to sit.
Sitting there you will have a glimpse of beauty
inside the body and out of it,
before gardens and after gardens.”
All these forms of exploration, from space travel to meditation, challenge us in unique ways. They extend our powers, change our societies and alter our perspectives. So as we begin to aim for the stars and take our expeditions to outer space more seriously, it appears to me that we may also need to double down on our efforts for internal examination too. Because how can you understand your place in the universe if you don’t have some understanding of yourself? My guess, is that there is a correlation between one and the other – the deeper we know our internal landscape the clearer our place in the chaotic mess of matter, life and energy becomes.
One day I hope to see the curve of the earth from high above our atmosphere. But in the meantime, I have plenty of work to do. There is an equally awesome view waiting for me inside myself, if only I’ll sit down to discover it.