What is reality and how does desire distort our perception of it?

by M. Govindan Satchidananda

Recent discoveries in science have revealed one certainty regarding the age old question “What is reality?” That certainty is that science does not have a good grip on reality. Two of the best models of physical reality, known as the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, appear to be fundamentally incompatible. That point is reinforced by an article and a perspective from Nature magazine (April 18, 2007). The article describes results which show that quantum mechanics describes the behavior of a system called "local realism." Local realism can be understood fairly easily: the properties of particles can be completely described, and those properties remain localized, meaning that properties can't be transmitted to a different location faster than the speed of light. That can be expressed more simply as: "Things are the way they are, right here."

However, if one takes into account a process known as “entanglement,” in which particles immediately behave according to other entangled particles which may be half a universe away, you have a problem. The "local reality" is either not local or, well, not real.

In quantum mechanics, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, formulated in 1927, states a fundamental limit on the accuracy with which certain pairs of physical properties of a particle, such as position and momentum, can be simultaneously known. In layman's terms, the more precisely one property is measured, the less precisely the other can be controlled, determined, or known. So Heisenberg argued that every measurement destroys part of our knowledge of the system that was obtained by previous measurements. In other words, the experiment is affected by the observer.

In recent decades quantum mechanics theorists have described the sub-atomic particle phenomena known as “entanglement.” Two entangled items, which can include photons moving at the speed of light, have properties that are linked. Measuring the properties of one of these items will cause the other to instantly switch from an indeterminate state to one with properties defined by its entanglement with the other. Since the entangled items can be far apart when this occurs, the transfer of properties appears to be taking place faster than the speed of light.

Many physicists haven't been happy about this situation, including Einstein, the father of the relatively theory, who argued that there was some underlying reality that we did not yet understand. So some physicists have tried to compensate for this lack of understanding by creating what are termed "hidden variable" models, in which there are properties of reality that we don't know how to measure.

That's where the new paper comes in. A set of plausible models allowed us to test the way the infinitesimal particles that form our universe really behave. The results confirm the odd quantum mechanics phenomena such as entanglement and discard the idea of a local reality.

Does this mean that it's time to give up on reality? The authors sure seem to think so, wrapping the paper up with the statement that "We believe that our results ... must abandon certain features of realistic descriptions."

Enter the perspective of the Yoga Siddhas

Since ancient times, the Yoga Siddhas have approached this question from a unique, inner perspective, and their documented findings are instructive. While these may be characterized as mystical, they are no less inaccessible than the mathematical equations of theoretical physics. One must go beyond the written symbols, whether they be poetical, paradoxical, analogical or mathematical to discover for oneself the Truth, Sat, Being, the underlying “reality.”

That unique perspective has been described by the Siddha Tirumular in the Tirumandiram verse 2943:

Not the highest one, nor Sadasiva,
Nor the formless one, nor the state of image;
Wonderful like the experiencing of the pleasure of love
He is immersed in (me) beyond one’s imagination.

Tirumular asks us the same question as the theoretical physicist: How to describe the Ultimate Reality? Is it the highest one? Is it Sadasiva (the Lord)? Is it without form? Or does it have properties? His answer concurs with that of the conclusions of theoretical physics, summarized above: it is indescribable.

The Siddha Tirumular drives the point home with an analogy in the next verse 2944 warning us:

Oh, fools, who see things with physical eyes,
Real bliss consists in seeing through the inner eye;
How can the mother express to her daughter
Her enjoyment with her husband?

Just as the experience of the pleasure of love cannot be described, it is impossible to explain the bliss of experiencing Reality. One should be immersed or one should feel that experience which is beyond one’s imagination.

