In this issue
Towards an Age of Light
In the first decade of the 19th century, the first electric light flickered into life in the laboratory of Sir Humphrey Davy. Could he and his collaborators have envisaged, over 200 years later, the brilliantly lit night-time cityscapes of the present? Did they know that their efforts would have such a profound global effect? For today, the operation of society is virtually unthinkable without the ubiquitous presence of all the technologies that have grown out of that simple experiment. Solar-powered lights illumine homes far beyond the reach of the grid, while in the heart of great cities, glowing screens power business and entertainment around the clock, fed by the laser backbone of the Internet.
Certainly, there were technologies of light before humanity gained some measure of control of electricity. Yet none offer the same levels of flexibility, safety and power. And the combination of electricity and light seems uniquely suited to transmitting the light of knowledge. Perhaps the real question for humanity, as we move further into an Age of Light, is whether electricity and light can begin to transmit the light of wisdom? The answer lies not in the technologies themselves, for they are neutral instruments, but in the hearts and minds of those who wield them. Can we, as a species, develop ways to share knowledge and culture through the medium of light which do not degrade us, but ennoble us? Can we build a global society which is not merely physically bright, but also, in its values, enlightened?
To reflect upon this theme, Towards an Age of Light, World Goodwill will be holding its annual seminar in London, New York and Geneva on October 25, 2014. This is in support of, and in preparation for, the UN Year of Light and Light-based Technologies, in 2015. All readers are warmly invited, and if you are unable to attend, the London and New York meetings will be live streamed on the day. See www.worldgoodwill.org for details. The articles which are included in this issue, on lasers, light in medicine, and the symbolism of light in the spiritual traditions of the world, will, we hope, help prepare the way for these meetings.
The Laser: Agent and Symbol of Coherence
Perhaps the most significant symbol presaging a new Age of Light in human life is the laser. First created in 1960, and initially dubbed “a solution looking for a problem”, these potent instruments of light are now used in a multitude of ways. In particular, they are intimately bound up in the storage, retrieval and transmission of knowledge, for the Internet is largely made of fibre optic cables powered by lasers, and every CD and DVD player contains a laser. It is easy to forget this almost ubiquitous presence, for the light generated within these devices remains hidden, while the popular image in the public mind is that of a death ray employed by a Bond villain. It is no surprise that such a powerful tool has the potential for both creative and destructive uses, for light can blind as well as illuminate. As ever, the responsibility for right use lies within human hands.
What gives the laser its peculiar potency? Everyone knows that the light from a laser is of only one colour, and that this light can be projected as a very narrow beam. What is probably less understood is that these two qualities are different aspects of the key characteristic, namely coherence. In simple terms, this means that each individual waveform of light, each photon, is ‘in step’ with all others, like soldiers marching in close formation. This gives the light its extraordinary purity, intensity, and power of focused projection. An interesting analogy could be made with the mind of a trained meditator, which can penetrate into previously unknown realms of consciousness. Another analogy which is particularly instructive as we move into an age where group consciousness is increasingly the norm, is between coherence and two of the principles identified by Alice Bailey as essential to our times, namely the principles of unanimity and essential divinity.
How do these principles operate in a group? In the case of unanimity, we could say that it is where a group is consciously striving to find the highest common point of agreement on a specific course of action. This distinguishes it from the much-maligned ‘groupthink’, where people agree with whatever others think in order to minimise conflict. Instead, those striving for unanimity intend to seek the harmony that lies beyond conflict, by critically assessing all ideas, without attaching any importance to their source. It is only by removing the strictly personal dimension that the underlying quality of ideas can be properly weighed and the resonance of the highest common point of agreement can begin to emerge, subtly building in strength as the group senses it with increasing clarity. The principle of essential divinity works in a similar way, as members of a group from different spiritual traditions gradually recognise the essential qualities of Spirit common to their specific faiths, allowing them to participate in a shared approach to the source of all Light and Love, however it is labelled.
