Mysticism and Science: Perspectives
By I. M. Oderberg
Eastern mysticism approaches the manifestation of life in the cosmos and all that compose it from a position diametrically opposed to the view that prevailed until recently among the majority of Western scientists, philosophers, and religionists. Orientals see the universe as a whole, as an organism. For them all things are interconnected, links in a chain of beings permeated by consciousness which threads them together. This consciousness is the one life-force, originator of all the phenomena we know under the heading of nature, and it dwells within its emanations, urging them as a powerful inner drive to grow and evolve into ever more refined expressions of divinity. The One manifests, not only in all its emanations, but also through those emanations as channels: it is within them and yet remains transcendent as well.
The emphasis is on the Real as subject whereas in the West it is seen as object. If consciousness is the noumenal or subjective aspect of life in contrast to the phenomenal or objective — everything seen as separate objects — then only this consciousness can be experienced, and no amount of analysis can reveal the soul of Reality. To illustrate: for the ancient Egyptians, their numerous “gods” were aspects of the primal energy of the Divine Mind (Thoth) which, before the creation of our universe, rested, a potential in a subjective state within the “waters of Space.” It was through these gods that the qualities of divinity manifested.
A question still being debated runs: “How does the One become the many?” meaning: if there is a “God,” how do the universe and the many entities composing it come into being? This question does not arise among those who perceive the One to dwell in the many, and the many to live in the One from whom life and sustenance derive. Despite our Western separation of Creator and creation, and the corresponding distancing of “God” from human beings, Western mystics have held similar views to those of the East, e.g.: Meister Eckhart, the Dominican theologian and preacher, who was accused of blasphemy for daring to say that he had once experienced nearness to the “Godhead.” His friends and followers were living testimony to the charisma (using the word in its original connotation of spiritual magnetism) of those who live the life of love for fellow beings men like Johannes Tauler, Heinrich Suso, the “admirable Ruysbroeck,” who expressed views similar to those of Eastern exponents of the spiritual way or path.
In old China, the universe was described as appearing first as q’i (chee), an emanation of Light, not the physical light that we know, but its divine essence sometimes called Tien, Heaven, in contrast to Earth. The q’i energy polarized as Yang and Yin, positive and negative electromagnetism. From the action and interaction of these two sprang the “10,000 things”: the universe, our world, the myriads of beings and things as we perceive them to be. In other words, the ancient Chinese viewed our universe as one of process, the One energy, q’i, proliferating into the many.
In their paintings Chinese artists depict man as a small but necessary element in gigantic natural scenes. And since we are parts of the cosmos, we are embodiments of all its potentials and our relationship depends upon how we focus ourselves: (1) harmoniously, i.e., in accord with nature; or (2) disharmoniously, interfering with the course of nature. We therefore affect the rest: our environment, all other lives, and bear full responsibility for the outcome of our thoughts and acts, our motivations, our impacts. Their art students were taught to identify with what they were painting, because there is life in every thing, and it is this life with which they must identify, with boulders and rocks no less than with birds flying overhead. Matter, energy, space, are all manifestations of q’i and we, as parts thereof, are intimately connected with all the universe.
In India, the oneness of life was seen through the prism of successive manifestations of Brahman, a neuter or impersonal term in Sanskrit for divinity, the equivalent of what Eckhart called the Godhead. Brahman is the source of the creative power, Brahma, Eckhart’s Creator; and also the origin of the sustaining and supporting energy or Vishnu, and of the destructive/regenerative force or Siva. As these three operate through the cosmos, the “world” as we know it, so do they also through ourselves on a smaller scale according to our capacity. Matter is perceived to be condensed energy, Chit or consciousness itself. To quote from the Mundaka Upanishad [As cited by Michael ‘Talbot in Mysticism and the New Physics, p. 143]:”By the energism of Consciousness Brahman is massed; from that: Matter is born and from Matter Life and Mind and the worlds . . .”
