Math and Science people don’t always like us Humanities people, taking their objective scientific laws and converting them into subjective ambiguous metaphors. But in a pre-Thanksgiving warm-up, we decided to bring the tribes together–Physics and Philosophy–to see if we could find some common ground exploring the infinite minutiae of space and time.
Black holes. That’s what sucked me in. Gravity consuming. Time dialating. There’s so much of the normal confluence of our everyday existence that they turn on its head. A student asks Mr. Shoaf why light is lost, since it has no mass and is therefore immune to gravity. “It bends space-time,”‘he says. “Imagine a bowling ball falling into the sheet of space-time. It pulls everything down. So photons follow the curvature of space.”
Science people and their metaphors. Poor photons. Creatures of light, still incapable of escapable of keeping their trajectory out of the black hole. A student of mine asks Mr. Shoaf what this means for free will. In the philosophy class, The Physics Master is appropriately philosophical: analyzing the multiple possibilities of the answer, hedging a committed yes or no, laying out how the proposition is both true and false, dancing on the edge of the event horizon.
It’s a beautiful place to be, skating that very line between grave and certain philosophical positions. You’re floating through time and space, believing you’re in complete control, the possibility that you’re not begins to exert its gravitational pull, bending your universe. You can let yourself get sucked through that hole. Unlike real black holes, you won’t die, shredded by the unfathomable force it exerts upon you, but you will come out the other side a bit different, a bit out of step with your contemporaries. Time has slowed for you. The thought has changed you. As you yield to this contemplation, the rest of the world has continued at its normal rapid pace while you have deepened experience in your still body.
Thoreau, himself an intellectual time traveller, mused this possibility in one of my favorite parables in Walden, the artist from the city of Kouroo. He posed the idea that we can get lost in contemplation or in the pursuit of some perfection and time slows down for us. While the world wastes away around us, we exist out of time. On the surface, it sounds like a magic elixir for staving the ravages for mortality. But as Thoreau discovered, such timelessness has its cost: you find yourself somewhat isolated from the community. In a very real sense, it’s the surprise Cooper in Interstellar finds as he eventually returns to communication with his family to find they have all lived full lives, reproduced and grown old without him–the other side of the travel through the black hole of timeless pursuit. Thoreau venerated this as non-conformity, which is great when you choose it, but it could just as easily be labeled as a crippling isolation if you’re nothing more than a photon getting tossed around by the curvature of space.
Thanksgiving break thankfully came right after this intense lesson, so as I took long walks down the greenway with my dogs, I watched the leaves fall, the seasons slowly rotate, and mused about black holes, physical and metaphorical. Don’t go for the easy interpretation: this is not where this blog slides into depression. Rather, I mused on the time-warping nature of seeking a goal or idea at the exclusion of all others. How there are endeavors in life that we commit ourselves to wholeheartedly, and then come out the other side recognizing how much the world has gone on without us as we have followed our single minded pursuits. Sometimes, these are obligations, like when I go into a paper grading hole for three days to finish up a set of essays I need to return. Some of these are thrust upon people, like when a loved one becomes ill out of nowhere and we are forced to re-order our lives to participate in their care. These seem out of our choice. But some of these are pursuits we willingly enjoy, like learning an instrument, planning a wedding or vacation, or exploring a new hobby. At least on those, we are choosing to move in a new direction, intentionally re-ordering our life, becoming who we more want to be? But even as I followed that line of logic down the black rabbit hole, I ran into a personal conundrum as I found myself agreeing with David Brooks. Even as I look at the pursuits I want to enjoy–deeper companionship with my wife, with my friends and family, improving my middling guitar skills, furthering my yoga practice, writing more, pursuing higher education–I wonder how much I’m setting sail on a new uncharted course of self-exploration and how much I’m following the sheet into the bowling ball. In either case, I ponder the opportunity costs. I wonder once I follow those pursuits and I come up for air on the other side, how will the universe have followed its own course as I have been pulled into my own personal black holes.
Somewhere on my mat at my favorite Saturday morning yoga class, this all comes rushing back on me. It’s difficult to find balance, and my upper body and lower body seem out of harmony. But I try to stay faithful to the process, though I find my muscles quivering at times. I step back from the gravitational pull that black holes have been exercising on my imagination. Backwards I pull to the lip of the Event Horizon, the millisecond before dive is made. Here, on the rim of possibility, I see I have perhaps been staring into the abyss for a bit too long. Here on the rim, I feel the pull of possibility on one way, and the awareness of being in the world in the other. Can one develop the strength to skate over the surface, to look into the abyss but daintily dance on the edge? Here on the edge is the birth of the ecstatic shivering. I find this in my practice this morning. I come with my will and push myself to the limit of my will: forced to yield to limitations of body, I yield, only to find a deeper place of understanding, this gentle oscillation of the will and the not-will opening new windows. As the Tao says, know the male but hold to the female.
Soon, class is almost over. The woman on the mat next to me utters a gentle imprecations: “my mother muscles are shivering.” She has pushed herself to the limit. Our society venerates it as the athlete pushes themselves just to the edge of breaking. Einstein talks about pursuing cosmic wonder in the name of science to the point of spiritual edification. In our common parlance, we hear this cropping up in the exhortations to “find balance” but this seems insufficient, especially in a society that seems to put such a premium on identity based on what we achieve, so much so that we blindly dive down rabbit holes unconsciously to fulfill these needs, treating our limitations as mere suggestions that keep us from having it all. Often this is more juggling than balancing, trying to keep all our balls in the air and not letting any of them fall, we touch them just enough to keep them afloat, working to counteract gravity at the last possible second. But sometimes, attuning our will to the curvature of space might yield us more than a simple juggling and balancing circus act could ever do.
It’s a week later on Saturday morning as I wrap this meditation up. The musing on black holes that captured my imagination last week seems far in my rearview mirror, though I have to admit that by throwing myself pell-mell into a week of work that included grading, lesson planning, meetings, student conferences, and talent show practice, the universe has continued its workings while I’ve tended to my little plot of existence. But as I take one last look at this meditation, I consider the strength necessary to pull one’s conscious mind out of its pursuit and will to be aware of the universe around it. Perhaps pursuing its will while maintaing this awareness is the greatest trick of all, exercising control while yielding to the lack of it. Simultaneously in and out of time. Dancing on the edge of the Event Horizon.