‘Set It All On Fire’: The Answer to Planetary Chaos is Closer Than You Think

‘Strange days indeed’ sang John Lennon, and one can only ‘imagine’ what a man at the forefront of creating positive planetary change in his day would have made of where we are now? Because these are indeed extraordinary times in which the very foundations of everything we collectively believed to be ‘how things are’ seem to be moving beneath our figurative feet in tectonic upheaval. All of the certainties we cling to are shifting it would appear.  

Climate chaos, political crises and seemingly perpetual war; these are the manifestations of what many a fearful voice has declared to be the ‘end times’. Yet it is not only religious folk invoking this phrase; it’s a cohort of the staunchly secular who are able to adequately express their sense of approaching Armageddon only by appropriating such language. But this fear is understandable when they observe that things do, indeed, seem to be breaking down.

The very institutions upon which an ordered society is founded appear to be self-destructing as scandal after scandal peels back their facades exposing the rotten core. Wrongdoing and corruption in politics, banking, the judiciary, the police, the media, education, health and social care have erupted in recent years. And yes, there have always been scandals, but this time things are different. The sheer scale of the revelations is unprecedented and, significantly, ‘big media’ – always an ally of the corporate elite because they are, themselves, huge corporations owned by billionaires – can no longer control the narrative fed to the public because the internet has flourished giving a platform to independent journalists and campaigners who are consistently challenging the ‘official’ line. Maintaining internet freedom is a constant battle against corporate forces but the space remains a vital sphere of connectivity uniting activists across the globe.

The nexus of corruption now visible to us in all its horror strikes fear into those who wonder what will be left if foundational societal structures implode? They see only ruins and desolation and cannot conceive of how society will then function? But there are those of us who are not so pessimistic, viewing this process as a vast cleansing that is both necessary and positive; for we have reached a point in history when it appears that no organisation, no institution – whether local or global – which is not rooted in integrity can stand. And we are all now, at this pivotal moment, called upon to decide who we are and how we will respond to the ‘catastrophe’. Will we panic as all our certainties collapse around us? Will we turn to tribalism, barricading ourselves in with whichever faction makes us feel safest while we weather the storm? Or will we realise that what the collapse has actually revealed in breaking down structures which divide us is the truth of a greater underlying unity that has been obscured for far too long.

‘Divide and rule’ has been a successful strategy for those with a vested interest in our disconnection from one another, the tactic exploiting ruthlessly what renowned physicist David Bohm declared is a fatal tendency in human beings to think in a fragmented way. It is this destructive habit, he asserted, which is the fundamental barrier to our attainment of personal, societal and global harmony.

Bohm, who died in 1992, was a mighty figure in the physics field. Author of the classic textbook, Quantum Theory, an exposition of Nils Bohr’s Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, Bohm began to question that view even before the book’s completion. Bohr’s version, still holding sway to this day, had met, in Bohm,  a man not inclined to blindly accept any old orthodoxy. Instead, his work on the project simply brought his doubts about the authorised Bohr doctrine into sharper relief, opening the door to a controversial thesis based on a fascinating new paradigm, one which blasted through the confines of the scientific sphere, propelling Bohm into the realms of philosophy, spirituality and even – god forbid! – mysticism.

Bohm’s heterodoxy is emblematic of his mind’s ‘primary directive’ to pursue truth no matter what forbidden territory he might be called upon to explore, his ability to see beyond fiercely protected partitions and transcend the cloistered scientific domain gave free reign to his uniquely expansive vision, and in turn, allowed him to conceive of a description of reality that would unite physics and metaphysics and hold the key to a peaceful world.

Speaking at a seminar on consciousness, Bohm elucidated for us: ‘I’m suggesting that thought is behind the difficulties of the human species’, he asserted, before going on to say that perpetual war and ecological destruction have their roots in a fragmented pattern of thought which most of us share to a greater or lesser degree. ‘The world is in a difficult situation, we have many crises; in addition to the one in the Middle East…we have ecological crises; we have economic crises, and nationalism  Nations get to fight each other and kill each other… yet the world is all one; people are divided up into sections and all kinds of interests and so it goes on down to the family,’

Bohm goes on to explain that our pattern of ‘establishing boundaries where really there is a close connection’ creates a world of ‘false division’ on every level of existence which inevitably leads to conflict. At the root we find the problem is a mode of thought consistently distorting our perspective because ‘thought is pretending that there is a sharp division when everything is unified.’ This, Bohm maintains is a ‘fictional’ way of thinking.

But ‘why would people do such a strange thing? he asks, ‘it could be thought of as irrational or crazy, so much trouble is created which may prevent even our survival.’ We are left in no doubt, however, of the foundation of our folly: ‘the problem is fragmentation…until thought is understood it will control us.’ Bohm characterises fragmentation as the mind breaking up something that is unified, so obscuring its true unfragmented nature, therefore, the separation most of us feel – wherever we draw the line, be it race, gender, species, man v nature – is simply an illusion, because reality is, in Bohm’s words ‘a single, unbroken, flowing, actuality of existence containing both thought – consciousness – and external reality as we experience it.’ Bohm summed up this dynamic reality in one word: ‘the Holomovement’. 

In his compelling book, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, the physicist expounds on all this in detail, explaining that the totality of the Holomovement contains the Implicate domain – a deeper, underlying dimension of reality in which everything is interconnected. Separation does not exist in this quantum ‘flowing stream’, only an unceasing ‘enfoldment and unfoldment’ process, unfoldment being the action by which entities emerge into the Explicate domain – the manifest world – which, Bohm says, ‘flows out of the law of the Implicate Order’. The Explicate domain, then, can be viewed as ‘a projection from a deeper ‘generative’ order of unity’ and all of the apparently substantial and separate objects in our material world as ‘sub-totalities’ surfacing from a sphere of ‘unbroken wholeness.’

Bohm’s theory has been described as ‘an ultra-holistic cosmic view’ encompassing all life and consciousness, yet he sees in this expansive vision implications for social justice, and that is what makes David Bohm so extraordinary. Of such importance to him is the influence his theory could have in creating a better world he mentions it right away in the introduction to Wholeness And The Implicate Order stating that alongside the question of how reality and consciousness relate to one another ‘I would, in this connection, call attention to the problem of fragmentation of human consciousness’ whereby the impulse to create division means that ‘the widespread distinctions between people – race, nation, family, profession, etc – which are now preventing mankind from working together for the common good, indeed, even for survival, have their origin in a kind of thought that treats things as inherently disconnected, broken up…independent and self-existent.

Who else but a man of such sweeping vision could present us with an ontological basis for a quantum theory that has the potential to bring harmony to a conflict-riven planet? Bohm simply cannot help but view reality from the perspective of Oneness, beautifully exemplifying his own ethos. And as he is asserting that the true nature of reality is wholeness, what he is asking of us is to merely drop a bad habit, an addiction to a way of thinking which is, like any addiction, deeply damaging, no matter what temporary relief it may provide us. Because there is no doubt that as a species we like belonging to a group that closes ranks on others. It brings us a sense of identity, makes us feel superior, provides us with a target for blame when everything turns to shit. How ironic then that in behaving this way we are keeping ourselves locked out from the far more profound belonging which awaits us should we recognise our true state of unity. What we must develop resistance to, however, as much as our own tendencies, is the influence of a toxic culture bombarding us at every turn with the propaganda of separation, fueled by those who benefit and profit from our mistrust and disconnection.

How much more difficult would it be to manufacture consent for oil wars which leave millions of innocent civilians dead if populations were immune to the Machiavellian credo of patriotism. ‘I hate patriotism, man – the world was round last time I looked’, pronounced stand-up comedian and social philosopher, Bill Hicks. Yet we are encouraged to demonise and dehumanise those who are different from ourselves and our own contingent. And how ready we so often are to comply. But it is in resisting this impulse that hope lies for a peaceful planet. If we can overcome the thought pattern which emphasizes our separation then we can, according to Bohm, create a more just world. In fact, we would be compelled to do so because at the moment Oneness consciousness arises, we will perceive any harm done to any part of the whole as a harm done to ourselves. War, abuse of human rights, destruction of nature, cruelty to animals, all would become unbearable to us. A wound inflicted on anyone or anything else would be a wound from which we would bleed. 

What is required, then, is a change of perception; a new awareness of the true condition of things. And it is here that Bohm’s work takes him into territory his scientific colleagues feared to enter. As discussed by Gustavo Fernandez in his excellent thesis, The Esoteric Imagination in David Bohm’s Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, at this point in his life and career Bohm was no longer concerned simply with the interpretation question but with ‘the fundamental concepts on which the physical theories are built, and the deep structures that form the way we perceive the world.’ this leading him, in turn, to form an immensely meaningful friendship with a man he considered to be ‘a living example’ of a human being capable of ‘a deeper and permanent perception of the totality’: Jiddu Krishnamurti.