Apart from their widespread use in consumer devices, lasers are also employed in scientific research in many different fields. For example, spectroscopy, which is the study of the interaction between electromagnetic radiation and matter, uses lasers for many of its techniques. Another intriguing application of lasers is in the creation of Bose-Einstein condensates, a state of matter that only exists at very low temperatures, in which many atoms effectively act as one large ‘super-atom’. Some types of these ‘super-atoms’ can then themselves be used to briefly ‘freeze’ light. Again, an analogy suggests itself with group meditation, where the minds of those involved may coalesce around a coherent pattern of thought, which can capture and sustain a high spiritual inspiration for much longer than normal thinking.
Different kinds of laser can operate at different frequencies of light, including those beyond the visible, such as infrared (IR) and ultraviolet(UV). Infrared lasers are often used for high-precision robotic cutting and welding, for example in the car industry. Because ultraviolet light has the ability to cause chemical reactions and excite fluorescence in materials, it has a huge number of useful applications in electronic communications. An interesting example is the integral part it plays in information processing. The minute circuitry for a computer chip is produced by a technique called photolithography. After the circuit pattern has been written, a mask is made of it – the equivalent of a photographic negative. A UV laser beam is then directed at the mask, shrinking the pattern and focusing the light onto a silicon wafer. Through this technique, the potential to process information is written into matter, and electricity, passing through the complex pattern of circuits on a silicon chip, is brought into coherent, organised motion, by combining with the organising light of the mind, which provides the instructions through computer code. This ordered electronic motion may then be re-translated into the patterns of light on a computer display. In this connection, it is interesting to note the suggestion from Alice Bailey, that the seventh quality of consciousness, which is rhythmic organisation, is set to grow in strength over the coming decades.
Apart from the wide use of ultraviolet light in micromachining and the production of microelectronic devices, it is also well absorbed by biological matter and organic compounds. Rather than burning or cutting material, an ultraviolet laser beam adds just the right amount of energy to disrupt the molecular bonds of the surface tissue and disintegrate it into the air. These lasers can remove exceptionally fine layers of surface material with very little heating or change to the remainder of the material, which makes them well suited to delicate operations such as eye surgery.
By contrast, the extraordinary power which lasers can concentrate in one place means that they are also used in experiments on nuclear fusion, with multiple beams coinciding in a tiny capsule of hydrogen. Lasers also find application in art, with their precision beams allowing the rapidly oscillating shapes of laser light shows, the 3d images of holograms, and the creation of intricate sculptures within crystal glass.
Power and precision through coherent group focus – this is the nature of the laser, and its symbolic meaning. We must hope that this meaning can be rightly assimilated into human consciousness, so that the laser, along with other light-based technologies, can continue to expand humanity’s capacity for right relationships.
Wielding the Healing Power of Light
The United Nations has declared 2015 the International Year of Light. Even a cursory exploration of light reveals how appropriate it is as a gateway into the New Age. Research into light technologies has blossomed in the past decade, indicating the growing amount of awareness and exploration with light that is occurring in the mind of humanity. Light is a necessary component for life, affecting the metabolic hormones in the body that maintain healthy cell growth and functioning. New graduate education programs in light technologies are being developed, and the Medical Light Association has established healing with light as a specialized field of medicine. The Medical Light Association calls light “one of the most important dynamics for life”.
Light therapy initially used white or ‘full spectrum’ light for healing. Perhaps more exciting is the recent discovery of the healing effects of doses of single colour or monochromatic light on specific illnesses and diseases. Also, while light therapies began with the visible spectrum, they have now progressed to those parts of the spectrum not visible to the human eye, thus moving medical science into a conscious exploration of the subtle worlds of energy beyond the dense physical.
Scientists have long known that all biological life on Earth is intimately connected with the rhythms of the sun and the planet. Often referred to as the ‘body clock’, built-in rhythms of the human body take cues from light and temperature in the environment which relate to such basic functions as sleep, mood and appetite. One of the most important components of the clock is the pineal gland in the brain, which synthesizes the hormone melatonin in response to light exposure. Melatonin communicates information about environmental light to the rest of the body and synchronises biological rhythms. Interruptions in normal rhythms, such as those caused by jet lag and shift work, have negative effects on health. For example, shift work is related to a number of short-term negative health effects including gastrointestinal symptoms, increased risk of accidents and injuries, insomnia, decreased quality of life, and a general feeling of being unwell. Long-term and serious health effects such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, depression and mood disorders, and gastrointestinal disease, have also been linked to shift work.
