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Is there a mystery at the heart of reality?

Has science removed all of the mystery from our world? In our lives today, science has dramatically advanced how we make sense of reality, allowing us to better understand the causes of events. We know much more today about the factors that lead to every event that happens in the world, leading to the expansion of our technology, the refinement of medicine, among other things.

Note: a version of this essay was published in the first issue of Midwest Zen

Today, it could feel like science will eventually explain every part of our life, and that in today’s world, there is no room for mystery.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, science is built on a set of assumptions about the world (that there is an objective world that exists outside of our perceptions, that phenomena in that world are orderly, and that they can be described by general laws and theories). This work, the scientific approach to the world, has allowed us to peer deeply into the fabric of the world, and to look out into the vastness of the universe.

But, even if science eventually “succeeds” – even if we believed that our scientific understanding could be complete, and that such a goal were reasonable – I would hold that even then, there will remain a mystery at the heart of reality: the mystery of existence itself.

Fundamentally, every explanation about the universe, about this life that we keep finding ourselves in, has to take existence itself for granted. Whether we explain the world based on scientific theories, or we look to religious traditions to make sense of the origin of the universe, we can never find a firm vantage point to clearly see if our explanation is really true.

The very existence of existence, the fact that there is a world that our life plays out in, is mysterious. In science, we can trace the life of the universe back to its earliest moments with reasonably high confidence, and there are many strong theories about how the universe came into existence. Some are speculative, and our understanding of this early period is still developing, but we have at the moment a healthy range of plausible options. But, why was the universe able to come into existence in the first place? Why was it possible for something, anything to be? On this question, we have no good answers. Or, none that would not just push the fundamental question of existence back a bit further, unanswered.

We should have similar concerns about religious traditions that explain the existence of the universe through divine intervention – in the end we are left wondering, why is there a God (or gods) in the first place?

In an essay, William James captured this question very well, as he weighed the various approaches people have used to grapple with the question of being:

Not only that anything should be, but that this very thing should be, is mysterious! Philosophy stares, but brings no reasoned solution, for from nothing to being there is no logical bridge.

William James, “The Problem of Being

Since I first read this essay, this line has stuck with me: “From nothing to being there is no logical bridge.

While I try to acknowledge this mystery in my life, and in my meditation practice, it is not out of an effort to answer the question: I’m not looking for the “truth” about reality, in a way that would banish this mystery. The mystery of existence is perhaps something we can feel, or approach, and it may be that mystical states (a perception that we experience oneness with existence, or a relaxation of our individual ego) can help us appreciate that mystery. But, I don’t believe there is any possible way for us to perceive the source of existence. I could be wrong, but understanding why there is anything at all seems to be a fundamental limit to our existence.

And, while the fundamental question of existence is mysterious, that has not led me to reject the scientific approach. I personally still feel that the world around us is orderly and predictable. I have not felt a need to reach for magic, or miracles (in the sense of causes that operate outside of natural laws) to explain what happens in the world.

For me, this is the same way I feel about the possibility that life, and intelligent life, exists beyond our own planet. In the entirety of the universe, the number of stars around us is likely countable (that is, finite), but vast, deeply vast. The rich variety of life on Earth is supported by a single star, our sun. In our galaxy, the Milky Way, there are an estimated 100 to 400 billion stars, and that is just one galaxy. In the observable universe (what we can actually observe is limited by how far light can travel and the expansion of the universe), there may be around one hundred billion galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of potential suns for their own gardens of life.

Spiral galaxy NGC 3254, image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, A. Riess et al.

The sheer number of stars around us, at this moment alone, is staggering, and really beyond comprehension. In all of that creation, could our planet be the only one to support life? The only one with life that has turned its gaze back to itself, and taken delight in the miracle of existence?

Maybe, but I would not bet against those odds!

However, while I have a great deal of confidence (faith) in the existence of life out in the universe beyond our own planet, I have very little faith in reports about UFO encounters, which claim that our planet is regularly visited by beings from other planets. Recently, there were a set of reports about UFOs, some of them related to releases of information from the United States military. While a UFO, or an unidentified aerial phenomenon (UAP) includes any unexplained aerial encounter, most people who are excited about them see evidence of aliens visiting Earth.

