The Big Picture, II
Some years ago I took part in two conferences on religion and science with the Dalai Lama. The first took place at Alpbach, Austria in 1983, and the second at Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1994 and was organized by the Amherst College physicist Arthur Zajonc. This conference was also at the time His Holiness received an award from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and an honorary doctorate from Columbia University.
At the meeting at Union Theological Seminary, the Dalai Lama said something to the effect of: “I know most scientists in the West subscribe to the Big Bang theory of the origins of the universe, but I am going to have to go out on a limb here to say that we Buddhists do not believe in the Big Bang. We believe there were an infinite number of Big Bangs and that the universe is cyclical.” Recently, the astrophysicist Sir Roger Penrose has weighed in on this matter and has come down on the side of a cyclical universe in which the expanding universe does not end in “Lights Out!” but recongeals with its dark energy and dark matter and contracts to a point of infinite density to explode once again.
Anyone familiar with the Avatamsaka Sutra or Hua Yen Buddhism–in which universes are said to be suspended on each hair of the Buddha–will not be surprised by the Dalai Lama’s vision of a cyclical universe.
Quantum physicists and now string theorists have said that the universe is not so much made up of matter as it is of music. The Zen Buddhists for their part note that at a certain point in one’s meditations one encounters Big Mind in which all other minds are like passing waves of impermanence in an infinite sea.
From my own amateurish practice of daily meditation and periodic retreats, I have noticed that there are four worlds: 1) the world of objects, 2) the world of images or dreams, 3) the world of the cosmic sound–which is the sound of each existent with its own vibrational note in a Hallelujah Chorus to the nth power, and 4) the world of light, which I would describe as a hypersphere of light in which self and linguistic thought dissolve in a sense of being welcomed back home with feelings of cosmic love. These four worlds correspond to the common states of waking, dreaming, Samadhi, and mystical absorption.
On-going research at Richie Davidson’s neurological lab at the University of Wisconsin at Madison is looking into to determining if these states of mind correspond to brain states that can be externally measured. Is yogic Samadhi an attentive state in which deep dreamless sleep is re-achieved in a waking condition? And would the grand state of mystical absorption register outwardly only as a comatose state? It is too early to tell, but the discussions do seem to be falling into the conventional divisions of the mystics versus the mechanists.
Sri Aurobindo referred to the samadhic state as “the Mind of Light.” In the practice of Yoga Nidra, one gets the feeling that one’s individual mind is a fractal, a bubble of foam, in a self-similar architecture in which everything is Mind, from the cells to the galaxies to the entirety of the universe.
The Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela have said that Mind was “the realization of the living” and that it could be taken down to the level of the cell. The microbiologists Sorin Sonea and Lynn Margulis have said that bacteria were not so much individual species but a planetary bioplasm. Recent work reported in Nature (November 28, 2013) by Professor Thomas Norman et alia at Harvard Medical School suggests that bacteria can be sensitive to memory traces for eight generations and that these memory traces determine the decision whether to settle down into multicellular biofilms or break up to become free tumbling motile bacteria in a fluid medium. This fundamental level of self-organization in biofilms is the beginning of multi-cellularity and can serve as a metaphor for other levels of self-organization from Gaian planets to solar systems to galaxies. So Mind should not be restricted to the more limited subject-object processing screen of consciousness, but should be understood as an ontological condition of self-organization that can take many forms. Engineers like MIT’s Ray Kurzweil hope to construct a mind out of artificial components.
Now let us go back to the idea of an infinite number of Big Bangs, or of a Multiverse of parallel quantum states of many universes. The linearity of the progression from Big Bang to Lights Out! Is certainly within the paradigm of Western Thought with its habitual structure of discrete entities with beginnings and ends, so Asian thought can serve as a useful way of escaping the narrowness of one’s own Western cultural paradigms. If there have been an infinite number of Big Bangs in an infinite series of universes, then there is ample time and space to imagine that in one of these universes Mind began to self-organize, and that in the movement from one universe to another that Mind could develop to the infinite scale that we humans conventionally associate with the idea of God.
The idea of a personal god is obviously something a mammal–a creature that has parents-would come up with. Thus we humans project the experiences with our parents to come up with the notion of a parental god—God the Father, the Great Mother, Jahweh, Allah, or Allat. Traditionally, the mystics have felt such an idea to be too confining and too often simply used to buttress human authoritarian figures—Popes, Caliphs, Emperors. The mystic Meister Eckhart got in trouble with the Pope and the Church because he spoke of Gottheit and not always God.