After learning of the power of light for maintaining health, it was only a matter of time before the active healing power of light was harnessed. Since the early twentieth century, psychology has used the subjective power of light, the light of awareness, to heal mental illness through techniques of psychoanalysis, and more recently, cognitive therapy. Most recent are the development of techniques using mindfulness-based therapies that have resulted in mood stability, equanimity, and compassion, as well as healing.
The first foray into the healing power of awareness was made by Freud, when he discovered that bringing repressed subconscious memories into the light of awareness using the technique of psychoanalysis cured psychogenic paralysis. Interestingly, these disorders have become much less prevalent since Freud’s discovery. In the 1940s, Dr. Aaron Beck discovered the ‘automatic thoughts’ underlying anxiety and depression, and developed Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This is a technique used to bring to light the automatic and often subconscious negative thoughts that are associated with depressed and anxious moods. Behavioral therapy, also used for depression, uses the ‘as if’ technique (well known to meditators) to mobilize the type of activities associated with healthy moods, creating positive situations and relationships. Today, for example, the severity of depression can be evaluated both by the individual’s functionality (behaviour) and the severity of ‘depressed thinking’, including thoughts of helplessness, victimization, lack of interest and lack of self-worth. By bringing these thoughts into conscious awareness, cognitive therapy teaches the individual to objectively evaluate their effect on mood, then choose to work with thinking in a more skilful way that will enhance mood. It has been well documented that cognitive therapy is as effective as antidepressant medication in the treatment of major depressive disorders.
In 1979, the molecular biologist Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where he developed the structured eight-week course Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). The course combined the effects of the ancient eastern practice of mindfulness with hatha yoga. Kabat-Zinn researched the effects of this technique in individuals with intractable mood disorders and chronic and terminal illnesses, for whom traditional medical therapies had proven ineffective. Individuals who took his 8-week stress reduction course have achieved remarkable results, including positive effects on mood, coping, sleep, immune function, pain, and relationships. Indeed, over the past thirty years there has been a burgeoning of research which demonstrates the healing power of mindfulness. Evidence of the outcomes of mindfulness has expanded to include effects on mental focus, significant changes in brain functioning, effectiveness and creativity at work, overall health, and reduction of distress and symptoms related to a large number of illnesses. Research studies on meditation, contemplative practices, and compassion are being designed, implemented, and carried out with a wide variety of age groups, settings, and health issues. The effects of mindfulness on health and healing have become so well researched and established that the National Institute in Health in the US is no longer funding these basic types of outcomes studies. They are now interested in specific ways to apply mindfulness as a healing technique. Thus, the power of the lighted, aware mind, and its effects on mood, brain and physiology has become an entirely new area of exploration, showing great promise for helping humanity take the next leap forward in consciousness—consciously working with consciousness.
Standing somewhere between psychological and purely physical healing is the use of physical light to affect mood. In 1980 Dr. A.J. Lewey, a researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health, used intense light therapy to demonstrate the release of the hormone melatonin by the pineal gland in the brain. One year later, an engineer approached Dr. Lewey to request the use of the light to treat his depression. The engineer, Herbert Kern, had noticed that his depression manifested in the fall and remitted in the spring. The extension of his day by two hours through full spectrum light therapy was effective for treating his depression. This mood disorder is now recognized as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and light therapy is the accepted treatment. Since that time, light therapy has been recognized as an effective treatment of other types of depression and mood disorders. In fact, light is so effective that it must be used with caution in people with bipolar disorder, because it can cause overstimulation resulting in an episode of mania.
There is a long history of using sunlight for physical healing. As far back as ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, natural sunlight was used in medical treatments. In 1903 Danish researcher Niels Ryberg Finsen was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for his creation of the first device to generate synthesized sunlight, which he used successfully to treat a form of skin tuberculosis. In 1958 the effect of light to treat jaundice was first described, and since that time phototherapy with blue light has become a common and accepted form of therapy for infants with jaundice.
Today light is recognized as a powerful force for healing and growth with many applications. The Marshall Space Flight Center pioneered the use of red light technology for plant growth on the space station. This same light technology is now being used in clinical trials. Near-infrared therapy shows promise in a variety of diseases, and researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin are conducting phase two trials of near-infrared light in the use of wound healing. Doctors at the College are also investigating the effects of specific wavelengths to penetrate to different cells such as skin, bone, and muscle. Light-emitting diodes are being used for the promotion of wound healing in patients with mouth ulcers caused by radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Ultraviolet (UV) light is used to treat psoriasis. UV blood irradiation called photopheresis is used to inhibit t-cell lymphoma and for other conditions. Photodynamic therapy is also helpful in treating pre-cancers of the skin, oesophagus, and lungs. Colored light therapy, called chromatherapy, uses colored light for a number of disorders such as sleep, pain, diabetes, impotence and allergies. Recent evidence in animals shows the reversal of the effects of the progressive destruction of nerve cells such as balance, vision, and thinking, the same processes that occur in Multiple Sclerosis.
This brief tour of the history of light therapy indicates the growing trend to explore light and to develop therapeutic technologies that wield light for healing. From the use of the visible full spectrum of natural light, to the current exploration of the antimicrobial effect of the UV spectrum, and the use of monochromatic light frequencies for specific diseases and cell types, the wide range and power of light has become apparent. The full spectrum of light—from the visible, to the invisible, to the subjective light of awareness, spans the breadth of life, health, energy, and even thinking. The recognition of the significance of light is a promising indication for the illumined future of humanity. The awareness and exploration of the subtle invisible world of light and energy is leading to increased awareness and expansion of consciousness. This awareness and use of higher vibrations and frequencies promises to bring healing to both the body and mind of humanity.
Light and Enlightenment
From the very dawn of time the light of the sun has been revered as the life-giver, that which takes away the darkness of the world and embodies the good, the righteous and the true. Light has always held a central place in the many cosmologies of the religious and spiritual traditions of the world. All things were understood as coming from darkness and eventually entering into light. All that is, is the result of the interplay between these fundamental and conditioning dualities. In Genesis 1 we read, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good and God divided the light from the darkness.” Eastern cosmologies extend the depth of understanding to include layers of worlds blending in and around one another. For example, Hindu cosmologists posited more questions than they answered. In the Rig Veda it states, “Neither being (sat) nor non-being was as yet… who knows from where it came into existence? None can know from where creation has arisen, and whether he has or has not produced it. He who surveys it in the highest heavens, he alone knows - or perhaps does not know.” (Rig Veda 10. 129) Tibetan Buddhist teachings present the idea that the source of all light emanates from the primordial mind. The original condition of all phenomena is a self-luminous, self-born state of clarity that was not created by anybody. This transcendent luminosity is identified as the source of all phenomena.
Theosophical writings propose that many millions of years ago, a great event, called individualisation, took place on our planet. In that far distant time, there occurred a potent inpouring of the light of consciousness, which ignited the spark of mind within the animal forms of the human beings of the day. Thus began the evolution of human consciousness. Light is related to the second aspect of divinity, the soul aspect, that which qualifies, colours, and differentiates the essential purity of spirit. One of the ways by which humanity has manifested this differentiation of light has been through the spiritual and religious faiths that have sprung up in response to human need. Perhaps the first intimations of faith stemmed from the observation of nature with its ebb and flow, its waxing and waning of light. The ancient cults, such as those of Mithras in the Roman Empire, and Mitra, its Hindu counterpart, held as their cornerstone the worship of the sun and, particularly, the key points of the annual cycle – the equinoxes and solstices. These cycles in the natural world coincide with the cycles of the soul.