The great Indian philosopher and spiritual teacher was for Bohm an irresistible interlocutor after the scientist had read his work. Bohm considered that he had, himself, only managed a glimpse of the understanding that his friend had attained, ‘understanding’ here being a distinct concept denoting  perception of the Totality, as opposed to ‘thought’, because the activity of thought being rigid and inflexible can obstruct ‘true understanding’ ‘

‘For Bohm’, explains Fernandez, ‘understanding is a quasi-mystical realization of the total process, a glimpse or a permanent perception of all that there is, was, and will be, the something that cannot be described using language, but that can be perceived.’ Bohm maintained it is this ‘understanding’ which is the key to resolving the fundamental human problems preventing us from living together in peace. ‘Understanding comes in a ‘flash’, he declared, ‘or is felt by some people as a ‘click’, in which everything falls into its proper place’. In his correspondence with artist Charles Biederman (available as the book ‘Bohm-Biederman: Creativity in Art and Science’ Bohm writes of his own experience:

‘I occasionally got a sudden ‘glimpse’ in which one felt that reality is in a different dimension…In this new set of dimensions, one saw that the inner and the outer are basically one. However, this glimpse lasted only for a moment. I think that I saw why it didn’t last. In this state of unity of ‘inner’ and ‘outer’, the new truth starts to operate. But this operation implies a totally different kind of action – an ‘openness’ that is at variance with all the norms of common life. It also makes one very vulnerable, as nothing can be kept for oneself or concealed. To continue in such a state would require a kind of love that does not exist in me, and that probably exists in very few people. So fundamentally, our understanding is limited by the absence of love. This is what I indicated in an earlier letter. Understanding without love is impossible, as is also love without understanding.’

Yet in Krishnamurti Bohm considered he had found someone who embodied this ‘openness’ borne of such a love; a man who actually lived in that state of ‘understanding’ which, Bohm claimed, ‘can disclose contradiction, conflict, and confusion in old ideas’ and so could lead to resolution of conflict in society. These two men found in each other a perfect sympathy, a communion which satisfied both on a deep level. Fernandez reports that ‘many times Krishnamurti had to leave the room in which he was conversing with Bohm, overwhelmed by the profundity of their dialogue.’ Bohm, in turn, found affinity with the man who avowed: ‘truth is a pathless land. Man cannot come to it through any organization, through any creed, through any dogma, priest or ritual, not through any philosophic knowledge or psychological technique. He has to find it through the mirror of relationship, through the understanding of the contents of his own mind.’

Many of the conversations between these two great men were transcribed in the book The Ending of Time: Where Physics and Philosophy Meet. Here, two men representing supposedly independent and opposing spheres came together in fruitful discourse, their very meeting symbolic of what they were revealing; that the barrier between these two historically separate and often antagonistic domains of science and philosophy/spirituality (as perfectly embodied by Krishnamurti) is a false distinction obscuring the truth of their shared territory. Bohm, himself, encapsulated this in what may be the most stunning statement a renowned scientist has ever uttered: The Implicate domain, he declared, ‘could equally well be called Idealism, Spirit, Consciousness. The separation of the two – matter and spirit – is an abstraction. The ground is always One.’

Read that quote again. And then sit for five minutes in quiet contemplation of what it might mean. Bohm may well have advised us not to try to ‘think’ our way through it, for its deeper revelation lies beyond the intellect’s grasp; the ‘understanding’ of it lies beyond thought. ‘The source of intelligence is not necessarily in the brain – the ultimate source – but much more enfolded into the whole’, Bohm told an interviewer. And so as difficult as it might be to let go of the intellectual attitude, it is really the only way to connect with that ‘higher level of immediate perception’, in which, Bohm tells us, ‘the whole of our perceptual and conceptual experience may be subjected to a kind of scrutiny, which can disclose contradiction, conflict, and confusion in old ideas, as well as new relationships, orders and structures.’

For Bohm, thought is mechanical – ‘intelligence’ is not, and it is perception which decides if any particular thought is relevant. He gives an example: “one may be working on a puzzling problem for a long time. Suddenly, in a flash of understanding, one may see the irrelevance of one’s whole way of thinking about the problem, along with a different approach–such a flash is essentially an *act of perception.*” This ‘active intelligence’ then, according to Bohm, does not have its roots in “structures such as cells, molecules, atoms, and elementary particles.” because the “ground of intelligence must be in the undetermined and unknown flux, that is also the ground of all definable forms of matter.’

We will struggle, then, when attempting to simply think our way to ‘understanding’ from within the framework of the lexical structures we traditionally use to plough with the rational mind through issues arising from seemingly opposed areas of knowledge. Words themselves have become tools of separation with which our reason has cemented that big dividing wall. ‘Science’ and ‘spirituality’, are essentially antagonistic in the old paradigm, but not in the Implicate order. With a shift in perception, that illusion of separation begins to melt – ‘the ground is always One’ – and we will need, then, a new lexicon, one which accommodates the fundamental unity underlying all existence.. ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed’ declared Blake, ‘then everything would appear to man as it is – infinite.’

