FLAWS OF PERCEPTION
The Four Pillars of Sustainability
FLAWS OF PERCEPTION
Cover: Sunrise. Photograph: P. G. Adam, Publiphoto Diffusion/ Science Photo Library
No Back Issue available
Illustration: Jackie Morris firstname.lastname@example.org
To really understand the nature of reality, we must look through the eyes of the soul.
THERE IS NO life without consciousness - consciousness and life are one and the same. Life is synonymous with what we call spirit, consciousness, awareness and existence. For the last 300 years people have thought that consciousness was an epiphenomenon of physical matter. This 'reductionist' worldview says that if we can understand the behaviour of molecules then we will also understand that consciousness is an emergent property; that once molecules attain a certain degree of complexity in behaviour then from that, somehow, consciousness emerges.
This reductionist worldview can be explained in a very simple biological way: your pancreas makes pancreatic juice, your gallbladder makes bile, your stomach secretes hydrochloric acid, and your brain secretes consciousness. So your brain somehow manufactures consciousness in the same way that your stomach manufactures hydrochloric acid or your pancreas manufactures pancreatic juice. This reductionist model is used in science and medicine, but it is a very incomplete model. It is a flawed map of reality.
There are three methods by which we can understand reality. The first is through our senses: sound, touch, taste, sight and smell. We experience reality through the instruments of observation: the 'eyes of the flesh'. The second way that we understand reality is through the instrument that we call the mind: the 'eyes of the mind', metaphorically speaking. If I want to understand the theory of relativity I have to participate at least to some extent with the experiments that occurred in the mind of Einstein. If I want to understand quantum physics then also I have to have some idea of the mathematical concepts that occurred in the minds of scientists in the last century. If you look at the major revolution of the last century it is quantum physics and quantum mechanics and if you study the history of the emergence of that science you will see that this revolution actually occurred in people's minds. The observations came much later.
With that revolution came new technology. I have this amazing little gadget: it's a telephone with email and internet access. I could record a lecture on it, take photos or video on it, and send the information anywhere in the world. The information will go through walls, it will go through trees, it will bounce off a satellite in space, it will go through traffic jams, it will go through human bodies, and somebody anywhere in the world, in China or in India, can receive this information or watch the video.
This technology is based on a very fundamental premise in science: that the essential nature of the material world is that it is not material. Otherwise we wouldn't have this technology. We are able to surf the information highway on the internet because what we call the material world is really not material. This technology is a result of what we call the quantum revolution. It is the second way of examining reality.
There is a third way of examining reality that goes even deeper. Our sensory apparatus takes us to a very superficial level: this is a chair, that is a flower, that is a human being; and the quantum level takes us deeper into the mind of nature, making the world much more miraculous. So the eyes of the mind take us to a level which is a more wondrous than that seen through the eyes of the flesh. The third way of knowing reality is through the 'eyes of the soul', which take us much, much deeper into the nature of existence.
THERE IS A beautiful poem by the English visionary poet Blake:
When we see with, and not through the eye
Which was born in a night to perish in a night,
When the soul slept in beams of light.
It's beautiful; but what is Blake saying? Why are we led to believe a lie when we see with the eye? What Blake is saying is what any student of perception will tell you today: we cannot rely on sensory observation alone to know the essential nature of reality. For the last 300 years, the whole basis of science has relied on our observational senses; but our senses are the least reliable test of what we call reality. My senses tell me that the ground I am sitting on is stationary and yet we know it is spinning at a dizzying speed, hurtling through space at thousands of miles an hour. My senses tell me that, from where I am standing, the Earth is flat. Nobody believes that any more. Even when I look at an object like a flower and perceive its colour or texture, this is not its essential quality. The eye cells of a honeybee do not perceive the same wavelengths of light that you and I perceive and so a bee will have a completely different range of experience of the flower, and will 'see' it in ultraviolet wavelengths. A bat will experience the flower as the echo of ultrasound. A chameleon's eyeballs swivel on two different axes so we can't even remotely imagine what a flower looks like to a chameleon!
