Soul-Making and Science: Crossing to Safety
To be published in Science of Mind Magazine, July 2002
Some of my most important awakenings combine my life as a scientist with its emphasis on objective intellectual understanding with my life as a spiritual seeker with its emphasis on subjective mystical experiences. Here is an example from my new book, Head and Heart: A Personal Exploration of Science and the Sacred (Quest Books, July 2002).
March 12, 1999: I am standing in a motel room in Phoenix, Arizona, lecturing to the walls. It feels tedious and unnatural, but this act of desperation seems to have helped polish the talk. I’ve given the lecture before but never been happy with it; I haven’t been able to hit the right level of technical detail or set the right feeling tone. Having just used these ideas about the double nature of soul, its immortal and mortal aspects, in writing a chapter for my new book, I am particularly eager to do them justice tonight. Since I will be speaking to the Phoenix Friends of C.G. Jung, it seems especially fitting that these ideas deepen and extend Jung’s notion of soul.
Giving the practice talk has put me in a lovely feeling state. I am grateful for the privilege of being able to discuss such noble ideas. But it’s after 5:30 P.M. and my hosts are going to meet me in the motel lobby and give me a ride to the lecture at 6:45. I have a little over an hour to grab a quick bite and shower.
I walk briskly in the brilliant sunshine alongside a six-lane highway full of zooming cars. It feels good to get out and move, but where is that restaurant the motel clerk told me about? After walking for five minutes or so, I see the restaurant in the distance. Maybe this is “down a little ways” by car, but it is a full ten-minute walk. Now I am really squeezed for time.
I reach an intersection. The restaurant beckons from directly across the street. There are stopped cars in the nearest two lanes, but the third lane, farthest from me, is empty. Despite the flashing red hand telling me not to cross, I think I can make it to the median divider. I run out into the crosswalk in front of the two lanes of stopped cars to my left. Just into the third lane: thud!
I am lying on the ground and hear a car skidding to a halt ahead of me. I drag myself up from the pavement. I am way outside the crosswalk now and cars are flying by on all sides of me. There is a deep pain in my left shoulder and I am sore all over as I stumble toward the little black sports car that just hit me. My heart is racing.
“I am really sorry,” I tell the driver.
“You scared the hell out of me! Are you all right?”
“Can you call an ambulance?”
I feel an extraordinary combination of extreme gratitude and pure terror. Two beautiful young women come running up to me.
“Are you all right? Wow! I never saw anything like that! You just flew through the air. Can we help?”
With the low sun streaming through their hair to give them halos, they look like angels. I ask them if they can get the book I was carrying. I point it out to them. It must be fifty feet from the site of impact. Shortly after they retrieve the book, the police arrive.
While the police are taking Polaroid pictures of the sports car shown below, I sit on the grass beside it. The right headlight is smashed; a bit of my blood is on the hood, along with scuff marks; and the right side of the windshield is badly smashed.
An ambulance arrives. “The patient is ambulatory and we are taking him to the emergency room,” says the paramedic on his cell phone. I get on a gurney and appreciate lying down. On my back, I notice the vast cobalt blue sky. It seems to lift me up and out of myself.
“You have a beautiful sky here,” I remark.
“Oh, you’ll really like the ceiling of the ambulance,” one paramedic retorts.
They put an intravenous line into my hand, put an oxygen mask on me, and test for internal injuries, nerve damage, and so on. They are so kind. I don’t want them to worry about me. I know I am OK. I want to reassure them, to put their minds at ease. I thank them repeatedly and inwardly give sincere thanks to all the higher powers.
“You were amazingly lucky,” a paramedic says. “You really damaged that car and you seem pretty good.”
At the hospital emergency room, the kind and capable hospital staff takes care of me. More questions, more probing, blood pressure measurements, and more amazement. They clean the wounds on my left knee and put ice packs on my right leg and left shoulder. The nurses point out to each other the book I was carrying and keep remarking on the title. It is Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. The coincidence never occurred to me before they mentioned it.
After being there for about twenty minutes, I hear a great roar from a helicopter. It sounds like it is coming through the roof. There is much bustling about and people wheel in a burly man in his thirties, his head in a restraining cage to prevent spinal injury. His plaid shirt is soaked in blood. For a second our eyes meet and I fall into deep pools of terror. I feel such compassion for him and realize that it could easily have been me.
