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.

 

The Dream of Entanglement

IF

One principal reason why I write and talk here about the dialogue between science and spirituality is so I am not belaboring my family and friends with this stuff. That is to say, while I am fully aware of how important these seemingly abstruse reflections are to my daily life — in all my personal and professional relationships — I also get it that most people simply don’t care much about such nonsense and don’t need to hear about it when they’re at home relaxing.

Yet something tells me that future generations will need to bring this kind of thinking into their ordinary awareness, and into those semi-conscious frames of mind that we carry into experience.

IFThink about this for just a moment: the Newtonian/Cartesian science that has dominated Western thought for 3 centuries insidiously guides many of our attitudes toward ordinary experience. Cause and effect; the assumption of physical reality; the billiard-ball model of action and reaction that we take on pure faith and which influences everything from how we manage our material affairs to how we conceive our own bodies and even our mental functions — this model, this myth of human experience and of our place in Nature is now entering its sunset phase. There has, for about a century now, been what Kuhn called a “paradigm shift” working its way into science. It is nearly time for it to fill the stream of ordinary human consciousness.

So I suspect that when an eminent scientist like Dr. Goswami goes off like he did; saying we (quantum physicists) are “fucking making it all up” — he may be expressing a frustration not with the state of knowledge but of the social mind. It is quite possible that scientists have never been as isolated, as disenfranchised in a way, as they are today. You can sense this in the popular media’s reaction to scientific discovery: when the Higgs Boson was in the process of being discovered, media types kept asking the same question: “is it the God Particle?” And the scientists would reply, “no, it’s the Higgs Boson.”

The point here is something that strikes a deep chord for me: modern science is being perceived — and I think falsely — as too deep, too complex, too arcane, too involved, too difficult for Ordinary Joe and Jane. This is precisely the perception that many people bring to a practice of meditation. So the media keep trying to trick scientists into feeding them the same pabulum that they live on with the government and the corporations — providing some simplistic and dumbed-down nonsense that can be digested by zombies staring into televisions. So they appeal to God, magic, and Law whenever they feel constrained to report on something that’s happening in contemporary science.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA further point here is that the cultures of the 18th and 19th centuries didn’t have to understand Newton’s calculus or his equations of physics; but they were able to integrate his insights into the flow of daily life and mind. After all, it seemed to make sense, that we’re strangers on this planet, just bouncing off each other like billiard balls and then dropping dead. But for the new sciences of relativity, quantum mechanics, string theory, and modern astrophysics; that cultural assimilation hasn’t yet happened. And I think it needs to, soon.

Einstein showed us, conclusively, that empty space bends; it has warps and woofs that can be measured in the way planetary objects move through it. He showed us that time and space are, each in isolation, aberrant illusions with no relationship to reality. It is only when they are perceived and experienced as a single organism, if you will — the space-time continuum — that time and space come alive with presence and meaning. Then he demonstrated that matter is actually a unique form of energy; that these two phenomena are in fact equal, the same. But has any of these epochal insights into Nature been invited into the stream of the everyday experience of the social mind? Again, not yet.

IFNow, it seems to me that the leading edge of this process of assimilating a new and revolutionary science into ordinary life will have to be found in the realms of art, music, and philosophy. Personally, I feel that there will have to also be a revolution within what we call spirituality or religion in response to the sciences of relativity, astrophysics, and quantum theory.

Consider this: a prestigious Princeton physicist named Maldacena has, in the past decade, developed a compelling theory that says everything we are, all that we interact with in Nature and create in our human world, is a mathematical or holographic projection of another background universe — and our religious leaders take no interest in such a possibility?

In the time of Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton, the Church was a threatening force that had to be dealt with diplomatically, in a spirit of cautious compromise; just to keep one’s head attached. Sometimes, such scientific geniuses had to fool the stupid and violent princes of religion into accepting that their work was an affirmation of God and not a refutation of Biblical truth. But scientists today, thankfully, do not have to play that game: in fact, they are free to view anything that is spiritual as alien to or even beneath the deeper reality of empirical inquiry. Thus, it seems safer now for a scientist to view with something resembling contempt everything from the Church to the various New Age philosophies.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADuring the 20th century, there were occasional but notable attempts to bridge this divide. The astrophysicist David Bohm talked openly with Krishnamurti (some of these encounters are on youtube); Alan Watts possessed an extraordinary insight on the new science and was able to connect it with the Eastern spiritual traditions that he wrote about and discussed in his lectures (which are also on youtube, see the videos at the top and bottom of this essay). The current Dalai Lama, from his boyhood, took an intense interest in science and regularly welcomes scientists into his seminars and conferences. The distinguished Columbia professor and physicist Brian Greene has created, in his books and public television programs, a marvelous connection between the new science and our everyday reality. The “Cosmos” scientists — Carl Sagan and now Neil deGrasse Tyson — have brought the new world view of their profession to an increasingly enthusiastic public. The work of Hawking is familiar to many; and now there’s a movie about him! And I’m sure many of you have heard about the “samadhi moments” of transcendent realization that a number of astronauts have experienced in space.

IFBut there is so much farther to go. Mind you, I would not want to see the new science of our time become a new orthodoxy of assumption and belief in our cultures of spirituality, art, and the general world view of the social mind — certainly not in the way that the Newtonian physics became ingrained in the collective mind, in our fundamental attitudes toward our everyday experience. In fact, one of the beautiful things about these revolutionary new sciences is that they do not seem to permit the formation of an orthodoxy. The science that promulgates quantum entanglement, relativity theory, and holographic universes would resist in its very nature any rigid codification of belief and experience based on its findings. The only thing resembling a catechism so far drawn from our new science is really more of a dark mingling of Newtonian manipulation with tribal prejudice: the atomic bomb and the entire warped culture of dominance, murder, and oppression that it has spawned.

