Spirituality and Transdisciplinarity: A Conversation Between Dr. Basarab Nicolescu and Dr. Arthur Versluis

Dr. Basarab Nicolescu

A Conversation Between Basarab Nicolescu and Arthur Versluis on Spirituality and Transdisciplinarity

Arthur Versluis – (AV)

Basarab Nicolescu – (BN)

Part One: Spirituality and Transdisciplinarity

AV: I’m sitting here with Basarab Nicolescu and it’s Tuesday afternoon on the day of the American election.   I thought we could start by talking about your focus over the years on transdisciplinarity and especially on transdisciplinarity, spirituality and the sacred and how these concepts intertwine to the extent that they do intertwine. Could you start by talking a little bit about transdisciplinarity and how you became and why you became so focused on it, and how you became essentially an intellectual activist on behalf of transdisciplinarity and what its connections are to concepts like spirituality and the sacred?

BN: That is a vast, vast subject, but let’s start with the beginning. Transdisciplinarity, I became interested because of physics. Looks quite strange because transdisciplinarity looks more like a philosophical approach, but in physics, I am a quantum physicist, I work more than forty years in quantum physics, I became more and more convinced that we, physicists, are confronted with a vision of reality which is radically new compared with that of the nineteenth century. But, very strangely, in the society, in academia, this view is a lost phenomenon. In other words, I was shocked, really, from the time when I was post-doc in Berkeley, this means around 1976, by the huge difference between the view that philosophers, people in human sciences, have on reality and what we know from quantum physics.  it seemed to me that this is a very dangerous situation. You see, because all the time in culture and in the history, the view of reality was connected with nature. In a way or the other, science, nature, in whatever sense in different periods of time over history. But in a very strange way, we developed a larger and larger gap between the new views of nature in physics and philosophy, social science, and so forth. It is because of that that I had more and more the conviction that I have to elaborate a methodology for the dialogue between science, exact science, and humanities, between different disciplines, between cultures, between religions, between spiritualities, between people. And I start to do that in 1985 and I wrote my first book Us, the Particle and the World, in French. My motivation was that scientists had arrived at the limits of science.  At the boundary of science. And when you arrive at boundaries, you begin to discover what is the connection with the rest. It is not a failure to arrive at boundaries; it’s a fabulous thing. Because we now that we have limits, because we have a methodology of science. But the thought made obvious by quantum physics, quantum mechanics, quantum physics, allowed us to begin the conversation with other disciplines than just exact sciences. And that was the real motivation for transdisciplinarity.

AV: With regard to your different, to your different books on transdisciplinarity what would you suggest as the one, if you’re going to say one book, and this is the essential, this is the essential, reading on transdisciplinarity, what would that be?

BN: The Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity

AV: And what in particular would you say about the manifesto? Looking back on the manifesto now. What would you say about it?

BN: I think it’s the axiomatic structure of transdisciplinarity which we expose there. Usually in my books I put hundreds of references. There is no reference in my manifesto, just names that I refer to. So the point is that, you know, at that moment of time when I wrote the manifesto, I made a lot of talks at congresses, there was even a world congress of transdisciplinarity. A friend of mine said you have to write a compact thing to put all the ideas because will be for the benefit of many people if you just write something like that. It happened there was a general strike in Paris, everything stopped, everything.  Even cars didn’t work. People went by foot from their home to work, so at that moment I wrote this manifesto during one month. I think it remains valid until now, I mean I have no changes to make because it is an axiomatic thing. Of course there have been many, many manifestos published almost every day or every month. But in my mind there are only two who remain, the Manifesto of the Communist Party, written by Marx, and the Surrealist Manifest, written by André Breton. I said let’s make a third one. So I think it’s important to have this axiomatic approach also.  You know it introduced the structures, what this manifesto did. It also introduced levels of reality, complexity, logic of the included middle, everything is there. So in fact my books are kind of a constellation preparing this manifesto and the book on cosmodernity. 

AV: But the book on cosmodernity is an elaboration of aspects of the manifesto. It’s a—

BN: Not really, because in Cosmodernity, the word “transdisciplinarity” appears only at the end. So I consider that in a different way. In other words, we introduce facts from theatre and literature, science, and so on, to give something again to introduce the hidden third. So a small part concentrated on the hidden third, which was not really elaborated in the manifesto. 

AV: When you describe reaching a boundary, or, reaching a point after which is a boundary implies that when you arrive at a point and, you pass over that point then you’re in new territory. 

BN: That’s right.

AV: And the boundary point here that you’re implying is reached, with quantum physics, is that boundary, is the other side of that boundary what we would call spirituality or the sacred? 

BN: Not yet.

AV: No. 

BN: I mean not yet, it’s also, it’s also—

AV: What is the boundary, then, that you’re referring to?

BN: So, let us imagine physics, biology, economy, with all the results that were discovered and were all the results that will be discovered based on the methods of the given discipline that I call a boundary or a limit. Not only the results from now but results also in the future, and it’s obvious that you have a limit once you have a methodology. We can imagine this discipline as being a sphere, with boundaries with, surfaces of the sphere.  you ask what is in between? And that is the general idea, per se, which… in 1970 required coining the term transdisciplinarity. He had the question “what happens in the fluctuations of boundaries of a discipline?” I tried to answer; many other people now try to answer: what is that in between the boundaries, which crosses the boundaries, and is beyond any boundaries? That I called transdisciplinarity.  In fact, is this a place of information? Part of that is connected with spirituality. But we cannot limit this place, it is a space, also, say of freedom of problems, of imagination, it’s a space of maximum information, because it’s connected with what? It’s connected with the subject. And that was the main point I tried to make in my first works on transdisciplinarity: how the subject is restored, resurrected. You see, in our normal science we push out the subject. We say that’s subjective, that’s subjectivity, so we push out the subject and we try to be objective. I mean if we just have an object, we can manipulate with subjects, but we manipulate, not interacting with objects by just dummy writing and money polluting it through the losses. That was the vision of the nineteenth century, which is still circulating now, in fact in human sciences.  that’s, I’ll say, the main point here: what is in between crossing and beyond is, I will say, us. Human beings. And a human being cannot be captured in a formula, in a definition. Marxism and communism are outlets for the belief that we can advance a mathematical formula for a human being. We can’t. In fact, what we discover is ourselves. That’s, I think, the biggest discovery of the twentieth century, which can be good for twenty-first century. The fact, that we are not, like a French philosopher says, the subject is just, he said, a word in a proposition. This is now a reality, and this, for me, as a physicist, I was very surprised to see that this is from physics, from where you don’t expect it from… this is an assertion about the importance of the subject. Why? Because in quantum physics we are confronted with a scale, a very small scale, which, compared with us, is very different. With this confrontation between two different scales we see that there’s dialogue, the same preference doesn’t mean that the subject creates reality: it interacts with reality. 

AV: I think that the subject-object relation is an essential part of understanding mysticism in that, in our contemporary society, regardless of what exists in terms of the domain of quantum physics in our society what we actually experience is, largely, an objectified external world. We live in a world of objects that are manipulated just as you’re describing and from which we are separated. One reads that Plato is dualistic or that many other figures in the past are dualistic or that different religious traditions are dualistic, but the reality is that we, in our contemporary society, are actually dualistic, not them, but us.

BN: Right.

AV: —in that we have a very deep division between subject and object, and, as you say, the subjective is often, pushed out, with the denigration of the term subjective as “only” subjective.  As if there is an objective reality in which we live, a view that is fundamentally dualistic. Those assumptions are, I think, fundamentally incorrect from the point of view of different mystical traditions or, broadly, you could say mysticism.  I define mysticism in a very particular way in my book Platonic Mysticism, in which I argue that Christian, what is often called Christian mysticism is ultimately traced back to a Platonic metaphysics that is not dualistic.  There’s precedent for non-dualistic metaphysics in the west. But in our society, which, I think, fundamentally is dualistic, transdisciplinarity offers what in a contemporary context?

BN: Yes.

AV: How, or in what way, does transdisciplinarity begin to address this fundamental dualism in our contemporary social structure, intellectual structure? Or does it? Or is it possible to address? 

BN: What is nice is that we are no more limited to wishful thinking or even metaphysical claims, philosophical claims. We can demonstrate when it’s wrong, when something is wrong. Dualism is wrong. And I think that why it’s wrong, from my point of view, is wrong first of all because of a terrible confusion, which was made between matter and substance. That, I think, it’s usually not said like that, but basically this is the fundamental error in all the dualist conflicts. Also, it’s a moment of time: when matter was reduced to substance. What will this cause, slowly? It took around thirty years, which is not magic. In fact, between 1900 and 1930, quantum mechanics was constituted, was discovered slowly. In fact matter is much complex, is complex of four aspects. There is substance, there’s energy (which is not substance, it’s something different), the relation between substance and energy… which everybody knows… the square of the speed of light. This means transformation of substance and energy, because the second aspect is energy. Third aspect is information. Information came towards the end of the twentieth century in science, more in the development of information and so, and information has nothing to do with energy and substance. It’s a different complement. It’s just an abstract complex… one zero one zero one. It’s something that can be connected with electron and electron, but it doesn’t matter what, the problem is that it is abstract. Quantum numbers, abstract numbers, depend on the material support, of the substance. And fourth aspect, very strange but already present at the beginning of the twentieth century… was the connection between matter and space-time. Space-time becomes a complement of matter and that has proved experimental things. If, for example, the light goes through any, very big, heavy, planets of heavy densities, the trajectory of the light is curved: it feels the curvature of space-time. To say matter today means substance, energy, information, and space-time, together.  where is the limit now with spirituality? You see where is the error, is a epistemological error, very important, is the fact that confusion is substance, and other parts, which is to say they are different. They are not different.  The limits between spiritual, what we call usually spiritual, and material become completely blurred.  We have to speak in a different way about materialistic writing so in any case there’s a connection. There’s one basic thing, say an epistemological thing, which will be very important. Now, connected with the sacred, that’s a different story, the sacred can be defined as an idea, as being the fitting of an irreducible reality. In other words, there is something there in nature, in the world, which is reality but which cannot be reduced to something arbitrary, to descriptions. And what we have faced, what we were facing, in the twentieth century is that problem. For example, a big problem in 1930, saying that whatever the system that gives us facts, you arrive first at contradictions, things you cannot decide if they are wrong or right. It’s fabulous because it means that you cannot arrive at the point where you can define everything by clarity, by models, by mental things. You’re going to open the door to something very deep. Which is not, even now, understood very well. I try to clarify that in my books, which open the door towards the limits again of science. What does this mean, the limits of science? It refers to science that will not be not defined like it is now.  The science of being. Spirituality is essentially the science of being, not the science of nature. It opens the door towards an area in which people for centuries in past civilizations experimented—on themselves. In other words, this shift I tried to quote on the view of what is matter opens the problem, big problem, of how we observe it.  We take a fragment, we study very well this fragment and from that we discover everything. That was the methodology of science like we know today, even. This produces something fragmented.  The science I’m referring to now, of spirituality, opens the door to the fact that you have not only instruments from outside, to see nature, to see matter, but you have also instruments inside of the human being. We forget totally that human being is in fact, a universe. I mean, I am fascinated by the medieval thinking in which this idea spread, that the human being is a universe, similar to the reflection of the universe in a mirror.   We have everything inside ourselves: planets, suns, everything.  But we forget that because we try to make this cut, the epistemological, philosophical cut between subject, being, and thought.  I think this became very dangerous because it contradicts scientific facts. 

