The Glow of Union: An Essay on Inner Space

IFSince just over a century ago, when Einstein delivered his epochal insights on time, space, and the cosmos, it has been increasingly well understood that there is no such thing as empty space — not, at least, “empty” in the way Newton and Descartes imagined it, as it has bled into our collective consciousness.

Now as I’ve pointed out before, we haven’t done a very good job of inviting this new level of insight into our lives and our minds. I think it’s important that we do, because if we can come to a new perception of reality then we have a fresh experience of it. We can look into the sky at night and see more than stars blinking in empty space, in a black void. We can sense the life within that void itself — dark matter, gravitons, the warps and woofs of the space-time continuum. That’s the stuff from which we arose, and in which we have our lives here. It is all around us, and it is within.

This is why I prefer to think of the light of inner truth as a glow rather than a glaring of consciousness. The glow is light that merges with, and in a way, makes love with the dark. In the second poem of his Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu describes it thus:

…in the eye of the universe,
The formed and the formless
Create and support each other.
The light and the dark dance and mingle
Like the breath of lovers.

Now this principle, this vision of one’s personal being, applies both macroscopically — to the galactic spread of space “out-there” — and microscopically — to the inner space that defines our relationship with the All. Two of my own teachers wrote a book, in which they identify the source of this relationship:

What the I Ching calls “inner truth” in the hexagram by that name [no. 61], is the complete body of knowledge contained in every body cell that science calls DNA. As science has discovered, our DNA holds the complete history of our development as human beings, and is such that a single cell holds all the information needed to build our entire body. The inner truth stored in our body cells also contains all we need to know about the Cosmos, our connection with it, and its Principle of Harmony. This is to say that each of us possesses an inner measure that enables us to distinguish thoughts and actions that are in harmony with the Cosmos from those that are not.

They go on to point out that DNA is a “perfect Cosmic operating system.” We are barely beginning to understand the remarkable depth and capacity of this operating system: experimentation is ongoing that predicts we will soon be able to store the entire content of human knowledge onto a teaspoon’s worth of DNA — and this information would, stored at subzero temperatures, be accessible and readable for millions of years.

Other projects involving DNA are somewhat dodgier, such as the plan to “de-extinct” species such as the woolly mammoth. One can only hope that cooler and wiser heads prevail on this debate; I encourage you to read this scientist’s weighing of the de-extinction argument. She concludes:

Ultimately, cloning woolly mammoths doesn’t end in the lab. If the goal really is de-extinction and not merely the scientific equivalent of achievement unlocked!, then bringing back the mammoth means sustained effort, intensive management, and a massive commitment of conservation resources. Our track record on this is not reassuring.

In the meantime, the least we can do is be guided by what we do know about woolly mammoths in their ecological context. Before we talk seriously about de-extinction, let’s apply the lessons of the woolly mammoth to help save species in the face of pre-extinction.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANow Dr. Gill may know nothing about the teachings of Alan Watts, yet she is restoring his message (for example, watch this video). Watts wrote and spoke on the matter of our false or warped understanding of ecology — not merely in terms of our relationship with Nature but, going deeper, of the distorted perception we have of ourselves as organisms. To imagine for a moment that we are separated or divorced from our environment is to enter a fundamentally suicidal mindset. Indeed, the project of storing our species’ knowledge and history onto a teaspoon of DNA has become urgent in the context of that suicidal frame of reference, which has brought us climate change and the entire Mind of War: war on the Terrorists, war on Nature, war on poverty, war on drugs, war on cancer, war on death.

But this is the dominant mental set of our time, is it not? We militarize everything. When someone dies, we speak of the end of his “long battle” with cancer or heart disease or what-have-you. We speak of reforming our educational system in Blackhawk-Down terminology (“no child left behind”). Our politicians, activists, doctors, scientists, and business leaders all speak of fighting for or against something or other; there is no end to this “Onward Christian Soldiers” mindset. Everything can be made into a war, including what we observe within Nature.

There is a fundamental confusion at the root of this, one which, if not exposed and expelled from within our individual and social minds, will be certain to eliminate us. This is the conflation of hunting with war. For we think of Nature as a constant stream of battle between predators and prey; between the forces of environment and the organisms within it; and finally between Us, the intelligent strangers to this planet, and It, the stupid, careless, and destructive beings and events of the world-out-there.

Now there are two primary scenes of contest that are commonly observed within Nature: hunting for food, and the contest for a mate. The latter situation is not well understood: in some species, mating happens without the mildest sign of conflict; in others, it occurs variably, often as a function of depleted availability of mates due to the loss of habitat or reduction of population (which of course are frequently caused through our influence). However that may turn out to be, such struggles are rarely fatal and are usually brief. As for hunting, well, that is not battle or war or any such thing. It is simply the search for food.

