Wednesday, June 22, 2005

At One with the Universe

At One with the Universe

In August 1982, I read a book which had a profound impact on me: The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra. In the book, Capra, a physicist by training, expounded the parallels between modern physics and Eastern mysticism. In his preface, he writes about a beautiful experience he had one afternoon when he was sitting by the ocean:
Being a physicist, I knew that the sand, rocks, water and air around me were made of vibrating molecules and atoms, and that these consisted of particles which interacted with one another by creating and destroying other particles. I knew also that the Earth's atmosphere was continually bombarded by showers of cosmic rays... All this was familiar to me from my research in high-energy physics, but until that moment I had only experienced it through graphs, diagrams and mathematical theories. As I sat on that beach my former experiences came to life; I 'saw' cascades of energy coming down from outer space, in which particles were created and destroyed in rhythmic pulses; I 'saw' the atoms of the elements and those of my body participating in this cosmic dance of energy; I felt its rhythm and I 'heard' its sound...
What Dr Capra experienced then was something that went beyond the rational, analytical thinking of which his scientific training had accustomed his mind to; it was a direct, intuitive and holistic experience of the entire universe--a world view well described, often in quite incomprehensible language, by so many of the mystical traditions of the East.

The cold rational way of describing the universe using science is but one approach for understanding the universe. It requires one to master the language of mathematics, which is even more incomprehensible to the layman than any of the mystical texts.

Why is the universe so difficult for us to describe in simple layman's language? It is because we are only capable of understanding the world around us based on the experience from our senses. When we think, our minds are capable only of conceptualizing things using metaphors, symbols and references that are familiar to us in our everyday world, as interpreted by our senses.

So we think of matter as being composed of atoms, which are like indivisibly small billiard balls that have "solidity". But when we peer deeper into the structure of matter, we find to our surprise that matter actually consists of a lot of empty space. What is the substance of nature? Is there such a thing as "solid" particles? And then we find that there's actually no difference between matter and energy--they are interchangeable. How could something so solid like matter transform into "nothingness"--energy? How could particle which has a position in space behave like a wave, which spreads out over space?

When we look at the universe through our eyes, we are actually "peeping" into the world through a very tiny band of the electromagnetic spectrum. When we touch something solid around us, the "feeling" that we get are nothing but electrical impulses sent through nervous system, interpreted by the brain as "solidity". When we hear a sound, we are interpreting the vibrations of air molecules and even that is within a very narrow frequency range.

We have to realize that it is through our experiences sampled from this extremely limited and narrow view of the world that we are attempting to describe the entire universe. So shouldn't it be unsurprising that our language and understanding be found wanting? Shouldn't the universe be far stranger that what we are even capable of imagining? To quote JBS Haldane: "Nature is not only stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think."

The world of our senses is extremely limited indeed. Through science we find that the universe is far grander than we can ever imagine it could it. To fully experience it, we have to break away from our old paradigms of thinking, even from thinking itself. The mystics knew that long ago. They understood the limitation of language and sensory experiences. So they sought a more direct experience of the universe through meditative practices, using a whole range of techniques which alter our conventional states of consciousness.

We are a product of the universe. The universe is "experiencing itself" in a limited way through our eyes and ears. We think we walk on a solid earth, drink its water and breathe the air out there. We even think we can conquer and exploit nature. This separation between us and the universe "out there" is nothing but an illusion. It is only when we learn to experience it directly, like the mystics, will we ever truly understand, that we and the universe are actually one.

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