For a large portion of my adult life, I had lived with a shade of grief about not pursuing my passion of spirituality for the sake of a secure career in engineering. Engineering, no doubt, is an honorable profession. One which requires great sacrifice of one’s time to master and takes advantage of humanity’s great gifts and creativity to innovate. But in my naïve youth, it was nothing high minded that drew me to electrical engineering. I was good at science and math; that’s all it took for the world to tell me it was the rational choice. With that fresh job in hand, I still returned to the STEM well. At night I studied for a master’s degree in electrical engineering based on the suggestion that it could increase my chances of a more successful career. Even then, my real passion was spirituality, a pursuit which I thought had little use in the way of job skills, and even smaller connection to science. I was wrong.
Now it’s 20 years later, and my passion for the spiritual has not dulled. I spend late nights and early mornings exploring sacred texts, writing, and seeking the mysteries of life that were sparked in my youth. I’ve even shaped my career to better align with my passions, utilizing a more spiritual approach in concert with my technical skills. This has included publishing a book on spirituality and its connection with baseball, a sport in which I enjoy volunteering and coaching my children. But as I reflect back on my career and decisions, I found to my surprise, that electrical engineering isn’t far from spirituality at all. I realized that my study of electrical engineering has shaped my understanding of spirituality and identified the following 10 connections borne out from this pursuit:
As sensory beings we experience the world as mainly material. We see houses and cars and trees as hard, rigid substances existing within a vast universe of space. But it doesn’t take much prodding to see that all things are, in fact, electric. That is, that they are made of molecules, which in turn are made of the organization of atoms, which all have electrons floating around their nuclei in different mystical patterns called clouds. Moving electrons, typically between atoms, being the basic definition of electricity. When we examine electrons we start to get into the rather sticky territory of quantum mechanics. It’s at this point in our electrical engineering training that we run into a thing called particle-wave duality. Electrons, like light, have the fascinating personality trait where they seemingly change how they behave depending on how you look at them. That is to say, when we expect them to behave like discrete particles – like tiny billiard balls in space that move in certain directions when pushed in those directions – they do. But if we expect them to behave like waves of energy – like ripples on a pond – they do. These waves propagate as things we call fields. The fields are a mystery to us. They exist everywhere. We know that, without the electron’s trait of behaving as a field, that the distance between the electrons and the nucleus would result in the atom being 99% empty space, which would sum up to greater than 99% empty space in all things. This would cause instability and unreliability within even the solid ground. Therefore, fields are to blame for our ability to distinguish the universe’s basic structures. As we investigate fields we find many types, but they all can be summed up as invisible forces that influence our world. Therefore, at the basis of all things in electrical engineering we find something indistinguishable from our understanding of spirit. Fields are our common ground of being. They are that from which everything arises. Endlessly providing energy that supports us in our life. From electrical engineering, then, we find that all things consist of invisible forces that radiate energy. I call this spirit.
Now let us look at some of the field’s traits. One thing we know is that they behave like waves. In the case of electricity, one major field is the electromagnetic field. It results from the movement of electrons. The excitation of this wave radiates energy, called photons, which propagate through space and have the same particle-wave duality as the electron. This energy behaves like particles and waves but has no mass. When those photons have frequencies within a specific range, we experience them as visible light. It is this process which brings light to the world. At other frequencies they are called radio waves, or cell phone waves, gamma rays, infrared and ultraviolet rays. They surround us always. Waves have the unique property of undulating between two states, on and off. They, in fact, require these two states to be whole. A wave’s peak cannot exist without its trough and vice versa. So, although we use the term particle-wave duality, what we are essentially saying is that fields are non-dual. Which means that although they have properties that include multiple states, they aren’t discretely one state or another, they are one unified thing. They don’t exist like we shallow beings see the world – as things having to be one thing or another, with a name, and an allegiance and independence. We find, instead, a kind of dance. Light and dark, form and emptiness, life and death. This brings us to our second lesson from electrical engineering, that the universe is made of inseparable contrasts, in other words, there aren’t distinct entities that can exist independent of other entities, it is non-dual. It is only the tuning of our senses around a specific set of frequencies that makes the world appear as we see it. We find society and many types of religion being tricked by the creative nature of the universe into thinking that one thing is “better” or preferable to another. But that misses the fact that the nature of the universe could not actually be one thing without the other. The dual way of thinking is the basis of idolatry in religions, in which declaring one knowable thing as a God or ‘high-state’ separate from another is in opposition to the fundamental oneness of our Universe. This provided me with a completely different basis for understanding God than that which was preached to me in church as a child.
