by Nancy Evans Bush, MA

Living as we are, at a time of vast rethinking. is hard on the nerves. We thought we had it—a universe ordered in ways that suited us, predictable, with a comprehensible plan. It was reassuring, being right below the angels. We realize now that things haven’t turned out exactly as we expected. Something very like Galileo keeps nudging into our certainties, saying, “And one more thing…”

I, for one, was fond of the idea of the Great Chain of Being. Fish in the water, birds in the air, beasts on the dry land, and Humanity swinging just below the angels, having dominion over the lot of them. It was so orderly, an idea just the right size to fit my understanding. Of course, by the time I heard about the Great Chain, the angels had been discounted (“prescientific”), and evolution had shifted things around a bit (“the moving finger of God,” as Loren Eiseley called it); but we were still comfortably fixed as those having dominion.

Well, we all know what happened. The idea of the infinite perfectability of man has given way to the infinite perfectabiity of technology. We had world wars and the Holocaust; the word “smog” was invented, and Lake Erie died, and somewhere in there came Love Canal and acid rain. Then even God died. Simple dominion became imperialism on all fronts and wasn’t so simple any more. Something seemed to have gone terribly wrong. Now even that is behind us, and we have moved on to global warming and vanishing aquifers. The news is often unsettling.

At the very beginning of his now-classic book, The Lives of a Cell, biologist Lewis Thomas exploded complacency: “It is not a new thing,” he wrote, “for man to invent [for himself] an existence that he imagines to be above the rest of life…As illusion, it has never worked out to his satisfaction, [for] Man is imbedded in nature…A good case can be made for our nonexistence as entities.”

Our nonexistence? And if we are not entities, what are we?

Thomas answers: “We are shared, rented, occupied. At the interior of our cells, driving them, providing the oxidative energy that sends us out for the improvement of each shining day, are the mitochondria, little separate creatures maintaining themselves and their ways, replicating in their own fashion, privately, with their own DNA and RNA quite different from ours.”

It appears that we have been colonized by total strangers. Without them, we don’t function. “Who am I?” takes on a whole new meaning. Does the singular personal pronoun still apply, or am “I” now a crowd? So much for the divine right of kings.

The mitochondria continued about their business—our business—saying nothing we could hear. Perhaps they do not even know about us. (By the waters of Babylon I sat down and wept for you, oh my sense of dominion.) Possibly they assume themselves to be at the center of creation, next only to angels on the Great Chain of mitochondriacal being. Or, as Madeleine L’Engle suggests in her extraordinary novel, A Wind in the Door, perhaps they sense us as their galaxies, of which there are reputed to be billions, all unimaginably large and incomprehensibly distant from each other. Galileo, go home; this is too unsettling.

Slowly, out of my confusion came an awareness that perhaps it was not the universe that had gone wrong. The universe seemed—like the mitochondria—to be proceeding very much as usual. Perhaps the problem lay in my—our—perceptions, our expectations. It was time for some hard rethinking.

We wanted dominion; we wanted an order we could comprehend. What’s so wrong with that? I was still not prepared to consider us nonexistent as entities. What is dominion, anyway?

The whole idea of dominion, it occurred to me, undoubtedly originated in the growing awareness of all those Neolithic newborns that there is a distinction to be made between “me” and “everything else.” Exit the undifferentiated state in which everything blends together as one Being, the Eden of our consciousness. Enter duality, the world of the conscious individual, Adam the Toolmaker, cast out of the home place. As soon as one recognizes that there is “me-in-here” and “not-me-out-there,” one has entered the world of naming, the world in which control begins in a mother’s voice calling a toddler by name.

Here, now, is a place obviously made out of Things—categorical tree, rock, water, tigers, individual toddler. The Things begin to be put into boxes, categories, It is the beginning of that great career leading to a Ph.D. in taxonomy. In Spectrum of Consciousness, Ken Wilber notes the observation of mathematician G. Spencer Brown that “…the beginning of mathematics, indeed of physics and philosophy, linguistics and biology—in fact, the universe itself—can be elegantly traced from the original act [of severance]… Let there be a distinction.”

The more we make distinctions, the more we get the idea of control—in other words, of dominion. And the more we have control of some categories, the more we lost touch with others.

As Loren Eiseley pointed out, primitive humanity clearly recognized—and still does, where there are primitive societies remaining—that the world encompasses both tool-making and shamanism; they could be both pragmatist and mystic. Therefore, they made distinctions and named and classified; simultaneously, they acknowledged the unseen presences in the very air around their camp sites.

Somewhere along the line, especially in the West, as the benefits of tool-making (control) became more obvious, there came the growing hunger for orderliness. We began to hunger and thirst after a universe ordered as neatly as the bedrooms that existed only in our mothers’ dreams. Wanting more certainty (control) than could be found in the mystical, and finding that certainty, it seemed, in the observable world of every day, the Western worldview developed a set of rules governing what could and could not be Real. To understand Reality, one had only to go by the rules. One could study only Things. We began to clean up our room. And so it happened that over time we became entranced, and began to believe that the taxonomies were the universe’s idea and not our own.