So let us jettison the idea of a parental god along with the linearity of the Big Bang to envision the universe as a Cosmic Mind in which our minds are fractal self-similar parts. Given the infinite series of universes, it seems highly plausible that such a Mind could arise and continue to develop. When we move beyond our ego’s construction of reality to experience this Big Mind, we are not simply being delusional, or simply experiencing the default setting of the brain when it is not occupied in sensory-motor processing, but are actually encountering the universe’s fundamental ontological condition—the isness of All.
From this perspective of the Big Picture, Pascal’s Wager seems more of a gambol than a gamble.
William Irwin Thompson (born July, 1938) is known primarily as a social philosopher and cultural critic, but he has also been writing and publishing poetry throughout his career and received the Oslo International Poetry Festival Award in 1986. He has made significant contributions to cultural history, social criticism, the philosophy of science, and the study of myth. He describes his writing and speaking style as “mind-jazz on ancient texts”. He is an astute reader of science, social science, history, and literature. He is the founder of the Lindisfarne Association.
His book, Still Travels: Three Long Poems was published in 2009 by Wild River Books. Order a copy from Amazon.
Works by William Irwin Thompson
Memoir – Farewell Address at the Lindisfarne Fellows Conference
Memoir – Pilgrimage to Lindisfarne: 1972
Memoir – The Founding of the Lindisfarne Association in New York, 1971-73 – Part I
Memoir – The Founding of the Lindisfarne Association in New York, 1971-73 – Part 2: A Community in Fishcove, Long Island
Memoir – Building a Dream – Part One: Lindisfarne in Crestone, Colorado, 1979-1997
Memoir – My Dinner with Andre Gregory: Lindisfarne-in-Manhattan, 1977-1979
Memoir – Building a Dream/The Shadow Side Part Two: Lindisfarne in Crestone, Colorado, 1979-1997
Memoir – Building a Dream/The Cathedral Part Three: Lindisfarne in Crestone, Colorado, 1979-1997
Memoir – Conclusion: The Economic Relevance of Lindisfarne
Memoir – Raising Evan and Hilary: Reflections of a Homeschooling Parent
Memoir – Sex and the Commune
Memoir – Raising Evan and Hilary
Memoir – With Gregory Bateson’s Mind in Nature
After Heart Surgery: Hokusai’s Great Wave
A Lazy Sunday Afternoon
Nancy Grayson’s Bookstore
On Reading “The Penguin Book of English Verse”: on my iPad and Exercise Bike
Wild River Books/Poetry – Nightwatch and Dayshift: Cezanne
Anatolian Days and Nights and the Cultural Evolution of Spirituality
And the Votes are In: The American Elections of 2010
Avatar – When Technology Displaces Culture
Bedtime Story for a Civilization
The Big Picture: Reflections on Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines
The Big Picture, II
Child Abuse and the Catholic Church
The Digital Economy of W. Brian Arthur
From Shamanism to Religion, Part Two
From Religion to Post-Religious Spirituality, Part Three
From Religion to Post-Religious Spirituality: Conclusion
January 1, 2011: Reflections on the Philosophical Notions of Republicans
January 6, 2011 – Part Two: The Etherealization of Capitalism
Nature and Invisible Environments
Of Culture and the Nature of Extinction
On Nuclear Power
On Religion – Part One
On Religion and Nationalism: Ireland, Israel, and Palestine
On Transnational Military Interventions
A Pagan Ur-Text of the Lebor Gebála Érenn
Part 1 – The Shift from Industrial to a Planetary Civilization
Part 2 – The Shift from an Industrial to Planetary Civilization
Part 3 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – The Recovery of a Cosmic Orientation
Part 4 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civlization – The Global War for Drugs
Part 5 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – The New Jerusalem
Part 6 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Catastrophes as the Spur to Institute Tricameral Legislature
Part 7 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Complex Dynamical Systems and Tricameral Legislatures
Part 8 – The Shift from a Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Israel and Palestine: Sic transit gloria mundi
Part 9 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civlization – On Sarah Palin and the Technocratic Society
Part 10 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – On Conspiracy Narratives as Expressive of the Transition from the Nation: State to the Noetic Polity
Part 11 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Global Awareness and Personal Identity
Part 12 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Conclusion: The United Nations
Political Meditation for the Fourth of July, 2011: Can We Shift from Empire Back to Republic?
St. David’s Day, 2011, Technology and Social Change
Saint Patrick’s Day, 2010: Us and Them: Identity and the State
Some Reflections on Hurricane Sandy and an Outline for a New Civilization
Technical Hubris: and the Sinkhole of Obama’s Centrism
Television and Social Class
Thanksgiving Day, 2010: The Uses and Abuses of History
The Elections of 2010
Thoughts on My new Kindle App: on My Mac iPad