A laser pioneer explores how the coherent light of a laser beam may help explain the joy experienced in the presence of a saint or a sage.
This article appeared in our August 2003 issue.
The 20th-century Indian saint Sri Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950) never traveled, lectured, or wrote books. Nevertheless, for more than 50 years he taught and guided seekers who came from all over the world to receive his teachings. Maharshi sat, lived, and slept in a modest communal hall at the base of Arunachala mountain in South India, making himself available night and day to answer the sincere questions of his students. Though his followers often sought his wisdom in his verbal teachings, Maharshi said that his greatest truth was transmitted in silence, and seekers from all cultures, backgrounds, and religions came to simply bask in his presence. Many reported that they experienced profound inner peace and well-being, and some felt propelled into a direct experience of expanded joy. Once having sat with Maharshi, and having experienced the blissful connection and overpowering feeling of love, travelers sometimes continued to experience this spiritual ecstasy from a distance. Given the large number of people who reported such experiences with Maharshi and so many other teachers from so many other traditions, we believe a real connection was established. So the question becomes, what might one receive from such a silent transmission?
We believe that this experience of a teacher's transmission from across the room or across the country is an example of what physicists call a nonlocal connection. This means that particles and events that appear to be separated from one another in space and time maintain a connection or correlation with one another. In the mathematical description of nonlocality given in the famous proof by J. S. Bell, he emphasizes, "No theory of reality compatible with quantum theory can require spatially separate events to be independent."
This connection has been demonstrated repeatedly on the microscopic quantum level in experiments where pairs of photons (quanta of light) are sent off in opposite directions at the speed of light, but retain a connection, even after traveling many kilometers, whereby a change in the polarity of one photon observed by a researcher in Basel causes a corresponding change in the other photon observed by a researcher in Zurich.
On a macroscopic scale, nonlocality was demonstrated in the remote viewing experiments that I (Russell Targ) carried out at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in the seventies and eighties. In these experiments, researchers found that subjects in the laboratory could accurately describe and experience distant events and locations blocked from ordinary perception. The accuracy of these descriptions was equally significant for targets across the street or across the country. Additional experiments in remote perception at SRI and the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Laboratory (PEAR) lab have shown that it is no more difficult to describe a target event occurring in the past or future than it is to describe a contemporaneous occurrence. Indeed, a recent book, The Nonlocal Universe: The New Physics and Matters of the Mind, by R. Nadeau and M. Kafatos (Oxford University Press), suggests, "The universe on a very basic level could be a vast web of particles which remain in contact with one another over any distance, and in no time."
We believe that our nonlocal consciousness may be experienced when a spiritual seeker meditates with a pure-minded teacher, or when a congregation prays with a priest or pastor. In these instances, people join minds and resonate with the peaceful mind of a person who resides in equanimity. In various religious services, the leader's guidance is on at least two levels: There is the ostensible teaching of the philosophy and ethics of a given tradition, available for all to hear; and the potential for a powerful transmission, or direct experience in consciousness, from resonance with a teacher who emanates a silent force that stills the minds of those attuned to it.
Throughout his life, Maharshi insisted that this silent, coherent exchange between teacher and student represented his most important, direct, and undiluted teaching. In the Indian tradition of advaita vedanta (non-dual consummate truth), this forceful silent emanation of peaceful lovingness is what distinguishes a true teacher from a "preacher." Maharshi frequently said that his oral teachings were given only to those unable to understand his silence.
My (Russell Targ's) work as a laser physicist provides an analogy that may help to explain this direct transmission without words, which seems to promote changes in the mind state of a person joined in attention with a spiritual mentor. I believe it may be similar to the phenomenon in atomic physics called "stimulated emission," which can be demonstrated with laser beams. For example, one can build a laser device that is too weak or too chaotic to provide the coherent illumination of which it is capable. Instead of creating a single beam, the weak laser scatters light in all directions, like a neon beer sign on a tavern wall.
However, an infinitesimal amount of light available from a highly coherent laser can bring order to the chaotic atoms of the non-lasing laser. The power of the small but purely coherent laser "purifies" and "transforms" the disharmonious, ineffective laser, rendering it highly coherent, and powerful enough to become a potentiating laser itself.
A laser involves a pair of mirrors, and a medium between them capable of amplifying an optical signal. The medium can be solid, liquid, or gaseous. In any case, it is the repeated reflection of the light within this mirror cavity that gives rise to the coherent and monochromatic light of a laser. This is like the perfectly pure sound waves resonating within organ pipes.
Wisdom teachers tell us that our chattering, wayward minds are like incoherent, undeveloped lasers. Conversely, our open, silent minds are potential organ pipes of the divine. The Cistercian monk Father Thomas Keating says, "God's first language is silence, and all else is a bad translation." When Maharshi was asked to clarify a statement made by the Hindu Swami Vivekananda that "silence is the loudest form of prayer," the Maharshi remarked, "It is so for the seeker's silence, [however,] the Guru's silence is the loudest upadesa (teaching)."
