Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Buddhism and QM

Many religions seem to want to believe that their ancient scriptures predicted modern scientific discoveries, such as the distance to the Sun, the speed of neural oscillations, etc. I think it's all nonsense.

So, without any trace of irony, I present three ways in which the Buddha predicted modern results from quantum mechanics, with a scoop of woo to go along.

1) The doctrine of Emptiness.

Emptiness is the very core of Mahayana Buddhism, and also its most misunderstood teaching. Rob Burbea, a teacher I love, puts it most simply: it's the fact that there is no way that things "actually" are. There is the way that things appear, but fundamentally they have no essence; no substance. It is not that there is a "real chair" lurking somewhere "out there," independent of our minds. What is the actual truth then? That's a much more complicated question. It's an interdependent play of causes and conditions.

What has QM taught us? That when we're not measuring things, they have no well-defined objective properties. What does it mean to measure things? We don't know (though surprisingly many physicists will tell you that we have nailed this problem). Yes, particles in a sense can "measure" each other, but not in a way that makes the system as a whole well-defined. I would be roundly mocked for suggesting that the ultimate point of measurement is "consciousness," so I'll stop short of doing so. But it is.

2) There is no self.

This is the foundation of Theravada Buddhism (and Buddhism as a whole, in some sense). There's nobody sitting at the center of your being; no soul. All of your properties (personality etc.) are incidental.

Here's a quote from Hugh Everett, who originated what is now called the "Many Worlds Interpretation" of QM:
“The price, however, is the abandonment of the concept of the uniqueness of the observer, with its somewhat disconcerting philosophical implications.”
The implication is that when the universe "splits" into multiple, it's not meaningful to say that either copy of "you" is actually you. In other words, your sense of personal identity is an illusion.

3) You choose which world manifests.

Wait, what? Neither Buddhism nor QM says anything like this. You're right; it's my own addition, extrapolated from both.

The point is that in any given moment, the question of "which particular objective properties will manifest" (i.e., which world will appear) is not dictated by anything external to consciousness itself. Perhaps it is not determined by consciousness either. Heck, in QM the statement is meaningless: all possible worlds are manifesting.

But here's something to explore. When consciousness is "constricted," the world appears to be constricting. When it is deeply relaxed and free, the world appears to construct itself in a way that justifies that, too.

It seems as though the "constricted" vs "free" quality belongs to the individual; i.e., the illusory being that is manifesting along with the world. That is, it cannot belong to consciousness itself, which is prior to the manifestation.

That may indeed be so. In that case, the "true" cause is something more subtle. The only option I see is this: it is the degree to which consciousness has woken up to itself. The more consciousness recognizes its own face, the less sense that it is bound by anything else, which manifests in the person as freedom, and in the world as justifications for experiencing freedom.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Why the measurement problem in QM won't just go away

The founders of quantum mechanics knew there was something funny about its relation to consciousness. It seems that lesson has been lost through the decades, with many modern researchers believing that approaches like decoherence have solved the problem. They'll tell you that the idea that there's any relationship between consciousness and QM is just flapdoodle. But it's far from solved; we've just kicked the can down the road to ever-more esoteric possibilities. If you don't believe me, here's the world's smartest physicist (Ed Witten) agreeing.

There's something fascinating in here that I think every human (with time and energy) ought to think about. So I want to give you a quick summary of the problem and why I think it won't be solved any time soon.

Suppose we have a particle that's in a superposition state: if we measure its spin, it might be up or down. In classical physics, this wouldn't be strange: we can just say it's actually one or the other but we don't know which. In quantum mechanics, we can do what's called an interference experiment to show that it's a different kind of beast. Somehow, both possibilities remain, and those possibilities can interfere with each other (much like in the two-slit experiment).

We can introduce a second particle and have it interact with the first in such a way that their properties become correlated: say, if the first particle is spin-up, the second will be too, and vice versa. This is a form of measurement (you can "read out" the second particle to learn the state of the first) and it works by a phenomenon known as entanglement. The key thing to note here is that an interference experiment on either particle alone will show no interference. Each particle by itself looks classical. But we can exhibit interference on the pair. That's how we know that two possibilities remain in the system. This is the essence of the loss of interference in the two-slit experiment when detectors are placed at the slits.

As more and more particles get in on the entanglement (for example, in a macroscopic measurement apparatus, or just the environment), it becomes harder and harder to do an interference experiment on the system as a whole. There are way too many degrees of freedom to control. This is known as "decoherence," and explains why macroscopic systems look classical (show no interference). But crucially, it does not explain why, when, or how two possibilities become one.

That is the heart of the measurement problem, and there are two broad approaches to solving it.

The first is to say that something special ("collapse") happens somewhere to make the two into one. This is problematic for aesthetic reasons (it introduces a law that's very much unlike the rest), technical ones (that law disobeys certain key assumptions like time-reversibility), and practical ones (as our technology improves, we're able to demonstrate in larger and larger systems that there is no collapse). As time goes on, this position gets harder and harder to maintain.

The second is to say that nothing special happens, and two possibilities remain. If that is the case, why do we see only one? We don't: we instead say that both happen, each in their own "parallel universe." Since there is one copy of you in each universe, you do see two possibilities, not one. As time goes on, the multiverse keeps branching and branching. There are infinitely many "copies of you" right now. This is called the Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI).

As absurd as this may sound, it's perhaps the most straightforward explication of the results that we have. But it comes with a nasty problem -- depending on your views on consciousness.

Consider how things look to a single experimenter. From his perspective, the universe is obeying its usual reversible laws, right up until the point it interacts with him. He can even confirm this (in principle) with a sufficiently sophisticated interference experiment. But once he interacts with the system, he splits. From a God's-eye view, the reversibility is maintained, and everything is fine. But from the perspective of any individual "copy" of him on one of the branches, the "quantum-ness" has been suddenly lost. He can only see the outcome on his branch, and there's nothing left to interfere.

