Geoff Olson is a Vancouver-based journalist and Canadian national newspaper award-winner. His writings on science, popular culture and politics have appeared in The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Adbusters, Common Ground and This Magazine. His political cartoons have appeared in Maclean's and newspapers across Canada.
Olson was a weekly columnist for The Vancouver Courier, and has supplied commentary to both CBC Radio, CBC NewsWorld and Roundhouse Radio. His article series, The Deadly Spins, has been used as course content of several US and Canadian colleges, and his Common Ground essay on malls appears in the 4th Canadian edition of the McGraw-Hill textbook, Sociology. He has given lectures on journalism at Langara College, Simon Fraser University, and has taught astronomy at the Gordon Southam Observatory and in the Vancouver School System.
In 2014 Olson won the national newspaper award in his newspaper's circulation category for editorial cartoons. In 2012 and 2014 he also won the BCYNA first prize newspaper award for the same category.
Several years ago Olson gave a very well-received, sold-out talk at the Vancouver Public Library, From Light to Enlightenment, which became the foundation for this book.
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A Cosmic Connection
Light and shadow, mind and nature. The curious links across history between physical illumination and spiritual enlightenment, with a clue supplied by the paradoxical nature of light.Share Tweet LinkedIn Embed pszr.co/JMRkI 220 views
|Mind & Body Consciousness Studies|
|4 publishers interested|
As a boy, Albert Einstein wondered how the world would appear to him if he hitched a ride on a beam of light - a thought experiment that ushered in the 20th century revolution in physics. Toward the end of his life the frizzy-haired physicist declared, “all the fifty years of conscious brooding have brought me no closer to the answer to the question, 'What are light quanta?' Of course today every rascal thinks he knows the answer, but he is deluding himself.”
What is the mysterious, massless “thing” called light that vibrates in empty space? What is this elusive state of mind called “enlightenment?” From Light to Enlightenment addresses light in its many guises, from wave/particle puzzle to poetic metaphor for awareness.
We often link light to consciousness in everyday speech. We "see the light," or a "light dawns on us." Sometimes "a light bulb goes on." We talk of "illumination” and “enlightenment." Clever people are "bright," and the cleverest among us are "brilliant." Thinking itself is referred to as "reflection." We speak of the "light of the spirit," and its inversion, a "dark night of the soul."
This book traces the connection between the physical light studied by physicists and the "inner light" described by poets, philosophers, and mystics. The story ranges from the mystery cults of Ancient Greece to Plato’s "parable of the cave" to the memoirs of a blind leader of the French Resistance to the radical ideas of the inventor of the Bell helicopter.
From Light to Enlightenment features a cast of eccentric characters: a Quaker mystic who proved Einstein’s theory of relativity by measuring how light bends around the sun; a Yosemite camper and YouTuber whose ecstatic, sobbing response to a double rainbow netted millions of hits online (along with mass media ridicule); a cueball-headed Scottish comic book writer who experienced both global fame and personal chaos after retooling Batman for the big screen, and whose descent was checked by a transformative vision of light.
This book traces the historical, psychological, and literary contours of an inner light that is much more than mere metaphor. It ranges from the fire-lit caves of Paleolithic people to the antiseptic labs of modern brain researchers to the lyric sheets of musical performers.
Yet "enlightenment" can be a messy business. We can’t forget the messy historical record of religious leaders and cultists who, believing they were in league with the forces of light and righteousness, unleashed witch-hunts and wars.
My intention is to present this material in an appealing, “light-hearted” way. I delivered a multimedia presentation, From Light to Enlightenment, to a sold-out crowd at the Vancouver Public Library. The talk was based on a magazine article of mine on light published the previous month. I have since traveled to Wales to research the world’s largest database of spiritual experiences at the University of St. David, and attended the 25th anniversary Tucson conference on Consciousness, conducting interviews and gathering notes.
Thoughts about light and life at twilight.
