On the Horizons

I recently read Roger Penrose’s book about the nature of consciousness and how it arises, and I am again surprised and excited by how western science is running into the ’end’ of the universe, not on a macroscopic level, but at the subnuclear level where the most fundamental properties of the macrouniverse seem to dissolve and merge.

If you’re not familiar with Penrose, let me try to summarize his book in a sentence or two. He asked the obvious question – if thought and consciousness and mechanical action/reaction is supposed to arise in nerves and nervous systems, what is going on in single-celled organisms that have no nervous system? They recognize food, avoid danger, and reproduce in predictable ways.

Penrose followed a trail that led to the microtubules within the mitochondia of cells, where he found thousands of sets of protein dimers that have two states, like primitive boolean state machines. He hypothesizes that quantum coherence across a set of these dimers – on the order of 10,000 or so – constitutes the fundamental “signal” that underlies all neural action. What he cannot explain is how coherence arises and is sustained at biological temperatures, where thermal noise should swamp this most faint signalling.

I suspect that the mechanism of organic superconduction could be partly or wholly reponsible for maintaining such coherence. I have personally experienced the phenomenon that the vedic theorists describe as the “kundalini” force, and it subjectively feels like the cerebrospinal fluid starts to superconduct. The process begins at the base of the spine, where the “kundalini gland” is supposed to lie, and rapidly proceeds upward as the compound diffuses.

But within the cells of organisms, perhaps creation of such a superconducting chemical acts as a stabilizer or amplifying force. Perhaps the meditative/concentrative techniques evolved over the years in many different paths are ways to stimulate production of this substance, and/or to quiet the thermal noise of the “monkey mind” enough to let kindling of quantum-coherent state information arise from the Dirac sea into these primary receptors.

The mechanisms governing virtual particle production are not subject to the same space/time/causality considerations that already created matter is subject to. If Allah has left His signs “on the horizons” as the Koran says over and over, along with, “Surely there are signs for those who reflect” and “for those who ponder”, what better place to seek Him out that at that very twilight borderland of physical reality. Experiment after experiment in that land verifies His attributes – such as the recent Bose-Einstein condensate experiment, which projected unity of material identity across 2000 “separate” atoms as they approached close to absolute zero.

In my experience, the reception of information from outside the accustomed sources takes place, at first, at levels that fluctuate around one’s own threshold of awareness, and are only understandable as “spliced-into-normal-consciousness” by observing that the action-reaction thought flow is interrupted by a non-mechanistic thought/perception. It took me many years to catch the nonsequential element in this (this is also how telepathic information presents to me.)

Perhaps as individuals mature they separate more and more from the deterministic stream and become more and more aware of a non-process-oriented nondeterministic reality, corresponding to Ibn al’ Arabi’s “Realms”, which he describes as “the substrata in which experience actually occurs”, or to the ideational platonic realm described by Shaykh Hasan Shushud as fana’ al-af ’al , or the “annihilation of actions”, the first stage of separation from material creation, i.e., time-bound action/reaction mechanism.

Experience occurs there because what we perceive as “identity” is the ideational aspect of reality transferred from that realm to ours in simultaneous coterminous quantum flux throughout spacetime. Without that transference, we would have no existence or only have beingness as a formless “quark fog”, as one theorist put it.

I have experienced states of awareness, as an adult (I imagine that young children do it spontaneously until they learn to observe compulsively), where I was aware of process without being aware of myself. The quality of my awareness was such that it seemed to be floating frictionless on experience without any self-referential interaction. If there was a way to sustain that level of awareness, not of process but of the “objects of knowledge”, what might we learn?


Finding the Essence

What is the element common to all experience – in whatever realm you wish to consider? That is the Essence, the unit of identity that exists and has experience. It is the very spark of life.

Ibn al-Arabi maintained that the realms are basically six in number, though they may present themselves as multiplicities. He names them as the state we were in before incarnation; our life here in the material world; the “interval”, or barzakh, after we have left this life and before moving into the metaeternity of God; the Garden and the Fire, and the sand dunes outside the garden.

