[I am grateful to Sitara for her ready consent to post her article at our Blog. For an Introduction about Sitara please see here -- ramesam.]
I feel blessed to have the opportunity of teaching Advaita Vedanta to select students who are sincerely committed to explore the ultimate truth. The program I adopt is highly flexible and tailored to the particular needs of the students, yet I have a general approach that I apply with variations.
I have to admit that my way of teaching is quite time consuming compared to other teachers. But it works. That’s why so far I keep sticking with it. In the future I may have to change it because with more and more students joining I will have to find more practical solutions.
Medium of Instruction:
The medium of instruction is German, and usually I do not give classes in English. Even though most Germans have a working knowledge of English, some don’t (especially those who grew up in Eastern Germany where they learned Russian, and not English, as the second language). Most of my students are very intelligent and educated, but I also have a few who failed in school and do not know English. What I look for in a student is whether he/she wants to discover the ultimate truth and yearns for liberation (mumukshatvam). So if they have mumukshutvam, I accept them as students, with or without English. However, as the student advances in his studies, it usually becomes necessary to shift to English because I find that there are no suitable German translations of Vedantic texts, let alone Shankara’s commentaries on the Upanishads etc. Fortunately for us, so far there has always been one or the other student who could translate the texts from English to German with me carrying out the corrections. I use these translations in my classes.
Outline of the usual Program:
To begin with so far it has always been necessary for me to correct the perspective of the Western student’s mindset consisting in numerous pseudo-spiritual concepts – be they psychological, esoteric, or certain religious ideas. I do this in open talks with each student where I encourage him/her to ask any question that comes to mind. This initial deliberation helps the student to develop enough trust in what is on offer in Advaita Vedanta.
After a few such meetings, we start to go through the spiritual essays I published at my website (there are many more than just the ones translated into English). We discuss the topics in detail answering all the questions that may come up. In the course of that I familiarize them with certain Vedantic concepts without going too much in depth at this stage. If more than one student happens to start at about the same time, I conduct these sessions for all of them together.
As the time ripens for them to take up Vedanta in a more intensive way I first provide them with the background of Vedic culture by exposing them to select videos about India. I explicitly point out to my students that in this context we focus entirely on the upsides of the Indian world. Without this step, I realized that many things mentioned in the scriptures remain a complete mystery, resulting in misunderstandings that become impediments later. At this stage I take up Sw. Paramarthananda’s introduction to Vedanta, adding my own texts on the same issues written with the Western perspective in mind. Ideally there is more than one student in these meetings. After these 16 lessons, I give out a questionnaire that helps in self-assessment about what they have grasped so far. Once they know the basic terminology and concepts used in Vedantic teaching we study other treatises (prakaraNa grantha-s) and also Upanishads as appropriate. I use the commentaries published by Arsha Vidya Gurukulam in these classes. If they are not available, I take those from the Chinmaya Mission.
My students come from many areas in Germany (and some from other countries). The classes are conducted through telephone or skype conferences, which works very well for us. I purposely restrict the number of participants to be small. Also I take care to see that as we study the different texts, all the questions of the students are answered. My experience is that these interactive sessions are very successful when done with 4-6 people. I carefully choose the participating students for a class because I do not want some to get bored while others feel overly challenged.
I also have been offering a 6-day Vedanta-seminar suited to all levels twice a year. The participants observe silence for most of the time with me introducing certain processes (prakriya-s) and related concepts for them to dwell on. The whole process is based on a structure that is a mixture of silent sitting, listening to me as well as to (Indian) music, movement, going for walks, resting. Also all through the seminar everyone gets a chance to have special short meetings with me in order to clear his/her mind of any questions and doubts. We are going to have more of such seminars during 2017 in other areas of Germany. Taking part in the seminars is essential to the students.
Meer Suddorf (Photo: By Kerstin)
So far the seminars have been conducted on an island (see photo above) with just the sea and the sky and very few people around helping the minds of the participants to become exceptionally alert and imbibe the teaching in depth. New students get a really good start into Vedantic study while the advanced ones report that with each time they go through this process their minds become more and more subtle and sharp.
´Western students usually require a bit of motivation in taking up Vedanta in a systematic manner because there is so much on offer promising big gains with little effort to be made by the student. But quite soon they realize the value of studying Vedanta with resolve and commitment. The results of such a study are truly solid and every committed student is making steady and often surprisingly fast progress.
Acknowledgement: Ramesam inquired about the way I teach students in Germany. After receiving my answer he suggested to post it on Advaita Vision and also at this Blog site. He was so kind as to help me put it into better English.
dhyAna and samAdhi
[I copy the article published on May 11, 2016 at Advaita Vision (seehere) for wider dissemination -- ramesam ]
dhyAna and samAdhi are quite fascinating, pretty alluring and romantically inspiring terms for an aspirant on the spiritual path. They are almost always spoken in a tone that creates an awe. They sound mysterious, other worldly and ethereal. Many stories are told in the Purana-s about highly revered Sages lost in deep meditation or samAdhi to the extent that they were unaware of their own body being buried in heaps of sand or eaten away by critters and crawlers. Hair-rising narratives too are often reeled out about the powers that dhyAna and samAdhi lead one to – clairvoyance, multiple accomplishments (aNimAdi siddhi-s), infinite longevity (ciranjIvatva), visitations to subtler worlds inaccessible to normal human beings and so on. There is hardly a spiritual Guru who does not harangue about the glories a seeker will be bestowed through practicing dhyAna and samAdhi. Some teachers would even make these as a pre-requisite before any true ‘knowledge’ is imparted. As a result, the words dhyAna and samAdhi acquired varying meaning. Teachers too historically used or interpreted them in different ways. We shall attempt to take a synoptic view particularly from a Non-dual perspective what these terms connote and their role and relevance for a seeker who has adopted the jnAna mArga (The Knowledge Path) in his/her pursuit of liberation.