Einstein, Oppenheimer, and many other scientists who were directly or peripherally involved in the birth of the nuclear horror, almost instantly regretted and rejected what the world’s leaders had done with their work. Today, most of us can clearly see that the industries that grew from Newton’s seed have brought the human race to the brink of environmental extinction — climate change, global warming: call it what you will, it is as thick a pall of darkness as the nuclear threat itself.

nightgazeSo what I am suggesting to you now is that our world and its moment require far more than a paradigm shift within an insular body of knowledge, or even a revolution of ideas in a particular culture. What we seem to need now is what has often been given the name “renaissance.” This is a sea change in which a fresh world-view energizes every aspect of a society — art, music, literature, architecture, science, business, politics, and spirituality. It’s a transformation that reaches across socio-economic classes, professions, ages, and groups of all kinds, to the point where every individual within the culture feels deeply the influence of this new birth (“renaissance”) of perspective, meaning, and purpose.

If I were a scientist (and I should emphasize that I am nothing of the sort), the worst thing I would want to hear is the same false and dismissive modesty that you commonly hear from people about science. “Oh, I don’t understand any of that highbrow techno-speak, especially all that complicated mathematics…” actually is saying: “it all means nothing to me, take it away and don’t bother me with it.” Such an attitude tells the scientist that he is no more than a priest of an arcane religious cult, whose body of knowledge and ritual is so strange and insular that the common mind cannot hold it; that its tenets are a foreign distraction from real life.

IFHow can you overcome such a perception? Well, the one piece of advice I would have for scientists involves their use of language. Too often, you read about a phenomenon such as quantum entanglement and find that the scientists themselves are using words like “spooky,” “weird,” “strange,” and “magical.” Come on now, fellows: you can do better than this. All right, maybe such terms could be delivered as an opening, a way of drawing people into these realms of ideas. But I would pair that with a clear statement of perspective, viz.: “What’s really spooky, weird, and strange in science is the Newtonian world view, with its myth of the world-as-machine, whose physical pieces can be broken down, split up, reordered, and manipulated with no ethical or ecological consequences.”

That Newtonian world view only seems to accord with common sense because we have been trained to make a dislocated and isolated intellect the King of Mind and Body. The truth of Nature is that we are designed to think, act, and feel as whole organisms rather than as reductionistic pieces of a collective. When our minds work according to that original design, then there is nothing strange or absurd about quantum entanglement.

sunsettreeIndeed, we might wonder why it would seem odd to anyone that two individuals — particles or animals — could “share characteristics even when far apart…[so that] altering one alters the other.” That, in fact, would, to the unified organism in harmony with the natural environment, seem to be the description of reality that is most in accord with common sense. Our only problem with it could be the language: what exactly is “entangling” about such an ordinary phenomenon? I would suggest that we change the term to “quantum resonance.”

Every spiritual tradition worth its salt has described such action-at-a-distance. What happens to me happens to you; when you suffer or are oppressed then so am I. To the Taoists and many Native American cultures, this is plain common sense. The Buddhists speak of a “net (or web) of gems,” in which each individual reflects and is reflected by all the others. We are each of us cells within the same vast organism; quantum actors on the same holographic stage.

But the scientist might respond to this: “oh no, you can’t assume that what applies to quantum states also applies macroscopically, to me and you or to the other creatures of Nature.” Here, the scientist speaks for himself and the requirements of his profession; but not for the lived experience of working stiffs like me and you. My advice to such a scientist would be: lighten up, partner — no law of Nature is going to be broken if people engage this science of yours in their own way. If you let them do that and then listen to their interpretation, something very odd — you might be tempted to say quantum — might happen. You just might learn something, about both your science and the human reaction to it.

IFIn fact, everything about the world described by quantum physics, relativity, and string theory resonates with me at a level of plain common sense – far more than the picture of a world filled with billiard balls knocking each other about in a dead, shapeless space. The bottom line is: everything is alive; there is consciousness in all. If (as shown in that experiment from the NatGeo article) photons of light can interdependently resonate — at a certain level communicate — at vast relative distances, how much more so you and I?

So, coming back to my message to a scientist like Dr. Goswami, I would reinforce the point that the surreal character of (for example) quantum states is only superficial at most. Once we put in the minimal time and energy necessary to scratch that surface and perceive the reality opened before and within us by these sciences, the rewards are amazing. That is to say, a certain level of merger between the artistic and the empirical; the scientific and the spiritual; would seem not merely desirable but necessary to the enrichment of both sides and the social assimilation of this remarkable knowledge that has arisen over the last 100 years or so.

The painter feels a vision of an image that she knows will never fit onto her canvas. Nevertheless, she paints. The musician hears something within him that isn’t on the score, and couldn’t be printed anyway. Nevertheless, he plays it, and keeps trying to get it right. The writer has a vision of a work that is beyond either his ability or his language. Nevertheless, he writes.

IFThe artist can sense the quantum state within; sometimes she can taste it. This is perhaps why so much human art focuses upon the spiritual: Lao Tzu’s poems, Michelangelo’s frescoes, Bach’s Cantatas and Passions, and drama from the plays of Sophocles to the Noh drama of Japan. So far, the spiritual, the personal, and the natural have been the only avenues of expression or orientation for the artist. But now there are the extraordinary revelations of these new sciences. If I were an artist or musician or writer, I would leap at the opportunity that is bursting out of these laboratories, particle accelerators, and modern astronomy towers. In the synergy between the scientific explorer and the artistic creator lies the seed of a new era of human consciousness and perhaps even evolution.