During the last 25 years of his life, Maharshi spent most of his days sitting in one corner of the hall, which became the center of activity in the ashram. He radiated his silent power while responding to questions from seekers from all over the world. Maharshi effortlessly and silently emitted a potent force that stilled the restless minds of everyone nearby.
When he was asked whether a guru's silence could bring about the realization [enlightenment] of a disciple who made no effort, Maharshi replied, "In the proximity of a great master, the vasanas [mental tendencies] cease to be active, the mind becomes still, and samadhi [a deep spiritual state of absorption] results. Thus the disciple gains true knowledge and right experience in the presence of the master."
Maharshi told his students to choose a guru based on the tranquility found in the teacher's presence, and on the respect and well-being the teacher's loving equanimity evoked. "The peace of mind which permeates the saint's atmosphere is the only means by which the seeker understands the greatness of the saint."
Icons as Nonlocal Addresses
Throughout history, people of every religious persuasion have been inspired by pictures of saints, teachers, and holy people. Those who have had mystical or transcendent experiences of bliss (called ananda in Sanskrit) with their teacher find that images or icons can re-stimulate their ineffable spiritual realization. Hearing holy music can have a similar evocative effect. We believe that an icon, a photographic image, or sound waves of music can give our nonlocal awareness an address in space and time on which to rest our attention, allowing our seemingly separate awareness to become coherent with a purer or more coherent manifestation of consciousness.
Furthermore, we believe that attending to an image of a beloved teacher is neither an experience of expectation, nor a re-stimulation of a memory of a previous experience. The evidence for this is at least twofold: People have been catapulted into a direct experience of spiritual ecstasy for the first time by viewing a picture or film of a transmitting teacher. This is similar to a remote viewing, or clairvoyant experience, of a distant person. A spiritual teacher's image may serve as the address of his or her coherence. It is a focal point of attention, or "wave" of consciousness with which we can become attuned. The great surprise of this distant transmission has been experienced by many students of Sri H. W. L. Poonja, a direct lineage bearer of Ramana Maharshi, and by the students of Gangaji, a contemporary American spiritual teacher who is a student of Poonja.
A principal teaching of Buddhism as reflected in the Prajnaparamita is that there is only one of us here, and since there is only one, compassion is what gives meaning to our lives. The principal commandment of Christianity is to love God by loving others as we love ourselves. Although each of us obviously inhabits a separate physical body, the laboratory data from a hundred years of parapsychology research strongly indicate that there is no separation in consciousness.
A Simple Experiment in Remote Viewing
At a 2003 conference held at the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Petaluma, California, Russell Targ had our group of about 90 try a simple experiment: Describe an object he had hidden inside a brown paper bag. Russell is legally blind, so it is perhaps not surprising that he has spent his life fascinated by other kinds of perception. As a teenager, he became an amateur magician, guessing cards and wondering why he sometimes didn't need to cheat to guess correctly. He then became a laser physicist, studying the power of coherent light in remote sensing, most recently working with Lockheed Martin using lasers to detect wind shear to protect jet aircraft. The work that made Russell famous, however, was his then-classified research during the seventies and eighties at Stanford Research Institute on remote viewing, a fancy term for the ability to describe what was hidden from ordinary sight inside the bag, or anywhere else, for that matter.
Following Russell's direction, I set an intention on whatever was inside the bag and then did my best to quiet my mind, first by concentrating on my breath and then by letting go. "Don't try to guess what it is in the bag," Russell said. "Simply describe the shapes and forms of the pictures that flow in."
An image in my mind took the form of the sun, so I drew on my legal pad a child's version: a circle with flames shooting out around the perimeter. "Shiny and gold," I wrote next to my drawing. Russell then had us clear our minds and try again. This time I saw and drew another circle with a stick figure inside it. I didn't label the figure as human, but that's what I thought it was. So I had two figures on my legal pad: a flaming sun labeled sun, shiny, and gold, and a circle enclosing a figure. I had no clue what they meant. Then Russell pulled the object from the bag. It was a shiny gold-colored ring of brass with flames like a sun around the perimeter and the image of the Goddess Shiva in the middle. I was startled, convinced that my drawings were not a product of chance. In remote viewing terms, I had an almost direct hit. Someone else in our group had even written down "Shiva."
Such hits were what kept Russell's work funded by the Department of Defense for so many years. His best remote viewers could be given a set of coordinates on a map and were sometimes able to draw what was there, including some extraordinary drawings of Soviet defense installations that had details that would only later be confirmed by spy satellites. Meanwhile, government watchdogs would show up expecting to shut the project down for wasting taxpayers' money, but often they would be persuaded to try it for themselves. Those who did try tended to surprise themselves, and so the research went on. Perhaps the most remarkable finding was not that a few gifted people could occasionally score spectacular successes, but the discovery that practically everyone can have some success with remote viewing if they know what to do and allow themselves to try.
- Stephen Kiesling, editor