The principal argument I make here is that just like bodily physical exercises (of PT,haTha yoga, Asana-s. tai chai etc.), meditation is an exercise for the mind — an action done by a doer.
All actions will inevitably yield their results and surely whatever meditation technique one may use (mantra-based, breath-based, object-based, deity-based, Compassion meditation, focused meditation, mindfulness meditation etc.), one can expect certain outcomes.
The Neuroscientific evidence (taking into account the initial work done by the TM people, and later the research carried out at the Penn state University by Andrew Newberg, at Wisconsin by Dr. Richard Davidson and his group and many researchers at several other scientific Institutions across the world) shows that Meditation practices have a direct effect on the brain – a physical ‘object’ in the world.
The fact that meditation has an effect on the brain (which is a part of the body) implicitly means that the usually advocated “techniques” of meditation are useful in the wakeful state in the awake world. They help in relaxation, towards sharpening of the brain, in obtaining special skills, in increased thickness and increased number of folds in the top layer of the brain (cortex), in the generation of the neurotransmitters and hormones like opioids and cannabinoids (anandamide) etc. which give a happy feeling or produce squirts of dopamine.
But in Advaita, we consider the awake world and the actions that go on in the awake state are ‘mithya‘ (fallacious).
Further, Vedantic understanding says:
i) Actions arise in ignorance (karma ajnAna janitaM).
ii) Liberation cannot be ‘obtained’ as a “result” of an action done.
That being the case, how can Meditation, an action, a daily practice, lead to moksha, the pursuit of a seeker on the Knowledge Path (jnAna mArga)? It cannot. The real Meditation, as is understood in Advaita, is not something to be “done.” Meditation is the ending of the triad (observer-observing-the observed). It is just a “happening” like ‘Life happens.’
Some Teachers use the word “samAdhi” to indicate such a type of True Meditation.
Patanjali sUtra-s define meditation and samAdhi in a different way than the above understanding. Hence, dhyAna and samAdhi can be pretty confusing words unless one is clear about the system being followed.
However, one should state that Meditation as a ‘to do’ practice, along with actions like charity, pilgrimage etc. are useful in training the mind in the beginning stages for a seeker. Meditation may also help in the post-realization phase of a seeker towards stabilizing oneself in the abidance of an unbroken brahman-thought.
Slides # 1 – 5:
Slides # 6 – 33:
The first part of the slides deal with the Neuroscientific findings as evidence to show that different types of meditation affect different parts of the brain with attendant behavioral changes in the practitioner. (I have a couple of Video clips also in this part).
Slide # 34:
A short clip from a Talk by the Professor of Neuroscience, Nancy Kanwisher of MIT shows the discovery of the ‘Face recognition area’ in the brain. It also demos how the electromagnetic field in the brain impacts on what you see “out there.” A change in the electrical field will distort or alter your perception. This aspect is exploited in the technique of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) used to bring about a change in the neural connections of a patient suffering from depression, anorexia and certain other disorders. But the interesting point coming out from an Advaita perspective is that it is a projection of the waves in your brain that show you what you ‘think’ you see located somewhere there outside you. It is not that a thing is ‘already there’ and you see it as ‘it exactly is.’
Slide # 35 – 41:
We discuss here the issues of self-control and emotional maturity and the parts of the body and brain related to these behaviors. Present Neuroscientific findings lead one to conclude that ‘self-control’ is a finite resource and is not inexhaustively available for use. A period of recuperation is required for the resource to get replenished. We also try to locate the six enemies (arishadvarga-s) and the corresponding endocrinal glands in the body.
Slides 42 – 46:
There is a difference between obtaining mind-based worldly knowledge and the Non-dual Self-Knowledge as explained by Shankara. We also examine the role ‘attention’ plays in giving us ‘knowledge’ and contrast it with Consciousness which is the ‘True Knowledge.’
Slides # 47 – 72:
Next I take up the definitions of dhyAna and samAdhi as used in different texts like aparokshAnubhUti, vivekacUDAmaNi, Yogavasishta etc. We consider the Vedantic view as expressed by Shankara with a few quotes from BG and so on. I try to bring out the difference in the usage of the terms in Patanjali yogasUtra-s and Advaita. Finally I show that action will help to attain citta sudddhi which leads to citta naishcalyaM, but the next stage of realizing jIvabrahmaikatva jnAna, the vastu tantra jnana, is not a direct result obtained from the state of a placid mind. It has to happen by Itself (tat prasAdAt).
