Quantum theory provides us with a striking illustration of the fact that we can fully understand a connection though we can only speak of it in images and parables.
― Werner Heisenberg
I recently turned 58, which on first blush is an unremarkable age. But one day I realized that, according to the standards of my society, I have now been an adult for exactly 4 decades (when I was 18, it was even legal to drink as well as to vote, join the military, etc.). Now a realization like that tends to spark reflection, so I’m warning you in advance — perhaps you’d prefer to head over to Facebook to see what’s trending among your so-called friends. This is going to be a more retrospective exercise.
Now I turned 18 in 1975, which was, especially in retrospect, a fairly interesting year:
- A little tech startup was founded by two young fellows named Gates and Allen. They would call it “Microsoft.”
- NASA shot the Viking I spacecraft on its way towards Mars.
- The Watergate investigations and convictions played out as the Vietnam War wound down.
- The first cases of what would become known as Lyme Disease were reported in Lyme, CT.
- Squeaky Fromme tried to kill President Ford.
- Keith Jarrett played the Köln concerts, which were recorded and eventually became the highest-selling piano record of all time.
- John Wooden’s coaching career ended with his team’s 10th national NCAA basketball championship.
- Jimmy Hoffa disappeared into the mists of history (or the bowels of Giants Stadium).
- The Mayaguez Incident occurred in Cambodia; 38 Americans died.
- The Altair 8800 debuted as the first publicly available microcomputer. It contained the new Intel 8080 processor.
- Ron Reagan threw his hat in the ring for the 1976 election, and Maggie Thatcher became head of the UK’s Conservative Party.
- The first episode of Saturday Night Live appeared, hosted by George Carlin.
- Sakharov won the Nobel Peace Prize.
- Tiger Woods was born; Dmitri Shostakovich died.
The interesting aspect of the list above is that there is such a rich sense of incipience to it (in what we would perceive as both good and bad beginnings). The opening of the personal computer revolution along with the birth of MS; the rise of what would become a world-changing, if violent and horrible, conservatism; the opening of the exploration of Mars. Review that list again and you’ll see that more than half the items in it carry more implications to the world beyond 1975 than they did to their local moment.
So I can perhaps be excused for my teenage inattention to the current events of that year in which I stumbled over the threshold of societal adulthood. The fact is that I had no concept of what that meant; for I was still a child. Sure, I did things that adults do: I started smoking and drinking. By the time I was 18, I was deep into those things, along with LSD, pot, hash, Quaaludes, and more that I can’t remember. So I was no more a grownup at 18 than I had been at 8. The new element was not maturity, but danger.
Here, therefore, is a principle that is true at any time of life: physical age does not maturity make. Growth is not the boot sector of a computer, something that just happens, at the same pace and direction for all, when you push a button and wait a little. It requires a patient and omni-directional effort that is little regarded in our culture. Fortunately, however, some remarkable psychologists, philosophers, and artists of our era have some insight for us that is easily accessible and enriching at any age.
A personal favorite among these is the Jungian psychologist James Hillman, whose books (especially The Soul’s Code) have my highest recommendation for your reading list. Hillman talked and wrote frequently about our cultural obsession with “growing up,” to the exclusion of what he saw as an equally essential direction, “growing down.” That is, he wanted to see our culture evolve into one that equally emphasized the spreading of roots below with the upward reach of branches. His point was not that growing down is more important than growing up, but that it needs greater attention in a society that ignores or demonizes “down” and aggrandizes or obsesses over “up.” We need both, but we teach and encourage only one. We may as well attempt to get rid of the south pole of our Earth in favor of the north.
Now the roots that Hillman mentioned are not just your ancestry or a given person’s socio-cultural influences. They go further, to what Paul Tillich called the very ground of being; and I would add that we only have to observe the direction of the science of the last century to get a sense for these roots. In previous essays I have already traced some of the broad details of such roots: quantum entanglement; string theory; relativity; and cosmic holography.
So the next question is, “can we teach such things to our children?” And I answer, “why not? We’re already filling them with the Cartesian-Newtonian myths and assumptions of another era and calling them science.” You may protest that this new science tends to stretch the brain towards its snapping point; but so does calculus if it’s taught correctly (and I would personally make the same claim for literature or art). My personal view is that the beauty of this new science is its capacity for calling upon the heart: quantum mechanics is as much the work of intuition as intellect; and if you read up on Bohr, Einstein, and Heisenberg, you’d find that they agree.
The point I’m leading to here is that virtually everything we take culturally to be the mark of adulthood — passing standardized tests; getting a driver’s license; being eligible to vote or join the army; going to college — none of these experiences equates or even leads to maturity. They are the same weak and ephemeral symbols as flags are to nations or as paper cash is to personal wealth. Watts used to say that you can’t tie up a package with the equator; in the same way you can’t find maturity in a test score or a voter registration form.
