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David Peat and the Physics of Gentle Action

by Michael Toms

To take a one week course with David Peat

This article originally published in New Dimensions, Vol 16 No 6, November December 1989

In some sense the quantum physicist is becoming the new shaman in our culture, probing the unknown and pointing to the deeper mystery. Material reality is giving way to subtle energies and hidden connections. Einstein may soon be eclipsed as we enter the last decade of the second millenium heading for the 21st century. Recently I had a thought provoking conversation with physicist F. David Peat. The following article is based on a small part of that dialogue. Peat has been inspired by the work of David Bohm, J. Krishnamurti, and Carl Jung's ideas of the collective unconscious. He is the author of Synchronicity: The Bridge Between Matter and Mind (Bantam 1987), co-author with John Briggs of Turbulent Mirror: An Illustrated Guide to Chaos Theory and the Science of Wholeness (Harper & Row 1989) and Looking Glass Universe (Simon & Schuster 1984) and with David Bohm of Science, Order, and Creativity: A Dramatic New Look at the Creative Roots of Science and Life (Bantam 1987).

A few inches can make a difference. The smallest movement can cause the world to change. Two massive plates deep within the earth, one holding up North America and the other holding up the Pacific Ocean, decide to shift slightly, a micro-movement measured in mere inches, and a massive earthquake occurs causing hundreds of deaths and injuries, extensive damage and a new perspective on what's really important. Of course, even though only a few inches of movement is recorded, the size of the mass that is actually being shifted is beyond imagination. Scientists say that in a million years Los Angeles will be where San Francisco is now located. These huge underground tectonic plates are slowly, inexorably, grinding away in opposite directions and their geological dance periodically reminds us of Nature's power as measured by the Richter scale.

When an earthquake strikes, the closer to the epicenter, the greater the impact. In the midst of an earthquake, one feels helpless with the absolute realization there is nothing to be done to change what is happening. You simply have to ride it out. Perseverance furthers.

Just as the physical body may give off symptoms, which are messages from the unconscious, so also the earth with its natural expressions of release such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, may provide signals to human consciousness. Recently I spoke with physicist F. David Peat and he referred to a U.N. study of the state of the planet, which identified many complex problems, all interrelated and interlocked with one another. The tendency is to want to solve the specific problem, but our actions often tend to cause more harm than good, because we cannot see the whole picture, according to Peat.

Peat expresses his wish that people would reflect on the potential consequences and especially pay attention to past actions that have gone awry. He suggests more than an altruistic spirit is needed. "Compassion and love and the desire to help are not enough. There has to be some understanding, too. All these things have to go together. You can work from the head and that's fine; you can work from the heart and that's fine, but the two have to be integrated. So often things have just gone from bad to worse and the cure has been worse than the original problem," Peat says.

He goes on to point out that we may be moved to save the rainforest in Brazil, as an example, but any intervention from outside has an enormous affect on the people who live there, the internal economy, international trade, local politics, and more. The complexity of the interconnections and the subtleties of the relationships are generally beyond our present capacity to digest. Indeed, our inability to see the whole has caused many of the global problems we now face. Whatever we do may lead to worse problems; so it may, indeed, be appropriate not to do anything, at least right away. Peat feels this then causes anxiety or an "internal angst," because you can't do anything. The result is that you are forced to sit with the angst, the grief, the pain or the helplessness, and it begins to tell you something about yourself. This may lead to a more reflective and meaningful response, which is in harmony with the entire situation.

Peat suggests that by slowing down and stopping our headlong rush to help or intervene, we can arrive at a more suitable action. "My feeling is that only by suspending action in a creative way and beginning to look internally would it be possible to resolve some of these fixed structures, to become as subtle as the thing you are looking at, to try to internalize it. If that's possible, then maybe there's a new type of action that is possible, which I call, 'gentle action.' This is contrasted with our traditional way of acting, which is violent, locally oriented and biased towards doing. For instance, we want to save the rainforest, so we run down and save the rainforest. But the problem with the rainforest is the problem with the whole globe. It must begin with the whole and with individual consciousness. It must begin in a global way. So, I've identified what I call 'gentle action' with 'non-local' action. And this word non-local comes from my background as a physicist when I look at something called Bell's theorem.

