Mysterious Light: A Scientist's Odyssey
Never did I imagine that spirituality would be so important in my life. Throughout my childhood and student years I always thought I would end up as a scientist. I loved science. I loved discovering how the world works, why the sky is blue, what makes the wind blow, how sound travels through the air, how electric currents flow, why iron rusts, why things expand when heated, how plants know when to bloom, how we see color, how a lens bends light, why planes can fly, how a rainbow forms, why snowflakes are six-pointed stars.
The more I discovered, the more fascinated I became. At sixteen I was devouring Einstein and marveling at the paradoxical world of quantum physics. I delved into different theories of how the universe began, and pondered the mysteries of space and time. I had a passion for knowing, an insatiable curiosity about the laws and principles that governed the world.
I was not, however, a materialist, believing that everything could be explained by the physical sciences. By my mid-teens I had developed an interest in the untapped potentials of the human mind. Stories of yogis being buried alive for days, or lying on beds of nails, intrigued me. I dabbled in so-called out-of-body experiences and experimented with the altered states of consciousness produced by hyperventilating or entraining the brain's alpha rhythms with pulsating lights. I developed my own techniques of meditation, though I did not recognize them as such at the time.
Nevertheless, my overriding interest was still in the physical sciences, and, above all, mathematics. Thus, when it came to choosing which subject I was to study at university, the choice was obvious. And when it came to deciding which university I should apply to, the choice was again clear: Cambridge. It was, and probably remains, the best British university for studying mathematics.
The Turning Point
In my third year, I was exactly where I thought I would want to be. Stephen Hawking was my supervisor. Although he had fallen prey to the motor-neuron disorder known as Lou Gehrig's disease several years earlier, the illness had not yet taken its full toll. He could walk with the aid of a cane and speak well enough to be understood.
Sitting with him in his study, I found half my attention would be on whatever he was explaining to me (such as the solution of a particularly difficult set of differential equations), while my eye would be caught by the hundreds of sheets of paper strewn across his desk, on which were scrawled, in very large handwriting, equations that I could hardly begin to fathom. Only later did I realize these papers were probably part of his seminal work on black holes.
On more than one occasion, a spasmodic movement of his arm would accidentally send most of the papers sliding to the floor. I wanted to get down and scoop them up for him, but he always insisted I leave them there. To be doing such ground-breaking work in cosmology was achievement enough. To be doing it with such handicaps was astounding. I felt both extremely privileged and very daunted.
So there I was, studying with the best of minds in the best of universities, yet something else was stirring deep inside me.
My studies in mathematics and quantum physics explained how the entire material universe could have evolved from the simplest of the elements-hydrogen. Yet the most fascinating question for me had now become: How had hydrogen-a single electron orbiting a single proton-evolved into a system that could be aware of itself? How had the universe become conscious?
It was becoming clear that however hard I studied the physical sciences, they were never going to answer this deeper, more fundamental, question. I felt a growing sense of frustration, manifesting at times as depression. I found myself reading more about mind and consciousness, and less able to focus on my mathematical assignments.
The Best of Both Worlds
My tutor must have sensed I was not at ease in myself and approached me one day to ask how I was doing. I shared with him as best I could my confusion and misgivings about my chosen path. His response surprised me: "Either complete your degree in mathematics [I was in my final year] or take the rest of the year off and use it to decide what you really want to study." Then, knowing how hard it would be for me to make such a choice without a deadline, he added, "I want your decision by noon on Saturday."
Saturday, five minutes before noon, I was still torn between my two options, struggling with feelings of failure, and a sense of wasted time. In the end, I surrendered to an inner knowing that I would not be fulfilled continuing with mathematics, and that I really wanted to take the rest of the year off. By late afternoon I had packed, said a temporary farewell to my friends, and was on my way, with only uncertainty ahead.
During the next six months I produced light shows, worked in a jam factory at night, and from time to time pondered my future career.
