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Trailblazing Physicist David Bohm and Buddhist Monk Matthieu Ricard on How We Shape What We Call Reality

“Reality is what we take to be true. What we take to be true is what we believe… What we believe determines what we take to be true.”

Trailblazing Physicist David Bohm and Buddhist Monk Matthieu Ricard on How We Shape What We Call Reality

We never see the world exactly as it is — our entire experience of it is filtered through the screen of our longings and our fears, onto which project the interpretation we call reality. The nature of that flickering projection has captivated the human imagination at least since Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave. Philip K. Dick was both right and wrong when, in contemplating how to build a universe, he wrote that “reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” Reality, after all, is constructed through our very beliefs — not because we have a magical-thinking way of willing events and phenomena into manifesting, but because cognitive science has shown us that the way we direct our attention shapes our perception of what we call “reality.”

That’s what molecular biologist turned Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard and Buddhist-raised astrophysicist Trinh Thuan explore in The Quantum and the Lotus: A Journey to the Frontiers Where Science and Buddhism Meet (public library) — an infinitely mind-bending conversation at the intersection of science and philosophy. The contemporary counterpart to Einstein’s conversation with Tagore, it takes apart our most elemental assumptions about time, space, the origin of the universe and, above all, the nature of reality.

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In considering the constructed nature of reality, Ricard quotes from a 1977 Berkeley lecture by David Bohm (December 20, 1917–October 27, 1992), in which the trailblazing theoretical physicist offered an exquisite formulation of the interplay between our beliefs and what we experience as reality:

Reality is what we take to be true. What we take to be true is what we believe. What we believe is based upon our perceptions. What we perceive depends on what we look for. What we look for depends on what we think. What we think depends on what we perceive. What we perceive determines what we believe. What we believe determines what we take to be true. What we take to be true is our reality.

Art by Wendy MacNaughton
Art by Wendy MacNaughton

Ricard adds:

No matter how complex our instruments may be, no matter how sophisticated and subtle our theories and calculations, it’s still our consciousness that finally interprets our observations. And it does so according to its knowledge and conception of the event under consideration. It’s impossible to separate the way consciousness works from the conclusions it makes about an observation. The various aspects that we make out in a phenomenon are determined not only by how we observe, but also by the concepts that we project onto the phenomenon in question.

Complement this fragment of the wholly fantastic The Quantum and the Lotus with Alan Watts on what reality really means and Simone Weil on science and our spiritual values, then revisit Ricard’s conversation with his father, the great French philosopher Jean-François Revel, about the nature of the self.

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Michael Faraday on Mental Discipline and How to Cure Our Propensity for Self-Deception

“That point of self-education which consists in teaching the mind to resist its desires and inclinations, until they are proved to be right, is the most important of all.”

Michael Faraday on Mental Discipline and How to Cure Our Propensity for Self-Deception

The pioneering English physicist and chemist Michael Faraday (September 22, 1791–August 25, 1867) planted the seed for the study of electromagnetism — a cornerstone of our present understanding of the universe, without which Einstein wouldn’t have been able to link space and time in his seminal theory of special relativity. But Faraday, like many great scientists before the dawn of psychology, was also a man of enormous insight into the human psyche and its pathologies. On May 6, 1854, he delivered a lecture at the Royal Institution on the subject of “mental discipline,” later included in his volume Experimental Researches In Chemistry And Physics (public library | public domain).

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Two centuries before modern psychologists coined “the backfire effect” — the root of why we have such a hard time changing our minds — Faraday captures our profoundly human propensity for self-deception when it comes to confirming our convictions and indulging our desires:

Among those points of self-education which take up the form of mental discipline, there is one of great importance, and, moreover, difficult to deal with, because it involves an internal conflict, and equally touches our vanity and our ease. It consists in the tendency to deceive ourselves regarding all we wish for, and the necessity of resistance to these desires. It is impossible for any one who has not been constrained, by the course of his occupation and thoughts, to a habit of continual self-correction, to be aware of the amount of error in relation to judgment arising from this tendency. The force of the temptation which urges us to seek for such evidence and appearances as are in favour of our desires, and to disregard those which oppose them, is wonderfully great. In this respect we are all, more or less, active promoters of error. In place of practising wholesome self-abnegation, we ever make the wish the father to the thought: we receive as friendly that which agrees with, we resist with dislike that which opposes us; whereas the very reverse is required by every dictate of common sense.

