what does "all is one" really mean?

science and yoga

Ramakrishna, a well-known nineteenth-century yogi, often told the story of the student who became absolutely fearless upon being taught that the Divine dwells in all things. One day he was faced with a charging elephant, but confidently stood his ground and saluted it despite the frantic warnings of its driver. After being roughly tossed aside by the elephant, he was carried back bruised and bleeding to his teacher. Upon hearing his story, the sage replied, "My boy, it is true that God is manifest in everything. But if he is in the elephant, is he not equally manifest in the driver? Tell me, why did you not pay heed to the warning of the driver?"

Yogis have long recognized both the unity and dynamic interplay between the whole and its parts. They insist that their statement "All is one" does not imply homogeneous sameness, but instead a dynamic interconnection and co-evolution between parts that are not different on a fundamental level. What scientists are now discovering about the nature of matter – as well as the new phenomena that can emerge when things are connected together – is beginning to provide an inkling of the creative richness of this interplay.

For most of its existence, science has been studying the parts, the bits and pieces of what is, and then trying to put them back together based on the laws that govern those parts. The visible is divided, and divided again, finally reaching the level of atoms and particles and recently even stranger things called "branes." But in this pursuit of simplicity, an odd thing has begun to happen. Nature is resisting being cut up and divided. Scientists found that to squeeze a particle into a mathematician's point would require infinite energy. So they retreated outwards to the idea that maybe things were made of little lines and loops called "strings," hoping that they could still be restricted to one dimension. In the last five years, however, they've found that the waving of the ends of these little strings form surfaces called "[mem]branes" that appear to be just as fundamental as the strings themselves. They soon predicted the existence of other "branes" with three and five and even nine dimensions – including one that may contain the whole of our observable universe. If so, the quest to divide what we see into parts will have led to a part that completely contains what we used to think was the whole. A most peculiar situation, indeed!

Meanwhile, an almost completely different set of scientists (not to mention hackers, yogis and ordinary people) have been exploring what happens when you start to make connections between the parts. Almost invariably, when a sufficient number of connections have been made, something fundamentally new begins to emerge. What emerges is unpredictable in its richness and form and often unexpected in its function and beauty. It doesn't seem to matter exactly what the connections are made of or what is being connected or whether you call what emerges a network, a community, an ecosystem or – in some speculations – consciousness, itself. Instead, it appears that what is crucial is the structure of the connections and how much that structure is free to evolve.

One simple example is a network of people arranged in a ring with communication links only between nearest neighbours. This works fine for small rings, but, as in the party game of Telephone, errors and delays rapidly accumulate as the ring grows and messages have to be passed through more and more intermediate parties. Adding more links between fairly close neighbours helps a little, but doesn't really change the feeling that the ring is a "large world." Remarkably, however, adding a relatively few shortcut links between distant people exponentially increases the overall ease of communication. This allows a rich array of both local and global communities to develop, and transforms the ring into a "small world." Sociologists have found, for example, that it usually takes chains of only ten to twenty mutual acquaintances to connect randomly chosen people from across the world. The same appears true for websites on the Internet, and perhaps even nerve cells in the brain.

A remarkable global community has recently grown up around the shared goal of sequencing and understanding the human genome. It brings together biologists, chemists, engineers, computer scientists, politicians and businesspeople who in the past would have rarely spoken to each other. Using the Internet as their main communications network, they have succeeded in producing and sharing thousands of times more data than would have been possible through journal articles. This in turn has led – despite the clash of egos – to an entirely new ethic of the daily sharing of results. Newton and Darwin by comparison waited decades to publish their theories.

Twenty-five years ago, when the beginning of what would become the Internet came to our lab, I resisted learning to communicate by e-mail. I had never really learned to type, and had grown accustomed to scrawling out letters for secretaries to prepare. Now, even yogis living in remote regions of the world communicate by e-mail, and in the process new connections are forming and new communities are taking shape. I've begun to wonder what might emerge from a community of yogis, scientists, businesspeople, artists and others beginning to share their results on a daily basis in pursuit of a common goal. After all, why should we stop at the level of the genome in trying to discover what we share and who we really are? As I peck this out, it occurs to me that one day soon I should learn to type.

Prakasha holds a Ph.D. in physics from the University of California at Berkeley. He worked for over 28 years in the physics department at the university's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory before taking early retirement to pursue full-time studies in yoga and its relationship to physics

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life