After exploring various options I returned to Cambridge to study experimental psychology; it seemed the closest academic approach to understanding consciousness. Whereas clinical psychology involves treating those who are mentally ill at ease, experimental psychology is concerned with the functioning of the normal human brain. It includes the study of the physiological process of perception and how the brain builds up a picture of the world. It encompasses learning and memory, the brain's control of the body, and the biochemistry of neuronal interactions. Understanding the brain seemed a start in the right direction.
So I found myself able to continue pursuing my interests in mathematics and physics, while at the same time embarking on my exploration of the inner world of consciousness.
Today, after thirty years of investigation into the nature of consciousness, I have come to appreciate just how big a problem the subject is for contemporary science. We all know, beyond any doubt, that we are conscious beings. It is the most intimate and obvious fact of our existence. Indeed, all we ever directly know are the thoughts, images, and feelings arising in consciousness. Yet as far as Western science is concerned, there is nothing more difficult to explain.
The 'Hard Problem' of Consciousness
The really hard problem-as David Chalmers, professor of philosophy at the University of Arizona, has said-is consciousness itself. Why should the complex processing of information in the brain lead to an inner experience? Why doesn't it all go on in the dark, without any subjective aspect? Why do we have any inner life at all?
This paradox-namely, the absolutely undeniable existence of human consciousness set against the complete absence of any satisfactory scientific account for it-suggests to me that something is seriously amiss with the contemporary scientific worldview. For a long time I could not put my finger on exactly what it was. Then suddenly, about four years ago on a flight back to San Francisco, I saw where the error lay.
If consciousness is not some emergent property of life, as Western science supposes, but is instead a primary quality of the cosmos-as fundamental as space, time, and matter, perhaps even more fundamental-then we arrive at a very different picture of reality. As far as our understanding of the material world goes, nothing much changes; but when it comes to our understanding of mind, we are led to a very different worldview indeed. I realized that the hard problem of consciousness was not a problem to be solved so much as the trigger that would, in time, push Western science into what the American philosopher Thomas Kuhn called a "paradigm shift."
The continued failure of science to make any appreciable headway into this fundamental problem suggests that, to date, all approaches may be on the wrong track. They are all based on the assumption that consciousness emerges from, or is dependent upon, the physical world of space, time, and matter. In one way or another they are trying to accommodate the anomaly of consciousness within a worldview that is intrinsically materialist. As happened with the medieval astronomers, who kept adding more and more epicycles to explain the anomalous motions of the planets, the underlying assumptions are seldom, if ever, questioned.
I now believe that rather than trying to explain consciousness in terms of the material world, we should be developing a new worldview in which consciousness is a fundamental component of reality. The key ingredients for this new paradigm-a "superparadigm"-are already in place. We need not wait for any new discoveries. All we need do is put various pieces of our existing knowledge together, and consider the new picture of reality that emerges.
Consciousness and Reality
Because the word "consciousness" can be used in so many different ways, confusion often arises around statements about its nature. The way I use the word is not in reference to a particular state of consciousness, or particular way of thinking, but to the faculty of consciousness itself-the capacity for inner experience, whatever the nature or degree of the experience.
A useful analogy is the image from a video projector. The projector shines light onto a screen, modifying the light so as to produce any one of an infinity of images. These images are like the perceptions, sensations, dreams, memories, thoughts, and feelings that we experience-what I call the "contents of consciousness." The light itself, without which no images would be possible, corresponds to the faculty of consciousness.
We know all the images on the screen are composed of this light, but we are not usually aware of the light itself; our attention is caught up in the images that appear and the stories they tell. In much the same way, we know we are conscious, but we are usually aware only of the many different experiences, thoughts, and feelings that appear in the mind. We are seldom aware of consciousness itself. Yet without this faculty there would be no experience of any kind.
The faculty of consciousness is one thing we all share, but what goes on in our consciousness, the content of our consciousness, varies widely. This is our personal reality, the reality we each know and experience. Most of the time, however, we forget that this is just our personal reality and think we are experiencing physical reality directly. We see the ground beneath our feet; we can pick up a rock, and throw it through the air; we feel the heat from a fire, and smell its burning wood. It feels as if we are in direct contact with the world "out there." But this is not so. The colors, textures, smells, and sounds we experience are not really "out there"; they are all images of reality constructed in the mind.
