Sound, Energy, and the Scientific Disciplines

Sound, Energy, and the Scientific Disciplines

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According to a traditional conception, we can think of the entire universe as made of sound. This conception may be introduced by going down through a series of levels that are called ‘tanmatras’ in the Indian tradition.

Literally, the Sanskrit word ‘tanmatra‘ means ‘that-merely’ or ‘that-measuring.’ (‘Tat’ means ‘that,’ and ‘matra’ means ‘merely’ or ‘measuring’.) As ‘that-merely’, a tanmatra is a subtle essence, to which more obvious appearances may be reduced. As ‘that-measuring’, a tanmatra is a way of measuring or viewing our experience of the world. So the tanmatras are a progression of subtle essences, found through deeper ways of looking at the world.

In particular, there are five tanmatras, corresponding to the five traditional elements of ‘earth,’ ‘water,’ ‘fire,’ ‘air,’ and ‘ether.’ And they also correspond to the five senses: of smell, taste, sight, touch, and sound.

The first tanmatra is that of ‘earth’ and ‘smell.’ Here, ‘earth’ can be interpreted as objective matter, which is divided into particular objects. Each object is a piece of matter; and together all such objects make up an external world. At this level, experience is viewed through the kind of perception that identifies a particular object, as something different from other things. That kind of perception is represented by the sense of smell, which sniffs out particular things. As for example when a dog sniffs out a trail of scent. Or when we speak of ‘smelling a rat’, to imply a sense of detection that zeroes in on something particular which has gone wrong.

The second tanmatra is that of ‘water’ and ‘taste.’ Here, ‘water’ can be interpreted as flowing energy. Each particular object is conceived to be a gross appearance, made of something more subtle than what previously appeared. It is not a separate piece of matter; but, instead, it is a pattern of energy currents, flowing from and into other patterns. At this level, experience is viewed through a sympathetic activation of energy in the perceiving organism. That kind of perception is represented by the sense of taste. It is clearly moved to act in sympathy with the flavours that it perceives. As it perceives an attractive or repulsive flavour, its own perceiving action is attracted or repelled accordingly.

The third tanmatra is that of ‘fire’ and ‘sight.’ Here, ‘fire’ can be taken as a metaphor for meaningful information, which throws light on represented things. Each apparent form or pattern is conceived to have a meaning, and thus to represent something that has to be interpreted. At this level, experience is viewed through the interpretation of apparent form. That kind of interpretation is represented by the sense of sight. It shows us visual shapes and forms that clearly have to be interpreted, to tell us what is thus perceived.

The fourth tanmatra is that of ‘air’ and ‘touch.’ Here, ‘air’ can be taken as a metaphor for qualitative conditioning (on the analogy of climatic conditioning in our physical atmosphere). Each representation is conceived to be made up of relative qualities, which have to be evaluated. At this level, experience is viewed through the qualitative evaluations of intuitive judgement: as represented by the sense of touch.

The fifth tanmatra is that of ‘ether’ and ‘sound.’ Here, ‘ether’ can be interpreted as pervading continuity. Each variation of quality is conceived to show a common continuity of underlying principle. At this level, changing experiences are viewed through the penetration of insight: to show an underlying continuity that they share in common. That kind of insight is represented by the sense of sound. It hears the changing sounds of words, and understands through them a continuity of meaning and consciousness that they express.

Thus, among the faculties that take perception in, the sense of sound is accorded a special place. It represents the deepest level of understanding: reflecting back from changing appearances to a changeless ground of consciousness that is expressed. From that inmost ground, the outward faculty of speech draws meaning and expresses it in sound.

In traditional learning, with its intensive use of recitation and memory, experiences of listening and speaking are central. A student learned by hearing and reciting, far more than by reading what was written down. Thus it was only natural to make a profound investigation into the microcosmic and macrocosmic experiences of sound.

In that investigation, sound is taken to be a special kind of movement, called ‘vibration.’ This is a repeated movement, about a central point of origin. In this kind of movement, there is a repeated cycle of disturbance: from an originating, central state of equilibrium and rest.