INTRODUCTION: A BURIED TREASURE
Why I am writing this book. A brief summary of my investigations and contents.
PART 1: INNER LIGHT
CHAPTER 1: A GLIMPSE THROUGH THE CURTAIN
Some mystical experiences are precipitated by an external trigger of glimpsed light. Anecdotal tales involving the Canadian writer Ekhart Tolle, American journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, and American science fiction writer Philip K. Dick.
CHAPTER 2: A LIGHTNING STRIKE TO THE HEAD
The 19th century Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen was first to document the claims of a transformative light in the heads of Northern Canadians shamans, called “quanameg.”
CHAPTER 3: THOU ART THAT
The 5,000 year old Vedic tradition encodes the inner light experience into the mythological tales of Krishna, Vishnu and other mythological characters. In Buddhism, the “clear light of the void” is both the underlying reality of the world and a primary, though elusive, target in advanced meditation practices.
CHAPTER 4: ANCIENT SOULS ABLAZE
The Gnostic tradition, an early and abbreviated branch of Christianity, held that the human soul is constituted of light trapped in matter, and that it was the duty of human beings to liberate this light.
CHAPTER 5: LIT FROM WITHIN
The story of the blind French WW2 French resistance fighter Jacques Lusseyran, who claimed guidance from an inner light.
CHAPTER 6: THE HARDY QUESTION
In the late sixties, the retired marine biologist Sir Alister Hardy put a question to the British public, circulated in newspapers of the time: “Have you ever been aware of or influenced by a presence or power, whether you call it God or not, which is different from your everyday self?” I travel to the UK to investigate this, the world’s largest database of spiritual experiences, held at the University of Trinity St. David in Wales.
CHAPTER 7: A LITTLE LIGHT READINGWhat do the stories of inner light from the Hardy archives tell us? The attempt to classify and understand the tales involving inner light.
Other light experiences of note: the UK music writer Nick Kent, Scottish rock musician Mike Scott, American comic book writer Grant Morrison, pharmacologist Albert Hoffmann, and others.
CHAPTER 8: A LUMINOUS TRANSFORMATION
CHAPTER 9: TO FATHOM HELL OR SOAR ANGELIC
Plato’s famous parable of the cave. Profound light experiences precipitated by altered neurochemistry.
CHAPTER 10: OROC’S TOAD AND HUXLEY’S REDUCING VALVE
An Australian-born writer and adventurer found himself shot into a realm of light each time he consumed a potent psychedelic substance. His experiences are extraordinary, and his conclusions dramatic. Aldous Huxley’s reducing valve model for consciousness.
CHAPTER 11: THE ASYMPTOTE OF CONSCIOUSNESS
Are transformative light experiences among the healthy the trailer for the end-of-life movie?
CHAPTER 12: WHEN LIGHT GOES WRONG
Kundalini episodes can be disturbing, jarring episodes in which energies are released into the body, and the mind is flooded with light.
CHAPTER 13: LIGHT AS DARKNESS
The problem with identifying light with goodness and spirituality: the game of black and white in which evil must be defeated! Light references have has been employed for dark purposes throughout history, from Lucifer as a literal “light giver” to Nazi searchlight spectacles.
PART 2: OUTER LIGHT
CHAPTER 14: THE SWORD OF LIGHT AND DOUBLE RAINBOW GUY.
What could be more beautiful than a rainbow? This deceptively simple prismatic phenomenon give us hints into the subjective/objective nature of light.
CHAPTER 15: A BRIEF MYSTERY OF LIGHT
The scientific understanding of light, from the Ancient Greeks to the 20th century. What is a photon?
CHAPTER 16: EINSTEIN’S WILD RIDE
As a boy, Einstein wondered what the world would look like if he rode on a beam of light. This simple thought experiment kicked off the revolution in 20th century physics, in which the bizarre properties of light were the centerpiece.
