Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Atoms and Apples

All existence is a metaphor for a spiritual truth.

I'm not sure where I learned that, but it seems to be true.

'Abdu'l-Baha, for example, speaks of achieving "the power of understanding" and coming "to know the inner realities of the universe", as well as going on to uncovering "the signs and mysteries of God".

There are many examples of this in the Writings of all Faiths, in which they speak of learning spiritual truths from the world around us.

So, if everything in existence can teach us a spiritual truth, then that means that we can find a truth in everything.  Seems redundant, doesn't it?  But have we tried it?  I used to play a game with myself while walking down the street, in which I would look at an object and try to find a spiritual truth within it.

A teacup was easy.  All you need to do is look at Zen and you will quickly come across the idea of yourself as a teacup.  "Like this cup," Nan-in said, "you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"

Some objects were more difficult, and I will share some of them later.

One that gave me a particularly difficult time, but was very rewarding, was an atom.

How is an atom a metaphor for a spiritual truth?

I've always been interested in the sciences, and have read quite a bit about atomic theory, sub-atomic particles, and similar things, so I had a bit of an education about an atom already.  This is what came to mind:

Picture an apple.  Its colour.  Its shape.  Its texture, scent and taste.  Imagine the skin, the seeds, and the drop of its juice that, as you bite into it, sprays forth.

Now think about the atoms that make it up.  How small are they?  Can we even begin to imagine them?  Think, for just a moment, how many atoms there must be within that apple.  Millions?  Billions?  Can we even contemplate how many?

Now try and picture that apple the size of the planet Earth.  Seriously.  Look down at the ground, or out your window, and visualize how big that apple must be if it were the size of Earth.  The whole planet.  From horizon to horizon, everything is just the surface skin of that apple.

If the apple were that big, each atom within that apple would be the size of a cherry, and everything you see would be made up of those cherry-sized atoms.  Your computer, the desk, the chair, every brick in your home, all the trees outside: everything made up of cherries.  Just imagine how many cherries that would be.  An entire earth-sized apple made up of cherries.

Now take a single one of those atoms.  Stretch the imagination again and picute that atom, no longer cherry-sized, but rather the size of an island, adrift in the sea.  Imagine this island, our cherry-sized atom, a full kilometer across.  There at the centre, in the middle of our now-island-sized atom, lies a pebble.  And way off by the edge, near the shore, lies a single grain of sand.  And rather than an island, there is nothing, save this pebble and this grain.

That is an atom.

That effectively describes how little matter there is in an atom.  Proportionately, a pebble and a grain of sand, over the distance of a kilometer.

At this point, it is very easy to understand the person who commits suicide.  Consider for a moment, what difference would it make if you removed a single cherry from this earth-sized apple?  Virtually none whatsoever.

If we were to imagine this cherry as a metaphor for ourselves, the problem meaninglessness comes into the fore, and suicide becomes a realistic option.  So how do we address this?

Let's shift back to that island again.  Did you know that the grain-of-sand-sized electron cannot be said to exist in and of itself?  In physics, it exists only as a probability.  We can define its movement, or its location, but not both.  We can either say, "It exists here", but admit we don't know where it's moving, or we can say "It is moving at this speed", but admit that we don't know where it is.  We can say where it might be, but never that it is.  One scientist described the atom as pat of butter smeared on a piece of toast.  The thickness of the butter described the percentage chance it had of being in that location.  Tricky that.  I won't even pretend to really understand what all that means.

What we can say, with certainty, is that it interacts with the nucleus, the other electrons, and even the other atoms around it.  Its existence may not be tangible, but its energy is shared.

Its interactions with the other elements around it, those do exist.  Although the atom is almost completely made up of empty space, it appears to be solid.

Why?  More to the point, how?

After all, how easy is it to hit a pebble with a grain of sand by throwing it half-a-kilometer?  If that is all that is within the atom, why doesn't your hand fall through the desk?  Why am I able to clap my hands together? 

The answer?  Simple.  The atom appears solid because of its interactions with those around it.

Thus it is with humans, too.

Our existence, in and of itself, is negligible.  Not even worthy of mention.  Made up of almost complete non-existence.  As Baha'u'llah famously said, "when I consider my own self, lo, I find it coarser than clay!"

As I wrote to my wife, shortly after we were married:

...What gives us our seeming solidity is our relationship with others.

Now picture the tree that gave fruit to the apple.

We can define it roots, or leaves, bark or branches.  We can pick any part we wish and give it definition, but by doing so we have lost the essence of the tree.

Although we can take pieces of the tree and use them in a metaphor, like the Blessed Beauty's statement to "Regard thou faith as a tree," a tree does not exist on its own.  Not only does it not exist on its own, it cannot exist on its own.

We can talk about the roots, but without the earth from which the roots draw forth nourishment, they are a useless appendage that have no meaning.  Beyond that, they cannot even draw forth the water if it weren't for the fungi that grow on their edges, nor for that matter could the fungi survive if it weren't for the roots.

The thousands of apples that fruit forth from the tree would appear to be useless, and perhaps even confusing, if seen from the light that only a few will produce a tree.  But when we think of the nourishment that is generated throughout the forest by the fruit, by feeding the birds, or the insects, or enriching the soil, then we can see why the fruit is given.

It is only in relation to the entire forest, no, to the entire planet, that the sensibility and purpose of a tree can be seen.

And once again, I think of myself.

And you.

And I thank you.

For giving me relation, someone with whom I can worthily interact, with whom I can exist, and through whom my life can make a semblance of sense and purpose.

As the particles that make up the atom have no existence on their own, our own existence is, too, negligible without those with whom we share it.

And as the fruit of the tree makes no sense when taken out of the full context of the forest, so too do our fruits make little sense when taken solely on their own.

Our relationship is love, the first fruit of which was our friendship.   That friendship grew into the tree of our union, producing the fruit of our marriage, and more.  And it's not that I have no other relationships than you, it's just that yours is the most important.

And now, dear Reader, I thank you, too.

Thank you for making my life richer, more meaningful, and more solid, by giving me a stronger relation with the world around me.  Thank you for helping this tree grow, watered with love and given the light of prayers.

And all this from a simple atom.

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