version of:   May 2, 2004

Chapter 2: A Play

Each moment a new reality appears. And each moment we manage to tame it, by projecting it back into our almost frozen framework of what we think reality can possibly be. Reality smiles, but does not protest. It has no agenda, and it is happy to wait for us to stop playing our taming game. We have a choice: we can continue playing forever, or we can wake up to the fact that we have been caught up in a game. But that's not quite right: with the sense of I being part of the play, the I as such cannot wake up. Illusions can't wake up, but reality can wake up to itself.


The previous paragraph may strike one as weird, as a faint attempt at being poetic at best, or more likely as sheer nonsense. And within our conventional framework, it is indeed nonsense. Yet in the rest of this book I hope to unpack the meaning of this paragraph, and to show that it does make sense. Specifically, I hope to show that it contains the key to the answers of both questions posed at the end of the previous chapter: where is science going, and are there comparable ways of knowing.

But what can this mean, to show? What are we supposed to see? If you see un unusual bird, you can point in its direction, thus showing it to me. Or I can show you a mathematical proof, using pen and paper. In the first case, all I need is eye sight and a rough sense of what a bird looks like. In the second case, quite a bit more is needed: a working knowledge of the mathematical basics required in order to follow the steps in the mathematical proof. In the case of a complex state-of-the-art proof from the current mathematical literature, seeing its truth may imply many years of training.

There is a third way of seeing, where recognition of what is pointed out is neither easy nor hard. If you're engrossed in reading a book, or watching a movie, or if you're dreaming, there is nothing in the book or movie or dream that points outside its own framework, so there is nothing that can show you that you are caught. Yet in a single moment you can come to the realization that, oh, it was just a story, or a movie, or a dream. Recognition is either impossible or the simplest thing in the world, you just see, in a way that cannot even be labeled as being easy or hard.

A Personal Note

I could have written this book in a step by step way, starting with what I understand the scientific method to be, how I see science evolving, and how I expect there to be no limits to the type of insight that science will give us, in due time, many generations from now. I could argue from historical analogies that science is likely to transform in far more radical ways than most of my fellow scientists expect. I could then point out how science may learn to deal with the type of insights that I started out with above.

However, I prefer to be more upfront. I will summarize my views about the future of science in the next chapter. But before doing so, I feel it is more honest to say a bit about my own life history and the way in which I have been exploring this strange thing called reality. That way, the reader does not have to second guess what I am steering at and whether I might have a hidden agenda.

In other words, I prefer to write as a physicist, not as a mathematician. Typically, a mathematician will introduce some definitions, seemingly out of the blue, and then derive all kinds of consequence, only to show you in the end that they arrive at an important and perhaps even startling result. In hindsight you can then trace back through the chain of ideas, to see the necessity and purpose of each step. The advantage of such an approach is that it is very precise, and also very clear upon second or third reading.

In contrast, the approach of a physicist generally starts with a brief historical background, something that is often missing altogether in mathematical expositions. The physicist will then come up with some plausibility arguments and hunches, and perhaps with a simplified toy model in order to show roughly the lay of the land of the topic under discussion. Only then will he or she begin a more formal discussion of the theory at hand. One reason for the difference lies in the fact that mathematics is self-contained, whereas physics is trying to make sense of nature, through experimentation. The former, while limited, is fully precise, while the latter at best only asymptotically approaches reality.


When I was in junior high school, one day I was walking along, quietly relaxed, thinking my usual chains of thought, when it suddenly hit me that we talk without knowing what we are going to say. When we begin a sentence, we have a general idea of where we want to go, but we don't know yet the exact words that will appear in the sentence we are about to utter. While we are speaking some words, new ones are being lined up like beads on a string by a process that is not under our conscious control. So who exactly is doing the speaking? Who is in control? In short, who am I, and what is the connection between my sense of I and the way this organism that carries my name is operating? If found this question intensely puzzling.

A few years later, in senior high school, I started reading widely about non-European traditions, from Hinduism and Buddhism to Taoism and Sufism, and also medieval Christian mysticism. And I was totally amazed at the parallels I saw with my main hobbies that were all in the scientific and technological realm, from astrophysics and chemistry to tuning motorcycles and model airplane engines. Having grown up in a Calvinist Protestant environment in a small town in Holland, I saw religion as mainly a blind belief in hopelessly outmoded ways of thought, and I was unaware of the experimental base underlying any authentic contemplative investigation, in any culture.

When I read about the lives of the great practitioners of the past, in the various traditions, it was so clear that they were using their life as a laboratory. Whether they would engage in intense sessions of prayer or meditation or introspection in a cave or a cell or out in the wilderness, they would invariably seek an environment removed from outside human disturbances, in order to carry out their investigations. In excruciating detail and with great dedication, they would hold a working hypothesis in their mind, chew on it, walk around it, plumb it and get totally absorbed in it.

How similar this was to the descriptions I read about the most famous scientists of the past! And indeed, how similar this was, in a small way, to the delight I had found myself in losing myself in trying to solve a mathematical problem, or searching the heavens with my small telescope, or trying to figure out how to improve the flow of air and fuel vapor in the carburetor of my motorcycle. I found it completely plausible that a study of one's own mind would proceed under a protocol that would have strong parallels with that of a study of nature.