While the possibility of life on other planets is very high, from what we know now, the challenges to actually travel between stars is formidable. Unless we find some solutions that can get around limits like the speed of light, any actual travel to another star will take huge investments of time and energy. Other civilizations on other planets may have solved these problems, but the idea that they would have already found us seems pretty unlikely. Not impossible, but one of the principles of a scientific attitude is when you propose a very unlikely theory (that aliens are visiting our planet), you need exceptional evidence, and we certainly don’t have that yet. I would expect that most UFO reports are going to turn out to have rather mundane explanations (such as problems with specific cameras on military planes).

In the same sense, the heart of our existence is a mystery, but not one that necessarily opens the door for magic (unfortunately!) or other approaches to explain existence. This mystery is the foundation of our reality: a firm bedrock that patiently tolerates our efforts to turn it over, and examine it. A mystery that effortlessly dodges both scientific and mystical attempts to tame it. Each effort to break through this mystery, whether through scientific investigation or through mystical experience, leaves the foundation unmarred, unmoved.

Personally, I have found that appreciating the mystery of existence to be an important part of my own meditation practice, and I think that this quote from Carl Sagan captures my own attitude today:

For myself, I like a universe that includes much that is unknown and, at the same time, much that is knowable.

A universe in which everything is known would be static and dull …

A universe that is unknowable is no fit place for a thinking being.

Carl Sagan, “Can We Know the Universe? Reflections on a Grain of Salt”

When Sagan writes about what is unknown, he was not really referring to that which we can never know, but more to the work that is left to do for science (that part of experience that can be explained using scientific theories). But, I would also say that it applies here: there is something important about understanding that some parts of experience are fundamentally unknowable. To experience directly, to touch the mysterious, is equal parts humbling and wonderful.

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Getting out of our heads

What is this life that we find ourselves living? What is this place that we find ourselves in? For me, these were the kinds of the questions that brought me to meditation, and to Zen practice when I was younger. Growing up, I was not exposed to a strong religious tradition, and felt that I lacked a framework to explain the larger meaning of this life. Over the years, I have felt that my meditation practice has been an important part of how I have found my way in life, helping me to be more aware of the ways in which my own reactions to events in my life can draw out resistance, and struggle. Meditation has opened up more space in my life, to move out of the comfortable ruts of habit, to act with less defensiveness.

Today, I am somewhat grateful for not having a formal religious upbringing, as I feel that opened some space for my own explorations. And, I am still very concerned with the question: what is the nature of this reality that we find ourselves in? How can we move skillfully through the world?

Beyond my meditation practice, and Zen Buddhism in particular, science has been a critical part of my understanding of the world that we are in, and what we are (the nature of human existence). I see my meditation practice as focused on careful observation of life from the “inside,” so to speak: the world as we actually, directly experience it. Even early in a meditation practice, cultivating awareness of our lives can provide many insights, about how we may close ourselves off to others, or to how rumination can lead us to suffer.

For me, I see the scientific approach as complementary to my practice: if my focus in meditation is often to look at the direct experience of life, then the scientific approach is to look at life (the conditions that give rise to our existence as sentient beings, and the structure of that experience) from the “outside,” so to speak. The scientific approach begins from the observation that our experience is generally not random: there is a structure to our experience, and the world appears to operate according to firm, dependable principles.

Some people will call science a religion, and I can see how that is reasonable, but in my experience it is a useful tool. Science is a way of building knowledge about the world, starting from set of foundational premises, really assumptions, that are critical to the entire structure. When introducing science in psychology and neuroscience, we tell our students that science is grounded in four “canons”:

  • empiricism (knowledge is built on observations of the world)
  • determinism (events have orderly causes)
  • parsimony (if we have two explanations for the same event, we prefer the one that is simpler, e.g. the one that explains the event with the fewest assumptions)
  • testability (that our inquiry is limited to questions that can be answered using empirical observations)

Other scientists might debate the number and nature of the foundations of science, but these basic principles are the bedrock of strong science (and these specific four are ones used in a textbook that I am fond of, by Pelham & Blanton, Measuring the Weight of Smoke, and if you are interested, I’d suggest checking out this sample chapter).