Thus we come to an apparent paradox: one of the most reliable measures of maturity is a sane perspective on measurement itself. That is to say, if I can be clearly aware that when I attempt to measure a thing I am also measuring myself — to the extent that I can really feel this reality, and enjoy its inherent humor — then my maturation is a fine blossom indeed. For now I understand that my measurement is illusion — a secondhand image of the reality I wish to measure and therefore contain within a theory or a model of being.
This is a primary reason why I emphasize the meaning of the new sciences to our lives — for they are teaching us the same kind of lesson as you can find in Zen; in the literature of the Tao; in some of the teachings of Christ; and in the best of our psychologies. Heisenberg, the man commonly credited as the “father of quantum mechanics,” warned us: “The reality we can put into words is never reality itself.” This understanding is a confession to oneself and an admonition to others; and it is a clearer and more beautiful manifestation of maturity than a lifetime’s worth of certificates, licenses, test scores, and accommodations.
To grow down is to feel how discovery happens as much in the depths as in the measured appearances of the outer landscape. Hillman reminded us of the direction of birth itself: no woman ever gave birth through the mouth. We all began our journeys here with a downward trek that led to our arrival. Suddenly, the phrase “down and out” takes on a fresh and transformational meaning.
That journey of maturation is an embrace of weirdness; a lifelong love affair with nonsense and contradiction. This, by the way, is how great art happens, too. Heisenberg said that the farther he strode into the waters of weirdness, he “repeated to myself again and again the question: Can nature possibly be so absurd as it seemed to us in these atomic experiments?” It’s happening still in the most recent developments of the new sciences:
Holography began to be used not just to understand black holes, but any region of space that can be described by its boundary. Over the past decade or so, the seemingly crazy idea that space is a kind of hologram has become rather humdrum, a tool of modern physics used in everything from cosmology to condensed matter. “One of the things that happen to scientific ideas is they often go from wild conjecture to reasonable conjecture to working tools,” Susskind said. “It’s gotten routine.”
Now, another question: can we do this within our own lives? And I answer again, “why not?” As science does with the most seemingly bizarre notions, rely on your own experience to “make it routine.” Now one of the primary weirdnesses of maturation is that it never stops happening. Nature doesn’t put that stamp on your license or your voter ID or your diploma: the government or the institution put it there. Now I happen to feel that government can, under limited circumstances and purposes, be trusted. As poor (both economically and professionally) as the government of my current city may be, I see that water still flows into my sink; garbage gets picked up; and the contents of my bowel and bladder disappear into the sewers. At work, I see that the state can frequently manage public design and construction projects passably well; even if it handles technology like the proverbial monkey at the typewriter. So what follows is by no means a polemic against government but merely a reminder of its limitations.
Government sucks only when we ask or allow it to do more than is defined in its constitutional mandate. Once the individual’s unique path of growth and self-discovery is impeded by an institution or by an arbitrary law or doctrine, then you know that government has crossed the line. When that line has been crossed, government becomes a religion and the politicians its priests, with all the same violence, greed, perversions, and prejudices common to priests of other religions. If preaching, as Watts used to say, is moral violence; then surveillance is intellectual violence. Both are the enemies of growth.
I am no longer an advocate of revolution (nor, however, do I reject it); for I see that the only revolution that really changes anything for the better starts inside the individual self. Pull down the pillars of Authority and Hierarchy within you — that disgusting priapism of belief that says your Mind or Spirit is superior to and should control your puny body; which, in its governmental embodiment, says (on paper) “all men are equal” but means “all men are equally suspicious.” Your mind is not by nature a big-brother controller inside you, making sure the body’s parts, functions, and desires are forced to behave well; your mind is not even inside your body. It is, in all likelihood, a container rather than an insular and foreign President of body; Mind is an emanation instead of a ruling resident of your body. This is why when you die, it is far more likely that Mind (or, if you prefer, Spirit) will easily move to another dimension or universe than that it will sit there and decay with your purely physical corpse. Mind includes and surpasses brain (and any other part of your physical organism): if it were otherwise, that mind is stuck inside our bodies, then we would be justified in despairing that this life is all we will ever know as individuals. This is why, incidentally, consciousness is never seen leaving the dead body; for it was never really there in the first place.
So I am asking you to try embracing weirdness — not merely because it’s an alternative to what we know inevitably falls short of success (convention and obedience to authority) — but because science, including the personal science known as experience, teaches us that it works. Take every belief you find inside you and tip it onto its ear; empty it of its stale, rotting substance; and then challenge it from the heart. For it is not enough to think differently; for that is at best a way of merely societal growth. You will find the need to feel differently; for that is the way of cosmic growth.