Manchmal, wenn ein Vogel ruft
Oder ein Wind geht in den Zweigen
Oder ein Hund bellt im fernsten Gehöft,
Dann muß ich lange lauschen und schweigen.
Meine Seele flieht zuruck,
Bis wo vor tausend vergessenen Jahren
Der Vogel und der wehende Wind
Mir ähnlich und meine Bruder waren.
Meine Seele wird ein Baum
Und ein Tier und ein Wolkenweben.
Verwandelt und fremd kehrt sie zuruck
Und fragt mich. Wie soll ich Antwort geben?
Sometimes the call of a bird
Or the rustle of wind-blown leaf,
Or the yelp of a dog, barely heard…
I am taken by laughter, then grief.
My soul flies back, aeons past
This life and so many others,
To a time when we all clove fast;
This bird and the wind were my brothers.
My soul becomes the tree,
A wisp of cloud, then a pond…
When, transformed, it comes back to me
Ripe with questions, how should I respond?
— translation by JJM
Many prophets whose wisdom I acknowledge have said that the self is an illusion, that I am not a separate consciousness but part of a Universal Consciousness. In fact, this tenet seems to be at the core of every mystical tradition. But it is not my experience. My experience is dominated by conditions of this body, its physical needs, its habits, its aches and its yearnings. Even my thoughts and reveries I experience as my own—no one else is thinking these thoughts when I am thinking them. I can experience empathy, but it is less immediate and compelling. I sometimes know a resonance or a consanguinuity of experience with another; but rarely, it is an intellectual experience, less palpably immediate than empathy.
I want to know what they are talking about. I want to have the experience of Universal Consciousness. I crave the palpable sensation of what these sages say is my deep nature.
If I didn’t have a lifelong antipathy to drugs, maybe what to do would be obvious. Maybe ayahuasca is the answer to my prayers.
What other paths present themselves? Moments of mutual orgasm? The marriage bond? The all-embracing commitment of parenthood? I have known all these, and they have transformed me. But can I say that they broke through my sense of being a separate self? Have they softened the boundaries of my ego so that I could say, even momentarily, “Thou and I are one”?
My instinct is to look to meditation or dreams to find this experience, but isn’t it more likely to be found in a community or an ecosystem? A oneness with nature, or maybe a culture that takes nature as a point of departure?
Sign me up.
But wait. What sense does it make to say “I want this experience”? There are some things you can obtain by trying, and often wanting something enough is a big boost toward achieving it. But this direct experience which “I” seek can never be the experience of an “I”. It is the dissolution of the “I”. It is the feeling of what it’s like to not be an I. It is what it is like to not be. It is death.
Don’t sign me up quite yet.
If you find yourself feeling utterly separate, you are not alone.
I’m at a stage of life where the thing I treasure most (and dread most) is the discovery (more and more) that things I have believed all my life are wrong. I want to know what is true, even if it shakes me up. It’s disorienting, it’s humbling, it’s confusing and damn inefficient, but it’s all worthwhile if only the doors of wonder crack open for an instant.
I now question the very idea of truth, in the sense of an objective reality that can be discovered via observation and logic.
I am a scientist. All of science is premised on the presumed objective existence of an external world, independent of what we think, independent of what we want, independent of the questions that we ask about it and the ways in which we ask them. There must be some reality behind this assumption, because science works so well, and it has led to so much control over our material world.
It’s not just science, of course. The fact that we can (often) agree with others about what has happened, about what is now the case, about what we might do, and what the likely consequences will be. We may argue about what the truth is, but we don’t deny that there is a truth that you and I ought to be able to agree on. The fact that human societies can function at all depends on a substantially universal agreement about what is real.
Two hundred words into this essay, you’re rapidly losing patience with me because only a dreamer (or a pedant) would ever waste time on the question whether there is an objective reality. What possible difference could it make? If I don’t want to lose you, Dear Reader, I’d better hurry on to offering some reason to doubt what you have never imagined could be doubted.
First, the idea that there is no way to separate subjective from objective is built into quantum physics, and this aspect of the theory has been explictly tested.
Second, results of parapsychology experiments tell us that our mental intention has an effect on reality, even when the intention is focused on an object far away with no known mechanism of influence.