In another Hindu scripture, it is stated that when Brahma awakened from his period of rest between manifestations, he desired to contemplate himself as he is. By gazing into the awakening matter particles as into a mirror, he stirred them to exhibit their latent divine qualities. Since this process involves a continuous unfoldment from the center within, an ever-becoming, there can never be an end to the creativity — universal “days” comprising trillions of our human years, followed by a like number of resting “nights.”
We feel within ourselves the same driving urge to grow that runs through the entire, widespread universe, to express more and more of what is locked up in the formless or subjective realm of Be-ness, awaiting the magic moment to come awake in our phase of life.
Tibetan metaphysics embraces all of this in discussing Sunyata, which can be viewed as Emptiness if we use only our outer senses, or as Fullness if we inwardly perceive it to be full of energies of limitless ranges of wave-lengths/frequencies. This latter aspect of Space is the great mother of all, ever fecund, from whose “heart” emerge endless varieties of beings, endless forces, ever-changing variations — like the pulsing energies the new physicists perceive nuclear subparticles to be.
In the Preface to his Tao of physics Fritjof Capra tells how one summer afternoon he had a transforming experience by the seashore as he watched the waves rolling in and felt the rhythm of his own breathing. He saw dancing motes revealed in a beam of sunlight; particles of energy vibrating as molecules and atoms; cascades of energy pouring down upon us from outer space. All of this coming and going, appearing and disappearing, he equated with the Indian concept of the dance of Siva . . . he felt its rhythm, “heard” its sound, and knew himself to be a part of it. Through this highly personal, indeed mystical, experience Capra became aware of his “whole environment as being engaged in a gigantic cosmic dance.”
This is the gist of the old Chinese approach to physics: students were taught gravitation by observing the petals of a flower as they fall gracefully to the ground. As Gary Zukav expresses it in his Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics (p.213): “The world of particle physics is a world of sparkling energy forever dancing with itself in the form of its particles as they twinkle in and out of existence, collide, transmute, and disappear again.” That is: the dance of Siva is the dance of attraction and repulsion between charged particles of the electromagnetic force.
This is a kind of “transcendental” physics, going beyond the “world of opposites” and approaching a mystical view of the larger Reality that is to our perceptions an invisible foundation of what we call “physical reality.” It is so far beyond the capacity or vocabulary of the mechanically rational part of our mind to define, that the profound Hindu scripture Isa Upanishad prefers to suggest the thought by a paradox:
It moves. It moves not.
It is far, and it is near.
It is within all this,
And It is outside of all this.
Indeed, there is a growing recognition mostly by younger physicists that consciousness is more than another word for awareness, more than a by-product of cellular activity (or of atomic or subatomic vibrations). For instance, Jack Sarfatti, a quantum physicist, says that signals pulsating through space provide instant communication between all parts of the cosmos. “These signals can be likened to pulses of nerve cells of a great cosmic brain that permeates all parts of space [Michael Talbot, Mysticism and the New Physics, 1981, p. 82].” Michael Talbot quotes Sir James Jeans’ remark, “the universe is more like a giant thought than a giant machine,” commenting that the “substance of the great thought is consciousness [ibid., p. 175]” which pervades all space. Other phenomena reported as occurring in the cosmos at great distances from each other, yet simultaneously, appear to be connected in some way so far unexplained, but to which the term consciousness has been applied.
In short, the mystic deals with direct experience; the intuitive scientist is open-minded, and indeed the great discoveries such as Einstein’s were made by amateurs in their field untrammeled by prior definitions and the limitations inherited from past speculations. This freedom enabled them to strike out on new paths that they cleared and paved. The rationalist tries to grapple with the problems of a living universe using only analysis and whatever the computer functions of the mind can put together.
The theosophic perspective upon universal phenomena is based on the concept of the ensoulment of the cosmos. That is: from the smallest subparticle we know anything about to the largest star-system that has been observed, each and all possess at their core vitality, energy, an active something propelling towards growth, evolution of faculties from within.
The only “permanent” in the whole universe is motion: unceasing movement, and the ideal perception is a blend of the mystical with the scientific, the intuitive with the rational.
(From Sunrise magazine, June/July 1987; copyright © 1987 Theosophical University Press)