In other words, "collapse" has found its way back in, this time with a vengeance: instead of happening at random unspecified places, it happens only when things encounter him. By symmetry, of course, it would look this way for any object in the system that found itself in the unfortunate circumstance of "being conscious" or "having an inside view." Humans aren't necessarily special here, but consciousness somehow is. Thus MWI really cannot afford to have consciousness enter the picture in any meaningful way. Who wants to be a lone superman (and maybe lone conscious being?) in their journey through the multiverse?

Let's take a step back. What problem are we trying to solve? The problem is that the math and experiments seem to predict multiple outcomes, but we see just one. If we somehow didn't see just one, there would be no need for these competing frameworks. The math would predict everything, with no wiggle room for interpretations. Most MWIers will tell you that this is precisely why you should adopt MWI.

The problem is that some obnoxious people keep insisting on this parochial idea that they do experience just one universe. In other words, that they are "genuinely conscious." And as long as that keeps happening, the matter will not be so easily settled. Sure, it's possible that "collapse" will solve it, but I'm not sure anyone actually believes that.
"Most physicists, even those who use quantum mechanics every day in their research, get along perfectly well speaking the language of the Copenhagen interpretation, and choosing not to worry about the puzzles it presents. Others, especially those who think carefully about the foundations of quantum mechanics, are convinced that we need to do better."
"I suspect that a substantial majority of physicists who use quantum mechanics in their everyday work are uninterested in or downright hostile to attempts to understand the quantum measurement problem." -- Sean Carroll
If you're unsure of what I mean by "genuinely conscious," I leave you with an experiment to try. Really try it; don't just think about it.

Pause for a moment, and look around. Doesn't it sure seem like something is going on? I emphasize "sure" here. If you check very simply and straightforwardly, you will notice an immediate and unequivocal certainty before your intellect kicks in and explains it all away ("That's just a trick of my brain! Nothing to see here; move right along!"). This flawless certainty -- that something sure as hell seems to be happening -- is more profound than it may seem the first few times you encounter it. It's the only thing that doesn't depend on a worldview. You can't be nearly as sure that time or space (or brains or QM) exist as that ... consciousness ... and even that doesn't touch the profundity I'm hinting at. If you've ever been completely overwhelmed by the magnificence of life, it's just the tiniest whiff of this realization that you're brushing up against.

But we're not ready to face this possibility. You can confirm this yourself, as your mind generates one explanation after another to disprove the fact that you're "really" experiencing anything. If it doesn't fit your worldview, psychological tension forces you to discard it. Of course you could just check again (and boy do I encourage you to, as many thousands of times as necessary), but who has time to confront their own outrageously profound existence? Ain't nobody got time for that. It's so much easier to just let the intellect run amok.

The one thing you can actually be meaningfully sure of is the one thing we can't fit into the theory. And yet we continue to insist that the cart come before the horse. And that is why the problem won't go away -- not because we haven't figured out the appropriate math, or been willing to overcome our ape-like beliefs.

"I think consciousness will remain a mystery. Yes, that's what I tend to believe. I tend to think that the workings of the conscious brain will be elucidated to a large extent. Biologists and perhaps physicists will understand much better how the brain works. But why something that we call consciousness goes with those workings, I think that will remain mysterious. I have a much easier time imagining how we understand the Big Bang than I have imagining how we can understand consciousness...

I'm not going to attempt to define consciousness, in a way that's connected with the fact that I don't believe it will become part of physics. ... And that has to do, I think, with the mysteries that bother a lot of people about quantum mechanics and its applications to the universe. ... Quantum mechanics kind of has an all-embracing property, that to completely make sense it has to be applied to everything in sight, including ultimately, the observer. But trying to apply quantum mechanics to ourselves makes us extremely uncomfortable. Especially because of our consciousness, which seems to clash with that idea. So we're left with a disquiet concerning quantum mechanics, and its applications to the universe. And I do not believe that disquiet will go away. If anything, I suspect that it will acquire new dimensions." 
-- Ed Witten

QM and consciousness

The founders of quantum mechanics knew there was something funny about its relation to consciousness. It seems that lesson has been lost through the decades, with many modern researchers believing that approaches like decoherence have solved the problem. They'll tell you that the idea that there's any relationship between consciousness and QM is just flapdoodle. But it's far from solved; we've just kicked the can down the road to ever-more esoteric ideas. If you don't believe me, here's the world's greatest physicist agreeing.

Why is there so much debate about the correct interpretation or formulation of QM? It's not just arcane maths. It centers around the measurement problem: why do we see only one result out of the sea of possibilities QM predicts?

This question is all too easy to conflate with a much more straightforward one: why does a spread-out wave function suddenly become localized (particle-like) when it interacts with measuring devices and/or the environment? For example, why does a light wave stop showing interference when a detector is placed at the two slits?

Well, when a particle encounters a measuring device, the device effectively works by becoming entangled with the particle. If it's a tiny measuring device (e.g., another single particle whose spin is made to match that of the first -- hence "measuring" it) the math is very straightforward, and clearly shows that the first particle won't exhibit "interference." Yet it also predicts that we can perform an interference experiment on the pair of particles. So the quantum-ness isn't gone; it can be found in the larger system, but requires that we are in careful control of all the involved particles.

So does the quantum-ness ever really disappear? Well, as our technology improves and we're able to do bigger and bigger (but still tiny) experiments, things keep looking quantum. But in a truly macroscopic system (such as one that includes an experimenter's body and brain) it is almost unthinkable to have control over all the relevant degrees of freedom that we'd need to confirm it. This is called "decoherence," and it's explained by roughly the same math before, showing that a system should "look quantum" as a whole if we could control everything, but we can't, and so we don't.

So is that it? Problem solved.