More than two hundred years before the term “confirmation bias” entered the popular lexicon, Faraday extols the essential self-discipline of continually questioning even our most dearly held beliefs and probing whether what we desire to be true is actually true:

The inclination we exhibit in respect of any report or opinion that harmonizes with our preconceived notions, can only be compared in degree with the incredulity we entertain towards everything that opposes them… It is my firm persuasion that no man can examine himself in the most common things, having any reference to him personally, or to any person, thought or matter related to him, without being soon made aware of the temptation and the difficulty of opposing it… That point of self-education which consists in teaching the mind to resist its desires and inclinations, until they are proved to be right, is the most important of all, not only in things of natural philosophy, but in every department of daily life.

Complement with Carl Sagan’s indispensable Baloney Detection Kit and Adrienne Rich on what “truth” really means.

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John O’Donohue on Beauty, Why We Fall in Love, and How the Life-Force of Desire Vitalizes Us

“We can slip into the Beautiful with the same ease as we slip into the seamless embrace of water; something ancient within us already trusts that this embrace will hold us.”

“We are made immortal,” Emerson wrote, “by the contemplation of beauty.” Immortality may be too elusive a promise, but beauty does work us over with the piercing immediacy of concrete vitality: we come alive in beholding beauty, intensely immersed in the here and now. Beauty beckons us — from Bach to Blake to the dramatic limestone outcrop on a Basque beach that unravels a billion years our planet’s story as a solitary spaceship in a vast and mysterious universe.

That’s what the Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue (January 1, 1956–January 4, 2008) explores in Beauty: The Invisible Embrace (public library) — an enchanting meditation on how beauty lays its claim on the human spirit in such disparate realms as music, love, imperfection, death, and desire.

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O’Donohue writes:

We live between the act of awakening and the act of surrender. Each morning we awaken to the light and the invitation to a new day in the world of time; each night we surrender to the dark to be taken to play in the world of dreams where time is no more. At birth we were awakened and emerged to become visible in the world. At death we will surrender again to the dark to become invisible. Awakening and surrender: they frame each day and each life; between them the journey where anything can happen, the beauty and the frailty.

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This beauty and frailty, O’Donohue notes, have surrounded us since long before we developed the language in which to witness them, even before there was a “we” to do the witnessing — they are the very fabric of the universe, the eternal backdrop to the cosmic blink of human life:

The Greeks … raised the eye beyond the horizon and recognized the heavenly patterns of the cosmos. There they glimpsed a vision of order which was to become the heart of their understanding of beauty. All the frailty and uncertainty was seen to be ultimately sheltered by the eternal beauty which presides over all the journeys between awakening and surrender, the visible and the invisible, the light and the darkness.

The human soul is hungry for beauty… When we experience the Beautiful, there is a sense of homecoming. Some of our most wonderful memories are beautiful places where we felt immediately at home. We feel most alive in the presence of the Beautiful for it meets the needs of our soul. For a while the strains of struggle and endurance are relieved and our frailty is illuminated by a different light in which we come to glimpse behind the shudder of appearances and sure form of things. In the experience of beauty we awaken and surrender in the same act. Beauty brings a sense of completion and sureness. Without any of the usual calculation, we can slip into the Beautiful with the same ease as we slip into the seamless embrace of water; something ancient within us already trusts that this embrace will hold us.

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Beauty’s most primordial and primal manifestation, O’Donohue argues, is Eros — the immortal force that gathers momentum in the space between longing and love, distance and desire:

There is a lovely disarray that comes with attraction. When you find yourself deeply attracted to someone, you gradually begin to lose your grip on the frames that order your life. Indeed, much of your life becomes blurred as that countenance comes into clearer focus. A relentless magnet draws all your thoughts towards it. Wherever you are, you find yourself thinking about the one who has become the horizon of your longing. When you are together, time becomes unmercifully swift. It always ends too soon. No sooner have you parted than you are already imagining your next meeting, counting the hours. The magnetic draw of that presence renders you delightfully helpless. A stranger you never knew until recently has invaded your mind; every fibre of your being longs to be closer.