Just as the salt in water, the Lord is immersed.
As parapara in para without any distinction;
The hidden implication is merged in the (word);
How? How? It is just like that. – Tirumandiram verse 2945

Para refers to our highest or supreme Self, as distinct from the body, mind personality; our soul; and Parapara to the Supreme Being. Both share one essential quality: consciousness. But consciousness is not an object. Nor is it an epi-phenomena depending upon the existence of a brain, as some materialists have argued. All living creatures, even those without brains exhibit consciousness. For consciousness is the subject, that which witnesses, that which observes. It pervades every thing, both great and small; and therefore it defies all the attempts of physicists to measure it, as shown in the preceding section. Because it is not an “it.” It is not “out there,” but it is everywhere, within and without. By raising the question “How? How?” Tirumular refers to the inexpressible and translinguistic nature of the merging of the soul or individualized consciousness with the Lord, or Supreme Consciousness. The answer cannot be defined in word or symbols, but by turning within. Tirmular points the way in the following verse:

Nandi (the Lord) was there in the midst of the mind
Worship and contemplation (of God) ceased spontaneously;
The bright light that arises in the middle space,
I merged with it through my wisdom (jnana).. – Tirumandiram verse 2947

Since the Lord is merged in me in my consciousness and arises in “my” mind as a bright light, all the formalities (rituals) of worship and contemplation have ceased to exist spontaneously. Now for me, in that state of merger, there is no more need for ritual, scripture, temples.

By merging I felt the presence of parapara;
By merging I attained Siva-gati;
By merging I became conscious of consciousness;
By merging I witnessed many aeons. – Tirumandiram verse 2953

By merging, I have become aware of Being itself. In other words, I have attained an insight of not my awareness but the Being’s awareness of Itself in “me.” I have become eternal. Siva-gati is final liberation from the egoistic perspective, of I am the body-mind.

How to realize the “reality”?

Our experiences are nearly always heavily influenced by our desires. We see what we want to see, hear what we want to hear, in many dimensions of life. Politicians know this, and manipulate their listeners by telling them what they know their listeners want to hear. This is known as populism, in political science. Pickpockets see only pockets. Fundamentalists who are waiting for the apocalyptic “end times” interpret current events in the Middle East as indicators which prove the coming Armageddon. Racial discrimination, prejudices and biases of all types, are further examples of how we allow ourselves to be deceived by desires, born of memory and subconscious habits. Knowing this, the key to realizing the truth, the underlying reality behind this world of ever changing phenomena, lies in purifying ourselves of desire. As the Buddha said: “Desire is a trap.”

In the Yoga Sutras III.35, Patanjali tells us:

When there is an ulterior motive, the resultant experience is (that there is) no distinction (between) the awareness of manifest being in nature and the Self; (when one practices) communion for its own sake, (one obtains) Self-knowledge.

In other words, when there is desire (an ulterior motive) for anything but to realize the Truth, one confuses the subject, our pure Self, with what we experience in nature; in other words, we confuse that which is conscious, that which is the Witness, with any and all objects of experience, as they present themselves through our five senses, emotions and thoughts. For example, we say, “I am hot,” or “I am hungry” or “I am jealous” rather than “It feels hot,” or “There is a need for food or nourishment,” or “There are feelings of jealousy.” Walking alone at night, on a dark street, a stranger approaches us, and we may feel threatened simply because we identify with associated memories of “darkness,”  “strangers” and the emotion of fear. But in the above verse he explains that by cultivating samyama (“communion”) which Patanjali defines in verse III.4 as the combination of concentration, meditation and samadhi (cognitive absorption), one knows the underlying Self. Samadhi occurs when the mind becomes absolutely still. In it, one becomes conscious of what is conscious. One sees the light, not merely what is illuminated by it. In this verse, Patanjali tells us that when one communes in this way at the subtlest level of our being upon the very distinction between the Pure Self, (the subject) and the objects or manifestations of Nature, in the body-mind complex, realization of the underlying Reality may occur.

While glimpses of this are fairly easily accessible to the student of Yoga, maintaining awareness of it, and acting from that awareness is the ultimate challenge, the summa bonum of life, enlightenment. All of the technology of Yoga has as its purpose this purpose. It is accomplished as one first creates the conditions of sattva, characterized by calmness, as the basis of one’s life. This condition allows one to gradually “let go” of the egoistic perspective, with all of its desires, all of its ignorance of its true identity, and to become the Witness of the play of karma, nature, and delusions created by the mind and vital body. By fixing one’s sight on the inner light, maintaining inner stillness, and remembering to be the Witness through life’s drama one will know the Reality. Knowing that quantum physics and the ancient mystics agree that Reality cannot be reduced to word or mathematical symbols will free you from intellectual doubt, and encourage you to BE IT rather than to think about it.

From the Kriya Yoga Journal, Volume 19 Number 1, Spring 2012

Copyright © by M. G. Satchidananda 2012


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