Commusings: Indra’s Net with Jeff KrasnoJun 11, 2022
Dear Commune Community,
For millennia, there have been two basic understandings of the cosmos: the mechanical model of the West as influenced by Abrahamic religions and Newtonian physics and the spontaneous, emergent and impermanent model of the East as informed by Taoism, Buddhism and Zen.
In the book of Genesis, an almighty God fashions a ceramic figurine from the earth and animates it by blowing life into its nostril. The Enlightenment significantly upgraded the method leveraged in grokking the cosmos, but still sought to understand the universe as absolute, hierarchical and full of stuff.
In the early 20th century, the world of physics underwent a seismic shift as the emergence of relativity and quantum theory upended classical theories. Curiously, this new comprehension of the world closely mirrored many of the tenets of Eastern religions.
The physicist Fritjof Capra described this consilience in his masterpiece, The Tao of Physics, and I take a run at it here in this week’s missive.
In love, include me,
• • •
For years, I visited a summer cottage on the Long Island sound, the briny inlet cleaving the North Fork of Long Island and Connecticut’s southern coast. The stultifying humidity made everything perspire – your brow, the windows, the tumblers of Arnold Palmer. In the thick dank afternoon, I would toodle to the end of the long jetty that jutted into the sound and, from its edge, dive into the sea. Once acclimated to the water’s energizing chill, I would paddle myself out to one of the floating wooden platforms that rocked gently side to side with the undulating tide. I would hoist myself up, back into the oven of the day and find my equilibrium.
Balancing in the center of the buoyant pad, I would look far out in every direction – squinting my eyes to see where ocean yoked with sky. Merely yards away, there was another such platform upon which the invariably doughty old Mrs. Brainard would perch and behold a similar, yet slightly different, 360-degree perspective.
This individuated manner of seeing the world is a portrait of relativity theory. Each of us observes life from our own unique platform. At the same time, we’re all on one – united by the phenomenon itself. Spatial subjectivity feels quite natural as a product of direct experience. From the vantage point of Mrs. Brainard, the entrance to the iconic lighthouse that stood at the mouth of the Connecticut river was quite visible. But I couldn’t quite see it from my angle. She had a different point of view … probably on matters beyond the lighthouse as well.
Einstein upended physics in the early 20th century by inextricably connecting space with time. The variables of location and velocity in conjunction with the unwavering speed of light created a world in which there is no absolute linear time. This phenomenon is distinctly less instinctual than the relativity of space. The velocity of light (186,300 per second) is so fast that it doesn’t impact terrestrial, quotidian life. For practical purposes, we feel like we all see things at the same time. But, in reality, we don’t.
The relativity of space-time is more easily understood at the level of astrophysics. For example, it takes light eight minutes and twenty seconds to travel from the sun to the earth. If you were vacationing on Jupiter (nothing I’d recommend), your retina would need to patiently wait an additional thirty-five minutes to perceive the same photon. The “creation” of that light energy as a product of hydrogen fusion in the sun may have happened at a definable objective moment, but the perception of it is relative.
Shortly after the codification of relativity theory, particle physics further disassembled our understanding of a fixed, mechanistic Newtonian reality. Matter is not inert. It is representational of an endless vibrating dance of particles that have dual personalities both as mass, confined to a location, and a wave, spread out over space. The incessant exchange of sub-atomic particles between atoms – which form molecules and then compounds and subsequently things we call stuff – portrays a spontaneous, impermanent universe that is constantly emerging, evolving and interdependent. In fact, merely observing the particles themselves alter their behavior. In this new comprehension of reality, the traditional subject-object relationship crumbles, as the seer is in a dynamic relationship with the seen. Instead, we are all participants in an infinite web with no boss.
It’s curious that the Buddha posited this vision of the world twenty-five hundred years prior to the advent of electron microscopes and the brilliance of Einstein. Pratītyasamutpāda, commonly translated as dependent origination, or dependent arising, is a key doctrine in Buddhism. In short, everything is reliant on everything else. And nothing is absolute or fixed. This is also the Tao, the course of nature, the fundamental operating system of the universe. Both Eastern mysticism and modern physics share a common essence: the awareness of the unity and mutual interrelation of all things and events. We live in Indra’s Net, an infinite web which, at its junctures, holds crystalline drops of water that reflect every other drop.
The notion of an impermanent cosmos is unsettling to the human mind. We crave certainty. And in our quest for predictability, we fashion all sorts of myths and systems of divination. Science has proved to be a more reliable and protean form of prophecy than God. But even rigorous empiricism fails to dependably predict the future, because in an ever-changing, spontaneous world of interconnected patterns and no stuff, the Buddha was right: all there is and all there will ever be is now.
So, as a matter of human happiness, we need to get with it. We need to be all here. We need to give others the present of our presence. And we need to focus our attention on process, with less attachment to product. The practice is the enlightenment.
Relativity theory itself presents a Zen koan of sorts. Yes, we all see the world, with our limited special instruments, from our own individual platforms. At the same time, we are all connected and inseparable parts of a cosmic whole. In an interdependent world, we are petals of the same flower, flakes that make up a snowbank, pixels that form an image and cells that populate a hand. Each one of us is nature’s delegated adaptability, inextricably woven into a single quilt. The experience of all phenomena in the world are manifestations of a basic oneness. Our personal subjectivity can be understood as the universe experiencing itself through us.
In some ways, the relativistic world is tethered to the limits of our five senses to perceive it. We experience day-to-day life with “spotlight” consciousness. Like wanderers in a dark cosmic warehouse, our eyes function like a flashlight seeing only what is in front or in the foreground. In samadhi, or integrated consciousness, the last “step” of the Buddhist 8-fold noble path, the overhead lights of the warehouse are illuminated. Our consciousness shifts from spotlight to floodlight.
In this state, we experience karuna – in which we identify another’s suffering as our own. We feel mudita — joy for someone else’s joy. We glimpse the dharmakaya, the Brahman, the Tao – the non-dual reality that brings opposites into a sensitive coherence.
We stand on someone else’s platform.
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