Catching the Light

"Use the light that is within you to regain your natural clearness of sight." With this quotation from Lao-tzu, Arthur Zajonc, professor of physics at Amherst College and a fellow of both the Lindesfarne Association and the Fetzer Foundation, takes us on a journey through that domain where spirit and matter meet eye to eye.

In his book, Catching the Light: The Entwined History of Light and Mind (Bantam Books), we learn that "two lights brighten our world. One is produced by the sun, but another answers to it--the light of the eye. Only through their entwining do we see; lacking either we are blind." The theme of professor Zajonc’s research, therefore, might be that "it takes two to tango." Sun and eye, consciousness and world, spirit and matter--these dualities join together to make the dance we call life.

The inner light of the mind’s eye Zajonc identifies as the imagination. It is at work in the blind poet’s psychic sight. It is at work, invisibly, as we first apprehend what we would then see. What we cannot imagine, we cannot see, even though it be right in front of us. As in the drawing shown, whether you see an old woman or a young maiden depends upon some contribution of your own mind’s eye. The inner eye of the imagination must be linked to the outer source of creation’s light.

"Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact...The world is emblematic. The laws of moral nature answer to those of matter as face to face in a glass." With this quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Professor Zajonc discovers the many aspects of light that have spiritual equivalents. Describing how the soot of a candle wick glows phosphorescently while burning, he says, "Cold, it is the blackest of substances, but when hot, soot becomes beautifully luminous." He gives credit to the poet Gaston Bachelard for having noticed the moral equivalent in this event: "The most vulgar material of all produces light. It purifies itself in the very act of giving off light. Evil is the nourisher of good...a cosmic phenomenon, a model of humanization." If you wish to give light to the world, someone once said, you must be willing to endure burning.

What is the light of the world? What is the light with which you surround yourself before meditation, that you surround others in during prayer? For the Egyptians, worshipers of the sun god Ra, light was God seeing. The Greeks assumed that light was the divine spark within the eye that shown outwards to produce seeing. After the Christians’ pogrom of the pagans, including the burning of the library in Alexandria, the Persians transformed the study of light into the study of optics, beginning a trend away from regarding light as the power of seeing toward objectifying light as an outer material reality. The eye became a mechanical camera that registered that light. The science of light followed a mechanical path from then up until Einstein rode a beam of light in his imagination, spawning a revolution in thought that led to quantum mechanics. This paradoxical science has placed consciousness itself firmly back into the equation of light. Leave your body and travel into the light, according to Einstein’s relativity theory, and you enter into eternity, where everywhere and always exist in the here and now.

"Seeing light," he concludes, "is a metaphor for seeing the invisible in the visible, for detecting the fragile imaginal garment that holds our planet and all existence together. Once we have learned to see light, surely everything else will follow."