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Take The Long View

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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.


Rocky April 6, 2020 at 4:12 am

Instead of zooming out, you can also zoom down to the dog’s eye view of one of the pooches being belly rubbed.
The reason your dog is happier than you is he dwells in awareness of the present moment. He has zero awareness of your monkey mind full of concerns. You can learn a lot from a dog…..
Many thanks for another beautiful post David !!

David Cain April 6, 2020 at 8:24 am

Dogs are excellent role models for living in the moment.

John Norris April 6, 2020 at 4:40 am

[minor point: my email from you didn’t contain a link to this post.]

David Cain April 6, 2020 at 8:24 am

Dang I forgot! Thanks John. I sent out an update.

Michael April 6, 2020 at 8:25 am

Take the long view home… ala Supertramp!

David Cain April 6, 2020 at 9:18 am

I just threw this on the old Spotify

Kelly April 6, 2020 at 9:01 am

I love this post. Context and perspective is everything. Zoom in. Zoom out.

Marina April 6, 2020 at 11:05 am

I love this tool to help change our perspective. Standing right in the middle of Manhattan (pre-corona) with all the noise, people and cars feels so different compared to being on top of one of the NYC buildings looking down.

Vilx- April 6, 2020 at 1:59 pm

But then also, by the same card – *YOU* are insignificant. You don’t matter. Nothing you think or do matters. This whole planet could blow up right this instant, and the Universe wouldn’t even blink an eye. This is nihilism, and it leads down a dark path.

Where’s the line between them that you shouldn’t cross? How to tell apart a healthy stoicism from a depressing nihilism? Is there even a difference?

David Cain April 6, 2020 at 2:19 pm

That’s a good question.

I don’t think nihilism follows from appreciating the very large context around our lives.

There’s no reason to assume that what we do in life must matter for billions of years for it to have any meaning. Meaning is a real-time experience — you can experience meaning when you connect with another person, or when you have a new insight about life or existence. A supernova obliterating your planet afterward doesn’t make that meaningless. Suffering matters, joy matters.

The vastness of the universe doesn’t make any one part of it insignificant. The point of the exercise isn’t to zoom out to a scale where only stars and galaxies matter, and find solace in that. The point is to see that your problems exist in a context that is vast, both time- and space-wise, therefore they can’t be _absolutely_ important, as they sometimes feel when we’re in the grips of them.

Susie B April 20, 2020 at 6:20 pm

“The vastness of the universe doesn’t make any one part of it insignificant” Love that! Our tiny mitochondria, for example, are amazing and essential to life.

kiwano April 6, 2020 at 5:17 pm

I had an interesting experience once, while inebriated (on an inebriant that shall remain nameless), and it spoke to exactly this point on scale and significance.

(I’ll have to apologize in advance to anyone who needs to look up any of the mathematical and scientific concepts involved — the experience was strongly informed by my training as a mathematician.)

What this experience involved was playing with the “scale of the universe” zoomer back before version 2 was released (I think you can still find v1 out there). I zoomed all the way in to the Planck distance, and all the way back out to the estimated size of the entire universe.

The drawing for the entire universe included a note “we’re probably not in the middle”, and when I saw it, my reaction was “yes we are, just look at that log-scale on that slider”. Sure enough the ratio between the estimated entire universe and the size of a human only differed by one order of maginture from the ratio between a human and the Planck distance, so we were pretty much in the middle.

I remembered my parents telling me about quarks as a kindergartener, while the books in school identified an electron as the smallest object there is. I also remembered that as I was growing up, learning about clusters of galaxies, and the large-scale filament/void structure in which these clusters (and inter-cluster space) seemed to be arranged. In particular I remembered learning that over the course of history, our sense of how large the largest objects must be, and how small the smallest objects must be, seemed to move somewhat in tandem.

Naturally, this brought me to doubt that our current endpoints were in any way the actual endpoints of scale in the universe. I questioned whether there even are such endpoints, considering the infinitesimal details of fractals like the Mandelbrot set, and the comparably infinite overarching structure of Penrose tilings (or of the infinitely-zoomed-in Sierpinski triangle you get by writing out Pascal’s triangle on a hexagonal grid, and colouring in all the cells with odd numbers).

I put aside the scale of the universe zoomer, and opened up a Mandelbrot set zoomer. Eventually I zoomed in to a point where the zoomer would zoom no further, as it had reached the computational limits of its implementation on my computer. The ever-finer detail had stopped emerging and as a result, the image in front of my face was _wrong_.

The amount of zooming that I’d done had been more than would have been needed to cause the Planck distance to appear as large as the entire universe on the previous zoomer. I was only looking at one screenful of image, and even if my hunch about it being a computational limit were false, and the software only had a glitch in this particular corner that I was looking at, the zoomer’s rendering of the Mandelbrot set would still be _wrong_.

And so I looked at my own place in the universe, and considered the analogy that if that incredibly miniscule corner of the Mandelbrot set needed to be rendered correctly, in order for the entire representation to be faithful, then so too is it important for my own miniscule corner of the universe not to be marred in order for the universe not to be wrong — and the sense of scale that lends itself to support stoicism can exist quite comfortably without any appeal to nihilism (though it may require an almost-pathological attention to detail).