IFIn short, there is in Nature nothing resembling the group-based, large-scale murder that is the stuff of human war. Now you may ask, so what? Language has nothing to do with all this: if a “war on cancer” leads to a cure, then who cares how we talked about it on the way to that salubrious end? My response is that our language can mean everything in terms of how efficiently we manage our lives, both individually and socially. So I would ask the reader to test this for him or her self: identify a goal, activity, or plan within your own life, right now; one in which you find yourself talking or thinking with this military-mind. It might be an illness you have, a habit you’d like to get rid of, a professional or financial goal you’d like to achieve: work with the language of your search, your desire, and put it in terms of the hunt rather than the battle. Then see if you fare or feel any differently.

Now I am not a hunter and know nothing of that culture among humans. I was raised in a family where guns were — perhaps under the influence of that confusion I mentioned above — forbidden. My father had been a soldier of some distinction: the 101st Airborne during WWII. He was among those who were trapped at Bastogne amid the “Battle of the Bulge.” He had multiple wounds and once mentioned to me that he’d been involved in hand-to-hand combat there. He “won” a purple heart medal and some kind of metal star, bronze or silver, I forget which (my sister still keeps these objects). He rigorously denied us, his children, even a BB gun; the woods were off limits to us during the deer hunting season. Whenever we brought up the subject, the answer was the same, delivered in the same stern, inflexible monotone: “I know what guns do and children should have nothing to do with any kind of gun.” Now he wasn’t maniacal about this, mind you: we were allowed toy guns and GI Joe’s and such things; and war movies were allowed on the TV. Some of my funnier memories of the old man are from such moments: I was watching some John Wayne WWII film on a Sunday afternoon one day, and my father was snoozing in his usual chair nearby. There came a scene where a solider put a hand grenade to this mouth and pulled the ring off it before throwing it at the enemy. Suddenly the old man’s voice muttered from his chair: “if you did that with a real grenade, your teeth would come out before that ring did…” I was getting some good mileage out of that remark for weeks after at school.

So my knowledge of hunting is at a more metaphorical level. The I Ching is a bronze-age document that was produced by a hunter/gatherer culture. It contains frequent references to hunting, yet only one to war — the 7th Hexagram is commonly translated “The Army.” And even here, there is more warning than fighting; this attitude towards war is summarized in Richard Wilhelm’s commentary: “But war is always a dangerous thing and brings with it destruction and devastation. Therefore it should not be resorted to rashly but, like a poisonous drug, should be used as a last recourse.” This is a hallmark of Taoist thought, which is reflected in Lao Tzu’s 31st poem, one of the great anti-war statements in human literature:

Of all the instruments of human ego,
Weapons of war are the most horrible.
The teaching Heart of the Cosmos
Turns away in revulsion from these,
And from those that use them.

The student of the Sage
Embraces the supple form of truth.
The student of war
Hides beneath the stiff shield of delusion.
The former walks in blessing,
The latter strides toward Fate.

When the infantile lord descends
To playing with his toys of war,
He must be resolutely answered
With a calm and firm rejection.
And should he kill and conquer,
Let him not revel in his hideous slaughter;
Let him not exult in extermination.
For he who delights in destruction
Shall never live in the Way of Nature.

Celebrate the living body of truth,
Mourn the madness that is power:
The latter is the seat of appearances,
Where the dead figurehead resides.
Let a dirge of sorrow be sung
For the victorious commander-in-chief.
Lament as well the grievous slaughter he has wrought.

Though we may weep for all his seeming victims,
It is the patriot — that power-drunk demon —
For whom the funeral rites must be observed.

IFLao Tzu makes it clear: to be lost in the military mind is to be among the walking dead. We have seen what the “war on drugs” has done to our society: it has filled the prisons and the mental institutions while the real criminals — the Wall St. banks and the crime syndicates that they finance — prosper. The war on poverty has been an utter failure and has been essentially abandoned in favor of a war on the poor themselves. Similarly, the war on terrorism has enriched what Eisenhower famously warned us about: the Military Industrial Complex, the corporations that profit hugely from war. In all other respects, it too has been a failure; though regrettably it is no closer to being abandoned than when it began over a decade ago. Even the war on cancer has been an indifferent success to this point: the treatments thus devised are largely as destructive as the disease itself. I have family members who died as much (and more miserably) from radiation and chemo as they did from cancer; perhaps there are similar experiences in your life as well.