Banglessly, Nonsensically Yours, Forever

When I first saw the headline of this article, I assumed it was some Onion-esque humor for Valentine’s Day week: the universe has existed forever. Here’s an excerpt:

Working with Sauya Das at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, Ali has now managed to resolve the issue by creating a new model in which the Universe is infinite, and the Big Bang singularity never occurred – although it still expanded from a far denser form.

This model was created using updated quantum equations and trajectories, and it also doesn’t predict a “big crunch”, when the Universe collapses in on itself a[nd] condenses to that dense point once more.

Then, the following day, and as if to reinforce that Onion-esque impression of mine, this article appeared. “We have no fucking idea…” what we’re doing or what we know, according to the old quantum physicist quoted in that piece. I was reminded of an old Zen master’s death poem: “From the bathtub / to the bathtub / I have uttered stuff and nonsense.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe first cries of the newborn as he is washed in the one bathtub; the last words gasped through the death rattle before the corpse is washed in another bathtub to be prepared for burial or cremation — these sounds echo between the moments of parturition and transformation in a cacophony of ignorance.

But it isn’t that our words, ideas, or languages are bad or evil; only that they are too often isolated on lofty and lonely pedestals of belief and affiliation. Nothing we possess is corrupt in its nature; what we do with it is where the rot of decadence becomes the parasitic presence that leads us along every wrong and misshapen path. Anything that is isolated in a prison of either aggrandizement or disenfranchisement becomes a blank idiocy.

Therefore, the mere acknowledgement of  “stuff and nonsense” provides the only perspective that can make our words sing through the centuries amid the living dance of truth: the “non-sense” is where the music of life can be best and most clearly heard.

IFGoswami’s rant may seem way over-the-top to many (especially his scientific colleagues); particularly his warning about the dangers of the LHC (the Large Hadron Collider of CERN, that multi-billion dollar project in Europe where the Higgs Boson was revealed last summer to a level 5 degree of Six-Sigma certainty). But there is something to his brand of “stuff and nonsense.” I am reminded of Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson’s comments last year about dark energy and dark matter: OK, he said, these phenomena are worth studying — they comprise roughly 95% of the “stuff” of the universe as we know it. But beyond that, we know absolutely nothing about them, so why invent and parade terminology about something that remains a matter of total ignorance to our minds?

IFSince the time of Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, and Einstein; quantum mechanics has been recognized for its insane surreality, its own “stuff and nonsense.” Yet for over a century it has withstood every challenge; its fundamental principles have been verified within the crucibles of mathematical and experimental verification. So I suspect that Goswami’s frustration with the “stuff and nonsense” of his science is really about an aspect of quantum mechanics that future generations of scientists may discover to be a source of amazing and beautiful insight — its capacity for surpassing the limits of its own language. Max Planck,  commonly cited as the founder of quantum mechanics*, once wrote:

Science…means unresting endeavor and continually progressing development toward an aim which the poetic intuition may apprehend, but which the intellect can never fully grasp.”**

IFScience, therefore, is no nearer to a point of doomsday-ignorance than it was a hundred or 75 years ago: the doomsday clock is really, after all, a measure of human arrogance rather than scientific ignorance. Alan Watts said that Robert Oppenheimer (director of the Manhattan Project and “father of the atomic bomb”) once told him, “It is perfectly obvious that the whole world is going to hell. The only possible chance that it might not is that we do not attempt to prevent it from doing so.”

To admit our own ignorance is to surpass it. To acknowledge our helplessness before our own arrogance is to tap the very strength we need to defeat it. There was, some 13 or 14 billion years ago, a Bang; or there was a moment in the breath of Infinity that appears to us a turning point of sorts. Or there was what is called in Japanese Zen, Mu: what Robert Pirsig in his now-classic philosophical novel called the hidden third element in the binary stream of reality — zero, one, and Mu. Not-this, not-that; not-is, not-isn’t; not-on, not-off. Just Mu: nothing, no-thing; the background and the embrace in which the 95% and the 5% go on. Stuff and nonsense.

——————————————————

*Curiously, quantum mechanics is neither about “quanta” (packets of matter) nor “mechanics” (in the ordinary meaning of that term). The notion of quanta refers to the probability waves of the information of which what we call matter is composed: these waves are the focus of both experimentation and mathematical reasoning within the physics of the small. That is, you can’t have a fraction of a wave; a wave is either completely present as a quantum or it is “collapsed” amid measurement or observation, and therefore absent. The “packet” is not a particle but a position — a doing or happening of pure energy.

**This is quoted in what remains one of the most lucid and entertaining books for the general reader on modern science: Gary Zukav’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters.

Seasons: Winter

Another piece salvaged from the drafts folder: this was written years ago in Brooklyn. There is nothing unique about it: the practice of walking meditation, known to Zen practitioners as kinhin, has been around for thousands of years. Looking through this piece again, I am reminded of Alan Watts’ complaint about the Zen of the 20th century, with its obsession over sitting, sitting, sitting. He would remind his audiences that sitting is only one of the “four dignities” of Buddhist practice (the others are standing, walking, and lying down). He would fill a room with laughter over the arrogant parade of suffering that the compulsive sitters of Zen make into a competition of comparative agony: my legs hurt more than yours, I suffer more than you, I’m more aware of my flaws and my ego-nature than you, and so on. The point is that any practice, Eastern or Western, that makes the stiffness of suffering into a banner of achievement is just a vortex of stupidity. Watts described his own sitting practice thus: “I sit like a cat: for as long as makes sense. Then I get up and stretch.”