David Cain April 6, 2020 at 5:55 pm


Until I read your post I hadn’t thought to question whether there are endpoints to scale… I suppose I was assuming that “universe” was one end and the planck length was the other, but I don’t really understand any of the science behind either “limit.” It is suspicious that human beings appear to be in the middle. The names we give these things kind of trick us — universe implies that we’re sure it’s the only one, and not just an atom in a larger collection on a scale we can’t see. And “atom” itself is supposed to mean “indivisible” but obviously we now know it’s not even close to a limit.

Vil,x- April 6, 2020 at 4:17 pm

Hmm…. This stirs several thoughts in my head…

First of all, I’m not sure what you mean by “meaning is an experience”. I’ve always understood the word to be like “the ultimate reason behind all actions”. Like – Why do I go to work? Because I want money. Why do I want money? Because I want to buy food. Why do I want to buy food? Because I want to eat. Why do I want to eat? Because I want to live. Why do I want to live? I… don’t know. But there has to be something further still. More questions, more answers, until at the very end – “meaning”. But if that is just an emotion, an experience, a whim… I… don’t like the implications of that…

Second – ok, so use the vastness of the world not to completely diminish the size of your suffering (or potential suffering aka worry), but just somewhat. Make it smaller, more tolerable, not eliminate entirely. Ok, I can go with that. But then, more questions – how much to diminish? And should I do this only to my suffering, or also to my joy? It’s tempting, of course, to use this technique to make your worries seem smaller, while doing the opposite to make your joys seem larger. But… to me that feels like cheating. Like selective vision. To see only what you want to see, and ignore all the bad parts. Or at least a heavily distorted view of reality. That can’t be right, can it?

Sorry about dumping all this. I’ve just been through these ideas so many times in my head, I really feel stuck and would like a second opinion. And now that it’s on topic here…

David Cain April 6, 2020 at 5:08 pm

I’m not sure what meaning can be if it’s not something you experience. It’s a pretty vague term so everyone must figure out their own idea of what’s meaningful. My point is that recognizing the scale of your surroundings does not make your life meaningless or insignificant.

The point is to suffer less, yes. We suffer more than we need to when we can’t see beyond our worries. There are surely thought exercises that can help you experience less joy, but I’m not sure why you would want to do that :)

For what it’s worth, I think the reason this exercise helps us to suffer less is because it helps us see reality more accurately. Your big dilemma of the day is temporary and limited. When you’re fixated on it it can seem all-important and permanent.

Some contemplative practices assert that our suffering always comes from an inaccurate assessment of our experience — identifying with the body, or with life situation. The point of the contemplative practice is to see things as they really are and cease to suffer over your troubles. That’s a huge topic in itself but if it is true it would mean that there is a direct alignment between viewing life accurately and reducing suffering.

Vilx- April 11, 2020 at 3:04 am

“it helps us see reality more accurately” – are you sure? What if it does the opposite – distorts our view of reality to make it seem better than it really is? How can you tell if your mental model of reality accurately represents it?

David Cain April 11, 2020 at 9:17 am

I guess you can’t always be sure. But seeing something in its context gives you more data to form conclusions from. Instead of having a problem completely fill your point of view, you see the problem in relation to other aspects of life, other points in time, and other lives.

Chris April 8, 2020 at 7:08 am

I have a background on my phone of the solar system that reminds me of this “perspective” of existence (in tough times). Thanks for the articulate expression of this feeling – I’m only one of 7 billion tiny universes on a micro sized blue marble in a vast expanse. Truly a miracle!

David Cain April 8, 2020 at 12:36 pm

It is an unbelievable state of affairs!

Johan April 8, 2020 at 9:15 pm

This reminds me of what astronauts call “The Overview Effect” or “The Cosmic Perspective”. There’s a great short on the overview effect on vimeo: https://vimeo.com/55073825

David Cain April 9, 2020 at 10:38 am

This was really wonderful, thanks Johan.

Andy April 10, 2020 at 7:26 am

Another aspect to the scale of experience is that when we’re stressed, unhappy, anxious, etc., we can forget that it’s possible to move into a place that a larger expanse offers. I notice that what often underlies feelings of anxiousness is the idea that I’m restricted in my choice to remain fixed in place and must continue to be unhappy.

As soon as I remind myself that I can opt to step out of the small space I’m in, the feelings of anxiousness and asphyxiation lessen or disappear. In other words, the situation I find myself in can feel tiny and confining, but imagining myself stepping out of that small space into a larger one with its opportunities to experience my life differently helps immensely.

Doing this attains two goals: I have a clearer idea of the true nature of what I’m experiencing without leading to the idea that the issue doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, and it frees me to examine what path(s) I can take to make the situation better. It’s a mental exercise that I find helps me constructively examine and respond to an unpleasant situation.

David Cain April 10, 2020 at 1:23 pm

Well put… the grand view allows you to see that the issue simultaneously matters, but also isn’t everything. There are so many more possibilities.

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