The third lesson I learned from electrical engineering comes in the way of optics, in which we determined that for the light of the world to be present, there must be emptiness in which to put it in. As discussed in the previous section of waves, the universe requires any discrete state to be pinned against emptiness for us to perceive it as existing. If our entire field of vision was restricted to one pixel of a picture of the sun, we’d have no concept of light and dark. Everything would be ‘light’ but because everything was ‘light’ we wouldn’t understand it as ‘light’ because we would have no concept of darkness. Just the same way as if our ear drums were not built to vibrate as a wave vibrates, between an on and off state, we’d have no concept of sound. It is only because we experience contrasting darkness that we can identify light. Similarly, when light is fully absent in darkness, it is truly absent, but we only know it as absent because we compare it to what we know as present. Therefore, our ability to express form is only due to our knowledge of emptiness. In this we find our idea of ‘self’ arises from emptiness. In Christianity, we see this as early as the first chapter of Genesis whereby the earth began as ‘formless and empty.’ We find it as late as Saint Paul, coming to this conclusion in his letter to the Philippians when discussing the mind of Christ as resulting from Jesus ‘emptying’ Himself. Empty space is required to experience the brilliance of fields. Only in this state can they come into focus and become what they are meant to be. Therefore, this logic led to an understanding that to be fulfilled in life one must undergo an emptying process. This emptying idea is at the core of Buddhism and Hinduism as well. In Buddhism, we find the highest state of Nirvana can be translated as ‘becoming extinguished’ from the fires of selfish passions. In Hinduism we find a similar concept with ‘conquering the self’ in order to experience the true Self within. The Bhagavad Gita states, “they are forever free who renounce all selfish desire and break away from the ego-cage of ‘I,’ ‘me,’ and ‘mine’ to be united with the Lord.”
The fourth thing I learned is that waves are relational. From relativity, we can easily see that the sun requires another body to expose it’s light. Yes, the sun is a light source – as we’ve discussed its fields are radiating energy in the form of photons and some of those photons have frequency in the visible spectrum. But if we are to look at the space surrounding the sun we see only blackness. Only when we zoom out to another celestial body can the sun express its ability to shine. It is only when we relate the sun to the planets that we can witness the planet’s movement. This property of the wave gives us insight into the spirit of man, who requires relationships to create motion, and motion to create life. The fact that waves are relational allows electrical engineering to exploit the on/off dependence in a subcategory called digital engineering, in which the concept of binary numbering was born and is the basis for which the computer was developed. We have created the most complicated interconnected network by a simple series of the relation of zero’s and one’s. Therefore, I’ve learned that although spirit is personal and unique, it can flourish to fullness in relationship.
Electrical engineering also takes advantage of these relations with the concept of voltage, otherwise called potential difference. The way to force electrons to move is by having different charges between two points in an electric field. This is how power sources work. Therefore, to create movement we must utilize what is called potential. To create potential, we require difference. A charge on its own, sitting out in space cannot create any useful energy unless it is connected in some way to a different charge. The bigger the difference of charge the larger the potential. This expresses the need for us all to be open to differences to experience true spiritual transformation.
We call the act of connecting a higher charge to a lower charge, grounding. When we are grounded, that is to say, connected to the earth, we can create flow. Flow only occurs because each electron serves the next one in the wire as droplets of water serve each other in a hose. We see this in Western Religion in Christianity with Jesus relating to and finding life grounded in serving the poor and destitute. We see it in Eastern Religion in Hinduism with the Bhagavad Gita where it states that “true sustenance is in service, and through it a man or woman reaches the eternal Brahman.” It is also expressed both in Western and Eastern religion with God as the “ground of being” – that from which everything arises. These passages suggest that being grounded in the struggle of existence in service to one another is where we experience the greatest flow of spirit.