If you were following along, you might have noticed the sleight of hand I pulled on you. This whole thing is about measuring a particle. There could have been more than one outcome of that measurement. Everything I've told you so far is about why there's no interference between those outcomes, and nothing about why there's just one result instead of two (or many, depending on what property is being measured).

Here's where the different formulations collide. The orthodox ("Copenhagen") interpretation is that probably somewhere in that ill-defined micro-to-macro transition something magic happened and two became one. A genuine collapse, with each of the outcomes happening with 50% probability. And how could you disprove it? To show that there are still two, you need to do something like an interference experiment, and we already saw you can't at that scale. The system would be decoherent, and while there would still be two possibilities, each would behave basically like a collapsed result. So no experiment today can tell apart whether it collapsed or merely decohered.

This second approach can be extended such that a collapse never happens. Instead, every time there's more than one thing that can happen, the universe splits so that all the things happen. You know, each in its own parallel universe (this is called the Many Worlds Interpretation, or MWI). This neatly sidesteps the question of why we only see one outcome: we don't; we see all of them (in different universes).

Maybe that tickles your fancy, or maybe you'd rather retreat to the safe confines of Copenhagen, but in either case you've really cheated yourself.

Do you remember what question we were trying to answer? It was the measurement problem: why do we see only one outcome instead of many? Even if you have an answer ("we don't!"), it should make you think: why are we asking such a funny question? The easy answer is that we're wired to think primitively but I want you to look closer.

The reason we're asking this question is because the math predicted multiple results but we're seeing only one. We are experiencing only one world. If your solution to this conundrum is "you only think you're seeing one; that's just a trick," then I suspect I know your answer to the question: is consciousness a trick of the brain? Obviously the questions "are you really experiencing one world?" and "are you really experiencing something" are intimately related.

The reason the measurement problem won't go away is that it's intimately tied to the question of whether you "actually experience" anything.

What's the problem with just answering "yes?" Well, the math is supposed to describe everything that's happening. There's nothing there that could account for this strange idea that some real, external thing called "consciousness" somehow swoops into the equations at random points (human brains) and gives an "inside view."

Moreover, consider what things look like from the view of any embodied consciousness in this multiverse (if MWI is true): from his perspective, the rest of the world -- including other people -- obeys the "branching" laws of physics, but from his perspective it gets reduced to one. In other words, he's all alone with this magical power. Are the other people even conscious?

We can't have any of that.

But the problem is that you do really experience something. Pause for a moment, and look around. Doesn't it sure seem like something is going on? I emphasize "sure" here. If you check very simply and straightforwardly, you will notice an immediate and unequivocal certainty before your intellect kicks in and explains it all away ("This is just a trick of my brain! Nothing to see here; move right along!"). This certainty -- that something sure as hell seems to be happening -- is more profound than it may seem the first few times you encounter it. You can't be nearly as sure that time or space exist as that ... consciousness ... and even that doesn't touch the profundity I'm hinting at.

But we're not ready to face this possibility. You can confirm this yourself, as your mind comes up with one explanation after another to disprove the fact that you're really experiencing anything. Of course you could just check again, but who has time for confronting that they exist in an outrageously profound way?

And that is why the problem won't go away; not just because we haven't figured out the appropriate math, or haven't been willing to overcome our ape-like beliefs.

"I'm not going to attempt to define consciousness, in a way that's connected with the fact that I don't believe it will become part of physics. ... And that has to do, I think, with the mysteries that bother a lot of people about quantum mechanics and its applications to the universe. ... Quantum mechanics kind of has an all-embracing property, that to completely make sense it has to be applied to everything in sight, including ultimately, the observer. But trying to apply quantum mechanics to ourselves makes us extremely uncomfortable. Especially because of our consciousness, which seems to clash with that idea. So we're left with a disquiet concerning quantum mechanics, and its applications to the universe. And I do not believe that disquiet will go away. If anything, I suspect that it will acquire new dimensions." -- Ed Witten 

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Theravada and Mahayana

Wanted to share some quotes from Kenneth Folk (who practiced Vipassana in the Mahasi tradition for many years, until he finished the path according to its teachers). This is just one perspective, but I find it intriguing.

Basically, he says there are two modes of practice: "developmental," which uses phenomena (such as sensations and thoughts) to develop toward a physio-energetic completion, and "awakening," which is primordial awareness coming to recognize itself. Those that just target the former will likely only lead to the former realization, whereas those that target the latter can result in both.


[I]t's unlikely that [Ramana Maharshi] became an arahat in the moment of his initial awakening. Awakening doesn't depend upon development; it is its own attainment. Arahatship, on the other hand, seems to be directly correlated with the kundalini phenomenon Ramana mentioned (see my essay above), and is the culmination of a developmental process. This is why I differentiate Awakening/Realization and development. The former is the noticing of that which is prior to the arising of time. The latter is completely dependent on time and the physical world.
If Ramana is correct, this is good news for pure Advaitists. They need not fear missing out on the fruits of development even if they never spend a moment on practices that specifically target development. All that is necessary is to dwell as primordial awareness. By the way, the common denominator between pure concentration practice and dwelling as the "I AM," is... concentration. Concentration, coupled with insight, leads to developmental enlightenment. Ramana's practice promotes both concentration and insight. All of this makes perfect sense when seen through the lens of the Buddhist maps. The non-dual aspect is, of course, not addressed in Theravada, which is why we have the Mahayana. If Hinayana were complete, there would be no need for Mahayana or Vajrayana.

