Majesty and Misery, Miracles and Mystery

From one perspective, the month of December signals the arrival of that part of the year after the crops have been harvested, the trees and vines have yielded their ripened fruits, and the leaves have all withered and fallen to the ground. The light of day is at its shortest duration, and the longest periods of darkness at night hold sway until the Earth once again tilts more toward the sun in our hemisphere. The majesty of the renewal of all life in the Spring, the lushness of Summer, and the brilliant colors of Autumn have waned, and the bitter cold misery of Winter nips at the edges of our flesh for weeks to come.

Depending on one’s point-of-view, each of these generalizations about the seasons might ring true, but to those with an open heart and mind, the determination of whether one is experiencing misery or enjoying the majesty may fluctuate in any number of ways. The Spring also brings, for some, the misery of airborne allergens and high pollen counts, as well as seasonal flooding; the Summer also brings days of stifling heat and humidity, and the dangers of heat ailments and sunburn; the Autumn also brings to an end, the lush green symphony of all the plants and trees, the shortening of daylight hours, and the toils of the harvest.

None of these characterizations are necessarily good or bad inherently, and the cycles of the natural world are neither malicious nor benevolent by design; each season simply proceeds through its cycles according to its nature, and as a consequence of the physical laws which govern the actions and reactions of planets and solar systems, contained within our galaxy and beyond. There clearly are aspects of our existence, as we commonly perceive it, which are governed by predictable physical principles, and to which we are all subjected without any deliberate discrimination detectable through our current methods of scientific inquiry. The Universe is what it is and we are unquestionably bound by its nature to either endure or enjoy whatever transpires within it, for whatever time we are granted in this life.

Recent rereading of John Keats’ poetry as a result of a posting by my friend Anthony brought me to review another of Keats’ works called “Bright Star! Would I were as steadfast as thou art,” and this morning, as I slowly returned to waking consciousness, the terms Majesty and Misery, Miracles and Mystery, floated up from my subconscious in a period of contemplation before committing to place my feet on the floor and begin the day. The concepts of each of these terms has been “percolating” within me this past week, and Keats’ poem really brings home the significance of their meaning in an important way.

Keats himself was only twenty-five years along in his life when he was consumed by tuberculosis and perished after an agonizingly difficult period of time suffering with the disease. His brilliance as a poet, and his urgency to express what was within him were enhanced greatly by his awareness that he would not survive long into his twenties, and by his passionate interest in every aspect of his existence, especially in consideration of the brief amount of time he would have to experience it.

The “majesty” part of this poem is in the awareness of the durability of the star, the unparalleled view of the world upon which it shines in the night sky, and its longevity, which Keats envied in a way. He also recognized that while the star enjoyed these advantages, that such longevity for Keats would not be necessary for him to fully appreciate his own life, but simply to live long enough to grow to maturity, and to experience a lifetime in the usual way, with the advantages and simple pleasures of human love, might well seem like an eternity to someone facing their own mortality. The “misery” part might well go beyond the difficulty of disease, and into the longing for something more, and the impending loss of all that might have been.

The “miracles” of our modern lives, no longer simply a phenomenon within the purview of an esoteric religious viewpoint, consist of the broad range of potentials inherent in the birth of every living thing, in the blossoming of that life, and even in the cycles which govern those lifeforms through whatever span of time they take place. Our own experience of life can contain many such moments as those described by Keats, and are all the more precious and miraculous when we consider how he would not survive long after describing those which mattered to him.

The “mystery” aspect of all these ideas are where we have the most fertile soil for contemplation and philosophy. Many of life’s secrets have been revealed by our scientific and medical research over centuries now, and the life of our current poets and philosophers, artists and acrobats, scientists and sensualists, no matter what their persuasion, can be either bitterly brief or roundly robust, but ultimately, how it is that we are born into this world in whatever circumstance and with whatever advantage or lack thereof, we have the opportunity to embrace life and to ponder its mysteries, and even with only a very short time to do so, Keats pointed the way toward the apprehension of life’s mystery–through the recognition of the majesty of life, acceptance of the experience of misery which can occur, the wonder of life’s miracles, and the pursuit of those mysteries, for however long we are granted in this life.