Waking Up

During the following three and a half decades, in parallel with my training and work as an astrophysicist, I experimented with various contemplative practices. I went to several retreats, in Zen Buddhism first, later in Tibetan Buddhism, and I sampled other traditions as well. Without claiming any particularly deep degree of realization, I can say that I learned to see some of the depth of what they have to offer. A series of smaller and larger shifts occurred, during my practice at home and in the context of retreats, as well as at random moments, while going for a walk or lying awake in bed.

It was clear to me that these shifts had a profound influence on my life, in terms of openness and freedom and responsiveness, but what they meant and whether they could be somehow reconciled with the truths that seemed to underlie my work and my daily life, that was far less obvious. I had learned to wake up, in some small measure, to see the conditioning that contemplative traditions talk about, such as the illusory nature of our identification with a small and isolated sense of self.

However, none of these traditions had anything to say about how such insights could be reconciled with a scientific way of looking at the world, simply because all these traditions stem from earlier times, well before science got underway in the seventeenth century. I see it as the greatest challenge of our time to find a way of life that respects both the truths of scientific insights and of contemplative insights.

The Main Challenge

We are currently facing heart-wrenching forms of injustice on a global scale, such as widespread poverty and economic inequality, political and cultural oppression, and a range of problems from increasing destruction of the environment to the impending disappearance of a large fraction of species on Earth. It may seem like an absurd luxury to spend time pondering questions related to seeing the world in a new light, in a way that allows scientific and contemplative truths to shine through. How can that help us?

I think it can, and I doubt whether anything else can. We have grown so much in technological power, in the last few centuries, to the point that we have the ability to ruin not only our own environment much of the biosphere of this planet, on all levels from unicellular life in the world's oceans to the many rare species of plants and animals that are being threatened in many habitats worldwide. But our wisdom and insight have not grown much, perhaps not at all, certainly not enough to give us guidance in how to use the sudden power that has dropped in our lap.

Given how clear the warning signals have been for the last half century, and how little the signals have been heeded, there is not much hope, frankly, that humans all around the world will suddenly learn to trust each other and show the type of cooperation needed to finally start dealing with the enormous global problems that are facing us. Paradoxically, systems that were designed to have social values built in, such as communism, have often led to even more disaster than bluntly utilitarian systems such as capitalism. Many forms of utopianism have been proposed, but none of them have had much effect.

We desperately need a fresh way of seeing what is going on, in order to find better ways of doing something about all that is going wrong. Of course, both are needed at the same time, and we cannot postpone any of the urgent doing that is so much needed. Yet unless we learn to see more clearly why our technological power is getting out of hand, no amount of doing will be able to really solve our problems. Seeing into this `why' question implies seeing much more clearly who we really, what the world really is, and what a truly balanced relation can be between us and the world in the largest sense.

A Serious Play

Very briefly, our mistaken identifications with who we think we are has led us to get lost in a play in which we think that we are autonomous agents, largely isolated subjects in a world of objects. This is the message that all great contemplative teachers of the past have told us, in different ways in different cultures, but it is a message that risks being forgotten. We have become so serious in our play of being small and isolated and helpless that we tend to bristle at hearing anyone characterize our conventionally perceived as a play.

To begin to remind us of the playful character of reality, I suggest that we emulate the scientific method, while extending it to study ourselves -- not as objects, as is mostly done in psychology and cognitive science, but first as subjects in our own right, and as possibly something far more than subjects. Galileo started modern science with very simple experiments, dropping objects to the ground or letting them role down inclined planes and clocking them. We can start in similarly simple ways.

To be specific, I invite you to engage in three forms of experimentation. They will form the core of this book. In the next chapter I will address how they may fall under the purview of science, some time in the future, in order to place them in a modern context. From then on, we will explore how we can use these three experiments to make an inroad into this new territory -- while at the same time loosening up the hold that the play of conventional reality has on us.

Three Experiments

The first experiment will be described in chapter 4. It will involve letting objects look at you, rather than you at them. Inverting the usually unquestioned subject-object polarization, we can explore in great detail many unexpected degrees of freedom in the subject-object relationship that plays such a basic role in building up our way of viewing the world, and acting therein.

The second experiment will be more radical, and will be discussed in chapter 5. It will involve viewing your waking life as a dream, or in more modern terms, as a virtual reality. As with the previous experiment, rather than just contemplating the idea intellectually, you will be invited to actually explore in detail what the implications are when you actually do the experiment.

The third experiment will be even more radical. In a dream or virtual reality you still have a sense of self, dealing with a world that surrounds you with objects and situations in which you act based on attraction and aversion. In chapter 6 we will introduce an experiment that drops all that, inviting you to explore a way of being beyond picking and choosing, beyond hope and fear, even beyond time.

Each of these experiments can be made the focus of a life time of exploration. To what extent someone is interested to spend much time on each of these, is of course up to the individual. But if we want to seriously test whether the scientific method can be brought to bear on these contemplative practices, apart from the traditional contexts that originally gave rise to them, we have to be as diligent and persistent as Galileo and others were, when they got science started.

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