Third, there is common experience, if we are honest about it: things that we have dismissed as coincidence because we had no other framework in which to view them, and because we have rejected the mythologies and superstitions of countless generations past.
From the birth of quantum theory in 1925, physicists realized that the relation of subject to object was profoundly changed from classical physics. Some argued for a kind of co-creation of reality between the experimenter and the experimental object. The stark contradiction to our notion of objectivity was brought into focus in the theorem of J.S. Bell, 1964. He showed that quantum randomness is more than just our inability to know what is objectively real. His theorem interprets (and experiments verify) that the world is making decisions based on what questions we ask in our experiments.
An dramatic example is the “quantum Zeno effect”. An atom may be known to decay into another state with a certain probability, but as long as we look at it and continually ask (with our experiment) “Have you decayed yet?” the answer will always be no. “Watched water never boils.”
There is an “inverse quantum Zeno effect” as well, in which you efficiently can move a system along from state 1 to state 2 by asking, “Are you in state 1.01?” and then “Are you in state 1.02?”, etc…
Sometimes, people make things happen by thinking about them. There are small effects that are common and statistically reproducible. There are large, dramatic effects that turn up in anecdotes. There are individuals who have more effective psychic powers than the rest of us. Remote healing. The power of prayer. Psychokinesis. It has all been documented for those who are open-minded and patient with the experimental details. (That excludes most established academics and journal editors.) I recommend Dean Radin’s books for a rigorous and readable introduction to the subject.
- Intuition, common sense, experience, and traditional cultures
I ask you to look back over your life and recall times when something very improbable happened that dramatically changed your course. Perhaps you’ve shrugged and written off the
Remember that the idea of an objective world determined purely by the mathematical logic of physical interactions is only as old as the Enlightenment in Europe, and that a far more mystical, enchanted and animated view of the world is common to all the indigenous traditions of the world, going back into pre-history. With what hubris do we dismiss the entire body of acquired cultural wisdom as superstition, and assert that “we know better now”!
What do we make of this?
It doesn’t mean that we have to throw away any of the practical, experienced-based knowledge we have about how to be in the world, what works and what doesn’t, how to talk to one another about reality. But it does open up the possibility–even the probability–that there are many new ways to be and ways to create that we have yet to discover.
And surely my message resonates with our feeling that we live in a time when the practical is no longer practical, when our ways of doing and ways of knowing have imploded and are ripe for replacement. My guess (I don’t presume to call it a prediction) is that we are unable to change the way we look at our world while surrounded by the culture we are in, and we are unable to change the culture while we are mired in our present world-view. So the two will have to evolve together. Maybe we shouldn’t even aim to discover the ultimate nature of reality, but moderate our goal toward finding a model that is a little more comprehensive than the positivism/physicalism that needs replacing.
Numbers are alive for me, as if they sing and dance
All day a spreadsheet full of ciphers holds me in a trance
Data laugh and beckon me, I want to understand
While friends look blank and shake their heads at what for them is bland.
I wish that I could share with you the data-lover’s joy
The millstone of your weary toil, for me a bouncing toy.
Goethe, Maxwell and Piet Hein, Nick Herbert as “Jabir”
They saw the poetry in math, and earned the title “seer”.
If sentences can have aesthetics, why not numbers, too?
They leap to life and preach to me, (and so they might for you).
I spent a week in Tibet last month. I spent a day touring Buddhist monasteries, two days in Lhasa, and four days trekking in the mountains.
It was hard for me to relate to the Tibetan brand of Buddhism. It seemed to be all about burning vats of yak butter and leaving dollar bills at the feet of fierce protector-gods that would save the supplicant from bad luck. I saw little of mindfulness practice or vegetarianism or temperance or any of the familiar appurtenances of American Buddhism.
The lived experience of trekking was, for me, all about oxygen. At 17,000 feet there’s just half as much of it as there is at sea level. I never got nausea or headache symptoms, but whenever we were walking up even a mild incline, I was out of breath. I did fast yogic breathing (kapalabhati) continuously for hours on end, just to avoid lightheadedness and disorientation.
