This is a mosaic essay I wrote a couple of years ago to try to flesh out my own fledgling understanding of how space and what appears to be nothingness play into reality. It offers, I think, a good introduction for this blog and represents many of the questions swirling around in my head.
The Surreptitious Subtleties of Space
To find true understanding, says renowned Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, one must look deeply into the nature of things. Science, religion, art, and music all attempt this with unique methods, and each reveals insights gleaned from the depths of reality. These fields offer us glimpses of the universe, perspectives from various vantage points. Their relationships could be likened to overlapping circles, influencing each other as they reveal different angles on truth, yet each still remaining autonomous.
It is 1987. I am seven years old, standing outside on a warm summer evening, watching the twinkling lights in the black night sky. As I watch, something begins to rise up within me. It starts as a small tendril of fear, winding its way up through my chest. But quickly it becomes full blown terror, snaked round me, suffocating and paralyzing. In my childish mind, already steeped in fundamental Christian teachings, I somehow equate the expanse of outer space with the limitless, endless nature of eternity. Cold, dark, lonely, unknown. My panic drives me back into the safe, well-lit confines of my parents’ house.
Scientists and mathematicians often wonder if we humans invented mathematics, or merely discovered it. Is God the original mathematician, creating the universe based on laws and formulas that he dreamed up? Is mathematics an autonomous entity unto itself? We have no hard answer for this, but advances in so many fields, including genetics, neurobiology, and even anthropology, were possible because of pathways mathematics has laid out for us.
Mathematics is essentially the exploration of different types of dimensional spaces, each prefaced by one of a myriad of adjectives. Topographical space, noncommutative space, two dimensional space, linear space, and so on. In this field, space is understood both concretely and abstractly. When we study geometry, it is easy to identify spaces created by vectors, various points that create a structure, and graphical representations of objects that may or may not be real. But each of these spaces can be described through algebraic equations and formulas, which allude to the important relational nature of all that constitutes space. Most of us learned Euclidian geometry in school; it best describes flat spaces, those that are one and two dimensional. This type of math remained unchallenged until the late 1800s with the development of Riemannian and hyperbolic geometries, which apply to curved and saddle shaped spaces.
Mathematicians also love to work with numbers that don’t exist, that are basically formless and non-existent, a type of empty space in themselves. The introduction of zero in antiquity transformed mathematics, and later, the introduction of imaginary numbers propelled complex math to a new level. Imaginary numbers are found by taking the square root of a negative number, denoted as i, for imaginary. Originally, no one knew if there would be a real world use for these fantastical numbers, but they have proven very useful for fields like quantum mechanics, fluid dynamics, and electrical circuit theories.
The God of my youth had a violent temper until he was apparently placated by the horrific death of Jesus. Afterward, he became safe when approached through contracts and formulas. I was taught very clearly what God likes and does not like, and as long as I adhered to his laws and principles, I would be shown mercy. Within specific boundaries, God was warm and loving, but cross the wrong line, and he would be sure to put me on the bullet train to hell.
Geometry class came easily to me in school. I liked the boundaries it imposed on space, probably because of my understanding of God. Triangles, rectangles, and circles…all bounded in with limits. They were measurable, tangible, and for most of the work I encountered, finite. In my mind, the absence of boundaries threatens safety. It invites in the unknown and the opportunity for unwelcomed change.
In college calculus class, we dealt regularly with infinity (∞) and negative infinity (-∞). I approached these numbers with the same disdain and fear as the cosmos. How could numbers grow forever in a positive or negative direction? My mind, that held fast to the belief in a theistic God, could not fathom how something, even an abstract mathematical idea, could seem to carry on without limits, as though it was a god.
The space beyond the confines of our atmosphere seem like inky-black nothingness, spotted here and there with galaxies, but it carries countless secrets that puzzle its admirers. The galaxies are not simply floating along in a great cosmic dance, but are rushing away from each other with increasing speed. Stars on the edges of these galaxies travel much faster than astrophysicists would expect, according to traditional physics models.