I attempt to show that the terms “dhyAna and samAdhi,” though highly technical, have been used to mean different things by different teachers historically and that there is no rigorous standardized universally accepted process or method that the words indicate. The slide # 51 presents the teaching of Sage Vasishta that realization of the Oneness of subject-object (i.e. Liberation) dawns on him who achieves ‘desirelessness.’
Slides # 73 – 75:
We end with an invocative prayer from mahAnArAyaNa upanishad:
Meaning: I realize this Identity of Jiva & Brahman by offering myself i.e., the jIvatva (the finite self) as an oblation into the Fire of Infinite brahman which I am forever. May this oblation be well reached for achieving jIva-brahma Identity.
(The above is a part of the अघमर्षणमन्त्र (aghamarShaNa mantra), seeking the blessings of Sage aghamarShaNa, recited ritualistically by traditional seekers while bathing or during the observation of other ablutions. The word aghamarShaNa also means the cleanser of demerit).
Acknowledgements: I am grateful to the authors of the various sources from which I have freely adopted the material. As far as possible, I have given the references so that the reader can further pursue the matter, if interested. My thanks are also due to Dennis who kindly had a preview of the slides and made helpful observations. He has been kind to create the downloadable link for the pdf of the 75 slides.
[Basil Hiley, David Bohm’s
longtime collaborator and co-author of his final book,The Undivided Universe is a
theoretical physicist at Birkbeck College of the University of London. Reproduced below are a few excerpts from an
abridged transcript of his chat in 2013 with Dr. George Musser of the
Scientific American. Sourced from here
Physics of Reality - 8: Prof. Basil Hiley's Views
We were interested in undivided whole. How do you describe
wholeness without breaking it up into pieces? Bohr said you can’t analyze any
further: don’t make the division between the subject and the observing
apparatus, because everything is a whole, and as soon as you break it into
pieces, you’ve lost it; you’ve changed the phenomenon. I took a lot of insight
from Bohr. If you read our book, we never say Bohr was wrong, whereas most
other people say Copenhagen is nonsense. What we disagreed with Bohr about is
that he couldn’t analyze it further. What we’ve been trying to do is analyze it
Our idea was to say, yes, you can do it. You can talk about
the individual, but it’s the quantum potential which puts in what you’ve left
out. So it brings the information of the environmental conditions, the boundary
conditions, and feeds it to this local entity–so this local entity knows that
it’s part of the whole.
How this does it, I don’t know. But what David and I
suggested was that the quantum potential is actually an information potential,
and we introduced the idea of active information. I was very worried about
using the word “information” because everybody would immediately go to Shannon
information. Shannon information is not information; it’s just information
capacity. There’s no meaning there, and the whole point was to get meaning into
this and that this was information for theparticle.
Then, of course, they thought we’d gone mystically East. But
I mean the quantum potential is not a classical force. It’s not a classical
potential. It’s something extraordinary, very strange. It doesn’t get
propagated, as far as we can find out. But that was the way I reconciled
wholeness with divisibility. If we divide, we must have something to put it all
back together again.
Nature is more organic than we think it is. And then you can
understand why life arose, because if nature is organic, it has the possibility
of life in it.
Let’s start this way. You’re looking for a fundamental
particle. So you divide the material into atoms and think: this is where the
real essence lies. Rutherford divided the atom and found the nucleus. OK. The
nucleus is where matter resides. And then you look inside the nucleus and you
find neutrons. OK, now we’re there. But then there’s quarks and we’ve never got
a hold of a quark. We take a proton, an anti-proton, and it goes, poof, into
radiation. So where is the solidity of matter? Where does it lie? Because
wherever we look at it … [it falls through our fingers.]
Suppose we start with something likeprocess–no
particles, just activity, just energy. Then the first battle was: what the hell
do you mean?
I started reading. I read Grassmann,
for example, and Grassmann was saying that mathematics was not about things in
space and time, but it was about thought–it was about the order of
thought. And he obtained his Grassmann algebra from that kind of consideration.
And I readClifford‘s
original books, original papers, and it was all about process. Two
times three is equal to six–it’s not two objects times three. It’s the doubling
of three objects. It’s a process.
We’re not used to thinking about process. We communicate
with an object-based language. David invented a thing called “rheomode“–language
in which we speak to each other in a flowing mode. There are some ancient
languages which do this–Hopi Indian and some others. In his book Wholeness and the Implicate Order, you’ll find a
chapter on language, in which he discusses this rheomode. It didn’t work,
because we were still thinking of objects.
Every day in our life, we always have to be careful of the
order. You’ve got a cup in the cupboard. You’ve got to open the cupboard door
before you can the cup out. All our experience is doing things in the right
order, so our activity is noncommutative. It comes into quantum mechanics
because Heisenberg sought to explain atomic energy levels and what he found was
he had to make his objects into things that didn’t commute with each other. The
order was vital. There was a difference between first measuring the momentum
and then measuring the position, from measuring the position and then measuring
the momentum. That became the basis of his Uncertainty Principle.
It seemed to me that he was actually discussing a process.
He was talking about how something goes from one to the other, and he called
that a momentum transition, and a position from one position to another.