It was this aspect of perception that most caught my attention during my studies of experimental psychology (and amplified by my readings of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant). At that time, scientists were beginning to discover the ways in which the brain pieces together its perception of the world, and I was fascinated by the implications of these discoveries for the way we construct our picture of reality. It was clear that what we perceive and what is actually out there are two different things.
This, I know, runs counter to common sense. Right now you are aware of the pages in front of you, various objects around you, sensations in your own body, and sounds in the air. Even though you may understand that all of this is just your reconstruction of reality, it still seems as if you are having a direct perception of the physical world. And I am not suggesting you should try to see it otherwise. What is important for now is the understanding that all our experience is an image of reality constructed in the mind.
Because our perception of the world is so different from the actual physical reality, some people have claimed that our experience is an illusion. But that is misleading. It may all be a creation of my own mind, but it is very, very real-the only reality we ever know.
The illusion comes when we confuse our experience of the world with the physical reality, the thing-in-itself. The Vedantic philosophers of ancient India spoke of this as "maya." Often translated as illusion (a false perception of the world), the word is more accurately translated as delusion (a false belief about the world). I suffer a delusion when I believe that the manifestations in my mind are the external world. I deceive myself when I think that the tree I see is the tree itself.
If all that we ever know are the images that appear in our minds, how can we be sure there is a physical reality behind our perceptions? Is it not just an assumption? My answer to that is: Yes, it is an assumption; nevertheless, it seems a most plausible assumption.
For a start, there are definite constraints on my experience. I cannot, for example, walk through walls. If I try to, there are predictable consequences. Nor can I, when awake, float through the air, or walk upon water. Second, my experience generally follows well-defined laws and principles. Balls thrown through the air follow |precisely defined paths. Cups of coffee cool at similar rates. The sun rises on time. Furthermore, this predictability is not peculiar to my personal reality. You, whom I assume to exist, report similar patterns in your own experience. The simplest way, by far, of accounting for these constraints and for their consistency is to assume that there is indeed a physical reality. We may not know it directly, and its nature may be nothing like our experience of it, but it is there.
To reveal the nature of this underlying reality has been the goal of the physical sciences, and over the years they have elucidated many of the laws and principles that govern its behavior. Yet curiously the more deeply they have delved into its true nature, the more it appears that physical reality is nothing like we imagined it to be. Actually, this should not be too surprising. All we can imagine are the forms and qualities that appear in consciousness. These are unlikely to be very appropriate models for describing the underlying physical reality, which is of a very different nature.
Take, for example, our ideas as to the nature of matter. For two thousand years it was believed that atoms were tiny balls of solid matter-a model clearly drawn from everyday experience. Then, as physicists discovered that atoms were composed of more elementary, subatomic, |particles (electrons, protons, neutrons, and suchlike), the model shifted to one of a central nucleus surrounded by orbiting electrons-again a model based on experience.
An atom may be small, a mere billionth of an inch across, but these subatomic particles are a hundred-thousand times smaller still. Imagine the nucleus of an atom magnified to the size of a grain of rice. The whole atom would then be the size of a football stadium, and the electrons would be other grains of rice flying round the stands. As the early twentieth-century British physicist Sir Arthur Eddington put it, "matter is mostly ghostly empty space"-99.9999999 percent empty space, to be a little more precise.
With the advent of quantum theory, it was found that even these minute subatomic particles were themselves far from solid. In fact, they are not much like matter at all-at least nothing like matter as we know it. They can't be pinned down and measured precisely. They are more like fuzzy clouds of potential existence, with no definite location. Much of the time they seem more like waves than particles. Whatever matter is, it has little, if any, substance to it.
Somewhat ironically, science, having set out to know the ultimate nature of reality, is discovering that not only is this world beyond any direct experience, it may also be inherently unknowable.
