Voltaire once said, “It is not more surprising to be born twice than once.” In this episode we contemplate the miracle of existing at all, from our place at the end of our universe’s 14 billion years’ evolution, to the simple joy of another 24 hours alive.
This is A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment with Scott Snibbe. Welcome to our meditation podcast.
Today’s episode is about the preciousness of life, and I’d like to start with a quote from the great Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hahn “Every morning when we wake up, we have twenty-four brand new hours to live. What a precious gift! We have the capacity to live in a way that these twenty-four hours will bring peace, joy, and happiness to ourselves and others.”
Thich Nhat Hahn is amazing at distilling Buddhist teachings down to simple universal truths. The traditional Buddhist approach to this topic is more complicated, and considers our life precious because, in an endless chain of rebirths, we’ve finally been born as a rational, empathetic human being instead of an instinct-driven turtle, a tortured hell being, or a pleasure-obsessed god.
If you’re a skeptic, I have a hunch these motivations don’t grab you with the immediacy and relevance of Thich Nhat Hahn’s twenty-four brand new hours.
As a rational skeptic, you may be open-minded enough to accept that maybe, perhaps one day, through some epic multi-century experiments, scientists could possibly establish that reincarnation exists, or that consciousness has some existence outside the body. But today we lack scientific proof for either of these, and even lack a scientific definition for consciousness itself.
Whether or not you believe in reincarnation, though, of course life is precious. And it may be even more precious to those of us who believe we have only this one life to live.
What eventually connected me with this Precious Human Life meditation is something Voltaire wrote. He said that, “It is no more surprising to be born twice than once.” I was shocked the first time I read this, and I felt a kind of awakening to his obvious point that existing at all is the far more miraculous event, more miraculous even than the hypothetical possibility of existing again and again.
One of my friends once said, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” That’s the more profound question. One both religion and science fail to answer. But, like scientists do, we can set aside the unanswerable question of why and more practically focus on how we exist, and, most importantly, how to be happy within the miracle of our existence.
Cultivating a reverence for the preciousness of our next day alive can seem sappy and impractical to those of us who feel that we’re simply trying to get through one more day. We don’t feel we have the spacious luxury of savoring life’s philosophical value as we struggle to pay the rent, deal with an angry boss, a painful breakup, chronic pain, illness, and all life’s other stresses.
And even if our own life is okay, how can we selfishly treasure 24 hours of safety and peace when billions of others suffer poverty, illness, famine, and war; political, racial, and gender injustice? Not everyone has the luxury of peaceful self-reflection. Many people even live in countries where they’re not allowed to freely study and discuss the ideas we’re considering now, so is it really okay to chillax on the cushion and appreciate the beauty of our safe, secure, privileged life?
And even the wealthy and famous suffer. It’s not easy being a Kardashian. Those who have great celebrity, talent, beauty, or wealth rarely know whether someone truly appreciates them for who they are inside, rather than what they look like or what they’ve earned or achieved. When you’re famous and successful there can be little space for self-reflection, no space to make mistakes, no space to be alone. And competition with other high achievers can keep you frantically working, chasing more money, more followers, more Likes despite having more than enough wealth and fame to live comfortably for the rest of your life.
Our upbringing too can become an obstacle to self-knowledge and happiness. Many of us were raised with maxims like “Boys don’t cry,” or “Keep a stiff upper lip,” that seal off our ability to express emotion or even know what we’re thinking and feeling, causing us to act out and react instead of reflect and connect.
We can also become cut off from genuine happiness when we’re driven by animal instinct, letting our powerful primitive brain take hold of our mind and body. This primitive brain is genetically adapted to the hunt and kill world we evolved in so that when someone cuts in front of us at Starbucks, or says the work we did was, just “okay,” instinctual ego-driven forces make us as feel as angry and threatened as if we’d been attacked by a tiger.
When our primitive mind controls us, we compulsively seek pleasure and flee pain without reflection. We eat and drink mindlessly, to excess or against our body’s best interests; we mindlessly seek bodily pleasure in our next sexual partner or physical thrill; in business, we compulsively pursue our next deal, paycheck, or bonus.
But unlike animals, we don’t find satisfaction so easily. Often we don’t even feel satisfied when we get the thing we craved, or if we do, only for a few fleeting moments, because as humans we have the intelligence to project forward and anticipate the dissatisfaction we’ll soon feel when our belly’s empty again, when our partner is gone, or when we inevitably meet life’s next obstacle.
I’ve slightly tricked you for the last few minutes by reflecting on life’s difficulties, because the reflection is a meditative sequence that is said to help us appreciate our lives right now.