AV: It’s interesting to hear you describe or refer to a science of being.  There’s a contemporary author, his PhD is in Religious Studies actually, but he spent many years with Tibetan Buddhists, and his name is Alan Wallace. He’s been a guest here, as a speaker and he has proposed, and some people have been creating, what he calls contemplative observatories. He has an institute in Santa Barbara, and he has been a proponent of creating a systematic ways of, you could say, subjective-objective, exploration in which consciousness is the means for its own investigation, which is very much along the lines of what you’re talking about.

BN: Yes, this proposal looks very interesting. If, if the results of this observatory are not analyzed by old methods. I think all the trouble, I saw a lot of things from the time when I was in California when I saw many things happening there—

AV: Your time in Berkeley.

BN: —Yes, my time in Berkeley. I discovered a lot of things that were fascinating because they were bringing this observation of contemplation, but they tried to analyze the intents of both sides, so everything got lost again.  I think the problem is how we would analyze that. And I think the only way is to replace thinking, the mental thinking, by feelings and sensations— they are also kinds of knowledge. We forget totally that feelings have intelligence. We have forget completely that we know that from practical life. But if we forget, there are also instincts that can have very big intelligence. I think the problem here is to invent a new language in terms of feelings, sensations, sensation I mean for example of the body, of the muscles, of, very fine sensation in the body.  We should not fall in the trap of analyzing new results with old thinking.  What I mean by old thinking, is to try to make a formula for that, try to make mathematics that confuse an observatory with being able to see if there is emotion in the brain or not. For instance, we see studies of these Buddhist monks, and scientists seek to analyze the waves in the brain. Okay, but the waves in the brain don’t see that. That’s the point. That I mean the old kind of methods, so that’s a big trap out there and it’s not easy because we are accustomed to that; not trying to analyze in terms of objective things, things that are not objective. The only way, I think, and this is not a paradox, sorry, not to give the feeling that I’m playing with the words, the only way, I think, to make an objective statement on subjective observation is to apply subjective methods. You see, if we use machines, they are not humans. 

AV: Wallace and those with whom he’s been working, are not opposed to objective means of inquiry. Scientists, for example, use fMRI mapping, which is commonly used for brain mapping that produces colored images.  However, we’ve had people here who come and speak about that and I’ve found it ultimately unconvincing because I’m convinced of course on the flat level that something happens in the brain but that’s all I see and, in other words, some part of the brain lights up but that that doesn’t actually show us very much.  I think it’s actually using a two-dimensional, you could say it’s a way of using something two-dimensional to try to investigate what is actually multidimensional. And it cannot be reduced to that.

BN: That’s it exactly.

AV: So the imagery is there, and it’s valid on its own level but its own level is not the same as the subjective-objective level. And I say subjective-objective together because there’s a sense in which what we’re talking about is neither strictly subjective or objective.

BN: Exactly.

AV: Right.