It is not clear how much of this metaphysics we are capable of understanding, while in the human form, or outside of it. Ibn al-Arabi says that the number of realms is limitless and beyond our understanding whatever our state.

Our Essence is eternal and with us in whatever realm we inhabit, but our perception of those realms is colored by all the noise collected in our personalities and experience. We have and have always had every potential within us, but they remain obscured by coarser accidental responses to our world and states.

The Essence is what remains when the accidental and temporal is removed. In the “journey without distance”, Ibn al-Arabi explains, limitless expansions and elaborations of reality occur, both upward (toward an endless multidimensional spiritual abstraction) and downward (to an endless multidimensional infolding of significance and meaning). The realms are the states of being conducive to these experiences, and according to the Greatest Shaykh, they are where these manifestations “actually appear”.

It is important to realize that since these states arise in awareness, not consciousness, they are part of our own experience of ourselves, not our considerations, beliefs, opinions, fears, hopes, or phantasies. In that sense, the realms are not part of the human form itself, but the matrix from which the human form arises, indeed from which all form and identity and potential arises.

Scientists say that some dinosaurs were only capable of seeing movement – changes in their visual environment. Consciousness is like this. It exists by, for, and about differences and discrimination. Even though perception of the realms is very different from our normal consciousness, that perception does not present as another distinction, but as a change in state.

The process of disentangling the Essence from the overgrown weeds of consciousness requires making these kinds of distinctions in your own experience, and makes such perception possible.You may ask, “How is it that awareness can perceive its own change of state without invoking differential consciousness?” This is a level of mystery I cannot understand; it is deeply buried in the metaphysical significance of unity and separation, and I do not know. My own Shaykh explains it this way: absence of knowing is not a state of being; it is a blankness, not even a potential, but the hidden is there in its own special state, waiting for you to discover it, and questions like the above pertain to the hidden, not the unknown.

Ibn al-Arabi notes that when you view the greater reality from within the treasures laid up within you, they appear as “miracles and wonders” that occur continuously in your perception. This is the state of the mazjubs, the Madmen of God, who are transfixed by the parade of meaning and wonder so thoroughly that they may appear to be unconscious of events around them in “reality”.

The Greatest Shaykh advises us to appreciate this level of experience, but to look away from it and continue the Journey. At each such waystation, the temptation is there to lose yourself in it (as this is what we long for above all else), but it is what you lose yourself in that determines your ultimate destination. He says that beings and states and understanding will all appear before you and present themselves as God, upon which you must say, “God is far beyond you,” and continue on the path without being absorbed in the significance of that moment.

The Essence is the window into God. It is of God and not of God; it reveals and obscures. More importantly, all we can know of God, while wearing the human form, is of and through the Essence. It is the metaphysical – ontological layer of the human form.

Thus, development of the Essence (or more properly, the revealing of the Essence) is “cutting to the chase” in spiritual development. Any exercise or experience that “works” to develop your Being is work on the Essence.

I recommend A. H. Almaas’s book Essence as the best discursive onramp to a study of it. An indirect approach to developing the tools to meet your Essence is the traditional corpus of the Mullah Nasruddin stories.


Our Situation: Though Inland Far We Be

The history of man has been shaped by many factors, but for our purposes there are three events whose impacts we live with every day.

First of all, about 3 million years ago, the Isthmus of Panama rose up out of the water to prevent a horizontal flow of water between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. For hundreds of millions of years before this – a long time – the Earth experienced a weak flow of water around the globe from west to east. Temperatures were stable with less variation between the seasons.

But when the Isthmus arose, the flow became routed up along the eastern edge of the US and then out to sea, where it wound back toward Europe and eventually dissipated off the coast of Greenland. These waters, which were warm and which had evaporated a good deal of their volume during the trip, became denser than the surrounding waters from increased salinity. They sank down into the cold depths and began a long return loop back to the other “end” off the coast of India and Australia, where the cold water wells up and affects the climate there. This long loop of water, with planetary effects in heating and cooling areas, is today known as the Northern Atlantic Conveyor.

