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Deep Time - Musings and meditations

Updated: Jan 27

Sunrise seen from the International Space Station. Photo credit: NASA

Tomorrow night at the stroke of midnight a new year begins.

So I hereby wish you, dear readers and followers of A Biosphere Project, a wonderful new year full of joy, love, health, growth and fulfillment, and connection with your loved ones.

What we call a ‘year’ is one rotation of our planet around our Star.

Of course, whén that year begins is rather arbitrary; you could take any point on the elliptical orbit as a starting point. In. that sense you could say that every day is the beginning of a new year. So that's another argument for considering each day as a reason to celebrate .

So why choose January first?

The first day of the month of January was chosen by the Romans both in the republican calendar and in the later Julian calendar as the first day of the new year. This was in honor of the god Janus, the Roman god of all ‘beginnings’. During the Middle Ages, attempts were made to replace this ‘pagan’ date with one that had more meaning in Christian doctrine, but Pope Gregory XIII initiated a revision of the Julian calendar in 1582 that confirmed the first of January as the first day of the year. Of course back then a year was not seen as one rotation of the Earth around the Sun, for in the worldview of that time, the Sun still revolved around the Earth. Copernicus and Galileo had not yet been proven right back then.

Since then we have learned so much about that orbit of the Earth around our Star, as well as about the orbit of our Star around the center of our Galaxy. For the Sun, as we call our Star, along with some four hundred billion other stars, is spinning along in a beautiful majestic circular dance in the gigantic disk of our Milky Way Galaxy, in a slightly up-and-down motion that makes the whole of the orbit resemble that of a toy horse on an antique merry-go-round, which likewise combines an orbit around the axis of the merry-go-round with a gentle up-and-down motion that makes the ride more fun for the children.

What a fun image: the orbit of the Sun like that of a horse on a merry-go-round, gently rocking up and down as if to add to the fun and make our rides around the center of the Galaxy even more enjoyable.

But in order to enjoy that ride on our merry-go-round, we have to start considering time spans other than years, centuries or millennia. We need to start thinking in terms of ‘Sun-years’. A ‘Sun-year’ is the time it takes our Star to complete one revolution around the center of our Galaxy.

But first this: it seems logical to think that when the Earth (and we) have completed one revolution around our Star, we end up at the same point so that when we celebrate New Year's Eve we can start another orbit from the same point, but that is not so. Because our Star rotates around the center of the Milky Way at the same time at a great speed (230 kilometers per second), we will never end up at the same point again. Nor is it correct to think of our orbit as an ellipse. The orbit of the planets around our Star has an angle of 60 degrees to the orbit of our Star around the Milky Way, so the combination of the two motions creates an orbit that is actually spiral. That may sound hard to imagine, but the video below clearly shows how our planet actually moves through space, due to the combination of both orbits.

Video showing the movement of Earth around the Sun and around the center of the Milky Way Galaxy.

But so in short, there is such a thing as a Sun-year or a Galactic year, the time during which our Star makes one revolution around the center of our Galaxy. One Sun-year is equal to about 220 million Earth-years.

That's a lot of years. And those are time spans that we can't imagine anymore. By comparison, when the last dinosaurs kicked the bucket, that was about a quarter ‘Sun-year’ ago.

A year is a time span we can still feel ‘at home’ in. We still have some kind of idea of how much time that is, or at least as how much time that feels like (because subjective time is something different from so-called 'objective' time -'so-called', because on closer inspection there is no such thing as objective time).

We may have an idea of what we want to accomplish in one year, or in a few years. We make plans and wish each other a happy new year. We can usually, without much difficulty, picture for ourselves a year and our place in it, the experience of ourselves as a subject going through and experiencing this span of time.

In the case of a decade, we can still have a sense of its subjective experience; in the case of a century, it becomes difficult, but if our grandparents lived for a long time, we might just manage that too. At millennia we lose the thread and at aeons we are completely at a loss. A hundred thousand years, a million years, a billion years.... they become meaningless figures, gibberish, nonsense, abstractions that have nothing to do with us.

That order of magnitude of time is ‘deep time’.

In my essay 'A Selfie of Planet Earth' I already indicated why it is good, as far as 'ecology' is concerned, not only to talk about our biosphere and planet, but to broaden our view to the interstellar space in which it is located.

