Photo by Ant Rozetsky.
“To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.” – Lao Tzu
The ancient practice of meditation is meant to bring stillness. To slow down. To become centered in one’s mind, freeing oneself of the burden of the incessant rumination that defines our waking lives. From here, one can develop deeper senses of connection, mindfulness, and calm. Indeed, as the Tibetan Buddhist Lama Sakyong Mipham advised, “The body benefits from movement, and the mind benefits from stillness.”
But what does stillness actually mean? We can slow, and even stop, our own conscious thoughts and become immersed in the world around us, disconnected from the concerns of daily life and our own intrusive thoughts. But that doesn’t bring ourselves, let alone the universe, to rest. That’s impossible. Our bodies are buzzing with movement within, and the great celestial bodies of the cosmos are caught up in an eternal dance. Indeed, as the 17th century philosopher, poet, and pioneer of social sciences Margaret Cavendish wrote,
“When Nature first the world’s foundation laid,
She called a counsel how it might be made.
Motion was first, who had a subtle wit,
And then came Life, and Form, and Matter fit.”
So perhaps the lesson of meditative practice shouldn’t be to achieve perfect stillness, but to travel seamlessly with the motions of the universe itself. And when it comes to motion, there’s a lot to choose from.
The Microscopic Movement
Let’s begin with a moment of perfect meditative stillness. Your posture neutral, your mind released from the burdens of thought. You focus on a mantra, or perhaps the rhythm of your own breathing. And when you do allow your focus to turn inwards, into the depths of your own body, you will find a roiling sea of motion.
With every breath you take, quadrillions of air molecules rush into your lungs, numbering more than all the stars in the observable universe. There some of the oxygen finds chemical receptor sites, where they are drawn into your bloodstream. Powered by your heart, your blood carries that oxygen throughout your cardiovascular system, following arteries narrowed to capillaries, eventually allowing the oxygen to reach each and every cell, providing the metabolic energy required to sustain life.
Each cell is a city, a hustle and bustle of molecules and proteins intertwined in a complex dance that would make even the most sophisticated of urban planners blush. Emissaries from the DNA send out instructions for the manufacture of proteins, which go on to store and release energy, eliminate waste products, repair and replace important cellular machinery, and, when necessary, shepherd the process of DNA replication and cell division.
We can go deeper, down to the level of each molecule. Held together with various electric forces, they vibrate, gyrate, and twist in a never-ending contortion against themselves. Combinations of elements make up each and every molecule. And while we might imagine these elements to be perfect spheres, a nucleus surrounded by a static retinue of electrons, they are anything but.
It becomes quite challenging to define motion at these subatomic scales, but there is no doubt that there is movement. An electron’s orbital differs from a planet’s orbit around the sun. We must view this through the lens of quantum mechanics, where electrons share properties of both particles and waves. In this picture, each electron is really a wave, spread and smeared around its orbital, in constant fluctuation, waving and wiggling.
The same holds true of the entities within the nucleus of each atom, the protons and neutrons. On one hand, the protons are positively charged, meaning that they electrically repel each other, attempting to rip the nucleus apart. But on the other hand, the strong nuclear force binds them together. And so, the push-pull continues, a vibrating hum permeating each nucleus.
At the smallest scales, the fabric of space is in constant motion. Photo by Pawel Czerwinski.
Inside the protons and neutrons are bundles of even smaller particles known as quarks. The quarks live in a constant state of change, flipping their identities and exchanging gluons, the carriers of the strong force.
We know of no particles more fundamental than the quarks, but that does not mean that the motion of the universe stops with them. We often conceive of the fabric of space as a stage, a smooth fixed platform on which we act our parts.
But when we look at the very smallest of scales, the Planck length, which is to us as we are to the entire universe, even space is dynamic.
Space is not alone. The vacuum of our universe is imbued with what are known as quantum fields. These fields permeate all of space-time, the fundamental fabric of our universe. There is one field for each kind of particle: an electron field, a quark field, and so on. When portions of the field energize, we identify it as a particle.
When physicists first discovered these quantum fields, they were astonished to find that they had a peculiar property. They had an energy inherent in them. If you were to remove all the particles from a region of space, meaning that you reduced the energy of those quantum fields to their minimum possible value, that energy is not zero. The quantum fields of our universe cannot rest.
This means that everything we know and love, and even the empty spaces between them, is made of energized quantum fields that are always vibrating.
The Cosmic Movement
There is motion within us, from the pulse of our heart to the vibrations of the quantum fields that make up reality. And even in our moments of perfect stillness, our bodies themselves are in motion.
With the exception of roughly half a dozen astronauts, all of humanity is bound to the surface of the Earth. Our planet is spinning on its axis, and depending on your location on Earth, you’ll pick up different amounts of speed from that rotation. If you’re standing perfectly on either the North or South pole, you’ll simply spin around in place. If you’re at the equator, you’ll have the maximum velocity, whipping around at 1,600 kilometers per hour.
The Earth is also orbiting the Sun on its annual progression, a pattern that has repeated every year for over four billion cycles. That motion is quite impressive, averaging a speed of roughly 30 kilometers per second. That means that every second, even in a moment of perfect stillness relative to the earth’s surface, we can’t help but move 30 kilometers.
The atmosphere is dynamic, constantly moving and changing. Photo by NASA.
The Sun itself is not stationary. Like all the other stars in the Milky Way galaxy, it is speeding along at 230 kilometers per second on its 200 million year orbit around the center of the galaxy, which sits roughly 25,000 light years away.