Simultaneously, of course, the universe—the whole—continued being all-of-a-piece, sublimely indifferent to our taxonomic inventiveness, our fascination with taking apart the cosmic watch to see how it works. I Am That I Am, said Jehovah to Moses. And that was that in the mind of Jehovah, but it didn’t make sense to the rest of us. We were too busy reducing the watch to pieces. (“Gee, look at all these little parts!”)

Ho hum on the philosophical front. These are not new ideas, certainly. Their only freshness comes as each of us discovers them for him- and herself. One at a time, the notions are manageable; but when they begin to hang together—that’s when the dizziness starts.

It should have been apparent all along that human beings, no less than spirochetes, are creatures of their design. And by design, we are equipped to take only a fragment of whatever may be around us. Though intricate and able to rejoice in rainbows, we are as limited as old television sets in our ability to bring in full-color programming; our eyes register only a sliver of the spectrum. The lowest organ notes of a Bach fugue we hear only as a rumble, while at the higher frequencies, the design of our ears ensures the privacy of bats in conversation. What else is out there, beyond the encapsulating margin of our senses?

“There are regions of being,” observes Huston Smith in Forgotten Truth, “that are quite unrelated to the contours of the human mind.” Certainly we are receivers; but we are also protected from over­exposure. We are limited by design. Still, in the famous words of Robert Browning, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” So we have reached and reached, finding that whatever we can grasp, there is always something more.

There has been such fascination with the process! If we could just get far enough into the parts, down to the smallest little bit of Thing, surely we would find the very-smallest, the Ultimate Particle, the heart of the Stuff we are made of, the universal on-button. And then we could have dominion over it, too, that tiniest of bits of physical matter at the core of solidity. It has taken more than a century even to begin to grasp word of what happened in the search. Dominion (technology) had finally enabled the physicists (subjects) to explore the innermost workings of atoms (objects). That very smallest piece of the cosmic watch, the Ultimate Particle was at hand. And so the physicists looked, and looked, and discovered—that at the interior of the atom were not infinitesimal bits of solid substance; there was activity!  

What happened with the particles was—the act of looking produced a reaction. Somehow, incomprehensibly, subject-object became an interaction. Remember the rule: wherever there is interaction, there cannot be objectivity. It is absolute and basic to dualism, subject/object.It is rather, though not literally, like the Marx Brothers famous mirror routine—Groucho (subject) on one side of a tall mirror, Harpo (object, because of camera angle) on the other, neither knowing the other is there. Identically dressed, they dart and pop and peer around the side of the mirror in a futile and increasingly frantic effort to find something that feels like reality. The scene is neither Groucho seeing Harpo nor Harpo seeing Groucho, but the interplay between them—the Whole.

And so with the physicists and the electrons. In Ken Wilber’s words, “The assumption that the observer was separate from the event, the assumption that one could dualistically tinker with the universe without affecting it, was found untenable. In some mysterious fashion, the subject and the object were intimately united, and the myriad of theories that had assumed otherwise were now in shambles.” Exeunt Certainties, stage right, pursued by a bear.

Intimately united. Activity, energy, rather than Things.

Relative to their size, we are told, the distances between particles in an atom are proportionate to the distances between us and the stars. Realizing this, astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington noted many years ago that the desk at which he sat was shadow, an illusion of substance, its atoms surrounded by an immensity of space. Likewise, the pen he grasped— primarily space, and the ink flowing onto the paper¾space. And he, himself—­and we, and trees and rocks and water and tigers¾well, as Jean Houston says, we all have leaky margins.

Out on our back hillside recently I studied the Milky Way and saw that it appeared quite substantial, the stars so densely packed it seemed one might walk on them. We know better, of course, know that the appearance of solidity is optical illusion, a trick of the point of view. The stars are all un­imaginably large and incomprehensibly distant from each other. There are reputed to be billions of them.

Was it my thought, or that of the mitochondria? Deep within our cells, perhaps they, too, our miniscule strangers, look far, far out and wonder. And if the elegant mystery makes their heads spin, as ours do, we might remember that it is in the nature of galaxies to do so.

We look from the Great Chain of Being, suspended in its golden simplicity between heaven and the depths, to the work of contemporary physicists, with its discoveries of intricate activity, its humming purposeful continuance.

“How big is the baby?” I used to ask when the children were tiny. The little arms would go up, as high as they could reach, and the baby and I would laugh—”Sooo big!”

How big is the universe? How big is Being? Our minds go up, up, as high as they can reach. “Soooo big!” So very, very big. Yet somehow, intimately united, all the same size.


Nancy Evans Bush

[First published in Vital Signs, Winter, 1984.]