The Illusion of Separation

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.

— JJM

If you find yourself feeling utterly separate, you are not alone.

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A Radical Truth

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.

  1. Physics

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…

 

  1. Parapsychology

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.

 

  1. 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.

The Poetry of Numbers

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).

— JJM

Whirled Peas

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.

Black Mahakala is the fierce aspect of one of the gentlest of Buddhist Deities, the Compassionate One Avalokitesvara or Chenrezig.

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 StappDavid 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.

give-peas-a-chance

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.

— JJM

Science Bites its Tail

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.

1516mrt012klnMy 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

Spooky Action : A Quantum Fable

God was in a particularly generous mood the day She designed our world.  For the artists, She made it beautiful. For the romantics, She filled it with love.  And for the scientists, She made it rich with order and logic. Everything in the universe was made to follow fixed laws, some simple, some more complex, some laws connecting things that are close in space and time, other laws that connect things in ways that are unconnected to space and time.  She left some clues on the table, easy to discover, and some deep laws that would keep scientists busy for thousands of years. Science was to be a scavenger hunt that could last as long as civilization–maybe longer.

The First People guessed that things in the world worked the same way as they themselves.  The Sun was a Man and the Moon was his wife. Rivers had wanderlust, the Wind had trouble making up its mind, and Everything wanted to go Downward toward the Earth because the Earth was their home.  

After some millennia, the easiest quantitative clues were deciphered.  They were easiest because they coupled things that were near to each other in space, and because the immediate past gave rise to the immediate future.  After Sleuth Isaac discovered the Law of Large Things, in all its mathematical precision, People were able to design things that pushed and pulled, turned and rolled.  The Age of Machines was born.

The Law of Small things was a tougher nut to crack, because it involved both connections that were close in space, and also connections that were a million miles away.  Some causes worked conventionally, the past causing the future, and some paradoxically–causes in the future giving rise to effects the past.

Sleuth Erwin figured out the part that was close in space and conventional in time.  Sleuth Werner declared that The Rest Is Uncertainty. Ordinary, nearby, and forward in time, plus Pure Randomness.

Sleuth Albert said, But God Doesn’t Play Dice (and he should know because he is the One Rock, and father to the Sleuths of Small Things.  But a chorus of Quantum Mechanics put him in his place: Dice She pays, Oh yes! She does! Only after Albert was dead, did the Bell sound.  DONG! This isn’t randomness. It just looks random to us because it comes from all over space, from the past and the future and everywhere at once.  We call it random, because how can we trace all those pushes and pulls that haven’t even happened yet?

God smiled on The Bell.  The scientists had just picked up the First Hard Clue, and Humans had begun to understand the Law of Small Things.

But Mostpeople kept saying Random.  They couldn’t wrap their heads around an effect that comes before its cause.  They couldn’t grok the Spooky Action at a Distance. Sleuth Albert rolled in his grave, causing the scientists that went before him to Not Understand.

If a Bell rings in a room full of deaf scientists, has it made a sound?

…to be continued.

mural-einstein-albert-einstein-street-art-2197302

Street Art by Max Pexels

Borges and I

(The following story, and the story embedded within the story are both fiction.
The poem is my own          –JJM
)

I’ve been reading the Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation.  “Suggestive” is quite an understatement, and that’s as it should be, for such a fraught topic.  Children know details from the life of someone who died before they were born. Sometimes it was far away, in another culture speakig a different language.  The parents had no connection, no way they might have known through ordinary channels of communication. A two-year-old who broke into Spanish to describe the bayonet combat that killed her alter-ego, Miguel, in the Civil War in 1938.  A boy with nightmares about trains and a jagged birthmark on his scalp, at just the site where a small boy had suffered a fatal gash when his schoolbus was run down by a freight train in Lamont, Alberta 1960

I try to make a coherent story of reincarnation, but I can’t.  It’s not just that there are too many souls nowadays compared to all the people who have lived in the past. That problem could be remedied by animals who are promoted (?) via transmigration into our booming, rapacious species.  But most people (myself included) don’t come into the world manifestly laden with baggage from a previous life. Rather, Jung’s collective unconscious rings true for me. Just as we carry genes inherited from a thousand distinct ancestors (counting back just ten generations) it seems to me we may come into the world bearing the legacies and stories and passions of so many bygone souls.

