When you step out of your door in the morning, you don’t know what will happen. Or maybe you think you do. Precise divination, though, isn’t reflective of the universe we’re in. Even science - the hardest forms of it - is the measurable order of chaos, the fact we can track something enough times to say, with enough probability, that something will occur. And yet a bus could run us down on the doorstep. Or a elephant could step in front of the bus, take the hit like a chief. Life is about potential. Sky Nelson-Isaacs wants us to surrender to that, whilst still sprinting over the base cement of wants, needs, a reason for choosing.
Living In Flow: The Science Of Synchronicity & How Choices Shape Your World, published by North Atlantic Books, is his treatise on physics as a friend. For what, you might ask? Well, everything. The person you are. The baller you become. Whether we choose to smell burnt toast and say, “Fuck it, I’m not hungry,” or go to the shops for more food and bump into Cameron Diaz by the oven pizzas.
Physics is chaos; chance in its redolent beauty. The more we take action and cleave to the qualia (in other words, the idea of seeking a friend today, for instance, instead of seeking this one friend in particular) within us, the more chances we gain. And in the ripeness of time, beneficial chances - or ‘meaningful coincidence’, as he terms it - will open. Sky believes we could all stand to live in Flow a little more often. Just as we can’t tell whether a proton will vibrant this way or that, no-one can assume that the universe works against our favour. Equally, by allowing the universe to surprise us, we inspire others to be a little bolder. Thus, good coincides pile upon each other. It’s like a cargo train where every carriage could be full or empty depending on what came before it - or, as Sky prefers, a tree on which a good branch presages other branches with tastier apples.
I read the book. I had a mild brain injury when I read about the immortal nature of light particles, so I made a coffee. Then I called him on a sodden May evening so he could explain why Flow matters . . .
Is the pursuit of our very best selves – the most magnanimous, respectful and bold – the quest to uncover our nature, or the environment in which we’re raised? Isn’t it hard to tear one apart from the other?
Think of it as peeling back layers of conditioning, of personality. I’m not trying to become better in the way my parents may’ve taught me, say. At the same time, I’m not out to make you feel better in the way that self-help books do, that you should become more X, Y or Z. It’s not about being more forgiving or talking nicely to yourself. Sometimes I don’t need to talk nicely because there’s an understanding I’m missing, and I need to go with that. The layers on top of that are like crusty mud, hiding something mysterious underneath.
But you could argue we’re nothing more than the constituent parts that stitch us together when we’re kids. Class, culture, religion, bigotry et cetera.
One of the messages I’d like to convey is there’s a point at which you stop peeling. You don’t have to keep digging and digging. Circumstance is useful and instrumental in creating what we are. A situation can make you more capable at fighting through adversity as an adult. That fight helps you serve other people who are going through a similar thing. So that’s also a core part of what you are and how you live it. When we’re at ease, we can decide how we want to be in the world.
On my first reading, I got 30 or 40 pages in and had a twinge of worry that people who are brought up in poor circumstances, like a racist household, could be supported in a way, because this book would ask them to hark back to their core beliefs. But then you went further. True ‘Flow’, you say, can’t be achieved unless we’re open to other opinions – which racism would exclude to a degree. We’d lose the ability to gain fortunate circumstances.
Flow, in my life, is challenging assumptions. Let’s take my upbringing. I’m not racist, but there were a set of qualities that I took as my values. I grew up strictly vegetarian, for instance. Eventually I came to an insight that led me to eat meat, and that had quite a profound effect on me. I was in my 20s, with a job at a high school teacher, so I wasn’t that much older than them – I certainly didn’t have a sense of gravitas in the classroom! Authority was a struggle. Part of what I tried to do was gain some weight and I ate as much as I could. One day I stopped to meet my wife at a restaurant, had a bite of her chicken soup . . . after two or three mouthfuls I had a tremendous rush of energy. I felt like I could meditate for months or years right then, being genuinely present in my body. So, I sought to fulfil that need whilst aligning it to my values. Flow led me to a more open perspective.
I liked the message to take action from an individual standpoint before we shake things up on a bigger level. A kick up the arse could be helpful today, when information saturation can make us feel less powerful than ever.
Well you can think we’re responsible for doing something right now. And part of the problem with that is assuming we know the answer already. It’s important to remember that we may not know the solution whilst still going out into the world from a receptive place. There’s an in-between: we’re committed to making a difference, except we don’t take full responsibility for solving the problem.
Climate change, for example, is down to us being more expressive in our own minds. We can speak out at the right time and have the best kind of impact.
