Friday, 23 September 2016

We're all made from stardust

We're all made from the same 96 elements (like carbon, nitrogen, etc). Actually humans are only made up of about 11 of those 96, but they're the same 11 as are found throughout the Universe. It's all the same stuff!

Have you ever thought about where all these elements come from? Maybe not! The answer is they all come from space, either being formed right back at the very beginning of the Universe or in stars that have born and died through the aeons. Quite literally we're all made from stardust.

I feel some astronomy coming on...

The entire Universe is one

To all intents and purposes, the theory and our latest observations agree that the beginning of the Universe started with a Big Bang. At the point of the big bang, everything was compressed into a single point of infinite density and infinite heat (which is really just energy). Everything in the entire Universe was once compressed together into a single point. Isn't that amazing – science shows we are all one.

As you might imagine, the explosion that followed was immense. The physics implies that the Universe underwent an incredible period of what's known as "inflation", where it increased in size by an enormous amount in a very very short time.

As the Universe then continued to expand and cool after this rapid inflation, the pure energy began to condense out into subatomic particles. In 1905, Einstein published his theory of special relativity, stating that energy is equivalent to mass (multiplied by the speed of light). Energy is equivalent to mass – it's another incredible concept! Essentially, mass (basically all "things") is just condensed, solidified energy. It blows my mind every time I think of it!

The Big Bang element factory

So as the Universe was cooling from it's infinitely high temperature, pure energy started solidifying into particles – first into things like quarks and other exotically named particles, then into more common or garden protons and neutrons, etc. At these high temperatures, a series of reactions started to convert single protons into atoms of hydrogen (two protons together) and helium (four protons and some neutrons), and a small fraction of lithium and beryllium. At the end of this cooling off period, the Universe contained about 75% hydrogen and about 24.99% helium.

So we've now got 4 of our elements (albeit not much of the other two). The big bang couldn't produce any elements heavier than beryllium due to a bottleneck in the reaction (as it happens, the absence of a stable nucleus with 8 or 5 nucleons).

The stellar element factory

Now we need to fast-forward about 200 million years to when the first stars formed. (This is a mere blink of the eye for the Universe, bearing in mind it is currently 13.5 billion years old.) So these large clouds of hydrogen and helium were floating around, getting bigger because gravity was pulling in more material, and gently cooling. Eventually, one clump somewhere deep inside one of these clouds got big enough to start collapsing in on itself. One of the things about gravitational collapse is that it really starts to heat things up. Right in the middle it got hot enough to start a totally new type of reaction – that of compressing 4 hydrogen atoms together to form helium. Stellar nuclear fusion was born and indeed the first star was born.

Stars can be thought of as giant furnaces that convert lighter elements to heavier elements and in the process release energy that radiates out (some of which we see). The reaction bottleneck that the plain Universe got stuck on was overcome in this fusion reaction.

Stars spend the majority of their life converting hydrogen into helium because it's extremely efficient, and there's so much hydrogen (even in a star like our own Sun) that this reaction can continue for billions of years. There are two main fusion reactions that are important inside of stars. For stars of small-medium size with (comparatively) low core temperatures, a reaction known as the p-p chain dominates. For medium-big starts with much higher core temperatures, a process known as the CNO cycle (standing for carbon-nitrogen-oxygen) dominates.

Both the p-p chain and the CNO cycle have the same effect though. Four protons are combined to form a helium atom, liberating energy (and a few other bits). The difference is that the CNO cycle requires the presence of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen to act as catalysts, thus producing energy more efficiently than in the p-p chain.

So where does this carbon, nitrogen and oxygen come from if all stars do is convert hydrogen into helium? Some of it is produced very near the end of a small-medium size star's life. The majority, however, is formed in a supernova.

The supernova element factory

A nova is a burst or explosion in a star. Some stars undergo regular nova outbursts. A supernova, as you might imagine, is a much bigger version of a nova, and it tends to be catastrophic. There are two main types of supernovae. The first happens when there are two stars in orbit around one another, and the more massive star is sucking material from the smaller one. At some point so much material accumulates on the bigger star that it can't cope with the pressure (literally) and it implodes. The second type concerns very massive single stars (typically bigger than around 8 times the mass of our Sun). These massive stars consume their hydrogen fuel fast. At the end of their lives, as the fuel runs out, the outward force holding the star up fades and again the star implodes. A supernova happens when the imploding material rebounds to produce one of the Universe's most energetic explosions.

Binary star where one star is sucking material from the other

It's in this second type of (so-called "core collapse") supernova that many of the heavier elements we know and love are formed. In fact all the elements from carbon up to and including iron are produced in supernovae through various processes. For example, large amounts of radioactive (and therefore unstable) nickel can be produced, which would quickly decay into stable iron.

The periodic table indicating the main origin of elements found on Earth (source).

For the elements heavier than iron another process is needed, and this is called r-process neutron capture (r for rapid). This can only work in the super-high density and high temperature conditions of a supernova. Lighter elements rapidly accumulate neutrons to create particular very heavy isotopes, which then decay to the first stable isotope. All the "heavy" elements from iron up to about plutonium are made this way.