No, I can let the Twenty Cases knock me off my chair, and still conclude that one-to-one reincarnation is the exception.  If we credit the channeled wisdom of great sages from every mystical and shamanic tradition, we will be open to the precept that our souls are buds from one Oversoul. We break off and experience the tortured life of separation for one short stint, then we return to the Oversoul.  

We come into this world awash with tears,
Mourning our incipient separation—
And soon we age and leave it, mired in fears,
So loathe to part with individuation.

The waves that crash, the foam atop the seas,
Disguise the ocean, fathomless, profound—
And when that water splinters into me’s,
Myriad ephemeral droplets abound
And frolic in a mist one glorious trice
Fall terror-bound back in the womb, coalescing,
Rejoin the life that once was all they knew…

Perhaps our fear of change provides a clue
Why human arts nor nature’s quite suffice
To sustain appreciation of our blessing.

As a logical being, as a student of the sages, I find it easy to accept this thesis.  But it flies in the face of my experience. What can it mean to combine souls? Maybe it would be easier to accept if i were schizophrenic, or if I were subject to dissociative psychology.  But as I am, I go through life thinking I’m one person, separate from you, quite separate even from my brother and my wife, and all the sages in history are hard put to convince me otherwise.  And isn’t it exactly my felt experience that this philosophical speculation is supposed to account?

I’ve read about mirror neurons, and sure, I know what empathy feels like.  When you are flailing and screaming because you stubbed your toe, an echo of your pain runs through me, but it’s pretty abstract, pretty distant compared to a stubbed toe of my own.  

“We are all one” comes from revered sources, from Lao Tsze to Jill Bolte Taylor.  It’s what I want to believe, but it seems so far away. How can I climb into this experience of wholeness and unity and dissolution individuality?  How can I make it my own?

If I were an anthropologist, maybe I would arrange to spend a year in an indigenous community where people feel closer to each other and closer to nature as a result of their cultural heritage.   If I had more faith in psychopharmacology, I might try psychedelic drugs. But I’ve had a lifelong fear of any kind of chemical meddling with my CNS. If I knew a guru who could grant me shaktipat, I wouldn’t hesitate to ask, but I am too proud to be anyone’s disciple, another soft spot in my temperament.  Meditation? I’ve been doing it for years, and swear by the gifts it has dispensed, but cosmic consciousness has not been among them (for me).  Meditation has been a rich but lonely pursuit.

I’m a writer.  Epiphany! Maybe I can find a path into merged consciousness through writing a story.  I’m thinking of Borges. He’s the one who could evoke a whole world in a 4-page tour de force of his imagination.  I’ll become Borges for the day.  I’ll channel Borges, and I’ll write a story about…about a consciousness that becomes entangled with another someone’s consciousness.

Chang Yun is a student in Tianjin’s largest public high scool.  It’s 2007, and the whole country is brimming with pride over the coming Beijing Olympics.  They see it as a rite of passage, a benchmark that says China has arrived in the developed world, with the infrastructure to host a multinational event in style.  It will be, above all, a media event that changes perceptions of China forever. Twenty years ago, China was one of the most backward countries in the world, with 95% of the population engaged in subsistence farming.  Now China is hi-tech factory to the world, exporting more manufactured goods than the next seven nations combined. The rocket fuel that has propelled China from rice paddies to Superpower Heir Apparent was individual competition.  

Yun is the fastest swimmer that any of his coaches has seen.  He is raced against tag teams of the next fastest kids just so he can be prodded forward by someone alongside him, competition to bring out his best.  In the Hebei Provincial competitions, he finishes nearly half a length ahead of his nearest competitor, and he does it in Backstroke, Breast stroke, Butterfly and Freestyle, more comfortable with any of them than the boys who specialized in one favorite stroke.