But what if we resist? Resistance, in electrical engineering, is the primary thing in the path of illumination. For example, in the simple circuit of a lamp connected with a wire to a wall outlet, the light bulb – the thing being illuminated – would be considered the resistor. High resistance in the path has a negative impact on the ability to create flow. In electricity, the lower the resistance and the greater the difference, the greater the flow that results. I have found spiritual presence to work this way. It highlights the necessity to be open with little resistance to vastly different points of view in order to achieve maximum benefit.
But what if our resistance is so high that it insulates us from the source of higher potential? In electrical engineering we call this a gap. For flow to occur in the gap, it must experience what’s called electrical breakdown – also called dialectic breakdown – in which a connection is formed which brings energy across the gap. It happens when the field overcomes the resistance. This is the basis of the spark. It is how lightning happens. I see this gap as always there, between who we know as ourself and our best self – our true self. It shocks us here and there. It can manifest as an existential feeling of estrangement or a mystical experience of overwhelming unity. But whether we admit it or not, it drives all our action. It is the spark that we all seek. We want it so badly we may try to create it with other connections. This is what religion is meant to help us avoid. It is said in both Eastern and Western religion that God “abides in us.” The Source is at our core, it is our best Self, and our life is about letting it shine through. Other connections leave us in bondage, while acts of connection to the Source free us. This helped me retranslate the expression to “love your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind” from a declaration of blind faith to a redirection of my concern to selflessness, both in service to others and in private. These are the right conditions in which religion can assist us in overcoming the gap, creating the most illuminating of experiences in every one of us.
The measure of resistance in electrical engineering is called the Ohm. Although this Ohm has no known relation to the common Eastern chants with the same sound, it was no doubt a coincidence I couldn’t help but exploit. When we slowly say the word Ohm as a mantra, we find it is like an antenna, vibrating our body at a certain frequency. The Eastern religions see this frequency of Ohm as connected with the frequency of the universe – a frequency electrically charged from a singularity of unspeakable energy and released in an event we’ve heard labeled as the Big Bang. That event is eternally unfolding, yet that sound, Ohm, represents the evolution of its Source from pure energy into consciousness. In other words, the sound of the Big Bang evolved to the point that us conscious beings were created out of it; beings who can now hear and understand the universe in which they exploded out of. It is a representation of, as the Western Christian religion would state, the Word (sound) made flesh. It is the frequency of underlying unity, which is expressed in both the Western and Eastern religions with the concept of God and I as one. And we find its references in many Eastern sacred texts, such as the Bhagavad Gita, when it states that Ohm “represents the changeless Brahman” and repeating it will bring one towards the “supreme goal.” To that end, electrical engineering tells us that our natural bodily electrical resistance is tuned to an eternal, one could say spiritual, wavelength. And we should let it remind us of our interconnection.
Lastly, let us return to basic fields and continue to look specifically at this field of sound. Sound waves allow us to conceptualize an important characteristic of the wave. The vibrations of electromagnetic fields arising from electrons exposes visual material properties which give us clues into the history of things. For example, we can see material things change or decay and we draw certain conclusions about them – like they are old or nice or cheap. Sound waves highlight a very important wave property. It is only now. When we propagate waves of sound, we only hear one moment of time. This is the final lesson from electrical engineering, that all that there is, is now. We see this in music, as the most magnificent expression of the presence of sound waves. Like our spirit, there is no sense of winning, or of obtaining a goal. In doing that you miss the point of the music, which is only joy in experiencing the present moment to its fullest.
So, what does it mean to be an electrical engineer? Is it someone with a strictly materialist mentality, or is it spiritual; someone ultimately concerned with using the electrical properties of the universe for good? The Oath of the National Society of Professional Engineering assists us here: “As an Engineer, I pledge to practice integrity and fair dealing, tolerance and respect, and to uphold devotion to the standards and the dignity of my profession, conscious always that my skill carries with it the obligation to serve humanity by making the best use of Earth's precious wealth.”
Richard Tutilli is the author of THE ART OF WAR AND BASEBALL, Richard finds meaning in bringing spiritual language to everyday activities.
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