Science and spirituality: two streams, one source

electron_cloudThe Dutch scientists Ronald Hanson and Bas Hensen recently gained worldwide recognition for their research into the spooky behaviour of electron pairs. And this attention was well merited because their study offers a fascinating insight into the incubator of our own material reality. The results show that behind the reality that we perceive through our senses lies an entirely different world where things happen that the classical laws of physics really ought not to allow. The science that attempts to describe the strange and paradoxical behaviour of subatomic particles is called quantum mechanics, an area of study that I find particularly fascinating, especially because of the striking similarities between some of its findings and the natural laws described in Eastern traditions like Daoism.

Incubator

In Eastern spiritual traditions it is also believed that a paradoxical and more or less unfathomable reality lies hidden beneath that which we are able to perceive with our human senses. The experiments in these traditions into this reality are not conducted using hi-tech equipment but rather through extraordinary states of mind, which we generally refer to as meditation. The results of these experiments are no less fascinating however. They offer a glimpse of the origins of consciousness. I suspect that both the Western and Eastern traditions have the potential to offer us access to the same place: the incubator of existence. In this blog I hope to back up my hunch using the results of the two kinds of research referred to above.

Spin

In their research, Hanson and Hensen focused on the wonderfully weird behaviour of particle pairs. Pairs of particles are made up of two specially prepared, entangled electrons, each of which has its own individual properties, such as mass, speed and something called ‘spin’. The experiment in question ‘turned’ on this last property. Spin refers to the rotational movement of electrons. They don’t actually rotate as such, but some of the behaviour of electrons can only be explained by assuming that they do: welcome to the strange world of quantum physics! Although ‘spin’ is in itself a fascinating subject, I will not delve any deeper into it here. Have a look at the clip in the link if you are eager to find out more.

Dao

Electrons can spin in two directions: up (spin up) and down (spin down). So long as we are unable to establish the spin direction of a pair of electrons, they are said to have no spin. However, this does not mean that they are not moving. Think of it in terms of  high and low. The absence of high and low does not mean that you find yourself ‘in the middle’, as being in the middle means that there must be something above (higher) and below (lower). When the duality of high and low is not present we suddenly find ourselves in a two-dimensional world. With regard to spin, the entangled particles are the said to be in a non-dual state. And in Daoism this non-dual state is known as the Dao. Dao is everything and nothing at the same time, has no shape or identifiable characteristics, and is therefore ‘unknowable’. Yet it is the source of everything we know.

Spin-up and spin-down

It is only when these particles’ spin direction is determined that they are ‘forced’ to choose one direction or the other, so to speak. Earlier studies had already shown that if the first particle in a pair chooses spin-down, then the second particle will always and instantaneously choose spin-up, and vice-versa. In Daoism this is the moment when ‘the Dao gives birth to yin and yang’. When one half of this pair identifies itself as yin then the other must reveal itself as yang. This is because yin and yang create each other and, even though they are each other’s opposite, the existence of one is a precondition for the existence of the other. The birth of yin and yang is the birth of duality, the opposites that form the basis of everything we know in the universe: light-dark, hot-cold, below-above, in-out, mind-matter, and even good and evil.

Faster than the speed of light

The experiment in the Netherlands also proved beyond all doubt that the electron’s compulsory and diametrically opposed choices with regard to spin direction also occur when the particles are located at a significant distance from each other. Even Einstein did not believe this was possible. In his opinion, God was not one for playing chance. He believed that each of the particles must hold some kind of secret information that determines in advance whether they will choose spin-up or spin-down. However, in the 1970s it was shown that the choice made by the first particle is purely a matter of chance and nothing else. So how then does the second particle ‘know’ which spin the first particle has chosen? Some physicists believe that the particles are able to communicate with each other faster than the speed of light. Although I’m no expert on the matter, I suspect that the explanation lies elsewhere.

Yin and yang, time and space

I believe that the idea that these particles must be able to communicate with each other at blindingly high speeds betrays a lack of understanding as to what ‘oneness’ really means. Daoism explains the fact that particle 2 instantaneously chooses the opposite spin to particle 1, regardless of the distance between them, by claiming that the non-dual state in which the entangled particles find themselves is not subject to the laws of time or space. You could take one of the particles to the other side of the Milky Way and it still would not change the outcome of the experiment. Yin and yang are the inevitable result of each other and are created simultaneously from nothing.

God

The Dutch scientists’ experiment reveals a process that, in my opinion, goes to the very heart of creation itself. We are shown how ‘something’ is created from ‘nothing’ and so find ourselves all of a sudden very close to God. In the Bible we read how God first seperates the oneness, to create light and dark, day and night, heaven and earth. From this duality came a multitude of creations, such as the stars, plants, animals and humans, who were also separated into male and female. God’s final act was to create the crown jewel of duality: the tree of knowledge of good and evil. However, he left it to our own wisdom and curiosity to decide whether or not to pluck the fruit from the tree, which up to that point were ‘perfectly entangled’. Our first bite of the apple was the moment we began to see things as good, which by necessity gave rise to the concept of bad. After all, something can only be good when another thing is bad. And so we left  paradise. God was banished to heaven, where he could be the embodiment of all good but not (where he wasn’t) all-powerful any more. Since that fateful day we have been trying to win the battle of good versus evil, which, given the dynamic that exists between yin and yang, is a rather foolish and pointless undertaking.