It certainly seems that the Olympics are Yun’s destiny.  No one can stop him. He is buoyed by the hope of his great nation; and, true to the stereotype, he knows how to work.  Two hours in the pool each morning, three more after school lets out before dinner. Sprints and repeated sprints. His lungs grow so large he can cover 50 meters before he has to take his first breath.  Endurance swims of 10K without a break become a routine. Lap after hypnotic lap for consistency of form. Like a Tai Ji master, or like a machine, he performs every stroke alike, photographically perfect replicates.  Exactly two breaths, four pulls from his right arm and five from his left brings him each time to approach the wall for an optimal flip turn, and he is off for the next round.

That summer, a year before the Olympics, the Central Government in Beijing dispatches China’s best coaches to Tianjin to work with him.  But he baffles them. He is a phenomenon of nature, they say. His form is already so perfect, his times so fast–and regularly chipping off a few tenths to surpass his own benchmark.  They are afraid to change anything, afraid they might derail the vehicle of China’s promise.

What can go wrong?

What can go wrong is Michael Phelps.  Training at the same 39o of latitude, 12 time zones away (in either direction), Phelps is 15 cm taller than Chang Yun.  Each of his flat, open hands pulls a column of water 225 square centimeters in cross-section, compared to Yun’s 182.  Phelps is such a natural swimmer that, as rumor has it, he can hold his edge with a mere 90 minutes workout in the pool each day.  Yun is not training to race with the boys in the Hebei Provincials. He is not training to lead the Chinese swim team. He is training to take on Michael Phelps.

Along with big business and media contracts, spying is also a part of Olympic culture.  T minus six months, and Yun’s average time for 100 m freestyle in practice is a full second behind Phelps.  Both athletes vary considerably from one trial to the next, so that Yun at his best iss faster than Phelps on an off-day.  Yun’s coach sees this as cause for hope, but it is not in his nature to leave anything to chance.

A phone call, a whisper down the chain of command, and funding comes through from Beijing to engage Franz Seidlen, to pay him whatever it might take to bring the legendary German swimming coach to Hebei for half a year.   Seidlen was an engineer before he was a coach. The subtle innovations he has introduced to competitive swimming have been recognized and adopted the world over, and the whole sport is said to be an astounding 2.4% faster than it had been with the pre-Seidlen ideals of form and technique.  Discipline is his middle name, but many coaches can be inspiring taskmasters. What sets Seidlen apart is a detailed knowledge of anatomy, and an uncanny ability to identify the individual modifications that can turn anyone’s genetic endowment to best advantage.

No one is surprised when Seidlen arrives in Tianjin carrying a life-size map of Yun’s body plan, which he has already studied in every detail.  No one is surprised when he installs underwater videography to film Yun in motion. But it raises eyebrows when Seidlen hangs a picture of Phelps on the wall next to the pool.   As time goes on, Phelps’s pictures joins Yun in the locker room, in the wallpaper of Yun’s cell phone, and finally on his bedroom wall.

T minus three months, an effigy of Phelps arrives to swim alongside Yun.  A product of Italian artists, German engineering and Chinese manufacture, this state-of-the-art robot bridges the uncanny valley, at once to frighten and inspire Yun as nothing else can.  The robot does not actually propel itself through the pool with perfectly-coordinated arm and leg motions, but it moves arms and legs in a form that is convincing enough through the splashes, and the variable-speed propeller can be programmed to anticipate Phelps’s swimming pace. Training alongside “Phelps” becomes the core of Yun’s daily routine.

T minus two months, and the pace and regimen of Yun’s training are beginning to seem inhuman.  One weekend, he attends a party with school buddies, falls ill and misses five days of practice.  Seidlen brings Yun a box of little pills. “Prolintane” does not have a translation in his English-Chinese dictionary, but all Yun’s 17 years have taught him to trust his teachers.  His strokes feel longer now, and the laps feel shorter. It is easier to swim long hours without losing concentration. It is easier to draw forth motivation for each final sprint.

He has strange dreams.  Phelps has moved into Yun’s psyche as a constant companion.  Sometimes they are buddies, riding bikes together through the Trianjin traffic.  Yun dreams he is in a boxing ring, sparring with Phelps. He lands a punch, knocks Phelps out, but it is Yun who falls unconscious to the floor.

