Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Path of Jamais Vu

The goddess Maya

The Jackson 5 was playing on my car radio this morning—badly muffled by static left over from the Big Bang, but I distinctly heard Michael singing the precocious nursery rhyme.

Without the roots of love, girl
Your education ain't complete.
Teacher's gonna show you.

          What is this static but leftover heat from the fireball of creation 13.7 billion years ago, this faint crackle of white noise obscuring the pure human voice and merging with it? Only .1 percent of all light comes from the stars, the nebulae, the galaxies. If our human eyes were capable of seeing the microwave evidence of the moment of creation, we would be flooded in perpetual light. But we can't see it, and this eternal light is the coldest thing in the universe, cooled by the expansion of the universe to less than 3 degrees above absolute zero, the lowest possible temperature. I know this, as well as other things. But what I don't know is incalculable.

          How strange it would be to have amnesia, to know some things but not others. To know, for example, that Michael Jackson died of a drug overdose when he was 50, and simultaneously hear his disembodied voice calling out from childhood through outer space. There are kinds of amnesia that are incomplete, selective or random, and some cases never abate. What if we remembered everything about Michael Jackson, but nothing about technology? How quickly we would draw the wrong conclusions about life and death and time.

          This was my original thought while I caught static trying to tune in to a radio signal, just as it was Plato's original thought 2,000-some-odd years ago while he was writing the allegory of the cave in The Republic. Plato writes about prisoners in a cave who are able to see only the shadows cast by the world beyond. For the prisoners, reality is whatever meaning they agree to assign the shadows. Plato then imagines the anguish of a freed prisoner, how the sudden light would burn his eyes, his confusion and even his desire to recover the old, familiar meaning of his enslaved life, and on his return to the cave, the prisoners would distrust his new knowledge and would begin to hate him.

          The idea is also the basis for The Matrix, the cult-classic movie in which the human race is enslaved by illusion. In both The Republic and The Matrix, most humans are not strong enough to fight the illusion.

          In Hinduism, the world of names and forms is Maya, the trickster goddess who represents the illusion of multiplicity that conceals the reality of oneness. She's the one who distracts us with money, prestige, and sex in an endless cycle of desire and pursuit. The dreamlike reality we inhabit combines matter with mental construction. For this reason, our minds, as well as our senses, are not to be trusted. We fiercely identify ourselves with the opinions and ideas we hold, defending our beliefs as if they form a solid structure that defines by confining us. The identification we have with our minds is another example of the seductive falsehood of individual identity. But without the illusion of plurality and separateness we can make sense of nothing.

         The Muslim conception of God is totally abstract—there's no old man in the sky and even the prophets are never depicted with faces. (Faces may tempt us to worship false idols; hardcore Muslims will even shun family photos.) How can we believe without a doubt in something that is, by definition, inconceivable? When Muslims pray to Allah, how do they envisage the ineffable?

          The Qu'ran tends to describe Allah by what he is not as much as by what he is. He is Allah, the One; Allah, the Eternal, Absolute; He begets not, and neither is He begotten; And there is nothing that can be compared to Him.  With Allah we need no intermediaries, like priests or rabbis, because Allah is everywhere, and nearer to us than our jugular vein.

          The Light, like The Merciful and The Abaser, is one of the 99 names of Allah. There is a mystical passage in the Qu'ran called The Verse of Light that begins, Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. We're asked to think of Allah as the light of an oil lamp, behind glass, inside a dark niche. The lamp's oil appears to glow independently from the flame, Light upon light. We're not directed towards the sun, which is inconceivably distant, immense, and fearsome, and which shines on all of us indiscriminately but leaves us in darkness each night. We're asked to imagine the inconceivable radiance of Allah contained within something small and manageable, an ordinary, manmade object designed for personal use.

          One of the tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous is that members serve only their "higher power" or "God as we understand him." This is nonnegotiable even for those who can't or don't want to envisage a deity. Heathens are told that it doesn't matter if they don't believe it, anything of their choosing can stand in for a higher powerif they can't think of something, they're told they can picture the coffee pot. The coffee pot at an AA meeting is as ubiquitous as booze in a bar or a crucifix in a church.

          God's manifestation as a coffee pot is less lyrical but comparable to Allah in the oil lamp. We're not worshipping a coffee pot or a lamp, but our desperate, limited minds require visual aids and mental construction to believe what we can neither see nor comprehend. The tricky part is remembering that the symbol, so vital to our pact, isn't the thing itself. We need a way to cross the imaginary boundary between the world of shadows and the truth that remains invisible and yet as close to us as our jugular vein.

