“Applied imagination,” or “creative visualization,” is usually directed inward or toward a desired outcome by those of the New Age persuasion, but in this application is directed outward—in this case, onto the Milky Way. The goal here is to experience our galaxy as it actually is, rather than merely as a blobby haze of light up there in the sky. This is done by programming the relevant information into the brain, and then going out and looking at the Milky Way with this information in mind. It’s a deceptively simple technique, actually. Does it really work? Please let me know.
Our galaxy is approximately 13.2 billion years old – almost as old as the universe itself. It contains up to 400 billion stars, forming a gigantic pinwheel 100,000 light years in diameter. (A light year is how far a beam of light can travel in a year. Light travels pretty fast—7 times around the Earth in one second—but even at this tremendous speed, it would take a ray of light 100,000 years to cross our galaxy.)
Our solar system is located about 26,000 light years from the galactic center. We’re located in a comfortable middle-class neighborhood, all things considered—nowhere near “downtown,” but not stuck way out in the boonies, either.
A convenient time to watch the Milky Way is on a summer evening, when the brightest star clouds near the galactic center are easily visible from dark locations. The best place to watch the Milky Way is anywhere far from city lights with an unobstructed horizon, particularly a clear southern horizon if you live in the northern hemisphere. An isolated mountaintop or wide mesa is ideal. If you live in a city with lots of light pollution and ever find yourself in a dark sky location, get your eyes thoroughly dark adapted for about 15 minutes and enjoy a spectacular view of our Galaxy – star clouds, dark silhouettes of gas/dust clouds, star clusters – all easily visible to the naked eye. Binoculars add to the spectacle. Watching the Milky Way can be a multisensory experience – sometimes I think it looks like thunder rising. I’m not sure what this actually means, but sometimes language proves inadequate to the task. We can but point and grunt. “Pointing at the Moon,” as the Zennies say.
When imaging the Milky Way, just remember a few key facts, and imagine that these are so while looking at the galaxy. That’s all there is to it.
• All of the thousands of stars we see in the foreground are our galactic neighbors—most of them are mere dozens or hundreds of light years away. The hazy Milky Way itself, the luminous band of star clouds stretching all the way across the sky, is the main body of the galaxy looming in the distance, about 10,000 light years away. When this light we are now seeing began its journey, humans were just beginning to develop agriculture.
• The center of the Milky Way is located between Sagittarius the teapot and Scorpius the scorpion, but is hidden behind the bright star clouds in the foreground. A huge black hole lives there but we are in no danger of being sucked in, since we are in permanent orbit around it.
• From our vantage point, the galaxy is rotating in the direction of Cygnus. Our solar system is headed for the bright star Vega, which passes nearly overhead in mid-northern latitudes during midsummer. One revolution takes about 250 million years. One galactic revolution ago, dinosaurs roamed the Earth. One galactic revolution from now, who knows if Earth will still be a living planet? The jury is definitely out on this one, and we will have our answer almost instantly in terms of galactic rotations.
The distances involved are so vast, and the time scales are so long, that it is difficult for us to encompass the reality of what we are actually experiencing as we stand outside looking into the heart of our galaxy. Despite the technology that has become our de facto God, and despite the superstitious faith in deities “out there” that so many people maintain, we remain in key respects mere animals, with all the limitations that implies. Our basic unit of time is the day, and our basic unit of distance is probably how far we can throw a rock. Being caught in the mad whirlpool of arrogance that calls itself Modern Civilization, it is easy for us to lose track of both our truly insignificant place in the grander scheme of things, and the fact that we and the Universe are the same essence. The Universe is watching itself. It’s easy to be distracted from these important basic truths. So it can be a very beneficial antidote to go outside on a dark night and immerse ourselves in the incomprehensible and healing vastness of outer space.
And where does this outer space really begin? Well, it’s closer than you might think—the sky starts, after all, at our own feet. We are already standing in the sky. We are already skywalkers.