As the summer approaches, the Olympic competition itself has begun to take on the aura of a dream. Yun no longer distinguishes his anticipation from reality, his dreams from accomplished fact.  Seidlen encourages him to repeat as a mantra, 我已经取得胜利, “I have already triumphed.”  The attention and publicity add to his sense of unreality.  Certainly, it is not he in whom these people are interested.  Yun is unmoored, carried downstream, no longer aware who he is, no longer a living agent with will of his own.  At least, it feels that way.

It is in the final runoffs of the 800-meter free-style that he is paired with Phelps in the same heat.  Michael Phelps is not a robot but a boy like himself, gawky, diffident and self-conscious when he is not in the water.  Michael looks right past him, over the top of his head. But then, a double-take. He turns to Yun and their eyes meet a long moment.  I have known you before. We have been close, perhaps in a past life.

The starting block, the gun that launches them in the water…it has all been lived already too many times to be regarded as a feature of the present. Yun is swimming the way he has always swum, every stroke a perfect clone.  He is aware only that his heart is pounding with an unusual insistence.

Then, approaching the fourth lap flip turn, something happens that shakes Yun out of his trance.  Nine strokes has always been 9 strokes. But this time, he is at the wall in 8½. This is good. He knows it means he has been swimming faster than he has ever swum in his life.  This is terrifying. The wall is too far away, and then it is too close. His legs, scrunched up against the wall, offer a slightly stronger push, but not enough to make up for the time it has taken to close that extra half meter, to dive in a way that is ever so imperceptibly unsmooth.  Precious hundredths have been lost, Yun knows. What can this do to his rhythm, his confidence, his breathing? Yes, his breathing. With the unaccustomed turn, Yun’s face is under water one full stroke longer than his perfect habit has come to expect. Oxygen efficiency is Yun’s trump card, his one advantage over Michael.  Oxygen is what Yun needs, and now his straining muscles feel the lack of oxygen like a flooded Mercedes diesel on a January morning. Yun’s discipline, earned in 100,000 laps of clockwork precision, would be the envy of any Zen master, and now his muscles are screaming for air. He focuses his intention on directing every red blood cell to those shoulder muscles that are even now issuing their non-negotiable demand.

It was in that moment that the miracle occurred, the mircale toward which this narrative has been directed, the miracle that this story’s author needs to imagine if he is to come to terms with Cosmic Consciousness and a personal understanding of transmigration of souls.    

Yun’s focus was complete.  Or maybe he lost focus. Or maybe he only dreamed because his brain lacked sufficient oxygen to support a waking self.  But as Yun related it to me more than three years after that contest, he became Michael. His awareness seemed familiar, his self undoubtably his own.  But the sensations, the nerve signals were from Phelps’s body, not his own. He swam with the same drive, the same passion, the conviction that his people had invested their dreams in this race, in his opportunity, in his destiny to stage an upset victory for the glory of all China.  His people expected him to win and it was not an option to let them down.

The pace, the glide of the water, the splash were all perfectly familiar to him.  But the race itself was now almost effortless. With this smooth-shaven, extra-long body, these extra-large hands like canoe paddles in the water, he was gliding faster than he ever knew, but there was no pain, no screaming desire to let go and rest, no struggle to suppress the desire for more air, more air, more air.  Compared to the beginning of the race–even compared to a hard sprint at the end of a training day–this was a breeze, a piece of cake. Chang/Phelps glided forward with the grace of a slalom skier.

Of course, he doubted that it was real.  The thing that convinced him–Yun spoke more slowly and deliberately when he got to this part of the story–he could see the pool wall by his right side.  He had entered the race in Lane #3, but here he was in Lane #6, Michael’s lane. Randomly he remembered that the wall itself offered a theoretical advantage of 3 miliseconds per lap, and now as Michael he was taking that advantage.

And inside all this strangeness, did it occur to Yun that he might relax just a bit and throw the race to his other self three lanes over?  Or with this body, so much longer and stronger than his own,and yet so much less accustomed to real work, real discipline, he might achieve new records?  

The last thing Yun remembers about those six minutes of merged identity was repetition of the proverb 落英缤纷, literally “flower petals fall like snowflakes”, but its meaning translates roughly as sic transit gloria mundi.  For the first time, he was allowing himself to consider that just a few years hence, both he and Michael would pass into history, their best glory behind them, while others their age were just beginning to aspire to a future of open-ended ambition.  Life is long.

