The following is excerpted from The Everything Answer Book: How Quantum Science Explains Love, Death, and the Meaning of Life by Amit Goswami PhD, published by Hampton Roads Publishing.
Zen Buddhism contains many parallels to quantum physics in the way it introduces the basic ideas of spiritual duality— heaven and earth, transcendent and immanent. For example, in Zen, there are two domains of reality—the domain of emptiness and the domain of form. The wave-particle theory of quantum physics recognizes two similar domains—the domain of potentiality and the domain of actuality. Likewise, consciousness plays a role in both realms in quantum physics, as it does in Zen, as shown in this parable:
Two monks are arguing. One says, “The flag is moving.”
The other says, “No, the wind is moving.”
A master, passing by, admonishes them both: “The
flag is not moving; the wind is not moving. Your mind
As stories like this show, students of Zen are often puzzled by their spiritual domains in the same way that students of quantum physics are puzzled when first confronted with the separate domains of the quantum world. Indeed, physicist Niels Bohr once famously said:, “If you are not puzzled by quantum physics, you can’t possibly understand it.” It is the same in Zen, whose students achieve understanding through a creative awakening. The discipline of quantum physics is not just a bunch of information to be learned. It is a way of looking at the world in which we discover the deeper implications of a new para-digm—one that gives us an awakening into the nature of reality itself.
In the Zen way of thinking, opposites can exist simultaneously; contradictory things can exist at the same time, as revealed in this story:
A master is teaching two disciples; a third disciple is sitting a little farther away, listening. One disciple expresses his understanding of what the master is teaching. The master says, “Yes, you are right.”
The other disciple, in his turn, gives a completely different interpretation of the teaching. Again, the master says, “You are right.”
Both students go away satisfied. The third disciple confronts the master, saying, “Master, you are getting old. How can they both be right?”
The master looks at him and says, “You, too, are right.”
Quantum physics works in a similar way. For every proposition, the opposite can also be true, because we always have this opposition of concepts being forced upon us by the nature of objects. For example, one of the very first teachings of quantum physics is that a quantum object can be both a wave and a particle. But waves spread out; they can be at two or more different places at the same time. Particles, on the other hand, behave differently. They can only be in one place at a time, and they always travel in a single definite trajectory.
In our everyday lives, we often face similar contradictory options. We want to make a decision—to choose—but we cannot because we also want to keep all options open. Quantum theory let’s us do just that. We can keep all options open in potentiality, while making a decision—a choice—to collapse one potential into actuality. In psychotherapy, the domain of potentiality that contains all options at the same time is called the unconscious. More and more psychotherapists are realizing the value of the unconscious in therapy, finding that, when people allow their unconscious mind to process their choices, they are more satisfied with the result.
The important thing to recognize is that quantum physics is built into the nature of reality. When quantum physics says an object is both a wave and a particle, this is not a teaching tool or a metaphorical statement. It is really the case. For a long time, this was not clearly understood. Quantum theory was taken simply as a way of describing reality to make it more easily understandable. But this is not the case. Quantum physics is, in fact, a new way of recognizing quantum objects that is leading to many breakthroughs in many fields.
For example, take the case of wave-particle duality. When we say that an object is both wave and particle, we are not saying that an object is both wave and particle in space and time, in this very manifest space-time domain of reality. Instead, we are saying that the wave-ness of an object is true in a domain of reality that is beyond space and time—a reality that is unmanifest. We are saying that there is a domain of reality beyond space and time, a domain we call the domain of potentiality. In the domain of potentiality, the object is a wave of potentiality, or possibility.
The Domain of Potentiality
This domain beyond time and space is not only similar to consciousness; it is consciousness. This conceptual breakthrough came soon after experimental data showed that there is a way to distinguish, experimentally, between the domain of potentiality, where objects are waves of possibility, and the domain of actuality, in which objects are particles. French physicist Alan Aspect and his collaborators created an experiment that proved that this domain of potentiality has a unique, defining characteristic—communications that occur there do not require any signals, any mediation. The implications of this finding are astounding. For if communication can occur instantaneously and unmediated in this domain, it follows that the domain itself is just one thing. It is a continuum of interconnected stuff.
Here, we are communicating through words; I have written some words, and you are reading them using signals in space and time. But we could also be communicating through the domain of potentiality. If I formulate a thought but do not express it verbally or in writing, that thought can still be spread through the domain of potentiality and reach you. Instantly. This is what happens when we are inspired by an author’s words or an artist’s images to create a new thought or feeling. The written or spoken words, or the images, act as a trigger for a nonlocal connection that results in something entirely different.
In Zen Buddhism, we find riddles like this: What is the sound of one hand clapping? This riddle encapsulates the idea that things are born out of potentiality. Any thought is a potentiality with many meanings before it becomes an actual thought with one unique meaning. And in that potentiality, the possibility wave of that thought has many facets. The conversion of potentiality into actuality converts a many-faceted thought or object into a one-faceted thought or object—converts a wave into a particle.
Most of us tend to think that consciousness exists because there are human beings. According to the quantum explanation, however, consciousness already exists in the domain of potentiality, whether human beings are there or not. In fact, that is the whole point. But remember, this domain manifests. So we find that the manifestation of consciousness as self-awareness happens at the same time that thoughts or objects convert from waves into particles.
In this domain of potentiality, there is no form. Form is manifested in a specific way when a possibility is chosen and collapsed into actuality—manifest reality. So if we knew how to manifest a specific form in a specific way in the space-time domain—as a three-dimensional reality—we would be able to solve problems and actualize what we want in this reality. But this would require that we be able to sense or feel whatever the correct possibility is in the domain of potentiality.