By Deepak Chopra, MD, FACP, FRCP
Everyone knows the name of Socrates, and many are familiar with one of his most famous quotes: “the only thing that I know is that I know nothing.” For over two thousand years everyday life has proceeded without unravelling such a mysterious statement, outside the small circle of philosophers, who haven’t found a consensus answer, either.
But the issue of what we know has become hot in recent years. In physics, medicine, biology, the search for the origins of life, and even the daily life of our distant hominem ancestors, the more that is discovered reveals much more that we don’t know. What this mass of confusion and uncertainty leads to is the ultimate question. What are the limits of human knowing?
- Some limits aren’t hard to grasp.
- Our senses perceive only a narrow band of visible light and audible sound.
- The accepted beginning of the cosmos, the big bang, is a barrier that prevents us from knowing anything about the precreated state of the universe.
- Despite theories about what lies outside spacetime, the human brain is constructed from the materials produced in space and time.
- The visible universe is less than 10% of the total matter and energy in creation. The rest is “dark” because it doesn’t obey the known laws of nature.
Most people are content to live with these limitations and barely give them a second thought. But the mystery of human knowing comes home very personally if you heed an aphorism supposedly inscribed in the entry courtyard to the oracle of Delphi, “Know thyself.”
What if the limitations that science faces on the cosmic level also block us from knowing ourselves?
No one should be surprised if that’s true. Take any brain cell, and you can reduce it to organic molecules, which are composed of basic atoms like oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon. These lead back to subatomic particles, which in turn have a shadowy existence as ripples in the quantum field. Assuming that you could analyze these ripples beyond the simplest elementary particles (which you can’t), the activity at the quantum level has zero link to what matters most about being human: self-awareness, love, compassion, creativity, truth, beauty, insight, and spirituality.
Despite the poetic line, “How do I love thee? Let me count the way,” love cannot be quantified, and neither can any other aspect of human awareness. So the entire issue of “What can we ever know?” comes down to one vital point: Where did awareness come from?” Nowhere along the line of physical creation can anyone indicate, much less prove, how consciousness came into being. Why are you and I aware” Because we just are.
If you have no idea where awareness comes from, all other knowledge becomes either shaky or invalid. That’s probably the best interpretation of Socrates’s famous quote. Any knowledge created by the mind has no validity if you can’t rely on your understanding of the mind itself.
In everyday life, this sober realization is met indirectly. When a relationship breaks up, one person might say, “I don’t know who you really are,” and in cooler circumstances, you often heard “Nobody really knows another person.” In practical terms we are mysteries to ourselves, and even if you consider a newborn infant a blank slate, it is entirely unpredictable wheat kind of future adult the baby will grow into.
So there is abundant evidence for the “I know nothing position.” But the diametrically opposite position, “I know everything,” is just as supportable. The support doesn’t come from science but from the deep introspection of the rishis, or seers, of ancient India. Delving beneath the constant surface activity of the mind, they arrived at a silent threshold, across which lay a domain the rishis identified as pure awareness. It was the source of every experience a person can have “in here.” All subjective experiences begin as subtle vibrations in pure awareness, just as every thought arises from the silent gap between thoughts.
If you look closely enough, vibrations in the quantum field aren’t different from vibrations in pure awareness. They both exist at the subtlest level of creation, the main difference being that quantum vibrations are meaningless without consciousness, which is what the rishis supplied—they devised an entire science, known as Shabda, that organized vibrations according to what they mean and where they lead in both the world “in here” and the one “out there.”
This gives the strongest support for “I know everything,” not because anyone can know every fact but because mastering the source of creation gives you access to how knowing works. (By analogy, you know arithmetic without having to add and subtract every number.) By tracking every experience back to pure awareness, the rishis weren’t simply observers—they developed techniques for manipulating reality from the source, the knowledge that turned into the vast system of Yoga.
But we live in an either/or world, and there is no middle ground between “I know nothing” and “I know everything” as an ultimate answer. In fact, the two choices present a paradox, because they reach opposite conclusions suing the same evidence (i.e., human experience). The only resolution is to go holistic, which means expanding your awareness so that either-or isn’t the only possibility. What has emerged in recent years is a practical alternative known as nondual consciousness, which essentially means consciousness beyond either/or.
I can’t detail the ramifications of nondual consciousness here (for anyone interested, I’ve devoted a whole book to it titled Metahuman, which includes 20 experiences that indicate what it is to be in nondual consciousness). The principles are nondual awareness transforms the nature of reality in striking ways.
- The source of everything is inconceivable.
- This inconceivable source creates and governs everything you can possibly think about experience.
- Physical reality is misleading or illusory because it excludes consciousness, the one ingredient you cannot afford to exclude.
- Consciousness is uncreated. It is packaged with existence itself.
- You cannot become whole. You can only realize that you are already whole.
- At your source, you transcend time, space, matter, and energy.
- You can access your source and remain connected to it through expanded awareness.
- Because consciousness is uncreated, so are the values that are intrinsic to it: love, beauty, truth, creativity, spirituality, etc.
These are revolutionary precepts, and they will seem baffling if you measure realty as purely physical. The “real” reality is revealed only through nondual reality, which is why it runs in an unbroken thread through the wisdom/spiritual traditions of the East and the mystical traditions of Judeo-Christianity and Islam.
A new world springs into being when nondual consciousness dawns, and at its heart lies the realization that “I know nothing” and “I know everything” are the same when viewed from the source.
DEEPAK CHOPRA MD, FACP, FRCP, founder of The Chopra Foundation, a non-profit entity for research on well-being and humanitarianism, and Chopra Global, a whole health company at the intersection of science and spirituality, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation. Chopra is a Clinical Professor of Family Medicine and Public Health at the University of California, San Diego and serves as a senior scientist with Gallup Organization. He is the author of over 90 books translated into over forty-three languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers. His 91st book, Total Meditation: Practices in Living the Awakened Life explores and reinterprets the physical, mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual benefits that the practice of meditation can bring. For the last thirty years, Chopra has been at the forefront of the meditation revolution. His latest book, Living in the Light co-authored with Sarah Platt-Finger. TIME magazine has described Dr. Chopra as “one of the top 100 heroes and icons of the century.” www.deepakchopra.com