In 2011, on a tour of Mauna Kea’s summit, I looked at Saturn through a large reflecting telescope and it blew my mind.
When you’ve seen a thousand pictures of something, you feel like you’ve seen it before. What I saw through the eyepiece was entirely new. I expected another picture of Saturn, but instead I saw a real object—a small, grey-orange ball, fixed in the center of a perfect, razor-flat ring. I could even sense the empty, airless space around it. It looked impossible. But there it was.
In recent weeks I’ve found comfort in revisiting that image in my mind, and the feeling of vastness it gave me.
For me it’s a simple reminder of context. No matter what my current worries are, they ultimately concern a small part of my entire life, and my life is one of many billions of lives on Earth, each with its own concerns. And no matter what happens in any of those lives, Saturn is still out there, looking gorgeous, unconcerned with coronavirus, the S&P 500, and any of our grey hairs.
All problems exist within a context that dwarfs them, but often we’re too close to see it. You may have once been so stressed about a high school exam that your future seemed to hinge on its outcome. Looking back on your whole life, however, it will barely register as an important event. You may have experienced breakups that seemed like the end of the world, and which you haven’t had a single thought about for several years.
Worry requires this narrow, fixated view to remain overwhelming. In fact, maybe worry is only the feeling of having your attention zoomed so far into your Current Big Problem that it fills your mental viewfinder. If you’re too close to see the edges of a problem, you lose the sense that there’s anything outside of it, before it, or after it.
This suffocating feeling is nature’s crude way of getting us to do everything we can. When that happens, you can create bit of air by zooming out, and including in your viewscreen some of what’s happening beyond your worries – which is almost everything, as it turns out.
The ancient Stoics had a reliable way of doing this, using a thought exercise called The View From Above.
You begin with your current viewpoint, which is from where you’re sitting now, however consumed by worry you are.
Then you imagine looking down on your worried self from the corner of the room. Already there’s more in the picture. There’s a person, fretting over possibilities, but also furniture, houseplants, books, curtains, framed photos of family members.
Then you pan out farther, looking through the window at your small, worried self sitting in one of the building’s many rooms. Moving outward again, you view the building from above the street, where other people and their worried thoughts are passing.
Each time you move outward, you take a moment to appreciate how much else is going on, feeling the scale of the context your worries exist in. In parallel with this moment of your own life, your neighbor is feeding the fish. A passer-by is ruminating about his relationship. In the park three blocks from you, a boy is trying to keep perfectly still as he watches a woodpecker hunt for invisible bugs.
You continue zooming out slowly and incrementally, appreciating the abundance of activity taking place in the surrounding block, city, county, and countryside, including wildlife, rivers, hills, and so on, never losing sight of the fact that your worries are a part of this.
You continue to rise, now seeing flocks of migratory birds, highways, coastlines, container ships. Cropland, mountains, deserts, rainforests.
Soon you can hold in your view the entire Earth, a blue orb decorated by swirls of cloud. Everything that happens in the human world is happening in there somewhere. Babies are being born, fields are being tilled, puddles are being jumped over, dumbbells are being hoisted, windows are being gazed out longingly, dogs are being belly-rubbed, and every emotion is being felt. Somewhere among them is your current mental monologue and an accompanying spurt of cortisol.
From here you begin your return journey, down through the clouds again, to see your city growing closer. Your street comes into view, then your home, your room, your chair, and you sitting in it. Finally you return to your current state of mind, which is still important, and still unresolved, but it no longer feels like absolutely important.
This exercise is derived from three brilliant passages in Marcus Aurelius’s The Meditations. It’s best done slowly. There’s a guided version here on YouTube.
The View From Above is even more powerful when you imagine all the other people throughout history who have used it. You’re sitting in your 21st century living room, contemplating the ocean of time and space your worries are bobbing in. Some distance from you—ten thousand miles away, and 1800 years in the past—a Roman emperor is feeling the same relief from contemplating that exact same ocean.
Stay Home. Settle Your Mind.
"Mindfulness isn't difficult, we just have to remember to do it." -Sharon Salzburg