Recent email to some friends:
I mean - it's a GOOD morning. Things are opening up for me again. I'm starting to see once more.
I find it such a struggle - this business of finding things, then losing them in the turmoil of everyday events from Bush to dental pain to a football game to planning observation sessions and fiddling with technology , , , whatever. I do so many stupid things, so many hurtful things, so many blind things . . . but once in a while the light breaks through. I have a few old touchstones I'd like to share with you - and one new one. The new first.
This comes from one of my astronomy students - the mother of a home schooler. She felt Frederick Franck was on the same frequency as I. How right she was. She had directed me to "The Awakened Eye." That's a book he wrote around 1978 and it's about what he calls "seeing/drawing" - or "drawing meditation." There's nothing new in here for me - but what a wonderful renewal! Franck articulates well what I articulate poorly. And he expresses himself in drawing superbly. His teaching drawing is really about teaching seeing, much as my efforts to teach astronomy are really about providing opportunities for deep awareness. His ideas neither surprise, nor shock me, but it's always pleasing to meet a fellow twanderer and to discover new - and sometime subtle - paths that branch off the well-worn trails you thought you had learned and now walk by rote.
Dom - you've mentioned from time to time that you might pick up Betty Edward's book again - Drawing from the Right Brain. You might find "The Awakened Eye" more in tune with your goals - especially if you pick up a pencil and a pad - do what he says - and above all, ignore the product - focus on the process. The goal is to see - to live in the present - the drawing merely a tool, much the same as focusing on your breathing, but more active or perhaps interactive.
There're so many things I could quote from this book - what struck me this morning was simply this: "If you want to see into it, see into it directly. When you begin to think about it, it is altogether missed." (anonymous Zen master)
Contour drawing. Line drawing. Eye and pencil working as one. Anyway , , ,
That pushed me back into Whitman. I think he's getting lost. Maybe he simply gets lost because he said too much. I'm not sure. But I do think he understood - went down the same paths - that the Zen masters have walked.
"I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."
and so much more . . . Leave of Grass . . . has it been lost of late? Is it still read in the schools? Is Whitman readily dismissed these days? ignored? I'm not sure. I don't hear much talk of him. I do get bogged down in him. He burns too hot, too continuously - I run out of breath just reading him .. . but in small doses there is so much there.
And Coleridge - the ancient mariner's story is my story - perhaps the story of all of us. But the part that haunts me - the part I have wrestled with so long - is one I have quoted before and to me relates directly to my attitude towards world events of late and my frequent, fruitless rants.
"O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare.
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware;
sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware."
He wasn't speaking of puppies or bunnies or grandchildren, or flowers .. . he was speaking of
"The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie;
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I."
Slimy things! Bush. bin Laden, the "Christian" and "Muslims" and "Jews" so full of self-contradictory hate. And yes, event the "peace" movement which so frequently is not "peace" at all, but breeds another fwave of hate. All that is "wrong" with the world.
And how , indeed do you bless them? How do you love them? That is what nags at me. And Coleridge had the answer - his mariner blesses them, "Unawate."
And Whitman had the answer - "For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."
And so did Franck - "see into it directly. When you begin to think about it, it is altogether missed."
and sometimes, with good guidance, I get an inkling of it too ;-)
(click image to enlarge)
With apologies to Belgian surrealist painter Réné Magritte and his wonderful Ceçi n'est pas une pipe (1926)
One of our more famous, local birds is the piping plover, a cute little guy whose nesting sites on Horseneck Beach and elsewhere get special attention at this time of year, for they are wired off to protect this threatened species.
In the last couple of days Bren and I have seen several of thes little birds who can vanish into the sands and shells of the beach, defying you to pick them out no matter how hard you stare. Your first knowledge of a piping plover frequently is when the object you thought was a shell, or rock, starts to move.
And so, of course, I love to turn my camera to the piping plovers - but their vanishing act amidst the shells and sand got me thinking of Magrite and digital imaging and the world in general.
For this is not a piping plover. I know that.
It is a flat, two-dimensional representation of a four-dimensional event.
The event – the moment – was on a beach. There was a gentle breeze, lapping waves, and the smell of salt air off nearby mudflats. And this little one – with a friend – came walking towards us and I watched him, magnified by the camera lens and at one particular instant I pressed the shutter button.
And that created another event. This one. The one you experienced when you saw the above image on your computer screen. The one I experienced when I saw the image of the plover and thought about him and the hard drive that had recently broken and been removed from one of my computers and about all that is stored in that block of exotic metals and sand – silicon. And of course the events don’t stop here – there is another and another and another every time I or someone else sees the image.
And what do they see?
Some see a piping plover. I do sometimes. But sometimes I see it for what it is – a glowing computer screen with certain dots of various colors turned on at varying intensities.
Because light traveled through a lens and came to a focus and fell on an electronic device that could react to that light in certain ways that captured the information the light brought. And that information was recorded by a series of on/off switches – millions of them. They store the information that represented in two dimensions some small part of what I had experienced first in the three dimensions of space and the fourth dimension of time.
And what was that?
A piping plover? If that was all it was it was a poor experience. No it was more. It was everything I was that morning. It was the sharing of that instant in time and space not only with the plover and his mate but with Bren who stood beside me, binoculars raised and saw something like I saw – smelled something like I smelled, felt the wind on her cheek, sensed the sun, still low in the east and battling through the clouds and heard the waves lapping on the gentle sands of the beach we call Horseneck in a place we know as Westport in the State of Massachusetts in these united States on the continent of North America, part of the planet we call Earth, grouped with eight or so others in a system that is tied to a star we call the Sun in a galaxy we know as the Milky Way in a particular corner of the physical universe we can describe abstractly and not come even close to knowing.