I am extremely thirsty, but they will not give me water for fear that I will vomit. After an hour and a half, the police come and make me fill out an accident report. I give them all the detail possible and fully admit my guilt and stupidity. Another helicopter delivery interrupts us. They give me a ticket for ninety-eight dollars for crossing against the light. After three hours in the emergency room, x-rays, and various tests, they only find that I have a badly separated left shoulder, banged-up legs, and a nice selection of bruises, aches, and pains. I have no broken bones and not even scrapes from where I hit the pavement. They put my arm in a sling and discharge me. In my shaken state, I take a cab back to my motel.
They gave me a prescription for powerful painkillers. Although I am in a good bit of pain, it seems manageable. Despite the doctor’s warning that I won’t be able to sleep without the painkillers, I decide to skip them tonight and just take some aspirin. I think it is more important for me to face the significance of what happened with a clear head.
I call my wife in Tucson. No answer. I leave a message saying it is not an emergency, but please call me back. I continue icing my various bruises and reading Crossing to Safety. I am looking for some clues to the meaning of it all. Because of the difference in time zones, I only got a few hours of sleep the night before, but I am so full of pain, adrenaline, and joy that I cannot consider sleeping now.
Instead, I try a method I have developed over the years for dealing with nightmares and dreams with troubling imagery. I get out of bed, sit in a meditation posture, close my eyes, and hold the troubling images as vividly as possible in my mind. I set aside any intellectual formulations and interpretations and just concentrate on the images. I become one with them, soak myself in them, no matter how horrendous they are. In this way, these feeling-laden messages from the unconscious are granted autonomy, allowed to speak. This attention eventually drains the fear and loathing from them and I can get back to sleep. It allows the images to do their work, to perform the unconscious compensations even when I don’t understand them analytically. Several times, I relive my accident with this technique. I let the thud, blackness, pain, and terror wash over me in all their ferocity. I directly confront my horror at what easily could have been. Still, the adrenaline pours through me. It is difficult getting comfortable in bed, but I eventually get to sleep around 3:30 A.M. I awake a few hours later and feel like the voltage in my nervous system is set too high. Despite the pain and exhaustion, I am in a state of extreme joy and gratitude.
I have been to the
edge of the abyss. In my thanksgiving, I rededicate myself to realizing the
nature of soul in all its complexity.
Searching for an Explanation, Part 1: In Honor of Sir Isaac Newton
While in the emergency room, I try to reconstruct what happened in the accident. I never did see the car, nor did the driver see me. When I ran in front of the car, its right headlight hit the left side of my left knee. There must have been little or no weight on that leg, otherwise my knee would have been shattered. Instead, judging from the huge bruise on the inside of my right calf, my left foot slammed into my right calf and knocked me off my feet. Then, as the marks and blood on the car hood showed, I flipped up on the hood with my feet toward the driver’s side. The windshield then slammed into my left shoulder throwing me up and outward and the car drove underneath me as it screeched to a halt. I cannot remember either how I went through the air or landed. The impact must have knocked me unconscious, and I flew through the air like a rag doll and hit the ground in that limp state. That prevented me from trying to catch myself and, since I could not resist, it reduced my injuries from the fall.
Around 6:00 A.M. the next morning, I return to the accident site. I go there as part of my exercise of directly facing the terror of the accident. I also realize that two simple measurements and some easy calculations can yield an estimate of how fast the car was going. I need to measure the distance between the site of impact and where the headlight glass landed and get the height of the headlight. With a few reasonable assumptions, it is a high school physics problem to estimate out how fast the car was going.
The glass is still there. I pace off the distance—I learned many years ago how to pace off strides that are very close to three feet each. The first fragments are thirteen paces from the impact site in the crosswalk and the farthest ones are eighteen paces, making the glass from thirty-nine to fifty-four feet from the site of impact. I revisit the site at noon on the next day and remeasure the position of the glass fragments. I want to see if the traffic moved the fragments. I can measure no noticeable change in the position of the glass. I even return a little over a week later, just before flying home, pace off the distance of the fragments again and find no noticeable change. Even before I do the calculations, I know the car must have been going fast to throw glass more than fifty feet.
My calculations show that the car must have been traveling thirty-five miles per hour, with an uncertainty of about ten miles per hour in either direction. These estimates seem high, but the driver was passing the stopped cars on a highway with a speed limit of forty-five miles per hour. It wasn’t even his sports car; he was test-driving it. It would not surprise me if he had been enjoying its acceleration and handling.
Within the context of
what could have happened in my accident, I am extremely fortunate. Appreciating,
even roughly, how fast the car was going only deepens my gratitude.