So the basic principles of the theory are that, just like quantum mechanics, we can’t predict an outcome unless we observe it. That’s the first principle. If you look at life in a sense then that we can’t conceive of all possibilities, and by acknowledging that, we can embrace the beneficial beauty of chaos. Is that right?
How are any of us meant to know the real solution to something like violence in schools or churches, or wealth inequality? The people who believe they know are missing pieces of the puzzle. We’ve gotten to so many places without knowing much. That’s how we arrived from candlelight and horse-drawn carriages to burning fossil fuels. Foresight wasn’t there – what were the other impacts? Culturally, there was no thought paid to it.
What Flow does is gets us into a zone of personal decision-making. We find out what’s right for each of us now, what’s calling to us . . . humility comes into it. Meanwhile, because we’re receptive, we take other perspectives into our own. Flow brings us solutions that naturally resolve tensions between us.
When we imagine Ann then, an example from the book - the lady who’s trying to catch a late train to get to the theatre on time and runs for it, who just so happens to see a cyclist slowing the closing doors for her . . . doesn’t she have to run every single time to make the meaningful coincidence happen?
You’re pointing to a sense of urgency. The fact that urgency changes things is a deep message. It’s anything we need to produce the results we want. Plus, a lot of people get urgent in ways that aren’t constructive because they paralyse us. Holding urgency in our lives is uncomfortable. If I take my time with something and put it off for three weeks, I’m actually stopping the process of Flow. However, no – we shouldn’t run every single time. There has to be sense of genuine urgency.
And that’s the qualia you talk about?
Right. It’s a sense of being who you are, and genuinely caring about things. Whether I run or don’t, I know that I should because I have an internal idea of what I actually care for. Let’s say I have homework and I know it’ll take me a few days. What’s the secular dynamic there? Is it that I just don’t want to expend the effort, or I’m not adequate to the task?
I get the impression that you probably don’t like the word ‘career’, as it harshly categorises the aims we’re supposed to have.
For me, career has a difficult notion to it. I’ve been a musician since I was four, made an album in high school, learned how to engineer. I did all of those things and being a ‘musician’ wasn’t available to me when I was 20. Some folks are able to do that, but I wasn’t. But what I could do ended up being a teacher. I was really interested in the subjects underneath what I was teaching, eventually playing full-time for a couple of years. Now, the fundamental physics of why I’m here and what I’m doing is important, yet it’s taken 40 years to get to that as a career move.
Where does string theory sit in physics at the moment?
It attempts to understand the world of fundamental particles. Boiling particles down to smaller collective particles, like electrons, protons and quarks, which are featureless, but have some kind of property like a charge. But we have no other way to describe them. So we just call them ‘points.’ String theory says there are problems with that method, but if you treat them like strings – where they’re vibrating on their own levels – it tells you a lot about physical features. I was attracted to it early on after reading Bryan Green’s book, and also as a musician, since I’ve studied the mathematics of harmonics.
Harmony, okay, is about some notes sounding good together. That’s the ratio of their frequencies. For example, chords in music are a first, a third and a fifth note on a scale.
And that relates neatly to another subject I’m focusing on: timelessness. Photons (light particles) are, from a certain perspective, outside of time. It’s not like coffee getting cooler. Light from a star taking a thousand years to reach my eyes is just an instantaneous connection between my eyes and it. In music theory, a sound file converts to frequencies, and mixes up all the components, mixes parts of the song out of time. And then they come together from this big mush in another file format. In a sense, no time is lost. It’s a representation of nowhere.
How is light timeless, and how does it relate to living in Flow?
Virtual contact. The problem has to do with perspective. If you’re a rock or a piece of dust or an atom, then your perspective on that light is inertial, meaning that it takes light one year to travel the distance of a lightyear. You have to wait for it. But, although this isn’t super well studied, the distinction of time and space doesn’t make any sense, because time and the space between objects is shrunk down to zero. You will always measure the travel but light cannot possibly change between the beginning and the end point. The mathematics work out. It’s hard to visualise . . .
But the point is, it questions our notion of what we understand as separation of space and time, since like frequencies, that could be a fallacy. I connect that to synchronicity by suggesting the events in our lives are evolving in many different possible branches. We cut some out of the future. It depends on what we choose.
So like the multi-universe theory, basically?
Absolutely it’s part of this, but they’re not actual worlds. The only physical world is the one you’re experiencing right now, defined from a given point of view. A relational view is surrendered right before our eyes, for us. The one that we experience is that which is actualised.
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