The Paradox of Light
With hindsight, my decision to study theoretical physics along with experimental psychology was definitely the right one. They provided two complementary directions to my personal search for truth. Theoretical physics was taking me closer toward the ultimate truths of the physical world, while my pursuit of experimental psychology was a first step toward truth in the inner world of consciousness. Moreover, the deeper I went in these two directions, the closer the truths of the inner and outer worlds became. And the bridge between them was light.
Both relativity and quantum physics, the two great paradigm shifts of modern physics, started from anomalies in the behavior of light, and both led to radical new understandings of the nature of light. For example, in relativity theory, at the speed of light time comes to a stop-in effect, that means for light there is no time whatsoever. Furthermore, a photon can traverse the entire universe without using up any energy-in effect, that means for light there is no space. In quantum theory, we find that light has zero mass and charge, which in effect means that it is immaterial. Light, therefore, seems to occupy a very special place in the cosmic scheme; it is in some ways more fundamental than time, space, or matter. The same, I later discovered, was true of the inner light of consciousness.
Although all we ever see is light, paradoxically, we never know light directly. The light that strikes the eye is known only through the energy it releases. This energy is translated into a visual image in the mind, and that image seems to be composed of light-but that light is a quality of mind. We never know the light itself.
Physics, like Genesis, suggests that in the beginning there was light, or, rather, in the beginning there is light, for light underlies every process in the present moment. Any exchange of energy between any two atoms in the universe involves the exchange of photons. Every interaction in the material world is mediated by light. In this way, light penetrates and interconnects the entire cosmos.
An oft-quoted phrase comes to mind: God is Light. God is said to be absolute-and in physics, so is light. God lies beyond the manifest world of matter, shape, and form, beyond both space and time-so does light. God cannot be known directly-nor can light.
My studies in experimental psychology taught me much about the basic functioning of the human brain. Yet, despite all I was learning about neurophysiology, biochemistry, memory, behavior, and perception, I found myself no closer to understanding the nature of consciousness itself. The East, however, seemed to have a lot to say about consciousness, and so had many mystics, from around the world. For thousands of years they had focused on the realm of the mind, exploring its subtleties through direct personal experience. I realized that such approaches might offer insights unavailable to the objective approach of Western science, and began delving into ancient texts such as the Upanishads, The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation, The Cloud of Unknowing, and works of contemporary writers such as Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, Carl Jung, and Christopher Isherwood.
I was fascinated to find that here, as in modern physics, light is a recurring theme. Consciousness is often spoken of as the inner light. St John refers to "the true light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world." The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation speaks of "the self-originated Clear Light, eternally unborn . . . shining forth within one's own mind."
Those who have awakened to the truth about reality-whom we often call illumined, or enlightened-frequently describe their experiences in terms of light. The sufi Abu'l-Hosian al-Nuri experienced a light "gleaming in the Unseen. . . . I gazed at it continually, until the time came when I had wholly become that light."
The more I read about this inner light, the more I saw close parallels with the light of physics. Physical light has no mass, and is not part of the material world; the same is true of consciousness. Light seems in some way fundamental to the universe, its values are absolute, universal constants. The light of consciousness is likewise fundamental; without it there would be no experience.
This led me to wonder whether there was some deeper significance to these similarities. Were they pointing to a more fundamental connection between the light of the physical world and the light of consciousness? Do physical reality and the reality of the mind share the same common ground-a ground whose essence is light?
Hunting through my local library one day, I happened upon a book titled The Science of Being and Art of Living by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. This was the Indian teacher who had recently made the headlines when The Beatles renounced their use of drugs in favor of his technique of Transcendental Meditation, or TM for short. Little knowing how much this work would change my life, I added it to the pile of books I was borrowing and took it back to my study. There it sat, unopened, on my desk for two weeks. Finally I got around to taking a further look. Within minutes it had my attention. Maharishi was saying the exact opposite of just about everything I'd heard or read on meditation; yet it made sense.
