What makes human life so hard? Is it merely the inevitability of pain, loss, and death?
If we suffer only because of physical hardship, we are no worse off than other life forms. Everything that lives faces damage and demise, sooner or later.
But life does not appear equally harrowing for all that lives. Although other creatures share much in common with us, they seem to suffer less. They thrive by virtue of the same biochemistry, but they don’t cringe with the same angst.
It seems obvious we suffer more because we see more. We anticipate illness and death. We feel them stalking our own bodies and the bodies of those we love. We see too much to feel at ease.
But could it be we don’t see accurately? Could yogic and Buddhist philosophies be correct when they tell us we suffer from delusion, and that ignorance of our true situation roots us in torment? Could our interpretations drive us to misery?
What are the implications, for instance, when we imagine the universe comprised of inanimate particles? How are ethics, behavior, and peace of mind affected when all we see are lifeless lumps of matter scattered across billions of empty lightyears, deep into a cold black sky? When we imagine our own bodies and everything that surrounds us built from similar unfeeling, unaware stuff?
With that picture, whatever heart or mind exists in the cosmos arises only in brains. By some mechanism, as yet unexplained, highly complex nervous systems feel alive. Everything else feels nothing, has no inner experience at all; the cosmos is a mechanical and indifferent mass of sand.
No wonder we despair. Trapped in our lonely islands of awareness, encapsulated in fragile eggs of skull, we find solace only in others like ourselves. Our family, our friends, and perhaps our beloved pets care about us, but nothing else does. We feel adrift in a dead sea.
The origin of this sad vision dates to the rise of agriculture and technology. When humans began viewing the world as a resource, as something to be mined for food and tools, they began feeling separate. Only they possessed the Great Mind, and everything else was mere substance, open for exploitation. A lot followed, including the slaughter of innocents, but we won’t go into that today.
This dreary outlook would be forced upon us if it were supported by factual observation. But it’s not. It’s at best a biased interpretation, and at worst an outright delusion.
Let’s see what modern science tells us about the supposedly lifeless stuff that forms us and all we see.
At very small scales, matter’s behavior changes under observation. We find, for instance, that a particle appears to travel multiple paths simultaneously until we collect information about its location, at which point it chooses a single road. Extremely clever and subtle experiments have failed to contradict this basic responsiveness of matter to observation.
Why should our awareness of a particle’s motion alter its actions? It’s just not what you’d expect of lifeless sand.
But what if the very awareness we use to understand the particle extends into the particle itself? Imagine, for the moment, that the quality of presence we feel in ourselves is pervasive. Some tiny quantity of it is active within every fragment of the cosmos. Since our own awareness is continuous with the awareness of all, it shouldn’t surprise us to discover our observations affecting what we observe.
In our own minds, we know that if we scrutinize our behavior, if we are mindful, our actions change. It’s one thing to scream at a loved one in a fit of mindless rage, it’s another to watch yourself doing it. The minute we pay attention, we begin to adjust our performance. Our minds are continuous, the witness and actor only apparently separate, not actually so. Thus, observation affects outcome.
Perhaps the cosmos works the same way. We don’t need to understand the details of how learning about a particle’s motion changes its behavior in order to see that pervasive awareness might explain the effect.
I’m not insisting that this alternate viewpoint is correct. I’m not a quantum physicist, after all. But I do believe it’s an idea worth considering. Not just because it holds some explanatory promise, but because it can rescue us from the angst of human life.
If we no longer view ourselves as complex brains in a dead cosmos, but instead see our minds as concentrations of awareness in a vast sea of presence, we no longer feel so vulnerable. We aren’t as alone as we think. Even if our loved ones leave or die, we remain surrounded by a universe of awareness, one that resonates in harmony with us. Rather than feeling trapped in isolation, we awaken to vast and comforting connection.
There’s absolutely nothing in this interpretation that contradicts the empirical facts of science. Yes, it flies in the face of cherished Western assumptions. But those are mere prejudices, albeit utilitarian ones. Sometimes assuming that the universe has no mind is useful. It permits experiments that often work, at least until we begin probing the atomic depths of matter. It works the way Newtonian physics works, as a shortcut that’s highly accurate at ordinary scales but breaks down at the extremes.
The truth is, not a single experiment has ever been done that contradicts pervasive awareness.
Admittedly, no experiment has demonstrated it either.
The point is, inner experience is unverifiable from the outside. Scientific investigation cannot answer the question scientifically. On the basis of empirical observation, skeptics can no more assert universal consciousness a fantasy than mystics can assert it a reality.
Western thinking assumes it preposterous to imagine a mere electron possessing awareness. But Eastern philosophies find the notion plausible. Are we so arrogant as to assume our own view correct in absence of any experimental evidence one way or the other?
When we look within during meditation, we seem to catch glimpses of awareness that spreads far beyond our little bodies and minds. Furthermore, when we see the universe in action it appears quite, well, alive. Who isn’t moved by the flight of a raptor? By dew shining on a rose petal? By stars innumerable in a moonless sky?
So perhaps there is some evidence for pervasive awareness after all. It’s not scientific evidence, but that doesn’t mean it’s invalid. We just need to interpret it cautiously.
Lately, as I’ve prepared lectures for students in a yoga teacher training, I’ve collected animations of biomolecules. These portray cellular life as looking remarkably vivified, even in its supposedly mechanical interior. Some of the clips are narrated by scientists who view what they’re depicting as machinery. They play soundtracks of clicking gears and whirring motors in the background.
But other films are played with music that highlights the sweet, living quality of these tiny processes. The molecules look a bit like ants hard at work. Not intelligent, but not dumb machinery, either. (Check out The Inner Life of a Cell, for instance.)
Whether biomolecules possess inner experience is not something that can be decided based on empirical findings. We must choose which psychological influences we prefer to credit.
If we believe our emotional responses to the imagery, we see presence even at these sub-microscopic scales. We recognize creatures, not cogs. On the other hand, if we listen to skeptical logic, we dismiss such sentiments as mere anthropomorphizing. Either way, we can only be guided by choice, not fact.
Why not choose what makes life more livable? Why not choose to see humanity as embedded in a living, feeling universe, one that’s aware in its deepest layers, rather than a dead mass of sand? Why not choose healing rather than desolation?
If you insist that you must make the “logical” choice and remain true to facts regardless of emotional cost, ask yourself these questions: Can you be sure your logic is correct? Are the facts open to alternate interpretation? Besides, what makes you believe logic the most reliable tool? Is the mind always wiser than the heart?
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