CHAPTER 17: SHUT UP AND CALCULATE
"Shut up and calculate" was the implicit dictum in American physics for decades: do not try to figure out what quantum weirdness means: just do the numbers. Laboratory experiments have now demonstrated that consciousness informs not just the present, but inexplicably, the past as well.
PART 3: INNER AND OUTER LIGHT
CHAPTER 18: SGT. PEPPER’S LUMINOUS HEARTS CLUB BAND
My visit to the 25th Anniversary Conference on Consciousness in Tucson. Do “microtubules” in neurons supply a clue to a connection between quanta and consciousness?
CHAPTER 19: LIFE, LIGHT AND DNA
Research into so-called biophotons indicate that living organisms emit extremely weak light. Is DNA implicated?
CHAPTER 20: SOUL AS UFO
The insights of one religious studies professor, who insists that light is fundamental to the structure of the human soul. The light forms studied by Mark Fox at the University of St. David, and how it connects to the mysterious light phenomenon of plasma.
CHAPTER 21: BERNARD’S PRISM
Nothingness, Taoism and mysteries of the photon. Physicist Bernard Haisch’s heuristic model for creation, in which the ‘white light’ of perfect symmetry is broken down into its component colours of manifest existence.
CHAPTER 22: DESCENT AND ASCENT
The American engineer Arthur M. Young invented the Bell helicopter. He also conceived an extraordinary process philosophy of creation, in which light is at the base of an inverted pyramid.
CHAPTER 23: MIND AT LARGE
Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adam’s notion of “God’s Debris,” and the theory that the universe is a “unitary conscious entity.” How the light gets through the cracks in everything.
CHAPTER 24: COSMIC COINCIDENCES
Certain numbers crop up again and again in the calculations of theoretical physicists, apparently indicating we exist in a privileged position and time in the universe. What do these ‘magic numbers’ tell us about light and the human condition?
CHAPTER 25: THE EFFING INEFFABLE
The problem of the existence pain, the death of my father, and the difficulty/impossibility of final explanations, given our own observing minds are part of the very picture we are trying to paint.
CHAPTER 26: THE SIMURGH
Closing with the ancient Persian tale, The Conference of the Birds.
The Religious/Spirituality readership may practice yoga, meditation or tai chi, and be familiar with Shamanism, Christian parables or Eastern traditions. Readers of popular science may be keen on the nature of time, subatomic particles, the brain or selfish genes. And either may be curious about the physics and metaphysics of near death experience, the paranormal, altered states of mind and human potential.
The overlap arises in their shared attention to leading-edge theories regarding the natural world (human and cosmic) and currently unexplained or poorly understood phenomena. “From Light to Enlightenment” attempts to bridge the spiritual and scientific realms and posits a profound relationship between them. Readers from both sides of the aisle will be intrigued and surprised by the conclusion.
I’ve had hundreds of articles and political cartoons published over 20 years in a number of newspapers and magazines in my hometown of Vancouver. Consequently I have significant “personal brand recognition” here which will act as a spearhead for an extended cross-country promotion.
Vancouver (Canada’s 3rd largest city) and nearby areas have a population of 3.5M+. I will pull in editorial favours with the journals I’ve appeared in regularly (and won awards for) including (circulation in parentheses) the Vancouver Courier (265K), Common Ground (200K), Georgia Strait (600K), and The Tyee (175K) which reach more than a third of the population (1.2M) and have even larger online followings.
These book reviews and interviews will be coordinated with live multimedia presentations at both Greater Victoria and Vancouver public libraries (where I previously spoke to a sold out crowd of 300+), appearances on local radio/TV stations and larger colleges and universities. Subsequently I will repeat this initiative for the Toronto-Ottawa area (pop. 7.2M) where I also have significant media contacts (CBC, Maclean’s magazine, Globe and Mail).
Real-world promotion will be thoroughly supported with an on-going online ad strategy and author platform. I will build a dedicated Wordpress site (I have years of experience, see my archive at geoffolson.com) and a Facebook page specifically for the book to engage with readers and host a high production value book trailer. This video will be used as the lead magnet for a FB ad campaign, first synchronized with the push in Vancouver, where we obtain audience analytics that will then be used in a broader national ad campaign micro-targeted to popular science and spiritual seeking book lovers.