He’s captured, this little piping plover. I know who he is, and where he is. He’s trapped in my computer in several different forms – and he is trapped in my mind in several other forms. Is it really any different? (The computer - themind?) Oh, I admit the computer is quite crude. But it dealt with light and it dealt with information and didn’t my eyes and brain do the same?
And I mix up the two realities now. The two-dimensional reality I can experience again and again - and the unique, four-dimensional reality I experienced but once and the new reality I created by playing with images of the dead hard drive and the plover and memories of Magritte.
And I can only retreat in awe before all this – in awe and humility and perhaps a tad of embarrassment for I know how little I know. I know I have been playing this day with the essence of the universe as I see it – an essence conveyed by two fundamental qualities – energy and information.
Energy and information – light and the word. Have you read John lately? It begins.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
And later it says:
And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
Information – energy. The Word – Light. Both are so basic, And light is constant, besides. Or at least constant in speed while all else changes and that makes it unique to the best of our knowledge. Is information constant? I don’t know. I know there are no pictures in my computer. I know that in an incredibly small space in an impossibly simple form of yes and no, the information to make a picture is stored. And I know light - in it many frequencies, visible and invisible – are the key to that event. (Remember that light is just part of a huge spectrum of electromagnetic waves, nearly all of which we’ve been aware of for just a century or so.)
And so it is with the greater reality? I don’t know. Is my four dimensional piping plover stored somewhere? Am I? Turned on and off – substantiated, unsubstantiated by the application of light to information? Or some greater equivalent I can hardly begin to comprehend?
Or are these things – light and information - only fundamental in terms of my perceptions, for I can’t know if they are genuinely fundamental. I just know that this is fundamental to how I relate to reality.
And why do I ramble on so about this image? Simply this – once again I know, how little I know – and I know that what I appear to know quite frequently gets in the way of my knowing any thing meaningful at all.
And someone said, let it go. Just be. Perhaps it is, a piping plover.
This New York Times op ed piece deals nicely - and with great clarity - with how most of us have failed to internalize what science reveals to us about space and time. It has me scurrying for the author’s book - and looking forward to his next one due out soon. But it also brings to the surface long-standing issues that have been foundational in my thinking for a long time.
The whole subject is one that in my quasi-scientific way I have struggled to comprehend all my life. For years I was torn between a spiritual interpretation of ultimate reality and a scientific one. I would go for months - years even - held completely by the scientific arguments, though my understanding of physics is limited by what I can learn from popular books on the subject. I have always been frustrated by not understanding the mathematics and physics directly. So I always depend on the translations provided by many very capable authors, such as Greene.
But I was saying that for long periods of time the scientific view of reality would hold command of me and I would dismiss all religious/spiritual perceptions as superstitions built largely on the fear of death. Then I would shift gears and read the works of theologians, such as Paul Tillich, and for another period of time the spiritual view would dominate. (I say “spiritual” to separate what I am thinking from religious. To me all religions tend to corrupt the very spiritual truths they ostensibly serve. )
However, in he past decade I have come to see that there is no conflict between reality as revealed by science and reality as revealed by spiritual experience. The scientific reality has the advantage of being confirmed by well-documented experiment. The spiritual reality also rests in experience, but experience that is not well controlled, or documented and is difficult - though not impossible - to duplicate.
In this article, Brian Greene barely hints at the implication for the spiritual view of life, but he is clear that there is a tremendous gap between scientific perceptions of space and time and our intuitive perceptions of space and time. He points out that science is moving in a direction to abandon them entirely.
What he doesn’t deal with in this article are two other fundamental areas where science and common experience/perception clash. The first is the concept of “now.” For me, “now” is an imaginary point - imaginary in the mathematical sense of the word. That is, it is impossible to grasp. It is a dividing line between past and future and we can keep hacking it into smaller and smaller pieces until we get to the point where it doesn’t exist at all. It is merely a useful reference. It bears no relationship to reality.
The second area he does not address here that to me is fundamental is our perception of “stuff.” That is, it has long seemed clear to me that the universe does not consists of energy and matter - but energy alone. Matter is an illusion generated by energy.
This should have been obvious with some of the earliest descriptions of the atom. We are talking about a “thing” that has a very small nucleus and yet occupies a very large space - nearly all of which is empty. And then we started taking even the nucleus apart and began defining “elementary” particles. But by around 1970 we had so damned many of them, they were embarrassment. The name implied they were the building blocks and there should be very few of them - certainly not hundreds.
Finally,we have to recognize that we are trying to understand all this from the inside and as such may have inescapable limits to our understanding. That is, we are part of the problem trying to understand the whole. But we can’t step outside the whole to understand it - we must see it with the tools we have. So we are roughly akin to a part of the engine trying to understand the entire automobile - not only what it is, but why it is. And we can’t.
But even within our limits what we are seeing is that the reality as defined by common experience is not the reality that is defined by science. For me, the reality defined by science is much closer to the reality defined by uncommon experience - experience derived from such practices as meditation. I hasten to add, however, that my own most uncommon experiences - momentary flashes of indescribable insight - usually take me completely by surprise and do not come from any practice that I am able to define and repeat. And that, sadly, is what separates them from science. Yet there is a certain comfort in sensing that these two greta halves of my existence - the scientific and the spiritual - seem to be traveling down separate paths that lead to the same point - though I can not define that point, nor clearly perceive it. And I am trying my best to avoid the word “god” because it is far too superficial and restraining for what I believe is there.