You’re creating your space and time, People say, “Well, what
do you mean we’re creating space and time?” Well, the world out there, there’s
not a geometry which you somehow just discover by looking at it. You actually
use physical processes to describe that geometry. How do we get the geometry of
space? With a radar set and a clock. We send the light signal out, send it back
again, and we construct the Lorentz transformation by what matter is doing.
Why would we expect the fundamentals of nature to be the
same as we experience in the macroscopic world? This idea is to say, no, the
real world is not. If you look behind it, it’s a mirage in a way. The algebra
is the implicate order. It’s the structure that’s there. Properties are given
by the whole, but we’re taking them out and we are making an explicate order.
[The explicate order is what we perceive.]
And it’s not everything. What the old classical physics said
was that we just want to stand god-like outside and just look at everything
without us being in there. We can’t. We’re in there, whether we like it or not.
We’re inside looking out, not outside looking in. What the implicate is, you
can’t explicate, but you must have different views because you’re inside it.
You can’t stand outside it. You only get a partial view.
When I lecture on this, I always use the old lady/young
lady–the gestalt. The lines are there, but what they mean depends how you
explicate one order over the other. Because a lot of things are based on things
that you can’t explicate at the same time. Nature is such that you cannot
actually explicate the position space and the momentum space.
So instead having just a trajectory, you have an unfolding
and enfolding process. The past actively works in the present. It reverberates
in the present to produce the future. What looks like a particle tracking
across, isn’t a particle tracking across. It’s just an explication.
[One shouldn’t think of this particle as a persistent
entity drifting through a void?]
You’ve got to think of your entity not as billiard ball. Its
properties are not independent of the underlying process. Change the underlying
process, and the properties of this thing change. Don’t treat it as being
separate. Because its properties depend upon the environment. You’re making
objects out of things which continuously transform, but always into themselves.
It takes a bit of getting used to!
Do we create what we see? Maybe we do. I know people say,
“Oh, it’s all subjective.” But there are only certain things you can do with
it. You can’t magic things up. You can reorder things. You can rearrange things
when you are making your reality. We’re rearranging the processes. We are part
of the process.
In prior segments reviewing
the work of Leonard Susskind on Black Hole Complementarity, we saw how modern physics
is pointing toward an observer-dependent reality rather than a single objective
universe. In discussing the black hole information loss paradox first identified
by Stephen Hawking in the 1970s, and the subsequent battle in physics
eventually won by Susskind, I omitted an important development that happened
along the way, and will return to it now. This is the Holographic Principle,
first proposed by Susskind in the 1990s as a consequence of his work on string
One of the weirdest results of
all the research on black hole entropy and information loss was a mathematical
calculation that determined how much "information" could be stored in
a black hole. If the event horizon – the point of no return – can be visualized
as the surface of a hollow sphere surrounding the singularity at the center,
then logically we would expect the calculation to yield a volume result since any sphere is three dimensional. However, the
bizarre outcome was that the information capacity of a black hole is limited to
the area of the surface of the event
horizon, a two-dimensional result instead of three-dimensional! It is difficult
to convey how truly strange this is!
Think of it this way. Let's
say the Earth was hollow except for a tiny diamond at the center, so the surface
of the Earth is like the event horizon, and the diamond takes the place of the
singularity at the center. Let's be quaint and take information in the form of
computer printouts filled with ones and zeroes, and then use all that paper to
fill up the hollow sphere between the crust and the center. If you were to
calculate how much paper (information) could be held inside of the hollow
sphere, the result would be based on a volume calculation for a sphere the size
of Earth, taking into account the size and thickness of the paper used for
printing the data and how much information could fit on one sheet.
Yet the result calculated by
Jacob Bekenstein – work that Susskind later built on to develop his Holographic
Principle – showed that it doesn't work that way for black holes. Again, instead
of a volume result, the equations produce an area result. It's as though no
matter how many sheets of paper with information on them are poured into the
sphere, the result for maximum information capacity will always be the surface of the sphere and not its
volume. It would be like dumping papers into the hollow sphere but never being
able to fit more than would cover the surface of the Earth. For all practical
purposes, an entire dimension is lost, and 3D becomes 2D.
Translating this astonishing
finding back to black holes, it is as though there is no “inside” of the event
horizon, that as far as anything outside the event horizon is concerned,
nothing on the other side actually exists. So from the view outside the
horizon, the information available is limited to the area of the surface of the
horizon's sphere. If this does not boggle your mind, then you're not quite grasping
the strangeness of it.
So far I haven't touched on
the issue of how information capacity could actually be calculated in the first
place, as this leads into difficult territory like Shannon entropy and the
Planck length limitation, which are beyond the scope of this article. But the
short version is that there is a smallest possible size for a single bit of
information, which allows an immense but finite
amount of information to be stored on the surface of a black hole's event
horizon. But why only an area? Why not a volume? Susskind's answer is the
Holographic Principle. Consider a simple hologram, where three-dimensional
information is inscribed in two dimensions on the surface of a plastic card or
other material. A three-dimensional projection appears at a distance from the two-dimensional
substrate and any one portion of the substrate contains information about the
Susskind's work involved
analyzing the mathematics of a special type of theoretical universe called an anti
deSitter universe. Anti de-Sitter space has a negative curvature, which results
in strange anomalies compared to a universe like our own, which is flat and
positively curved by comparison. For
example, an object thrown with sufficient velocity along a straight line in anti
de-Sitter space would eventually return to its original starting point!
