The heart can show us the way from the intellectual enlightenment trap
I have spent most of my life in my head – thinking and thinking. This is not a boast. Much of my mental busy-ness serves no purpose; it is reactive and habitual.
That said, I tend to be handy with juggling concepts, with figuring things out. When I tired of solving (or attempting to solve) problems associated with earning lots of money, gaining power and the normal achievement agenda, I found a whole new realm to explore and... think upon: spirituality. In my case, this was the path through advaita vedanta, a philosophy of yoga, into the various schools of non-dualism.
I ponder and discuss Buddhism, Taoism, Tantra, Dzogchen and myriad western adaptations of these wisdom traditions from the east. Concepts in this realm trip off my tongue as easily as discussing good business communication or personal effectiveness. I even handle the concept of Truth as essentially non-conceptual!
There’s no need to repeat a synthesis of my intellectual understanding of reality and myself here. The point of this post is that I find this clarity, as proud and thankful as I am to see it, a bit of a false summit. Climbing from concept to concept, I often sense the spiritual mountaintop within reach, just one final 'aha' away. And perhaps it is.
But increasingly I've found myself circling the full awakening I know I mustn't strive for but still do. My steps only take me around the mountain, a short distance from the peak. I suspect the clarity of intellectual understanding can be a refuge for personalities like mine, a final bunker in which the sense of separateness shelters from what it most fears - melting into the flow and direct experience of life.
If you'll allow me to switch metaphors, please picture me, a representative intellectually awakened dude, as a moth circling a flame. But this moth circles the flickering light in a steady orbit, not in the decaying spiral normal moths tend to follow until they perish in a dusty flash. This moth observes, appreciates, describes and understands the concept of the flame, but it does so from a stable distance. It reaches its safe limit and can go no nearer. Might something in it not want to move closer?
Among the things Jesus showed us was that the person in Him had to die before he could re-join his Father (the Father and the Son, two aspects of the same whole). Likewise, the separate person in us, the sense of being independent of and partially isolated from the flow of Life, needs to dissolve for full awakening to occur. But would any self-respecting sense of separateness want that? Of course not! So this strange moth orbits beyond reach of the flame of freedom, knowing that surrender is necessary but unable to offer itself.
Poor me! Help! My clever mind has me in an appreciative but remote orbit around an unfiltered, direct experience of Life. What can be done? What can Life do to shake me loose, pull me to its centre?
Life can invite me to open my heart to its wholeness. It can ask me to unhook from my mental narrative, to attend to the sensations populating my body. Here is the home of the powerful feelings that accompany and often trump thought. Life can teach me to welcome and stay with even the most uncomfortable feelings I (my sense of separateness) have sought to distance myself from. These sensations, along with the pleasurable ones I've come to believe I do not deserve, are my unlived life, the components of Life that act as the background against which my sense of isolation is cast. Life can allow me to love them, and in doing so, I shake myself from the unwanted, stable orbit.
No matter how nimble we are in our dance with mental images of spirituality, until we deal with our shit, we cannot move past concepts to the reality itself. This is because ‘our shit’ is the pool of accumulated moments in which we rejected reality. We must atone for (be at-one with) these unwanted aspects of Life. And our body is the sacred vessel in which this gradual baptism takes place, one sensation at a time. As Life recalls a neglected fragment, we welcome it and love it, despite its discomfort.
In fact, I've found that sitting with, bearing the discomfort, is far more effective if I go even further, silently saying, 'I love you,' to it. As odd as I found it when I came across Matt Kahn’s suggestion, this sub-vocalising step of proclaiming my unjudging, unconditional acceptance of unease, confusion, anger, depression, anxiety and fear, has proven life-changing.
So, notice a disturbing sensation; slow your breath; stay with the sensation; and say, 'I love you,' with each breath for a minute or until the feeling abates. It is not your goal to make it go away. You simply love it until it does. And you repeat this each time discomfort arises, for the rest of your life.
The heart's reintroduction to its unlived feelings happens hand-in-hand with the mind's intellectual understanding of our true nature, with spiritual clarity. The heart and head now reinforce one another's rewriting of our model of reality. Together, and in concert with Life's undivided flow, they erode the conceptual prisons we've built for ourselves. Remember, though – erosion is often a gradual, almost imperceptible process. This is how Life reassembles us. As it does so, our self realises it is Self, Life dressed up as a separate person.
With this realisation, the spiral of our moth into the flame is complete. The sense of separateness ignites in a puff, leaving Life to dress and play as this person. And in this person, Life recognises itself in every other person, in each being, in everything, even as its daily flow presents itself in countless varied costumes.
First posted 21 January 2005. Questions of consciousness. Questions of the role of subjectivity. Questions of time. Questions of a Platonic reality. All still central to what keeps my curious mind busy... Penrose was the adviser of another of my scientific heroes: Julian Barbour.
Roger Penrose, the Oxford Physicist, is not convinced: quantum theory, he believes, is incomplete. In The Road to Reality he argues that a further revolution is required in quantum mechanics, as indicated by its inability to address the reduction process for the wave function (and thereby its inability to 'join up' with classical physics) as well as troubling incompatibilities with general relativity.