Here at John’s Consciousness, the pursuit of apprehending life’s mysteries continues; the appreciation of life’s miracles are frequently expressed, the periods of misery are acknowledged, and the full embrace of life’s majesty is often recommended and expressed.

Looking forward to my tenth year of sharing the miracles and mysteries in 2020!

A Greater Understanding

© Courtesy of Attila Krasznahorkay Physicist Attila Krasznahorkay, right, works with a fellow researcher at the Institute for Nuclear Research at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Recently, scientists at the Institute for Nuclear Research at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, believe they may have discovered evidence of a previously unknown “fifth force,” that may be in addition to the four known ones, gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. Apparently, this research has been conducted for over three years and the experimental results have been reliably repeated, and other scientists have been unable to determine any notable flaws in the methodology used.

The gist of the paper published by the scientists concludes that the previously undetected particle, called X17, “because they calculated its mass at 17 megaelectronvolts,” did not follow any of the paths of currently known particles, and theorized that the variance in the angle of its trajectory suggests evidence of being acted upon by a “fifth force.”

For most of us non-scientists, while we may be able to appreciate this news in the broadest sense of experimental results being confirmed and proper scientific methodology being confirmed by others, recognizing the implications more specifically requires a greater understanding of physics, and appreciating the full scientific explanation, demands an even greater depth of knowledge that most of us generally don’t possess. It is, nonetheless, a remarkable development, and the news has been particularly exciting for those engaged in this research.

 

In a related development, I came across a book review appearing last month in the Wall Street Journal by John Horgan, himself a notable scientific mind. He reviewed a new book by Sean Carroll, a physicist at Caltech, called, “Something Deeply Hidden,” in which he is quoted as saying, “As far as we currently know, quantum mechanics isn’t just an approximation to the truth, it is the truth.” He insists that despite the skepticism surrounding the implication in quantum mechanics of the existence of a “multiverse,” a collection of many universes, of which ours is only one, the science which suggests it is on fairly solid footing currently. Whether it is true or not, and regardless of whether or not we are one day able to establish evidence for such an assertion empirically, the community of individuals who support this idea are not supportive of other explanations, which may require that “consciousness is a necessary component of reality,” or necessitate some “ad hoc tweaks of the wave function.”

 

An exhibition currently taking place at the Cleveland Museum of Art, “Michelangelo: Mind of the Master,” according to a review by Eric Gibson in the November 18, Life and Arts section of the WSJ, “features 51 drawings by Michelangelo…Tracing the arc of his career…from anatomical illustrations, to figure studies…to architectural renderings.” Gibson makes particular note of how the “outlines reflect greater effort. They are darker, having been repeatedly gone over…as if Michelangelo regarded these contours as a kind of keynote, the essential element to be got right if everything else was to follow as it should,” remarking notably that the “intense energy and vigorous handling gives them an almost overwhelming power.”

 

While I also have experienced similar responses while attending art exhibitions by other great artists, each of these examples of extraordinary ideas and accomplishments in a variety of fields, suggest that there are clearly forces and energies at work in the world, which demand at least to be considered as belonging to possible explanations of immaterial components, as well as being suggestive of potentially revealing a dimension of our temporal existence that science and physics cannot satisfactorily address in a comprehensive way.

 

In a recent blog post, Brain and Mind, I express my own contention, “that while we are clearly dependent on a nominally functional nervous system to interact in a meaningful way with other sentient beings, the delicate balance of brain chemistry and neuronal functionality only provides a platform from which we can launch our lives as cognitive creatures. After decades of contemplating and studying the subject of human consciousness, what seems more likely to me, is that there are also other more subtle and less well understood forces at work in our lives, some of which we may eventually comprehend and predict reliably, and others that are essential to life, which are also essential for understanding why simply accumulating a sufficient number of neurons, or developing some advanced technology for processing computer data points, will not result in a conscious machine.”

I’m not suggesting that my own ideas enjoy any sort of parity with those of great scientists and artists from either recent history or the ancient past, only that we must continue to expand the realm of what we consider as possible, before a greater understanding can begin.