As it happens, a universe made
from anti de-Sitter space is an ideal universe in which to do certain complex
calculations. Within the specific framework of the anti deSitter space,
Susskind was able to show that the total information capacity was equivalent to
the area of the cosmic boundary, and this led to his application of the term
“holographic." It is as though any apparent 3D events are really just projections from the distant 2D
information field encoded on the cosmic boundary.
It has not been proven yet
that our universe is holographic, but there has been considerable momentum in
that direction, in terms of thousands of physics papers supporting the
principle, and not just for anti deSitter space but also for regular space like
our own. At this point in the progress of modern theoretical physics, there are
still critics taking aim at potential flaws in the Holographic Principle. But
it remains a solid theory that probably deserves to be called a consensus. It
really does appear that our apparently 3D universe is just a projection from a
2D information matrix encoded on the distant cosmic boundary horizon.
How does the Holographic
Principle pertain to Advaita, or further our understanding of the nondual perspective?
Advaita teaches that the apparent creation is not actually real, that it is mithyA, a dependent reality. The Upanishads
teach that the apparent reality we observe with our senses, and even the mental
world we observe with our minds, is all just a trick by mAyA. It is all just a magic show where things appear to be one way
but are not actually as we observe. Science is beginning to tease out how some
of mAyA's tricks work. Drill down
into matter with a microscope and mathematics, and the result is nothing. Molecules contain atoms, which
contain particles like electrons or protons, which in turn contain quarks and
other members of the quantum zoo of particles, which contain – what? Tiny
one-dimensional vibrating strings that change depending on one's frame of
Drill down far enough and
there is only speculative mathematics and nothing more, nothing that is ever
unchanging or actually solid. I believe we can fairly describe all of this as mithyA, the snake in the rope, or the
ghost in the post. If it can ultimately be proven with certainty that our 3D
universe is actually just a hologram projected from a distant 2D cosmic horizon,
this would mean that the mithyA
nature of creation, known to Vedic sages for millennia, had actually been
demonstrated and accepted by modern science.
Further from the perspective
of the student of Advaita, it is fascinating to observe that modern physicists
often dance very close to discussing the role of Consciousness, but never quite
go there. Yet if reality is observer dependent, then where does the observer
come from? This is not a question addressed by physics, let alone answered by
it. Yet in result after result, modern physics seems to be converging to a view
that reality is indeed observer dependent. No observer means no universe. If we
jettison the God's eye view of reality and accept that each so-called
individual has their own reality cone, then the apparent paradoxes drop away
and all becomes much clearer. So perhaps it is only a matter of time before
some young physicist gets the bright idea to propose that Consciousness is
primary and that all else arises within it!
Actor Is Action
In our day to day world the "Doer" of any deed is the subject. She/he is the 'agent' of the action taken. In other words, no action can happen without the actor.
The Advaita holds that the Actor is non-different from the Action. The Actor and Action are not two.
Here is a short excerpt on the above matter taken from Chapter 3: Origination (utpatti prakaraNa) of Yogavasishta (being serialized at Advaita Vision).
Sage Vasishta: A flower bloomed. Fragrance
spread. Which is born first? It is not possible to say which originated first.
Both are born simultaneously. Similarly the doer and the action are not born
separately. They are born at the same time. Both have their roots in ignorance.
Individual beings also have their origin in ignorance.
Mind is the result
of ignorance. The action is the effect of mind. Ignorance is like the branch
(of a tree). Mind is a flower. Action is
the fragrance. People normally say that the flower has come out of the branch
and the fragrance has come out of the flower. This formulation is true in some
sense, but it is not the whole truth. Both the flower and the fragrance have
come out of the branch and they have come at the same time. This is the actual
has come out of ignorance. Mind is the doer. The actions have sprung out of the
mind. So the sequence ‘ignorance -- mind -- action’ is the understanding in
common parlance. It is like the sequence ‘clay powder -- lump of clay -- pot.’
In a sense the pot
is clay and the clay is pot. Likewise, mind is action and action is mind. Or
actor is action and action is the actor. But what I proposed is still subtler
There is a time
lag between the lump of clay and its appearance as a pot. But there is no such
time gap between the flower and its fragrance. Fragrance does not have a
distinct form of its own different from the flower. Hence we are bound to accept that
flower and fragrance are born out of the branch simultaneously and that the flower
and fragrance are not two entities.
The position with
respect to the mind and action is also exactly the same. Both manifest
simultaneously from ignorance and are identical. The real cause for the emergence of a sense
of separate self is ignorance.
In the previous two articles, we reviewed Leonard Susskind's
mind-blowing theory of Black Hole Complementarity (BHC), which tells us that
two completely contradictory observations are both true for their respective
observers. We also noted that BHC is purely theoretical, not yet settled
science. In this article, we'll examine a recent challenge to the theory of BHC
called the “firewall paradox,” as well as Susskind's brilliant response to it.