It doesn’t stop there. Our galaxy itself is in motion, drawn to a gravitational embrace with our nearest neighbor galaxy, Andromeda, hurtling towards it at roughly 100 kilometers per second. In roughly five billion years, our galaxies will collide and merge together.
Then there is the Local Group—composed of the Milky Way, Andromeda, another large galaxy called Triangulum, and dozens of smaller dwarf galaxies—which is in motion towards what’s known as the Virgo cluster, a dense clump of galaxies sitting 65 million light-years away. The Virgo itself is drawn by invisible strings of gravity towards an even larger structure, known in astronomical circles as the Great Attractor.
Amazingly, astronomers are able to measure the sum total of all this motion. They use variations in cosmic microwave radiation, which was generated over 13 billion years ago and still permeates the universe. Because this radiation washes over the Earth from all directions simultaneously, it will appear Doppler shifted in our direction of motion, the same way that sirens will sound higher-pitched when the ambulance approaches you and stretched out when it recedes.
Astronomers can measure this Doppler shift with a remarkable level of precision and conclude that the entire Milky Way galaxy, including our solar system and our Earth and, ultimately, us, are swimming through the Universe at a speed of 650 kilometers per second.
A glimpse of the Milky Way galaxy. Photo by Kristian Pikner.
Hubble image of a gigantic bubble being created in space by an enormous star. Photo by NASA.
This motion persists at the very largest of scales, for our cosmos itself is not static. For centuries Western philosophers and scientists assumed that the cosmos was fixed and unmoving, perfectly still in both time and space. But in the 1920’s astronomers Edwin Hubble discovered that all galaxies are, on average, moving away from each other. That means that space itself is expanding, creating more universe as the days pass. We live in an expanding universe, one in constant and ceaseless motion ever since the Big Bang and continuing on into the future for billions of years to come. This dynamism of space, at the very largest of scales, mirrors the microscopic fluctuations of space at the smallest.
The Stillness of Movement
No matter what, no matter how still you make your body and mind, you cannot escape movement. From the quantum vibrations at the smallest of physical scales to the expansion of the very universe itself, with all the complicated, intertwined dancing of molecular and gravitational forces in between, motion defines our modern understanding of the universe.
So how can we possibly achieve stillness within all this chaos? Here again, physics, specifically Einstein’s relativity, can guide us in our meditative quest for calm. Special relativity teaches us that all motion is relative. It’s impossible to say whether one object is in motion in an absolute sense. There is no fixed grid, no set of standard rules imbued in the space of our universe that allows us to make that judgment. Instead, we can only declare something is moving or still relative to our point of view.
This means that it is perfectly acceptable to declare yourself to be still, and the rest of the cosmos in motion, relative to your perspective.
You can, quite literally and totally permissible by the mathematics of relativity, put yourself at the center of the universe. While perverse according to the ego-dissolving goals of meditative practice, it at least achieves stillness.
But what about our incessant internal motions, the vibrations of quantum fields and the chemical dance operating on all levels in our bodies? There is no way to arrest that motion, even in death, because it’s built into the very nuclear, atomic, chemical, and molecular machinations that make up our physical existence. And there’s no way to use relativity to skirt around this and reframe our perspectives—wherever you go, there you are, along with all the microscopic motions that define you.
Motion is everywhere and unavoidable. And so the stillness that we naively strive for is an illusion. So how can we accomplish the goal of meditative practice? How can we release ourselves from our own minds and find centering and grounding in an ever-restless universe?
Perhaps the best lesson here is found not in traditional meditation advice but instead in…surfing. The ocean is also in constant motion, with waves large and small combining and interfering, sometimes adding together and sometimes canceling each other out. A random set of waves is as unpredictable as the next. And the goal of a surfer is not to achieve stillness apart from all that motion, but to move with the waves themselves.
Combining meditation and motion. Photo by Tim Marshall.
Surfing is seeking stillness within motion. To use movement and match the rhythms and cycles of the universe. This is a different kind of oneness with a universe, a different form of self-sublimation into the wider universe. As famed surfer Kelly Slater explained, “Your surfing can get better on every turn, on every wave you catch. Learn to read the ocean better.”
There is a unique kind of stillness that can be found here, one that isn’t afraid of motion, but instead tries to become in tune with it. There is motion and movement and activity everywhere, impossible to escape. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t find peace. Or as surfer Rob Machado said, when speaking of the froth, foam, and chaos found in every wave, “Foam is your friend. Don’t be scared of it. A little bit of extra foam here and there is good for the soul and your surfing.”
About the author
Paul M. Sutter is a research professor in astrophysics at the Institute for Advanced Computational Science at Stony Brook University and the Flatiron Institute in New York City. He is also known around the world as the host of several shows, such as How the Universe Works on Science Channel, Space Out on Discovery, and his hit Ask a Spaceman podcast. He is the author of two books, Your Place in the Universe and How to Die in Space, as well as a regular contributor to Space.com, LiveScience, and more. Journalists frequently seek his expert advice, especially in his role as the Weather Channel’s Official Space Specialist. In addition to his traditional science outreach, Paul also explores innovative science and art collaborations, such as his work with Syren Modern Dance in Ticktock, a performance exploring the nature of time through movement and narration.
Check out his website at: https://www.pmsutter.com
For social media, find him on X and his social handles are @PaulMattSutter on all channels.