To See a World in a Grain of Sand

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a Heaven in a wild flower;
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an Hour.

I first encountered this short poem[1] by William Blake in a high school English class when I was fifteen or sixteen years old. I was intrigued by the ideas it expressed, but I was not able to understand them at the time. This does not mean, however, that I spent a great deal of time trying to figure out its meaning, or that, like a nascent literary critic, I attempted to analyze its hidden meanings, or delve into the author’s state of mind when he wrote it, or any of the other peculiar things that literary critics are wont to do with their time. From time to time, in the haphazard way that these things happen in the course of a human life, I thought about these four lines, perhaps after I encountered them again in the pages of a poetry anthology or some other book. But it took me more than twenty years to understand what they mean.

Those who are familiar with Western mysticism and Eastern religions and philosophies know that the central idea of the unity of all things expressed in the poem forms the basic tenet of these religions and philosophies. All things are interconnected, and the seeming separateness of individual objects is merely an illusion that hides and obscures the unity that underlies them and connects them together.

In contrast, Western philosophy, religion, and science begin with, and thus assume, the discreteness and separate existence of individual things, both from each other and from their Creator. An example is the notion of individual rights and the uniqueness and inviolability of each human being. Western philosophy gave rise to science and the hyper-individualistic societies whose values and way of life are presently spreading over the entire world, along with its accompanying materialistic philosophy of the good life and the consumerist means to achieve it.

The principle feature of Western civilization that has enabled it to triumph and dominate over the world has been the success of science in giving human beings mastery over Nature and the world we live in. This mastery has enabled its denizens to solve the problems of starvation and disease, which has led to a significant increase in their numbers, as well as to the creation of machines that have replaced the human and animal labour that were formerly used for all productive processes and other activities, such as growing food, making clothes and tools, building houses, inventing and manufacturing superior weapons that have enabled their possessors to vanquish their adversaries, and waging war. Since success breeds imitation, these methods have been copied all over the world. And since admiration does not limit itself to imitating only those features that are useful and good, it has led to the indiscriminate copying of other features of Western civilization, including its materialistic values, unhealthy diet, popular culture, and its extremely wasteful, polluting, and profligate consumerist lifestyle, which depends on making people dissatisfied with the things they have, whether with themselves, their possessions, their job, their family members, or the people they know, and therefore makes them continually yearn for things which they don’t have. It should be obvious that a society or economic system that is based on making its citizens constantly dissatisfied with their lives, as modern capitalism does, cannot produce happy people.

Science provides us with a certain kind of useful knowledge, but the dominant Western assumption that scientific knowledge is superior to, and therefore supersedes and renders obsolete, all other kinds of human knowledge – which it were better to call ways of knowing the world, for in the distinction between the noun “knowledge” and the verb “to know” lies the very crux of the matter – is completely false.

What is produced, discovered, or formulated by scientists is factual, verifiable knowledge that is assumed to be true independently of both time and place. This is knowledge that can be written down in letters, numbers, and formulas, and transmitted from generation to generation. Traditional, which usually means pre-scientific or non-scientific, societies also have their ways of knowing, which sometimes are at odds with science. Traditional knowledge is usually rooted in a particular place; and because it is verbal, it is transmitted from generation to generation by word of mouth rather than through writing or texts. Hence, traditional knowledge is more fragile and easily lost than scientific knowledge. One feature of traditional knowledge is that, when it is taken out of context, which in this case means the particular society in which it originated and is kept alive by its members, it may seem strange or even absurd to outsiders. Because of the important distinctions between the oral and written forms of language, traditional knowledge often dies and disappears with the disappearance of the people that discovered it and depended on it to survive, while scientific knowledge can remain dormant in the yellowed pages of a book or scientific journal, to be rediscovered later on.

There are several ways in which the distinction between these two different ways of seeking to understand the world has been expressed. Some are mysticism versus science, and Eastern as opposed to Western philosophy or religion. Another way of looking at this distinction is that the scientist is assumed to be completely separate from whatever it is that one is studying, and therefore – indeed, this is one of the fundamental assumptions of science – the facts and knowledge which are discovered and accumulated by the particular scientist who diligently applies the scientific method of observation, hypothesis, analysis, and verification are true independently of whoever is doing the observing. In other words, these statements are globally or universally true, rather than being true only in a particular situation, place, or set of circumstances, or of a particular group of people.