The practical result of this changed flow was a change in the Earth’s climate from the steady-state regime that had lasted for so long. The climate developed two distinct modes: the warm state, which we are currently in, and the cold state, known as an “ice age”. These states are metastable; once in one state or the other various feedback systems tend to keep the climate in that state until conditions build up to force the climate out of its “comfortable” position in a swing over to the other state. Curiously, if the warm state gets too warm, corrective feedback can tip the scales into an ice age, and vice versa – this is how most of the switches happened, and may be happening now.

Some, such as Dr. William Calvin, think that human intelligence evolved rapidly under the impact of such rapid change. We think that if an ice age descended on our world, that the human race would collapse. Possibly, but it would probably not die – humanity has survived over 200 ice ages.

The second challenge that shaped the human experience was the detonation of Mt. Toba on the island of Sumatra. This was an explosion of a supervolcano, like others in India or Yellowstone Park in the USA, which caused a “volcanic winter” at least six years long, followed by a very cold 1000-year ice age. Conditions were so dire that biologists who have studied the human genome can state with great confidence that the human race was destroyed down to less than 10,000 individuals during this period, and that all people today are descended from those 10,000. Needless to say, the challenge of living through this disaster boosted the intelligence and survival power of humanity. (See the Mt. Toba disaster.)

The third challenge was the most important. Depending on who is telling the story, the human race experienced a physical mutation either 40,000, 26,000, 20,000, 16,000, 12,000, 10,000, or 6,000 years ago. This mutation stopped most of the interaction between the two sides of the human brain, which up until this point had worked together. More importantly, the life experience that our ancestors had was different in type and quality to our own experience. Before the mutation, we were brilliant animals without consciousness as we understand it today. We had awareness of our lives as they unfolded, and we received guidance from our experience and from instinct without differentiating between the two (See Julian Jaynes’ theories about the “Bicameral Mind” for a closer look at these phenomena.)

Once the connection was cut, the two sides of the brain continued to function, and even to work together to some degree, but the quality of experience was much different. Specifically, we now had what we call reflective consciousness, which is awareness of awareness. The importance of this should not be underestimated. Reflective consciousness made us able, for the first time, to be critical of our own thinking processes, by being able to separate from our viewpoints and manipulate them in different ways. This mutation made all of human culture possible. In particular, it made the scientific method possible, and so is responsible for the technology that has brought us to where we are today.

This mutation was absolutely essential to the development of man. It was also dangerous beyond comprehension, and it is not yet clear if mankind can survive the impact and unintended consequences of the change.

The problem with reflective consciousness is the same as its inestimable value: it allows humans to have a point of view about the contents of consciousness. Specifically, it allows belief.

Once we developed the ability to hold perceptions at arm’s length, as it were, and examine them, we became able to consider abstract ideas in the same way, and we became liable to confuse mental constructs with actual sensory reports from the world around us.

These abilities lead to lots of theorizing with a multiplicity of incorrect theories for every accurate one. Worse, emotional evaluations are also factored into the theorizing, with beliefs offering the reassurance of certainty in a forest of doubt. As brilliant animals, we were protected by instinct and kept in obedience; sin was impossible. As men, we can do whatever we can figure out how to do. The goal of life is to regain the unity of the pre-conscious state, but as an adult consciousness able to move between analytical consciousness and experiential awareness smoothly and at will.

This is complicated by the combination of attraction and repulsion we have for the unconscious, but aware, state. It has the deep appeal of the womb, security, freedom from worry, freedom from choice, and stability. On the other hand, consciousness realizes how vulnerable this state is when faced with competition from human consciousness, and fears descent into the animal. On the third hand, something within us recognizes, dimly or otherwise, that there is a reality behind and beyond both these viewpoints, and it is that which calls to us…

But for those obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
Fallings from us, vanishings;

Blank misgivings of a Creature
Moving about in worlds not realised,
High instincts before which our mortal Nature
Did tremble like a guilty Thing surprised:

But for those first affections,
Those shadowy recollections,
Which, be they what they may,
Are yet the fountain light of all our day,
Are yet a master light of all our seeing;
Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake,
To perish never;
Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavour,
Nor Man nor Boy,
Nor all that is at enmity with joy,
Can utterly abolish or destroy!

Hence in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the Children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.

Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, Wm. Wordsworth