Seeing Stars

Campfire (c) 2008 Ericortner got me thinking about a recent experience I had camping with my son.

We were in deepest rural Shropshire on a fishing trip to the River Severn. On our way to the pub (conveniently located by the campsite) we stepped out into the night. So bright were the stars and Milky Way that my son reeled and nearly fell backwards in surprise as he looked up at the vast vault above. It was truly a physical reaction. “Wow,” he said (or something like it), “I’ve never seen stars like that before.” And we got to talking: “The stars are always there, even during the day,” I said. “So why haven’t I seen them like this?” he asked. “I’m often out at night.” (True enough, out clubbing in Liverpool). And it came to us as we talked that the night sky is almost completely unknown to city kids like him. In cities there is ALWAYS light – the well lit shops in the city centre, the car headlights, the street lights. Even in the middle of the biggest city parks at night the light pollution from the glow around the horizon is so great that it’s never really dark. Sure, you see a few stars, but not like THIS, the stunning starscape of a truly dark rural night and the mystical ribbon of the Milky Way. And it struck me then how sad it was that so many people now never really see a night sky like this, but how wonderful it was that we had shared such a moment.

Sitting today, something else struck me: our thoughts are like light pollution. In normal daily life we need the strong sunlight of our focussed thought and awareness – to work, care for others, even drive a car… This is our purpose. But the mind is so strong it never stops. There is always mental chatter, just as there is always background light from a city’s street lights or car headlights: we never switch off. But we do need to switch off and maybe this is the joy and purpose of zazen? By sitting we can reduce the background light pollution of constant thought and discover the darkness that reveals the stars that are always there, day and night.

And what a magical, visceral experience it is discovering the night sky and really seeing stars!

Milky Way (c)2007 Jimmy Westlake

Note: The talk that inspired Andy will be available in audio format in the next week or two.