For the purposes of this discussion, I'm defining Awakened in a particular way. In this context, Awakened is not synonymous with arahatship. Rather, it refers to a perspective in which primordial awareness knows itself. Lot's of people who are not arahats have access to this perspective. And it appears, based on my observations of and conversations with some people who I believe are arahats, that not all arahats have access to this perspective. On the other hand, maybe they just don't value this perspective; but I would say that it amounts to the same thing, as this perspective is considered the highest understanding by virtually every school of enlightenment except Theravada. To know it is to love it. :-)

We are now at the very heart of the debate between "Hinayana" and "Mahayana." How is it possible that people can spend their whole lives meditating and not come to the same conclusions?

For me the answer is simple: If people would stop arguing long enough to actually master the other camp's practice, they would value both perspectives. Too often, people dig in and attempt to defend their own limited understanding rather than branching out and embracing multiple understandings. It takes a lot of work. You can't just say, "I'm enlightened and therefore anything I don't already know about doesn't matter." You have to keep practicing even after arahatship because there is always something you haven't yet understood.

So, to answer the question directly, there are arahats who are masters of vipassana and samatha but who have never committed themselves to the mastery of non-dual practice and thus do not understand the full implications of Awakening.


You could make the case that both Awakening and Arahatship are enlightenment--which gives us two distinct situations, both going by the name "enlightenment." I think that some people reject the idea of "two enlightenments" as aesthetically displeasing. I tend to agree that, as an aesthetic, the idea of two enlightenments fails to inspire. Reality, however, has rarely shown itself to be subordinate to my aesthetic concerns.


I don't think the Theravada ideal is both development and Awakening. I think it's just development as I'm defining it. The Bumese, for example, don't talk about "turning the light around," "awareness knowing itself," "realizing what has always been true," etc, all of which are recurring themes in Advaita, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. They seem to take enlightenment as an entirely linear process that fundamentally changes the practitioner over time. Theravada, notwithstanding the occasional instant-arahat story in the suttas, is about as far as you can get from a sudden-enlightenment school.

Among those who do talk about awareness knowing itself (see Mahamudra, for example), there is wide consensus that this Realization is by far the most important thing to have, and that pure developmentalists are somehow missing the boat.

I like Theravada, but I like to keep in mind that it is the little brother of the enlightenment schools in spite of its self-serving claims to greater authenticity.


I will say that someone who fully commits to the non-dual route and (accidentally) develops to the point of arahatship has completed the two-fold program. But someone who reaches arahatship by doing only developmental practices may or may not stumble hard enough on the non-dual to get hooked and explore it further. In that case it would take some outside influence to encourage that yogi to keep practicing, as s/he would intuitively feel done.


The thesis I'm offering is that by becoming absorbed in the awareness you will progress along the developmental path, thus killing two birds with one stone. This position seems to be supported by such luminaries as Ramana Maharshi and Jack Kornfield, among others. Mind you (and getting back to the point I made in the essay), pure non-dual teachers (e.g. Tolle, Adyashanti, Ganga-ji, Mooji) don't like to talk about development, presumably because they believe it is a distraction. (How can you become absorbed in the awareness now if you are planning your future awakening?) Nonetheless, I'm giving you the holistic understanding for better or worse: if you do the non-dual practice properly, you will develop just as efficiently as if you did pure vipassana.

The only down side to this is that to some people all this talk of awareness knowing itself is incomprehensible gibberish. Fine. For those people, I recommend vipassana. This is really a can't-lose situation. The important thing is to be committed to some kind of practice, to do it every day, and to take intensive retreats whenever possible and do it some more. The finite part of it will eventually be finished and the infinite part will keep you entertained for a lifetime.


My sense is that people who are Awake tend to talk about it a lot, at least when the conversation turns to mysticism. People talk about what they value. So if somebody talks for a half-hour about meditation but doesn't say anything about awareness, I suspect that awareness is either not known to them or not important to them. For concrete examples, compare the speech of a Mahasi master with the speech of a dzogchen master or a Mahamudra master. The dzogchen and Mahamudra guys are all about awareness knowing itself, whereas the Mahasi guy will talk about body sensations or noting mind states. These are two very different orientations and I think it would be wrong to conclude that these people are all having the same experiences but talking about them differently.


My response to a question from a friend about whether to combine vipassana and the "I AM:"

I like to use the source/river analogy. The Source is where things have not yet diverged into subject and object. One definition of enlightenment would be unfettered access to the Source. Both the "I AM" perspective and the vipassana perspective are downstream from the Source. That's fine, as most people will do a lot of downstream practice before they realize that the Source is always available. Your question is which practice to do, or if they should be combined.

"I AM" is so close to the Source that it does not admit the kind of investigation that is vipassana. Vipassana is slightly further downstream from "I AM." "I AM," because it is so far upstream, is upstream from suffering. What's not to like? To introduce vipassana to the "I AM" is to pull yourself further downstream than you need to be, into a perspective that admits suffering. Since the "I AM" does everything vipassana does (i.e. it efficiently develops the psychic anatomy toward arahatship), and has the added advantage of being upstream from suffering, there is no percentage in doing vipassana if you are able to become absorbed in the "I AM." It would be like stepping over dollars to pick up quarters.

So, anytime you are able to become absorbed in the "I AM," AKA the no-dog, just do that. If that isn't happening for whatever reason, downshift to vipassana. Just realize that although investigating the no-dog with vipassana or doing vipassana from the point of view of the no-dog are perfectly good and useful practices, they are in fact vipassana; once you introduce that level of investigation you have pulled yourself downstream from the pure no-dog for no good reason.