Science has proven to be an exceptional system for understanding the structure of the world around us. However, science also has very strong limits (boundaries) that come from the four canons. One in particular is the focus on testability: as scientists, we are only concerned with questions that can be addressed using empirical observations (our own direct observations, or those we can make based on tools, such as thermometers to measure temperature, scales to measure weight).

For this reason, I feel that science is a critical part of making sense of the world, but I don’t see it as a religion, or a spiritual practice, as science is agnostic, or disinterested, in fundamental questions. As a scientist, I find the important questions (“What is the meaning of this life?” for instance) are unanswerable.

So, then why do I feel that science complements my practice at all?

Mainly, it is because I can see the ways in which our perceptions of the world are inherently limited by our human form, and science, especially psychology and neuroscience, have helped to reveal the nature of our limits, and their sources.

For example, consider illusions: cases where our perception (experience) does not describe the world accurately (as we would measure the world more objectively). The “blind spot” is a good example: people with normal vision often forget that each of us is blind in a small part of each of our eyes, the blind spot. You can demonstrate this for yourself (here is one online demonstration from McGill University, from a site with a number of interesting educational activities about the brain).

The blind spot exists because of a quirk of the anatomy of our eyes (and specifically the retina, the very back of our eye). The light sensitive cells in the retina gather information to send into the brain. That information travels into the brain through the optic nerve. But, the fibers that gather to form the nerve pass through the retina, creating a “hole” where there are no light-sensitive cells. (If you have ever had a photograph taken of your retina during an eye exam, you will likely have been able to see the optic disc, which is where the optic nerve is passing through the retina).

So, each person with normal vision is partially blind in each eye. And, each of us is also generally unaware of the blind spot. Our own blindness is hidden from us. However, with careful observation, we can demonstrate the existence of the blind spot, and some very interesting studies have also been done, to study how the brain fills in the blind spot with a guess as to what should be there, based on the context around that location.

As another example, take the Müller-Lyer illusion (right). For most people, the horizontal line in the top figure appears to be longer than the horizontal line in the bottom image.


But, they are the same length! You can test this by holding up a piece of paper along each end, or try visiting this link to this illusion on The Illusion Index, for an animation that shows the length of each line, and gives more info on the illusion. The reason we experience the Müller-Lyer illusion is still a matter of debate (some have pointed out that the arrowheads at the ends of the lines function as depth cues, for instance).

Illusions such as these show that our perceptions (what we experience) can deviate strongly from the world around us (what people generally would experience, if we measured the world objectively). In many ways, this is expected, as our perceptions are not thought to be intended to report exactly what is out in the world around us. Rather, what we perceive is our best guess about the world, or a balance between our best and most useful guess.

Outside of perception, there are also fascinating cases where our understanding of our own ability to pay attention fails us. One example that I like to discuss with my students is inattentional blindness, a situation in which we are unaware that we are not attending fully to what is going on around us. The video below is based on the work of Dan Simon and his colleagues, and is an excellent demonstration (if you haven’t seen it already, that is!).

Inattentional blindness is related to selective attention, the idea that our ability to attend to what is going on around us is usually limited, and we can only focus on a few things at once. But, we are often blind to the fact that we are not processing other events or objects. And, we may miss something important, even when it feels like we are paying attention intensely!

While people may vary in how strongly they experience inattentional blindness (just as with visual illusions), it is very likely that many of us, much of the time, are blind to how much information we are filtering out all around us.

Work with perceptual illusions and “cognitive illusions,” such as inattentional blindness, have helped to demonstrate not only that our perceptions of the world can be limited in important ways, but that careful measurements of the world can show us more clearly the ways in which our experience can be distorted.

