|Posted by Bethany Butzer, Ph.D. on October 19, 2017 at 7:40 AM|
I like to figure things out. Whether it’s in my personal or professional life, I seem to be constantly searching for answers. I make pro and con lists, I journal, I meditate, I ruminate, I read personal development books, I attend workshops, I watch inspirational videos. Heck, sometimes I even check my horoscope. I try to solve all of my problems down to the most minute detail. I weigh my options, check my calendar, make more lists, and think, think, think, think.
I try to think my way out of (and into) everything.
On the one hand, I enjoy my tireless mind. It has helped me accomplish big goals like getting my PhD. On the other hand, sometimes my over-thinking is just a bunch of rumination that doesn’t help much at all.
Most of the time I feel like I’m in a feedback loop from hell (as Mark Manson so eloquently described in his book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck). My feedback loop involves me over-thinking, followed by attempts to quiet my mind, followed by getting annoyed at myself for not being able to quiet my mind. This usually ends in frustration and hopelessness - hopelessness that I’ll never be able to access the part of me that knows the solution to my problem.
To get out of my feedback loop from hell, lately I’ve been playing with the idea of simply opening up to mystery. In other words, surrendering to the fact that some problems, issues, and life decisions aren’t meant to be known right now. And some might never be known (at least not at an intellectual level). My rational mind refuses to accept this, because it’s convinced that with enough logical thinking it can solve any problem. Sometimes my mind even convinces me that if I quiet it down enough, I’ll be able to tune into my heart/soul/intuition, where all the answers will be revealed.
Sometimes this happens. Many times it doesn’t.
This has led me to wonder if sometimes my heart/soul/intuition doesn’t have the answer because I’m not supposed to know the answer.
One of the main things that all humans have in common is that we’re participating in an enormous mystery. None of us truly knows why we’re here, or what happens after we die, or what lies beyond the reaches of what modern science has discovered about the world around us.
Speaking of science, I recently attended the International Transpersonal Conference in Prague. The conference was a gathering of a few hundred people who are interested in what I like to call life’s “big questions.” Questions about why we’re here, what our purpose is, and how we might help humanity evolve for the better. One of the panel discussions literally tried to answer the question, “What is the purpose of the universe?.” It was like my idea of heaven.
The conference was also the most cross-disciplinary meeting I’ve ever attended. The presenters and attendees were scientists, researchers, psychologists, quantum physicists, astro-physicists, indigenous shamans, nobel prize nominees, monks, mystics, and more. What they all had in common was an interest in the great mystery. They came to this interest in a variety of ways. Some spent years studying physics or astronomy only to realize that they couldn’t find all the answers there. Some had life-changing psychedelic experiences or spiritual awakenings or vision quests that brought them face-to-face with self-transcendence. It felt like a gathering of people from all corners of the globe and from a variety of disciplines who had bumped up against the edges of some great Unknown.
Many of the presenters brought up the idea that for the past few hundred years, science has been far too focused on what you might call materialism. In other words, most scientists hold that matter (i.e. physical objects made of atoms) is the basis of reality. This materialistic mindset has brought us many great technologies and scientific discoveries. We have things like electricity, airplanes, and organ transplants because scientists have spent years exploring the basic material aspects of physics, chemistry, and biology.
But there is still a lot of unknown.
Since the early 1970s, physicists have used what’s called the Standard Model of particle physics to explain most of the physical world around us, and they’ve done a really good job. But even the Standard Model doesn't explain everything (read this article for a full description). Scientists have also found that when you start to examine matter at a quantum level, particles no longer behave like concrete physical objects. Instead, particles seem to behave like waves or clusters of vibrations that are held together in specific ways.
There are even studies suggesting that when we observe matter, we change the way that it behaves (at least at a quantum level). Dean Radin, Chief Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, gave a presentation about how his lab has used double-slit optical experiments to show that humans can influence physical matter (photons) at a quantum level - even from a distance - simply by setting a conscious intention to influence the photons. Put more simply, consciousness affects matter.
These experiments fly in the face of a strictly materialist paradigm, because unlike gravity or the electromagnetic force, consciousness is not currently recognized in the scientific community as being a physical force. Instead, consciousness is often thought to be a random byproduct of neurons firing in our brain - it is not believed to have the ability to influence anything in the physical world. But if consciousness is not a physical force, then how is it able to affect physical objects like photons? Dr. Radin’s research has since been replicated by at least one independent lab (you can watch a video about his experiments here). In a nutshell, his results suggest that our intentions and attention might influence the world around us in ways that we don’t fully understand.