Actually, descriptions of stream entry/1st path, as defined in the Theravada tradition, are remarkably consistent across individuals. That's one of the things that really drew me to vipassana in the first place. My teacher told me that the Progress of Insight was so accurate, and that it described a process that was so hard-wired into the human body/mind, that a teacher could accurately pinpoint a student on the map and watch her or him go through the 16 insight knowledges one after another, just as if it were scripted. And this would happen irrespective of whether the student knew or had even heard of the map. I have since found this to be true again and again; first path is not at all nebulous. Same for second path. After that, it gets harder; teachers don't even agree on exactly where to put the dividing line between 2nd and 3rd path. But it gets easier at 4th path, which is a very easy call, as you know when your insight disease goes away. Post 4th path, it gets fuzzy again and there are all sorts of ways that enlightenment can manifest, which is why I started this discussion. I wanted do go deeper than the usual it-all-ends-up-in-the-same place talk and explore the reality of it.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

So simple

"The root of the whole of samsara and nirvana is the nature of the mind. To realize this, rest in unstructured ease without meditating on anything. When all that needs to be done is to rest in yourself, it is amazing that you are deluded by seeking elsewhere!" -- Saraha

"The ultimate Truth is so simple. It is nothing more than being in the pristine state. This is all that need be said. Still, it is a wonder that to teach this simple Truth there should come into being so many religions, creeds, methods and disputes among them and so on! Oh the pity! Oh the pity!" -- Sri Ramana Maharshi

"A mind imbued with conceptual elaboration is a mind of samsara. A mind free from conceptual elaboration is liberated. The very nature of mind-itself is primordially, intrinsically free of elaboration. ... People go awry in their practice because they fail to recognize this point and pursue it. ... In reality, it is enough to leave the mind in its own unstructured state. Why have so many complaints and questions? Why complicate the issue?" -- Gyatrul Rinpoche

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The simple fact

If you could -- just for a millisecond -- notice the simple fact of consciousness (or rather, if consciousness were to notice itself -- because what, other than consciousness, notices?) without your mind subtly spewing out answers (and questions) about what it is (just an illusion!), where it comes from (just neurotransmitters!), whether or not it's anything special or remarkable (not particularly!), etc., you would be brought to your knees in a profound humility, reverence, awe, and gratitude that you could never have imagined possible.

Before wondering "why am I here?" or "what is the meaning of life?," perhaps spend more time looking (nonconceptually) into exactly what you mean by "I am here" or "I am alive." I guarantee you will be surprised and delighted -- and with enough luck (or really, enough sincerity, precision, simplicity, and directness), it will unequivocally resolve (if not exactly "answer") your first question.

So close you cannot see it
So deep you cannot fathom it
So simple you cannot believe it
So good you cannot accept it
-- Kalu Rinpoche

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

ACIM and Buddhism

It is remarkable how similar A Course In Miracles (or at least, this interpretation) is to the Mingyur Rinpoche quote:

The Course's assertion is that everything stems from the mind. The mind's thinking provides the basis for everything that it experiences. Whichever way the mind chooses to look at reality, it will find itself surrounded by and experiencing a "reality" that is the precise mirror of that. The mind's fundamental belief-system first manifests as inner feelings, emotions, interpretations and perceptions; and then manifests as the "outer" reality in which the mind seems to live.

Our healing, then, must be a healing of the mind, a healing of our fundamental perspective on reality. This is what the miracle does. It comes in a moment, a holy instant, when we decide to temporarily suspend our habitual perspective on things. As we momentarily loosen our grip on the ego, our minds are allowed to shift into a new way of seeing things. And since our thinking is the foundation for our entire experience, as our thinking shifts, so does everything else. Our whole experience of life is allowed to brighten from the bottom up, making this kind of healing more deeply liberating than being healed of even the most insidious and destructive physical disease.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

What do you really have?

What does it mean to be happy?

It means that for just a moment, you are not longing for something else. You are not craving or searching or yearning for things to be different in any way. What you have is truly enough.

That's it. That's a simple but complete description of the condition we spend lifetimes struggling and fighting and killing for. Of the one and only thing everybody fundamentally wants.

This may surprise you. It couldn't be that simple, could it? After all, most of the time you're not longing for something else, and yet you're not perfectly happy, right?

You may not have noticed that for the vast majority of your life, your mind is indeed preoccupied with scheming up ways for things to be different. It can take some practice to detect.

Or perhaps you are aware of this, but consider it perfectly reasonable. If you didn't seek ways for things to be different, you wouldn't accomplish very much, right? It's lazy to be content with what you have.

But have you noticed what you really have?

Suppose you say "I have a sports car!"

Concretely speaking, what you have then is not a sports car, but the thought "I have a sports car!"

Suppose you go to your garage and point at it, to prove it to me. Now what you have is a visual field that looks something like this:
(Yeah, right, you only wish you had a Lambo)

You can get it in and vroooom off into the distance, and you may have super-sweet vroooom sounds and wind in your hair, but you'll never have a Lamborghini.

What you will only, always, and ever have is this one moment and whatever it contains. Just one frame. You can save all you like, but you'll never have more.

Wouldn't it be a damn shame if you didn't want the one and only thing you had?

Wouldn't it be an incredible tragedy to discover at the end of your life that all you ever really had to do was appreciate the one thing you had?

Wouldn't it be unfortunate if the reason you failed to appreciate it was fear? Fear that if you enjoyed what you had, that you would turn into a lump of complacency?

Wouldn't it be amazing if the opposite turned out to be the case? That when you started enjoying what you had -- not what you thought you had, but what you actually had -- that things got better, not worse?

Wouldn't it be funny if teachers have come before to tell us of this, and we are just refusing to listen?

“Accept — then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it.This will miraculously transform your whole life.” -- Eckhart Tolle

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Abstractions, gratitude, and god

Consider how life goes.

You are presented with a bewildering array of colors, sounds, and textures. From their behavior, you infer the existence of abstractions called matter, time, space, etc. to explain them. Next, you take these abstractions to be the (only) "real things," and the experiences from which you inferred them to be secondary. The things you have merely inferred become certainties, and the things you can actually be certain of (experiences) become curiosities at best.

It's a marvelous sleight of hand that is remarkably hard to detect, but the payoff is worth it. It is possible (indeed overwhelmingly common) to spend a whole lifetime missing out on connecting with the Sure Thing in favor of abstractions.