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Winter

welcomewinterIn most cultures above the equator, the new year arrives in the winter, after the winter solstice. This should be no surprise, as it is the time of increasing light, when day gradually expands, broadens; as night gradually retreats and shortens. When you think of it that way, there is no such thing as a “dead of winter;” it is really a season of life opening and reaching toward spring, even as it rests in its moment. Your walking practice can help you discover the “living winter.” What follows are some ideas about how to approach that path of discovery.

  • Let it Snow: Walking the snow is perhaps the most potent inner and outer workout possible in the realm of Nature. To everyone who wishes they had “tighter” and more muscular calves, thighs, and glutes, I have the same message: find a field of relatively undisturbed, soft snow, at least six inches deep (about ankle-deep, and the best is a foot or to mid-calf). Walk at least a hundred yards through, lifting fully with each step. If it’s on a moderately uphill plane, so much the better. You will feel muscles from your feet through your lower back come alive, and the cardio benefits are amazing. Once again, this reminder: you don’t have to feel as if you need to “burn” anything or otherwise punish your body. Don’t go too far: if a hundred yards is your limit, go 50 paces in and turn around; or make sure there’s a shoveled path or road nearby to switch to when your depth exercise has had enough.
  • Seek Summer Spots in January: I love going to the beach in wintertime; more, in fact, than during the summer. If you enjoy solitude and live in an urban setting, there is nothing like (for example) Coney Island or Brighton Beach in January. The ocean still stretches; the tides still roll; life endures even when the human sea has gone still. A long winter walk beside an oceanfront bears stillness, nurtures perspective, whispers truths that only the heart can hear. If you are alone, troubled, in emotional pain, or in mourning, this kind of walk will nourish you in a way that perhaps no other can. And if you’re not near an ocean, there are other choices available: any spot that’s popular in warm weather but generally deserted in winter can be an excellent walking retreat: golf courses, parks, campgrounds, riverfronts. Seek them out and you will find a winter environment where you can turn inward, finding in that quiet, cold, deserted place the solace and solutions that are often evasive to the light and noise of summer’s heated din.
  • The Forest in Winter: There are few places as beautiful and inspiring as a winter forest. Conifer (pine) forests in particular can be especially refreshing for long winter walks, since the snow is rarely thick or deep on the floor of such a forest. There is a sacred silence to these places that no human church, cathedral, monastery, or other holy place can remotely match. The forest is obviously deeply nourishing to consciousness when experienced in solitude; but if you have a spouse, lover, or any companion (human or animal) beside you, a few hours’ gentle movement through such a space can restore scope and depth to relationships. Communication in a winter forest happens wordlessly, or is sparse in its language: you can experience the depth and simplicity of communication that reflects the silent clarity of its environment. Especially if words — spoken, written, and electronic chatter — are the common stuff of your everyday life, you will find time spent in the winter forest uniquely rejuvenating.

The Consolation of Night

I write continuously; let’s just say it keeps me off the streets. Consequently, my WordPress drafts folder gets jammed up with stuff that is either incomplete, poorly written, or a little too personal to be published. So once or twice a year I’ll look at what’s there, trash the garbage and work with the rest. The Earthturn piece on anger, published last week, was written last year and was good enough to be finished. But the paragraphs below can neither be trashed nor completed; their story will be finished in another realm of being. If I were an editor finding such expression in something larger that had to be prepared for publication, I would say that this is clumsy but obviously heartfelt work — as Star Trek Voyager’s Seven of Nine character would say, “crude…but efficient.” It was written in a gray moment during my time in the basement, nearly two years ago and about a year before that animal would leave me behind, only to return as my teacher. She is teaching me now about the recovery of my own animal nature; about the way back to body; about the process of stripping away the shrouds of ideology and arrogance that both aggrandize and divide us, even as they demonize the only presence of which we can be certain in every moment of this lifetime: body. That was her teaching then; it remains so today.

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IFAll cat lovers know this: bed is base. There is the place of the food dish and water bowl; there is necessity of the litter box; there is the realm of toys and diversion; and for some there is the outdoors with all its adventure and danger. But the human bed is the cat’s base of comfort and security, where the bond of love with the big and lovably stupid human creature is also so frequently found.

We have no bed yet, no base. Perhaps that may change soon; but for now there is only a scattering of pillows, blankets, and clothing bags in the basement that is our current home. We are underground.

The underground is where you go to face your pain. The reassuring and distracting noises of the world above — television, human voices, even the wind and the rain outside — are muted below. There is no distant or concocted drama to absorb our attention, to steal our consciousness from the life within. I must go below several times a day and in the night, to ask this animal for her forgiveness and her patience. We have lost much together because of my recurring failures; but I cannot expect her to easily endure losing her base.

I cry bitterly, desperately before her. There is no one else above who might understand as completely as can she. I do not know if the animals can feel our pain; but I know they recognize it. I promise her that I will keep trying, that we will get through this, that it will all turn out well. How much longer can I expect her to believe me?

She is silent. The voices from the television rattle dully from the world above; here there is only the mechanical hum of the basement machines that heat water, pump cooled air upward, and whir through the temporal paces of electronics. We are here in that muffled din, me and this cat; holding together and hoping for nothing more than a base from which to build again. Here in this cold, stark, underground silence, we communicate as living creatures so rarely do in the world above. I pull a corner of a blanket over her back and her eyes tell me: remain true, walk under and by the traps of ignorance and despair. I will remain too, here for you.