BN: And we see here another trap. If you allow me to underline the irrational term, our trap is a logical trap. Because to say a thing is either subjective or objective without applying the logic of the included middle, this very special logic, different than classical logic. This means there is not-either, which is at the same time a and non-a. In this kind of phenomenon—fields of knowledge, consciousness—we have to learn new logics. This is another point, and I think it’s not an accident, in the history of culture, that at the beginning of the twentieth century when quantum mechanics was invented, an abstract art was invented. When a measured thing, the universe, which was thought to be static, never in evolution, is revealed to be also in evolution, which is changing the universe and the same time it is discovered that logics are not given in our brain as a definitive kind of structure. In other words, a new logic we invented in the period between 1920 and 1930 is the logic of the included middle. A thing can be one thing and the contradictory of the thing. And if you say it like that, that’s plain absurdity, of course, to say that one thing is same and not, you can say that there are different levels of reality and here we get another important aspect of transdisciplinarity: which is the idea of levels. That reality is not just one, single level but different levels with different laws. Acting on the systems, belonging to their levels, we have to change also the logic. And the best logic, I think, for this kind of framework is the logic of the included middle. This is not the only one, but it is the most adapted one. Formal logic, yes, in that sense, we arrive at something, I think, that is very important. A logic that includes contradiction in turn allows spirituality. 

AV: We’re using the term “spirituality” because that’s the term that typically I’ve found is most amenable to those in the sciences. Religion, the term “religion,” is a term with more external or outward social aspects, whereas there would seem to be a natural connection between what we could call esoteric religion or esoteric forms of religious literature or philosophical literature or art, spirituality, and the multidimensional logic you are referring to.  What constitutes “esoteric” spirituality fits very well in the kind of multidimensional aspects of transdisciplinarity that you’re describing. In other words, there’s a natural affinity there, or overlap, and, in fact, that may be there because it most closely fits with what you’re describing as transdisciplinarity. Can you elaborate on that a little bit? 

BN: Yes, let me first remark about the word “esoteric,” because if we take that in the meaning that there is something hidden there, I think there is nothing more esoteric than quantum mechanics, in fact. What is quantum mechanics for a man who doesn’t know quantum mechanics? Just complete magic because no one understands a word… but they know it produces incredible facts. I think that the notion of something hidden is not because it is hidden by will but it is hidden because we didn’t go through the knowledge of that domain of phenomenal systems. So I think that, like if I said that quantum mechanics is an esoteric teaching in that sense, it’s also hidden because you have to go through that in order to understand what it is about.  The textbook is your own experience. And I think that’s very important. In that sense, we can offer a framework to understanding rationally what we is thinking about when we speak about spirituality when we apply this idea of levels of reality, we apply these ideas of different logics, which is not the excluded middle logic. I also bring a new notion, which is the notion of the hidden third. The hidden third is something, which is in between the subject and the object, which mediates the interaction between the subject and object. If the hidden third is not present, either you have an object completely disconnected from the subject and that is the modernity model, in which we have a subject with just manipulates the object, this means you sink to one level of reality.  The hidden third allows the richness of reality. Richness in diverse logics, and approaches.  I think the concept of the hidden third is the best way to approach this field you are speaking of, spirituality, because it allows us to speak of irreducible reality in a new way.

AV: Let’s start with an irreducible reality.

BN: An irreducible reality, which is there, doesn’t mean that it is irrational in the usual sense of the word, it’s more transrational. You see, there is the transhistorical aspect of history. I think it’s a very deep observation to enter into a transrational approach to reality, and this doesn’t mean that it’s against reason but rather that it is collaborating with reason to understand the transrational.

AV: I think that, that perspective that you’re putting forward does fit with what I understand to be esoteric, that is, all that includes magical and mystical works, figures, and movements, all of which have to do with the hidden connections between subject and object which we call magic or the transcendence of the subject-object division that we would call mysticism. But one of the things that I’ve come across or experienced, in this area, the study of religion, is hostility to what we are talking about. That is to say, there seems to be considerable fear or antagonism to what you could call transdisciplinary approaches that would be very, I think, very appropriate to the study of esoteric religions or literary or artistic works, but people want to study them from, you could say, or to compel everyone to study them, from what we could call a two-dimensional approach.

BN: Yes.

AV: That is, you’re referring to historical and transhistorical or rational and transrational, which are not opposed. They’re not opposed. There’s no opposition, they’re collaborative. But what do you think accounts for that antagonism or fear or toward this kind of acceptance of multiple levels of reality, the idea that there, the ideal like irreducible reality? What causes that tendency in the contemporary academic world, do you think?