Einstein and the Human Spirit

Overview description of the original production from the website:

https://worldsciencefestival.qtix.com.au/event/wsfb_light_falls_16.aspx

“Celebrating the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s discovery of the general theory of relativity, this original work weaves together dramatic portrayals, state-of-the-art animation and innovative projection techniques to trace Einstein’s electrifying journey toward one of the most beautiful ideas ever conceived. Brian Greene and an ensemble cast tells the dramatic story of the breakthrough moments, near misses, agonizing frustrations, and emergence into the light, as one intrepid mind took on the universe … and won.”

Currently available for viewing at http://www.pbs.org until June 26th, this original and entertaining account of the development of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, presents us with a very down-to-earth and understandable human rendering of the struggles and triumphs that brought our scientific understanding of the physical universe forward in what can only be described as a “quantum leap.”

Brian Greene, Rhodes Scholar and Professor of Physics and Mathematics at Columbia University, and author of “The Elegant Universe,” and “The Fabric of the Cosmos,” presents the viewer with a very human view of the journey of discovery through the medium of theater, and in the process, opens the world of the science of cosmology to a much broader audience than ever before.

For most of us, Einstein’s theories and the subject of cosmology generally seem like something that only dedicated scientists and physicists can appreciate well, but Brian Greene and his theatrical associates bring us along the path that Einstein followed in a way that even amateur scientists like me can follow. For all its benefits and explanations of complex ideas, for me personally, this production led me to consider the implications of my own research, and affirmed for me, the importance of the inclusion of the ineffable in developing a greater understanding of our very human version of consciousness.

Although many modern scientists generally avoid inserting any sort of philosophical thinking into their deliberations, Brian Greene seems less inclined to avoid such iterations in his work, and at the conclusion of “Light Falls,” we hear from both men, as they ponder the experience of life as it relates to the mysteries of our existence in the physical universe:

EINSTEIN:

“To we convinced physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, however persistent. All the anxious years of wandering in the dark, with their intense longing, the intense alternations between confidence and exhaustion, and the final emergence into the light, only those who have experienced it can understand it.”

BRIAN GREENE:

“No one else had or has experienced it. Our species has surely produced great scientists, who have taken on great challenges to achieve great things, but Einstein’s radical assault on the most basic elements of experience–space, time, matter, energy, gravity–all waged by one lone mind, wrestling with reality…well…that was a singular achievement. And yet, it is in that singular achievement that we recognize the depth of the human drive for…coherence; for unity.

It is within the singular that we see the capacity of the human mind to lift itself above the ordinary, and catch a glimpse of the transcendent. And it is within the singular that we witness the power of the human spirit to rise above the all-too-real concerns of life on planet earth, and even if for just a moment, to stretch for the stars.”

In his epic publication, “The Elegant Universe,” Brian Greene offers a perfect rationale for giving serious attention to achieving a greater understanding of the mysteries surrounding the nature of reality:

“Humans throughout history have had a passionate drive to understand the origin of the universe. There is, perhaps, no single question that so transcends cultural and temporal divides, inspiring the imagination of our ancient forebears as well as the research of the modern cosmologist. At a deep level, there is a collective longing for an explanation of why there is a universe, how it has come to take the form we witness, and for the rationale–the principle–that drives its evolution.”

Professor Greene’s willingness to infer that in seeking to understand why there is a universe, we might “catch a glimpse of the transcendent,” should encourage all of us to consider that there is, in fact, a transcendent aspect to our existence, and that there is a greater understanding which awaits us, which may be achieved while pursuing any one of the many diverse paths to that understanding.

I highly recommend the PBS production, “Light Falls,” to anyone who has a serious interest in knowing more.

Inner Worlds; Outer Worlds

“Millennium Run,” showing the distribution of dark matter in the local universe created by the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

“The dilemma of modern society is that we seek to understand the world, not in terms of archaic inner consciousness, but by quantifying and qualifying what we perceive to be the external world by using scientific means and thought. Thinking has only led to more thinking and more questions. We seek to know the innermost forces which create the world and guide its course, but we conceive of this essence as outside of ourselves, not as a living thing intrinsic to our own nature.”