Lastly, I will conduct an extended “online tour” of blogs, websites and FB groups - offering voice or video interviews, live streamed or recorded - for dozens of the top online communities (reaching potentially millions) of our target audience.
THE POWER OF NOW
Eckhart Tolle, Namaste Publishing 2004
In his book The Power of Now, Ekhart Tolle focused on a specific element of expanded awareness - the “timeless now.” In an interview, Tolle said his book might well have been titled the "The Power of Light" given the transformative personal experience that launched his manuscript. In essence, I am writing the book Tolle may well have written, but didn’t!
CATCHING THE LIGHT: THE ENTWINED HISTORY OF LIGHT AND THE MIND
Arthur Zajonc, Oxford University Press, 1995
Zajonc’s excellent book focuses primarily on the understanding of light’s physical properties. He does not venture into the territory of expanded awareness and spiritual experiences. I am making a more explicit connection between consciousness and light.
THE INNER REACHES OF OUTER SPACE
Joseph Campbell, Harper Perennial 1993
In his last book, the well-known mythologist examined the deepest depths of the psyche and how it connects to the universe at large. My book cites Campbell in a number of places, but it differs from his in the sense that mythology is only one strand in the tapestry I’ve chosen to weave.
THE GOD THEORY: UNIVERSES, ZERO-POINT FIELDS, AND WHAT’S ALL BEHIND IT
Bernard Haisch, 2009, Weiser Books
Physicist Bernard Haisch’s intriguing concept of how the ‘white light’ of perfect symmetry is broken down into its component colours of manifest existence. My book differs from his in the sense that I draw a connection between this white light and the ground state in Buddhist thought, Near Death Experiences, and the light experiences granted as unsolicited ‘graces’ to people from all walks of life.
A WAVEWATCHER’S COMPANION
Gavin Pretor-Pinney Bloomsbury, 2010
The author examines waves of all varieties - from sea to land (earthquakes) to sky (light) and from all angles: literary, artistic and scientific. My book extends beyond the physical properties of waves to the mystery of wave-particle duality and its relevance to consciousness.
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It’s late afternoon on a summer day with a crystal-blue sky. A middle-aged writer is sitting in a field, alone with his thoughts. An hour of silence passes, punctuated by birdsong and the thrum of dragonflies. He rises and wanders out of the meadow into the forest. Sunlight flashes through the tree canopy as he strolls the forest path. Returning to the meadow, the writer looks to the setting sun and is struck to the core by an uncanny sense that embodies thought, feeling, and sensation. He understands - viscerally - a deep kinship to this blazing source. It’s not the sun per se, but the blazing light itself with which he shares some previously unrecognized identity.
The writer was me. I like sunshine as much as anyone else, but this was something different. The brief episode was subtle yet utterly convincing; as if while digging deep I had unearthed something unexpected - a treasure I had buried long ago and forgotten. Yet it remained locked: I couldn’t quite make sense of it or explain it to others. So I shelved the treasure as one of the stranger, though completely welcome, finds in my half century on Earth.
Physician Allan Smith was meditating at home when he noticed that the level of light was rising in the room. The sky outside also seemed to be increasing as well. It was not as if the light outside had increased the brightness inside; this was something different. “The light seemed to be coming from everywhere… The light gave the air a bright, thickened quality that slightly obscured perception rather than sharpened it. It soon became extremely bright, but the light was not in the least unpleasant,” he wrote to the psychologist Charles T. Tart.
His elation grew into an “ecstatic state, the intensity of which I had never even imagined could be possible. The white light around me merged with the reddish light of the sunset to become one all enveloping, intense undifferentiated light field.”