Cognitive faculties

We owe our existence, including all our cognitive faculties and powers of discernment, to the duality of creation. And we now use these powers to study creation itself. Science does this by studying physical matter, which it regards as the essence of our existence and from which we humans are considered to have evolved. Consciousness, which according to this vison, is seated in our material brain, is a product of this evolutionary process. Scientists used their conscious minds to analyse the world around us. They formulated strictly objective laws to explain phenomena like the refraction of light and gravity. They discovered cells, molecules and atoms. As time went by, science gradually permeated deeper and deeper into the material world. Nowadays, using quantum mechanics, science is coming so close to explaining the essence of our existence that it has become clear that the reality we perceive is never independent of the observer, as was always believed in the classical sciences. A subjective and personal element is entering into the hitherto objective, impersonal world of science. In experiments on subatomic particles, like the one carried out by Hanson and Hensen, it is becoming increasingly clear that the results of any experiment are always dependent on the choices the scientist makes when setting up and conducting that experiment.

Consciousness

Both Hanson and Hensen’s experiment and the story of the tree of knowledge illustrate how our cognitive faculties create our reality by dividing and defining it, just like God did. And this is why research carried out along the lines of Eastern thinking is generally based on our subjective consciousness. Many spiritual schools of thought believe that everything stems from consciousness, including all physical matter. These traditions have conducted exhaustive research into the source of our existence. They have long been using meditation as a way of exploring the personal and subjective consciousness and this is the kind of exploration with which I am most familiar.

Vipassana meditation

The form of meditation that I have been practicing for the past twenty years is called Vipassana meditation. Vipassana literally means ‘to see things as they really are’. It is a technique in which your own subjective experiences become the object of your attention. This conscious mind experiment is best conducted in an environment where distractions are at a minimum, like in a meditation centre. In fact, a Vipassana centre could be seen as a kind of meditation laboratory. Vipassana meditation does not involve any rituals or techniques aimed at stimulating particular experiences or states of mind. You simply observe reality, systematically and without interruption, as it presents itself spontaneously to you. The experiences I describe below are my own personal ones but they are quite universal in character. Many people who are long-term practitioners of Vipassana have had similar experiences.

Personal-impersonal

When I begin meditating I am immersed in a completely personal universe. Memories, plans, opinions, preferences, aversions and desires all come flooding in. experiences as pleasant or unpleasant, good or bad and assign meaning to them, based on my personal identity and history. I experience all feelings and emotions as ‘I’ and ‘mine’. As I go deeper and attempt to observe my experiences without subjecting them to my own judgment, an impersonal and objective element slowly begins to form in my personal and subjective world. The observed reality that up to this point had been ‘mine’ starts to follow its own independent path. Things start to happen spontaneously, without my having any control over them. Thoughts and perceptions just come and go. By slowly abandoning my own personal opinion, it is as if I am being given the opportunity to hang the apples back in the tree of knowledge one by one. In most of my meditation sessions I do not get past the wrestling match that ensues with these delicious fruit, which I am usually very reluctant to surrender. After all, I dearly wish to cling to good and pleasant things, too. Carefully observing this struggle, I become conscious of the fact that I am constantly creating my own dual reality by assigning meaning to experiences based entirely on my desires. Success breeds failure, calm creates turbulence, pleasure gives rise to pain and joy to sadness. However, on some occasions I am focused enough to be able to break through to the ‘oneness’ that lies behind this multifarious duality. I then discover that this newly found oneness also conceals something – a new and more subtle duality.

In the beginning was the word

If I continue to observe everything in this way and to be aware that the ever-changing chain of events that I observe is not ‘mine’, I eventually arrive at a point where even the most basic aspects of my experiences begin to change. I cease to experience ‘my own body’. All is open space – a space in which each and every thought or change of focus triggers a physical experience. Hot-cold, high-low, past-future, large-small: all of these turn out to be definitions my conscious mind. Three-dimensional space and time begin to implode and I find myself in the middle of an experience that presents nothing but possibilities. And when I choose one of these possibilities, through the act of naming an experience, another dual reality takes shape and the experience of oneness in which everything was ‘entangled’ immediately ceases. ‘In the beginning was the word…’

Spiritual science?

The insights that flowed from these experiments have dramatically changed the way in which I look at and experience life. They have shown me that ‘my problems’ are nothing but events or feelings that I have always been inclined to define as problems. Meditation has made me a more curious, more relaxed and more resolute person. Practicing Vipassana has also led me to believe that consciousness arises from physical matter, as science claims, but also that consciousness can create matter, as many spiritual traditions believe. In my opinion, trying to figure out which one of these points of view is correct is a pretty futile exercise. It is all a matter of perspective, because in the end the known and the knower, object and subject, consciousness and matter are all opposite poles of the same thing – duality. Spiritual and scientific research approach the underlying ‘black hole’ from opposite directions. And it is into this black hole that all our words and theories eventually disappear: Dao

In search of the essence

Down through the ages there have been many who have gone in search of the essence of our existence: the religious sought unification with God, Daoists tried to find the Dao, Buddhists walked on the path to Nirvana and scientists have looked for the origins of the cosmos and of the matter that we are made of. They have all looked for their own particular answers in their own particular way. Not surprisingly, this has resulted in many conflicts between all the various traditions and schools of thought down through history. However, the nearer they get to the source the more likely it is that they will all find the same thing: the oneness that contains all possibilities, the duality that flows from that oneness and the multitude of phenomena that arise from that duality. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could learn from one another through our common fascination for the mysteries of life, with respect for our differences and full recognition of the limits of our own traditions? If we were to share all of our knowledge with one another, it could result in the birth of a life science that might lead to dramatic improvements in our lives here on earth. What the world really needs is bridge-builders, as fragmentation and division will only ever lead to more conflict. It is unity or ‘oneness’ that must form the cornerstone of our social, personal and ecological well-being.

Lao Zi

I should stop now before I get bogged down entirely in Utopian reflections. In fact, I may have already said too much. In the words of the Daoist Lao Zi: “Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know the Dao”. He is right, of course, but sometimes I just cannot help myself…

Translation: Danny Guinan

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