This is the first step, for me, to trying to correct for these distortions (to be more humble, for instance, that I may have missed an important event, has been a great help when the people around me disagree on what happened in a specific incident). I have found this to be a very valuable perspective for my own practice, to approach my own experience with humility.

One other area of science, and especially psychology and neuroscience, that is important for my own practice comes from studies of how our perceptions of ourselves as stable, separate beings is built. For instance, I took a moment just now to look at my right hand. I raised it up, stretched out my fingers, then clenched my fist. The feeling of ownership was very strong: this is my hand, certainly. The perception of ownership comes, almost automatically.

But is ownership of my hand really a given?

For example, in my home right now, there is a silicone replica of a hand on a nearby table. I know that this hand is false, and not a real hand.

(Don’t worry, having an extra hand lying around is quite normal in our home, living with a child who is an artist. Because, after all, who isn’t going to need an extra hand someday?)

Now, imagine that my child were to set this false, silicone hand down on my desk. Right next to my own right hand, maybe while I was distracted. And, imagine that the silicone hand and my own were both covered at the wrists, so I could not see where my arm ended, and my hand began.

Looking down, would I be confused about which was my own hand, and which was the false one? Probably not, but why? Is ownership of my hand natural, and given?

No, that does not seem to be the case. While it seems that the decision (that is a false hand, this is my hand) is easy, and effortless, in reality the decision requires active work by our brains. And one easy way to demonstrate this is with the rubber hand illusion (this piece in The Guardian has a nice description of the illusion, and some interesting work on the effects of the illusion on the brain).

To experience the illusion, I could hide my right hand under my desk, and leave the false hand in the same orientation. Then, if someone were to touch my right hand (under the desk), and the false hand, simultaneously, and in the same pattern, I might start to experience the rubber hand illusion. It would start to feel as if the false hand is actually my own. Not every person is susceptible, but for those who are (and I am one of them), it can be a very disconcerting experience.

I know (in an intellectual sense) that the false hand is not real, that it is not even made of flesh. But as I see someone touching it at the same time I feel someone touching my hand, the perception of ownership is real. It can fluctuate between shades of ghostly displacement, and something sharper, stronger feelings of “self.” This is an illusion just as much as the Müller-Lyer, where lines of equal length appear to differ in our perceptions.

While it seems to be a simple thing to say, “this is my hand, that is not,” in reality, it is much more difficult to do. The existence of the rubber hand illusion points to the fact that it really is difficult to find our body in the world, and we (our brains) weigh information from several senses (sight – seeing our hand, proprioception – feeling where our hand is positioned, and touch – feeling something contact the hand).

Where these sensations are strongly correlated (I see someone touch a hand/I feel my hand being touched), then usually, what I am seeing is my own hand. This leads to the feeling of ownership, that is part of building up a sense of myself as separate from the world around me. What it is especially important, I think, is that this sense of myself is built, not found in the world. And, it is unstable (if something as simple as the rubber hand illusion can unsettle it, momentarily).

Are these insights fundamentally different from those offered by Buddhism? Probably not (many of you can likely identify parallels or independent observations in Buddhism that offer similar insights). But for me, to be able to better understand the nature of our form and how it operates in the world has been invaluable. But, also something that I set aside in my practice, and especially in meditation.

As Shohaku Okumura advised, our intellectual understanding can be important, and we should set it aside in our meditation:

It’s really important to first have a kind of intellectual understanding about what our practice is. When we sit on the cushion, we should forget about it, and just sit. It’s the same as when we drive a car, or when we learn how to drive a car. First we have to study about the parts of the car, and how to deal with it. But when we really drive a car, we should forget about that knowledge, and just drive.

Shohaku Okumura, Mind and Zazen

Sitting down and opening up to life

After a run recently, we came across a small toad along our path. This little one seemed to have perfected just sitting: relaxed, unperturbed, but ready to act in a moment. I wish that I could say that I’ve mastered sitting in the same way!

While their posture is very different from that of sitting meditation, I do feel that toads are a wonderful model for the attitude we cultivate in our sitting meditation practice. At least outwardly, a toad appears to be still, but relaxed. But, they are perfectly attentive to everything around them, from the insects that will be their next meal to animals that will try to eat them.