So what is the essential nature of this flower? The answer depends on who is looking; it also depends on the instruments of observation. Our nervous systems are our main instruments of observation, and at a simplistic level our brains respond to neuron activity that translates into a binary code of electrical charges across cell membranes. So if I could look inside your brain and see what's happening I would see this vibrating electrical charge shifting from the outside to the inside of the cell membrane. How that becomes a flower, nobody knows.
Sir Arthur Eddington, a great scientists of the last century, said, "Something unknown is doing we don't know what." The more we start to understand perception, the more we don't understand it. Actually, this flower exists only in consciousness, and it exists in a place that is beyond space and time, and it exists 'as potential' before you observe it. There is no external world as such.
Everything that we call the universe, trees and stars and galaxies - everything that we observe as the external world - is a translation of bodily processes into binary codes of photons across cell membranes in neurons. That's why in the Ayurvedic tradition we say we are not in the world; the world is in us. We don't exist in the world; the world exists in us. We don't exist in the body; the body exists in us. We don't exist in the mind; the mind exists in us. We curve back within ourselves and create the mind, the body and the physical world. We manifest it. We are manufacturing everything: the mind, the body and the total universe. I am not speaking philosophically or talking about Eastern metaphysics - this is science.
LET'S LOOK AT our senses. My senses tell me first of all that my body is physical, anatomical and static. But in reality, the body seems anatomical to us through our senses; the body is like a flowing river, constantly changing. The physical body that you are using to sit on a chair and read this magazine is not the same physical body that you came into the room with a little while ago. When you take one deep breath you inhale 1022 atoms from the universe. That's 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms. It's an astronomical amount of raw material that comes into your body every time you breathe in. Every time you breathe out, you breathe out 1022 atoms that have their origin in every cell of your body. So, we are all intimately sharing our organs with each other all the time. I am breathing everything that's inside you and you are breathing everything that's inside me. We are actually exchanging atoms all the time.
It is possible today to compute the total number of atoms in the atmosphere on planet Earth. It's possible to compute what you are inhaling and exhaling in one breath. With a little more calculation, we can show beyond a shadow of doubt that right this moment you have in your physical body at least a million atoms that were once in the body of Christ, or the Buddha, or Michelangelo, or Leonardo da Vinci, or Saddam Hussein, or Osama bin Laden, or George Bush. You have a million atoms right now that have been in the body of every single being that has existed since the dawn of creation. In just the last three weeks a quadrillion atoms (quadrillion means ten followed by fifteen zeros) have gone through your body and they have gone through the body of every other living species on this planet. So think of anything in the ecosystem right now - think of a tree in Africa, think of a squirrel in Siberia, think of a peasant in China, think of a taxi-driver in Calcutta, think of a small child in Afghanistan - and you have raw material in your body that was circulating there only three weeks ago. In less than one year you replace ninety-eight per cent of all the atoms in your body.
At the atomic level you make a new liver every six weeks; a new skin once every five days; you replace your skeleton every three months; and you replace the raw material of your DNA every six weeks - it comes and goes like migratory birds. Your DNA contains the memories of millions of years of evolutionary time. That's what DNA is: DNA is the metabolism of experience. We metabolise our experience and we record it as DNA. DNA has metabolised the experience of your human ancestors, your animal ancestors and your microbial ancestors.
The insulin molecule in your body is the same as the insulin molecule not only in cows and pigs but in salmon and also in micro-organisms. What is insulin? Insulin is the knowledge of how to process sugar. That's what it is in the form of a molecule but it is actually knowledge and that knowledge comes through eons of time. Everything that we call a molecule is actually a physical expression of experience. So we metabolise experience, we record it in our bodies and then we transfer it to the next generation. And so our DNA remembers the memories and experiences; what we in the East call karma.
Karma is the accumulated experience of the past - it takes all that karma: your karma, your ancestors' karma, all the karma of creation, and then it passes it on - but the actual raw material of the DNA comes and goes every six weeks like migratory birds. So the carbon, the hydrogen, the oxygen is replacing itself every six weeks. If you have replaced your entire body down to the last atom in less than a year, you are certainly not your body. My body which I brought to England with me last year is gone: it's dead, it doesn't exist in this form any more; but it is everywhere else. It's circulating in other life forms; my physical body is recycled in the earth, the water, the air, and the planet is recycling itself incorporating my physical body. So what I call myself couldn't possibly be my physical body.