Searching for and Explanation, Part 2: In Honor of C.G. Jung
As the terror and adrenaline rush subside, the gratefulness and devotional feelings grow. I only want to live each moment as though it is my last and devote myself to finding out who I truly am. I used to get so passionate about all sorts of inconsequential things. Now all this ballast of normal consciousness is thrown overboard as I sail on sacred seas. From now on, I have no time for trivial concerns or activities.
Despite the reality and sincerity of my new realizations and planned reforms, I am a boring saint, full of pious platitudes and worn nostrums. There is a tincture of sadness in me because I know my sainthood will not last for long. The old Vic will surely return and send all my pious philosophizing out the window, but for now all is light and gratitude. I want to make the most of it.
My wife and I had planned to tour around the Southwest on our way to Santa Fe, where I was to give another talk. However, I need to recuperate, so we find an extraordinary hacienda in the desert just outside Tucson and stay for several days of unmitigated bliss. Every detail of the desert is radiant, fresh, and clear. The lodge owner loans me a little CD player and I listen to the music intended for my canceled workshop in Phoenix. Each note of the second movement of Samuel Barber’s violin concerto is a blessing. I write email to friends back home telling them what happened and expressing the depth of affection for them that normally goes unsaid. The flood of loving and supportive email that comes back surprises me and moves me to tears.
Looking back, it is clear that the week following my accident was the most beautiful spiritual experience of my life. I certainly would not have chosen that way to get such an experience, but it was still priceless.
There are some obvious and important lessons from the accident. I have been blessed with a lot of energy, and often squeeze in too many experiences and rush like a madman to execute them all. I can abuse my blessing. While this is a critical lesson, I sense there is more to it. Beside my own subjective conclusions, however, consider the uncanny aptness of the title of the book I was carrying: Crossing to Safety. Under the circumstances the title is striking. It is taken from the poem, “I Could Give All to Time,” by Robert Frost.
I give a detailed interpretation of this poem in Head and Heart. Here I only mention that the poem says that the only genuine “crossing to safety” is making contact with the immortal aspect of soul—the exact idea saturating my mind just before the accident. As I discuss in detail, the classical philosopher Plotinus holds that soul has a double nature—it is simultaneously finite, and thus subject to the destruction of time, yet also infinite, undivided, and immortal. In each experience, at every level, no matter how mundane or exalted, we are both limited, finite creatures subject to decay, and simultaneously immortal, transcendent beings. Any intimation of the immortal aspect of soul is a profound spiritual experience and, according to Frost, therein lies our true “crossing to safety.”
In my accident, I crossed to safety physically and was profoundly grateful for it. However, I also crossed briefly to the side of immortal soul and that safety is of a deeper order, as Frost intimates. I am not saying that had I suffered more physical harm, I would have been equally grateful. I could not hold on for long to that light from beyond my ego, although I will always cherish it. The experience taught me the great value of appreciating the world simultaneously from the viewpoints of both Newton and Jung—from the head and the heart. Through the stark conclusions of physics, I appreciated the transforming grace more fully, while the grace helped me appreciate the lawfulness of the Newtonian cosmos and even showed me its limitations.
In this light, I can interpret my accident as an initiation into the indivisible and immortal aspects of soul, into a realm beyond the reach of time, the realm of true safety. It came about through near-destruction of the body, the expression of the finite aspect of soul.
The experience also
taught me that no matter how much psychological work I do in cultivating a
fuller expression of the divisible aspect of soul, that aspect of soul offers no
safety. A deep realization of the magisterial grandeur of soul requires
cultivating both its aspects. If I am ever to get over my fear of death, it will
not be through psychological work alone.
Types of Explanation
In response to the accident, I sought two entirely different kinds of explanation: scientific and synchronistic. In scientific explanation, the emphasis is on causality, where one well-defined thing affects another through the exchange of forces, energy, or information. For example, the right headlight hits the left side of my left knee, which has little weight on it; my left foot slams into the left side of my right calf; and I am flipped up on the hood without having my knees shattered. This is a completely impersonal and universal process, governed by Newtonian physics. Although the timing had to be just right, nothing about the event was special or unique to me. You could replace me with a crash dummy and study the phenomena with a high-speed camera. Since the phenomena are all entirely objective in this explanation, not dependent upon our likes or dislikes or any other personal components, we could repeat the experiment with the crash dummy as many times as necessary and expect repeatable outcomes. The meaning emerging from such explanation is restricted entirely to the impersonal, material, factual level of the event. In other words, it is devoid of higher meaning or purpose. The emphasis is entirely on the literal significance of events.