Earthturn: An Exercise in Anger Awareness

IFWe’re all familiar with the words “sunrise” and “sunset”; yet no accurate term exists for what’s really happening. Earthturn? Well, why not?

Science works, at least in part, to teach us the difference between what appears to be happening and what actually is. So also does art. Some of the least prosaic of our languages — music, mathematics, color and the various geometries of line and shape — do a better job of describing the world and telling its story than does spoken or written language. This is why I say that masses and sermons in church should emphasize such non-verbal languages, rather than the comparatively arid and tedious intellection of words. Why drone on about the commandments and dead miracles of a tyrannical God when you can allow a purer voice of God to speak through your sermon — Pythagorean mathematics; fugues of Bach or Nocturnes of Chopin; fractal geometry; the visions of Da Vinci and the colors of Van Gogh; quantum mechanics and Maldacena’s theory of the holographic universe? Or a sermon on Time and the diurnal mystery of the Earth’s natural revolutions?

I have been present for more than 21,000 earthturns in my life; yet how many have I experienced — for how many of these have I been present and awake? This is a valid question of the self-examining life, for it can lead to a resolution, or at least a deeper understanding, of what Krishnamurti called the “crisis of consciousness” of post-modern society.

IFKrishnamurti’s great virtue as a teacher and visionary was that he was never pedagogical about what exactly the “crisis of consciousness” was — he wanted to awaken people to its presence and allow them to perceive it via a process of critical self-exploration (see the video below). The universal can only be distilled with the water of individual awareness. If you understand this principle with your whole being, then I have nothing to teach as to substance, but only perhaps on the matter of approach or direction. Then learning becomes far less a matter of transferring knowledge and far more a sharing of impressions and experience.

That is to address the natural question: where might I address my energy, my attention, to reveal the character and dimensions of this crisis of consciousness? My answer would be: point your being towards those aspects of yourself, of human nature, which are the most actively, stridently repressed or demonized among all traits. Let’s try an exercise in this approach with a very common one, anger.

IFMost ideologies, especially religious belief systems, tell us that anger is bad, even evil. As a result, they compound evil by making it into some demonic part of our nature. Buddhists urge us to somehow transform anger into a different or purer energy. This approach is not entirely off-target; but it still misses the essence by beginning from a point of confrontation. How can you overcome anger via confrontation? Alan Watts used to compare such an attitude to the idea of “smoothing rough water with a flatiron.” It only creates more disturbance.

Christians are encouraged to seek absolution for their anger. That is, to be angry is a sin; something for which you must beg forgiveness. Yet there is no record in the Gospels of Jesus remotely regretting his angry assault on the money-changers’ tables, an incident in which he actually let loose some physical violence. Would that he were on Wall St. today.

Yes, even Muslims preach this nonsense: Allah loves those who repress their anger.

IFAnd so, because it is repressed via catechism and commandment, anger is indeed transformed — most frequently into blind, violent, malevolent ego-rage, usually against others defined as aliens or enemies of the true belief. This is the history of Judeo-Christian and Islamic religions. This impulse has poisoned the histories of many other religions and nationalistic tribes as well. Indeed, tribal ideologies tend to become demented via a repression of the very thing that they should be most open to exploring. Taboos against and the demonization of natural sexuality become the breeding grounds of perversion; beliefs that deny or denounce the reality of anger open wide the door to a raging and unceasing culture of global violence, whose madness now threatens the continuance of our species.

So the responsibility for restoring a clear, truthful view of our universal nature falls back again upon the freethinking individual. A simple exercise could make a good starting point from which you may build your own view, your own earthturn, a way to your own truth that resonates with the universal truth. Krishnamurti used to tell his students to overthrow their desire to be non-violent and instead go deeply into one’s own violence, one’s impulse towards destruction. For there, beneath the crusted layers of repression and humiliation and self-conscious dread lies the gleaming ruby of anger.

IFI think we need a good deal more of pure anger in our world — the kind of anger that fuels Occupy Wall St.; the environmental movement; Anonymous; and the activist journalism of people like Amy Goodman, Laura Poitras, and Rachel Maddow. Anger is a spark in the fire of transformation — go into most any great artistic, scientific, cultural, or psycho-spiritual revolution in human history, and you will find that much of its energy is anger.

In our personal lives, we have this choice: freely express anger, let it loose; give it room to dance. Or, put a cover of self-conscious, ideologically-driven inhibition on it, and let it stew. Then watch it explode like a nuclear bomb, whose fallout will enduringly poison the ground of your life.

Eckhardt Tolle has a delightful reflection in one of his books, in which he compares the expression of anger in Nature with what we commonly find among ourselves. He draws a picture of a pair of ducks on a quiet pond, who bump into one another, snap in anger, and then withdraw, going on as placidly as they had been before the moment’s encounter. Then he imagines how they might behave if they had the same hangups and carried the same grudges as we do in our social lives.

nightthecat_4The point here is that natural anger is an aspect of presence. If we can practice living within the moment — and never mind its temporal length; it can be a second, a day, or a decade — then grievance has no air to breathe within us. My old cat used to teach me this constantly: she would do something sure to set me off, such as running back from the toilet and onto my bed, scattering litter and whatever else was on her all over the blanket. I’d spit some fire at her, chase her off, and she’d glare at me as she trotted off to a corner. But in minutes, sometimes in seconds, she’d be back, sitting beside the bed as I cleaned up, her eyes alight once more with trust and compassion.