Looking back in retrospect, Yun made a strange admission to me.  “It would have been very difficult to act differently from the way I did.  While I was inside Michael’s body, I had an intimate familiarity with Michael’s habits, his passions, his ways of thought.  You will want to know, did I have free will? Could I choose what to do with my limbs as I do at this moment in this body? I felt sure that yes, I could.  But the habits were stronger than I ever imagined. I had Michael’s pace and coordination, not my own. I had the thoughts that Michael thought. I saw his girlfriend, beaming with pride for me at the race’s end.  The gold medal that I saw in my future was Michael’s gold medal, not my own. In the split between body and soul, we imagine that thoughts go with the soul, but I learned that day it is not so. Except by focused and intense assertion of will, thoughts arise from the body, from which they are too often adopted without question as ‘my own’.”

I stayed awake far too long into the night, I know, propelled in an accelerating torrent of words toward this ending I had devised.  Staring at an LED screen, my eyes became bleary, but my fingers moved on. My sight became grey, but the words continued to come, each ensuing paragraph more amd more like accounts I’ve heard of automatic writing.  Mozart taking the Lord’s dictation. Jane Roberts or–dare I mention Pesoa? whose multiple personalities ought by rights to have been the souls of my story, in preference to Borges.

I stopped writing not because there was nothing more to write, but because I was startled–startled and soothed, paradoxically–as my sight gave out completely.  The light above my bed was still on. The computer screen, presumably, still displayed my story. But in my eyes there was only black. I thought it best to leave off my story and succumb to the hour.  Sleep came almost instantly.

I don’t know how long it was when I awoke from a dream.  Probably not very long, if my experience is any guide. Many of my most vivid dreams occur just minutes after dozing off.  

I was in the Library of Babel, with its endless expanse of hexagonal rooms, packed like a honeycomb in every direction.  Every book was here, every possible book, every permutation and combination of the 26 capital and small letters of the Latin alphabet plus 8 punctuations, indexed just as Kurt Gödel would have numbered them, in alphabetical sequence not by title but by their full content.  They were printed on 80# paper in Braille, titles and bindings in Braille as well, and this caused each volume to be bulkier than books of visible print. The fingers do not have so fine a resolution as the retina, but touch carries an immediate meaning, palpable, if you will, that readers of print books can never know.  An infinity of large volumes or of small, I thought, is all the same infinity.

The library contained, as I say, every possible volume, but not with a blind democracy as to importance.  Shelf upon shelf of nonsense was represented by one copy of each distinct text; but the important works of literary value were there in multiple copies, so many copies, enough copies that it was possible to locate them and single them out.  Homer and Milton and Didymus of Alexandria, Helen Keller, and then Borges himself. So few books they left to us, but so many copies of each here in “his” library.

My fingers touched and could read.  More than this, they knew the words before I touched them.  How pleasant it was to run my fingers over the bindings, reading the disparate contents of each volume.  The irresistible title, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”. By the time I found the story called Water Torture, I retained no capacity for surprise.  Line for line, word for word, Borges had written my story before I had. This man’s intuitive imagination could gauge the future thousands of years hence; it is hardly a cause for surprise that he anticipated the Beijing Olympics by a mere half century.  No wonder it felt like “automatic writing” in my somnolent, semiconscious state. No doubt I was remembering a story lodged deep in my subconscious, which I had read exactly 50 years earlier, as a college student.

The remainder of that long night, I slept the sleep of the just, or perhaps the sleep of the dead. When day returned, I found that my eyesight had been restored.  Curiously, I had never doubted it would. But just in the waking, I recalled one more dream, one more connection to Borges. I was in his bed, drawn into sexual union with the Master.  I knew that this act of infidelity would rip apart my marriage, bring down my reputation, leave in tatters the life of integrity that I had so carefully constructed. Pulled by my body, I had no choice, but had I the will to decide in that moment, I would have judged it a fair bargain, trading all I had assembled by my staid reliability for this one orgasmic moment of union.

“Being an agnostic means all things are possible.”
— Jorge Luis Borges