I am starved for spirit. Although religion and science occasionally fill me with awe, neither inspires me with deep purpose and meaning. I worry that this is a widespread malaise, an existential depression infecting too many people in a world where consumerism spills in too easily to fill the void. Personally, I'm not inspired by money or power so the material world is a kind of hell to me. And, like most people, I'm afraid my lack of deep spiritual purpose inhibits me in making necessary sacrifices on behalf of the environment. Or on behalf of starving children. Or on behalf of human rights. Or on behalf of getting a job.
The universe may be nothing more than a giant hologram created by the mind.
Science isn't much help. Its message is simply, "If you don't clean up your act, the world will end." That sort of fire and brimstone threat was never really effective for religion and there's little evidence it will work now. We, through our politicians, have pledged to cut down on 'greenhouse' gases. But little has been done and I'll wager there won't be much action until white people start suffering in large numbers.
The Christian injunction, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" sounds like it could be helpful in encouraging people to cut down on their consumption and pollution. But the whole of religion has been debased by dogma, hypocrisy and suspect mythologies. Without a deep-seated faith to support such good notions, I have little motivation to do unto others first. So the Sucker Factor remains in effect: I'll wait until everyone else abandons his or her car before I do.
What's required I think is a positive inspiration — a compelling faith embracing both science and spirit. Although people like Ken Wilber are building solid foundations for a new paradigm, I have yet to discover such a faith that inspires me. So I'm inventing my own.
Not being inclined to build a castle in the sky, I thought my new worldview should be based in reality. But what is that?
Few people question the idea of reality. In most minds, it is not an idea. Like air, it's just there — so formidably obvious despite being impossible to grasp. To question it simply indicates someone has too much time on his or her hands. And that position has been most practical, at least since the days when we shifted our worldview from the mystic to the scientific. As long as we had only to deal with the concrete world of experience and a consistent science, there was no need to question reality.
Today though, with strange questions arising in advanced science (for instance, 'what's beyond the universe?' and 'what came before time'), respected and sober scientists are calling into question the very notion of reality. Or at least they're questioning the notion of a single reality. In fact, one theory embraced by many cosmic and nuclear scientists is the "Many World's Theory": we live in a universe exploding with an infinite number of overlapping realities.
Some critics charge that this theory is a cop out, a convenient way of sweeping messy results from exotic mathematical equations under a carpet of other dimensions. Still, this otherworldly mathematics is consistent, reproducible and, perhaps most important, it is elegant. It seems to pass the test of Occam's Razor.
So, we live in a universe of infinite realities. What does day-to-day life look like lived in a many worlds universe or rather, an omniverse? It's hard to imagine this but let's try.
First, let's get straight about life in the 'normal' universe. For example, when I jump into the air, I inevitably fall back to earth. Why? Most people would answer, "Because of gravity." But is gravity really an explanation? No. Gravity is no more an explanation than saying that gods or spirit or magic pulled me back to the ground. Gravity is just a word we use to describe a force that seems to be consistent throughout the universe. However, giving anything a label doesn't explain it.
In the same light, there are three other mysterious forces scientists are struggling to understand: along with gravity, there are the weak and strong nuclear forces and Electro-magnetism. Researchers hope to trace these forces back to some primal force that will provide them with a Grand Unified Theory to explain everything. Maybe they will find it, maybe they won't. Until they do though, electricity is just magic. "Hey kid, want super power? Just move a wire around a magnet." We don't have a good explanation. We don't even have a good theory.
Physicists get a little closer to the truth of gravity when they describe it as a warp in space and time. But, still, that demands an objective understanding of space and time — one that doesn't depend on more magical forces. Good luck. You're back to 'What's outside the universe?' and 'What came before time?'
The problem physicists face when trying to answer these questions can be summed up in another strange question — "Who is asking?"
My self and my particles
Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle is a fundamental law of particle physics (subatomic particles being the building blocks of everything from atoms to galaxies). It says you can't know anything about a subatomic particle without changing it. Or, in other words, whatever we can know about a particle — it's location, mass or whether it's even a particle or a wave — depends on the observer and the tools he or she uses to look at the particle.
This is not a mechanical problem of inadequate researchers and instruments. The problem is one of human perception such as we find in illusions. Most of us can bring to mind a novelty picture we've seen that, depending on how we look at it, can look like two completely different things. The reversible image that comes to my mind is the old lady / young lady illusion. If you look for a young lady you will see her. If you look for an old lady, you will see her. Both images are cleverly wrapped into each other. Another example is the "vases or faces?" illusion. Same picture, different possible perceptions; it's up to the viewer to decide which. Particle physics is like that.