In one of his plays, Shakespeare says, "We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare was a great seer. There is an Indian expression that says, "The body is just the place that our memories and our dreams call 'home' for the time being." We continually replace our bodies, and we know how we do it. So, if the physical expression is nothing other than memory and dreams, how do we reinterpret the memory and dream experience into the physical body? How do we exorcise the ghost of disease, because disease is actually a disordered dream state in consciousness that is manifesting in our body?
WHAT IF WE could see the body as it really is? What would we see? We would see first of all that it is made up of atoms, the atoms in turn are made up of subatomic particles, and these subatomic particles are not material things, but fluctuations of energy and information that are flickering in and out of an infinite void at the speed of light. If I could see my body as it really is, through quantum instruments, what I would see is that 99% of my body is empty space and that 1% that appears to be material is also empty space; that the whole thing is made out of nothing. As I go beyond the appearance of molecules, I enter a subatomic cloud, I go beyond the cloud, I end up with a handful of nothingness; and then the crucial question that scientists today are asking is, what is the nature of this emptiness from where we all come? Is it just a void or could it be the womb of creation? Is it possible that nature goes to exactly the same place to create a galaxy of stars, a cluster of nebulae, a rain forest, an ecosystem, a human body or a thought?
Do trees, galaxies, our bodies, the furniture and this thought all come from the same place? Because in the end, as we go beyond the flickering of electromagnetic phenomena, where photons are flickering in and out, what are they flickering in and out of? There is an emptiness from which they seem to appear, they hang on for a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a second and then they disappear whence they came. And it seems that everything that we call form and phenomena, that we call observer and observed, is all coming from the same place, including our own thoughts.
The world is a discontinuity, and every experience arises because of the discontinuity. So, what does discontinuity mean? Let me give you an example. If I go to see a movie I see on the screen a continuous picture, but when I go to the projection room I find out that there is a series of still frames with little spaces in between. If I move the reel fast enough, I cannot see the 'off': I can only see the 'on'; so I experience in consciousness a continuity. But the reality is that the movie is a discontinuity. When I see a television programme, I see an image moving from one part of the screen to another part of the screen, but nothing actually moves. Only electrons and photons flash in and out in a certain sequence, and because I cannot see the off, but I can only see the on, then I experience it as a continuity. Scientists believe that perception is possible because of this discontinuity. All the form and phenomena of the universe expresses this 'on-ing' and 'off-ing', and our senses are such that they can perceive the on and not the off. Yet without the off we would not experience the on.
As you are reading this, for a second, just turn your attention to who is reading. In that split second of shifting awareness, what you feel is a presence, don't you? As you are reading, you become aware of who is reading. Well, that presence is your soul. It's not your mind that might be saying, "Oh, I think I'll have a cup of coffee." There is a presence, and that presence is in the on/off of your thoughts: there is a thought flickering on and off and in that off there is a presence. In that presence thoughts come and they go. So a thought emerges, it hangs on for a fraction of a second, literally, and then it goes. Then of course through association it leads to another thought, and that comes and that goes. In that presence emotions come and go. In that presence the perceptions of the world come and go. In that presence the molecules of your body come and go. In that presence everything that happens comes and goes.
Only the presence remains, and in Eastern traditions we call that presence the ever-present witnessing awareness, or consciousness. And in Eastern traditions we also say that the window to that presence is in the space between your thoughts. And that presence is an ever-present witnessing awareness in which all comes and goes. So when you were a baby your body was different, your perceptions were different, your thoughts were different, your emotions were different, but they all happened in the presence that is there right now and was there at that time as well. When you were a teenager, everything was different, and when you are an old person, everything is different but the presence remains constant. This is your identity at the soul level in which everything else is transforming and changing its form and phenomena. If you hang on to this presence, it might be your ticket to freedom. This presence is the only thing that is real about you, and if you go a little deeper into this presence you will also recognise, not intellectually, maybe, but definitely at the level of experience, that this presence is beyond birth and death. That even birth and death are the on and off in the presence.
Deepak Chopra continues his examination of the concepts presented in this article in the second part - Beyond Perception