Four days of this cleared my brain, and I came away with a sense of what is most important to me. I had been thinking about Psi experiments in which focused attention has the power to change quantum events, change minds, heal bodies, and even alter broad social patterns. The limited evidence that we have suggests that many minds focusing on the same intention have an outsized power—much greater than the sum of what might be accomplished by the sum of individual efforts.
This reminded me of a lifelong goal of integrating mind into the science of physics. There is a minority of well-respected physicists who see quantum mechanics in this light. [e.g. Henry Stapp, David Bohm.]
I was also reminded of the bumper sticker from the ’70s which I have quoted in the title of this post. I came from Tibet with a core vision for a project that we might create together.
I want to ask you to help me organize a sustained and synchronized world-wide, cross-cultural meditation for peace. Within the political peace community, it will be publicized as a commitment to the inner work we need to do in order to be effective activists. Within the Buddhist community, it will be committing our meditation practice to an act of service. Within communities of experimental parapsychology, it will be a study about reinforcement of psychic effects with the power of numbers. Across Jewish and Christian and Muslim communities, it will be promoted by the clergy as coordinated prayer for peace in a time of world crisis. People choose prayer or meditation or focused intention as fits their culture and beliefs, but there is enough common ground in our work to be the basis of a worldwide mental resonance.
I imagine a series of goals, progressively ambitious, each one specific enough that we can clearly say when the goal is achieved. I propose as our first goal: An end to violence between Israelis and Palestinians, with full citizenship rights and freedoms for Jewish and Islamic peoples. The recent Israeli massacres in Gaza have stirred my conscience, and as a Jew, I feel a special call to say, “I do not condone the actions of Mossad and the Israeli military.”
This is not a substitute for collective action or BDS or political protest. When we do succeed in creating peace, these will be the outward vehicles by which it is accomplished. Those who do not believe in miracles will have their own story about how it came about.
This is a huge project, and I intend to bring it to fruition. I will not be its primary organizer. Maybe there will be no primary organizer. Writing this post is my first step in the direction of creating a reality of Intention for Peace.
The central program of science is to abstract the observer from the observed. This is Empiricism, the idea that there is an objective physical reality that we can agree upon and describe in a common language if we discipline ourselves to make observations in a specified, standard manner.
Quantum mechanics has pulled the foundation from under the scientific program. When QM first crystallized in the minds of Bohr, Heisenberg, Dirac and Schrödinger, 1925-27, the talk was about uncertainty and questions that are meaningless because they cannot be asked with an experiment. Heisenberg in particular grounded the Uncertainty Principle in the practical limits of how much you unavoidably disturb a particle with the very light that you need to see it.
But 40 years later, John S. Bell tightened the paradox by demonstrating with a bit of math that there can be no objective reality independent of the observer. The stunning conclusion of Bell’s Theorem is that objectivity is illusory. Reality is always co-created by the observer and the observed. </
John Wheeler (Feynman’s PhD adviser) analogized the situation as a game of 20 Questions where the experimenter is asking the yes/no questions and Nature is answering them, always in a self-consistent way, but without an object selected ahead of time. The first few answers are not about any object in particular, but as more and more questions are answered, the answers gradually bring an object into focus. The final description that emerges has been created half by nature’s answers and half by the experimenter’s choice of questions.
This is a story of physics research, pursued on its own terms by luminaries in the field, pointing to the inference that the physical description of our world cannot be complete without the addition of observers. Consciousness complements and helps to define physical reality.
Science, pursued doggedly with its own rules and methods, has produced a result that has undermined the most basic of those rules and methods. This paradox is so far from our experience and our culture — the scientific culture most especially — that fifty years after Bell, we are still at a loss what to make of it. For the most part, we are ignoring it. One great mystery is why science works so well, why there is so much that humans can agree on, in spite of the fact that objective reality is but half the story, and our subjective choices — presumed to be individual — are the other full half.
My view: At the least, we should open our minds to subjective experience, to mystical traditions in which we co-create our reality, and to experimentation in parapsychology that lends tentative support to those perspectives. The idea that consciousness has an existence of its own, independent of brains or computation or any physical matter, is frequently denigrated by people who call themselves scientists — I can only think they have not absorbed the bracing message of quantum mechanics.
— Josh Mitteldorf