If you’re fortunate enough to be free of the gross difficulties of poverty, war, oppression, extreme pain, severe illness, celebrity’s spotlight, and overpowering animal instinct, you have everything you need to make your life meaningful right now. But still many of us fail to take the steps toward quite introspection that lead to a meaningful, self-aware life of happiness and connection.
The final obstacle to seizing life’s opportunity is this challenge of finding interest and time for self-reflection. Even with sufficient money, a safe home, and free time, many of us consume that free time with the endless array of entertainment available to us, or feel compelled to keep working through evenings and weekends. We lack the self-control and mindfulness to step away from work, TV, and social media to enjoy simply being alive, aware, connected to ourselves and to others.
One of the saddest places to end up in a life free from the gross forms of suffering is to have found an interest in the deepest questions of life, but to never take the time to explore them; never make the effort to become educated about the psychological causes of a happy, meaningful inner life.
The miracle of life
So, let’s try right now to reflect on the miracle of our life, and snap out of more mundane concerns to make the most of our day, to prioritize happiness, meaning, self-knowledge, and connection to others. One way I’ve found useful is to reflect on the scientific origin of life itself, to see myself at the very tip of the history of the universe, the result of 14 billion years’ cosmic and biological evolution.
Reminding ourselves of what science has discovered about the scale of the universe, the rareness of life, and the newness and fragility of humanity’s presence on earth can be a powerful motivation to shake us out of our self-centered view and seize the opportunity of each new day alive.
As a ten-year-old boy, I listened to Carl Sagan’s soothing voice intone “billions and billions” on PBS. His TV series, Cosmos, gave me a sense of the vast scale of the universe, more awesome to me than any religious story of the origin of existence. A story that takes 14 billion years to end at human capacity to know, think, and feel.
You may have seen the updated Cosmos with Neil de Grass Tyson that came out a few years ago, with way cooler special effects and an even bigger story of the universe as we know it today. In the first episode, Tyson uses something called the Cosmic Calendar to demonstrate the vast timescales of the universe, and our tiny, recent place in it.
In the show, the Calendar is a huge black shiny platform for Tyson, floating in space, that scales the 14 billion years of our universe into one calendar year. On this calendar, a single day is 38 million years of our universe’s time.
The Big Bang occurs on the first second of January 1, and the present moment is the last second of December 31, a second that lasts about 500 years of real time.
From January through September on the Cosmic Calendar, the universe chugs on for 9 billion years until our star and solar system form from the debris of past stellar explosions, from stars that already lived and died multi-billion-year lifespans.
All earth’s heavy elements, the building blocks of life—carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur—came from these stars that exploded before ours even formed.
Soon after earth’s formation, simple life appears, 3.8 billion years ago. Three more months pass on the cosmic calendar, 3.6 billion years, until dinosaurs show up and live for just one Calendar day; a day that for some reason lands precisely on the Cosmic Calendar’s Christmas, 23 million years ago in earth time. Mammals emerge the next day, and gradually evolve into monkeys, apes, and early hominids.
By the Cosmic Calendar, modern humans show up late for the party on New Year’s Eve, December 31 at 11:52pm, just a hundred thousand years ago. And recorded history, starting 12,000 years ago, begins at 11:59pm and 33 seconds. Into the Cosmic Calendar’s final second is crammed all of our past 500 years’ modern civilization, from Leonardo da Vinci to Snapchat.
I tried meditating, and leading meditations, in this more scientific way, according to these profound facts that awed me as a boy, reflecting not just on the evolution of galaxies, stars, planets, and life, but also on our remarkable powers of intelligence. Grounded in science’s understanding of reality, I found this meditation quite effective. For, despite humanity’s minuteness on the temporal and physical scale of the universe, our human capacity to know, feel, and think may trump all the dumb matter in the those billions of galaxies.
Everything we currently know about the universe’s evolution says that it took 14 billion years for the first conscious, self-aware, empathetic beings to emerge. Out of 100 billion stars in our galaxy and two trillion galaxies, we have yet to find evidence of other intelligent beings. To again quote Carl Sagan, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”
This way of meditating, a scientific reflection on all the material universe’s causes and effects that lead up to our own birth and awareness, helps me conjure a sense of awe and responsibility that requires no belief in an afterlife or supernatural beings. Most of us rarely reflect on the marvel of the universe, and our miraculous place in it. The wonder of existing at all. “Why is there something rather than nothing?”
We’ll never have an answer to that question, but, as analytic meditation advocates, asking questions like it, over and over, can ground us in the immediate wonder of our existence right now, building a deeper connection to ourselves.