One of the main hypotheses that was put forth at the conference was that consciousness might be the underlying substrate of all of existence - not matter. In other words, scientists from a variety of disciplines are starting to converge on the idea that there is some sort of “intelligent force” that might be governing the laws of our universe. This force is really hard for us to wrap our heads around because it seems to transcend space and time. But in the same way that gravity causes an apple to fall from a tree, this force seems to hold our universe together in some sort of non-random, coherent way.
People have referred to this force as the cosmos, consciousness, intelligence, information, creativity, the field, energy, vibration, or even as love or god. Not god as in organized religion or a man sitting on a fluffy white cloud. We’re talking quantum physics here, but sometimes language is limited in its ability to describe complex, mystical phenomena. Nobel Peace Prize nominee Ervin Laszlo referred to our universe as “a non-local field of complex vibrations that are held together in a coherent way by a force that we can best identify as intelligence.” Theoretical quantum physicist Amit Goswami described physical objects as being waves of possibility that become particles of actuality when we measure or observe them.
Kind of mind-blowing, right?
At the moment, however, there are more questions than answers. We don’t know if things that happen at the quantum level can be extrapolated to the physical world that you and I see with our naked eyes. We don’t have the instruments to measure this “intelligent force.” We don’t even seem to have the cognitive capacity to identify it - although some people who have experienced spiritual awakenings (awakenings that bypassed their usual cognitive abilities) seem to have come close to feeling/experiencing/knowing it.
To hardcore rational materialists, these ideas sound like nonsense. Materialists believe that our physical world is what it is because of the physical laws that we’ve discovered so far. As Rupert Sheldrake mentions in his book The Science Delusion:
“Science is being constricted by assumptions that have hardened into dogmas. The 'scientific worldview' has become a belief system. All reality is material or physical. The world is a machine, made up of dead matter. Nature is purposeless. Consciousness is nothing but the physical activity of the brain.”
But the International Transpersonal Conference showed me that science is starting to push the boundaries of these ideas. It appears that science is starting to open up to mystery. The scientists at the conference were not all voodoo-hippie-weirdos. They were researchers with rigorous academic credentials, shamans with deep indigenous knowledge, and physicists who work on cutting edge projects like the CERN initiative. That being said, the researchers who are exploring these mysteries tend to live on the fringes of science. Many are even scared to admit their interests in “mysterious” topics because they fear being ridiculed by their colleagues.
This is not new. Throughout history, scientists who espoused “fringe” ideas were often regarded with caution at best, or accused of witchcraft at worst. Even Galileo was imprisoned for his hypothesis that the earth revolves around the sun. I believe that right now, humans are at a point where we need to loosen our grip on materialism and open up to the idea that there might be forces in this universe that transcend the known laws of physics. This doesn’t mean we throw out all of the great materialist ideas that came before us. It means we broaden our mindset to include something more.
This cross-disciplinary, open-minded pursuit of mystery and truth is what’s ultimately going to take science, and humanity, to the next level. After all, is it so hard to believe that one day, science and spirituality might converge? Perhaps eventually we will develop tools and methods that confirm, rigorously and scientifically, the transcendent phenomena that mystics (and ordinary people) from a variety of religious and spiritual traditions have been describing for thousands of years. These people often describe spiritual awakenings that involve experiencing a sense of immense oneness, interconnectedness, and love that transcends all sense of their self, ego, space, and time. Could this feeling of transcendence be the “intelligent force,” or consciousness, that’s holding our universe together? Only time will tell.
I also believe that for many of us, our personal and professional lives are microcosms of the shifts that are slowly starting to happen in science. On a personal level, many of us have spent most of our lives trying to use the laws of reason and logic to solve our problems. Many of us hold matter as primary, believe the world is random and meaningless, and have closed our minds to the possibility of mystery. Personally, I’ve spent years studying within a materialist paradigm that has taught me to do research in very narrow (albeit rigorous) ways. Like many people around me, I’m starting to open up to the concept of mystery in both my personal and professional life.
Tama Kieves recently posted a video on Facebook about how we never truly figure anything out. Instead, we follow it out. In other words, when you are presented with a decision, issue, or problem, you engage in action - any type of action - and that action provides you with information. You can then use that information to inform your next action, and so on. You mindfully engage with the mystery of life and see what happens.
But, in the end, maybe I’ll never figure anything out. Maybe our universe is just a random bunch of matter spinning around aimlessly. Maybe consciousness is just a byproduct of our physical brain. As a good scientist, I need to stay open to these ideas until someone proves otherwise. However, I need to stay equally open to the idea that there is way more to our universe than we currently understand.
In this moment I’m choosing to let things be and play with the mystery. How about you?
If you’re interested, here are a few books written by some of the conference presenters (note that I haven’t read all of these books, so I’m not necessarily endorsing them - I’m just providing them as resources for those interested!):
And here are the websites of a few of the speakers I enjoyed listening to: