Human Fractals: Dimensions of the Whole
Each and every reader comprehends the Holy Qur’an on a different level in tandem with the depth of his understanding. There are four levels of insight. The first level is the outer meaning and it is the one that the majority of the people are content with. Next is the Batin – the inner level. Third, there is the inner of the inner. And the fourth level is so deep it cannot be put into words and is therefore bound to remain indescribable.
-Shams Tabriz, Rule 25 from the Rules of Love
Shams was the spiritual teacher of Rumi, one of my favorite poets. Although this kernel of wisdom is ostensibly about the Holy Qur’an, I have been pondering the idea of “levels of insight," how it relates to other spiritual traditions, and how it relates to the human body-mind-spirit experience. The subtext in Shams’ description of the four levels of insight is the fact that they are all contained within the self-same book, and these “levels” are inextricably intertwined with one another.
In the current book I am reading, "Time and Memory," Stephen Earle Robbins revisits the theories of French Philosopher Henri Bergson and explains how the universe is a holographic field and the brain is a reconstructive wave specifying a portion of the field. If this is true (which Dr. Robbins does a great job of explaining in his book—I highly recommend it if you would like to understand the physics behind the theory), then this holographic principle must be true: “All possible images are contained within the holographic field,” and “each of its points carries the information for the whole.”
Robbins also incorporates neuroscience when he says,
“The brain is conceived as a hierarchy of levels. These range from the atomic, to the chemical, to the molecular, to the neural. Each is inclusive of the other. But despite these conceptual “levels,” the biological brain is a coherent system—a change in one level changes the whole.”
Here is where I made the connection to Shams Tabriz. To me, Shams’ phrase “levels of insight,” is conceptual, but in reality, the insights contained in the book are coherent and not necessarily hierarchical.
Benoit Mandelbrot used the term fractal in 1975 to describe non-differentiable mathematical sets of numbers that have repeating patterns at each and every scale. Fractals are found in geometric patterns, sounds, technology, galaxies, and all kinds of natural formations like crystals, plants, rivers and so much more. Here are some beautiful pictures of natural fractals .
According to The Epoch Times, Fractals have four common features: infinite intricacy, zoom symmetry, complexity from simplicity and fractional dimensions. Craig Haggit says, “At their most basic, fractals are a visual expression of a repeating pattern or formula that starts out simple and gets progressively more complex.” To me, fractals are like infinite spirals, each loop containing the information for the whole. (Sounds a bit like DNA, right? Read here about DNA sequences and fractals.)
Although parts of our anatomy are indeed fractal (such as the brain and lungs), the human body as a whole probably isn’t technically a fractal. However, I would like to consider the human experience as fractal: that each dimension of experience contains the information for the whole. We can look at the big picture and see different “levels” of the pattern, but the fact of the matter is that our entire life experience is non-differentiable and the so-called levels are infinitely complex yet simple repeating loops.
Let me return for a moment to Shams’ four levels of insight. I want to point out two spiritual traditions that have a similar paradox of separation and wholeness.
First, in Tarot, there are four “worlds” or “planes.” As Paul Foster Case explains in the introduction to The Tarot, A Key to the Wisdom of the Ages, the “verbal, numerical, and geometrical formula” IHVH, which is derived from the Hebrew word for “to be,” translates to “That which was, That which is, That which shall be.” It is meant to be a verbal symbol of the “One Reality.” The true nature of this One Reality is beyond the limits of linguistic description; however, this One Energy which brings all creatures and things into existence is classified by the Qabalah into four planes:
- The Archetypal World: the world of pure ideas and will-ideas; tied to the element of fire and universal radiant energy
- The Creative World: the world where “archetypal ideas are specialized as patterns;” tied to the element of water and “fluid plasticity of the cosmic mind-stuff.”
- The Formative World: the world where creative patterns are brought forth into actual expression, the plane of processes, the world which is now being explored by physicists and chemists; tied to the element of air and the life-energy of breath.
- The Material World: the world of actual forms which affect our physical senses; tied to the element of earth and the tangibility of physical objects.
The four suits of the cards in a Tarot deck correspond to these worlds: Wands correspond to Fire (the Archetypal), Cups correspond to Water (the Creative), Swords correspond to Air (the Formative), and Pentacles/Coins correspond to Earth (the Material). Within these suits, the same pattern of four planes can be found (sounds like a fractal to me!): In each suit there is a King, Queen, Knight, and Page, which correspond respectively to “spirit, soul, personal energies, and body.” The more you zoom in or zoom out, the more you will find familiar patterns.There are also 22 trump cards in a Tarot deck, which are usually given slightly more focus than the suits; however, I won’t get in to that in this post. What is important to keep in mind is that the Tarot is
“not in any sense an entity with absolute properties and values, but rather comprises a complex set of mirrors and microscopes through which an attuned mind may view the universe that lies beyond the confines of four-dimensional space and time.”
This is a wonderful summation by Keith Rowley, which leads me back to my hypothesis: the Tarot, which, to me, is a tool for mindfully exploring the many dimensions of human experience, has a fractal structure that illustrates how various “levels of existence” or “levels of insight” interweave within the “One Consciousness.” The initial separation into levels (suits, elements, etc), helps us understand how specifically the tarot is teaching us (what aspect of our lives it wants us to examine), but I find that the more I meditate on a card in all its specificity, the more I begin to feel the whole in the “part.” Almost like I can feel the whole timeless story of the tarot deck present in that one card.