One remarkable place we do this is in expressing gratitude. We suspect there's something profoundly amazing about just being alive. To objectify this sense, we have to make use of abstractions. What is life? A combination of amino acids. How did they come about? From fusion and other processes. So we become grateful for amino acids, fusion, evolution, etc. Those are all fascinating things to be grateful for, but again there's a sleight of hand: the realization that sparked the gratitude was the sense of being alive, not any of the abstractions that we suspect caused that miracle.

It is actually possible (and incredibly worthwhile) to allow the gratitude to remain precisely on the alive-ness itself, and not on any of the abstractions (such as our calculation of the remarkably low odds that we should be alive). I hesitate to proffer my own take, but here goes: if you manage to be genuinely grateful for the Real Thing for even a moment, you may catch a glimpse of what sages across time have been calling Enlightenment or God. (Yes, those too are abstractions, so don't chase them either.)

How do you get to the Real Thing?

One possibility is to deepen your felt sense of gratitude, but don't be grateful for anything in particular, or because of any particular reason. Don't let your gratitude "land" anywhere. Be grateful for "what is," without in any way identifying what it is or why it is.

Another technique commonly offered is meditation. It certainly can work, but there's a common trap you can fall into: abandoning some of the abstractions, but solidifying deeper ones. For example, it's easy to sit and meditate with a clear mind, while maintaining (and even deepening) the sense that you are an individual meditating within a real world. You will know you are making progress when your gut-felt certainty about your abstractions called time, space, self, objective reality, etc. begin to loosen. What arises in their stead? I will leave that for you to discover.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Does QM imply that reality is a simulation?

From a response to someone who asked me whether QM proves that we're in a simulation:

It's logically impossible to prove that you're not living in a simulation (since the evidence against it could all be fabricated), but that's not exactly what QM is showing. Instead, it is starting to show is that there is may be no way things "actually are." For example, a particle may not even have a well-defined spin before being measured. Not only that, but other features of what we normally call "reality" are getting harder and harder to support with each successively more clever experiment. In other words, it's getting harder to support the idea of objective reality.

But even if objective qualities do not really exist, it does not necessarily mean that they are simulated, either. It might mean, for example, that they're not objective at all. Perhaps they are entirely subjective. This would fit nicely with the von Neumann - Wigner interpretation, which roughly says that "consciousness causes collapse" (i.e., that it causes one of many possible realities to become real reality). There are many reasons physicists don't like that interpretation, but even your average Joe might not like it, because it seems to indicate that you are creating reality. That would be ludicrous (and scary).

But there's a neat way out of this. Experientially speaking, what is this consciousness? It's the thing that's aware of the world, as opposed to being a part of the world. But similarly, it is aware of your body, and so cannot be your body. It is not your thoughts, memory, or personality. In brief, it cannot be "you" in the normal sense. And yet, it is "what is looking." Which takes us into the mystical traditions, which are more or less saying that you are, indeed that which creates.

Of course, they also say that the safest and best way to discover this is by practicing meditation (and related things) with discipline. That way, instead of merely believing any of those stories, your mind settles to the point where you can investigate them for yourself. What is this thing that wants to know whether this is a simulation? Find the answer to that question, and don't do it by filling your mind with more thoughts.....

Thursday, March 23, 2017

QM for dummies

Sometimes I think my "QM for dummies" requires too much understanding of tensor products on Hilbert spaces.

In light of that, here's a non-mathy intro taken from my journal. More to come later. Some background: Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen published a paper claiming that QM is incomplete, because otherwise it is absurd in a particular way. The experiment involves two particles, originally conjoined, and sent off in opposite directions. Each particle gets measured along one particular axis (x, y, or z), and each result can either be +1/2 or -1/2. ...

I think I explained the EPR experiment poorly the day before. Something about how you end up with measurements that cannot be explained classically. Because in the classical case, it is only possible to see certain distributions of outcomes, and they're violated in the actual experiment. And if I showed you the math, you'd understand….

But there's a much more simple way to explain it: the outcome of a measurement here can depend on the choice of what to measure there, even though light itself could not travel fast enough to tell the particle here "how to behave" (i.e., how it should be measured). To show this, you'd need to (a) demonstrate that the outcome of measurement here and the choice of measurement there are correlated, and (b) do it using an experiment where the two measurements happen almost simultaneously. You might be thinking: can't the correlation be explained by them having shared some information when they started out (together)? This is called a "hidden variable" (i.e., some influence that we just haven't discovered). The only other alternative is what they dubbed "spooky action at a distance." That was clearly wrong, so there must be hidden variables, they said.

What JS Bell showed was that even hidden variables have their limits: they could not produce the outcome that QM would predict, for his particular experiment. If it's not hidden variables, then it must be spooky action, right? Actually, no. The preferred interpretation is that there is no action. It's just that the joint state of the system is described by a mathematical entity that doesn't have well-defined values on both sub-systems (the spin of the particles). In other words, it's simply meaningless to say that a particle even has a well-defined spin (either plus or minus ½) in a given direction, assuming it was last measured along some other direction (called a "non-commuting" direction). This is the famous Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. It also is the wave-particle duality: if you know where the light "is," it cannot behave like a wave. And when it acts like a wave, you cannot know where it is -- because it is not in any particular place. It's not just that we don't know where it is.

It's like the EPR pair above: the second particle does not have a well-defined spin in the chosen direction. If it did, its result wouldn't depend on the choice of measurement of the first particle. If it has a well-defined spin now, it can only be because the other one "gave" it one now, after having been measured.

So the natural question is: what constitutes a measurement? Because whatever it is "prevents" particles from acting like waves. And this is where the story really starts to get fun….

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The two-slit experiment: putting together the pieces

Apologies if this is not the clearest post ever. It's just that I finally put together a few loose ends that were bothering me about the two-slit experiment, and I want to record them.