As our bodies speak and hear, we experience physical vibrations in our chests and throats and ears. At the lower notes of sound, the frequency is slow; and so we notice the throbbing movement of individual cycles that make up the vibration. As the pitch of sound gets higher, the frequency increases, and we are less able to notice the individual vibrations.

When the pitch is high enough, we do not notice the individual vibrations at all. There, we only notice shapes and meanings and qualities of sound, produced by vibrations whose movements are too fast for us to perceive directly. Thus we conceive of subtle vibrations: which our senses cannot see directly, but which produce perceived effects in our experience.

Like modern physics, traditional conceptions make much use of this idea of subtle vibrations, behind the forms and names and qualities that we perceive. In particular, forms are conceived to be made up from pulsating currents of vibrant energy; names are conceived to achieve their representation and meaning through a radiant resonance of sympathetic vibration; and qualities are conceived to show a vibrant swinging to and fro between opposites (like pain and pleasure, depth and height, heat and cold).

Subtle Energy

In one way, there is a remarkable agreement between modern physics and very much older ideas of matter and energy. Modern physics tells us that material things, like rocks and trees, are not quite the separate pieces of matter that they seem to be. Each object is made of molecules and atoms, and in turn the atoms are made of sub-atomic particles which aren’t quite particles. Instead, the sub-atomic ‘particles’ are quantum elements in dynamic patterns of vibrating and radiating energy. Thus, material objects are made up of complex energy patterns which are not really separate. These patterns, which we see as separate gross objects, are essentially interconnected, by the subtle vibrations and radiations of energy fluctuations that make up the patterns and the interaction between them.

In India, the concept of a particle has long been described by the Sanskrit word ‘anu,’ which also means ‘minute’ or ‘subtle.’ This word ‘anu’ comes from the root ‘an’ which means to ‘resonate with sound’ or to ‘breathe.’ And it is closely related to the word ‘prana’ which means both ‘breath’ and ‘energy.’ In the Katha Upanishad (6.2), the concept of prana is shortly but quite explicitly described. It is a subtly vibrating and propagating energy that makes up the entire universe. Wherever we may look, the changing things we see are only gross appearances of this more subtle energy called ‘prana.’

The universe of changing things—whatever may be issued forth—it is all made of living energy, which moves and oscillates and shines.

Beneath the similarity with modern physics, there is of course a crucial difference. The energy of prana is alive. Both in our bodies and the world outside, it is a natural energy whose functioning expresses living purpose and meaning, from underlying consciousness. This living energy cannot be known properly by looking out at its external forms and controlling them, through our material bodies and their external instruments. It can only be known reflectively, through a reflective listening that harmonizes our living faculties with what they see outside themselves.

From the viewpoint of prana (and other such notions in  different traditions), the energy of modern physics is rather crudely objective. It is measured through material instruments and described by mathematical calculations. Thus measured and described, it is controlled, again through material instruments, towards the achievement of external objectives. The trouble here is that a subtle energy is being measured and controlled by material instruments which are essentially cruder and more gross.

As quantum physics admits very explicitly, such crude material instruments interfere indelicately with what we know through them. So they only give us an uncertain and discontinuous knowledge of the world. Through them, we do not properly observe a more delicately definite order and continuity which the mathematics describes (in the evolution of undisturbed quantum systems), but which the instruments can only measure doubtfully and jerkily.

The calculations of quantum physics are of course extremely complex and sophisticated, and they can be very successful in a specialized kind of way. But to quite an extent, the mathematical sophistication is a convoluted way of managing an admitted crudity of our material instruments; and such convolution can only work partially, achieving some particular results here and there. It cannot properly make up for the underlying crudity that always undermines it.

On the other hand, from the viewpoint of modern physics, traditional notions of living energy can all too easily seem vague and unscientific. The trouble is that they belong to a rather different approach, which requires some further consideration. A question is raised here, about what science is and how ideas may be ‘precise’ and ‘scientific.’

Calculation and Education

In modern physical science, ideas and theories are used in a particularly calculating way. They are used to calculate external results, in a physically objective world. The results are tested and applied through physically fabricated instruments and engineered machines.

Is this the only way of using knowledge and testing truth? In actual practice, no. Calculation is a rather limited approach, insufficient in itself. What it achieves is narrow: like using a map to calculate instructions for a journey. ‘Go n miles in x direction, then m miles in y direction…’, and so on. Such an approach is only good for getting to some chosen place.

