“Ancient philosophers tried to cultivate ’cosmic consciousness’ by sending themselves off on imaginary flights into the cosmos, using a visualisation technique that the French classicist Pierre Hadot has called the ’View from Above’.
Rather like the superheroes of popular culture, philosophers would imagine themselves rising up not space, looking down on their street, then their city, then their country, and finally the whole planet from the perspective of space.
This flight of imagination would expand their minds, lifting them from their particular personal and tribal attachments, and turning them into cosmopolitans – citizens of the universe.
Contemplating the universe was a form of therapy for the ancients. Seeing the Big Picture puts our own troubles and anxieties into a cosmic perspective, so that our anxious egos become stilled with wonder and awe.” (1)
Let’s take a trip into space to see what it’s like. Below is one of the most sensitive images ever taken of space. It’s called the Hubble Ultra Deep Field and it shows us what a deep gaze into a small patch of our sky looks like (2):
This is such a tiny piece of our sky that it’s only a couple of stars in our own galaxy that appears in the image. Every other object you can see (there’s over 8,000 of them) is another galaxy just like our own, filled with billions of earth-like planets.
If you hit play, you’ll see a scientific visualization depicting a flight through these galaxies; ”The camera traverses through the thirteen-billion-light-year dataset and ends in blackness, not because more distant galaxies do not exist, but because such galaxies have not yet been observed.” (3)
As philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris puts it; It’s hard to decide what would be strangest; if all of these galaxies and earth-like planets houses intelligent life or they don’t.
One thing is certain, though; it does put your own life into perspective.
”Many of the anxieties that harass you are superfluous; being but creatures of your own fancy, you can rid yourself of them and expand into an ampler region, letting your thought sweep over the entire universe, contemplating the illimitable tracts of eternity.”
– Marcus Aurelius
Just as many other techniques, taking the view from above to see the big picture has made it all the way from ancient philosophy and into modern psychology.
Today, we call it a ’distancing’ or minimisation’ technique and it’s used as a method for zooming out from your life, placing it in a cosmic perspective, and thereby gaining a measure of detachment.
Anxious and depressed people tend to ’make mountains out of molehills’ by zooming in on their problems until each tiny obstacle has taken enormous and overwhelming proportions.
When we use distancing, we practice doing the opposite. We zoom out from our problems and widen our perspective to cosmic dimensions so that we instead can make molehills out of mountains (1).
The next time you find yourself getting caught up and entangled in your problems, take a deep breath and zoom out. All of your problems may seem like mountains but in reality, they are all taking place on a tiny portion of a pale blue dot (4):