Traditionally, science looks at objects in the world interacting with one another. They're passing signals or communicating in some form or other. The moon circles the earth because there's a force of gravity and this is transmitted. We're used to describing things locally, each within its own box or compartment, usually using the categories of space and time as our way of seeing the world. Quantum theory, on the other hand, emphasizes the essential wholeness of things. They can be divided for intellectual analysis, but fundamentally they are an unbroken whole. Along comes physicist John Bell and experimentally demonstrates that a pair of particles going in opposite directions are found to be correlated one to the other; although there is no physical interaction between the two. The two particles are not physically interacting. But there is a correlation, because if one changes, the other one "knows"- that is it reacts sympathetically. There is a mystery here. Science sometimes chooses to define the unknown as random, when it doesn't know the answer. Peat describes it as, "a sort of non-classical wholeness or a non-locality.

We're generally used to describing things in a local way, within a neighborhood or area of space and time. We usually look at our world through the categories of space and time. Peat asks us to consider going further, using the principles of quantum theory, where the idea of non-locality is acceptable. He says, "Maybe there is a metaphor or an actuality that could be instructive for all of us. I was interested to find that linguists recognize this too. The old traditional way of discussing how two people interact would be that we're exchanging information; we're sending signals to each other. You are locally in your part of the world and I am locally in mine. The listener is now sitting in their living room and I'm sitting here in San Francisco on a certain date in June of 1989, and he or she's sitting there at another time and another space and I'm passing information to him or her. But is this really what's happening? Or is what is happening a creation of meaning between the two of us? Are we creating meaning? Are we generating meaning in a sort of non-local type of way? I think that's closer to the fact.

Peat then goes on to suggest that quantum non-locality could have its counterpart in a grosser form with global implications outside of space and time. "Suppose we combine this idea of 'gentle action' with, the concept of non-local action so that if we want to act, we begin with the whole world. An analogy would be the terrible things which happened during June 1989 in China, the shooting of the students could be compared to throwing a great stone in the pond. It's a direct action; the Chinese saw a problem and they acted. The other way is to imagine that around the edge of the pond--it's a big pond-there are very tiny little ripples-miniscule, infinitesimal ripples--and normally these ripples are going to die out. They don't go anywhere. But if all these ripples were coordinated in a non-local way, which is what John Bell has talked about in quantum theory, then they all could be coordinated, and gradually all work together. These ripples begin to spread inwards and they grow and grow and grow, until in the center of the pond you have this enormous movement of water. It's as if you threw the great stone in the water and the ripples spread out. Run this in reverse and there are gentle infinitesimal movements, but they are coordinated and move inwards until you get this great movement in the center. Returning to the Brazilian rainforest analogy, the idea is you would somehow begin with the whole consciousness of the globe, and subtly move forward into that area and change it. So the transformation would come from the whole globe, from everyone rather than some individual person, one person taking action at a particular point. That's what I'm trying to say in 'gentle action.' "

As quantum theory demonstrates the interconnectedness of all things and shows us how the universe works in mysterious ways, it seems appropriate to apply its wisdom to the challenges we face on the world scene. The value of Peat's ideas here is that we are forced to think differently, to reconsider our beliefs and mindsets, and see the world afresh with wider eyes. If we are to solve the challenges we face, both locally and globally, we must see with new eyes by thinking new thoughts. The radical notion that we should not do anything, but rather step back and allow another, more mysterious process to come into play, is refreshing and reminds this writer of Krishnamurti's adage that we have to go beyond thinking to a place of knowing in order to be truly creative.

When David Peat was in San Francisco he visited the world famous City Lights Bookstore in search of some books on the "Beat" era, which led to a provocative insight. "I read Gary Snyder saying that he and Alan Ginsberg felt they'd moved the world by a millionth of an inch. That appealed to me. You don't move the world by a foot or revolutionize it. You move it by a millionth of an inch, but that millionth of an inch may be more powerful. If everybody has a shared meaning in the world, and then if each of us moved by a millionth of an inch we'd create an incredible effect. If we're fragmented, we don't create anything. The ripples die down and don't go anywhere.

"However, if we feel we are truly part of Nature and part of the world, then each of us is part of this enormously powerful thing which can transform the whole universe. But if we feel we're just a fragmented individual, it's true, we can't do anything. Whatever we do, the ripple dies out. 'What's the point of voting, you know, I'm only one among millions.' But if we feel a part of a greater community, then I think what we do is vitally important because every person has to be coordinated. It's vitally important."

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