Let's start with a quick review on Black Hole Complementarity. At
the center of a black hole is a singularity, where matter has been squeezed to
an infinitesimally small point. The gravitational force of a singularity is so
strong that nothing can escape it, not even light itself. Hence the phrase
“black hole,” originally coined by physicist John Wheeler. The point of no
return where an object falling toward the black hole can no longer escape is
called the event horizon.
According to BHC as well as Einstein's Equivalence Principle, our
intrepid explorer Alice will experience nothing unusual as she passes through
the event horizon. She will only become human “spaghetti” when she hits the
singularity later, which could take anywhere from less than a second to many
years, depending on the size of the black hole.
Meanwhile, Alice's partner Bob has remained behind to observe what
happens to her, and he sees a completely different picture. Bob sees Alice move
toward the event horizon but never reach it due to the time dilation effect
described by Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Both stories are true for their
respective observers, with the catch being that they cannot communicate with
one another (i.e. pass information back and forth).
This lands us squarely in an observer-dependent universe, and
leads to reality-bending ambiguities in the bargain. For example, a particle
may be either a microscopically small object or a smeared out probability
distribution that covers the entire event horizon of an enormous black hole,
with both views being “true” depending on the observer's frame of reference!
Clearly, if BHC is valid, then it forces us to change our thinking
about an objective reality “out there” that is reliably the same for all
observers. While Susskind's BHC proposal was initially not widely accepted,
after advances in String Theory and other related subfields of physics, it did
come to be accepted by most physicists. There remain vocal critics, of course,
and papers challenging the math and logic behind Susskind's theory.
The most significant attack came in 2012, when four physicists
(Almheiri, Marolf, Polchinski, and Sully) published a paper proposing a
solution to a perceived inconsistency in BHC theory. The solution proposed was
called the “firewall phenomenon,” and the proposal became known as the “AMPS
firewall,” AMPS being an acronym for the authors' last names.
In order to understand the AMPS firewall, we first need to discuss
the concept of quantum entanglement. When pairs of particles are
entangled, there can be no independent description of the separate particles.
Essentially, quantum entanglement tells us that such particle pairs are a whole and must be described as a system, rather than as separate
entities. While this may not seem like such a big deal, it leads to some
astonishing conclusions that completely defy logic. For example, measurements
on entangled particle pairs are always correlated, no matter how far apart
physically the pairs have been separated. If we measure the “spin” property of
a particle, it's counterpart will always measure with an opposite spin, even if
the entangled particles are split to opposite sides of the universe before they
At first glance, quantum entanglement appears to violate
Einstein's discovery that nothing whatsoever can exceed the speed of light. If information
is somehow transmitted between a pair of entangled particles instantaneously,
that would constitute a violation of General Relativity, a theory that has been
proven over and over again via astronomical and other physical observations. In
fact, Einstein, together with his colleagues Boris Podolosky and Nathan Rosen,
published a paper critical of QM theory that became known as the EPR paradox.
The popular phrase used by Einstein to describe such instantaneous transmission
was “spooky action at a distance.”
Another term for this is nonlocality, where particles are
considered as a whole rather than a discrete system of two separate entities.
It's a proven fact of physics that Einstein was wrong about this issue.
Nonlocality has been successfully demonstrated in entangled particle pairs,
beginning with the ground-breaking experimental work of Alain Aspect in 1982,
and continuing with many independent confirmations since. At least within the
context of quantum particle pairs, the universe is indeed nonlocal.
Is nonlocality not suggestive of nonduality as conceived by
Advaita? To be precise, we must note that “quantum entanglement” refers
specifically to the description of a theoretical particle-pair, and we should
not leap to conclusions that “QM proves nonduality.” That caveat
notwithstanding, nonlocality does look like one of Maya's magic tricks. Measure
the spin of a particle, and its companion will collapse to the other spin
state, even if the two particles are in a condition of space-like separation
that would entail transmission of information faster than light-speed. Due to
QM being based on probabilities rather than certainties, all this happens
without violating General Relativity. Nothing can travel faster than light, and
yet particle pairs are apparently linked across vast stretches of spacetime.
Such phenomena appear to show us the "footprints" of nonduality,
stamped squarely on such paradoxes as wave-particle duality and quantum
Returning to the AMPS paper's rebuttal to Black Hole
Complementarity, the authors showed that there is a potential flaw in the
theory. To understand this criticism, we first need to know that highly
entangled particle pairs may only be party to “monogamous” entanglements. This
means that one particle is entangled with another, and cannot be the subject of
multiple entanglements. Yet there are at least two potential entanglements if
all the assumptions inherent in BHC are maintained.
Recalling our previous discussion on information loss in black
holes, we know information is reflected off the event horizon in the form of
Hawking radiation. So we have information falling into the black hole entangled
with information coming out of it, and also entangled with prior Hawking
radiation particles, leaving one entanglement too many. Their solution
demonstrated that a break of entanglement at the event horizon would lead to a
buildup of energy, hence the term “firewall.”