Let anger be an aspect of your life’s art, its creative spirit. The world of art is replete with instances of people who were inspired, moved, or otherwise energized by anger. These are people who developed a relationship with anger, because they saw no other option. They understood that you cannot deny or repress what is natural: you may as well ban breathing as abolish anger.

Purpose in a Culture of Addiction

scaryLast year, I wrote a number of pieces for the online addiction and recovery site thefix.com. They published, for instance, this essay on the serenity prayer, and this one about mental health. The piece below was originally rejected by them, and before I could revise it, the publisher and chief editor of the site left, and I’ve had no contact with or assignments from them since.

But there is no point in keeping this material under wraps. For I suspect that one of the dominant and insidious sicknesses of our age and culture in America is, in fact, a pervasive attachment to an addictive mindset. Of that I have written already; what follows is a variation on that theme. The guiding thread, the point behind all of this, however, is this: our governments and institutions cannot solve this problem for us — they only make it worse, in fact, by criminalizing people; moralizing with empty propaganda; and then letting the true criminals in the drug world go scot-free.

So government is itself addicted to corporate money, to the point where it blesses a bank’s role in the economy of addiction. Therefore, addiction is a problem we can only solve within and among ourselves as individuals.

glasses1We all come here for a reason, but not the same reason. Each individual life contains never-before-seen and utterly outstanding features, no matter how plain or dull its outer appearance. So each life’s purpose is also unique. Purpose itself transmutes and reshapes during the course of a human life.

And so I would not presume to press Reason into an unnatural service here. I would rather ask: what is it that unites us, that calls us together on occasion, amid our unique and often solitary journeys?

This place is, according to its publisher’s statement, “the world’s leading website about addiction and recovery…” So we are all, or many of us, brought together by our addictions, our obsessions — those bad things which we seek to escape or surpass.

Now one of the principal tenets of my counseling practice (Star Trek fans may use the term Prime Directive with little distortion of sense) is that the purpose of any intellectual, psychological, and deeply personal quest worth the designation is a trip beyond the borders of duality. Past and future; healthy and ill; strung-out and all-together; on and off the wagon; life and death; mind and body; good and bad: each of these is a stack of Illusion pasted over a teeming Reality like strips of last week’s newspaper over the wire of a papier mache sculpture.

IFWhat force brought you here? What god or demon has you teetering the tightrope between slavery and sanity; dependence and depravity; regression and recovery? William Blake, the great mystic of the West, has the Devil make the following observation in his Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors:

1. That Man has two real existing principles: Viz: a Body & a Soul.

2. That Energy, call’d Evil, is alone from the Body, & that Reason, call’d Good, is alone from the Soul.

3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.

But the following Contraries to these are True:

1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.

2. Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.

3. Energy is Eternal Delight.

IFIn his vision, Blake saw the Devil as a great Genius, “which to Angels look[s] like torment and insanity…” And this Genius gave Blake some of the most famous proverbs of our culture:

How do you know but ev’ry  Bird that cuts the airy way, Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?
He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star.
Eternity is in love with the productions of time.
The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.
The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.
The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.
The nakedness of the woman is the work of God.
One thought fills immensity.

We know this Reality: we have walked with these Spirits, and know that there are neither gods nor demons, only that Energy to which we give names that vary with our feeling. We know what it is to walk with a God — not as a subject or servant but as an equal to its greatness. It is called Substance for a reason, whether it be heroine dust in a packet or a colorless liquid in a bottle; the mysterious Latin name of a pill in a prescription or the flickering light of a television, a cell phone, a video game, or for the food addict, a refrigerator. And the more we denied its beauty; the greater has been its appeal.

IFWe have gone beyond God, beyond Spirit, beyond Demons — we have utterly demolished every religion by uniting and then surpassing them all in our lives, in our crushing yet soaring habits. Yet we haven’t asked or explored the question that our addictions posed in every moment we spent with them: what if we had a different conception, or better still, a different experience of God? What if it were something of and in ourselves, a qualitative equal who could walk by our sides rather than come down on our heads? What if we related to God not as the mailroom boy or the middle manager relates to the CEO, but as siblings, friends, lovers, or spouses relate (or should relate) to one another? What if we slashed the throat of the Higher Power; what if we threw “higher” out the window and kicked Power out the door? I think it is both urgent and possible for us to try such an alternative, if only to see what happens within us as a result.

I remember as a teenager having a conversation with one of my Dad’s friends at AA; I asked her about that belief and she gave me an interesting explanation for it. She told me that the idea of the Higher Power was less a religious tenet than a practical one: first, it placed both blame and control over the addict’s condition in other, presumably objective and merciful cosmic Hands; and second, it made governance within the group itself completely non-hierarchical. There is no theological nobility in AA, as you find in most churches: no Popes, bishops, priests, or other sacristans given the power to preach, lead, and pass commands between Heaven and Earth. She emphasized the effect of this leveling-out of both power and responsibility: everyone was equally accountable, everyone equally capable of leading others.

IFAnd so I asked her: what if my Higher Power happens to be Science? Or Knowledge? Or Music? Or Nothing? She said any of those would be fine, but that Nothing seemed a silly idea for a Higher Power.

But, child though I was at the time, I may have been tapping at the very door of what Blake called “the nature of Infernal wisdom.” For another great poet and visionary, the Chinese writer known to us as Lao Tzu, told us:

When you realize that there is Nothing to claim,
Nothing to assert,
Nothing to control,
Nothing to dominate;
This is called the actualization of Purpose.