I am not saying that all such efforts in all such wars are useless or destructive; I am pointing out that the frame of mind from which they are developed is warped, distorted, misdirected, and broken. My proposed alternative is a simple matter of perspective, not of effort: let us think in terms of the hunt rather than the battle. The best hunters seem to know that prey is most efficiently discovered rather than pursued; and creatures such as the flytrap and the spider tend to attract their prey instead of chasing it.

In no fewer than eight of its hexagrams (including “The Army”), the I Ching speaks of the benefit of the hunting mindset. Metaphorically, the killing that is done amid the hunt is of false beliefs, fears, guilt, self-blame, and other thoughts and emotions of derived darkness. This kind of hunt provides nourishment through the death and transfiguration of such darkness — not, however, into light, but towards revealing a genuine dark principle — the same kind of dark that I referred to above, which scientists are discovering in outer space. This is the same kind of dark principle that exists within us, in our DNA.

The understanding that we can bring into our minds and our lives from this science is the simple realization that the dark and the light are not opposed, not enemies, not warring armies or nations. They are complementary aspects of a greater unity. As Alan Watts used to say, the trough of a wave is as essential to the whole wave as is the crest. The dark of the night sky is as much (and physically, in fact, more) of outer space as are the stars, planets, and nebulae. And that space between one life and the continuance of life — the interval we call death — is as much a part of who you are as a cosmic traveler as is your present body, identity, and life, which you imagine is all you’ll ever have.

IFThis again is why I like to envision inner truth as a glow rather than a shine or a glare of light. We are, no matter how much we may adore and long for the light, not all that. But our dark nature is, by design (again, recall the “cosmic operating system” of DNA) not evil, combative, warring, deceitful, or empty — no more than space itself is void of either substance or being. To become merely aware of this on an intellectual plane is a beginning; and therefore I will be the last man to condemn or decry the value of our gift of Reason. But thought is just that, the beginning of understanding, of realization, of (if you will) enlightenment. For in every enlightenment there is also “endarkenment.” So our work in meditation and in the entire process of personal self-discovery must invite and involve the heart.

A number of years ago, when I lived in New York City, the transit authority there had an excellent project in which poetry was written onto advertising placards that were placed onto subway cars throughout the system. One day on my way to work, I saw this Langston Hughes poem on my train; I was so moved by it that I scribbled it onto my notebook, where I found it recently. I think it summarizes what I have been trying to tell you in this essay, and so I finish with it now:

Sometimes a crumb falls
From the tables of joy;
Sometimes a bone is flung.

To some people,
Love is given,
To others,
Only heaven

— Langston Hughes

Listening to Watts

Alan_WattsIn a truly civilized world, there would have been global celebrations last month for the centenary of Alan Watts, who was born January 6, 1915. My own opinion — one he would laughingly reject, if he were here — is that Watts was a genius, perhaps the most neglected and overlooked genius of his century. He had a gift for a verbal expression that was musical in its essence; I suppose I mean to say that he was a prose poet of amazing depth and beauty. This is revealed in both his 20-odd books and especially in his lectures, many of which were recorded in the 1960’s and are now all over youtube.

So before I go further, I’d like you to listen to a little of Watts. He had an effortless ability to connect with his audiences; to both astonish and beguile them. Thus, I’ve chosen this brief discussion of Christ, which is replete with that natural humor that earned him the title, “Stand-Up Philosopher.”

So Watts had this capacity for exposing falsehood in assumptions and received truth that seep into the mind of nearly every individual in our culture. I imagine Socrates the same way: as a person who could slice through belief and presumption and then lead his hearers to the most extraordinary and even surreal insights, and make them all seem as compellingly straightforward and simple as a weather report. Note those gobsmacked cries of wonder amid the laughter of those people. And by the way, he’s dead on target about the translation of the Greek in the King James Bible; I know because I’ve read it, too.

The other distinctive quality of his genius is that Watts could, again effortlessly, break down walls, divisions, points of separation in our minds and in our cultures that are almost hallowed in the field of universal agreement. He revealed that what we often take for common sense is neither common nor very sensible. So in this next snippet from his lectures, he demolishes the wall between intellect and intuition; between meditation and rationalism; between heart and brain.

Watts achieved something that few psycho-spiritual teachers ever do: he managed to live much of his life according to the core messages of his books and lectures. True, he had all the “ordinary” attributes of genius: an encyclopedic and versatile knowledge of science, art, mathematics, music, languages (several of them), history, modern culture, psychology, literature, and of course religion. But he took all that vast accumulation of knowledge (which in itself is quite dead stuff) into the everyday world of America and thus brought it, as if magically, to life. Therefore, he could talk in 1960’s jive and not sound like a ridiculous Brit trying to sound cool. He hung out with Tim Leary, Allen Ginsberg, and an assortment of lesser-known Beat Generation icons — as easily as he could connect with scientists, great writers (e.g., Aldous Huxley), psychologists (including Jung), and the intellectual leaders of his era.