Galactic rotational curves have provided evidence for this baffling enigma. These curves help describe the speed at which stars travel around the center of a galaxy. Models that predict these velocities consider the relationship between distance with gravitational forces and suggest that stars in outer orbits should move slower than those in inner orbits. In reality, the change in velocity is flat. Stars that are on the outer edges of galaxies move just as fast as those in the center.
Scientists believe there must be some sort of scaffolding supporting this cosmic machine, but what is it? Perhaps dark matter. There must also be some phantom energy pushing the universe apart to explain the increasing distance between us and faraway stars. Dark energy? Both are speculative but increasingly accepted theories, and both seem to have qualities that surpass anything that visible matter and detectable energy possess. Scientists postulate that dark energy and dark matter make up 95% of the known universe that we perceive as empty space. That means the earth, stars, and matter and energy that humans can detect only make up a measly 5% of all that falls within the boundaries of what we can currently comprehend.
Humans take up an infinitesimally small amount of space in all that exists. We believe ourselves to be grand, but we are simply stardust, appearing as a clustered blip in the history of time. As an adult, I stumble over the theories of dark matter and dark energy. I try in vain to reconcile how this God I think I believe in would spend so much time crafting the cosmos, simply to focus on a small heaven or hell morality game with a tiny sample size of what he made.
My faith is beginning to waiver, but a tiny flicker of hope rises up within me: maybe life is bigger than what I once thought, maybe the reality of God goes much further than the reductionistic ‘accept or deny Jesus’ decision I felt forced to make. Maybe we’ve got it wrong and the only reason we thought God was angry was because we didn’t always know how wonderful the cosmos is? Maybe the life of Jesus was just a strike-through of all the anger we thought was harbored against us?
As they peer more closely at subatomic particles, scientists have discovered in the last century just how spacious an atom really is. A hydrogen atom, for instance, is a little over 99.9% space, leaving ample room for electrons to dance and spin, disappear and reappear, all around the atom’s nucleus.
But in reality, all that seemingly empty space in the atom isn’t really empty. Quantum field theorists suggest that the “space” varies in energy levels, and even at its lowest energy level, can generate elementary particles. As it turns out, to create a true vacuum of nothingness, if it were possible, would itself require an immense amount of energy and ultimately be very unstable.
The near impossibility of creating a true vacuum of nothingness, at least in this universe, is very encouraging to me. Nothing is truly dead, or lost. Oblivion and nihilism are fanciful ideas. From emptiness, stars explode into being. From stardust, life bursts forth. Because there is hope in the universe, there is also hope for me.
The spaces in which we live and work, and how we fill those spaces, play an important role in our lives. If our rooms, buildings, and living areas did not somehow impact our sense of emotional well being and aliveness, then we would expect them to simply serve us in a utilitarian fashion. We would construct buildings and fill spaces with materials that are simply functional, with little concern for aesthetics. But we as humans, when unconstrained by external factors, are not content with mere functionality. We want to fill the places that we spend our time with beautiful things that engage us spiritually, mentally, and emotionally.
The Chinese philosophy surrounding Feng Shui is built on the foundational premise that spatial arrangement is important. Modern Westernized Feng Shui involves maximizing optimal arrangement of items in interior spaces to improve the flow of qi, or life force energy. Several more traditional branches of the philosophy approach the flow of qi in a scientific manner, using complex mathematical calculations, numerology and polarity to ascertain the most favorable or unfavorable ways to frame and fill spaces.
There is a verse in the Bible that describes God as the one in which “we live and move and have our being.” When I consider the cosmic racing of the stars, the inner creative worlds of atoms, and our own innate need for aesthetics, I can’t help but read this verse differently. What if God is mostly about process, relationship, and interconnectedness? What if God is the energy moving in all the spaces in and around us?