To put a slight twist on Carl Sagan’s famous quote, “We are a way for the Cosmos to know ourselves.” This is perhaps the great responsibility of a human life: to become genuinely aware of life’s preciousness, our place in the evolution of the universe, and to make the most of it:
14 billions years of the universe.
200 trillion galaxies.
100 billions stars in the Milky Way.
4 billion years of our sun.
3 billion years of life.
Humanity at the tip of history, emerging a hundred millennia ago.
A thousand generations of humans, struggling, dying at birth, hungry, violent, afraid.
And then I am born.
Now, despite its drawbacks, discomforts, and injustices, I’m lucky enough to live in a world safer and more abundant than it’s ever been for humans.
Waking up in a bedroom where I know I can sleep safely; With a little money in my bank account, a job, friends, and family, I’m among the most fortunate on earth. What am I going to do with these next precious 24 hours?
For many of us, especially those fortunate enough to have the time to listen to podcasts, we have everything we need to be happy.
So, we might as well spend some time going inward each day, understanding the scientific miracle of our existence and awareness, making a little time to steer our lives toward happiness, meaning, and connection with others.
What’s the first thing you do in the morning when you wake up?
As a final, more grounded thought about the preciousness of life, consider the first thing you do in the morning when you wake up.
What’s the first thing we do? We check our phones. And for most of us it’s not a matter of urgently jumping into helping humanity, or gently starting a guided meditation. We check the news, Instagram, politicians’ battles, the latest sports scores, messages from our boss.
I find that on the days I dive into these activities on my phone, before assessing and stabilizing my mind, compulsive activity can rule the day. It’s hard to shake out of the chain of mindless impulses after starting the day with a hunger for information, entertainment, or achievement.
But when I can mindfully remain self-aware and do what’s best for my mind in the morning, I can start the day by getting to know my own thoughts, seeing the beauty of simple awareness, experiencing the joy of steering my mind toward self-awareness and satisfaction, setting a motivation to make this day meaningful.
A powerful morning method that comes from the Tibetan tradition is to recall our great fortune in having another day alive, another day on earth.
I am alive. I am breathing. I made it through the night. It’s not guaranteed, and many people died the night before, of all ages, from accidents, illness, violence, or old age.
With this sobering view of the day’s possibility, set an intention for your day. Seeing the briefness of our life helps to cast off pettiness and unmindful, compulsive behavior. Thoughts of our fragility help us make the most of our next 24 hours alive, allowing us to meet the gaze of others with affection and respect, and to pursue actions that genuinely benefit ourselves and others.
If you have some small amount of safety and security, if you’re lucky enough to have a job, money in the bank, then you already have everything you need to make a happy life.
And the fact that you’ve picked up books, explored podcasts and apps about self-reflection, this is the basis of the tremendous opportunity you’ve already embarked upon: to transcend the mundane mechanics of everyday life, to become self-aware, to understand and gain control of your mind. You’re extraordinarily fortunate already, and it’s worth the small effort now to dive into the mind for a few minutes, to see who you are beneath your thoughts, beneath stimulation, to create the true causes of happiness by simply being present and aware.
Gratitude like this can seem sappy in the face of our culture’s ironic detachment, but a grateful attitude has been it is scientifically proven to be the cause of a happy life. We have this chance to press the pause button each morning, or at the end of the day, or in stolen moments between. When we make the effort to carve out time for self-reflection, to not be wholly swept away by life’s frenetic activity, we’re making the most of our lives in ways that will pay off as long-term contentment, a deep connection to others, and an enduring sense of awe at our place in the universe.
Meditation is a powerful way to connect with yourself each day. Analytic meditation on the preciousness of life can help to motivate and ground your day, considering the rarity of your existence in all of time and space, and the practical, paradoxical fragility of this day alive, Thich Nhat Hahn’s “Twenty-four brand new hours to live. What a precious gift!”
See what a short meditation does to begin your day, instead of a bed-headed tangle with email, Slack, Twitter, or Instagram. A contemplative start to the day establishes a mindfulness and positive motivation that allows you to then use every moment as a cause for your own happiness and the happiness of others.
Thank you for making the time to listen to this week’s podcast. I’m curious to know whether people find the approaches to the preciousness of life we just went through effective. If you have any thoughts, feel free to share them as a comment at the bottom of this episode’s webpage, on our Facebook page, or a private message at skepticspath.org.
Next week we’ll post a guided meditation on the Preciousness of Life for a more experiential take on this subject.
Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio