There are many ways of looking at the world around us. We all have different perspectives, according to our individual needs, habits, education, culture, social background, temperament, talents, and so on. Essentially, however, as human beings, we are all put together in the same way. At the bodily level, we share the same senses, and so presumably we all perceive things in a similar manner. What gives us a different take on things is our individual minds. Such is human life, and it need not be a problem. Difficulties only arise when we take our perspective to be real, and the perspective of others to be somewhat less than real. But is any of it real anyway, even our own perspective? Does the world itself have any reality?
In modern – as in ancient – times, one of the prevailing world views is that the universe consists of nothing more than material substance, of no more than what we can perceive with our five senses. Good old solid matter. Or is it? Until around one hundred years ago, the idea of the indestructibility of matter held firm. But the advent of physicists like Ernest Rutherford, Niels Bohr and many others brought laboratory proof that far from being solid, matter is mostly comprised of empty space. Further research has led to the realization that the only reason we don’t fall through the floor under the influence of gravity is due to electromagnetic forces between and within atoms.
Encouraged by these discoveries, enthusiastic scientists have subjected atoms and subatomic particles to increasingly higher energies, breaking them into ever smaller fragments, with the net result that after one hundred years of study, they have realized that so-called matter is nothing more than a dance of tiny particles. And if you apply enough energy, you can generally break these particles into even smaller ones. Someone called it the ‘particle zoo’.
The question is, from a mystical as well as a scientific perspective, what are these particles made of? And more than that, what keeps them endlessly zooming about? To cut a long story short, the scientists’ conclusion is that these particles are not little solid blobs of something at all. They are nothing more than vortices or tiny pumps of energy spinning or pumping energy out of pure space. They have properties such as mass and electrical charge, which give us the illusion of something substantial. But actually, they are just patterns or points of energy in space. So the question then becomes, what is space? And the answer seems to be that far from being empty, space itself is pure energy in potential, ready to be whipped up into the particles and atoms that go on to give us the illusion of good old solid matter. Space, by the way, is an aspect of the fifth element – ether, or akash, in Indian terminology.
The physical universe is thus no more than a dance of energy spun out of the space that defines it. It is all a magic show. Mystics have called the world an illusion, maya in Indian terminology, and it seems that the scientists have verified this at a deeply fundamental level. What they have as yet been unable to determine is the source of the energy that keeps it going; for an integral aspect of this energy dance is its motion, which never seems to diminish or stop. Mystics, on the other hand, have no difficulty in identifying the source of energy. The divine source, they say, has created everything by means of a creative power. They have called it sound, word, voice, music and a multitude of other names. It is a dynamic vibration that “rolls and flows through all things”; it is the power of God in creative action. It is also consciousness and intelligence in action – a consciousness and intelligence that is divine.
Scientists have made considerable progress in describing these forces. Intriguingly, they also feel that it should be possible to describe all the fundamental forces of nature in one grand unified theory (GUT), one grand formulation, one “theory of everything”. This in itself is significant, for it seems to indicate that there is an unconscious acknowledgment that all of nature originates from one source. In essence, the problems with the current scientific description of basic matter boil down to trying to reconcile the macroscopic force of gravity, which holds entire galaxies and solar systems together, with the submicroscopic forces of electromagnetism that hold atoms and molecules together. One of the most successful GUTs or unified mathematical descriptions of these forces is known as “string theory”.
String theory says that all subatomic particles consist not of points in space but of vibrations in ultra-tiny one-dimensional energy strings. As theories go, it’s pretty good, but it has one drawback. These strings are so tiny that the theory cannot (so far) be tested in the laboratory. It therefore remains at the level of mathematical speculation, or philosophy in the language of mathematics. It also has various bizarre, allied but essential notions, like the suggestion that space is really ten-dimensional, the extra dimensions being wrapped up so small that we can’t see them (whatever that may mean!). String theory is also responsible for the notion of an infinitude of parallel universes, much beloved of science fiction writers. It has other, more fundamental problems too, like its inability to describe some of the basic properties of matter, such as mass.
So it’s a good idea, but other descriptions of the material universe as originating from the energy of space may yet prove simpler, more testable, and more able to describe the properties of the subatomic world with which physicists are familiar. It may even be possible to extract clean energy from the space around us for human needs. But however the scientists try to describe it, the fundamental problem still remains what keeps it all going? Where does the primal energy originate? And where has all the order, organization and seeming intelligence that we observe in the universe come from? Mystics have the answer – the divine Word, the Shabd, the ultra-dynamic, creative and intelligent divine presence within us and in all things.
But for most of us, this – like string theory – remains just a description that appeals to us, a perspective we can relate to. The only way to know for sure what’s going on is to forget all the theories and to sit down in meditation; allow our consciousness to expand and be taken up by the Master, so that we can see for ourselves how the whole show is put together. Then we will see how matter is an expression of consciousness, and how consciousness is the essence of the divine. Out with the theory and in with personal experience.
So it’s back to our pads, guys!
Through past actions
we attain the robe of human form
through grace, the door to liberation.
Jap Ji: A Perspective