I could taste the dust in my mouth. I could feel the intensity of the sun through my shirt.
As I stood looking out over the Pyramids of Giza towering out of the desert, it wasn’t simply their size that struck me.
I couldn’t remember ever physically feeling this immensity, this depth and weight of history and humanity.
I was 19 and I couldn’t remember ever feeling so small.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that feeling of insignificance and awe was powerful. (Decades later it was part of my inspiration for the triangle I use in these articles and in my logo.)
I touched on it in my previous article about our family’s current experiment of living in a Swiss valley with mountain peaks on either side reaching up to over 3,500 metres.
I’ve recognised this same feeling in rapid succession over the last month so I wanted to expand some more on that theme.
Last week I was running around New York from speaking gig, to meeting, to catch up. I was connecting with old friends and new, clients and collaborators. I walked whenever I could, looking up at the buildings, watching the sea of people streaming past. The scale of New York, a city of 8 million people and 8 million more who commute in every day for work, blew my mind. It was intense, energetic, exhilarating… and made me feel tiny.
In contrast, I left New York yesterday and spent the last 24 hours in Austin, Texas with a great mate of mine.
It had been 8 years since we’d seen each other in person in Bondi.
With a limited window, we had a bit of ground to cover.
We ate Texan BBQ, sat by the fire, walked barefoot in the forest, strolled through book shops and swam in the Barton Springs.
We spoke about feeling like outsiders, love as a mirror for self acceptance, dealing with the challenge of finding purpose, alignment and staying on it. We spoke about carnivore diets, religion, philosophy, awareness and goals. We spoke about business could be used as a vehicle for self expression and impact.
We spoke about the enormity of what we didn’t know, the seeming futility of continuing to try to understand but the insatiable curiosity to explore anyway.
We’ve had plenty of conversations online over the years, but this was only the second time we’ve met in person.
Will we get another chance to catch up in person? I sure hope so. But I hugged him goodbye at the airport today as though it might be the last.
Now I’m sitting on a plane heading back to Switzerland. I’m 10,000 metres (35,000 ft) above the ground. Looking down, from this tin can in sky, I can see the curvature of the earth.
As I always do when I fly, I run through my questions.
If this plane goes down:
- Do the people I love know I love them?
- Am I content with where I am in my life right now?
- Are there any changes I need to make?
(The answers to those questions are yes, yes, and yes.)
In many ways, each of these experiences, even down to these questions, has exposed me to feeling insignificant.
Perhaps because they’ve been in such a condensed time frame, one of the changes I’d like to make is to create a deliberate, conscious practice of feeling small.
The science of cultivating insignificance
The science of psychological flexibility through Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) teaches the importance of being able to take an observing self perspective. Here’s a quick extract from Wikipedia.
The observational self is defined in ACT as a transcendent state of self-awareness accessible through mindful expansion of awareness.
In ACT cognitive de-fusion exercises are utilized to demonstrate how thoughts have no literal power over action, thereby increasing mental flexibility. If someone thinks “I am the worst,” for example, a cognitive defusion exercise would observe “I am having the thought that I am the worst.” Other exercises demonstrating how thoughts have no actual power include saying “I can’t walk and talk” while proceeding to walk and talk, or saying “I have to stand up” while remaining seated.
Experientially, the observational self is the part of consciousness that hears one’s inner voice, and sees images in the mind’s eye. ACT presents the idea that the more practiced a person is at accessing their observational self, the easier it is to perceive emotions within their situational context, remain mentally flexible, and commit to value congruent action. [Bolding mine]
Harvard Kennedy School of Business Professor Arthur Brooks, who has dedicated his life to understanding happiness, spoke at length in his interview with Tim Ferriss about being able to access this perspective too and the science that unpins its role in our perception of our own happiness. (It’s a great interview if you’re interested.)
Developing my own practice
Building a practice to access my observational self appears to be a key to unlocking this component.
I’ve found connecting to insignificance already helps me to take a different perspective on my thoughts, feelings and sensations. Rather than trying to diminish or make tough internal experiences go away, this perspective helps me to accept them as a part of the whole of my very human experience. I’ve found it also helps me recognise that those internal experiences come and go.
From an action standpoint, shifting that perspective helps me remember that I’ll be dust one day. That in turn creates the space for me to sit with my fears, anxiety, frustration, imposter syndrome or whatever shows up. I feel liberated to take action (eg continuing to write articles like this one) without getting hooked by those challenging internal experiences.
From here on in, I’m going to be more deliberate in my practices for cultivating a sense of insignificance:
- Every time I run my Reinventing Mindset workshop, I guide people through a mindful expansion of awareness using my Acknowledgement of Country script in Australia and an adaptation of that in audiences outside. It’s as much for me as it is for the group. It’s one of the aspects of my work that I love the most – in teaching these practices I continue to develop my own.
- Mindful breathing: When I practice a mindful breath now, I’m beginning to notice the air fill the space in my lungs. I then try to hold the simultaneous perspective of my lungful of air in comparison to the space of the room I’m in, or the mountains around me or even the whole world.
- I’ll continue to contemplate death by calculating the number of days I have left to live and asking myself the question: “What if this is the last time?”
- Ask myself questions like: How many fears has this mountain witnessed? How do my troubles compare to the size of this ocean? Is this thought different to what Roman Emperors have experienced?
- I’m going to push further into integrating time in nature in my daily life whether that’s taking a client for a walk through the bush or surfing with mates.
A final note
After my previous article, a dear friend of mine sent me this photo from Nasa’s Voyager mission taken in 1990 and a short passage from Carl Sagan – astronomer, scientist, extra-terrestrial life researcher and author.
I’m definitely going to keep coming back to reflect on this too.
Image credit: Nasa
A Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan
Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
— Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994
Copyright © 1994 by Carl Sagan, Copyright © 2006 by Democritus Properties, LLC.All rights reserved including the rights of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. https://www.planetary.org/worlds/pale-blue-dot