When the sun in all its majesty sinks out of view each evening, another type of light, like a delicate filigree, opens before our view. Ancient peoples were fascinated with uncovering the mysteries of the silvery light of the night sky, unravelling its stories and formulating them into myths through which the heavens could reveal themselves. It’s said the whole history of humanity can be known from the stories hidden within these simple myths.
In ancient teachings, the word for light was often understood to be synonymous with the word for God. This light, or god, came to be recognized by humanity in both its transcendent and immanent forms. Humanity has always had its Light Bearers, those who came to reveal the transcendent reality in a form adapted to the conditions of the time. These teachers have taught and demonstrated through their being the means whereby the light could be contacted, known and expressed within the crucible of the daily life. Schools of thought – philosophical and religious – emerged over the centuries in different centers of the world, in Europe, Persia, Egypt, India and Tibet, each contributing to a vortex of energy to which spiritual seekers were drawn in their search for light. The teaching went forth from Master to disciple through a rigorous system of mental and moral disciplines that facilitated tremendous progress for the select few. The great sage Patanjali who, by some accounts, lived as long ago as 10,000 B.C., was the first person to write down the oral teachings of the yogic tradition that had been carried forward through the centuries to aid humanity in its pursuit of light. Later, around 1,500 B.C., Vedic literature began to emerge, which provided the basis for the Hindu religion.
One of the most important teachers of the pre-Christian era was Plato. His allegories of the sun and the cave powerfully illustrated the human condition. Plato used the image of the sun to help define the true meaning of the Good. The Good, he wrote, “sheds light” on knowledge so that our minds can see reality, free from the distortions that normally control. The Good enables us to see with the “mind’s eye” transcending the limitations of the physical eyes. Plato believed the sun bequeathed its light so that we may see the world around us.
Plato’s allegory of the cave is perhaps the best known teaching from The Republic and highlights the theme of light and the general condition of glamour and darkness in which the bulk of humanity lives, seeing all things distorted and misshapen. Those who begin to emerge from the cave and enter into light must go through many trials as they learn to see within this new reality. Socrates, Plato’s teacher, insisted that the enlightened are obliged to return to the cave in order to help free the prisoners, even if it results in death. In this tale, Socrates is implying that the enlightened philosopher must descend from a continuous intelligible contemplation of the good to share in the visible lives of his fellow citizens for the well-being of the whole.
The Buddha came forth at a time when there was a tremendous inpouring of the light of the second aspect of Divinity, identified by Alice Bailey as the ray of love-wisdom, which was active in northern India around the 6th century B.C.. The Buddha broke with the Vedanta traditions of his day and also with the ascetic practices that were common among the wandering monks, in search of the light of liberation. The Buddha’s Four Noble Truths focused upon the suffering incident to desire, and the Noble Eight-Fold path provided the steps on the way towards the goal of enlightenment.
The Christ, the great brother of the Buddha, came forth upon the second aspect of the second ray, the love aspect, whereas the Buddha came forth upon the first aspect, the wisdom line. Christ was described by St. John as the “Light of the World” and much of his teaching was concerned with bringing forth this light. He taught the significance of the inner eye, the third eye, when he said, “If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.” The Buddha and the Christ are the greatest Avatars who have so far come forth to our world. They were responsible for using the light, in conjunction with their followers, to deal a major blow to some of the distortions and illusions in human consciousness.
Some time between the 5th and 8th centuries A.D., the great Shankara emerged in India to shine a light on the Vedic tradition, with the end in view of freeing it from some of the crystallizations that had set in over the centuries since its inception. He taught monasticism and focused on a non-dual philosophy. According to Shankara, Brahman alone is real and the world in which we live is one of Maya that he likened to the trick of a magician. His most famous work, The Crest Jewel of Wisdom, taught that our central task as spiritual aspirants is to develop the light of the intuition. He taught that truth was known through reasoning, and not through endless rituals, ablutions and extensive breathing exercises.