Artists understand that their craft is not only knowing what elements to include in their work, but which elements to leave out. Frequently, what is absent offers our imaginations room to flourish, license to go deeper and move beyond the superficial. Space plays a crucial role in art composition. In this context, it can be described as positive or negative. Positive space in a piece of art refers to the shapes of interest, the subject at hand. Negative space, meanwhile, is the space around the subject of interest that provides an artistic effect and offers breathing room from clutter in the composition. When utilized well, the negative space in a painting or photograph is capable of bringing the piece to life, generating a compelling attraction for viewers.
The Japanese also speak of the possibilities that can arise from negative or empty space through a concept they call “ma.” Ma is a pause or gap between two elements, but it is not limited to a tangible, dimensional sort of space. Rather, it extends to the level of experience and imagination. It is not oblivion, but a formless origin that is pregnant with possibilities. A poem from the ancient Tao Te Ching describes the idea of ma well:
“Thirty spokes share the hub of a wheel;
yet it is its center that makes it useful.
You can mould clay into a vessel;
yet, it is its emptiness that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows from the walls of a house;
but the ultimate use of the house
will depend on that part where nothing exists.
Therefore, something is shaped into what is;
but its usefulness comes from what is not.”
I’m learning to meditate, to focus on the breath. There is a saying: “Don’t just do something! Sit there!” It is hard to just ‘be’ and make space within myself. The fury within me prods me to get up and ‘do’, and stop wasting time. Prove yourself! it nags. But again and again I force myself to sit, and breathe, and try to trust that what I am not doing is as useful as what I do.
Music is one of humanity’s universal languages. It touches us, moves us, stirs up memories from the past and passions for the future. Claude Debussy defined music to be the space between the notes, not the notes themselves. Philosopher Alan Watts echoed these sentiment decades later when he said that we only hear melodies because of those spaces. It is the combinations and patterns of notes with silent gaps between them that result in melodies, harmonies, and rhythms that can be distinguished from each other. The length that each note or space is allowed to continue influences the mood and tone of a piece.
However, it doesn’t seem to just be the random pauses between notes in pretty melodies that affect us. Many alternative medicine practitioners are convinced that music has healing capabilities. The energy from each note or combination of notes travels through physical space as sound waves, and these vibrational waves can affect a person’s emotions. For instance, a minor second chord creates feelings of tension or unease, while a major third produces feelings of hope and sweetness. Some ‘healers’ are convinced that the vibrations sent out by music can even help align one’s bodily energy fields, resulting in greater physical well-being.
I’m beginning to accept that space is not simply empty nothingness. In both the metaphysical and tangible senses, space is the creative potential from which life, form, and all that is meaningful spring forth. I remember that the late theologian Paul Tillich once described God as the Ground of Being: not personal, but not less than personal. Could it be the that space in all forms is this Ground of Being?
The Western spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle has said that our essential nature as beings is not content, not form, not the things we do or what we achieve. Our identity can be known, but not conceptually, because concepts again bring us back to names and forms. Instead, identity, our true self, can be known in the space of stillness. “The best description through words is to say what it is not, and then you are left with what it is. It cannot be named, but it can be known. But not known conceptually, because again, every concept is a name, a form. It can be known simply, easily, in the silent space of stillness,” says Tolle. These spaces, stillnesses, between words and thoughts, are the canvas upon which existence is painted. They are vibrant with life.
Tolle’s words, and those of countless other spiritual masters who resonate with him, sound remarkably similar to what physicists tell us happens on the quantum level. Existence and matter rise from what seems to be void.
It is 2015, and I can now gaze into the night sky with wonder and appreciation, instead of dread and panic. I no longer see it as a great empty expanse, but instead, a magnificent fullness.
I’m discovering that my old belief systems are no longer serving me well. The theological scaffolding that has stood in place for the first three decades of my life is crumbling, but I no longer fear my foundations being knocked out from under me.
I’m freefalling through space. Or, perhaps, I’m being caught by space.