As I was growing up I didn’t like science very much. It seemed to me like a lot of empty facts, bits of knowledge about the formation of the planets or atomic valence—stuff I had to memorize but that didn’t matter much to my everyday life. I would have rather read a novel by Dostoyevsky or a philosophical essay by Camus that spoke directly about the human condition. I only began to be interested in science when I realized that it was, in fact, all about me. The law of gravity explains what holds me on this planet; photosynthesis is the process that grows the fuel that powers my life; the complex web of neurons in the brain is what creates my experience. (I also find it notable that my interest in science coincided with the beginnings of my meditation practice.)
Now I keep a file in my computer just for science information, and almost every day I make another entry, often returning later to speculate on what it means. I’m especially drawn to the scientific discoveries that point to anicca, dukkha or anatta, the Buddha’s three characteristics of existence. Occasionally I will read about a research project, or even find a single fact, that sends me into an altered state, a revelation of nonduality, a feeling of self-liberation. Some science information I just find whimsical or funny.
Here are a few entries from my science file, accompanied by my comments and musings.
I recently read that there are 100 sextillion stars in the universe. Sure. I’ll go along with that. Some astronomers must have counted them.
Meanwhile, an astrophysicist claims to have figured out the size of the universe—it’s 10 billion, trillion, trillion cubic light-years large. All right, approximately. And remember, this was as of May 2007.
Modern science keeps presenting us with these enormous numbers, but most of them are meaningless in the sense of being incomprehensible to our tiny little brains and even tinier perspectives. Now I’ve got so many of these gigantic numbers in my head that I get confused when I’m not near my notes. Are there 50 or 100 billion galaxies? Are there 50 or 100 trillion cells in my body? Sometimes I confuse the two categories. Maybe we will discover that there are exactly as many galaxies in the universe as there are cells in our bodies. That would either be a strange coincidence, or else a hint that reality isn’t just random chaos bumping into itself.
As science presents us with all of these big numbers, it’s becoming more and more convenient to be a mystic and to just see it all as “one.” Of course, the essential question remains, Who’s counting?
More numbers. Every cell in your body goes through 4,000 transactions a second—processing fuels, exchanging chemical and electrical signals with other cells, monitoring the environment, creating proteins and enzymes. Considering that you have approximately 50 trillion cells in your body, there are literally quadrillions of events taking place inside of you every single second. Stay mindful!
A few important facts to know about laughter: Research shows that when you have a belly laugh, you breathe in six times more oxygen than normal. Some experts estimate that twenty seconds of laughter is equal to twenty minutes of cardiovascular exercise. And usually you’re laughing at something funny as well, which is its own reward. In fact, laughter stimulates euphoria centers in the brain, the same ones that light up over chocolate or sex.
Actual scientific studies have been done on the “vocalization and burst rates” of laughter, finding that across cultures the most constant consonant of laughter is h. Most of us go “ha ha” or “hee hee,” “ho ho” or “heh heh.” The researchers also found that nobody laughs with mixed consonants, as in “ha, fa, la, ca, kee, po.”
Anthropologists now believe that the human “ha-ha” evolved from the rhythmic sound made by other primate species when tickling and chasing each other in play. They make a sound like “hooh hooh.”
Primates like to tickle each other, and one scientist has determined that the first joke ever made was the fake tickle, when the gesture to tickle is made but withdrawn before contact. “Ha ha. Fooled you.”
I love the new neuroscience, especially when it confirms my meditation experience. But sometimes I sense that all this scientific information is bringing a bias into my practice. For instance, ever since I heard that greater activity in the left frontal cortex of the brain correlates with more contentment, I’ve been sort of “leaning” that way in meditation, exploring that area of my head with my attention. When I first started to meditate I would often focus on the pressure around my “third eye” until my teacher Goenka told me to stop because it would lead to the yogic powers known as siddhis, and then I’d be seduced from the pure path of the Buddha.
But I’m going to let myself do a little more exploration of that left frontal cortex. If I find the sweet spot, I’ll let you know.
Global warming is a serious problem for humanity, but it can also arouse gratitude by reminding us that we are now living through a very benign climatic era. The most recent ice age ended only about 12,000 years ago, allowing us humans to invent agriculture, giving us the ability to feed ourselves with enough time and energy left over to do things like create civilization and meditate.
All of that idle time has also led to an explosion of populations, as well as to the invention of marvelous new tools and technologies, which is what has led to this global warming. It’s dependent co-arising and the law of karma on the grand stage of our collective history.
Talk of global warming usually leads me back around to the Buddha’s fire sermon, where he declares that everything is burning. Nirvana means “no fires.” More meditation is exactly what humanity needs right now. It’s time to chill.
As you may have heard, we can no longer regard space and time as separate dimensions. They are as inseparable as up and down, light and dark, right sock and left sock. Space and time are now space-time, and we can become familiar with the new reality by using this conjunction more often. We live in space-time. Where you are is also when. (Spiritual seekers take note: if space-time is a single dimension, then “be here now” is redundant.)
Meanwhile, the mind-body split seems to persist. Prominent modern pundits and spiritual adepts still proclaim that we are born through a spiritual medium as opposed to a physical one, and they insist that our essence has nothing to do with flesh and bones.
But what if both matter and spirit are necessary for our existence? Perhaps they are as inseparable as space and time (space-time), and both are necessary for our soul or consciousness to manifest. Maybe we could think of ourselves as spirit-matter.
And what if we come to believe that our essential identity lives and dies along with our physical body? How might that alter our behavior or our understanding of the value of this life? Without fear of our next-life, would we all lose interest in enlightenment, or run amok, as some eminent Buddhist teachers warn?
I agree that consciousness is a marvel, but for now I don’t know, and don’t think I can know, of consciousness from any perspective or in any context other than from inside this body and nervous system. I realize that it isn’t “my” consciousness, but that doesn’t mean it is independent of living protoplasm.
If I could believe that my “essence” were not tied to this rotting flesh, then I might lose my fear of death. I would also lose my fear of another life.
I read in some Buddhist literature (probably the Abhidharma) that the Buddha experienced things changing millions of times in the blink of an eye. (Did he slow down his mind enough to count the changes?)
Meanwhile, inside the subatomic world we find evidence of an impermanence that is so impermanent it makes our ordinary reality seem frozen in time. Way down inside of everything, where the quarks are doing a line dance inside of an electron, events are occurring in increments far shorter than the blink of an eye (considered to be one-tenth of a second). In the subatomic world, time is sometimes measured in what scientists have named attoseconds, a millionth of a trillionth of a second. It takes an electron about one attosecond to travel all the way around a proton.
Meanwhile, inside the proton, perhaps one level deeper into reality, an attosecond would be regarded as a long nap. Down here time is measured in zeptoseconds—a billionth of a trillionth of a second. Before you can even blink—Zepto!—it’s gone.
I think at some point the physicists realized that they had entered a Marx Brothers routine, where the jokes are coming so fast you begin to see that it’s all a joke. So when they started to measure things changing even faster—in trillionths of a trillionth of a second—they named it a yoctosecond. Atto, zepto and yocto. “Hello, I must be going.”
By the way, the time it takes for a quark to go around a proton is somewhere between a zeptosecond and a yoctosecond.
All you can do is smile, and let go.