version of: August 22, 2004
Chapter 18: No Limits
Total abandonment can become a way of life. As children, we were able to loose ourselves into play. As adults, our tendency to calculate and estimate and check out everything puts up many barriers on the road toward abandonment. But instead of clinging to our frameworks, we can learn to let go of them, becoming unconcerned. We can regain an innocence, free from applications or goals. Life can become pure adventure.
Experiment 2.6.: Letting Go
Take a single simple object. A rock will do, or a leaf, or a piece of wood. You can also take a wall in front of you, but in that case it would be best to deal with a small part of it, straight in front of you. A small object, like a blade of grass, or a large object, such as a whole wall, are less suitable, since watching them is more likely to strain or distribute your attention.
For a while, just watch the object. Then try to become aware of all the frames of references that are involved in the whole situation of you-watching-the-object. In part 1 we have experimented extensively with the subject-object relationship, a fundamental part of the conventional framework within which we interpret all that appears. However, there are many more frames involved that all can be noted, scrutinized, played with, loosened up and discarded.
There is the notion that you and the object have a past and a future. There is the felt sense that object and you are both real and existent. Earlier in part 2 we have experimented with those, but you can see whether you can continue that type of experimentation in new ways. You may be convinced that you have various problems to deal with, whereas the object may not have any problems. You could view the object and you as given as a dance of molecules, or you can view the object within various cultural or artistic or utilitarian frames of reference.
Then, after a sufficient time, try to let go of all frameworks of any kind. Spot anything that frames you and object and surrounding world, and drop that. Any concepts that form, no matter how tentatively, let go of them. Let go also of notions of dropping and letting go. Convinced that you can't do that? Aha, a subtle framework: just let go of that one, too. Just keep going, letting go.
We have tamed reality, collectively and individually. We have done this for good reasons. A child has to learn to function in society, and it needs a toolbox of concepts in order to do so. Humanity, too, over a much longer time scale, has tamed reality, fitting it to its needs.
By developing language, we have learned to recount our experiences, to others and to ourselves. This has enriched the spectrum of experiences we can familiarize us with, in a single lifetime. But it has also impoverished us, by seducing our attention away from direct experience to rehashed experience, repackaged to fit oral transmission.
Agriculture has allowed us to pool resources in an unprecedented way, letting us effectively become a new type of species, operating as a multi-individual organism, with different specializations for different individuals. Yet it has further impoverished us by wrapping us up in further layers of organization and limitations.
Writing, printing, email: each further invention has enriched us by extending our reach; yet it has also impoverished us yet further by constructing cocoons around us, shrink-wrapping us in a mummification process that is hardly noticed. Mummies among mummies, we are rapidly forgetting what it means to breathe freely.
There is a logic in this procession toward ever broader and ever more shallow ways of being in the world. But the logic is not inexorable. We can investigate this logic, like we investigate a piece of electric equipment, wiggling the wires, to see where there are loose contacts.
Each of the twelve types of experiments that we have explored has been an exercise in untaming and unframing. And in the process we are discovering wider forms of logic, that allow and include the logic of the civilization process sketched above, without being limited by its frameworks as the only possible ways to deal with reality.
Science gives us wonderful and encouraging examples. The logic of classical mechanics can become a trap if we take it as having an exclusive claim to truth, but it can also become an invitation to explore wider forms of logic: those of relativity theory, and of quantum mechanics.
Even while staying within a given framework, we can discover totally unexpected aspects: chaos theory is fully part of classical mechanics, in principle, yet its behavior for all practical purposes is totally unlike that associated with classical mechanics for its first few centuries. It was discovered only through computer simulations that showed how forms of effective unpredictability can arise from deterministic systems.
Exploring what lies beyond familiar frameworks requires courage. Deeply questioning that what seems to hold up our view of the world can really feel like sawing off the branch we are sitting upon. Zen stories talk about jumping from a hundred feet high pole.
Our minds are conditioned to function within given frames. When we push up to the limits of those frames, our minds may oscillate between two opposite reactions: asserting that escape is impossible; and dreading that it is possible -- dreading that by escaping we will loose everything that we hold near and dear.
And indeed, trying to force ourselves out of our framework is not a very good idea. Besides, it won't work. Trying to liberate ourselves, as the selves that we think we are, is impossible: it would be like trying to liberate your shadow, or to liberate your reflection in a mirror.
We have to be careful, keeping our eyes open, proceeding slowly. This is the main reason for engaging in a progression of experiments, leading up to the no-identification experiment in the previous chapter. When we no longer identify with shadows and reflections, there is no room for dread or doubt, and we can freely continue our exploration.
In traditional contemplative explorations, initial encouragement often took the form of a belief in deities that would help and protect the practitioner. Such beliefs functioned as powerful tools in opening up existing frameworks, making it a lot easier to drop that which seemed to define humans and the human world in every-day life.
