The Spiritual Practice of Dying Continually

Embarking on the spiritual journey is like getting into a very small boat and setting out on the ocean to search for unknown lands. With wholehearted practice comes inspiration, but sooner or later we will also encounter fear. For all we know, when we get to the horizon, we are going to drop off the edge of the world. Like all explorers, we are drawn to discover what's waiting out there without knowing yet if we have the courage to face it.

If we become interested in Buddhism and decide to find out what it has to offer, we'll soon discover that there are different slants on how we can proceed. With insight meditation we begin practicing mindfulness, being fully present with all our activities and thoughts. With Zen practice we hear teachings on emptiness and are challenged to connect with the open, unbounded clarity of mind. The vajrayana teachings introduce us to the notion of working with the energy of all situations, seeing whatever arises as inseparable from the awakened state. Any of these approaches might hook us and fuel our enthusiasm to explore further, but if want to go beneath the surface and practice without hesitation, it is inevitable that at some point we will experience fear.

Fear is a universal experience. Even the smallest insect feels it. We wade in the tidal pools and put our finger near the soft, open bodies of sea anemones and they close up. Everything spontaneously does that. It's not a terrible thing that we feel fear when faced with the unknown. It is part of being alive, something we all share. We react against the possibility of loneliness, of death, of not having anything to hold on to. Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.

If we commit ourselves to staying right where we are, then our experience becomes very vivid. Things become very clear when there is nowhere to escape.

During a long retreat, I had what seemed to me the earth-shaking revelation that we cannot be in the present and run our story lines at the same time. It sounds pretty obvious, I know, but when you discover something like this for yourself, it changes you. Impermanence becomes vivid in the present moment; so do compassion and wonder and courage. And so does fear. In fact, anyone who stands on the edge of the unknown, fully in the present without reference point, experiences groundlessness. That's when our understanding goes deeper, when we find that the present moment is a pretty vulnerable place and that this can be completely unnerving and completely tender at the same time.

When we begin our exploration, we have all kinds of ideals and expectations. We are looking for answers that will satisfy a hunger we've felt for a very long time. But the last thing we want is a further introduction to the boogeyman. Of course, people do try to warn us. I remember when I first received meditation instruction, the woman told me the technique and guidelines on how to practice and then said, "But please don't go away from here thinking that meditation is a vacation from irritation." Somehow all the warnings in the world don't quite convince us. In fact they draw us closer.

What we're talking about is getting to know fear, becoming familiar with fear, looking it right in the eye — not as a way to solve problem, but as a complete undoing of old ways of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and thinking. The truth is that when we really begin to do this, we're going to be continually humbled. There's not going to be much room for the arrogance that holding on to ideals can bring. The arrogance that inevitably does arise is going to be continually shot down by our own courage to step forward a little further. The kinds of discoveries that are made through practice have nothing to do with believing in anything. They have much more to do with having the courage to die, the courage to die continually.

--When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (Shambhala Classics), by Pema Chodron

Can the CERN LHC Destroy Earth?

A calculation of the total energy density produced by protons in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN shows it is not likely to destroy Earth.

Paul A. Heckert - Sep 18, 2008


Various popular media have been making much ado about the possibility that the tremendous energies to be produced by the CERN Large Hadron Collider (LHC) may destroy Earth. They speculate these energies could produce a small black hole that would eventually swallow Earth. Is there any scientific validity to this speculation, or is it much ado about nothing?

The fact that this article was written after the Large Hadron Collider was turned on provides very strong experimental evidence that it is indeed safe, but the physical reasoning behind physicists' conclusion that it is safe is instructive.

Arguments the LHC is Safe

Critics suggest that the LHC is unsafe because the high energy density and high energy collisions could produce an extremely low mass black hole that would eventually swallow Earth. The CERN - Large Hadron Collider Machine Outreach site argues the Large Hadron Collider is safe because:

1. Cosmic rays with greater energies strike Earth's atmosphere and have not yet destroyed Earth.
2. In the very unlikely event the LHC produced an extremely low mass black hole, the black hole would not have enough energy to do significant damage. Physicist Stephen Hawking predicts that very low mass black holes evaporate in a burst of gamma rays, but any produced by the LHC would release insufficient energy to do damage.

Energy Density in the LHC

An order of magnitude calculation shows how unlikely it is for the Large Hadron Collider to form a black hole. The LHC Outreach site states that protons will be accelerated to an energy of about 7e12 electron volts. (7e12 indicates 7 times 10 to the twelfth power.) Rounding that energy up to the nearest order of magnitude gives about 1e13 electron volts per proton.

It also states that the typical LHC beam will contain roughly 3e14 protons. Multiplying these numbers gives 3e27 electron volts in each beam of protons.

An electron volt is a unit of energy used in particle physics. Like most units used for studying subatomic particles, it is very small. 1 electron volt equals 1.6e-19 joules of energy, which rounds to 1e-19 joules.

Hence the 3e27 electron volts in the typical Large Hadron Collider beam equals a few hundred million (3e8) joules.

The key to forming a black hole however is compressing the matter or energy to a very high density. According to the LHC Machine Outreach, the LHC will compress these beams to a radius of about 1e-5 meters and a length of a few centimeters. Using the formula for the volume of a cylinder gives about 1e-11 for the volume of the LHC beam. Dividing the energy by the volume to get the energy density of the LHC beam gives a rough estimate of 1e19 to 1e20 joules/meter^3. (The ^ symbol indicates an exponent, so ^3 indicates something cubed.)

For a solar mass star to collapse into a black hole it must be compressed to an energy density of roughly 2e36 joules/meter^3. A smaller mass would have to be compressed to a higher density. Hence the energy beam in the Large Hadron Collider is many orders of magnitude away from being compressed into a black hole.

Energy in LHC Collisions

The LHC is expected to produce 6e8 proton collisions per second. Each collision between two protons with 7e12 electron volts should release twice that amount of energy. Multiplying 2X(7e12)X(6e8) gives about 1e22 electron volts/second, which is about 1000 joules/second. A joule per second is a watt, so the LHC collisions release about 1000 watts, which is equivalent to 10 light bulbs.

Don't Worry!