What Is Light?

Look down at your shoes for moment.

How is it that you see them? Because of light of course. But it’s not just any light you are seeing. When you see your shoes, you are seeing reflected light. You don’t perceive the shoes themselves, nor do you perceive the light absorbed by the shoes. The only light you perceive (and the only shoes you see) is the light reflected from the shoes.

Why does that matter? It matters because it suggests that the common experience of light is incomplete. Light is not only what we see, but also what we do not see. To use the shoe example, light is perceived in the form of reflected light, but not perceived in the form of absorbed or unreflected light, though it exists.

 The colors you see are wavelengths of light reflecting off the soap bubble.

The colors you see are wavelengths of light reflecting off the soap bubble.

The reflected light we see is what we commonly call brightness. We say a room is bright when the reflection of light is more intense. We say it is dim or dark when reflection is less noticeable. Notice that this doesn’t mean there is an absence of light. A dark area can still be full of unreflected light. This reveals that darkness is not the absence of light. Darkness is not opposed to light. Darkness is the opposite of brightness, or reflected light.

In spirituality, we often hear phrases such as light of consciousness, light of awareness, and enlightenment. “Let there be light” is a famous religious phrase. Why all this emphasis on light? It is because light is the great uniter. The ubiquity of reflected light in the physical world is inescapable. Everything visible to the gross eye can brought under the category of reflected light. When a person recognizes this and steeps in it, it has a settling effect on the mind.

As the mind settles and integrates, it withdraws its superimposed divisions on light. Reflected light (brightness) and absorbed light are integrated and perceived directly as brilliance, self-effulgence, or radiance. A shift in perception happens. Brilliance takes such a such a central role in experience that it dissolves the prior boundaries that we had learned—boundaries that were thought to be set in stone, such as me/you (identity), here/there (space), and now/then (time).

What were previously seen as physical boundaries are seen anew in a broader context as mental boundaries. The mind itself goes from being something localized in the head to being non-local, illumined by a brilliance that reflects as the senses and the physical world. In spirituality, this is sometimes called illumination. Illumining more and more of the subconscious aspects of the mind is the work of integration and awakening.

 Brilliance (as used in this context) dissolves boundaries. Light is seen as substantive, in which physicality appears.

Brilliance (as used in this context) dissolves boundaries. Light is seen as substantive, in which physicality appears.

Importantly, none of this contradicts science. It merely places science in a broader context. When science speaks of the speed of light, it is referring to gross light, not brilliance (I am using brilliance in the specific way defined above), which is non-local and spontaneous. Brilliance has no location or speed because all physicality sits within it.

Now the stage has shifted. What was once seen as a world of objects (including your own body) has been re-cognized as an aspect of light—reflected light. That reflected light itself has been re-cognized as an aspect of brilliance or self-effulgence, the womb of the inter-subjective (physical) world. It is this brilliance that is commonly referred to as the light in spirituality, not the reflected light we see as objects. This light of lights is held up as a homing signal, a come-all to those who are investigating their experience of a world.

sun dawn homing sky tree.jpg

But the stage has to shift yet again. The homing signal indicates the shore.

Recall that light is not opposed to darkness. Light that rests within itself is largely unseen, and therefore is recognized as darkness. This may be called the lightless light to indicate that even the notion of light vs dark does not apply here. It is this lightless light that appears as the brilliance of the light of lights, and finally as the reflected light that shines as the physical world.

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

T. S. Eliot

Anoop Kumar, MD, MM is board certified in Emergency Medicine and holds a Master’s degree in Management with a focus in Health Leadership. He practices in the Washington, DC metro area, where he also leads meditation gatherings for clinicians. He is the author of the upcoming book Is This a Dream? He tweets @DrAnoopKumar.