“If in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms – little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling when being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.”
Richard Feynman, The Feynman Lectures on Physics, italics in the original
“April was the seventh month in a row that broke global temperature records, NASA figures show. Last month smashed the previous record for April by the largest margin ever, the data show. That makes it three months in a row that the monthly record was broken by the largest margin ever.”
April breaks global temperature record, BBC News
Physics, chemistry and biology have found we live in a molecular world of cause and effect. Whatever gods might exist, if they are to exist, would be no less subject to the molecular universe than we are. This, as it has been said, is one of the charms of the Lovecraftian gods and the polytheistic pantheons in general, who while unimaginably powerful, remain very much members of this universe and as such are never beyond the pale of restrictions and struggles entirely. The Tibetan Wheel of Life captures this idea graphically by showing that all possible states of existence share a common hub and rim, a common inside and outside.
Our time is uniquely characterized by its abundance of scientific understanding. We have caught a glimpse of ourselves in the mirrors of our sciences but, frightened by the emptiness in the view, we have recoiled in horror. Some are desperately trying to resurrect atavistic stories from the Sunday school and nurseries of our intellectual childhood. Others have reacted to the emptiness by becoming angry atheists, losing the valuable perceptions only open to those who can look on nature with reverence and respect. They completely fail to appreciate that the role of the gods – whatever else they might be – is to embody important aspects of human consciousness by which we communicate our gestalt intuitions and ideals; they and their stories give us a means of sharing our deepest hopes and fears with one another.
I’d like to suggest the programs of the anachronistic fundamentalist and the angry atheist are both non-starters for people sincerely interested in responding well to the ongoing ecological crisis. I think we are being called on to engage in and explore a third option that doesn’t throw out the sacred but also no longer believes naïvely our all-too-human stories are more than that, our stories. We can learn to take the emptiness our science has revealed as a tonic. Out here, in the molecular world far larger than any story, the planet is heating up and everywhere ecosystems are failing. Hello? Is anybody in there? Now would be a good time to wake up…
The third option uses devotion to penetrate the hearts of the archetypal realm divinities to arrive at the mystery of the nervous system and awareness itself. We are fortunate to have a precious human life and – here is where ecology enlightens us – all that makes it possible is precious to us as well. The strange world of the neurosciences provokes awe within us before the tunnels, winds and seeds; the nadi, prana and bindu of the mammalian nervous system that allows me to be aware of you… Through direct experience we participate in this world as sacred.
In my mind this is what it means to bring Buddhism to the West. It is not meant to be just another religion in the great melting pot. It would be better understood as the harbinger of emptiness, a clearing house for a culture in decline, and a creator of yogis and yoginis. We are all intellectually aware that we live in a molecular universe. For the rest of this post we are going to try and suss out the barest hints at what that might really mean, by looking at it through the eyes of a contemplative.
Contemplating the molecular nature of existence is one of the more direct doorways into non-dual awareness. A range of altered states are available along this dimension which the contemplative can use to learn things directly about conscious experience within an energetic universe. At one end of this spectrum are those states that are aware of the fuzzy nature of our body boundaries, where our extremities are continually participating in an exchange of substances with the environment; a bubbling off of molecules of ‘us’ not unlike what occurs at the surface of evaporating water. This bubbling off is balanced in the bubbling forth of the rebuilding of ‘us’ out of the substances we have absorbed from the environment, like a fountain of overflowing jewels often found in thangkas. A Buddhist finds a process ontology, not a substance ontology; this flowing is ‘us’.
Next along this spectrum of states are all those in which the molecular exchange penetrates our boundaries through activation of our sensory apparatus. The organic molecules of our being react to the molecules and atomic particles of our environment and the interaction provides what we experience in our various sensory modalities. We become aware of this patch of red or that scent of cinnamon through a cascade of biochemical pathways initiated by particles oscillating at a particular frequency within the visible spectrum in the case of color or shaped in a very particular way to mesh with the olfactory sense and convey information in the case of spices. In the quite mind of contemplation it is not hard to sense these meetings of inner and outer worlds as ongoing, direct energetic exchanges from which our identity is born. Life lives us.