          What if everything we don't know has just been forgotten? What if everything we've always known to be true vanishes at the moment of remembering what's been kept from us?


                                                      Duncan Mitchell

If our new knowledge supersedes the old, I'm afraid most of us will resist truth the way we resist suicide. I had just such a "near-death" experience in my last year of college. I was supposed to write a paper on Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus but I was having some trouble finishing the book.

All visible things are emblems; what thou seest is not there on its own account; strictly taken, is not there at all: Matter exists only spiritually, and to represent some Idea, and body it forth. Hence Clothes, as despicable as we think them, are so unspeakably significant. Clothes, from the King's mantle downwards, are emblematic, not of want only, but of a manifold cunning Victory over Want. On the other hand, all Emblematic things are properly Clothes, thought-woven or hand-woven: must not the Imagination weave Garments, visible Bodies, wherein the else invisible creations and inspirations of our Reason are, like Spirits, revealed, and first become all-powerful; the rather if, as we often see, the Hand too aid her, and (by wool Clothes or otherwise) reveal such even to the outward eye? "Men are properly said to be clothed with Authority, clothed with Beauty, with Curses, and the like. Nay, if you consider it, what is Man himself, and his whole terrestrial Life, but an Emblem; a Clothing or visible Garment for that divine ME of his, cast hither, like a light-particle, down from Heaven? Thus is he said also to be clothed with a Body.

          Actually, my trouble was that I wasn't able to read it at all. What I saw on the page was a moving pattern of blank lines and spaces winding around clumps of fixed black marks. I recognized only the blankness, which was incalculably deep and fluid. A wave of nausea, a racing heart, a cold sweat.

          I lay down on my bed and rested, then tried again, but it was no use. My eyes found no traction, no design resembling a paragraph, sentence, word, or letter. Because I was afraid to be alone, I stepped out into the hallway of my dorm, where a couple of girls were talking. They still inhabited the normal world, while I exploded into oblivion. 

          When I finished sobbing, there was a calm, spacious feeling of stillness equivalent to vacancy. Awareness of the vacancy made my mind race. In search of something solid to hold on to I began rapidly cataloging the strange sensations aloud until spasmodic sobs again surrounded the vacancy.

         The school psychiatrist drugged me with an antipsychotic called Haldol. Of my three days in the infirmary, I remember little more than platters of microwaved scrambled eggs and that the radio seemed to be repeating all my favorite tracks from Ghost in the Machine. When I was sent home to recover I began seeing a psychiatrist several times a week.

          "This is a common malady," he said. "The dissociation and dread you experienced are classic symptoms of a panic attack." Under severe emotional stress, people can suffer from a kind of amnesia called jamais vu. As déjà vu is the false sensation of repeating an experience, jamais vu, which literally means "never seen," is the false sensation of not recognizing something familiar. We experience jamais vu when we forget how to spell a common word, like "I." It suddenly looks weird, sounds weird, and we have to ask someone how to spell it. Only when we're reassured do we laugh at ourselves, relieved.

          In my experience of jamais vu, I was unable to read or recognize the alphabet, or gauge the depth of a page. With a little Xanax and cognitive behavioral therapy, my psychiatrist reassured me, I'd be good as new. He was right; I was able to graduate from college the following year with various distinctions, and no further anxiety.

          But he wasn't entirely right. Naturally I was relieved when, as promised, everything had returned to the way it was before my jamais vu experience. But I've never forgotten the terror of losing belief in myself, of opening a book to the void of uninterpreted reality.


                                                              Berndnaut Smilde

For a month, I've been taking obsessive notes about boxes, all kinds of boxes, and the nature of light, as if by opening one of these boxes I will find a source of illumination. 