He burned self-images inside and around him as the masters of his beloved Zen stories burned the wooden Buddhas. Wherever he saw a pedestal, Watts would kick it down, no matter what politician, cultural idol, God, Prophet, or idea happened to be standing upon it. This, to me, is the natural work of genius.

But like many geniuses and masters, Watts had his weaknesses — tobacco and alcohol among them — which perhaps were vulnerabilities only with respect to longevity and may have actually helped his work. However that may be, he died at age 58, leaving many of us who love his work to wonder what might yet have been had he been given another decade or two. His body of work embraces all the contradiction that you find in great art: meticulous focus and breadth of scope; intellectual precision and an often breathtaking poetic vision; an earthy, workaday type of expression and flights of verbal ecstasy that surpass virtually any oratory ever done in English — the ability to touch the cosmic consciousness through the ordinary and the profane. He has been an ongoing inspiration to me, and I suspect that the breadth of his art and his vision can scarcely be exceeded, but only, as it were, updated in some of their details.

So if I’ve aroused any interest in this amazing genius whose work speaks so clearly to our world and our moment, roughly a half-century after his most productive years, the following is a brief list of highlights from his lectures. As for his books, a tour of his amazon page will get you started.

Tribute to the Memory of an Artist: Leonard Nimoy

spockI’m a Trekkie. I make neither defense, apology, nor qualification on that point. I’ve watched my favorite series — Original ST (TOS); Next Gen (TNG); and Voyager — several times over. Granted, I don’t have any gear, clothing, or any fan-stuff; but Roddenberry’s concept and the production values, social message, and stories of the series have always done something for me. I’ve written a fair bit here about Star Trek:

And I suppose some of you have seen my picture. That should tell you something about my favorite characters from the shows — those hyper-cerebral, laconic avatars of supra-humanoid intelligence, whose uber-rationalism led them inexorably back to the heart — their own, and of course ours. Seven of Nine, Tuvok, and the Doctor of Voyager; Data of TNG; and the greatest and perhaps most enduring of them all, Spock.

Nimoy always appeared to have an ambivalent relationship with his character, which I thought gave depth to his performances and to the development of Spock himself. Long after he had retired his pointed ears, Nimoy revealed that love-hate, push-me-pull-you relationship in the titles of two autobiographies (“I am Not Spock” and, later, “I am Spock”). But I suspect it was always there; I sensed it anyway, or thought I did. That tension was at the core of this character that he portrayed across three decades.

Granted, he was an extraordinary actor; I always thought the best of the lot of them in TOS. Nimoy was given a remarkable set of natural gifts — a wonderful stage presence; a hypnotic voice of unique depth, emotional range, and sonority; and a capacity that is perhaps unique to television, of discovering and revealing fresh layers of depth and maturation throughout the development of his character.

That is to say, Leonard Nimoy was given a great gift and a remarkable opportunity, and he responded to both with dedication, a sense of responsibility, relentless commitment, and tireless love for his work. In short, he was an artist, and a great one at that. I can offer no higher compliment, no greater tribute.

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I’m sure many of you are reading the many tributes and eulogies for Nimoy online, so I’ll only recommend one, which is very well done. It’s at Quartz.

A Hologram-man in a Physical World

IF

Audio version of this piece (mp3)

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I’d like to continue the discussion of the practical benefits of the mutually facing mirrors of science and spirituality. I was thinking recently about Maldacena’s vision of the holographic universe — that all our reality is a projection from another, background universe. An updated variant of an old bromide occurred to me: no more can we speak of an “analog man in a digital world.” My personal motto now is: “I’m a holographic man in a physical world.

Obviously, there is more metaphor than measure to my motto, so let me explain. There is obviously no real physical world, not in the way we’ve been trained to think about it, anyway. This is one of the most eminently practical lessons of the last century’s science. But we still have to play that game of the physical, because we all have a Samuel Johnson within us. I will allow his biographer, Boswell, the explanation:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, ‘I refute it thus.’

That 18th century silliness is the key to dealing with our own “inner Johnson” in successfully reaching a broader experience and understanding in the 21st: after all, he’s “only a hologram,” too. So we don’t really have to kill (or kick) our Johnson. All we really require of him is some perspective: we have to play with that voice of pompous, trained certainty. Remember, as Watts used to say, that to become enlightened does not mean you forget your address and stop minding your bank balance. In fact, these things become easier to manage when they are clearly seen as hallucinations. I know from experience that it is far easier to manage an illusion than an expectation.