To give just one example, most of the books I had read on meditation talked about how much concentration and effort it took to still the restless mind and discover the deep peace and fulfillment that lies within. Maharishi looked at the whole matter in a different way. Any concentration, the least bit of trying, even a wanting the mind to settle down, would, he observed, be counterproductive. It would be promoting mental activity rather than lessening it. He suggested that the reason the mind was restless was because it was looking for something-namely, greater satisfaction and fulfillment. But it was looking for it in the wrong direction, in the world of thinking and sensory experience. All that was needed, he said, was to turn the attention 180 degrees inward and give the mind a technique that helped it settle down. Then, in that quieter state it would begin to taste a little of the fulfillment it had been seeking, and would be spontaneously drawn on to deeper levels of its own accord.
Maharishi's ideas appealed to my scientific mind. They were simple and elegant-almost like a mathematical derivation. But the skeptic in me was not going to take anything on faith. Just because something is written in a book, or because some famous person says it, or because many others believe it, does not mean it is true. The only way to know how well his technique worked was to try it.
Journey to India
As soon as I completed my undergraduate degree, I earned some money driving a truck, then set off in an old VW van for India (it was the sixties, after all). My destination was Rishikesh, an Indian holy town, about 150 miles north of Delhi, at the foot of the Himalayas. The plains of northern India do not gradually rise up into mountains, as in the Alps; the landscape looks more like the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. One moment it is flat, the next there is mountain. Rishikesh nestles right where plain turns into mountain, and at the very point where the Ganges comes tumbling out of its deep Himalayan gorge.
On one side of the river was Rishikesh the bustling market town, its crowded streets a jumble of stalls, honking cars, bicycle rickshaws, and bony cows. On the other side was Rishikesh the holy town. The atmosphere here was very different. There were no cars for a start. The one bridge across the river-a suspension bridge strung high across the mouth of the gorge-was deliberately built too narrow for cars. Along this side of the river, and sprinkled up the jungle hillsides above, were all manner of ashrams, each with its own architectural style and spiritual inclination. Some were austere walled quadrangles lined with simple meditation cells; others gloried in lush gardens, fountains, and brightly colored statues of Indian deities. Some were centers for hatha yoga, others taught meditation or followed the teachings of a particular guru.
About two miles down river from the bridge was Maharishi's ashram, the last habitation before the winding track disappeared into the jungle. Here, perched on a cliff top, a hundred feet above the swirling Ganges, were half-a-dozen bungalows, a meeting hall, dining room, showers, and other facilities providing some basic Western comforts.
Here, just over a hundred of us, of all ages, from many countries, had gathered for a teacher training course. Many were like myself, recent graduates and looking for intellectual understanding of Maharishi's teachings as much as experience of deep meditation. There were PhDs in philosophy, medical doctors, and long-term students of theology.
Over the coming weeks we listened to Maharishi talk at length, and asked question after question, virtually interrogating him at times. We teased out everything, from the finer distinctions of higher states of consciousness and subtle influences of meditation to the exact meaning of various esoteric concepts.
Even more important than our growing understanding of meditation was the opportunity to deepen our experience. Initially we meditated for three or four hours a day. As the course progressed, Maharishi gradually increased our practice times until we were spending most of the day in meditation-and much of the night as well. He wanted us to have clear experiences of the states of consciousness he was describing.
During these long meditations, the habitual chatter of my mind began to fade away. Thoughts about what was going on in meditation, what time it was, what I wanted to say or do later, occupied less and less of my attention. Sounds outside no longer triggered images of monkeys playing games on the roof. Random memories of the past no longer flitted through my mind. My feelings settled down, and my breath grew so gentle as to virtually disappear. What thoughts there were became fainter and fainter, until finally my thinking mind fell completely silent. In Maharishi's terminology I had transcended (literally gone beyond) thinking-hence the name "Transcendental Meditation."
