Galileo: Drawings of the Moon


“You cannot teach a man anything,” said Galileo Galilei. “You can only help him find it within himself.” That’s a mic-drop of a statement from a scientist who was tried for suggesting that the sun was the center of the universe.

Appropriately enough, my first in-depth encounter with Galileo came the summer before I started college. That year, Fordham sent around copies of Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel for the incoming freshman class to read and discuss in orientation week. Helping students to find the knowledge within themselves? Super Jesuit. It’s also one of the principles of teaching meditation. I don’t have the answers any more than anyone else does. Perhaps the irony in all of this is that, when I entered my first year of college, I thought I had all the answers.

Still, we can speak to our experience. Galileo made these drawings of the moon between November and December of 1609, creating the first realistic depictions of the moon with watercolor as he observed it from a telescope. The question is, how do we know they’re realistic? We’ve seen these phases of the moon ourselves.

In a 1615 letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany, Galileo advocated for a healthy sense of skepticism, saying that no one “should close the road to free philosophizing about mundane and physical things, as if everything had already been discovered and revealed with certainty. Nor should it be considered rash not to be satisfied with those opinions which have become common. No one should be scorned in physical disputes for not holding to the opinions which happen to please other people best.”

This mirrors a quote from the Buddha himself: “Do not accept any of my words on faith, believing in them just because I said them. Be like an analyst buying gold, who cuts, burns, and critically examines his product for authenticity. Only accept what passes the test by proving useful and beneficial in your life.”

Rounding out this trinity, we can look at the teacher Tara Brach and her famous dictum, “I didn’t have to believe my thoughts.” We can be skeptical towards what we’ve been told to take on faith from others, and we can also be skeptical towards the storylines we perpetuate in our own heads — whether they’re designed to please ourselves or other people. We can be Galileos, sketching the moment exactly as it is, not so that we can teach other people the reality of the moment, but so we can experience it for ourselves.

Today’s Contemplation: Notice your thoughts both on and off the cushion today. Notice the storylines you weave around them to contextualize them in classifications of good, bad, and neutral. What happens if you decide not to believe them? What happens if you say “I don’t know” to each story as it comes up in your head?