The AMPS paper skillfully argued that some key assumption must
give way to resolve the inconsistency of multiple entanglements. Joe
Polchinski, the “P” in AMPS, argued that the Equivalence Principle must fail at
the event horizon, and that instead of “No Drama” scenario experienced by
Alice, she will burn up when she hits the wall of energy there. The AMPS paper,
if correct, would resolve the apparent inconsistency in BHC where Bob and Alice
experience contradictory stories that are both true. And it would do so by
breaking the entanglement of particles at the event horizon. In effect, the
authors were saying there is no “inside” to a black hole, as nothing can get
past the event horizon.
How did Susskind respond? Working with Juan Maldacena, a fellow
physicist from the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, Susskind
published a paper titled, “Cool Horizons for Entangled Black Holes,” in which
he proposed an answer to the firewall problem as proposed by AMPS. The short
version of their response was:
ER = EPR
This means that entangled pairs are linked through wormholes
that tunnel outside the event horizon, thus resolving the apparent
identification of one too many entanglements by AMPS.
The above explanation is very compact, so let's break it down and
elaborate a bit further. We've already touched on EPR above, the
Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox of non-locality, or “spooky action at a
distance.” The “ER” in ER=EPR stands for Einstein-Rosen bridges, and refers to
a paper the two men published about wormholes connecting black holes across
distant regions of space.
Einstein and his colleagues did not link the two concepts, but
Susskind and Maldacena did. The idea is that entangled particles (EPR) are
connected by wormhole bridges with their counterparts outside the event horizon
(ER). One of the their key arguments was that the AMPS authors had assumed
there could be no connection between space inside and outside the event
horizon. The ER = EPR solution provides for
particles inside the event horizon to remain entangled with their counterparts
in the cloud of Hawking radiation particles previously leaving the black hole.
Thus there is no need to break entanglement at the event horizon, and therefore
no firewall. This is why Susskind and Maldacena used the phrase “cool horizons”
in the title of their paper. ER = EPR preserves the “No Drama” interpretation
of BHC, Alice feels nothing at the event horizon, and she still turns into
spaghetti when she hits the singularity later.
As so often happens with cutting edge research, however,
this proposal implies much more significant possibilities than a resolution to
the AMPS firewall paradox. The ER = EPR theory points to a deep connectedness
underlying all of spacetime. We have already seen this with nonlocal
entanglement, and also with the wormhole idea. This approach says that ER and
EPR are two sides of the same phenomenon, the same thing viewed from different
angles. This is precisely why there is an equals sign in the equation! And the
“spooky action at a distance” that gave Einstein fits may actually be what
literally stitches together spacetime. As Maldacena put it, “... the solid and
reliable structure of spacetime is due to the ghostly features of
entanglement.” Further, the long-term physics project of uniting the conflicting
theories of gravity between General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics may be
facilitated by approaches such as ER = EPR.
As we have seen over and over again in these articles,
modern physics is converging to an understanding of reality as
observer-dependent. It seems we are coming closer to a scientific view that
supports the ancient Advaita perspective that “perception creates the world.”
We will never be able to say that science or physics has “proved” nonduality
conclusively, simply because any such knowledge or proof must always be less
than the Whole. But it certainly appears that we are starting to understanding
some of Maya's tricks. Look out to the extremes of the universe, at both macro
and micro levels, and it's possible to notice some of the rough edges. Quantum
foam that allows something to come from nothing, entangled particles,
wormholes, and black holes are some of those edges.
It seems there is no limit to the bizarreness of some
of the new proposals in physics. Could science actually prove that the entire
empirical universe is nothing more than a snake-in-the-rope illusion, as Adi
Shankara advised us 1,200 years ago? Perhaps so!
( QM, 2015)
(To Continue .... Physics of Reality - 7
In the next article, we'll
talk about the Holographic Principle, which says that we are living in a
Physics of Reality – 5: Black Hole
Complementarity by Charles Phelan [Intro about Charles at Part - 4] Part 1Part 4
We can better understand just how astounding
Black Hole Complementarity is by taking a trip with Bob and Alice to a black
hole. Bob and Alice are the favorite veterans of many thought experiments
pertaining to extreme physics, and they are also stand-ins for a quantum
entangled pair of particles. When they near the black hole, Alice (usually the
more brash of the pair) ignores Bob's warnings and jumps down toward the event
horizon. Bob remains behind and watches Alice's progress from a safe vantage
point far outside the event horizon.
What do Alice and Bob observe respectively? Alice observes nothing much
at all. She crosses the event horizon without even noticing it or feeling
anything special. We're in Einstein territory here, with the Equivalence
Principle coming into play. (The Equivalence Principle tells us there is no difference
between how gravity "feels" compared to an identical force that has
nothing to do with gravity, such as constant acceleration. And in the context
of freefall, the laws of physics operate as though there is no gravity at all,
which directly brings in Special Relativity and its strange effects.) Alice
is in free fall, and free fall in a vacuum doesn't feel like motion at all. So
she feels nothing special when she moves across the event horizon, passing the
point of no return on her way toward the singularity.
Alice most definitely will feel something when she approaches the
singularity! However, depending on the mass of the black hole, which determines
its radius and therefore the distance between horizon and singularity, that
could be anywhere from seconds to days, perhaps even a lifetime for a super
massive black hole.