In contrast, synchronistic explanations are acausal, not governed by forces and physical energy exchange. The outer event of surviving a serious traffic accident is not causally related to the inner event of my thinking about the double nature of soul and carrying the book Crossing to Safety. Instead, both the outer and inner events are symbolic expressions of transformative meaning, of significant episodes in my individuation, my soul-making, of coming to be who I am truly meant to be. Therefore, these events are unique to me and my development. If it had been somebody else in front of that little sports car, the accident would have had a different significance, one unique to that person and their spiritual development. Of course, such experiences are unrepeatable. Yes, I could run in front of a speeding car more than once, but each time it would be a different experience, since I am transformed and therefore different after each event. Although synchronicity experiences are also unpredictable, they usually occur in periods of increased stress or spiritual crises. Finally, rather than being objective in the scientific sense, these experiences are deeply subjective intuitions of meaning. The table summarizes the differences between these two modes of explanation.
Two Kinds of Explanation
Impersonal and universal
Unique to the individual
Devoid of higher meaning or purpose
Expression of transformative meaning
Factual and literal
As a physicist, I revere the scientific worldview, which has irrevocably transformed our knowledge of the universe and ourselves. The standard view of science taught throughout the world, including to my students at Colgate University, understands the universe as a dance of inert and insentient matter and energy choreographed by mathematical laws. None of the dancers—the elementary particles or their larger groupings from molecules to stars—has any interiority, will, purpose, or consciousness. They are merely passive amid forces external to them. In this fully reductionist view, those entities exhibiting consciousness, such as humans, do so because of a sufficiently complex arrangement of matter and energy in their brains. Then the brain is really a sophisticated computer made of meat. As the great Nobel Prize winning physicist, Steven Weinberg says, “The reductionist worldview is chilling and impersonal. It has to be accepted as it is, not because we like it, but because that is the way the world works.”[i]
Despite my great appreciation of Weinberg, whose writings have taught me so much powerful physics, my heart and my experience rebel against his worldview. Rather, they tell me that the impersonal scientific view of the universe is incomplete. Intelligence expresses itself in more than the breathtaking beauty of mathematical physics. With some sensitivity to our inner world, we can directly learn that there is a guiding intelligence expressing itself in the smallest details of our life. Even a modest connection with this benign intelligence is one of the greatest joys of the inner life. Furthermore, a synchronicity experience directly reveals that this intelligence can also express itself simultaneously in both the inner and outer worlds. With some experience, we can learn that such a guiding intelligence is much more than a subjective illusion. It is a living presence as real and intimate as our own body and even more precious.
While standard science has no place for soul and its evolution, synchronistic experiences are dramatic acausal expressions of meaning critical for our psychological and spiritual development—our soul-making. Such experiences cannot be understood scientifically[ii], nor should they be. However, besides challenging the completeness of the scientific worldview, taking synchronicity seriously poses several additional challenges that spring from its acausality, spacetime transcendence, and intimation of a unity underlying soul and matter.
My thinking about the nature of soul and carrying Crossing to Safety certainly did not cause the favorable outcome of my accident nor did the accident cause my reflections or my carrying of the book. Although quantum mechanics with its pervasive acausality helps us appreciate the limitations of causality, most of us find acausal explanations difficult to accept.
Although not appearing in the story above, synchronicity experiences often involve knowledge that transcends the normal boundaries of space and time. Despite the inability of science to explain such phenomena, we can get information through non-sensory channels. As I have shown in my previous book,[iii] synchronicity experiences often reveal such knowledge. In addition, rigorously controlled laboratory experiments conclusively demonstrate the reality of spacetime transcendence knowledge.[iv]
Despite our usual belief in a Cartesian split between the subject and the world, because synchronicity experiences express the same soul-making meaning in both the inner and outer worlds, they give us empirical evidence for a unity underlying spirit and matter. Directly experiencing this unity makes synchronicity so memorable.
Nevertheless, I suggest that the greatest challenge presented by synchronicity is neither its refutation of the completeness of the scientific worldview, nor its acuasality, nor its spacetime transcendent nature, nor its implication of unity. Instead, such experiences ask us to appreciate that our greatest healing often springs from our deepest afflictions.
[i] Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory (Vintage Books, New York, 1994) p. 53.
[ii] Victor Mansfield, Head and Heart: A Personal Exploration of Science and the Sacred (Quest Books, Wheaton, IL, July 2002) chapter 10.
[iii] Victor Mansfield, Synchronicity, Science, and Soul-Making (Open Court Publications, Chicago, IL, 1995).
[iv] Dean Radin, The Conscious Universe (HarperCollins Publications, New York, 1997).