1.
Schrodinger's cat is trapped in a situation known as superposition, or The Observer's Paradox. Erwin Schrodinger proposed a theoretical experiment to illustrate this principle. The gist of it is that as long as we don't know what state an object is in (alive or dead, for example) it's actually in all possible states simultaneously. But if we peek, then the object is reduced to just a single state. This reduction from all possibilities to one is due solely to the act of measurement. Because superposition describes the nature of reality at a subatomic level, Schrodinger attempts to show us how it works with objects we can actually visualize; so we're asked to imagine Schrodinger's cat.  
Schrodinger puts his theoretical cat and a vial of poison into a closed steel box, along with a bit of a radioactive substance. If a single atom of this substance decays—and there's a 50/50 chance it will—the poison vial is rigged to break open, and the cat will die in agony. There is no way for us to know if the radioactive substance has decayed until we open the box. So long as we are in a state of not knowing, Schodinger's cat is both alive and dead, in a superposition of states, according to quantum law. To the philosophical question, "When a tree falls in a forest and no one is there, does it make a sound?" a physicist might answer, "Yes and no," and then back his assertion with Schrodinger's cat. According to the laws of The Observer's Paradox, when in doubt, anything is possible.
2.
Matter and energy are interchangeable and Einstein's most famous equation proves that the energy of speed increases an object's mass, and that its mass would become infinite at 186,000 miles per second, or the speed of light. The impossibility of this is supposed to prove that the speed of light is unattainable. So why isn't light infinite? Because it has no mass?

Is love a kind of light? The Big Bang occurred 15 billion years ago, when all matter and energy were still boxed into a tiny singularity. In an instant, this single point began to expand rapidly. As the newborn universe spread out and cooled down, more stable particles and photons began to form. And then there was light—a photon is a fundamental, irreducible, massless particle of light. Photons can't be split or decay because they are without mass, but they can transmute.
3.
In Greek mythology, the first woman is named Pandora, the translation of which is Giver of All. God, called Zeus, gives her a box and tells her that under no circumstances is she to open it. Pandora's curiosity overcomes her desire to obey and eventually she opens the box. With incredible speed, all the evils of the world that Zeus had withheld waft out of the box like poison vapors—toil, illness, grief, death—until Pandora quickly closes the box. In most versions of the story, she'd let everything free but Hope, which had been trapped inside among all kinds of suffering.

Of course it was all part of Zeus' master plan; like Eve biting the apple, Pandora gave humans a reason to obey: disobey God and you will surely suffer. But as long as hope remains in the box, how do we know if it's a live or dead? How do we dare hold the box open?
4.

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), currently under construction in the South of France will weigh 23-thousand tons and stand 100-feet tall upon completion. In his article "A Star in a Bottle," Raffi Khatchadourian writes in The New Yorker (March 3, 2014),
At its core, densely packed high-precision equipment will encase a cavernous vacuum chamber, in which a super-hot cloud of heavy hydrogen will rotate faster than the speed of sound, twisting like a strand of DNA as it circulates. The cloud will be scorched by electric current (a surge so forceful it will make lightning seem like a tiny arc of static electricity), and bombarded by concentrated waves of radiation. Beams of uncharged particles—the energy in them so great it could vaporize a car in seconds—will pour into the chamber, adding tremendous heat. In this way, the circulating hydrogen will become ionized, and achieve temperatures exceeding 200-million degrees Celsius—more than 10 times as hot as the sun at its blazing core.
No natural phenomenon on Earth will be hotter. Like the sun, the cloud will go nuclear. The zooming hydrogen atoms, in a state of extreme kinetic excitement, will slam into one another, fusing to form a new element—helium—and with each atomic coupling explosive energy will be released: intense heat, gamma rays, X rays, a torrential flux of fast-moving neutrons propelled in every direction. There isn't a physical substance that could contain such a thing. Metals, plastics, ceramics, concrete, even pure diamond—all would be obliterated on contact, and so the machine will hold the superheated cloud in a "magnetic bottle," using the largest system of superconducting magnets in the world. Just feet from the reactor's core, the magnets will be cooled to 269 degrees below zero, nearly the temperature of deep space. Caught in the grip of their titanic forces, the artificial earthbound sun will be suspended, under tremendous pressure, in the pristine nothingness of ITER's vacuum interior.
If light suffuses all things at all times but is merely beyond perception, then I am also a box of light. For Sufis, to open such a box successfully requires sincerity and the submission of a disciple to a teacher. The relationship between teacher and disciple is paradoxical because the only teacher, according to Sufi understanding, is Allah. The student must trust wholeheartedly in the teacher. There can be no bad teacher, because what the disciple is really learning comes from his own contemplation of the teacher's attitude, behavior, words and tests. In Philosophy, Psychology, Mysticism, the Sufi mystic, Hazrat Inayat Khan, writes,
[The Sufi teacher] does not give anything to or teach the pupil, the mureed, for he cannot give what the latter already has; he cannot teach what his soul has always known. What he does in the life of the mureed is to show him how he can clear his path towards the light within by his own self.