Another spiritual practice with conceptual “levels” is Tibetan Bön. I’ll be a bit more brief with this one. There are three “levels” of spiritual practice: the external, internal, and “secret.” The external is Shamanism, which is related to elemental spirits, goddesses, and sensual experiences. The internal is Tantra, which is about subtle energies rather than forms and transforming experiences into bliss through breathing and visualizations. Finally, the secret dimension exists beyond duality—the practice of Dzogchen is a practice of realizing the inseparability of luminosity and emptiness. As Tenzin Wangal Rinpoche beautifully explains in his book Healing with Form, Energy, and Light,
“These three dimensions are separated only conceptually. It is a mistake to think that external, internal, and secret can truly be divided or are mutually exclusive. Confusion on this point leads to many of the great divisions in belief: religions that disregard or mistrust the life of the body, secular cultures that do not recognize the sacred nature of the earth, or preoccupation with the material well-being that ignores spiritual development. All of life is important and arises from the sacred elements.”
I have also come to see my Butoh practice as a way of unifying conceptual “levels” and discovering the whole. If you don’t know what Butoh is...well, you’d be hard-pressed to find a true definition anywhere, but at the moment the best way I can describe it is shamanism meets meditation meets dance. A few weeks ago, Butoh teacher Vangeline said something along the lines of, “If you don’t understand Butoh, that’s good. This is about intuition, intuition, intuition.” True, maybe I can’t understand Butoh on a rational level, but I am trying to understand it on the level of intuition. In class, I observe a fractal-like movement from physical to internal, yet the patterns in each of the “levels” or dimensions are embedded within each other. We meet ourselves where we are, with our physical bodies, and journey towards the Source within. Usually we start with lots of physical movement that helps me loosen and warm the muscles, shaking up the physical so that it becomes more of a vessel. Then we focus the mind, concentrate, commit to one point between the eyebrows. We engage, and surrender, engage and surrender. And then my heart begins to open. Once I am in my “center” as Vangeline calls it, everything moves my heart. And only then do I begin to feel Shams’ “fourth level” which is so deep that it is bound to remain indescribable. And yet, I know that all of the dimensions of this practice are present the entire time and weave and play together. “Coming back” from the dance might be the most crucial aspect of class, as it allows us to fully integrate what we discover in our center and hold on to the delicate balance. We have done the work of opening ourselves so that we can live more truthfully in all of our simultaneous planes, which are part of the infinite holographic universe, the One Consciousness.
Finally, let’s talk a bit about hypnosis and consciousness. Another topic that came to mind when I read Shams’ “levels of insight” idea was separation of unconscious and conscious, and perhaps even superconscious. Freud talked a lot about the unconscious mind, other psychologists have talked about the subconscious mind, and some other folks have talked about the superconscious (or "higher” consciousness). Here is how I currently understand these "levels" (this understanding may change), with a bit of clarifying help from some internet research:
Unconscious: automatic processes, memories, motivations, secret desires, may include repressed trauma
Subconscious: that which is not currently in awareness, but things stored here are accessible and influence us
Conscious: everything in our awareness, including perceptions, feelings, sensations
Superconscious: described by Helen Blavatsky as a “higher intuition acquired by God-knowledge that carries man from the world of form into that of formless spirit”— it is the Divine, the Source
In hypnotherapist Kristin Prevallet’s book, "You, Resourceful: Return To Who You Want To Be," she takes the lead from psychologist William James and uses the word “co-conscious” instead of unconscious. Prevallet incorporates a beautiful metaphor of the conscious and co-conscious minds collaborating like two streams flowing together. She explains that through the process of using the creative consciousness to discover alternatives to unwanted behavior and discovering bio-chemically transformative metaphors, we can
“stream our conscious and co-conscious minds into common waters, and what [we] can understand from this kind of convergence is that [we] are changing and would like all of [our] minds to change with us. And as they do, we will find ourselves reacting in new ways and behaving in new ways that are more in alignment with our overall goals and desires to become a fully functioning human being who acts and reacts not from a place of unconscious revolutions but a place of inner knowing.”
I love Kristin’s image of the converging waters of "all of the minds." Certainly, one way I have come to view hypnotherapy is a way to help people unify dimensions within themselves that might be out of sync for various reasons. Often, this involves breaking down the barrier between conscious and unconscious (co-conscious) so that we can offer the unconscious new, healing suggestions through the power of biochemical metaphors. However, I also believe that hypnotherapy can break down the barrier between conscious and superconscious. Personally, during my first past-life regression session, I remember communicating with a rather mysterious “spirit guide,” who spoke in non-dualistic riddles or was completely silent at times, refusing to tell me anything, but instead holding space for me to discover the wisdom I needed to discover. Other instances in hypnosis sessions that connect us to the superconscious occur when we tap into the Akashic Records, which is a topic for another blog post.
For now, I invite you to visualize your self—not just your bodily self—but your body, mind, heart, and spirit self not just as two streams converging into common waters, but as one vast river made up of thousands, millions of other rivers, and each of these rivers branches off into more and more streams and creeks, and the deeper you go inside yourself, the more you realize that you are boundless and endless, infinitely intricate, yet simple in this familiar spiral. And you see that this vast river of your self is part of an even larger body of water, which is part of an even larger body of divine water, and you can know that within your river are contained the same divine droplets of nourishing water that are everywhere else and inside everybody else, in all non-differentiable and continuous points in time and space. We are part of a magnificent fractal universe beyond our wildest dreams. That’s not to say we are just tiny, meaningless specks in an enormous universe. On the contrary—we contain the information for the whole. And without us, the fractal couldn’t exist.