—excerpt from the film, “Inner Worlds; Outer Worlds,” by Daniel Schmidt

There are a great many resources from the ancient writings and various historical, spiritual, and scientific publications produced throughout the history of humanity to draw upon when we consider exploring or contemplating the nature of our current reality. Scholars in a wide variety of fields of thought have labored through the centuries to decipher these offerings to enhance our understanding and to combine what they reveal with our modern research, in order to reap the benefits of the many wisdom traditions and significant intellectual studies, while still incorporating our current level of advancement in these areas.

As an earnest seeker of knowledge and explorer of my own “inner evolution,” I have spent these last eight years here at John’s Consciousness attempting to share the results of my exploration with a broader audience, and often encounter what Daniel Schmidt called, “The dilemma of modern society.”

“In the Vedic teachings, akasha is space itself; the space that the other elements fill, which exists simultaneously with vibration. The two are inseparable.”

—excerpt from the film, “Inner Worlds; Outer Worlds,” by Daniel Schmidt

There have been a number of individuals throughout human history who have struggled with these same difficulties, and it seems to me that we may have begun to lose sight of what the ancients knew intuitively—that we are part of a dynamic synergy of life in both the physical and non-physical realms. While coming to terms with our true nature does require us to comprehend more fully our physiology and the physical laws which govern all that we observe and experience as temporal creatures, it has been my contention for a very long time that coming to terms with the true nature of our existence requires us to achieve a level of understanding of components and aspects of reality that are being undermined by modern technologists who insist that everything can be explained in terms of our temporal existence.

Closeup of dark matter distribution created by the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

As Daniel Schmidt puts it:

“Focusing on thoughts only, and seeing only the illusions of the outer world, has muted our natural connection to our inner awareness of our truest nature…It is the loss of the connection to our inner worlds that has created imbalance on our planet. The ancient tenant, “Know Thyself,” has been replaced with the desire to know and experience the outer world of form.”

Those of you who have been following along here recognize that while my own experiences have been out-of-the-ordinary in a number of situations throughout my life that I have always maintained an intense interest in neuroscience, cognitive studies, psychology, and the extraordinary viewpoints of scholars and scientists who have studied and written extensively on these related areas. At the same time, I have maintained an equally intense interest in the philosophical and spiritual underpinnings of a wide range of authors, philosophers, and spiritual writers throughout history, and have shared my interests in a variety of worldviews that point toward a more inclusive and expansive outlook toward this important idea of the existence of both an inner and an outer world.

At the top of this page, the image of what scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Germany describe as a theoretical display of the what the distribution of dark matter would look like if it could be illuminated, struck me as an enormously appealing and insightful way of demonstrating just how mysterious and fascinating our connection to everything in the universe truly seems. They explain it in this way:

Comparison of section of dark matter distribution with a human brain cell created by the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

“Dark matter is essentially what we previously thought of as empty space. It’s like an invisible nervous system that runs throughout the universe. The Universe is literally like a giant brain; it is constantly thinking using a type of “dark” or hidden energy that science is only starting to understand. Through this immense network unfathomable energy moves, providing the momentum for the expansion and growth of the Universe.”

These ideas are a startling and yet particularly compelling argument for a kind of cosmic symmetry that pervades the Universe, and this scientific understanding aligns in an especially nice way with many of the views expressed by the ancients, and reiterated by numerous scholars and authors that point toward an intimate connection of all life and all existence.

The World Outside of Our World

Scientist leaving the world. Engraving c.1520. Allegorical representation of changes in medieval conception or interpretation of the heavens when it was thought that the world was flat, discovering the point where heaven and earth meet, twentieth-century coloration of black-and-white engraving from The Atmosphere, by Camille Flammarion, 1888.