First, some "basic" QM, from Richard Feynman:

1. The probability of an event is given by the square of the absolute value of a complex number φ which is called the probability amplitude:

P = Probability
φ = probability amplitude
P = |φ|2

2. When an event can occur in several alternative ways, the probability amplitude for the event is the sum of the probability amplitudes for each way considered separately. There is interference:

φ = φ1 + φ2
P = |φ1 + φ2|2

3. If an experiment is performed which is capable of determining whether one or another alternative is actually taken, the probability of the event is the sum of the probabilities of each alternative. The interference is lost:

P = P1 + P2

A simple example will help here.

Consider vectors in C2
Consider a basis {x, y} and alternate basis {a, b} where:
a = 1/√2(x + iy)
b = 1/√2(x - iy)

Now we want to know: what is the probability of a particle in state |a> being measured in state |b>?

Classical method

If we assume the particle must have gone either through |x> or through |y> on its way to |b>, we sum P(a ⇒ x ⇒ b) + P(a ⇒ y ⇒ b) like bullet 3 above.

= P(a ⇒ x & x ⇒ b) + P(a ⇒ y & y ⇒ b)
= P(a⇒x)P(x⇒b) + P(a⇒y)P(y⇒b)
= 0.5*0.5 + 0.5*0.5
= 0.5

This is just classical probability theory. It turns out that if we do try to detect which way the particle went (i.e., measure it in the x-y basis, followed by the a-b basis), we find it ends up in |b> half the time.

But QM predicts that |a> should never be measured as |b>, because they're orthogonal. What went wrong is that we cannot assume that it went through either |x> or |y>. 

Quantum method

Instead, we should simply take the inner product of |a> and |b>, i.e. <a|b>. We know it's zero (they're orthogonal), but we can calculate this explicitly in the x-y basis:

|a> =  1/√2(1, i)

|b> =  1/√2(1, -i)
<a|b> = 1/√2 (1 * 1 + -i * -i ) = 1/√2 (1 - 1) = 0

The terms in the above sum are the terms in Feynman's (2). We could have also written this as

= <a|x><x|b> + <a|y><y|b>
= (1/√2)(1/√2) + (-i/√2)(-i/√2)
= ½ + -½

= 0

(Because <x|a> is just the x-component of |a>, and <a|x> is its conjugate). Sometimes you see this written:

Where i takes on the basis vectors under consideration (in this case, x and y), and:
ψ*i = <ψ|i>
φi = <i|φ>

If you compare the two calculations (for the classical, or "which-way" case, vs the quantum case), you'll notice that they differ by some terms that we can call "interference terms." There's nothing really interfering here, unless we force ourselves to think of |a> and |b> in terms of the x-y basis, in which case we can understand this as the |x> and |y> components interfering.

Elsewhere I've demonstrated why entangling a state |x> + |y> (so that it results in |x>|0> + |y>|1>), results in a similar loss of interference (and I give a quick rehash at the bottom).

Anyway, that was all a prelude to the main course: what's happening in the two-slit experiment?

Mapping back onto the two-slit experiment

The solution to the Schrodinger equation for a plane wave is 

Ignoring the time component, we see that it's basically a complex number whose phase is proportional to r, which is the distance from the source. In our case we're actually close to the source, and the light's strength will be proportional to the inverse of the distance squared.

(One super confusing thing is that in some contexts, the whole Ae^(i*t) is called the "complex amplitude," but in other contexts, we call just A the amplitude. Let's not do the second. Another super confusing thing is that often when referring to the "phase" of a photon, we're talking about the relative phase of the polarization components.)

For any given point on the screen, we will have one such complex amplitude for each slit. Per Feynman's (2), we can just sum these to get the overall amplitude that will give us the probability of finding a photon at that point.

It's hard to get an intuition for what this sum looks like without pictures, but basically you're getting two complex numbers that are sometimes "in phase" (i.e., sum to a number whose modulus is bigger) and sometimes "out of phase" (mostly or entirely cancel). The overall pattern is the one you've seen before:

If we know which way the particle went, we use (3). It's hard to say the "reason" that we use that formula, but again, if we look at knowing which-way as just an entanglement rather than a "collapse" (thereby preserving the quantum nature), it turns out that equation (2) does just reduce to equation (3).

Why does entanglement cause decoherence, i.e., kill interference?

In brief, it works like this. Let's rewrite:
|a> = |x> + |y>
|b> = |x> - |y>

Suppose Pb is the projector onto state |b>, which gives us the probability that some state is measured as |b>. Notice that Pb(|a>) = 0-vector. But now let's entangle it:

|a'> = |x>|x> + |y>|y>

To find the probability that |a'> ends up in |b>, we can't use Pb (since it operates on C2, whereas we now need a projector on C2C2). Instead, we use Pb' = Pb ⊗ I

If you look at the action of Pb' on |a'>, you will discover that it is not the zero-vector, but instead

√2/4 (|x> - |y>)⊗(|x> - |y>)

whose norm-squared is 0.5, just like we saw in the classical case above. 

Another way of seeing this is simply writing |a'> in the a-b basis, and noticing that half of it is in |a> and the other half in |b>:

|a'> = (|a> + |b>)(|x>) + (|a> - |b>)(|y>)
= (|a>)(|x> + |y>) + (|b>)(|x> - |y>)
= |a>|a> + |b>|b>


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Original ayahuasca piece

As mentioned in the previous post, this is in danger of disappearing from the web (though the wayback machine still has it). I think it's worth saving.


