Eminent physicist Dr Fritjof Capra is best known in India for his landmark book, The Tao of Physics, published in 1975. In it, he explored emerging connections between quantum physics and ancient mysticism, famously using the metaphor of the dance of Shiva for the ceaseless motion of quantum particles.
His holistic understanding of life led Dr Capra to deep ecology, which is based on the view of the earth as a living entity, and seeks to evolve paradigms of sustainable living in accordance with ecological principles. He founded the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, California, which promotes ecology and systems thinking in primary and secondary education.
Apart from The Tao of Physics, Dr Capra is the author of The Turning Point (1982), Uncommon Wisdom (1988), The Web of Life (1996), The Hidden Connections (2002), and The Science of Leonardo.
Dr Capra revisited India in early 2008, after two decades. I spoke with him at the edge of a mustard field in full bloom, at Bija Vidyapeeth, a school for sustainable living run by the NGO Navdanya near Dehradun.
Thirty years after The Tao of Physics was published, do you think mainstream science is opening up to non-reductionist and non-linear ways of thinking?
The striking parallels between Eastern mystical traditions and the basic ideas of quantum physics and relativity theory had been noticed but had not been explored by scientists. I was the first physicist to do so. Among Western scientists, my book was often ridiculed. They realised I knew what I was talking about when it came to modern physics. But they didn’t buy the mysticism and thought that it should stay separate from science, that you couldn’t really compare the two.
This was based on an erroneous understanding of mystical traditions, of the very word ‘mysticism’. It is confused with ‘mysterious’, something that is nebulous and unclear. Scientists are eager to provide clarity and logical consistency in their theories, and to have them compared with something mysterious is offensive to them. Now, if you look at this from an actual knowledge of mysticism, you see that the knowledge the mystics strive for is actually associated with clarity. The word ‘enlightenment’ is from mystical traditions, and means an insight that provides clarity. There are metaphors such as ‘removing the veil of ignorance’, or ‘cutting through ignorance with a sword of clarity’. All these are metaphors of clarity, not of mysteriousness.
Now, 30 years later, the perception of physicists has opened up, they have become more tolerant, more philosophical. At the same time, the pursuit of a spiritual path, of practices that are Buddhist, or yogic, or Taoist, has spread enormously in the West. When I wrote The Tao of Physics, and was practising t’ai chi which I have all these years, I was part of a fringe group. Now this is accepted.
How was your own interest in mysticism sparked?
I was influenced by the cultural movements of the 1960s, which were an expansion of consciousness in two directions – spiritual and social. There was a strong interest in Eastern religious traditions. My mother was a poet and gave me the poetry of the Beat poets of the 1950s to read. My brother sent me a copy of the Bhagavad Gita in the 1960s, before I read Zen and Alan Watts. Then there were the Beatles travelling to India and this whole trend of meditation and mysticism, and I was part of that.
But I always combined any kind of experience I had – meditative, with psychedelics, yoga, t’ai chi, Zen – with an intellectual approach, and tried to interpret and analyse them.
Since then, how have the Indic wisdom traditions impacted your work?
The kind of worldview that emerged from the sciences in the 20th century – a holistic or ecological worldview, as I now call it – is not reflected in the global industrial society, which is based on a mechanistic view of the world that is seriously unbalanced and unsustainable, and not this harmonious unity that we see in the paradigm that has emerged in science. However, there is an ideal vision in the spiritual traditions, which has been the guiding principle in work since the 1960s. I kept exploring it not only theoretically, but also experientially. I kept up my spiritual practice so I could check various aspects of it with actual practice.
I gradually became interested in ecology and began to expand my focus beyond physics to explore the paradigm shift in biology, healthcare, economics, ecology, psychology and so on, which all had to do with life. So I had to go beyond physics and my research interest shifted to the life sciences.
During the 1980s, I became an activist. The 1960s were a period of revolt, but without a coherent framework as an alternative. Then in the 1970s emerged two strong themes – the environmental movement, and feminism or women’s liberation, as it was called then. These movements created a new framework, and through my interest in ecology, I came to see ecological awareness and the deep ecological dimension of spiritual awareness as a Western equivalent of Eastern mysticism.
How was your spiritual practice helpful in checking the insights you arrived at as a scientist?
I can say that the main insights I have had in my work have not been arrived at rationally but have been intuitive insights, sometimes coming from a meditative practice. I then fleshed them out in a rational way and checked against data, and so on. I think I acquired the ability of getting into a state where the rational mind takes a step back and the intuitive mind takes over and puts things together.
One of the main discoveries of Complexity Theory in the last 20 years has been the dynamics of creativity. We see creativity now as a fundamental property of life at all levels. Creativity is the emergence of novelty. The dynamic is, for instance, I sit at my desk, try to solve a problem. The more I study the problem the more confused I get. I give up and go for a walk – do something to get away from it. While I am relaxed, suddenly everything clicks, I have an insight where everything comes together and a new idea emerges. This is now technically understood as a process of instability of a system or a crisis, and a spontaneous emergence of a new pattern of order at that point of instability.
There is a point of view that change is inevitable so why resist it? How would you respond to this keeping in mind the current ecological crisis we face?
One of the aspects of the new scientific understanding of life is the understanding of the planet as a whole, as a living system – the Gaia Theory. The planet is a collection of ecosystems, which combine to create a system that regulates and organises itself. In this biosphere, life has evolved for billions of years according to certain principles that maximise its potential for survival. These are the basic principles of ecology. Life evolved by forming networks, sharing resources, cycling matter continuously, using solar energy to drive ecological cycles, developing diversity to assure resilience, forming networks within networks, and so on. These principles of organisation have been tested over billions of years and are the ‘wisdom of nature’. Human endeavours of creating sustainable societies should be led by an understanding of how nature has done it for billions of years. This is what I call ‘ecological literacy’.
One of the things you learn when you become ecologically literate, is that in this very complex, non-linear system in which everything is interdependent and all matter moves in cycles, this complex web of life, no single variable can be maximised. They all have their optimal values. Maximising a single variable is the ecological understanding of stress. Permanent or long-term stress leads to collapse. The species that did not obey these rules, that evolved different ways of life, of maximising either their size, like dinosaurs, or other aspects, died out because it is not sustainable to do that. The species we see now are the success stories who knew how to optimise, and not maximise.
Very late in evolution came the human species that evolved a whole cognitive dimension leading to consciousness and culture, which also gave us the ability to abstract ourselves out of nature and see ourselves as separate. By disregarding the wisdom of nature, we have maximised our variables like population and consumption.
Humanity on earth is almost like a foreign organism because we have not respected the laws of ecology and evolution. When a larger organism has a foreign organism, it often has an immune system that will reject it. You can see our global crisis in those terms. So, yes, things are changing all the time and they have changed for billions of years. But within certain patterns of organisation which we disregard at our own peril.
Now, fortunately, the other side of human consciousness can come into play. We can use our consciousness to reconnect with the wisdom of nature. The Latin term for ‘reconnect’ is religare, the origin of the word ‘religion’, so religious awareness in its most profound sense is this reconnection with the wisdom of nature, which we can and must actualise.
This interview was first published in the May 2008 issue of Life Positive magazine.