Anyone who ponders the possibility of an existence beyond that which we can know and experience as temporal beings, cannot determine with absolute certainty, while they inhabit their physical bodies, what the precise nature of the universe might fully entail; nor can we unambiguously describe the character and quality of the forces or energies which may exist outside of our temporal conscious awareness. As with many mysterious, ineffable, or extraordinary experiences, which may imply or potentially include the involvement of a transcendent component or aspect, we must approach our interpretation of them with the understanding that even though they may possibly be objectively real and seem subjectively potent for us personally, that the very nature of such an existence precludes any attempt to describe it well in temporal terms, and it may never yield its secrets while enduring any sort of empirical scrutiny.

Yet we do occasionally get glimpses of such possibilities–flashes of insight, moments when we sense a connection to something outside of ourselves, extraordinary inner events outside of our everyday experience–which suggest intimations of the existence of another world, which we can only describe as “other-worldly.” Getting to the heart of the matter can present us with a challenge to our intellect, and to our hearts and minds, to be sure, but such experiences can result occasionally in visceral, real, tangible, physical world responses, which are obviously inexplicable in any other way. We are forced to consider the possibility of an influence originating from a world whose nature crosses some kind of threshold between it and the world we know temporally.

Back in 2001, Columbia Pictures released a computer animated film entitled, “Final Fantasy: the Spirits Within,” which told the story of a future world in which scientists were pitted against mysterious forces invading and consuming all life forms they encountered, and a race to discover the true nature of the invaders featured two opposing worldviews: one which touted the power of science to construct a weapon which seemed to destroy the mysterious ghost-like creatures, and the other which proposed another more complex scientific approach involving an understanding of the nature of life on earth which included intimations of a spirit of the earth–Gaia. Ultimately, the powerful destructive weapon approach, directed by a materialistic and angry militant general, which nearly destroyed any hope for saving humanity, was defeated by a determined and life affirming scientific duo who solved the dilemma by piecing together the eight levels of the spirit of the earth.

I’ve included a link to the movie trailer if anyone is interested in further investigation:

The film was not a critical success in spite of extraordinary animation effects and a very compelling storyline, mostly because of the link the title suggested to the popular video game of the same name. Fortunately for me, I was unfamiliar with the game and enjoyed the movie on its own merit. What it suggested to me was the urgency to progress beyond our limited temporal existence and to discover a fuller and more holistic view of what the nature of life might actually be. It remains a potent message today, and regardless of what the ultimate explanation of the full nature of our existence might be, we must be willing to remain open to life in all its possibilities.

Is it possible that we exist not simply as a consequence of our cosmic and human evolution, but also by virtue of an underlying non-physical existence? While many aspects of our temporal reality remain outside of our comprehension currently, what would make any of us inclined to investigate, contemplate, and attempt to articulate the concept of a “transcendent reality,” when comprehension of the physical universe itself still remains beyond our current capabilities? The image above suggests a potential place to begin. Many mornings as a much younger man and occasionally over the years since then, I have had the opportunity to observe such spectacles as the one of the sunrise on the east coast at the Jersey Shore, and some others as the sun descended in the western sky in California, and the effect for me has always been palpably real of a deeper sense of connection to a kind of threshold between where life begins and where it ends temporally as the day begins at sunrise and ends at sunset.

“The relevance of conscious experience in generating (a) new understanding, (of an) intimate connection ( to intuition) with the core part of our inner selves, (is) becoming clearer. Intuition and the practices for intentionally enhancing it—meditation, prayer, deep contemplation, a developed sense of inner peace—can be seen as the key means for gaining access to this interior domain and then living it with an enlarged sense of purpose and direction. The human unconscious, which we experience only indirectly through subjective processes such as feelings, impressions, sensations, emotions, dreams and intuition, holds this invisible domain in place, always ready for awakening. Intuition is (humanity’s) communication link between (the) inner and outer minds and it bridges this all too familiar gap.” –© William H. Kautz/Center for Applied Intuition

The quote above came from a recent visit to the website for the Center for Applied Intuition in San Francisco, by Dr. Kautz, who earned an Sc.D. degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), conducted scientific and technical research at Stanford Research Institute (SRI International) for 35 years in the then emerging field of computer science, with additional activity in geophysics, health, chemistry and the social sciences. In 1977, he founded the Center for Applied Intuition (CAI) and was its Director for 15 years.

