Self as rainbow 2

We see a rainbow, but what we have is drops of rain and light—a process. Similarly, what we ‘see’ is a self; but what we actually have is a whole lot of thoughts going on in consciousness. Against the backdrop of consciousness we are projecting a self, rather than a rainbow. If you walk toward the rainbow you will never get there.

David Bohm, Thought as a System

I had posted this wonderful quote from Bohm several years ago; I now feel I have understood something new about it.

A whole lot of thoughts going on in consciousness. To this, Bohm would probably add, there are a whole lot of feelings floating around too. On top of which there is a subtle sense of self fleetingly dancing in there somewhere; and it is this sense of self, which is in essence a thought/feeling, that somehow seems to anchor all the other stuff that floats around in consciousness.

Try as we might, we cannot pin it down; the rainbow simply cannot be found, for it is ultimately an optical illusion. For this reason, probably, Ramana insisted that we try to find out the “I” thought. Seek and ye shall not find, for it is fundamentally illusory.

I absolutely love this metaphor: drops of rain and light posing as a solid self. Drops of thoughts and emotions. Can we merely see them as drops of light, sun, rain? Nothing else is required.

Free will: Sam Harris

If you pay attention to your inner life, you will see that the emergence of choices, efforts, and intentions is a fundamentally mysterious process. Yes, you can decide to go on a diet—and we know a lot about the variables that will enable you to stick to it—but you cannot know why you were finally able to adhere to this discipline when all your previous attempts failed. You might have a story to tell about why things were different this time around, but it would be nothing more than a post hoc description of events that you did not control. Yes, you can do what you want—but you cannot account for the fact that your wants are effective in one case and not in another (and you certainly can’t choose your wants in advance). You wanted to lose weight for years. Then you really wanted to. What’s the difference? Whatever it is, it’s not a difference that you brought into being.
You are not in control of your mind—because you, as a conscious agent, are only part of your mind, living at the mercy of other parts. You can do what you decide to do—but you cannot decide what you will decide to do. Of course, you can create a framework in which certain decisions are more likely than others—you can, for instance, purge your house of all sweets, making it very unlikely that you will eat dessert later in the evening—but you cannot know why you were able to submit to such a framework today when you weren’t yesterday.
So it’s not that willpower isn’t important or that it is destined to be undermined by biology. Willpower is itself a biological phenomenon. You can change your life, and yourself, through effort and discipline—but you have whatever capacity for effort and discipline you have in this moment, and not a scintilla more (or less). You are either lucky in this department or you aren’t—and you cannot make your own luck.

Spirituality and rationality

I find that by instinct, I am a rational person. I feel that science is our best bet at understanding the universe and the way we function as human beings. Science has also shown us the amazing staggering scale of the cosmos, as well as the impossible complexity and fragility of life within it. I also find that by instinct, I am a spiritual person. By this I mean that the meaning of life cannot be grasped by explanations and theories, however beautiful and scientifically powerful they may be. Rather, the “meaning,” if such a thing exists, must lie in states of being, in a wholeness of vision, in complete emptiness and fullness of self. I suspect that these two powerful forces will forever tug at my soul. Both are beautiful visions of reality, and in future paradigms they may come together in a fusion that we only glimpse right now.

Mind and Life

Many of you might already know of the work of the Mind and Life Institute. This is an endeavour headed by the Dalai Lama, and it includes many eminent scientists in the fields of psychology, neurobiology and physics. The aim of the Institute is to “promote a scientific understanding of the mind to reduce suffering and promote well-being.”

I really like that aim. It seems one of the really worthwhile goals that as a species we can strive towards. That, and better and more engaged and compassionate education of our young.

As part of the Mind and Life initiative, many renowned scientists have dialogues with the Dalai Lama on science and buddhism and the meeting ground of the two, particularly in the mind sciences. These dialogues are online here. They are stunning. They reveal so much about the depth of our understanding and also the directions we need to pursue.

Please do watch them. I would love to discuss them with others.

Pale Blue Dot, by Carl Sagan

A piece on humility, time, space, love, violence, ideology, meditation, life and science

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.



For we are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.

Cosmos, Carl Sagan

I have many meditative koans that, when drawn into memory, powerfully shift my mental perspective in daily life. All this is impermanent is probably one of the most viscerally striking. I’m sure you have many such perceptions stored away in your brains.

The idea that all life, indeed all of creation, is made from the same building blocks is one such koan. It strikes at the very heart of division in the universe. It encourages a vast, subtle reorganisation of mind and body and attitude. It questions the basic divisiveness of daily life into self and other. Put simply, it nurtures a meditative current that brooks no diversion. We are starstuff pondering the stars.

It seems implausible that a popular science book can lead me into meditation, yet that’s the way it is. Koans come from odd places.