Far out in space there is a remarkable song of the earth. I was reminded of it a few days ago when I flew back into London from India.
At Heathrow arrivals there is a large billboard carrying a picture of the British astronaut Tim Peake welcoming travellers into the country. Looking more closely at the image recently I noticed that one of the badges sewn onto his overalls had the word peace written on it.
As a 12 year old boy I remember when in 1977 the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft left Earth to venture into deep space.
On board each spacecraft there is a golden phonograph record which carries messages from the peoples of the earth intended as a greeting to other life that might co-exist with us in the universe. Pictures, music and sounds were sent along with messages from a total of fifty-five countries. It is a narrative, a collective story told in fifty five languages. It is our earth song.
Having just spent the week in India I was struck to discover that the first word recorded on the disc is Namaste.
Namaste, more than a word or a greeting, is an organising principle of relationship. Traditionally the word is spoken with hands in prayer lifted to the heart. It means ‘the spirit in me salutes the spirit in you.’
It is a greeting that assumes and prioritises our spiritual nature and that recognises spirit rather than matter as primary in our experience. Philosophically it assumes deep connection between people rather than division. It has ancient roots and tells a story about how we can be together. Perhaps there is no word on earth more singularly representative of what we understand instinctively to symbolise peace; within ourselves, between souls and in the world.
Namaste was followed by many other words and voices but the sentiments were strikingly similar. In every dialect and language the message we sent was the same. In Aramaic, Hebrew, Bengali, Burmese, Urdu, Welsh, Telugu, Sotho, Russian, Punjabi, Portuguese, in every voice-the same thing-and the same word again and again.
We welcome you; we greet you; peace be with you;
Of the twenty one categories of sound well over half were of the natural world and of core human activities. Sounds included the rain, wind and surf, the sounds of a dog, of volcanoes, earthquakes and thunder, of hyenas and elephants, a baby crying, a mother’s kiss, trees sighing, the sound of footsteps, heartbeat and laughter.
We sent sounds of connection, sounds of Life.
Of the music, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven were mixed together with traditional songs from The Aborigine of Australia and the Navajo Indians. There is a men’s house song from New Guinea, there are pan pipes from Peru, bagpipes from Azerbaijan, pipes from the Solomon Islands and song from the gypsies of Bulgaria, a pygmy girl’s initiation song from Zaire. Song after song after song we have sung out into the universe and we have been doing so for millennia.
Listening to the recordings it seems hard to imagine that peace itself is anything other than fundamental to human life and human aspiration yet it seems we have become distanced from our own vision and our instinct for what the pioneering Benedictine monk Bede Griffiths called unity in diversity.
Unity in diversity is a principle connected to the Hindu word advaita or non-duality. It recognises both the value of difference in human relations and the fundamental truth of our interdependence or unity, a belief that underpinned Griffiths’ lifelong work to find synthesis between different religious perspectives, especially Christian and Hindu.
Instead of unity in diversity, we find that our societies have become increasingly wrought with separation and division. This division is felt ecologically in our separation from the earth, socially in our separation from one another and spiritually, in our separation from ourselves. Exploitation of Earth’s resources, extreme poverty and personal isolation are some of the consequences of the choices we have made in the name of progress and all are symptoms of division.
In contemplating our earth song, it is sad that contemporary life with all its pressure and urgency has so greatly undermined and threatened the livelihoods, beliefs, rituals and life systems of the people’s whose voices we sent out in greeting to the universe. As an example, one in ten young Australian Aborigine men now consider life today to be ‘meaningless’. We sent the aborigine songs but we have greatly harmed their people.
It is sad that the consumer choices we make every day threaten the plants, birds, fish, animals and other creatures we hear on the Voyager recording-to the point of extinction. We are currently losing species from the earth at the rate of 1000-10,000 times the background rate. We have sent the songs of the natural world but we continue to destroy earth’s habitats and plunder her resources for profit.
Today we live in a world where the gap between reality and what we know to be possible seems almost insurmountable.
To live creatively inside that gap, we will need to learn to balance our will to action and self-interest with a capacity for quietness and the ability to listen to others. Quietness is a capacity that we have lost touch with in contemporary life but it remains, I believe, inherent in us as does the capacity to listen deeply. We need to learn to listen again, precisely in the places where we have become most terribly divided. That is the practical work of the times we are in. Not easy of course, but there we are.
William Stafford invites us to consider the nature of quietness and our relationship to listening in a poem called ‘Being a Person.’
Be a person here,
Stand by the river, invoke the owls.
Invoke winter, then spring.
Let any season that wants to come here make its own call.
After that sound goes away, wait.
A slow bubble rises through the earth
and begins to include sky, stars, all space,
even the outracing, expanding thought.
Come back and hear the little sound again.
Suddenly this dream you are having matches
Everyone’s dream, and the result is the world.
If a different call came there wouldn’t be any
world, or you, or the river, or the owls calling.
How you stand here is important.
How you listen for the next things to happen.
How you breathe.
In the space between what is and what could be how each of us stands is important. To stand up is in itself an act of singular courage. It starts with each of us and then goes from there. The principle of Namaste can help here. In acknowledging our primarily spiritual relationship to one another, in acknowledging what is holy and sacred between us, we can better ensure the commitment to meet our material needs. From such a place we will find the courage to ask ourselves what dreams we can share and how we might learn to dream the world together once more.
Along with our songs and music, we sent a recording of the sound of fire into space with Voyager. We have sung songs, told stories and listened to one another around fires for a very long time. There is an inherently numinous quality in the relationship between fire and story, the place where we encounter the spark of Imagination. Stories told in many languages can reconnect us in the places where we have become broken. They can do it because they are born in and carved out of life itself and the shared resource of our collective Imagination.
Stories are born out of the heart, out of the hardest and softest places of our lives that make our living real. They are valuable because they honour not only our personal lives but also our transpersonal experience-the sense of mystery common to all human experience. As such they have a special place in our understanding of self and other both materially and spiritually.
There are stories of the earth, of society and of the spirit in each of us that need to be told now and heard now. In reclaiming our inheritance as creative storytellers, in reclaiming Imagination as a fundamental voice of the human spirit, we might discover or recover a collective myth strong enough to hold and guide us through tough times, one that will do honour to the message of peace we sent out with Voyager, one that honours all the people and voices of the earth that made up that song.