We often can have an intuitive sense of some existence beyond the temporal, regardless of how it might be configured or what might serve as its foundation or source. Traveling along the highways in Virginia, fully conscious and open to the concept of simultaneously existing in both worlds, observing the abundance of life all around me, seems to re-enforce the idea. Throughout human history, we see many varieties of approaches to explain or rationalize our ideas regarding the ineffable, but its existence as an objectively real possibility has been asserted by numerous sages, mystics, spiritual leaders, and even scientists throughout the ages. Carl Jung, the eminent Swiss psychiatrist was one such empiricist who clearly advocated a position which supports the idea in a clear way.

The existence of archetypes as primordial images, which we inherit as beings who possess a penetrating awareness of what goes on beyond what our senses tell us, suggests the potential of a non-ordinary state from which we come and to which we return when our time as temporal beings comes to an end. Dr.Kautz continues:

“Intuition may be regarded as a mere phenomenon to be studied by scholars, but it may also be seen as a natural part of life, just as we view intelligence, creativity, imagination, kindness, empathy, even the capacity to speak a language…(it) can now be defined as the human mental capability for drawing on an apparently unlimited source of knowledge (the collective unconscious or whichever name you prefer) to obtain almost any desired information, including that not accessible by common means. This capability bypasses the rational faculty, the familiar five senses and ordinary memory, which are not required and can even hinder the reception process.”

Awareness of our fullest and truest nature is only possible when we remain open to what may potentially explain our keen sense of intuition, imagination, and empathy for all life. If we can allow ourselves to extend what is possible, we may find a way to reach the world outside of our world.

The Spirit of Jefferson’s Monticello

One of the numerous highlights of 2017 for me, which also included several monumental family gatherings, was a long-awaited visit to Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. After a whirlwind weekend of activity surrounding the wedding ceremony of my youngest daughter, the opportunity to see this historic home, which I had dreamed of since I was a young boy in grammar school, suddenly became available, prompting me to investigate the options for tours on their website, “https://www.monticello.org/

It didn’t take long to decide to take what they called the “Behind the Scenes Tour,” which included, according to the description, a tour “…through the first floor of Monticello and up the narrow staircase to explore the private quarters on the second and third floors, including the iconic Dome Room.” Although it was a bit expensive as museum ticket prices go, I felt like I wanted to see as much as possible, since it might be my only opportunity to take such a tour.

Since photography was prohibited in many of the areas within the home, where I was unable to make my own images, I have notated the sources for the images provided.

Upon arrival, I joined a handful of other enthusiasts along a path in front of the East Front main entrance for a brief introduction to the rules governing what was expected regarding visitor behavior–not touching anything on display, not sitting in any of the chairs except where designated, no photography was permitted in certain areas, and reminders about how challenging the stairs might be for anyone not accustomed to such climbing. Once the introduction was complete, we were led to the main entrance where our guide was waiting to greet us.

After a brief conversation waiting for a previous tour to conclude, we were led into the Grand Entrance Hall, where Jefferson was said to initially greet important visitors to the estate:


Courtesy of Thomas Jefferson Foundation–Photo by Robert Lautman

The feeling of standing in this enormous and storied hall gave me a clear sense of just how significant this home must have been even to the original visitors in the early 1800’s when Jefferson lived in the home. Many of the artifacts are those which were originally on display at one time or another, and I could feel the anticipation building to see more.

It took a total of forty years to complete what would become the permanent residence for Jefferson in Monticello, and although he took an active role in its construction throughout that time, he had always intended it to be the place where he would live out the remainder of his days, once his public life had concluded. During his tenure as President, from 1801 to 1809, he directed the tasks to complete Monticello from Washington, D.C., and the home itself was mostly completed when he arrived there in 1809.


© Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello

Standing in the hallway leading up to the library room, preparing to move forward on the tour, I was momentarily overtaken by a keen sense of standing in a place where Jefferson himself surely had stood innumerable times, and looking ahead into that room, I felt myself drifting into an almost hypnotic state, almost expecting to see him turn the corner to greet us. From this point on, at various times throughout the tour, I couldn’t shake the sense of intercepting and sharing momentary flashes of a presence of spirit in several of the areas of the home, pressing me to stay back at times behind the group, in order to linger and absorb this sense of spirit.


© Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello

During his lifetime, Jefferson had accumulated some 6,000 volumes in his personal library, and our guide reported that after the British burned many of the buildings in the city of Washington during their occupation in 1814, including the Library of Congress, Jefferson donated a large portion of his own personal collection to help America’s Library to recover from that disaster.

© Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello

Throughout our tour of the upper floors, I continued to be struck periodically by how potent the sense of presence persisted in certain rooms, and the expert commentary provided by our guide, combined with the authentic and thoroughly researched artifacts which were present in each area, only enhanced this sense within me. Once we reached the very top of the house, in what was called the “Dome Room,” we were once again allowed to take photos, and the story surrounding the dome, which was added in 1800, brought us back to earth. Its original purpose was apparently never fully realized, as a kind of gathering place or receiving area for visiting dignitaries, and ended up being mostly used for additional storage according to the records obtained by the foundation.

The payoff came when we were directed to a set of double doors leading out to what should have been the West Front outside terrace, but instead revealed a secret room, apparently taken over by the grandchildren who lived in the house as a kind of getaway from what was very likely a fairly busy household.

Once the main tour had concluded, we were led to an adjoining room across from the Dome Room, where we sat and began a wonderful opportunity to discuss what we had seen, and to ask questions regarding anything we were still curious about. At the prompting of our expert guide, we began an initial conversation about the people who built Monticello, who were referred to in all the literature as “enslaved people.”

Obviously, the implication was controversial as it seemed an attempt to minimize the very difficult fact that slaves were employed in nearly every aspect of both the construction and the maintaining of the plantation. While the existence of slavery was a fact of life in those years leading up to Jefferson’s writing of the Declaration of Independence, and while the treatment of those individuals was, by most accounts, much less harsh than it was elsewhere in America at that time, there was no escaping the reality that these individuals were considered property, and that Jefferson struggled broadly with this reality, without taking any concrete steps to change the arrangement.

His relationship with Sally Hemmings, with whom scholars have verified that he fathered six children, didn’t come fully into the light for many years after his death in 1826. Today, we know a great deal more about this side of the Jefferson legacy, and the periodic reunions which take place at Monticello, now include all of the descendants of both Jefferson and Hemmings.

Taking a long walk around the grounds after the main tour permitted some additional views of the quarters for the workers and slaves, the original kitchen, and storage areas common to plantations at that time, but obviously on a grand scale due to the size of the estate, which originally was spread out over 5,000 acres, covering about eight square miles. One of my favorite points of interest was a huge tree along the gardens in the West Front area, which very likely existed when Jefferson walked those paths.

While we know so much more now about this controversial figure from American history, the fascination contained in any study of all of his accomplishments and contradictions seems never to diminish while standing in this architectural marvel or walking on the grounds just as Jefferson no doubt did many times during his tenure at Monticello. When Jefferson died in 1826, he was deep in debt, in today’s equivalent of several million dollars, and everything in the house and the property itself were auctioned off to pay his debtors. For some years afterwards, the house fell into disrepair and was nearly lost to history, but for the efforts of Uriah Levy, a Commodore in the U.S. Navy, who purchased the house and several hundred acres surrounding it in 1834. When Uriah passed away in 1862, the preservation efforts fell to his nephew, Jefferson Monroe Levy who took over in 1879, who restored many of the features of the home. In 1923, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation purchased the property from Levy and began years of restoring and purchasing of neighboring property and original artifacts, and has handled the care and preservation of Monticello ever since.

The memory I now carry with me of a sense of the Spirit of Jefferson’s Monticello, may largely be a part of my lifelong interest in stepping through the door, and the realization as a grown man that my childhood dream of standing in that house had finally come to fruition. The experience itself affected me profoundly, while still educating me in the ways which the flawed and very human Jefferson didn’t always keep in step with his words and declarations. The same might be said of any one of us, and while I found these revelations sobering at times, I still experienced a sense of awe as I walked the halls and staircases of Monticello.