Indian teachings call this state samadhi, literally "still mind." They identify it as a fundamentally different state of consciousness from the three major states we normally experience-waking, dreaming, and deep sleep. In waking consciousness we are aware and experience the world perceived by the senses. In dreaming we are aware and experience worlds conjured by the imagination. In deep sleep there is no awareness, either of outer world or inner world. Samadhi they define as a fourth major state. There is awareness, one is wide awake, but there is no object of the awareness. It is pure consciousness-pure in the sense of being unmodified by thoughts and images-consciousness without content.
In terms of the video projector analogy, this fourth state of consciousness corresponds to the projector being on, but without any data being fed to it; only white light falls on the screen. Likewise, in samadhi you know consciousness itself, in its unmanifest state, before it takes on the many forms and qualities of thinking, feeling, and sensory experience.
One further quality of this state of consciousness marks it out from all our normal states. When you are in this state you discover a sense of self that is more real and more fundamental than any you have known before. You are no longer an individual person, with individual characteristics. Here, in the complete absence of all normal experience, you find your true identity, an identity with the essence of all beings and all creation.
Looking for the self is rather like being in a room at night with only a flashlight, looking for the source of the light. All you would find would be the various objects in the room that the light fell upon. It is the same when we try to look for the self which is the subject of all experience. All we find are the various ideas, images, and feelings that the attention falls upon. But these are all objects of experience; they cannot therefore be the subject of the experience. For this reason, the self cannot be known in the way that anything else is known.
We can now begin to see just how close are the parallels between the light of physics and the light of consciousness. Both are beyond the material world. And both seem to lie beyond space and time. Both seem intrinsically unknowable-at least in the way that everything else is known. And both are absolutes. Every photon of light is an identical quantum of action, and the foundation of every interaction in the universe. The light of consciousness is likewise absolute and invariant. It is the source of every quality that we ever experience. And its essential nature is the same for everyone. Since it is beyond all attributes and identifying characteristics, there is no way to distinguish the light of consciousness in me from the light that shines in you. In other words, how it feels to me to be conscious-that sense of being we label "I"-is the same as how it feels to you. In this sense we are one. We all know the same inner self.
I am the light. And so are you. And so is every sentient being in the universe.
Mystics have spoken of this inner light as the Divine Light, the Cosmic Light, the Light of Light, the Eternal Light that shines in every heart, the Uncreated Light from which all creation takes form.
Once again the phrase "God is Light" comes to mind. But now God begins to take on a much richer and more personal meaning. If God is the name we give to the light of consciousness shining at the core of every sentient being, and if that pure consciousness is the very essence of self, then it is only a short step to the assertion that "I am God."
Consciousness and God
To many, the statement "I am God" sounds ridiculous. God is not a human being, but the supreme deity, the almighty, eternal creator. How can any lowly human being claim that he or she is God? To those of a more religious disposition, the statement may sound heretical, if not blasphemous. When the fourteenth-century Christian priest and mystic Meister Eckhart preached that "God and I are One," he was brought before Pope John XXII and forced to "recant everything that he had falsely taught." Not all were so lucky. The tenth-century Islamic mystic al-Hallãj was crucified for using language that claimed an identity with God.
To those who do not believe in God at all, such statements are meaningless, the symptoms of some delusion or pathology. They might have been tolerable a couple of hundred years ago, but not in the modern scientific era, where God seems a totally unnecessary concept. Science has looked out into deep space, across the breadth of creation to the edges of the universe. It has looked back in "deep time" to the beginning of creation. And it has looked down into the "deep structure" of the cosmos, to the fundamental constituents of matter. In each case science finds no evidence for God; nor any need for God-the Universe seems to work perfectly well without any divine assistance. Thus anyone talking of a personal identity with God is clearly talking nonsense.
That is where I stood thirty years ago. Now I recognize that I was rejecting a rather naïve and old-fashioned interpretation of God. When we look to mystical writings, we do not find many claims for God being in the realm of space, time, and matter. When mystics refer to God, they are, more often than not, pointing toward the realm of personal experience, not something in the physical realm. If we want to find God, we have to look within, into the realm of deep mind-a realm that science has yet to explore.
Abridged version of Peter Russell's new book 'From Science to God'