Next stop on our quick survey of altered states involved in assimilating our conceptual understanding of the molecular universe through direct experience are all those involved with the classic practice of gently placing one’s attention on the breath. Breathing is perhaps the most immediate form of ongoing molecular exchange with our environment we can consciously experience. With every breath there is an exchange of carbon dioxide gas, which is poisonous for us, with oxygen which we use to fuel the metabolism of our carbon-based life forms. All thanks of course to the coevolutionary relationship all animals have with the plant kingdom, elegantly complementing our needs by fueling themselves with carbon dioxide and giving up oxygen in exchange. It is as if when we exhale the green environment around us inhales, and visa versa.
During a contemplative session at first these factoids about the molecular universe provide a type of conceptual scaffolding that aids our concentrated focus on the immediate sensations of our body breathing. As the conceptual, language-geared mind grows quite, direct awareness of this exchange grows; it is what we are and feels like a homecoming. Remember that third family of emotions that lead out of poverty mentality and into contentment? One way to use this contemplative learning experience is to educate and nurture just such typically ignored and atrophied aspects of our psychological lives. All these exercises are involved in training the mind to be at home in the molecular universe and recognize, eventually, the joyful play of sacred world.
Which brings us to the last step on this spectrum of states available to the contemplative who takes up the subject of the molecular world. Down in between the sub-atomic particles we have discovered there is a disconcertingly large amount of empty space. In the final exchanges between man and his environment we tune in not to the reality of our shared molecular nature but with the shared empty space between our particles and the shared empty space between the stars in the cosmos at large. (Here the dark kiss of infinity reaches with tentacled tunnels through the night side of Eden as a deathless inorganic being, like a jeweled skull held by Our Lady of the Stars, suffers the hard rain of the stellar kisses, ravishing the lover’s heart. Or not.)
So how does a contemplative go about preparing themselves for participation in these episodes of learning directly from the source? The yogi puts on the hat of the scholar and studies the ways of the elements. Traditionally these are referred to as earth, water, air, fire and space. Each are assigned an indispensable role in maintaining the environment in which consciousness can appear and love can be known: firmness, moisture, a medium of communication, the warmth of emotion and a distance in which to be.
It was easy to dismiss these elemental classification schemes as overly simplistic remnants of our superstitious childhood as our advancements of quantum mechanics and chemistry uncovered the ordered complexity of the periodic table. Carl Jung was the first to recognize the alchemist’s schemes were aiming at a transformation of the alchemist by pursuing their chemistries of turning lead into gold, that there was more going on here in that dense, dream-like symbolism than first meets the eye. In the same way these elemental summary classifications are not as primitive as they seem if they are used to break habitual, reductionist interpretations of our experience. I think there is an important clue here for those of us looking for ways to work with the modern mind. We should exert ourselves to our utmost in our studies, by applying whatever natural curiosity our genius lends us, to understand what we can about what our species has learned about how our molecular universe actually works. The alchemists had a saying that the last page of one book opens the first page of another; we should trust that, trust our own minds. The traditional teachings talked about course and subtle elements. The molecular world is the world of the subtle elements for us moderns, our doorway. These, and studies like them, become grist for the mill of our contemplative awareness.
Some examples; from the point of view of the germ cell life does not die, it just passes from one bodily form to another; or consider carefully the intimacy of the germ cell’s chromosomal binding in the DNA as it is found in every other of your body’s trillions of cells and one might perceive the act of sexual union extended throughout time and space, not unlike trillions of Tantric deities enthroned in their embrace within each nuclei. With an understanding of molecular epigenetics the mind can come to appreciate the histones extending their sinewy receptors from the DNA coils into the surrounding molecular soup as the expression of life’s great library of biochemical recipes skillfully adapting moment by moment by remaining coupled with its ever changing environment. We are all equally members of life’s unbroken stream, all of this and more is our inheritance, but it takes a contemplative mind to recognize the lineage.
In meditation we review what we know by applying it to deepen our direct perception of existence in all its vastness, exactly as it is this instant, all across the cosmos. In meditation we soak ourselves in wonder.