His perception faded of all other things. Words and analytical thought came to a stop, as “there was no sense of an "observer" to comment or to categorize what was "happening." In fact, there were no discrete events to "happen," just a timeless, unitary state of being.”
Physicians and psychologists are among the best reporters of subjective experiences, in this case a light that subsumes the environment they are in, or otherwise demolishes the fixed categories of “inner” and “outer.”
In many ancient or occult traditions, the rapidity of spiritual illumination has been compared to a lightning strike - often in a literal sense. During his travels through Siberia, the Danish anthropologist Knud Rasmussen spoke with a Yakout man who had been physically struck by lightning and survived. The man interpreted this traumatic incident as God coming down from heaven to break his body into pieces, which were reassembled into a superior human form. "Now I see everything that happens all around for a distance of thirty versts,” Rasmussen’s source said - and seeing “for thirty versts” is said to be a traditional expression used by the Yakout to indicate second sight.
However, an actual lightning strike is not a prerequisite for a Shamanic vocation. It is more frequently a different sort of bolt from the blue. Among Iglulik Esquimo shamans, such clairvoyance is said to result from “qaumaneg” - an internal "lightning" or "illumination” that is mystical in nature, and one cannot become a shaman without it.
From the testimony of Rasmussen’s source, a literal lightning strike can precipitate quamaneg - but the illumination usually manifests with an inner, rather than outer, bolt from the blue. Rasmussen was told by the Iglulik Esquimos that the qaumaneq consists of "a mysterious light which the shaman suddenly feels in his body, inside his head, within the brain, an inexplicable searchlight, a luminous fire, which enables him to see in the dark, both literally and metaphorically speaking, for he can now, even with closed eyes, see through darkness and perceive things and coming events which are hidden from others; thus they look into the future and into the secrets of others".
“Have you ever been aware of or influenced by a presence or power, whether you call it God or not, which is different from your everyday self?” So goes the “Hardy Question,” a concise interrogative statement put by retired Oxford biologist Alister Hardy to the British public in the 1960s. Tens of thousands of newspaper readers, radio listeners and others learned of Hardy’s quest and replied in the affirmative. Their responses are archived at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David in Lampeter.
Lampeter, known to locals by its Welsh name Llanbedr Pont Steffan, is a Lilliputian market town nestled in the kryptonite-coloured hills of West Wales. The small bakeries, restaurants and shops bracketing its winding streets are defiantly human-scale. The most notable landmark in Lampeter is the university – the oldest campus in both Wales and England, apart from Oxford and Cambridge.
I arrived here on a typical spring day in 2012, wet and overcast. In spite of the weather, every deciduous tree on the campus grounds was a raucous Tower of Babel of birdsong. My wheeled suitcase, rattling along the paving stones, offered a touristy counterpoint to the avian chorus.
While signing in at the Welsh university’s front office, I heard a choir performing a madrigal in the concert room across the hall. It’s not just the local birds that are musically inclined: Wales is renowned as a nation of singers, which is echoed in the people’s lilting dialect.
The international reputation of University of St. David for studies in philosophy and theology belies the small scale of the campus. In 2000 it became home to the gathered reports of the Oxford Religious Experience Research Unit (RERU).
No one person could hope to navigate this amount of text in the space of a few days. I was there to dip my toe, rather than swim the channel.
The 6,000-plus accounts in the archive’s computerized database range from private revelations to beyond-words bliss to stunned shock to existential terror. A significant portion of the correspondents defined these experiences as life changing, with many admitting to have never shared them with others beyond Alister Hardy’s research centre.
The experiences of many correspondents were prefaced by bereavement, grief, or stress. Occasionally they followed fasting, meditation, prayer, or the ingestion of psychoactive substances. Some experiences involved an inspiration/trigger in the outside world. This could be anything from a moving passage of music to an inspiring piece of art to the touch of another’s hand. Frequently, the experience of a “presence or power” was prefaced by an appreciation of nature and/or just a state of deep relaxation and contentment.