What does Bob observe? As Alice
falls toward the event horizon of the black hole, her voice sounds deeper and
deeper until it drops below his range of hearing. Due to the relativistic
effects of time dilation, the gap between her signals grows longer and longer.
Eventually it takes years for her signals to arrive. Bob could literally wait
an infinite time and still not observe Alice actually reach the event
Which story is true? Does Alice
drop through the event horizon and feel nothing until she hits the singularity
later? Or is she trapped in space-time, moving ever more slowly toward the
event horizon, taking an infinite amount of time to reach it? Black Hole
Complementarity says that both stories are true! For Alice, it's true that
she falls through the event horizon and goes on to become human spaghetti later
on, and for Bob, it's true that Alice never reaches the event horizon.
While this seems impossible at
first glance, there is an all important catch. They cannot communicate back and
forth to confirm both observations at the same time. (There is a technical
reason for this restriction, the No Cloning rule of QM.) So we are forced to
choose the perspective of one observer or the other, with each story being true
relative to its own observer perspective.
With this background in mind we can
more easily understand why Susskind named it Black Hole Complementarity.
This is a direct reference to the complementarity proposed by Niels Bohr
relative to the paradox of wave-particle duality. He said these two
descriptions were the complement of one another, and that both must therefore
be accepted as applicable within their respective domains.
BHC is another kind of
complementarity, one that forces us to abandon any notion of a single objective
reality that holds valid for both observers at the same time. If BHC is
correct, then “reality,” at least as it pertains in the extreme environment of
black holes, is observer-dependent. It also forces some very strange
conclusions about particles. Here is Susskind himself on how bizarre BHC is:
“To most physicists, especially those who specialized
in the General theory of Relativity, Black Hole Complementarity seemed too
crazy to be true. It was not that they were uncomfortable with quantum
ambiguity; ambiguity at the Planck scale was entirely acceptable. But Black
Hole Complementarity was proposing something far more radical. Depending on the
state of motion of the observer, an atom might remain a tiny microscopic
object, or it might spread out over the entire horizon of an enormous black
hole. This degree of ambiguity was too much to swallow. It seemed strange even
to me.” Leonard Susskind, The Black Hole War, p. 354.
Recalling the discussion in Part 3
of the series on QBism and the work of Dr. Christopher Fuchs, we saw that some
of the deepest paradoxes of Quantum Mechanics may only be resolved by
jettisoning any notion of a single objective reality shared by all. The wave
function describes the observer, not an objective universe as had been
supposed. So it seems we have a convergence to this understanding from multiple
researchers at the cutting edge of modern physics. And the consequences are
It appears there is no longer any
solid ground to stand upon anywhere. Ghostly virtual particles pop into and out
of existence on a foam of quantum probabilities, while photons behave as either
waves or particles depending on how we measure them. Matter is composed mostly
of empty space, yet at the tiniest possible interstices of that “empty space”
there may still be information in the form of vibrating one-dimensional
strings. It seems the more we learn about our universe, the farther away we get
from our everyday view of reality.
Yet is not this the essence of what
Advaita has told us all along? That the measurable objective universe we think
we see is actually an illusion born of Ignorance? What can be more mithyA
than two contradictory stories being simultaneously true at the same time?
According to Advaita, what do we see but nAmarUpa, name and form? What
is name and form if not information? The very word “information” breaks down to
in-form-ation. If nAmarUpa = information, then physics is
describing the apparent “creation.” Science began from the position that it was
possible to separate the observer from the observed, but that view has receded
and now we see highly suggestive confirmation that “objective reality” is
actually personal rather than truly objective.
Further, the commonsense view of
reality is that the creation/universe was there first, and then we came along
to see it. In Advaita terms, this would be sRRiShTi dRRiShTi vAda,
meaning creation first and then the perception of it. But this theory is later
sublated and replaced with dRRiShTI sRRiShTi vAda, giving perception the
priority. There is only an apparent creation there because we are perceiving
it, and more, that perception still doesn't make that apparent creation real
(anymore than dream perceptions make the dream-world real).
It seems to this writer that a
theory like BHC points clearly to dRRiShTI sRRiShTi vAda rather than sRRiShTi
dRRiShTi vAda, i.e., perception creating the apparent world rather than the
other way around. But we must note that BHC is not settled science yet, and may
never be. After all, it is impossible to directly conduct experiments on black
holes, so the entire discussion must take place via mathematics and thought
Further, it is all theoretical -- simply
because no actual existing black hole will even start to evaporate until the universe
is vastly older than it is today. All extant black holes are still growing and
will continue to grow for hundreds of billions, perhaps trillions of years to
come. So we are clearly in speculative territory here. Still, it is fascinating
to see a theory like BHC make essentially the same point some Advaita thinkers
had already been making for centuries.
(To Continue …….. Physics of Reality – 6)
In the next article, we'll review a
recent important challenge to the validity of Black Hole Complementarity and
Susskind's amazing response to it, and also explore some other fascinating new
ideas at the frontier of physics.
Wishing All Our Readers
Season’s Greetings and Best Wishes For a Happy And Prosperous New Year