And, of course, the annoying hiker who stops to try to take a photo.

While there are many approaches to meditation, those that I prefer remind me of the attitude of a toad: relaxed, still, but entirely alert. In a lot of ways, this attitude is similar to how I have approached my own practice, which has been most strongly shaped by shikantaza (just sitting) meditation in the Soto Zen tradition.

The Zen teacher Shohaku Okumura describes shikantaza in Mind and Zazen:

This is a really simple practice; we do nothing but sit in the zazen posture breathing easily, keeping the eyes open, staying awake, and letting go. That’s all we do in zazen; we do nothing else. Yet even if you try to sit just five minutes in this way you will find it really difficult.

This practice is very simple but simple does not necessarily mean easy. So whenever we become aware that we have deviated from that point of upright posture, deep breathing, keeping the eyes open without focusing, and letting go of whatever comes up, we try to return to that point. In whatever condition we find ourselves in, we just return to posture, breathing, waking up, and letting go. That is what we do in meditation.

Shohaku Okumura

The Zen teacher Dainin Katagiri gave similar advice:

When you are sitting in zazen, don’t think. Don’t use your frontal lobe. Your frontal lobe is sitting with you already, so don’t use it to think. This doesn’t mean to destroy thinking or to keep away from thinking. Just rest; don’t meddle with thinking.

Dainin Katagiri, “Returning to Silence: Zen Practice in Daily Life

What is the point of a practice like this? That is a complicated question (and teachers such as Dainin Katagiri have said that meditation is useless). But for me, I think that meditation is a key part of how I have tried to put my own life under a microscope, and to look carefully at everything we take for granted. This can help us loosen the grip of a strong emotion, it can help soften the boundaries that seem so rigid between ourselves and others. It can open up more space in our lives.

And, while I do believe the transformative potential of a mediation practice, if I am perfectly honest, I have often struggled with meditation! For much of my adult life, I have felt that I should meditate for a significant amount of time every day, but I have rarely achieved that for more than a few weeks at a time. It has frustrated me, because I do believe that meditation is an important part of my life, to turn my attention back on to itself, as much as I can.

When I saw that toad on the trail, it would be fair to say I envied that little one, to be able to sit so easily!

But truthfully, while I used to feel bad about how difficult it was for me to maintain a regular practice, more recently I have felt that meditation is (for me) similar to exercise (which I also have a conflicted relationship with). I don’t enjoy exercise (usually) in the moment, but I keep at it, because I feel that it is a critical part of my life.

Changing my attitude has been helpful, as I’ve been able to step back from being concerned that I am a fraud (someone who espouses an interest in meditation practice, but who doesn’t genuinely live it). And, I feel that my practice is richer today, for that.

This type of practice has long appealed to me, as it feels built on a premise that it is valuable to turn our attention to our experience, to the totality of life, as much as we can outside of our thinking about the world.

If you have any interest in exploring this style of Zen meditation, I would very much recommend reading as much as you can find. There are many wonderful books out there, and I have especially found it useful to explore collections of talks by Zen teachers. I would recommend Katagiri’s book, “Returning to Silence,” and another collection of his talks, “You Have to Say Something.” I have also found Charlotte Joko Beck to be very influential in my own practice, and would highly recommend her book “Everyday Zen.” And, I am also quite fond of Steve Hagen’s “Buddhism Plain and Simple.”

I think that these readings are a good place to start (but, I would also encourage you to reach out to a community of practitioners as well!). I personally have felt that it has been most beneficial to be part of a community (and have valued times when I lived near a Zen center).

But, I’ve also spent much of my life in locations where going to a center was not feasible. There are many excellent resources today, such as this post, How to do Zazen for the basics of sitting meditation and good visuals. I personally cannot sit in the full lotus position (and usually sit in something close to a quarter lotus pose =) )

Whether in books or through a community of practitioners, I think that you will be able to find many others who have used the opportunity of practice to look carefully at their own life. And, I hope that you too will take some time to just sit.