7. (mostly) Space

Robert Magrisson Mixed Media
Robert Magrisson Mixed Media

“When a relaxed spirit meditates and dreams… the mind sees and continues to see objects, while the spirit finds the nest of immensity in the object.” 1

If we were to look with finer detail into that which perceive as “matter”, we would see it to be mostly space. Atomic physicists long ago learned that the nucleus of an atom is about 1.44 x 10-15 meters, whereas the size of the atom itself is on the order of 10-11 meters. This is a difference of 10-4, which means that the size of the nucleus is about 10,000 times smaller than the atom. Therefore, if we were to imagine the atom to be something like a miniature solar system with the nucleus as the sun and the electrons as planets revolving around the sun, we would see mostly space. So any solid object, such as a table, a stone, or even our hand, is mostly space., Modern physics teaches us that what we perceive to be solid (or liquid) is mostly space.

Somehow, I find this idea to be an illuminating and freeing. What is the nature of all that space, hidden (at least from view) in the midst of “things,” including our bodies? Is it just empty, a vacuum, nothing? Or is it a no-thing, but some-thing else? If I am sitting in this room as I am, it too appears to be mostly space, though I know it is filled with the gases oxygen and nitrogen, which are, to me, invisible. If I turn on my radio receiver, I can pick up literally hundreds of stations, and, if it is a short-wave receiver, these include stations from all over the earth. If I had a more sensitive receiver, I could pick up the cosmic background radiation from the beginning of time. This space doesn’t seem empty. It is full of electromagnetic energy in the form of fields. Similarly, even inside the atom, space is not empty; it is filled with “energy”.

So, what is space? Is there any such entity as space or is it simply a human invention? Is it a kind of convenient concept that at first seems real, but on closer inspection does not exist? If the apparent solidity of objects is an illusion of our coarse senses and if it is not mostly space but energy, what is the nature of energy? Is this what we should be trying to perceive? Should we focus less on “things, but on the energies … hidden in them? For “things” are brimming with energy; the world itself is energy in motion, the energies of different systems, the nucleus, the atom, the molecule, the chemical system, the cell, the organ, the organism, the earth. What is energy?

Is “space” the background matrix on which all is played out? Is it the empty stage on which the play of matter takes place? Or is space the womb out of which energy is born? Is there an “aliveness” in space, a quality that gives rise to energy, matter, a kind of silent mysterious potential distributed throughout the universe, out of which “things” appear? We are born and achieve self – consciousness as separate organisms and then try to apprehend and comprehend our being, which is incomprehensible. We are the magician’s card or the bird that appears from the hat, and how can we ever understand the magician? Perhaps, this is what we call the Divine, the Unknown Creator, Ein Soph. Is it also the “place” into which we disappear in death? Birth, death, and the mystery of being must all be somehow related.

Vast. I am meditating simply with the word “vast” as I walk the dog. All around me, the familiar takes on a slightly different quality, a cosmic quality, provoked by the invocation of the word. Things are not so solid, not so familiar. Trees, plants, flowers become the mystery of chlorophyll and sunlight, and they all point to the star upon which we depend that we call the “sun.” I become a sun – worshiper, in the primitive sense of recognizing the sun the source of it all. Pagan, but at least pagan, as opposed to being totally caught in that mental web of preoccupations, worries, and desires that crowd out any sense of the sacred. The hypnotized and machine – like “me” is, for a moment, transformed.

One month later, trying to find the actual atomic dimensions for the above, browsing through the Internet, I come across this quote from a book by Michael Talbot:

According to our current understanding of physics, every region of space is awash with different kinds of fields composed of waves of varying lengths. Each wave always has at least some energy. When physicists calculate the minimum amount of energy a wave can possess, they find that every cubic centimeter of empty space contains more energy than the total energy in the known universe!”

Talbot goes on to explain David Bohm’s belief:

Space is not empty. It is full, a plenum as opposed to a vacuum, and it is the ground for the existence of everything, including us. The universe is not separate from this cosmic sea of energy; it is a ripple on its surface, a comparatively small “pattern of excitation” in the midst of an unimaginably vast ocean. “This excitation pattern is relatively autonomous and gives rise to approximately recurrent, stable and separable projections into a three-dimensional explicate order of manifestation,” states Bohm. 2 In other words, despite its apparent materiality and enormous size, the universe does not exist in and of itself, but is the stepchild of something far vaster and more ineffable. More than that, it is not even a major production of this vaster something, but is only a passing shadow, a mere hiccup in the greater scheme of things.

Now it is a warm, sunny day. Sitting on a large rock at the Lake Michigan shoreline, I find my attention drawn to the sound of a jet airplane, perhaps a mile overhead. It is heading east over the lake, a trip I have taken many times. As one leaves O’Hare to cross Lake Michigan, at this time of day, the gleaming lake seems to arise from nowhere coming across the grid of homes and trees surrounding Chicago. From this height, the large buildings of the loop and nearby seem like a magical kingdom on the edge of some mythical lake. Though I remain here on the rock, my imagination can see myself and the surroundings as if from the airplane. I am now in a much larger perspective, though it also makes me feel that much smaller: the world around me, “down here” has been miniaturized by this perception.            

A memory arises. I recall a particular experience of about twenty-five years ago when I drove alone out to a reservoir north of Baltimore on my motorcycle at twilight. It gradually became a dark, clear night. Without streetlights or homes nearby, the stars were unusually clear and intense. I lay on my back on top of a wooden picnic table and looked at the stars, as my immediate surroundings faded into the darkness. For an instant I began to perceive and feel in my being (as opposed to mind) that we are all living in so-called “outer space,” the earth being a kind of platform in this space. Space, from then on, became a reality for me, not just a backdrop to “reality,” but also a presence within which the drama and miracles unfolding here on earth occur. The night sky, star-filled and unfathomable, became a living image of God—an ancient image, preverbal and at the same time, so real and immediate, pointing to the mystery of our place in the scheme of things. Just like the earth’s surface is mostly ocean, the great world we inhabit is mostly space.

  1. Opening quotation from Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space. Orion Press, 1964. p 190.
  2. The Holographic Universe, New York: Harper Collins. 1991. pp 51 – 52. The quote from David Bohm is from his book Wholeness and the Implicate Order. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. 1980, p. 192.