 

Our Place In The Universe

An image from the Cassini spacecraft shows Earth as a point of light between the icy rings of Saturn.
Credit – Space Science Institute/JPL-Caltech/NASA

Thanks to the leaps in satellite technology, undertaken by NASA and others, as well as scientific advances as a result of humanity’s efforts to conduct space travel, there now exist many unique images of the Earth, taken from a number of different perspectives, and as living, cognitive beings in the 21st century of recorded human history, we have been privileged to have the opportunity to view the earth in ways that were impossible only 60 years ago. Many creative and innovative methods of photographing the Earth from above, from aerial photographs taken by kites, balloons, and even carrier pigeons, to those from airplanes and early attempts at rocketry, all contributed to our perspective in interesting ways. It would take several years after the advent of human space flight to finally accomplish the task of taking a photograph of the entire earth. On November 17th, 1967, the NASA/ATS-3 synchronous satellite, orbiting the earth at a distance of 22,300 miles, directly above the Amazon River, took the image below utilizing an Electronic Image Systems Photorecorder, transmitting the image to the Weather Satellite Ground station in Rosman, North Carolina:

I received a print of this photograph from the original negative, described as the “first color photo ever made of the entire earth,” as a result of my father’s employment at the Missile and Space Division of the General Electric Company, engaged in the effort to put an American astronaut on the moon. The souvenir photo was presented to me at age 15 as a gift intended to inspire and encourage my interest in all things related to space travel and to astronomy. I have lovingly preserved the image these many years, and although it is beginning to show its age, it still holds a particular fascination for me, and continues to inspire and encourage my interest in the perspective only possible to achieve from stepping away from the earth-bound view of life.

Most people remember the iconic image of the Earth from the moon taken in 1968 by the Apollo astronauts on their way to orbiting that nearest extraterrestrial orb, and in some ways, the simple fact that it was a cognitive human person recording that image on his way to the moon that gave it much of its appeal, but it was on August 23, 1966 that we first got to see the Earth from the vicinity of the moon, in an image taken by NASA’s Lunar Orbiter I:

Many astonishing and beautiful images of the earth from spacecraft orbiting the Earth have been recorded over the years, from John Glenn’s initial orbits of the Earth in February of 1962, to the many views of our planet recorded from the space shuttle flights, all the way to those being made available regularly from the International Space Station. As our technology progressed, we found new and interesting ways to record our place in the universe, and the image below, recorded in 1977 by the Voyager I spacecraft, shows both the Earth and the Moon in the blackness of space:

The image at the top of this post, recently sent from the Cassini spacecraft, recorded at a distance of only 900 million miles, is reminiscent of the very last image from Voyager II in 1990, which was taken just before the batteries ran out, at a distance of approximately 3.7 billion miles away. Carl Sagan famously used the photograph as a launch point for his book, “Pale Blue Dot, A Vision of the Human Future in Space.”

The perspective available to us as a result of these accomplishments, aside from being humbling and awe-inspiring, is one that we have only recently begun to appreciate more fully. We still have all the squabbling and competition among peoples and nations all over the globe, but we have far less of an excuse for not recognizing just how small our home planet looms against the immensity of the galaxy and indeed the whole known universe. We will eventually have to recognize the need to bring all people and nations together into a cooperative organized union of nations in order to preserve the Earth for future generations. Our place in the universe is not yet fully developed, nor do we seem any closer to bringing the people of the world together when we look at the conflicts and trouble spots in the world.

We hold the future of our species in our hands now. We are the caretakers of the earth presently, and the path ahead has some real challenges if we are to leave a sustainable and reasonably livable Earth to our children and grandchildren. Our place in the universe is uncertain in some ways, but we can work toward a greater understanding of our fellow cognitive beings and what it is that gives us our unique perspective. This is my hope in contributing to this blog–to join with all the other voices that are pressing us forward to a more sustainable future, and to achieving a greater appreciation of our privilege as Earth’s caretakers. The subjective experience of consciousness is the door through which we bring to fruition, the future of our fragile place in the universe.