A map is not just a calculating instrument. It has a more basic use: through education. It represents an entire territory, including many places. So it enables one to look at the territory as a whole. That educates one’s understanding of where one is; and it helps develop the living ability through which one gets around and goes about one’s business.

Like a map, ideas and theories are used in two ways: through calculation and education. The calculating use is inherently narrow and specialized. It cannot take the whole environment into account. So it depends on living education, for an integrated understanding that puts its narrow aims into perspective. In the modern world, as our computing and physical sciences achieve spectacular results, we clearly lack the broader education that is needed to use them sensibly.

However, when ideas and theories are used for living education, their testing and application is not confined to the restricted methods of our physical sciences. Such sciences restrict their field of study and application to a physical aspect of experience. Accordingly, they are tested and applied in a restricted way, through the material instruments and machines that they develop.

Modern physics is of course educational, but its educational effect is not a direct part of its testing and application. It is material instruments that test physics directly; not the developed minds and faculties of physicists. Those minds and faculties must go through standardized material instruments, to test the ideas and theories of physics.

What about other disciplines: like philosophy, psychology, biology and medicine, even astrology and alchemy? In their field of study and application, they include aspects of mind and life, in a way that merely physical sciences do not.

Accordingly, where physics is applied by the material instruments that it develops, other disciplines are applied more directly through the living faculties they cultivate in those who use them. For example, philosophy is tested and applied through its clarification of understanding, psychology through its cultivation of mental insight and therapy, biology and medicine through living management and health.

Must these other disciplines be somehow less reasoned, less rigorously tested? Must their living application make them less scientific? Not really, though it does put them outside the jurisdiction of modern physics and its material instruments.

A map may be digitized and fed into a computer for the purpose of guiding a missile to its target. That is one kind of map, with one kind of truth and accuracy. But it does not diminish the need for a different kind of truth and accuracy, in a map that is educational. When truth is educational like this, there’s no less need for it to be carefully reasoned and tested against experience. In fact, it needs a more delicate reasoning, and a more sensitive testing, than truth that is merely technical.

Scientific Disciplines

There are thus two ways in which a discipline can be scientific. The first and most obvious is outward, through standardized systems of external technology. The second and more subtle is inward, through a carefully reasoned and systematic education of our living faculties.

It is in the context of the second, educational approach that the idea of living energy has long been used, in many traditional sciences. A person’s body is conceived as an organic pattern of energy currents (‘nadis’ in Sanskrit) which make up the living faculties of personality. A similarly living energy is then conceived to be perceived in the world outside. And our perception of the world is described as a mutual co-operation and correspondence between the microcosm of individual experience and the macrocosm of the outer world. To cultivate the co-operation and clarify the correspondence, various physical and mental exercises are prescribed. Hence the extensive prescription of customs and rituals in traditional society, and the intensive training of psychosomatic control and contemplative states in special disciplines like yoga.

But it would be a mistake to think that traditional sciences are essentially a matter of prescribed training. Beyond its preliminary period of didactic obedience, traditional education was more essentially concerned with the independent-minded enquiry of reasoned questioning. The statements of a traditional science were didactically condensed, to enable their condensed transmission, before the extensive use of modern communications. But after these didactic statements were initially learned, they were meant for a sustained and highly reasoned questioning, during the course of practical experience. It is thus through reasoned enquiry that the texts of a traditional science are meant to be interpreted, to clarify an educated understanding of the subject.

Moreover, in the traditional sciences, there is a profound admission that even reasoning is not the essence of their knowledge. It is simply a way of taking a harder look at what is seen, and listening more carefully to what experience has to say. This harder looking and more careful listening are essentially subjective, approached  in a reflective way. But they are also impersonal, for the approach is both reflective and dispassionately reasoned.

We have got used to thinking that our physically objective sciences are somehow ‘hard’, and that anything else is a ‘soft option’. But in the view of many traditional sciences, they are based upon an impersonal subjectivity that enables a harder and more penetrating look at how things are. It may be worth considering that view, to see what we might have to learn from these old sciences.