BN: Yes, yes I have a lot of experience, of course, with this hostility, both in academic circles and in non-academic circles and so I try not to send myself crazy trying to find an answer to the question you just formulated. And my answer can be very simple, very simple in fact and I hope that it’s not a huge simplification of the problem but I think the simple answer to that fear is habits of mind. You see, when we have habits of mind, which are installed in ourselves for years and years and years, we begin to think that these habits of mind are the truth. But it’s a fake truth. Because habits of mind are not truth, it’s just a reflection, a representation. In some sense, people are slaves of representations. As a result, I’m so much insisting in my books and talks and speaking on education. It’s a very complicated story because it goes into the depth of our functioning, which is very often hidden to us, to ourselves. And the only way, I think, to eliminate this fear was to make these people understand once that their identities aren’t in danger. Because when you change your habits of mind, you think your identity is lost. And that is nonsense because our mind has nothing to do with our deep identity, in fact. That’s one thing. On a more practical level, I think, to eliminate this fear is to make people convinced that in the framework of the contemporary life, of the twenty-first century, globalized world, this means communications everywhere putting in connection every part of the world, it’s every part of the world. Keeping this habit of mind puts the university in danger of disappearing totally. We see a lot of universities that eventually become more and more like institutes. Technological institutes. We see more and more all over the world. It’s not just in one country that humanistic studies are marginalized, that they forget them because they are not considered very powerful. They are not meant for practical things. It’s to make these people understand that kind of knowledge, which is connecting different aspects of reality, which is initially thought of as universal thinking and not specialized thinking. Ah, some people begin to understand that. 

AV:  I think that is paradoxically really a risk, because what we could call a two- dimensional or strictly dualistic approach to knowledge ends up divesting it of its meaning and of the power that it actually has, and I think that’s part of the reason that the humanities in the United States are at risk. In fact, there are a significant number of scholars that are kind of motivated by what I would describe as a kind of neo-Marxist, materialist approach, that want to deconstruct religion and reduce it ultimately; not deconstruct for the purpose of along the lines of what you’re describing, which is ultimately leading to a renaissance, but ultimately deconstruction that leads towards a kind of nihilism that’s the end result of strict materialism, and I term this “self-erasure.”  There’s a considerable tendency in the humanities in the last twenty or thirty years toward what I call self-erasure and a loss of an internal narrative. People, for example, who study literature no longer have an internal narrative to describe why they study literature. I have a PhD in literature and at the time I got it, I was engaged in the study of literature at the tail end of the real narrative for the study of it, of an explanation of why we study it, what its purposes are, what its meanings are. That has since disappeared for the most part. That’s happened also to some extent, a lesser extent, to the study of religion, certainly to academic philosophy, and it’s possible that transdisciplinarity could provide a way of re-envisioning these. That the kind of approach you’re talking about, we’re talking about a very radical re-envisioning of understanding what higher education is for and how meaning is constituted in it. Previously, say, in the mid twentieth century, the argument would be, and this would be a whole range of scholars, John Crowe Ransom, Irving Babbitt, or Robert M. Hutchinson, the president of the University of Chicago, these were people who were champions of the idea of great books.  And that the purpose of the humanities was exposure to great books. And out of that comes deepening of human meaning. I still personally subscribe to that to some extent. However, in the environment we’re in now, and given the changes in scientific understanding, the development of quantum physics, quantum mechanics, quantum theory, and the kind of radical disintegration of narratives for the humanities themselves, it t seems to me that there’s an opportunity to regard all of that as actually an opportunity. Transdisciplinarity may provide a way into that revitalization.

BN: Yes, reconstruction. Because you reconstruct how?  In terms of the new methodology, that’s the powerful thing. If you reconstruct the name of the one ideology, the name of a practice, the name of a method, the name of a philosophy, that’s not very powerful. Because it’s limited, because you have other ideologies, other philosophies, other methods.  On the other hand, a scientific methodology is very powerful.  Proof is the scientific methodology invented in the fourteenth century. Is it staying the same? No, for centuries, in spite of the fact that some were completely antagonistic to science, the same overall methodology developed. I think methodology is a way of reconstructing fields of meaning. I have students who have shown how incredible potentialities come if you align through this new methodology. 

AV: I’m interested to see what you think. I have two chapters in my next book on mysticism. And in one chapter what I’m looking at is the study of consciousness, literature, and art and I give some examples of literary figures and artists whose work is sublime. By viewing it, by looking at the works of art, you’re participating in the works of art and it actually has a transformative affect on you, which brings you beyond yourself. There’s something sublime that happens with some works of art. Not all works of art, I don’t think. I think there are certain ones that can do this.

BN: Certain ones. Certain ones. I think that has to do with the notion of vibrations. For example I look in a painting by Matisse, to give a name of a painter, at the beginning I see just a representation of some clouds but after some point that becomes so much, vibrating in myself, that I begin to circulate in the painting. This inner movement I think illustrates the role of the hidden third. Because it’s the third between the subject and object. Between the man who looks at the art, painting, sculpture, or reading literary work, there’s a third that appears between them. It’s the magic from some other place.  Peter Brook, in his books, puts forth very much the idea of the role of the public. He doesn’t go really to the point, saying there’s a third there which appears, but in fact that’s the reason how the public can be important. How the public can interact with what is happening on the scene is if the third is present. In Christian religion we have the Holy Spirit, which is the, I will say, incarnation in some sense of this hidden third in the framework of a given set of doctrines of Christian religion. In other places we have other ways. In religion, this hidden third has many, many possibilities of interaction and revealings. I don’t take the word “vibration” in the sense of new age meaning, which I heard all the time, “the vibes,” you know, in California. Vibration, again, in the scientific meaning of the word because we have defined that today in physics, that everything is vibration. Everything is string, super string we call. That there are small, small, small, infinitely small strings which are interacting, one with the other, and creating this huge diversity of the world. Which is an extraordinary, kind of metaphysical narrative, coming from this. 