And as you’ve probably already guessed, there were many reports relevant to my area of interest. Approximately a quarter of the reports in Hardy’s database involve a powerful, transformative inner light.
For centuries, light has had a quicksilver quality, slithering around and past scientific, artistic and religious attempts to define it. In the 21st century it has settled into the conception that it’s not a thing at all - light quanta are as close to "no-things" as you can imagine. Light is composed of “dimensionless” particles of pure energy. Oh, and just to add to the confusion, light is a wave too.
To the ancient Egyptians, vision was of divine origin: an emanation from the eye of the God Ra, who created sunlight through his heavenly act of gazing. The Ancient Greeks brought this notion down to Earth by granting the human eye the power to illuminate the world.
Five centuries before the birth of Christ, the philosopher Empedocles likened the eye to a lantern lit at the hearth of creation. He believed the manifest world was composed of four elements; fire, air, earth and water. The goddess Aphrodite fashioned the human eye from these four elements and lit the fire inside the eye which shone outward into the world, granting sight.
Light extending outward from the eye to the world outside? This notion, surprisingly backwards-sounding to moderns, is not as counter-intuitive as it may seem. Consider the nocturnal glow of a cat’s eyes, which convinced early opticians of a fire residing within the feline orbs. However, this led to some thorny problems. If the world was lit by light from the eye, why couldn’t human observers see at night like cats? Ah, because night air was opaque, Aristotle argued. A lit lamp makes the air transparent. To the Greek philosopher, light was the “actualization of the potentially transparent.”
Approximately the same time Aristotle was struggling with eyeballs, The Greek mathematician Euclid wrote Optica, in which he outlined the geometrical properties of light. Euclid insisted that light traveled in straight lines and was first to describe the laws of reflection. How could sight result from a beam from the eye, he asked, if it’s possible to see stars immediately? Close your eyes and open them quickly and the stars are in view, with no delay. Light would have to travel infinitely fast if it originated from your head, Euclid reasoned.
During the so-called Dark Ages, Arab thinkers and astronomers rekindled the Greek heritage of knowledge and added their own findings. This all became fodder for the 16th century Renaissance-era astronomer Galileo Galilei. He rethought light as a prosaic object of scientific study, rather than a gleaming emanation of the divine. And although he entertained a mechanical theory of light, he hedged on its true nature, insisting he had “always been in the dark” on “the essence of light.”
Galileo was “willing to be imprisoned in a pitch-dark cell,” he said, “surviving only on bread and water, if only he would be guaranteed on his release into light that he would know what it really was,” observed Arthur Zajonc.
Albert Einstein is the world’s one-stop shopping source for misquotes. Dozens, if not hundreds, of pithy sayings have been wrongly attributed to the frizzy-haired physicist. For decades, Einsteinian misattributions have created an alt-fact cottage industry for high school motivational posters and pop-science productions. But at least one quote on the nature of light has withstood the scrutiny of copy-editors and historians.
“All the fifty years of conscious brooding have brought me no closer to the answer to the question, “What are light quanta?” Of course today every rascal thinks he knows the answer, but he is deluding himself,” Albert Einstein confessed in 1951.
Galileo surely would have smiled.
Einstein once described his scientific thought process as involving “elements….of a visual and some of a muscular type.” On occasion he could feel his ideas, as they welled up inside him as a kinesthetic sense. One of the greatest of thinkers in human history did not always conceive his world-shaking ideas in words or numbers, but rather in bodily sensations and mental images.
Here’s the most memorable example of this. As a 16 year-old student, Einstein wondered what the world would appear to him if he hitched a ride on a beam of light. Our surroundings are seen through the agency of light, so what would there be to witness from the perspective of a speeding wave?
“I should observe such a beam of light as an electromagnetic field at rest,” the German thinker concluded. Uh oh, paradoxville. Maxwell’s wave equations, which described the propagation of light, only described oscillating fields - not a standing wave - the self-cancelling crest upon which the young thinker ‘hung ten’.
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