An essential concept in yoga philosophy is the idea that there is a veil of illusion that conceals reality, known in ancient Indian Sanskrit language as Maya. Although this is a bit of an abstract theme I will attempt to place this concept among recent past scientific findings.
I picked up a really good book the other day by the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli, ‘Seven Brief Lessons on Physics.’ This publication describes the great discoveries in physics from Einstein’s 1915 article, “The General Theory of Relativity,” to the work of Steven Hawking. It is masterfully simplified and artfully written.
Several scientific discoveries outlined in Rovelli’s book seem to be proving science is now catching up with ancient Indian wisdom found in the Vedas, Upanishads, and the Yoga Sutras. The concept of Maya seems to jump from the pages of the second chapter in ‘Seven Brief Lessons on Physics,’ which is on the topic of quantum mechanics.
Rovelli speaks of Werner Heisenberg, “Heisenberg imagined that electrons do not always exist. They only exist when someone or something watches them, or better, when they are interacting with something else. They materialize in a place, with a calculable probability, when colliding with something else. The ‘quantum leaps’ from one orbit to another are the only means they have of being ‘real’: an electron is a set of jumps from one interaction to another. When nothing disturbs it, it is not in any precise place. It is not in a ‘place’ at all.” (p.17)
Rovelli then goes on to say, “It’s as if God had not designed reality with a line that was heavily scored but just dotted it with a faint outline.” (p.18) This sentence seems to precisely describe what the yogis envisioned many millennia ago. The idea that reality is somehow veiled speaks of the mathematical equations that Heisenberg used to prove quantum mechanics.
As Rovelli mentions, Albert Einstein was on the brink of this discovery but found it so abstract he initially dismissed the notion of quantum mechanics. Dane Niels Bohr had understood electrons ‘leap’ from one atom’s orbit to another while absorbing or releasing a photon, Rovelli mentions, and it was Bohr’s Copenhagen institution that produced the 1925 mathematical work of Heisenberg. This is but one of the fascinating stories in ‘Seven Brief Lessons in Physics’ that challenges the notion we understand reality to be the things we touch.
Another example reflecting the idea that reality is actually obscured from our conscious awareness can be clearly viewed through the experience of Jill Bolte Taylor. Neuroscientist, Jill Bolte Taylor’s autobiographical account of surviving a stroke poses critical questions in regards to the way humans think. In her lecture known as ‘Jill Bolte Taylor’s stroke of insight’ (there is also a book by the same name), Bolte Taylor mentions the brain processes thought from two different perspectives. Serial processing takes place in the left hemisphere of the brain and parallel processing on the right. Right brain activity may be considered ‘spacial’ and left brain ‘linear.’
The profound thought that we are an integral part of the molecular structure of the space around us is underscored as Bolte Taylor describes her experiences during the moments she endures the effects of a stroke. Serial processing is becoming impaired opening her experience to dominant parallel process thinking. The phone number on a business card becomes a collection of unrecognizable shapes, and words of conversation, both heard and spoken, become unintelligible when she is attempting to make an emergency call. In her perception from right hemisphere thinking, molecules of the environment blend with the fringes of her body, blurring the boundaries left hemisphere thinking dictate.
Next she is recognizing the diminishment of definition between her body and surrounding space. She describes an expansive feeling, mirroring accounts of an ‘out-of-body experience.’ She can feel her spirit leaving her body and there is a feeling of “silent euphoria – nirvana.” She has an epiphany; that everyone has access to nirvana and we can all live with compassion.
The ‘peeling away’ of the physical layer of reality leaves an energetic acuity and frames the world in ‘greater truth.’ A glimpse of divinity is described by Jill Bolte Taylor, and the recollection of this experience leaves her overcome with emotion. In the summation she mentions that right hemisphere thinking can make for a more peaceful world. She says, “I believe that the more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner peace circuitry of our right hemispheres, the more peace we will project into the world, and the more peaceful our planet will be.” This speaks of how transformational familiarizing our thought patterns to parallel processing could be.
The confirmation by a neuroscientist of a reality perceived by the right hemisphere of the brain should inspire us to see beyond the five senses, to open to the idea of interconnectedness. The impact of realizing the potential of brain activity in both left and right hemispheres can enhance thinking on a level which experiences deep compassion and unconditional love. If the development of parallel process thinking is nurtured we may have sincere empathy for others.
This notion of ‘opening up’ to the right side of the brain will shift thinking from plans for the future or experiences of the past, to an awakening of what is happening now. In understanding how we may offer assistance to others, a resonance must take place in regards to ‘opening up’ to meeting that person ‘where they are currently.’ In my experience with yoga therapy, preconceived notions based on past experiences and future projections are not enough to be of service to another. The spontaneity and creativity in helping someone solve physical, mental, or emotional challenges is facilitated by the brain’s right hemisphere where the seeds of compassion are most fertile.
I have had the privilege to teach yoga in many clinical environments with students challenged with a wide variety of issues. It was an eye-opening experience to teach developmentally disabled kids at a local high school, and I believe they taught me far more than I could offer them. Although I was able to offer lessons in yoga that inspired the pure joy I felt in the classroom, it was their boundless enthusiasm that drew tears of happiness from my eyes. Remarkably each student was supporting their classmates in a profound cooperative love for one another.
Somehow these students could see through of the veil of illusion, Maya, and see what is true reality; that reality is defined in human terms by earnest interaction as the catalyst for love. Thinking back I am reminded of the book by Jean Vanier, ‘Becoming Human,’ where Vanier in a series of Massey Hall lectures describes the pure love he receives when caring for the developmentally disabled. Reality appears to be recognition of ourselves as an eternal witness consciousness of pure love interacting with our environment and others within that environment. It is what the ancient yogis spoke of. Their ideas are now being proved by science.
The veil of illusion can be pulled away and recognition of what really matters in life becomes apparent. I would invite you to read Rovelli’s ‘Seven Brief Lessons on Physics,’ view Bolte Taylor’s ‘TED Talk – Stroke of Insight,’ but also check out Tom Shadyac’s documentary, ‘I am.’ Shadyac was a Hollywood movie director who had a cycling accident that almost killed him. In the hospital he seemed to have a ‘pulling away of the veil’ moment.
Shadyac gave up his possessions and dedicated his life to answering the fundamental questions of life. In the process he interviews the great minds of our time including Desmond Tutu, Noam Chomsky, Lynn McTaggart, Elisabet Sahtouris, David Suzuki and others. It is a thought provoking documentary and ultimately describes how we have reality all wrong; we are not competitors in life but instead as Shadyac says, “We are our brother’s keeper.”
Ultimately, if we can drop the veil of illusion the yogis call Maya, we can find purpose. The truth is we cannot be separate, we are in this together. In reality we may be in this together far more than we previously thought.