We have walked beside the God and the Demon; consumed the Substance and felt its Spirit as the priest ingests the consecrated Host; we have seen it as Master and Servant; known both its Glory and Torment, its Salvation and Damnation. We have cherished it and cursed it; sold ourselves, our jobs, our families, our lives for a single touch of its holy and infernal breath. We know, uniquely among all travelers in this world, the truth of every Religion and Non-Religion. It is woven into the fabric of our lives, of our being, of our Purpose here. And now we must go one step further, into its essential and eternal structure, which is Nothing.

IFThere is no Path; there are no numbered Steps: not 12, not 10, not 1. Self-improvement cannot be the weakest aspect, let alone the objective, of meditation, of self-exploration, of recovery. As Alan Watts said, if the person who needs improving is the same as the one who’s making the improvements, how can we reasonably expect to improve? To openly laugh at such schemes and objectives is to make your first step of progress in these practices of recovery.

Just observe your thoughts, watch your own emotions, as if they were mere colored numbers running and clashing over a green field with other numbers. 12 steps, a hundred steps: the Seahawks demolishing the Broncos in the Super Bowl. All a game, a loud show made to sell beer, cars, and web hosting. Yes, Shakespeare’s “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

IFThat, of course, is precisely where it becomes interesting; where the window of recovery opens at the very edge of the precipice. Nothing. In the life of the mind, nothing is an orienting point, just as infinity is in mathematics, or as space or dark matter is in astrophysics. “Show me the face you had before your parents were born,” says the old Zen koan. When thoughts and emotions have drifted, limping or exulting, off the field of mind and the vast stadium of self-consciousness drains into darkness and silence; this is where something, where nothing, opens up and awakens. Completely clearing out and giving up can be ultimately regenerative. For it takes us on that trip into and beyond the precipice of duality, surpassing the cubicles of belief and religion and the war within ourselves.

So: is there indeed too much of God and Religion in our programs of recovery? There is too much of the Boss, of the Higher Power, of the same Lord who both saved and enslaved us, who both blessed us and buried us. Perhaps the better question to ask is: of what is there not enough in these programs? The answer I offer to that question — albeit rather tentatively — is the very essence of the experience of meditation and perhaps even of recovery: Nothing.

Conversations with Body, or, A Preface on the Art of Meditation

IFThe great “stand-up philosopher” of the Beat Generation era, Alan Watts, used to marvel at the vast disparity between civilized man’s pretense to understanding and his actual attainment. We have virtually no practical or deeply personal understanding of our own physical bodies, and yet we compete, often violently, with one another in the display of our knowledge of the reality of God. It is a stunning parade of arrogance, not to mention grossly misplaced priorities.

Watts often said, “In my philosophy there is no difference between the physical and the spiritual.” Nor, I would add, between the physical and the psychological; nor the spiritual and the psychological. The body itself contains all the mystery and sublimity that we commonly seek in God, Brahman, Tao, Allah, Buddha, Yahweh, Christ — or Freud, Jung, or whatever.

Watts also observed how commonly ass-backwards is our pursuit of ourselves, of our human nature: he would wonder how we can pretend to define the essence and limits of free will when we can’t even comprehend the “will” behind the secretions of our glands, the beating of our hearts, or the various other functions of our bodies covered under the terms “autonomic” or “involuntary.” These functions, of course, cover the vast majority of our being, of the essential processes of life itself.

IFWe can, of course, explain many of these phenomena empirically; but for most ordinary people, empiricism doesn’t bring home the bacon. Science does not hold all our solutions, for its hands are too small and its grasp too often rigid. Science pushed naked and alone onto the stage of mind soon becomes just another religion; its gods inevitably treated as all gods must be, confined to their lonely and distant pedestals of belief built from the empty shadows of desire. Belief means, literally, “by wish or longing or predilection,” from the Old English lief.

Doctrine tends to drag us back into the very pit we struggle as individuals to escape. What if body — your own living body — held some answers? What if it could tell you more than all the sutras, bibles, commandments and vedas ever could? What if the god you seek — the wisdom and guidance you long for — is also the demon who haunts your dreams and mocks the paper, house-of-cards stability of your waking life? What if we sought that which the Western poet William Blake called The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in and through the experience of our bodies?

IFWe must examine the addictions of our lives — all the instruments of walking death and dependence that are programmed into and around us. Television; the Internet and its devices; substances (including food); and the worst and most fundamental of all addictions, Belief — whether it is nationalistic jingoism, the aggressive-dependence of religious belief, or any of the range of trained emotional slavery found in our culture.

Examine them all, in the same way a “real” addict does.  He has gone beyond God, beyond Spirit, beyond Demons — he has utterly demolished every religion by uniting and then surpassing them all, in his crushing yet soaring Habit. Yet most recovering addicts have missed the unique advantage that their history offers them: they haven’t asked or explored the question that their addictions posed in every moment spent with them: what if we had a different conception, or better still, a different experience of God and Satan, Krishna and Kali? Satan, after all, is an angel; and Kali, the consort of Krishna. That is to say, neither of them is an embodiment of Evil, but of what among the great Taoist writings is called yin (in the I Ching), or the principle that Lao Tzu called The Dark. Yin is not the Enemy; it is ourselves, our bodily natures in this life and form. Therefore, it is an expression of the Tao, the All, as much as is Yang, or the principle of Light.

IFNow let’s take this a step further: we are citizens of a democratic society. Most of us believe, or at least accept, that democracy is the best form of human government. So what if this ineffable, this universal All were something of and in ourselves, a qualitative equal who could walk by our sides rather than come down on our heads? What if we related to God not as the middle manager relates to the CEO or as a peasant relates to his Lord or the subject to his King, but as siblings, friends, lovers, or spouses relate (or should relate) to one another — or as the organs and cells of our living bodies work together? What if we got to know ourselves as mass and energy, form and emptiness, string and lyre, words and music, body and Origin?