“Air de Capri” by Gerda Wegener, 1923
“Air de Capri” by Gerda Wegener, 1923

O’Donohue calls this “the vortex of Eros,” a place where we grow “innocent and careless” — but for all its acuity of feeling, it comes in an endless array of flavors:

Eros can take many forms. Sometimes it can be slow, subtle and indirect, building quietly without anyone else even suspecting. Sometimes it can come at you.

It is always astonishing how love can strike. No context is love-proof, no convention or commitment impervious. Even a lifestyle which is perfectly insulated, where the personality is controlled, all the days ordered and all actions in sequence, can to its own dismay find that an unexpected spark has landed; it begins to smoulder until it is finally unquenchable. The force of Eros always brings disturbance; in the concealed terrain of the human heart Eros remains a light sleeper.

Illustration from 'An ABZ of Love,' Kurt Vonnegut's favorite vintage Danish guide to sexuality. Click image for more.
Illustration from ‘An ABZ of Love,’ Kurt Vonnegut’s favorite vintage Danish guide to sexuality. Click image for more.

In a sentiment that brings to mind Mary Oliver on how differences bring lovers closer together, O’Donohue adds:

Huge differences may separate us, yet they are exactly what draw us to each other. It is as though forged together we form one presence, for each of us has half of a language that the other seeks. When we approach each other and become one, a new fluency comes alive. A lost world retrieves itself when our words build a new circle. While the call to each other is exciting and intoxicating in its bond of attraction, it is exceptionally complex and tender and, handled indelicately, can bring incredible pain. We can awaken in each other possibilities beyond our wildest dreams. The conversation of togetherness is a primal and indeed perennial conversation. Despite the thousands of years of human interaction, it all begins anew, as if for the first time, when two people fall in love. The force of their encounter makes a real clearance; through the power of Eros they discover the beauty in each other. Stretching the power of Eros they discover the beauty in each other. Stretching across the distance towards each other, they begin to awaken all the primal echoes where nothing can be presumed but almost everything can be expected.

But despite its enormous centripetal form, the beauty of Eros is a tapestry of uncertainties, woven of longing:

One could write a philosophy of beauty using the family of concepts which includes glimpse, glance, touch, taste and whisper, all of which suggest a special style of attention which is patient and reverent, content with a suggestion or a clue and then willing through its own imagination to fill out the invitation to beauty.

'Lee Miller and Friend' by Man Ray. Paris, 1930.
‘Lee Miller and Friend’ by Man Ray. Paris, 1930.

The beauty of Eros culminates in the union of body and soul — of two bodies and two souls — when we make love:

The instinct, rhythm and radiance of the human body come alive vividly when we make love. We slip down into a more ancient penumbral rhythm where the wisdom of the body claims its own grace, ease and joy. The act of love is rich in symbolism and ambivalence. It arises on that temporary, total threshold between solitude and intimacy, skin and soul, feeling and thought, memory and future. When it is a real expression of love, it can become an act of great beauty which brings celebration, wonder, delight, closeness and shelter. The old notion of the soul being hidden somewhere deep within the body serves only to intensify the loneliness of the love act as the attempt of two solitudes to bridge their distance. However, when we understand that the body is in the soul, intimacy and union seem unavoidable because the soul as the radiance of the body is already entwined with the lover.

Complement O’Donohue’s wholly enchanting Beauty: The Invisible Embrace with Emerson on cultivating the true hallmarks of beauty, Sarah Lewis and Anna Deavere Smith on the power of “aesthetic force,” and Ursula K. Le Guin on what beauty really means — one of the finest essays ever written — then revisit O’Donohue on what the ancient Celtic notion of anam cara can teach us about friendship.

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