Part Two: The Sacred and Consciousness

AV: I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the last few years going to different sacred sites. Actually for more than twenty years. Close to thirty years now. But in the last few years, I’ve been to Greece, Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland, visiting remote, prehistoric sites, typically 2000-3000 B.C. megalithic monuments, and I came to realize that many of these places, are quite distinctive as combinations of different common characteristics. For example, in Ireland, there’s a hill, the summit in fact, is about a mile and half hike, and at the top is a cairn of stones and it’s said that there’s an entrance to a fairy kingdom at the top of the hill inside the cairn. And the wind, it’s a constant presence and it’s said you can see half of Ireland from the top of that hill. The reason that I mention it is that it too fits what you’re talking about in the sense that if you think the world of phenomena is made up of the vibrations that you’re referring to, when you’re in a particular kind of place with certain configurations, there’s normally a certain direction, there’s an orientation to water, there’s height, I mean there are characteristics that you can find for sacred places that are pretty consistent. They’re actually pretty consistent between Western Europe and the United States, North America, oftentimes, of course they’re not obviously identical, there are cultural differences, but those sacred places have certain characteristics. And by being there, you’re embodying, in some sense, those characteristics as an individual. You experience it.  Many of these places that I’ve been to have only a single entrance, so only one person can go in.  A closed entrance that only allows one person to squeeze through, into a cave, for example. We could understand our relation to these particular places in terms of vibration or attunement between us and the place.  Another reason that I mention these sacred places is that they too could be understand in terms of what you’re calling a hidden third. They would fit within the framework of what you’re describing. 

BN: And that is very near what we called a few minutes ago laboratories of consciousness. I think the sacred places are like laboratories for consciousness, in fact. And I think this is important with regard to the modern arts. How they can interact through the hidden third with the spectator, with the public in such a way to have a role, a positive role for awakening consciousness? Now, the fact is that many in the world of modern art took the way of deconstruction, the way of things that have no meaning, which things are just, you know, playing games. I think it’s a step towards what we are speaking because you cannot evolve if you don’t go first very deep down. You understand what I’m trying to say? It’s in these periods of evolution I think in which all these sacred places are considered.  These are steps towards a new consciousness of what is reality. 

AV: I can think of a sacred site, a large prehistoric stone, inside metropolitan San Francisco, several thousand years old, and it’s in between a row of houses and condominiums, near a children’s park. And you walk down and there’s a valley and that valley is untouched. On one side you see houses and a park and on the other side you see houses and in this small valley with a creek running through it, there’s a stone that is completely untouched, as it was three thousand years ago. I’ve made an effort to find such places, and I’ve found them—

BN: In which area of California is that?

AV: San Francisco. San Francisco. Now here’s the thing. I’ve gone to many such places. I’ll be some place for some other reason, but then I always look and see if I can find one. And it’s very hard, they’re often not on the map, and here’s my point: I will ask.  I will go ask people, hey, do you know where such and such is? And describe it, you know, or if it has a name I’ll say that, and many times people who have lived down the street from something, across the street, they live there, they’ve lived there for ten or twenty years, will not know that it exists. They will not see it. They don’t see it, it doesn’t exist in their world. It does exist, but they don’t know it’s there. And that has happened many times. Many times when I’ve been looking for sacred sites. And I mention it because it fits with what you’re talking about, which is, you could say, habits of mind. If your habits of mind are such that you don’t want to see it, or you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist. It’s as if it doesn’t exist. 

BN: It’s like a screen, separating you from reality. Habits of mind.

AV: Exactly. That’s right. In the same way, in the academic world, with regard to the study of mysticism, that or any number of things are excluded by habits of mind too; people often literally don’t see what’s nearby and it’s actually been there before there was a condominium, before there was a street, before there was—

BN: (laughs) This is a wonderful example that you gave here. 

AV: And in some sense, the relationship between us and that sacred site could be described in terms of hidden third, in that if you have a relationship to the place, then the subject and object is defined in terms of something you’re interacting with. 

BN: In the moment, you become, you make space in yourself for that. 

AV: That’s right. I think that that’s a good place to pause for right now.

BN: (laughs) Yes, yes. 


AV: We were talking earlier about the hidden third and landscape and the relationship that happens between subject and object at a sacred site or a sacred place.  I’d like to continue that discussion of the hidden third and see if we also might expand it to thinking about how the hidden third is playing a role in, or helps us to understand in a different way works of art and what the relationship is between the thinking about the subject and object, the hidden third, and paintings. I know you’ve recently published a book co-authored with an artist, so this is directly relevant. 

BN: Yes. For art in general and painting in particular, and also for literature, by the way, I think it has a crucial and practical role, in fact. At the same time crucial and very practical. Practical—what do I mean by that? If I have in front of me a painting, which I consider as an object, and myself I’m a kind of observer of the subject, it’s quite clear that the maximum of information we can get from this position is just mental information on who is a painter, what kind of a painting he or she is making, what is the period, what is the history— in other words, mental associations.  We tend to increase the density of information. But we have to make the mind silent, to make a place for the hidden third. The hidden third needs a place in ourselves.  If the place is fully occupied, there’s no possibility for acting of the hidden third.  The first rule is silence. 

Silence is the first stage because it is not yet new information. So silence is just to open a perception of impressions, I would say, energetic kind of interaction between the painting and myself, in such a way that I begin to feel that the painting looks at me. It is not that only I look at the painting—it’s a double kind of circulation of information going on. I also when I first experiment with these kind of things, it was really extraordinary feeling, but now I am doing it in a more elaborate way in the sense that I know the stages so I can create the conditions. So that moment when the circulations begin, this introduces this other piece, the hidden third. The hidden third in this situation is what gives meaning for me in that painting. In other case, in other words, not for art as an object, not for history of facts, not for I don’t know what kind of considerations. But for my life, for how the work is beginning to be food for my spiritual life and ah these foods are the big question of the meaning of the heart because if art is made for giving food, for the soul, for the spirit, for spiritual life, well in that case it is a big requirement. 

AV: Yes.

BN: And this connects to what art was in antiquity, in traditional kinds of civilizations, when for example theatre was made just for that: to give meaning, for mysteries, for living the myth, for living the mystery in itself, yes. 

AV: So essentially what you’re saying is I think, that that the hidden third is another way to talk about meaning that circulates or that is revealed between us and in this case we’re talking about a painting, but beyond that you’re expanding it to mysteries and theater as originally mysteries. Because of course that is the origin of theatre, but we’ve forgotten that actually, the origin of theatre is in the mystery tradition and that there is particular meaning that was conveyed in the ancient mysteries, which had a salvific power. The ancient mysteries were a collective, collectively, understood transmission. In other words, the people gathered in the mysteries and there was the revelation of meaning and it was in a gathered group. In the modern world, it’s typically an individual with a painting and the transmissive element is not there in the same way as in the ancient mysteries. In the ancient mysteries there was a tradition that was being transmitted. In the modern world it’s much more individualized, so the meaning is an individualized meaning out of a painting. Is there any way for a restoration of a more, of a larger, a more collective, and transmitted understanding in the modern world or are we relegated to the individual understanding? 

BN: I would say both in some sense, I mean if we insist only on the collective level, who and in the name of what would be silent is impossible to consider. It is only on the individual level it is somewhat limited in action so my, my feeling is that small, small effects accumulate, congregate, can give very big effects. So in other words, this kind of change is yes, is strictly individual. This doesn’t mean that it remains on the individual level because in giving meaning to myself, to my life, to my spiritual evolution, I connect with others. I know I mean my presence opens, so in that case the interaction with others come. I mean we speak very much in spiritual literature about the presence. The role of the presence of master, of a person, of even of a tree, of a plant, of something, the presence. So the height of presence this means if some of it is present transmits by definition, it begins to circulate the information so I think that there is transmission in that sense, but the beginning is just individual, in my opinion. 

AV: It’s a really interesting thing you’re suggesting, which is that in some sense something like the mysteries could exist cumulatively.

BN: Yes.

AV: From collective, a collection or a group, a constellation of experiences, something like mystery traditions could potentially even be created in a new context as a result of not something transmitted from antiquity, as such, but as the creation of them in a new context.

BN: Yes.

AV: In terms of the creation of multiple works or multiple aspects of a work that share a common insight, or intuition, or origin. 

BN: Speaking about transmission from the past: I think that is strictly impossible to transmit just from the past because transmission’s something alive. It is going through an alive person or collectivity, so if we remain attached to books or representations it is not alive in the same way. 

AV: Plato alluded to that.

BN: I always in my writing refer to the idea of transmission or tradition, which is reinvented at every moment. I don’t believe myself in perennial tradition, for example as some people used to say, like René Guénon.  In my opinion, this kind tradition is dead because it becomes dogmatic. Whereas we are speaking here about the perpetual reality, a reality which is always there. So this means tradition, in my opinion, I think is not a contradiction in terms, has to be reinvented at every moment. 

AV: That’s actually my experience. I mentioned going to these different standing stone sites or megaliths, sacred sites, cairns, in Western Europe or the United States, and in archeology there’s an archeological set of approaches, which are that these are objects to be studied. So archeologists will go to a place, say, a megalithic site, the megaliths at Carnac, and seek data about them. And of course those things are important and I’m not denigrating that at all, I think those are important things to know and they augment our total knowledge of the site and the place. But the other question is how does that place actually speak to you, in the same way you’re talking about a painting.?

BN: It’s the same process, I think.