If that's the case, then every particle in the universe has different aspects. And, by virtue of that, every thing made of those particles has different aspects. That is, there are different aspects until an observer 'makes sense' of it and decides what he or she is looking at. The 'thing' could be anything until the observer imposes a form that fits his or her expectations. Psych 101: perception is not passive; it is a matter of making sense, of imposing meaning. And that makes the observer and awareness the central issue in any discussion of reality.
So we're immersed in a universe of things we've personally constructed where nothing is really real. But our personal experience tells us otherwise. When I get hit in the head with a hockey puck, it hurts — it's not an illusion, it "really" hurts. But hurts whom? To remain consistent with a totally ambiguous universe that no form or reality outside that imposed by the observer, then who is feeling the pain? Who is the observer?
I think I am real but the empirical evidence indicates otherwise. I am made of particles and yet they are ambiguous — particles are clumps or waves of possibility. So my self can't be explained in terms of physics or electricity or chemistry. At best, my sense of self is a joint project of different parts of my brain. The community of mind — my memory, my vision, my logic, etc. — decided it needed a leader to hold it together. So it invented one. Still, that leader for the community of mind has no location or mass or other evidence of existence outside of an extremely tenacious if subjective experience of itself.
That tenacity shows itself most fully when the integrity of the self is violated. The violence of the hockey puck to the external body-self is matched by an inner violence —pain — as the self struggles to maintain integrity. Ever notice how the experience of self seems so much more real — more horrible, more beautiful, more in-your-face — when the self is threatened? And the violence to the self doesn't necessarily have to be physical. The loss of a loved one, of a job, of a home, of any of the things I use to define my self will result in the same extreme exaggeration of self: pain. It may not always seem so but pain is extremely selfish; it is always concerned with the loss of some part of self.
The function of self is to maintain its integrity by discriminating between self and other. And the self will go to extremes to do that. We can see evidence of this behaviour on a number of levels including the personal. Both individuals and groups, when threatened by another individual or group will exaggerate the difference between themselves and their enemy in order to consolidate resolve, resources and support. Traditionally, when countries went to war, the first thing they would do is demonize and dehumanize their enemies. Today, conflict resolution strategy rests on encouraging communication that reveals opponents are actually alike and thus share reasons to reach compromise. Conflict resolution counters the organic inclination to perceive opponents as fundamentally different.
The self is not something over which we have much control. It is organic and pre-rational. For example, in quest of love and sex, the self invariably goes into convulsions as it seeks to overcome its natural inclination to maintain integrity — an integrity that would make sex impossible and thus doom the species (including self) in the long run. In this case, the self surprises us by coercing us to relax our natural 'rational' barriers to infection from others.
This indicates that my self is much larger than the puny conception of it maintained in my neo-cortex. A linguistic self-awareness may be located there but that is just one small part of self. Self operates on many levels from corpuscle to planet. Awareness or scope does not limit self. The only limit to self is in the consistency of the rules with which self defines itself.
In my particular world, the rules for my self include:
- I can only have the form of a human.
- I can only live in a world that supports human life.
- Non-sense must be minimal — humans can't fly.
- I can't fly but I can dream that I can fly.
- And so on, as long as the rules are consistent and don't contradict one another.
Changes, scientific or otherwise, can be made in my world but nothing is permitted to contradict the integrity of my self — biologically, communally or spiritually. The rules of self can not be broken without trauma. If I am suddenly confronted with apparent nonsense, then I will suffer a traumatic rupture of self. Contradicting or changing the rules with which I define my world and myself will upset me, whether it's Martians, flying people, or counter-intuitive ideas.
My arm being torn off ruptures self. Tragic news of a loved one being killed will result in rupture of self. Anything funny ruptures my self (e.g. "That cracked me up." Or "That joke killed them."). And notice too that the physical expressions of each of these ruptures, especially in their extremes, are almost identical — the strained grimaces, blushing, tears and gasping.
In summary, I am not much more than a set of self-consistent rules for something ephemeral to take the form of a human and call itself "I".
I am nothing?
So where are we now? Apparently nowhere because nothing is real, including self. I am a construct in a universe, which I have constructed. If nothing is real, how can I be?
Well, I suggest the puzzle points to the possibility that we've missed something. In fact, I would say we missed everything.
From the preceding argument we have jumped to the conclusion that 'nothing is real'. Why? Because the alternative is even scarier: everything is real.
Anything I can imagine, and infinitely more, is real. Martians are real, flying people are real, time travel is real, the soul mate I've never met is real and even Bizzaro Superman is real — everything that I consider total nonsense and inconceivable is real.
However, these things are not real in my particular world because these things contradict the rules. The rules, which created and make possible my self, can not tolerate these infractions without suffering violence to the self.
Bizarro Superman lives in some other part of the universe where his rules permit such strangeness. Bizarro may even live in the dimension right next door but I can't see him without destroying the integrity of my self. So, for all practical purposes, Bizarro doesn't exist.