The time asymmetry associated with the wave function reduction (or collapse) upon measurement of a quantum system contrasts sharply with the symmetry associated with the propagation of the wave function itself. The latter can be made sense of moving either backwards or forwards in time; the former works only moving forward.
A more familiar time asymmetry, the one we experience every minute of every day, is grounded in the extraordinary nature of the Big Bang itself - its strikingly low entropy. The Big Bang was so ordered that the ever-decreasing order of the universe is a probabilistic near-certainty. This is what lies behind the 2nd law of thermodynamics and the 'arrow of time'. It points to the peculiar behaviour of gravity at cosmological singularities - not only the Big Bang but (less spectacularly) black holes.
The presence of this time asymmetry in both the reduction of the wave function and in the Big Bang suggests that gravity might play an important role in wave function reduction. Discovering this role would amount to a revolution that could well resolve the 'measurement paradox' and render quantum mechanics consistent with general relativity and contiguous with classical physics.
According to this idea, it is the gravitational effects of the classical measuring apparatus (and other macroscopic entities in our everyday world) rather than the perceptions of any observer that bring about the collapse of the wave function. As such, the reduction is an objective rather than a subjective one. This takes the conscious observer from the limelight of quantum theory. How does this happen? As the wave function propagates through time, non-uniformities develop in the distribution of energy and matter among its superposed states, and at some point become gravitationally significant. The gravitational interaction with the measuring apparatus (or other macroscopic entity) then brings a collapse into a measurable single state.
Although Penrose takes the consciousness out of quantum reduction, in The Emperor's New Mind he puts quantum reduction centre stage in consciousness, thereby turning the world (as seen by conventional quantum theory) on its head. These same quantum gravitational effects account for the difference between consciousness and artificial (computer) 'intelligence', and Penrose calls upon them in his rejection of the computational theory of mind. There are things - including non-algorithmic, non-computable ones - that the human mind can comprehend while no computer (Turing machine) possibly could. This is in keeping with Godel's theorem, which states that no formal mathematical system (or at least none of the richness required to handle even common arithmetic) can be complete. There must always be truths that cannot be expressed without recourse to 'meta-mathematical' language that is not part of the formal system.
Penrose suggests that our access to such truths is due to quantum fluctuations, gravitationally induced, within the brain (he suggests maybe in the microtubules of the neurons' cytoskeletans). Multiple states may exist in superposition in our brains until gravity triggers a collapse to a specific state, with resulting (possibly non-local) effects on our neural states. This is something that is not possible (at least for now) with computers.
There is a deep connection among the time-asymmetry of the wave function reduction, the behaviour of gravity at singularities and the presence of non-algorithmic (non-computable) elements - including consciousness - in the world. This helps to explain the relationship among Penrose's "Three Mysteries":
There is also an "Escher element" to the relationships among the three mysteries. Escher was an artist (and obviously a mathematician) whose works included paradoxical staircases and streams that seemed to always lead in one direction (up or down) yet returned to their own source.
In Penrose's three world / three mystery model, a small portion of the mental world is all that is needed to capture the mathematical one (since we obviously spend lots of time considering other things). Similarly, a small portion of the mathematical world is applied to the collected (total) formalism of physics, with much else being dedicated to other questions. And finally, only a small portion of the physical world (that part that makes up our cells) is drawn on to explain the mental one. Each part is able to 'swallow' its neighbour in an illogical, unending cycle.
Penrose believes that the secret to this mystery of the mysteries is that all these worlds are in fact one. Perhaps in a holographic, holistic, non-local sense like that evoked by David Bohm, another of my creative scientific heroes?
First posted 15 April 2006. These days, I tend to think of the brain a lot less when I'm thinking of the mind, but my sense of wonder for whatever it is that is behind our mental experience is undiminished.
Michael O'Shea's The Brain: A Very Short Introduction has shown me that my longstanding wonder with the brain has been understated. You see, I have marvelled at the complexity inherent in a collection of 100 billion neurons - each with a thousand synapses, connections with other neurons - and the effectively uncountable number of possible brain states implied by the permutations of these on-off switches.
O'Shea is also impressed by this, but he adds several other elements of our current understanding that demonstrate that the metaphor of a network of binary electrical switches is far too simple:
All of this suggests that the challenges of 'porting' human intelligence to computer hardware ( a la Ray Kurtzweil) are vastly greater than I had thought. The challenges are similarly greater for efforts such as Dan Lloyd's to eventually map mental states to brain states: the state space, already mind-bogglingly large, is vastly larger still.
It even makes me slightly more sceptical about Julian Barbour's timeless theory of time, because the asynchronous nature of the brain's neuronal (and glial?) interactions doesn't seem to fit well with the notion that particular brain states are but tiny subsets of instantaneous universe states (or Nows) that happily happen to contain records that act as bridges to other Nows. How instantaneous is a Now? If mental states are tied not to instantaneous brain states but are affected by the frequency of repeated neuronal firing, then can a mental state reside within a single Now, given that such a Now, by definition, can contain no change (i.e. no repeated firing)?
But there is a way out. I guess if the brain encodes in each instant information about its state in previous instants (as in discussion of the specious now in Dan Lloyd), then there is no necessary inconsistency between the unquestionable existence of subjective experience and Barbour's theory of time.