Yesterday Scientific Santa brought me a book by physicist Leonard Susskind, “The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design.” Proving that I can get spiritual inspiration from seemingly unlikely sources, I read the first few chapters before meditating this morning.
Susskind begins his overview of particle physics with the best layman-friendly description of Feynman diagrams that I’ve ever come across. You can see an animated Feynman diagram here.
It shows two electrons and a photon traveling through space and time. Time is the vertical axis, and space (with three dimensions necessarily condensed into one) is the horizontal axis. So vertical movement is through time, and horizontal movement is through space. In the diagram one electron emits a photon, which is absorbed by another electron.
All that sounds pretty complicated for us non-physicists. So courtesy of an Astronomy 201 class at Cornell, here’s a-day-in-your-life space-time diagram (a student’s life, obviously, though it left out “drink beer” and “watch TV instead of doing homework”).
Everything that happens in space and time can be put on a space-time diagram. Each of our lives. Planetary and galactic motions. Fish swimming in the sea. A bug crawling across the sidewalk.
Plus, going to church. Reading a holy book. Listening to a sermon. Praying. Bowing at the feet of a guru. Making a pilgrimage to Mecca. Bathing in the Ganges.
Everything that most people consider to be religious or spiritual occurs in space and time. In this regard there’s no difference between the most elevated act of spirituality and an electron emitting a photon. It’s all occurring on the worldly stage of space and time.
Maybe this is all there is. However, it seems to me, and physicists also, that space-time (better to use one word for this continuum) has to come from somewhere. That is, there is something deeper than space-time, a more foundational level of reality. I’ll leave it to scientists to puzzle out what the objective nature of this entity—superstrings?—might be.
My interest in meditation is in exploring its subjective nature. I can’t say that I’ve made a whole lot of progress in this experiment, but it is an always-fascinating exercise—which today I realized can be explained via a space-time diagram.
Much of my waking time is spent moving through space. When I meditate, I’m pretty much motionless, aside from occasionally shifting into a more comfortable position. That leaves my space-time line essentially pointing straight up on the diagram: all motion through time, virtually none through space.
It could be argued, though, that there is indeed motion in me: mental movement. For a brain scanner hooked up to my cranium would indicate that neurons in various brain places are being activated as I think of different things. For even though I practice mantra meditation, the repetition of a single word, “practice” is the operative word. My mind often wanders onto other subjects, such as what I’m going to write about on my weblog later on, which is what I’m doing right now.
We humans have a unique ability (or disability) to be bodily moving along one line of a space-time diagram, while mentally moving along quite another line. I can be physically sitting on a meditation cushion in Salem, Oregon while my mind is in a far distant space and time.
So the first goal of meditation is to become a single concentrated space-time line. This is the purpose of Buddhist mindfulness meditation, as it is of most mantra-based meditative practices. But these sorts of mediation still leave you as a line in a space-time diagram. You may be motionless and doing just one thing, yet that action remains firmly enmeshed in the everyday world of space-time.
Again, maybe this is all there is. The intriguing possibility, though, is that other levels of reality exist which can be experienced through a non-everyday state of consciousness—one which breaks through the stage of space-time into…who knows?
Such a breakthrough couldn’t be captured on a space-time diagram. It would have nothing to do with space, nor with time. The consciousness experiencing that state would be somewhere and sometime else. A point, perhaps. Or a formless bubble of being. A nothing unlike anything.
Who knows? No one can say. For that knowing wouldn’t occur where we all live, breathe, think, feel, ponder, question, worship, and exist—in those space-time diagrams that so precisely and perfectly mirror our space-time lives.
Is there something else?
Is there any more tantalizing question to ask?