IFIn that context, it can’t hurt, and might help us, to meditate on what it means to be a hologram, because my motto now comes down to something like this: I’m a computer-generated mathematical projection in a hallucinated faux-physical reality. Now I’m sure many people might perceive that as rather a stiff or even a depressing cosmology. I would ask, “compared to what?” To the myths of creation, alienation, and self-destruction that our religions have programmed into us for more than two millennia?

You may consider this as a personal prejudice of mine: I really have no taste for religion or clergy of any stripe. It’s not that they are evil or illogical or immoral; it’s that they are insufficient to their avowed purpose. Even the Buddhist priests I’ve met tend to hide behind sutras and moralistic creeds. I don’t need to be taught how to behave, how to act, how to be good. I know all that already, and that’s the problem — it isn’t enough for me. In terms of understanding my place within this universe, that nonsense is utterly useless to me. Good behavior and right belief — the  obsession of clergy everywhere — are ineffectual in the search for a personal truth.

fool4Therefore, the same applies to an ideology of scientism, or science in the sense that the logical positivists aggrandize it. They believe that if we experiment, analyze, statisticize, reason, and empiricize long and hard enough, then all the mysteries will dissolve before our minds. Even the most fundamental and inscrutable of them will be explained, like why you are who you are, in this moment; and not the fellow over there or the lady down the block or the famous author who died last week. For now, however, all that is thrown under a shroud called Randomness, which we are told not to touch or peek under, until the guys with the degrees and the training and the theories are ready to reveal it all to us.

Well, I don’t want to wait to look under the shroud of Randomness or the Holy Mysteries or the Unanswered Question. Therefore, even this beautiful notion of the hologram self amid the holographic universe wavers within me, as in fact it should. For it is a model, a representation as illusory as my idea of myself as a physical and separate object among all the other objects of Reality — the other people and animals and plants and specks of dust that muddle randomly about like balls on the billiard table of Infinity. And the same goes for the other scientific model I seem to have championed as a principle of life and spirit — what the physicists call quantum entanglement and I call quantum resonance. It is merely another way of conceiving an inconceivable thing, the phenomenon that we ordinarily call Love. When I am physically apart from the beloved, we still touch and influence each other in the field of consciousness and caring; I suppose in that sense we are indeed “entangled.”

IFSo my point here is not to advance or to preach a certain theory or model of reality and experience over another. I would prefer that we merely recognize the continuing merger of science and spirituality; empiricism and intuition; thought and feeling — and experience this deeply as a celebration of the scope and agility of the human mind. Why would I want to spend my entire life under the sway of a specific system or ideology, in contempt or ignorance of all other possibilities; when this electromagnetic dance going on inside my skull is capable of so much more? (If you’re a geek or an engineer, check out some of the numbers in that link, they’re amazing). On this day or in this situation I can live guided by the holographic principle; tomorrow or amid shifting circumstances the feeling of quantum resonance and entanglement leads me forward; and the day after that perhaps the dying words of an old Zen master will do: “Truly all that appears to the eye is only a flower that blooms in a day.”*

That, of course, is another way of saying: I’m a hologram-man in a physical world. We need fresh models of transience, what the Buddhists have always called impermanence. I tend to choose scientific models like Maldacena’s holographic universe, because I feel an intuitive connection with the languages of science and mathematics. As I’ve mentioned before, it seems as if our religions would be far more interesting if sermons and church services featured discussions of science and math rather than the usual droning about good behavior, empty moralizing, and the repetition of these dull commandments having to do with the necessity of one’s subjection to a benign cosmic Tyrant.

IFNow let me address one final question here: “Why?” What’s the point of realizing a fresh vision of transience, of perspective on our place in the universe? The final answer to such a question must of course come from you. If the possibility of a fresh perspective means little or nothing to you, then the question is already answered and you are free to click the little X and move on (and thanks for staying with me this far).

But if you’re still uncertain, then let me suggest the following: understanding the transience of life and identity is not about buying a line about how small and insignificant we are; it is about revealing a deep and enduring truth of yourself. It is also about awakening to the continuance that is essential to the character of the cosmos. The appreciation of impermanence opens wide the way to eternity. For no matter what happens amid the arrivals, changes, and passages of these holograms in this realm, that background universe — that source, that pervading presence of the eternal — it remains true; it supports and nourishes us all, in our beginnings and in our passings-away. All we need do is become aware of it, and of our unique and necessary place within it. As Lao Tzu says:

It is the body of transformation,
And we do not even know its name!
It loves and nourishes
The infinite family of forms,
But seeks not allegiance or submission.