AV: it’s the same process and it’s and by being, by being, in the place and participating in it you’re experiencing not the original—it’s a different place now—but it’s still because its stone and its landscape and that has really not changed that much, you’re participating in the same place but in a different time and in a different way, but you still are participating. And it requires that participation in order to draw meaning from the place. And the same I think is true in terms of paintings and for that matter literature, that all of these are participative, we participate in literature, we participate in our and we participate in sacred sites. 

BN: And we participate also, say in religious kind of ceremonies. Liturgy, for example.  Liturgy for me, is connected to the same process. 

AV: That’s right.

BN: I experienced these kind of things from when I was a child. There is something that, when it is just a form, is repeated, but at the moment in which this mystery, mystery of liturgy,  awakens something in my own being that moment I begin to receive information, I don’t know from where, how it comes, because hidden third has not a place. What I mean by “hidden third” here in the context of Christian religion is of course the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit is an extraordinary example of hidden third in the frame of a given religion.  Holy Spirit refers to that part of the trinity to which belongs the circulation between God the Father and the Son of God is the holy spirit. In fact, we see that these people understood something very deep. When, for example, the Virgin Mary was announced about these miraculous things happening. Giving birth to God in fact, the man of God. Well, the transmission was made through Holy Spirit and that is very interesting because the Holy Spirit has not a representation. Is something like a breath, a cosmic breath, something which is in fact the root of the word “spirituality” itself. The word refers to breathing, breath. So the Holy Spirit is like respiration. Of what? Of all systems we can imagine visible and invisible, physical and not physical. And is a kind of universal perpetuum mobile ensured by this hidden third. 

AV: And hidden third in this context again is intermediate between, or comes or is exists, between subject and object but is not itself localized in the sense that it’s in a space of no-space, you could say. 

BN: No space, no time.

AV:  You want to say a bit more about that?

BN: Yes. Let’s come back to science itself because one of the big findings of quantum mechanics was the fact they discovered that space time is an anthropomorphic representation. Which was big surprise. Because all physics, all physical state, happens in an abstract space called Hilbert space, which has strictly nothing to do with space-time. To go from the Hilbert space, the space of physical space, to space and time, is a huge, well, novelty not fully recognized until now. Because is very interesting this historical fact. The fact that three dimensions of space and one dimension of time is connecting fact with the body, is connecting with physical body. Physical body in order to survive, identify the animals, dangers, and so on, has to kill some animals to survive and so of course, those connected perception of sense organs. So the sense organs build this three dimensional space and one dimension of time in the process of passing this energy from one system to another. So, ah, that was a big discovery, you know, a big triumph. And there was a huge debate at that moment and there is still a big debate, understanding that that’s not the metaphysical assertion but is a scientific assertion that physics exist in another space than space and time. It’s quite crazy, right? 

AV: Yes.

BN: When you say that to somebody who doesn’t know physics, ah, they think that it’s a speculation.  But quantum physics says that the physical realities and physical space, which is not space, not time.  So in order to connect in other words, the sense organs reduce everything to one level of reality.  So, in that sense is not the surprise that we can say that the hidden third is no space, no time. But this statement has to be formulated in a new logic of the included middle.  If in that sense, the hidden third, it does not communicate with the physical body, ah, would be a complete transcendence which has no meaning for what we are discussing here. Whereas this hidden third is a living reality which communicates with levels of resistance of space and time, because every level of reality has an associate space and time. Within that is no space, no time. So we have to put these two contradictories together, so to give meaning to this hidden third, which is necessary for the understanding of realities, space and time. 

AV: Yes. 

BN: Yes.

AV: It’s interesting how that also connects to Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism, because, but Buddhism more broadly, the tradition centers on what sometimes in, it’s shunyata, sometimes in English it’s translated as emptiness. Sometimes it is translated as the nature of mind or the basic nature.

BN: The true mind.

AV: Or the nature of things, or true mind. There are a variety of different terms. And very much what you’re describing does sound like a different description of that. In other words, it exists simultaneous with, you could say, space-time as we think of them, but it’s not time, not space. It’s defined by negation or described by negation. And the same thing actually does occur also in Christian mysticism in a whole variety of different places. There’s a long history of that. So there is actually a correspondence both in Christian mysticism and in Buddhism arguably to what you’re describing.

BN: And in Sufism.

AV: And in Sufism.

BN: And the Sufi teachers, they speak about these kind of things, in their terminology, their language, for that I used to say in all my writings that the hidden third has thousands and thousands of faces, different faces. But cannot be reduced to one. Cannot be reduced to Tibetan Buddhism, cannot be reduced to Holy Spirit, cannot be reduced to something. It’s also that—yes, I agree totally. So these people like Buddhists who may really experiment on consciousness, they found in the nature of consciousness that, this hidden third is there. I put in my language what they say in very different ways, of course, about true mind. The true mind is something fascinating because it’s not emptiness really, it’s infinite information. That’s an extraordinary thing. So to make something empty, you empty that which has no meaning. No information. But in fact you replace it with true mind who has all the information inside. Now the problem is how to make sense of this information in your everyday life. 

AV: Shall we stop there?

BN: It’s a good stopping point.

AV: For now.

BN: For now.

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