One of the major gifts to humanity over the last 2000 years has been the great strides taken in the cultivation of the intellect. The light has poured into the mind of humanity, resulting in a tremendous wealth of creative expression. This creative light expressed itself through many avenues, including science and the arts. For example, Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings, such as The Virgin of the Rocks and the Mona Lisa, revolutionized the way in which artists perceived light and used it in their paintings. Within the field of science, the great Copernicus helped unravel some of the mysteries surrounding the sun. His treatise On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, published just prior to his death in 1543, began a scientific revolution by positing the central place which the sun holds in our system.
The Paths of the Heart and the Head
There are many paths that meet the varied needs of humanity, but eventually all paths lead to the same goal. These different paths can broadly be divided into the way of the heart and the way of the head. The past 2,500 year cycle, governed by Pisces, was par excellence the age of the mystic follower of the heart path, although there were many exceptions, particularly among those who came forth along the scientific line. The approach to the mystical path of the heart was through devotion to the teacher and the awakening of the heart, the center of love. The path of the heart provides the sure foundation for the path of the head, which is often a later development within the evolutionary cycle. Without the firm foundation of the heart, the lower mind can block out the light of the spiritual sun and become the “slayer of the Real”.
The path of the heart, being aligned energetically with the feeling nature, is often accompanied by transcendental experiences that can arise spontaneously. Here are a few individual examples:
“When I was ten or eleven years old and lived at Kamarpukur, I first experienced samādhi. As I was passing through a paddy-field, I saw something and was overwhelmed. There are certain characteristics of God-vision. One sees light, feels joy, and experiences the upsurge of a great current in one's chest, like the bursting of a rocket.” Sri Ramakrishna (The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, p. 176)
Plotinus, a third century philosopher, came forth to reinvigorate and provide a living testament to the Platonic worldview. He showed in his life that the way of the head and the heart can be synthesised. Plotinus stated that he had a number of “enlightened experiences.” He wrote, “many times it has happened, lifted out of the body into myself, becoming external to all other things...beholding a marvelous beauty then, more than ever, assured of community with the loftiest order, enacting the noblest life, acquiring identity with the divine, stationing within it.”
An account of Walt Whitman’s mystical communing with nature was given by his friend, Dr. Richard Bucke. He wrote, “His favorite occupation seemed to be strolling or sauntering about outdoors by himself, looking at the grass, the trees, the flowers, the vistas of light, the varying aspects of the sky, and listening to the birds, the crickets, the tree frogs, and all the hundreds of natural sounds. It was evident that these things gave him a pleasure far beyond what they give to ordinary people….All natural objects seemed to have a charm for him. All sights and sounds seemed to please him. He appeared to like (and I believe he did like) all the men, women, and children he saw (though I never knew him to say that he liked any one).” (Walt Whitman, Dr. Richard Bucke)
The path, no matter whether it is of the head or of the heart, leads eventually into a new and expanded state of consciousness, often called enlightenment. But it would be a mistake to view enlightenment as an end in and of itself for, in reality, it is the beginning of the endless way of liberation. The word enlightenment is defined as “to make luminous, to shine.” It is through the steady appropriation of light and the growing ability to let that light shine that the eventual transformation that is enlightenment occurs. The Vajrayana teachings of Tibetan Buddhism are thought to be some of the most advanced teachings on the steps – the ways and means – to enlightenment. The teaching provides steps to help the individual break through the walls of ‘ego-clinging’ and merge with the infinite expanse of consciousness wherein anything is possible.
In this brief discussion of the spiritual significance of light, perhaps it is fitting to conclude with the story of the Roman Emperor Julian, who arrived in Antioch in 362 AD to organize his campaign against the Persians. Julian was an ardent student of philosophy and religions, so he invited all the philosophers and wise men in the city to an audience. When they were all assembled, he asked them one question, “What is the nature of reality?” They conferred among themselves in serious whispers and after a while, nodding their heads in mutual agreement, one stepped forward and answered: “The Light you see everywhere diffused is the incarnation of Pure Mind.” Julian later wrote to his friend, “The Phoenicians, who from their sagacity and learning possess great insight into things divine, hold the doctrine that this universally diffused radiance is part of the ‘Soul of the Stars.’”