To complete this picture, I’d like to quote the astrophysicist David Bohm, who presaged the work of Maldacena about a half century ago, in his concept of the “implicate order” of the cosmos:

What is being suggested here is that the consideration of the difference between lens and hologram can play a significant part in the perception of a new order that is relevant for physical law…

There is a germ of a new notion of order here. This order is not to be understood solely in terms of a regular arrangement of objects (e.g., in rows) or as a regular arrangement of events (e.g., in a series). Rather, a total order is contained, in some implicit sense, in each region of space and time.

Now, the word “implicit” is based on the verb “to implicate.” This means “to fold inward” (as multiplication means “folding many times”). So we may be led to explore the notion that in some sense each region contains a total structure “enfolded” within it.

IFThere is a poetic vision in this kind of science that nourishes me in the same way as Lao Tzu’s poetry. For it is a vision of cosmic unity that far surpasses any religious monument of uniformity. The science of Bohm and Maldacena fills me with a sense of belonging and of identity with that vastness around me that I once allowed myself to believe was alien to me. The photon — better known as light — is the substance of every holographic creation. Its velocity (as Einstein demonstrated) is constant and eternal; its order is ineluctable and sublime. Therefore, this particular hologram turns to its source and throws open his arms in gratitude.

So finally, a brief word from Alan Watts will capture, in a minute and a half, what I have spilled so much ink over to this point. The animation in this video, by the way, is from one of the artists of The Simpsons:

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*Daigu Sochiku, in a remarkable collection called Japanese Death Poems, compiled by Yoel Hoffmann.

Fallbany; or: Building Your Own Inner City

IFI live and work in a city whose primary claim to fame is that it is a cesspool of political corruption and criminality. You may have heard of the most recent instance of this phenomenon in the case of the once-mighty Sheldon Silver.

But apart from this distinction, Albany, NY is a poor, dull, downtrodden, poverty-stricken, benighted town. You would probably have to travel to the midwest (Detroit, for example) to find a city in greater distress than Albany. Every time there’s a snow day at work, I see another main reason for the city’s wretched condition: no one shows up here when the roads are clotted with snow, because nobody who works here also lives here.

Unlike New York City, Albany has no boroughs, so outlying towns and districts are independent of the city. Therefore, all those people who commute to work here from Clifton Park and Guilderland and Colonie don’t spend their money in Albany or pay any city tax. So there are tiny pockets of prosperity in the city, which are interspersed amid a pervasive and oppressive urban blight.

IFI live a few blocks from the office, and am not a member of the internal combustion society. So everywhere I go, I walk. Therefore, I see things in this city that the others in their SUVs never notice. I see the homeless and the wretched poor of this town; I observe the half-mile long stretches of urban darkness: crime and impoverishment; I know the trouble of walking a city whose entire infrastructure reinforces a cult of automotive slavery and the pathological addiction to gasoline.

One of the big supermarket chains of this region has gained a competitive edge on the others by providing shoppers a gas discount (10 cents off per gallon for every $100 spent at the supermarket). And it works: I have heard from a number of people that they shop there for the gas savings. So they don’t go there to obtain the best food for their bodies; they go to feed their cars. It all seems to betray a bizarre sense of priority; a kind of fundamental disorientation toward life and the physical body.

IFBut then I realize that what remains of the middle class here is virtually as wretched, both economically and emotionally, as the poor and the homeless of this town. Now this is in part a consequence of some destructive policies (or non-policies) of the corporate-owned government (which reminds us again of the state criminals that infest this city of Albany). But since the Internet is already jammed with sites devoted to those debates; I’d prefer to examine the psychology that’s behind it all.

Anyone can be convinced to accept scarcity and hardship if they can also be made to believe that there is safety in it. This is the institutionalization of anxiety, and it involves the nurturance of a fundamentally childish attitude towards life. ISIS could be right under your bed, waiting with his axe. But for the safety that the collective offers (in exchange for your willingness to sacrifice certain liberties and opportunities) you would already be on youtube having your throat sliced and your head cut off. Again, and purely from a psychological perspective, this is a childish form of anxiety made into a societal mandate.

IFAt the same time, however, there is no significant effort made to cut the throat of the drug that is behind this vicious cycle of mechanized infantilism. There is not even any public discussion about mitigating, let alone removing, our dependence on the only thing that makes us interested enough in the Middle East to send our children (drawn, of course, from the appropriately disposable classes of society) over there to kill, maim, and be killed and maimed (both physically and psychologically); and that is our addiction to oil.

The kind of transformational effort to which I refer is, of course, verboten in a corporate culture; for it would require a sea-change in how we perceive ourselves as individuals, and therefore as citizens of either a benighted city or a declining empire. For it would involve the depth-rejection, at a personal level, of that mandate of institutional anxiety.