The remnant of a core-collapse supernova explosion
When the supernova explodes, it blasts all this enriched material out into its environment. It stirs up the gas and mixes everything together. This is another reason why supernovae are so important – they get the newly enriched material back out into space.

Generations of stars forming and exploding

So let's say you have a big gas cloud that initially forms a few million stars. After some time a few of the big ones will go supernova. Leave it another few million years and some of that expelled gas will come together again and form a new generation of stars enriched by the previous generation of supernovae. After a few times through the cycle you collect up enough material to start forming rocky planets – and eventually (maybe) life.

Our Sun is thought to be a 3rd-generation star and has been shining for about 5 billion years.

Look around you right now. Everything you see is made of material that was forged in the furnace of past stars and supernovae. And who's to say that all this stuff may be swept up in some future event and incorporated in a new star and planet system...

As the Buddha said, all things are subject to change, even if it takes millions of years.

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

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Friday, 2 September 2016

Mindfulness and family

The Buddha talked about four stages of enlightenment. The first he called "stream enterer", describing someone who sees through the delusion of self and no longer sees themselves as being separate from the rest of the Universe. In Zen you "enter the stream" when you have your first kensho – when you see your true nature.

Push-pull factors, desire & aversion

The next two stages describe someone who has greatly reduced and then completely eradicated those things that act as push-pull factors in our lives (i.e. things that we're attracted to and averse to, wanting things to go "our way") and any feelings of ill will (including hate and anger). The final stage is to see through all delusions and attain the highest enlightenment.

So in this description, someone could've entered the stream (seen through the illusion of our self being a separate entity that needs constant protection), without dealing with any of those other things related to sensual desire and aversion. Basically that person could still be a pretty horrible person! It's rare, but it could happen.

At this point it's important to point out that being free from those push-pull, desire factors doesn't mean we stop liking or disliking things – we still, for example, like hot sunny days and dislike cold wet days. But the difference is we're totally ok when it's cold and wet. It's no problem.

Seeing our true nature and entering the stream is not that hard to do. In Zenways we run 3-day retreats aimed at precisely this. But reducing and eventually eradicating our desires and aversions – well, that's something else entirely! This is the part I want to focus on here. Whether or not you've reached that first stage it's so important, and in my understanding has a lot to do with mindfulness.

Spending time with family

I've just spent almost two weeks with my mum – probably the longest continuous time I've spent with her for years! She's been living in Stockholm for more than 10 years and this year she decided she wanted to move back. The move date was last weekend. I went over and spent a few days with her in Stockholm helping her prepare things, then we spent 3 days on the road driving back with her cats, then I spent a few more days with her in her new house in England.

On the road with mum's cats

Because she's disabled there are some things she can do fine, other things she can do, but not quite as you would, and other things she just can't do. Maybe everyone is actually like this. The trick is to let her do what she can do, be ok with the things she does not quite as you would, and jump in with the things she can't do.

As we arrived at her new place in England, I felt a rising sense of wanting to do more to help her. Lots needed to be done that she simply couldn't do. This feeling kept rising and actually felt like it accelerated as the days went by. It got to the point where I realised I wasn't doing some of the things I enjoy doing because I perceived her need as being greater. Of course that was just my perception – a delusion. It had nothing to do with her. I was being sucked in to the drama of the situation to the detriment of my internal balance.

As I'm sure you know, family members have a particular ability to press your buttons like no-one else can! They wind you up! By definition that phrase means the effect is cumulative. Lots of little things that slightly annoy you or frustrate you literally wind you up until you blow up over something quite trivial.

In both these situations, mindfulness is absolutely key.


If we can be aware of each little thing that annoys you as it arises then in each situation we can make a choice – to acknowledge and allow that thing without judgement, simply letting it go, or you express the emotion(s) that arise because of it. If we do this truly and honestly then we don't hold onto anything and there's no cumulative build up.

Of course discerning if it's appropriate to express your feelings in that moment or whether to hold your tongue and mention it later also requires mindfulness. And discerning when you're holding on/repressing an emotion because you think it's not appropriate to express it (at all/to that person) also needs mindfulness.

The original translation of the Pali word "sati" (which nowadays is translated to "mindfulness") is "recollection" or "remembering". Remembering to stay rooted in the sensations and feelings of the present moment without being carried away into worries and anxieties about some fantasised future. Remembering that you are not a separate being with a separate self that needs protecting – you are actually not separate from the other person or indeed the whole Universe. Getting annoyed and irritated at something stems from the delusion of a separate self.

Another analogy for the stages of enlightenment that Daizan often uses is that of cleaning a very dirty window. It starts off so dirty that no light can get through. As we start to practice, we start cleaning one tiny part of the window. Kensho is when that first shaft of light breaks through. The next stages represent more and more cleaning and more and more of the light coming through. It's all the same light, but there's just more of it. More of us comes into the light.

The result of all of this is that I feel my relationship with mum is much easier than it was. There's a sense of flow in the relationship and we can have fun together! I can love her more fully, and better appreciate the love between us. So it's well worth it!

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

I'd love to hear from you

Leave a comment below, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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