And similarly, I think (with many other and greater minds than myself) that if we want to give our planet and ourselves a new future, it is necessary that we expand our perspective from the months, years and decades familiar to us to the ‘deep time’, starting with the time of centuries and millennia, the time of our ancestors and our descendants, the time in which we ourselves become ancestors.

In many traditions and cultures it is not only customary but vital to feel a close connection with one's own ancestors, up to many generations ago, as well as with one's own descendants, up to many generations in the future.

The time in which we live then becomes much more layered: it then organically includes the time in which our ancestors lived, and the time in which our great-great-grandchildren will live. This creates a very different sense of time than what is now common in secularized, industrialized ‘modernity’, in which time is fragmented and separated from the flow from our ancestors to our distant descendants.

And from there we can go even further, to the aeons and the 'Sun years'.

Most 'indigenous' cultures, like all our distant ancestors, have in various ways kept alive the felt connection to deep time, to eternity, as part of their world experience and cosmology.

And with the aforementioned greater minds than myself, I believe we need to begin to feel and experience that again. So that we might reconnect our sense of self with eternity, as was the case for virtually all humans who ever lived until the Industrial Revolution, when the advent of the clock as an instrument of the uniformization of time in the service of productivity cut our connection to universal and deep time like an umbilical cord. Since then we have always been short of time, and our sense of self has also been disconnected from the anchor that connected us to all-that-is.  It is no coincidence that exactly in the generations in which we have lost our connection with deep time, we are also moving at a rapid pace toward self-destruction.

To expand our sense of time, we don't have to start with aeons, we can start with decades.

What kind of world do we want within, say, half a century?

In terms of ecology, the next half century will be decisive, possibly even for the aeons that will follow.

Our political world has a ‘time horizon’ linked to the next election, beyond which it rarely looks.

Our economic world has an even shorter 'time-horizon': that of the next quarter's profits.

Can we get our political world to start thinking in terms of centuries? That would already be very nice; aeons can follow later.

Can we get our business leaders and economists to start thinking in terms of decades, rather than using next quarter's profits as a 'horizon'?

Perhaps, but I think that will only be possible if we ourselves lead by example. If we ourselves are not going to stretch our sense of time to a different scale than we are used to now, we cannot expect our political representatives to do so.

That might be a new kind of revolution: the revolution against the narrowing of our sense of time to days, hours and seconds. No to the dictatorship of clocks! Not only to get back to doing nothing and lying in the grass watching the clouds, as our hunter-gatherer ancestors undoubtedly did a lot (anthropological research has shown that our hunter-gatherer ancestors had plenty of free time), but also to restore our felt connection to deep time.

One of the books on my reading list for the coming year is the book ‘The Long View’ by Richard Fisher. In this allegedly fascinating work, Fisher explores the way our sense of time is so narrowed to quarterly figures, 24-hour news cycles, and the rushed and stressed sense of ‘now’ tyrannized by the clock (which is a very different thing than the ‘eternal now’ which is aimed for in meditation practices). The author examines other ancient and contemporary ways of perceiving and experiencing, which, for example, center on the interconnectedness of generations, and from which we will need to learn much-needed lessons if we want to make it through the convergence of ecological and other crises in a way that gives our planet and ourselves a chance again for a future in balance and harmony.

As soon as I have read more in this fascinating book, I will report back here in the blog.

Dear readers and followers of A Biosphere Project, this has become a somewhat longer musing, but the start of a new rotation around our Star may be cause for some extra musings and meditations. And our Star, meanwhile, also continues with her merry-go-round orbit around the center of our Galaxy. In fact, it is all one big celebration, and it is mainly our own cognitive mess, the way we have come to regard our mental constructs as real, that prevents us from seeing and experiencing that.

Once again, I wish you a wonderful next rotation around our Star, with much joy, love and connection, and a radiant realization of how incomprehensibly wonderful it is that we are here, on our beautiful planet that keeps on dancing around our Star.

In case you get lost, as a final image below, a more detailed map of our Galaxy, with the position of our Star clearly indicated, slightly below the center of the image, next to the Pleiades. You can't get lost with this map.

Happy New Year!

Until the next installment,

All the best to you,


A map of our Milky Way Galaxy. One of approximately two trillion galaxies in the visible Universe, it measures about 100,000 light years across and contains about four hundred billion stars. You will find our Star, which we habitually call 'Sun', if you follow a straight line down from the center, next to the Pleiades and Orion. That's us. And we complete one orbit in two hundred and twenty million years. Celebration!


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