Yet these beliefs came with their own frameworks. As a consequence, we find in all major traditions exhortations to drop these beliefs when they have played their initial role. From Medieval Christian mystics to Sufis to Advaita Vedantists to Buddhists, we come across seemingly blasphemous advice such as: ``when you meet the Buddha, cut down the Buddha.''
For many people living in the modern world even this provisional use of belief systems as tools for exploration has become problematic, mainly because their function has been misunderstood and absolutized, and thereby fossilized. Science is often seen as the main reason for making the old tools seem outdated. Yet, at the same time, science can provide us with alternative tools.
While also provisional, scientific tools can at least help us to get started in our exploration. And they can prevent us from getting stuck, by preventing us from prematurely rejecting the possibility of escape from our seemingly ironclad frameworks.
Mystics and contemplatives have found ways to go beyond structure by dropping all of their initially so firmly held beliefs, when they began to see how inadequate their conceptual understandings were. Seeing how their cherished tools turned into traps, they found ways to let go.
Interestingly, science is following a similar path. So far, the parallels are merely tentative, but I expect them to grow ever stronger while science matures more. Science is still far from dropping any and all structure. Yet science has made remarkable success in at least finding deeper structure by doubting and dropping quite a number of structures.
In all areas of science, the seemingly indubitable has been doubted, and the seemingly obvious has been discarded. The Earth is no longer a solid center of the Universe, the fixed stars are no longer so, the barrier between humans and animals has become a line drawn on the water, the opaqueness of solid objects is no longer there for X-rays or neutrinos, and we can watch pictures taken by rovers exploring the surface of Mars.
All these examples, while revolutionary, are not really that radical: each structure dropped is immediately replaced by a new structure. True, some of the new structures are more loosely fitting that the tighter structures that were dropped, with quantum mechanics being a prime example. But structures they unmistakably remain.
Structure without Structure
However, there is one example in science that is beginning to shake the bars of the cage of structure. It is perhaps the deepest insight in modern physics, one that John Wheeler has termed `the democracy of histories,' after his erstwhile student Richard Feynman developed the idea, known as the method of path integrals.
In quantum mechanics, and by extension in quantum field theory, at any moment anything is possible, and what is more, anything is equally possible! And in some sense, we could even say that everything is happening all the time, at the same time -- in the sense that all actions occur, but that in doing so, they interfere with each other in such a way as to produce the world around us that we are so familiar with.
Throw a pebble in front of you. Why does it follow a smooth curve? The answer is shockingly simple: it does not follow just a smooth curve. It follows all possible paths between your hand and the point of impact on the ground, not only smooth paths, but also paths with kinks of any type and shape and number and form.
The catch is that even a single kink in an orbit implies that there is a neighboring orbit that directly interferes with the original kinked orbit. Only smooth orbits have at least a chance to survive this rivalry and come out unscathed, adding up their phases with that of their neighbors.
Boundaries as Bridges
An easy way to become aware of the many frameworks that are operating in our lives, is to look for what seems to limit us. As soon as we find and touch a fence that seems to close us in, we have the possibility to sit on the fence and look both ways, inward and outward, and thus discover new territory.
Mathematicians have made this type of move into an art. By questioning each limit, a new mathematical structure is born. We already saw the example of number systems: within the (positive) natural numbers, you cannot subtract a larger number from a smaller number. But pretend it can be done, and what do you get? Negative numbers, and together with the natural numbers the integers. Pretend you can divide one by two, and you get the rational numbers, and so on.
Pretend you can have more than one line that is parallel to a give line, or no such line at all, and you find non-Euclidean geometries, hyperbolic and elliptic, respectively. Most any mathematical structure is thus derived by wishfully thinking beyond limits, and thereby landing in new realms.
Physics, chemistry, biology: in all these fields current limits are seen as beacons for further progress. By considering boundaries as bridges, no boundary can be truly said to be absolute; previous declarations of absolutisms have fallen by the wayside consistently.
Limits as Pointers
Nature itself, through biological evolution, has continually moved beyond existing limits. While the environment may seem to limit the type of life forms that it can support, sufficient diversity in species in turn will change the natural environment, thereby creating new niches.
The oxygen that we breathe is an example of a byproduct of early uni-cellular evolution, which paved the way for the appearance of animals, us included. Earthworms have been plowing the ground millions of years before the first farmers learned to do so. And every extended food web shows how many layers of organisms can be build on top of those feeding directly from the ground, and how the `ground' in a general sense is reworked in turn.
Science no doubt will continue to use its currently known limits as steps upon a ladder toward fuller insight into the structure of reality. And when a future science will learn to include, first, the subject-object polarization, and next, will move beyond the subject-object split, limits that currently seem to be rock-solid and absolute are sure to fall away.
In our quest to explore the nature of reality, as amateurs of a future science, it is especially important not to take any limit for granted. Therefore, our best working hypothesis is: there are no limits. Any limit can be seen as a sign post, a stimulating invitation for further exploration. The no-limit hypothesis can be our best friend.
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