Ayahuasca is a psychedelic brew mostly composed of Banisteriopsis caapi vine and can be combined with various other plants. The natural ingredients to prepare this medicine can only be found in the deepest jungles of South America; the amazons rain forest.
For hundreds of years, Indigenous tribes of South America have been using this ancient elixir to reconnect with the spiritual world and cleanse their bodies from all the negative energies they have collected through their long journeys. However, Ayahuasca serves a higher purpose; to help people reach enlightenment and a higher consciousness level. It is said that once you try this psychedelic brew, you’ll never look at life the same way.
This sacred elixir can help a person to awaken their intuition and reach consciousness by opening their mind to an experience out of the ordinary. This is why Shamans often say that this plant has its own soul. They call it “planta maestra” which means sacred plant. This sacred plant will take you into a journey to the world of the unkown, a world that very few people have had the chance to see.

The world of the spirits

After one hour, I started to think that maybe I was not worthy of having any visions. I felt sick and I was starting to feel disappointed. Suddenly, I began to see beautiful colors all around me. It felt like if I wasn’t in the same room anymore. The colors started to form shapes and faces.
They were not human faces and looked more like plants and leaves mixed with geometrical symbols. Is very hard to describe what the spirits looked like because there is nothing in this world that resembles them. Then, after a few minutes, I could see them clearly.
The room was full of spirits! I could see them everywhere. They were all dancing around and interacting with the humans. I noticed that people couldn’t see them. The spirits were next to them helping, talking, healing, playing and hugging them.
I noticed an old American man who was puking a lot. He looked very sick but he wasn’t alone. There were multiple spirits next to him, rubbing his back and holding him so he wouldn’t fall.

The ceremony felt as if we were in a big carnival, where spirits and humans joined together to celebrate. These beings were filled with love and concerns for people’s well being. They were flying around, helping people and having fun at the same time. They looked like little kids just enjoying life. The spirits were of all shapes;small ones, big ones and very big ones. Then suddenly, a spirit that was flying around saw me and said:
- Look, look! He has woken up! Look at him!
The spirit had a big smile on his face.  As he got closer to me, my first reaction was to try to touch him and to feel him but my hands would just go through him. More and more spirits approached me, one of them said laughing:
- He is a very curious one!
Then another spirit came next to me and offered me a fruit:
- Here, eat, eat!
Without thinking twice, I quickly grabbed the fruit and eat it. This fruit was like no fruit that exists in our world.  It was circular and was composed of beams of light from different colors that looked liked like crystals. It was tasteless to the tongue but I felt an ecstasy of energy going through my body. I was so fascinated by all of them that I quickly forgot about my physical discomfort. They were beautiful. I looked at them with amazement and asked:
- Who are you?
They replied at the same time:
- We are the spirits of the Ayahuasca.
One of them approach me and said; I feel that you feel alone, but don’t worry that won’t last for long; all you need is a little love. Then they all started hugging me and fixing my pillow to make me feel more comfortable. I could feel so much love in my heart that a tear fell off my cheek. I hadn’t feel that kind of love in years.
They were pure, strong, powerful, playful, wise, joyful and innocent. They loved shamanic music and would dance to it nonstop. It was like a big party for them.
One of them asked me with a big smile “why do you put mud on your hair?” He was clearly referring to the gel I had put on my hair that morning.  He even called other spirits to come look at my “muddy hair” and they all started poking it.
They were really curious, almost like children. They we were all laughing about it. The spirit insisted that I touched my hair and when I did, it felt like I was touching dry mud. I finally understood what the spirit was talking about – whatever I was putting on my hair was indeed a very strange human habit.
Seeing them all having fun and dancing was a majestic privilege. Then, I remembered the purpose of my trip. I had a lot of questions that needed answers. I focused and without wasting any time I said:
-I have so many questions to ask! I don’t know where to begin! What’s the purpose of life?! How do I reach happiness?
An older spirit approached me and just replied:
Just relax and enjoy the present moment, what you are experiencing now only comes once in a life time. Stop worrying, just enjoy the moment. Appreciate it. The answers to those questions will come at their right time.
I was a bit confused about what the spirit had told me. So I asked again:
- “Well can you at least tell me what I need to change in my life?
The spirit smiled at me and told me:
-“You don’t need to worry about that. You are on the right track. Just look at where you are right now! In the end everything will be okay, just enjoy the ride.”
At that moment, I felt like he didn’t give me the answer I was looking for. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized that in fact the spirit had answered my question but I wasn’t ready to understand it.I still had a lot to learn from the spiritual world.
He was trying to tell me that the key to happiness is to appreciate the present moment and not worrying about the future or past. I was thinking about my questions so much that even when I was in a beautiful world with the spirits, I wasn’t appreciating that experience because I was thinking too much. The key to happiness is to enjoy every second of the present moment.
Being in the world of the spirit was amazing. That’s when I realized that the physical world wasn’t the only world. There’s a lot more than we do not know about. I was feeling so much bliss and love that I told them:
-“This is so amazing. How come people don’t know about this?! We should tell everyone about this and help them wake up! we should help the whole world.”
One of the spirits replied with a soft smile:
- “Listen, instead of worrying about changing the world, you should start by helping yourself first. That’s the first step for change. You can’t give what you dont have, so you must create happiness in your life first to be able to give to others”.
I asked the spirits how come they never tried helping humans. They reply with a little  laugh:
- In fact, we are always with the humans every single second of their lives. It’s just that humans choose not to see us.
After some time, I started to see less and less of the spirits. I realized I was coming back to reality. I felt sad and scared that I might never see them again. Then one of the spirit said “We are always there. Even when you can’t see us with your eyes, we are always there.”
Ayahuasca was one of the experiences that made me feel sure that there’s more in life than just the physical world we live in. It opened my mind; I realized anything is possible in this universe. There is magic in life, we just have to look a little bit closer.  I also learned about the main goal in life is to follow your heart and be happy.
Don’t take life too seriously, because like Shakespeare said: “Life is but a dream”. Life is a dream and when we die we awake to another world.
By: Raphael Echeverri