A long time ago in a classroom far, far away, I had a vision that has shaped my journey in profound ways. It was inspired by a film screened in grade school half a century ago, depicting what reality might look like from the vantage point of the edge of the universe AND from the deepest interiors of matter itself. The nexus of microcosmic and macrocosmic perspectives revealed—even to my much younger self—some intriguing synergies, such as atoms resembling solar systems. Even more potently to my searching mind, the limits of human (mis)understanding at both ends of the scale made me think of dancing lights.
Somehow the realization stayed with me (a connotation born of poetry as much as science) that things were all interconnected in some mysterious, elegant way. In retrospect I can see my collegiate studies of physics and astronomy (really!) as an attempt to integrate scales from the quantum realm to quasars. As I traversed onward, the basic lesson shifted subtly toward the sense of unity-in-diversity that pervades the self-society relationship—and likewise includes nature and the environment in the tapestry. As part of the cosmic web, we too would reflect this duality, from strings to stars, both unique and ubiquitous:
We only get to borrow
This assemblage of light
For a brief moment in time
A blink of the third eye
Sadly streaking happily by
Shards of a cosmic symphony
The stardust we used to be
Resolving itself into matter
Into people and places and plans
Until they fragment into tatters
Reemerging on some distant world
For another brief experience
Of joys and sorrows and untold
Tomorrows with sails unfurled
Before dancing back into the night
There seems to be an irreducible quality of oneness AND infinitude to this reality, yet rather than seeing these as antagonists they are more properly taken as complementary—and indeed, even essential to one another. A singular conception of a UNIverse that was truly unitary, monolithic, undifferentiated, would be unfathomable; in order to sustain over time, the one must find expression in the many, the diverse, the infinite. Ecosystems work this way, diversifying their methods of existing to find those most conducive to prevailing conditions, perpetually changing and adapting. Nothing is static or isolated, even across astronomical distances; stellar furnaces and intergalactic dust spread creation and destruction everywhere. Even at the subatomic level, action-at-a-distance connects particles in mind-bending ways.
And all of it is light. Dancing Light (title line!). Always in motion, ever-changing forms, strands of matter and energy wound into one, simultaneous and in series, waves and particles—and neither. This is what I saw in my mind’s eye all those years ago, without the words to express it but aware on some level that even ourselves would be part of this cosmic symphony: dancing light briefly in human form, solid yet supple, flowing and growing and going and gone … back to the source and forward with the force of reformulation, station to station, from strings to things and back again, ingenuity in perpetuity. This is us: humans being, borrowed light, waking stardust, improbable probabilities, dreamers and the dream…
I did say this all was more poetics than physics, but then again I never really saw the difference (which probably explains why I couldn’t stay with the field after college). But however you parse things, there’s no denying that (a) we are forged from ancient materials strewn across vast distances of time and space, and (b) whatever we know about the material realm is merely the tip of the iceberg of existence. Still, as compelling as all of that may be, it doesn’t determine what we will do with the material existence we’ve been given; that part ostensibly remains up to us, to exercise agency as we navigate diverse conditions in our lives. Different faiths, codes, consciences, and perspectives will suggest varied ways to deploy the light granted. We can “be the change” simply by remembering that we already are—and always will be.
For me, which is all that I can really speak about, there does seem to be a baseline here that can inform our physics and metaphysics alike—namely that everything is connected and exists within relationships. It almost seems too simplistic to even type out these words, yet then again it feels good to do so—if only as a reminder about basic notions that are easy to lose sight of as we traverse the landscape of modern life. I spent a lot of years trying to figure out how to be in the world and hold on to some sense of deep connectedness that often felt at odds with that world, until I began to understand that those enmeshed connections were still there, everywhere actually, just beyond the manufactured surfaces. The challenge thus became how to plan for spontaneity, design for emergence, hold on tight and let go.
I think of these apparent paradoxes as intriguing basic synergies, as dialectics rather than dichotomies. You can call these “enmeshed connections” or whatever you like: mutualism, interdependence, ecology, quantum entanglement, a deity, love, all of the above. Or call them dancing light, if that works for you. Or don’t call them anything—just live them in every moment, every breath of air and sip of water, every word and image, every thought and hope, every heartbeat and neuron firing. Apparently (although perhaps apocryphally) the number of neural connections in our brains rival the number of stars in the galaxy—but even if the quantitative assessment is off by orders of magnitude in either realm, there’s something viscerally intriguing about the brain-as-universe parallels that have emerged in recent years.
Again, whether science or poetry, we return to the notion of being more than the (algebraic) sum of our individual parts. It may be tempting to stay firmly planted within a world where 1+1=2, but it’s more interesting to consider that 1+1 might equal infinity, or perhaps 1+1=1, or maybe 1+1 equals love, even. I don’t know, and I’m not sure I want to; I’m okay with ambiguity and the distinct possibility that many things are either unknowable altogether or are answerable in an array of potentially accurate ways. Having said that, I’m not lapsing into the lazy relativism that enables cynical expressions of malaise such as the post-truth society, because (once again) everything is connected and exists within relationships.
I am part
You are too
So to see
Unique yet common
A tether threading
Me to you
Us to we
Plain sight unseen
Thinking and acting through this lens can help make some sense of issues and crises that often seem insurmountable. It won’t stop climate change or end gross inequality just by recognizing that we’re all manifestations of shared cosmic dust and always already are interconnected (to one another and to the whole of creation) on multiple levels. Nor will it solve polarization and combat intolerance merely by invoking a holistic perspective that calls upon our better selves. Myriad peace teachers have brought us this gift many times over, yet still the world seems to spiral out of control. Then again, these teachings have helped sustain us up to this point—and it now falls upon us to act in this pivotal fulcrum moment.
As I write this, I’m reminded of the conclusion to Margaret Atwood’s 2009 novel The Year of the Flood. The story depicts a world caught in the throes of shortsightedness, greed, and violence, juxtaposing that baseline with a community called the Gardeners who espouse a ‘green’ philosophical and spiritual code. Their ostensible progenitor, known as Adam One, recalls in the penultimate chapter that “not a single atom that has ever existed is truly lost” and, tellingly, goes on to analogize the “vast spaces of emptiness that lie, not only within the atoms, but between the stars” as a signpost of synchronicity across scales. Atwood herself observed (in 2015) that the crux of the issue before us isn’t just about climate change—“it’s everything change.” Indeed, everything changes, always, but doing so all at once can be dizzying.
What then shall we do? I can’t answer that for you or anyone else and barely even for myself these days. But it does feel like there are at least a couple of pieces of the puzzle that fit together. First, we can try to experience the world more as ecosystems than egosystems, if you catch my drift; which leads to the second point, namely that existence in this form is a collaborative endeavor if it is to continue at all. Being alive in a time of acute, ongoing, convergent, and pervasive crises is challenging, of course, yet it also can serve to clarify things that often go unappreciated and unnoticed. For instance, the realization that everything is in motion, ever-changing, rhythmic—including us. The quantum string, the ancient quasar, and the quirky friend are part of the tapestry, all moving in time. So let’s dance, lights, dance!
NOTE: Observations arising out of some thoughts that I tried to cohere for a recent sharing-out with some amazing people, kindreds, fellow travelers, friends… It isn’t really all that complicated, yet it’s challenging to remember as life unfolds. Even though the piece doesn’t feel done yet and probably isn’t entirely comprehensible, posting it today anyway for a particular reason and as a reminder of the path.