IFNow I cannot claim to have successfully done the work of this inner cleansing; but I will tell you that I have started it well enough to have some insights to share. I think it points toward a practice of progressively undermining, demolishing, and flushing out the self-images, fears, and beliefs that have driven so many of us into this myopic mesh of dependence, complacency, and ceaseless, life-draining anxiety. The practice is what I call psychological undressing; and I have written at some length of that already. Today, I want to go into an example of the subversive nature of this practice, through a discussion of its scope and its specific target.

One of the points I always mention to people when I talk about this city of Albany that keeps spinning its wheels in the same pool of mud, is that there is such enormous potential here. The town has a very competent symphony orchestra, which performs in one of the finest halls in America (the Troy Music Hall). I am often stunned by the architecture here, and occasionally can imagine that I’m back in Brooklyn Heights with its opulent 19th century brownstones. The pervasive presence of colleges and universities in the area tells me that a new generation with fresh ideas could, if it were given encouragement and freedom, help to transform this region. Finally, you can easily imagine that the seat of government of one of the nation’s most prosperous states should and could be cleaned up and made worthy of all this “Excelsior” nonsense (“ever higher” or “superior”).

IFIn exactly the same way, I feel a vast potential to our moment in time, in which we have such remarkable tools of transformation available to us that may easily become the instruments of a cultural, psychological, and spiritual renaissance. Much of this potential, it seems to me, comes from the science of our era and what it has to offer in the evolution of our psychological understanding and spiritual practices. Now since I’ve already gone at length into the science, I want now to consider some of the conclusions, and their implications.

The universe and all its contents — including this planet we occupy — is alive and responsive to consciousness; because that is precisely what It — the whole shebang, the entire network of our cosmic home — is. Now the supposedly smart, 21st-century-urbane mind would disagree, often with contempt: no, the universe is stupid, dead, cold, impersonal — void of meaning or sense except what we can give it in the form of scientific natural Laws. As if the cosmos might respond to our imperious and anxious ego-desires, if we could only tell it the Law.

IFNow, for either of these two attitudes toward Nature, there is not a scintilla of even circumstantial evidence (though I would pose the question: if the universe is dead and cold and stupid, then where do we come from — how does it come about that we are intelligent?). But try and make that point to the logical positivists and you’ll be trolled into next week. So the difference between us is that I don’t pretend to have any objective evidence for my perspective. It’s just my lifestyle, my Weltanschauung, if you will. I have neither any defense nor any apology to make for it.

Therefore, the question that I think you need to work on within yourself is not about what kind of worldview has the support of authority and reason; but rather is about what works for you and your life. A lot of us swing back and forth on this: on Monday morning the universe is a cold, dull place; on Saturday night it becomes a soft web of ecstasy, even for an old-timer like myself.

Yet consider again what I mentioned last week about Maldacena’s articulation of the holographic universe. I’ll offer a brief quote from this excellent summary of the holographic model, which closes with a statement from Maldacena himself:

But what if it turns out that the holographic principle does apply to the world we live in? Will this mean that we, along with spacetime, are just an illusion? “Yes, you could say [we are] an illusion, or an emergent phenomenon,” says Maldacena. “If we lived in such a universe we would be, in some sense, approximate descriptions. But that’s nothing new in physics. Take the surface of a lake, for example. It seems to be a well-defined surface, insects can walk on it. But if you look with a sufficiently powerful microscope, you’ll see that there are molecules moving around and there is no sharply defined surface. The idea is that spacetime could be similar. It’s not well-defined in an absolute sense, but we are so big that we don’t notice it.” Just like the insects on the lake, we’d be looking at the world with eyes that are too crude to reveal the true nature of spacetime. Ignorance is bliss, so in an every day practical sense, whether or not we live in a hologram probably doesn’t really matter — though there’s endless fun to be had with the philosophical side of things.

But what about Maldacena himself? Does he really believe that the holographic principle is true? “Well, I view this idea as a model, but it’s a model that gives a mathematical description of quantum spacetime. So we should take it seriously until someone refutes it, or comes up with something better.”

Well, to me, or someone else who likes to have that “endless fun to be had with the philosophical side of things,” this makes eminent sense. First of all, realizing that you’re a hologram tends to silence the shrill voice of anxiety; second, it makes every conflict seem silly; and third, it adds a certain delight, a vibrant zest and variety, to the torpid drill of daily life amid the emotional monotony of human-centered arrogance. But don’t take my word for it; listen to the experience of a real hologram, the Doctor from Star Trek Voyager:

IFThe “photonic cannon” is a mythical weapon drawn from one of the Doc’s daydreams, which are the focal point of that episode (Season 6, “Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy”). So, in this story, the Doctor rides a daydream to victory just as the adolescent Einstein rode on a beam of light across the galaxy in his own daydreams, years before he devised the special and general theories of relativity.