However, this does not mean that we can simply dismiss all traditional knowledge as being unscientific and therefore wrong or outdated because it is nothing more than superstition, for this kind of knowledge was crucial in enabling these pre-scientific peoples to survive for thousands or tens of thousands of years, a length of time, let us remember, that science, despite all its bright and dazzling accomplishments, is a very long way from equalling. In many ways, by greatly upsetting the primordial Law of Balance, the success of science has made the long-term survival of modern human beings much less rather than more likely. The truth that many people fail to recognize is that the more we blindly heed the promises, proclamations, and miraculous discoveries of science, the smaller and smaller are the chances that the human race will survive for any great length of time.

To illustrate what I mean by traditional knowledge, here is an excerpt about a group of native people living in South America:

[Cordova de] Rios [a Peruvian rubber cutter who was kidnapped by the Amaheuca Indians for invading their territory and forced to remain with them for many years] recounted the way the Indians would capture and kill pigs. They knew that the pigs were led by a single sow, and that they walked through the forest in a very widely dispersed, but specific, fanned-out pattern behind the lead sow, much as birds fly through the air in formation. The Indians knew that killing the lead sow would throw the others into a state of confusion while they worked out who the new lead sow would be. During the confusion, the Indians would kill a few pigs, being careful not to kill any emerging leaders. Instead, they would allow the new lead sow to emerge and lead the surviving band out of danger. Then they would take the dead leader, and cut off her head. They would plant the head just below the surface of the ground, facing in a specific direction exactly. If they did this just so, the entire band would return to that exact spot in precisely three moons. If they erred in any minute detail of the procedure, the band would not return, and the Indians would have to hunt for a new band.

Rios saw this work many times. No one ever asked why it worked so well; the knowledge of it was merely passed down, generation to generation, and there was always plenty of pig to eat.[2]

Most of you who read this passage will probably dismiss it as ignorant nonsense or superstition. But let us not forget the important fact that this knowledge enabled these people to acquire meat on a regular basis, but without overhunting its source, as we self-proclaimed enlightened Westerners would almost certainly have done. For proof, we need only recall what Europeans or their descendants did to the North American bison, passenger pigeon, and Atlantic cod, all of which were so numerous in their respective domains of land, air, and sea before the arrival of Europeans that these selfish and destructive superior beings mistakenly believed that their numbers were inexhaustible.

This passage illustrates the important differences between traditional and scientific ways of knowing and studying a phenomenon. Both native people and scientists carefully observe the object of their curiosity. The natives observed a useful sequence of cause and effect that, if strictly adhered to, enabled them to acquire and eat pig meat on a regular basis, but without having to hunt for it. They were content with this knowledge and did not seek to delve deeper into the mystery of why things happened in that particular manner. And neither did they seek to generalize this knowledge into a statement or law about the behaviour of all pigs at all times and in all places. Furthermore, the natives were content with the bounty that Nature provided them with, and they did not seek to alter, control, or manipulate Nature into providing them with even more. This was because the natives regarded the pigs as being equal to them, and so they respected their freedom and their right to exist. Instead, the arrogant Westerner, who regards all other creatures as being inferior to oneself, has no qualms about enslaving pigs and raising them in captivity, or killing as many of them as possible, even if one cannot possibly eat all of them, in order to make money by selling the excess meat to other pig-eaters.

These two very different attitudes can be summarized as follows: whereas the natives regarded themselves as integral parts of Nature, respecting and seeking always to live harmoniously with Nature’s great animate and inanimate forces, Westerners regard themselves as being separate from and above Nature, whose forces and great and mysterious regenerative power they seek to subjugate to their domination in order to accomplish their very narrow and often destructive ends.