What if, deep within ourselves, we drew upon that energy of Kali, Satan, and Yin inside us, and slashed the throat of the Higher Power typically appealed to in addiction recovery regimens such as the 12 Steps; what if we threw Higher out the window and kicked Power out the door — at least until we could first touch an understanding of body? I think it is a perfectly valid hypothesis to say that the universe, the All, God — whatever you prefer to call it — operates neither through hierarchy nor through a monarchical brand of power. I also think it is both urgent and possible for us to try, for and within ourselves, a democratic alternative to the Boss God, if only to see what happens within us as a result.

IFNow I am not offering a new system of belief, just ideas and fresh experience to explore, which may point toward a more personal experience — not of God but of yourself; not of belief but of body. This, to me, is what the practice of meditation is about, where it might lead us if we let it. One practice in this regard that I have found nourishing is a simple method that I call psychological undressing. I have referred to it here before, so for now I’ll merely offer a summary.

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Professionally, I am not a spiritual teacher, simply a working stiff like you (or like many of you, at any rate). I spend my weekdays in an ordinary office, doing many of the things that Americans do in their offices and other workplaces. I am sure I am not odd or unique in my love for the end of the workday and the arrival to a warm, comfortable home. If you live alone, as I do, perhaps you have a similar routine to my homecoming moment of every weekday evening: I take off my clothes. Shoes first (left out in the hallway); then once I’m inside my apartment: outerwear (in cool weather), socks, pants, shirt, and then underwear. As each layer comes off, I feel freer, lighter, increasingly refreshed. It’s as if all the claims and pressures of the office are being let go, released, and tossed into the hamper to soon be cleansed of their neurotic attachments. I am then free to enjoy the nakedness of my body, with no thought at all of its paunch and other imperfections; no care for whether it’s as ripped as the Old Spice man’s or remotely desirable by the conventional standards of our culture. I sense only my body’s working wisdom – its amazing capacity for endurance and self-maintenance, which arises from no self-conscious control on my part. Often I will sit for a few minutes in my meditation place with my body, and gratefully enjoy its calm, open, and nude presence.

IFSo I am here to tell you that we can do the same thing, have the same experience, with our minds – with our mental and emotional bodies. To do so as a regular practice is not merely to wear down the division that the authorities of our culture have taught us exists between mind and body (as significant and beneficial a discovery as that will be to you); it is also to reveal ways of healing, self-maintenance, and generative growth to your physical and energy bodies; to your body of awareness, feeling, and thought.

Now, one of the things I have noticed and in fact experienced in many New Age cultures of self-development is that they often incite anxiety and self-doubt; which the gurus assure us is perfectly natural and must be overcome by doing the same things in the same way as those that made us anxious and self-doubtful in the first place. So I will begin by offering you an insight that came to me long after I had left such practices: the realization that there is by Nature nothing strange or painful or daunting or ritualistically grueling about any of this stuff.

Thus, I choose the metaphor of undressing as a way of both revealing and cherishing the life that lies in nearly limitless potential within you, beneath the coarse and garish garments and self-images of society. The other experience that comes of this quest for psychological nudity is this: you find that the practice of psychological stripping is as ordinary and amazingly sophisticated in its semi-conscious rhythms as is anything else you do every day with your body – eating and drinking; waking and sleeping; defecating and urinating; breathing and blinking; and of course, dressing and undressing. Thus, all causes for anxiety and self-doubt are demolished: you can no more worry over your inner progress or spiritual attainments than you would worry about how properly you shower or how thoroughly you chew your food or how gracefully you wipe your ass after getting up from the toilet.

IFOne reason why anxiety disappears in such a practice is that you realize that there is no endpoint of Samadhi, enlightenment, satori, divine grace, or Nirvana at which everything stops and you’re done. When there is no mountain to climb, you just keep going up, gaining a broader view and a deeper appreciation for life. I imagine that right up until your dying day you will be doing all or at least many of the same things you’ve done every day before: your body will not stop its natural processes until it is ready to let go and release your consciousness to another dimension, another universe of being. It is exactly the same with this practice of psychological undressing: it goes on and on, leading you through this body’s life and probably into the formless life beyond.

So you will be aware of your practice in all its aspects and through all its transformations, in the same way as you’re aware of the necessary and supposedly mundane activities of your quotidian life; but in a fresh way that generates wonder rather than worry; a daring energy of growth rather than a self-conscious doubt of progress.

IFOne final benefit that you may discover (and I emphasize that concept of discovery over expectation; for life responds far more bountifully to an attitude of discovery than of dictation) is this: in this practice, the field of what most call meditation tends to expand, to spread the richly oxygenated atmosphere of wonder and gratitude through every world in which you move — personal, professional, physical, spiritual, intellectual, and animal.

In fact, it grows toward the point where there is scarcely anything but meditation; until its truth and beauty become the ground of all our relationships, of all our being. Walking, working, eating, making love, standing in line at the bank or the supermarket, the first sip of one’s morning coffee, and obviously taking off your clothes – life reaches further and further out, in all its works and acts and thoughts and feelings, in an increasingly clear and beautiful atmosphere of grace, mindfulness, and increasingly complete presence.

Looking Into Andromeda

The following should be a fitting followup and closure to last week’s essay on death. The video contains what is perhaps the most famous snippet out of any of Watts’ lectures, over imagery that is far more recent: the vast image (the largest ever), captured earlier this month by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope project, of a slice from the Andromeda galaxy. The perspective it delivers goes beyond any words.