The simplest way to envision this omniverse is to imagine parallel worlds, such as Bizarro's, existing intact on the other side of some space-time barrier. But that's too simplistic. These other worlds are much more remote and, at the same time, much closer to us than we imagine.
They can be thought of as alien worlds that support Bizarro or as the alien world inhabited by my teenaged son. Each has an "I" and its own rules to maintain the integrity of that "I". Wherever there is an "I" in the omniverse, a world will emerge from the clouds of chaos.
Beyond "everything is possible" — "everything is"
If accepted, the essence of this omniverse can be captured in a simple phrase: 'everything is'. I considered this expression very elegant — the most inclusive noun with the premier of verbs.
In my 'everything is' worldview, my awareness exists because, if everything else exists, I must be real too. To put it another way, in an infinite universe, where everything and nothing is real, there must be a remote corner where "I" can burst forth — born from the marriage of nothing and everything. After all, what is "I" or awareness if not something separating nothing from everything? Rather like the Big Bang.
I think the idea rather personalizes the Big Bang don't you? I am the Big Bang. My mind, which contains everything I know in this universe, exploded out of nothing/everything. And, apparently, it will disappear into nothing/everything.
I was proud of this revelation but there was still something ungainly about it. The phrase 'everything is' certainly didn't have the ring of elegance. I thought about it more and decided, for one thing, that the word 'everything' wasn't inclusive enough. It didn't include ideas and other things without form. I decided "All" was closer to the mark.
But why did "All is" still seem clumsy? After a little more thought I concluded that the phrase contained a dichotomy: it suggested a subject and an object, which put awareness outside of the universe. Ah ha! I found I could make my omniverse self-aware by changing it to "All am".
Hmmm, that's interesting I thought … it sounds like "Allah". But no, that was just my ego grasping for cheap closure. Still, at two syllables "All am" didn't ring with truth. There must be a way to get "All am" down to one syllable — one syllable that captures all the multidimensional complexity and beauty of both science and spirituality.
Alm? Am? … Om!
It certainly works (by chance?) with Omniverse. And, as a universal mantra for many meditators, Om certainly has poignancy. However, it doesn't matter; the poignancy is lost unless you abide by the rules of my particular language. Still, it carries a lot of juice for me personally and I'm not concerned with others yet. Which brings me back to my original objective: to find the spirit that will tell me how to live with others.
As long as I'm playing games with words, I might as well share this one. I'm intrigued by the apparent coincidence that "my other" can be contracted to "m'other".
In context of a child's development of self this is interesting because, for the first few months of life, the child has no sense of self or other at all. After that early stage however, the child's first experience of self comes with the realization that he or she is separate from the thing that nurtures, cuddles and feeds it. When the child first experiences that separation, there is a rupture of self, with copious tears and wailing as evidence.
The rest of the child's development is a series of stages of expanding awareness. First the child adapts to the fact there is an other in the immediate form of mother. Then it adapts to others beyond mother i.e. family. Then it adapts to communities of others beyond that: friends, neighbourhood, city and so on. With each jump of awareness, there is a rupture and new consolidation of self. We see evidence of these ruptures in the fear children (and adults) display when faced with expanding their awareness. For instance, children are naturally shy of strangers and everyone has some level of fear about presenting themselves in public.
But why am I shy? Why do I fear others? The answer lies in the nature of self. By exposing my self, I am risking my self. My self is a construct that I've built according to my rules for self. Or, more precisely, my self is the result of an Immaculate Conception in the omniverse where everything is, and that self is held together by a set of rules that constitute "I". By presenting the framework and details of my self to an other, I put my self in danger of exposing a flaw, an inconsistency in my rules, which could bring the whole construct crashing down in a major rupture. Remember, the function of self is to maintain integrity against non-self or other.
Who is this other though? Where do these others I fear come from? Well, in the spirit of maintaining the integrity of my self and the consistency of my rules, I have to say they come from the same place I did.
Like "I", each other is born from the marriage of nothing and everything in a Big Bang universe of their own — one that just happens to overlap mine. As such, I suppose that makes each other my birth other (brother?).
That doesn't inspire me to sacrifice my self. In itself, intellectually recognizing others as kin doesn't make me want to "do unto them" first. However, recognizing all the fear and contortions my self goes through to protect itself from others does point to something.
My self is no better than a yappy little dog, alternately barking at or cowering from others. The funny part is this annoying ghost dog thinks it is protecting something really important — the rules for "I"! The very rules that make my self fearful of others when I want to be closer to others.
"Bark! Bark! These rules may not be very good but they're all I've got! Yap! Yap!"
If I can just get the yappy little dog to relax and shut up, maybe I can find some 'other' rules.