It is this move into greater awareness, then, which Bohm believes holds the key to our salvation as a species, for the dysfunctional hierarchical mindset must then give way to the more mature concept of kinship. No more will we suffer from the ‘optical delusion of our consciousness’ identified by Einstein as the ‘prison’ from which we must escape if we are to transcend the illusion that we are separate from each other and nature. No longer hunter, master, conqueror – but protector, nurturer and loving steward. Our relationship with the natural world cannot remain predatory if we are to save ourselves and the planet. We must give up what Montaigne calls the ‘excessive prerogatives’ we have awarded ourselves as human beings and take our rightful place in the web of life.

Any appraisal of the dire state of our world will tell us, however, that the disease of anthropocentrism is a difficult illness to cure; but we have reached the stage at which the idea of wholeness, of unity, is gaining ground in our culture; what we need now is to reach critical mass. Not enough people are taking up what Bohm considered is our personal responsibility to do the inner work required to transform ourselves, and therefore, the world. It is ‘wrong to suppose’ he said, ‘that each human being is an independent actuality who interacts with other human beings and with nature. Rather, all these are projections of a single totality.’ Though we perceive ourselves, then, to be independent entities, we are, Bohm asserts, a ‘sub-totality’ of the Whole, and can never, in reality, be abstracted from it. Each of us is ‘an intrinsic feature of the universe, which would be incomplete–in some fundamental sense” if we weren’t here.

The transformation of the world depends upon our willingness to transform our own consciousness, and in that moment of our awakening we must be compelled to think collectively and to work for the common good – not in some narrow political sense, but in a universal one:

‘Broad as he is’, said J. Howard. Moore, ‘who can look upon all men as his brethren – broad compared with those who can see nothing clearly beyond the bounds of the political unit to which they belong – he is not broad enough. ‘Mankind’, ‘humanity’, ‘all men’ – these are big conceptions, but they are pitifully small compared with that grand concept of kinship which takes in all the races that live and move upon the earth. Smaller yet are these conceptions compared with that sublime and supreme synthesis which embraces not only the present generation of terrestrial inhabitants, but which extends in time as well as in space and embraces the generations which are yet unborn. That conception which recognises earth-life as a single process – immortal – every part related and akin to every other part.’ 

So far, however, the human race has acknowledged only the “principle of the consciousness of mankind,” according to Bohm, but has not yet found the ‘energy to reach the whole – to put it all on fire.’ Such evocative imagery. And if it sounds revolutionary that’s because it is. It’s a revolution of the mind, the corollary of which is the mass awakening of a sleeping global population. In a most compelling article titled, Bohm’s Gnosis, the author discusses the physicist’s deep wish that ‘the pollution of the ages’ – the wrong thinking which has led us to war, social injustice and the brink of ecoside – can finally be left behind, because when people ‘come into close and trusting relationship with one another’, says Bohm, they ‘can begin to generate the immense power needed to ignite the consciousness of the whole world.’

A shift in perception, then the world shifts: ‘as within, so without’. That is our task: ‘there’s nothing else to do – there is no other way out’, insists Bohm, ‘that is absolutely what has to be done, and nothing else can work.’

That task must begin with an interior journey for each of us, one that cannot be mediated by anything outside of ourselves. ‘Everything in the Universe is within you’, wrote the great Sufi poet, Rumi. ‘ask all from yourself’. Our own inner struggles, then, however lonely they may feel, are helping to raise the entire planet. The Implicate Order contains a “consciousness, deep down…of the whole of mankind.” Bohm asserts, a man who, it has to be said, was the exemplar of his own ethos. Because what this shift in perception requires is that we disengage from our ego, that gremlin which is always whispering lies into our ear, and is the manacle keeping us chained to the illusion of separateness.

Bohm, by good account, was free of such constraint, one of his colleagues affirming that, ‘he had no ego’. And in ‘Quantum Implications: Essays in Honour of David Bohm’, we find one of his students quoted as saying, ‘he could only be characterised as a secular saint.’ So often we find that ‘great’ men also have great egos, but not in Bohm’s case. The softly spoken man who defied the McCarthy hearings in the 1950’s at the expense of his own career was not motivated by a desire for approval or accolades, only by the purest desire to pursue truth. In Bohm we find one whose extraordinary gifts were matched by an extraordinary humility, and whose humanity is present in every aspect of his life and work.

That work is simply invaluable, and is never more relevant than in this historical moment when forces for change are pushing those wielding corrupt power to brutal extremes in their efforts to hold onto it. We who hold the vision of what the world could be have recognised that, as Bohm told us, ‘wholeness will arise between us all in participation’. We have tasted the transformative power of collective consciousness – what we must do now is ‘set it all on fire’.

Alison Banville is co-editor of BSNews.










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