Now let me take that back to the points that Watts raises in the short video snippet (top of this page) from one of his lectures. “Existence is very, very strange,” he begins, which leads him inevitably to a single word: extraordinary. That is, extra-ordinary: so plain and gloriously simple; so intensely compact and ordinary, like the singularity of a black hole or the infinite density of Everything in that trillionth of a second before the Big Bang, that it is divine in a way.

IFNow “divine” is a crude word with muddy associations; so I choose instead to find the feeling of being a hologram somehow comforting — more so than any religion, belief, ideology, or nationalistic affiliation could comfort me spiritually or tribally. We are the projections of a background universe that both includes and surpasses our own — this is a remarkably empowering and uplifting realization. For we are not separate from that source universe of ours; in fact, we are a part and an expression of its intelligence, its beauty, its perfection.

Yet the holographic principle (as Maldacena himself emphasizes) is only a model. It is not a new belief; not something to be clutched like a gun or carried like a banner of superiority. I go to work for the state of New York every day in the awareness that superiority — Excelsior — is a delusion; the very same idiocy that leads grown men into that cesspool of corruption, through the drain pipe of anxiety.

IFTo feel oneself as a hologram makes belief itself expendable. I once wrote a blog post about the great golfer Lee Trevino and how he taught amateurs to “grip the club as if you’re holding a live bird.” I have the same impression about holding belief: quantum mechanics shows us that uncertainty is not merely a function of scientific inquiry; it is a principle of life. Thus, Trevino’s point is obviously not to literally hold the club as if it were a bird; it is the feeling rather than the manifestation that matters. If you start with a light touch, you will feel the right degree of firmness through to the end. Your body already knows the exact amount of pressure to apply to the grip through each moment of the swing. To have the right feeling in the hands enables your own holographic energies to find their proper measure and vector. When we stop trying to grasp truth, to hold her down as if we owned her; she will reveal herself to us; she will dance around and through us in all her glorious, naked beauty.

IFThus, when you discover a truth, lighten your grip on it, as if you’d as much prefer that it took flight. A truth held in a closed fist can never be shared. This is why evangelism always fails on its own and needs a kind of military force to get around. Watts used to warn his audiences: “Preaching is moral violence.” Under such a burden truth becomes rigid and eventually dies. This is the history of virtually every major institutional religion: moral violence with a gun behind its back.

So I offer you the holographic vision not as a belief but as an experience to be tested within oneself. Work with it fully and enjoy the experiment: have fun with it and above all think critically. The capacity for creative and critical thinking is what gave America birth and helped it take flight; the loss or denial of this same ability is what is leading our nation to death in this century.

IFBut beware: the holographic principle, as a personal vision of the universe, knocks God off his throne and brings democracy at last into the realm of spirit. If we are all holograms, then none of us is “more real” than another; no group or leader is favored once the Monarch’s crown falls and shatters on the marble floor of the crumbling palace. The false safety of oppression, offered by the King-God and his sacred and secular Priests, no longer has any appeal within a world of projected beings in a universe of mathematical and qualitative equals. God, it turns out, is not really dead; but The Boss is.

So if the illusion of safety still means more to you than the uninhibited path of self-exploration, then the holographic principle and its somewhat iconoclastic psycho-spiritual direction will not appeal to you. In that case, consider at least an examination of your fears, those that cause you to value safety over sanity; the cold nipple of group-based anxiety over the banquet of self-discovery.

IFThis all relates back to a theme that Watts would thread through many of his books and lectures, which involves the consequences of that choice we can make between perceiving and living with the universe as an enemy or as a friendly presence. Watts would say that to choose the former is to trap oneself in a psychological vicious circle of suspicion and mistrust, fed by a fundamental fear of Nature. The “vicious” part of it appears when we reflect that our nature is an aspect of Nature. Thus, our mistrust of the world-out-there amounts to a mistrust of ourselves. This, in fact, is what many of our religions tell us is the cosmic reality: we are all demons as much or more than we are children of God; so we are not worthy of trust. When you think about the political ramifications of that, it becomes really ominous.

The alternative, Watts allowed, is not perfect: to trust in Nature, and especially in human nature, is to accept risk. But the attitude of suspicion is the foundation of the police state; mistrust on a cosmic scale is the fuel that drives the engine of oppression. But this is less about a dichotomy than an embrace: there can be no love without trust; and most of us would agree that a life without love is not worth living.