Because of its method, approach, and ultimate goals, science is incapable of understanding the basic idea that is expressed in Blake’s poem. And the reason is that, first of all, science separates and distinguishes the observer from whatever one is observing as two distinct entities: there is the observer that observes and examines, and there is the object that is observed, examined, studied, dissected, modified, and manipulated; and in this separation there is often an assumed superiority on the part of the observer over the thing, person, animal, artifact, or society that one is observing. Secondly, science divides Nature into separate parts, such as organisms, plants, animals, geological entities like volcanoes, oceans, islands, continents, lakes, marshes, and rivers, or atoms, subatomic particles, molecules, and cells.

To give just one example of the devastating consequences of applying the scientific method to the study of Nature, we need only consider the terrible effects that the application of the scientific method has done to Nature in the realm of agriculture, which is based on categorizing the natural elements of the world into human-value-laden categories such as pests, diseases, predators, prey, cultivated crops, weeds, and so forth. In contrast, as Masanobu Fukuoka recognized, “There is no good or bad among the life-forms on earth. Each has its role, is necessary, and has equal value.”[3]

Once again, we are confronted with the fable of the tortoise and the hare: the tortoise, which represents traditional knowledge and traditional ways of knowing, is a slow and sure method that has enabled humanity to live in harmony with the Earth and all its many other inhabitants for hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions, of years; while the swift and impetuous hare, which represents the frenetic “progress” of science, has led us on a path that is in many ways profoundly opposed to Nature, seeing it primarily as something to be used, manipulated, transformed, and overcome solely for our selfish and destructive purposes.

In contrast, the attitude of the mystic, and the idea expressed in Blake’s poem, is that the observer is not separate from everything else – that all objects are interconnected, and that time, although arbitrarily divisible into units like seconds, hours, days, and years, is in reality a constant, unending, and divisionless flow. Mystics and religious figures like the Buddha would say that this seeming separateness is merely an illusion that deceives the unenlightened person; but the enlightened person is able to see through this seeming multiplicity to grasp the essential, underlying unity of all existence.

Goethe proposed, not to dispense with conventional science, but rather to find another, and complementary, doorway to the realm of knowledge in the belief that Truth is not to be had through any single method, nor by any one age or culture.

[…] It is, I think, what Albert Einstein meant in saying that

a human being is part of a whole world, called by us the “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish it but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.[4]

One of the central elements of Buddhism is the philosophy of sunyata, or “emptiness.” I had difficulty understanding the meaning of this concept at first, but over the years, in talking to Tashi Rabgyas, it became clearer: “It is something that is not easy to talk about, and impossible to understand through words alone,” he told me once. “It is something you can only fully grasp through a combination of reflection and personal experience. But I’ll try to explain it in a simple way. Take any object, like a tree. When you think of a tree, you tend to think of it as a distinct, clearly defined object, and on a certain level it is. But on a more important level, the tree has no independent existence; rather, it dissolves into a web of relationships. The rain that falls on its leaves, the wind that causes it to sway, the soil that supports it—all form a part of the tree. Ultimately, if you think about it, everything in the universe helps make the tree what it is. It cannot be isolated; its nature is what we mean when we say that things are ‘empty,’ that they have no independent existence.”[5]

The fundamental Unity of all Life and the World – that the part, no matter how small or how briefly it exists, is not separate from the whole – was understood and expressed by William Blake in his short poem.

“To see a world in a grain of sand”
wrote Blake, who I’m sure did understand
more than the common man
about Life and God’s Plan:
now Blake in God’s Delight does stand.

[1] Although these lines are often presented separately, which is the form in which I have known them, they are in fact the introductory lines of a longer poem entitled “Auguries of Innocence.”

[2] Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander, chapter 4. HarperCollins, New York, 2013.

[3] Sowing Seeds in the Desert by Masanobu Fukuoka, p. 99. Edited by Larry Korn. Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vermont, 2012.

[4] Hope is an Imperative: The Essential David Orr by David W. Orr, p. 188. Island Press, Washington, DC, 2011.

[5] Ancient Futures: Lessons from Ladakh for a Globalizing World by Helena Norberg-Hodge, p. 73. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 2009.