Science and spirituality - From Suspicion to Synergy
by Swati Chopra
In recent times, we find a spurt of interest in exploring the possibility of a common ground between science and spirituality. Overtures have been made by both sides to initiate some sort of a dialog process. Life Positive responded to this growing synergy by putting forth a special issue on the topic in January of this year, which I was fortunate to be guest editor of. Then, in the first week of February this year, Jawaharlal Nehru University and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations organized an international conference on science and spirituality in New Delhi that had speakers examining the issues thrown up in the course of such a dialog. The Mind and Life Conferences - dialogs between the Dalai Lama and Western scientists - suddenly find themselves keenly watched, despite having been in existence for over a decade. So, what does this newfound interest signify?
I think there is recognition, albeit as yet nascent, on the part of both science and spirituality that by ignoring one another, they are missing out on something that is crucial for their own growth. For science, it is the soul, the spirit, that mysterious core that it must come up against as it delves deeper into various aspects of reality. For instance, the proposed Superstring Theory, according to which the building blocks of the universe are not particles but loops of vibrating energy, has radically altered the scientist's vision of reality and brought it closer to the mystic's who sees creation as a play of Shakti (cosmic energy). In addition, because of its essential amorality, science misses a natural familiarity with ethics and values as it grapples with ethical challenges posed by the potential of its newest discoveries. Genetic engineering is a case in point.
Spirituality, on the other hand, appears to be self-sufficient and perhaps even in a different league from science. It has its myriad paths and traditions, insights and eternal truths that remain unaffected by the time period in which they play out. For instance, watching your breath is as effective a way of calming the mind today as it was 2,500 years ago when the Buddha was teaching it. Concepts such as maya and samsara, nirvana and moksha, sadhana and samadhi, and others that explicate the mystical reality of creation, are unbounded by time and place and hence can be believed to hold as true today as they ever were. They can be seen as being beyond the material universe, which is the playing field of science. We can well ask then, how does science affect spirituality?
I think the reason spirituality also needs science is not because it is greatly affected by it, but because we, the practitioners of spirituality, live in a world that is increasingly shaped and influenced by science and technology. It is we who cannot continue to behave as if science and spirituality exist in different continuums, because they are both right here, in our lives. The spiritual path is forever being made anew by those that walk on it, and though we may come to realizations similar to seekers in other eras, our path is also informed of and affected by the times we live in.
There is another, deeper reason for spirituality to become interested in science. And this is because science can remind spirituality of the qualities of openness and empiricism, which are its hallmarks. Though the spiritual quest is rooted in the same quest for truth that fires the scientist, too often one finds it becoming mired in blind faith and compulsory belief. Too many followers do not question their gurus, plaguing them with doubts that must arise in their minds, choosing instead to become passive vessels filled with the fruits of their guru's realisation rather than working upon finding their own. It is this kind of slothfulness of the spirit that the scientist nudges away with her questioning mind.
Healing the Rift
When I talk of the reasons why science and spirituality must come on talking terms, I am really calling for a greater holism in our way of life, a greater integration of different aspects of being. This is recognized by those spiritual seekers and scientists alike who have become conscious of the bigger picture - where truth and our search for it is integrative and integrated. Science must take some blame for the fragmentation we perceive in modern life, as must rampant capitalism and consumerism, where nature's beauty and its link with the mystical space in us has been severely damaged. When we became estranged from nature and began seeing her as merely an instrument of self-service, I think that is when we lost God and spirit, and indeed ourselves.
Part of the aim of the new science-spirituality dialog, then, must be to heal this rift between humankind and nature, and renew the human-nature relationship in a non-exploitative space of co-being. In this, spirituality can show the way in helping science shift away from its current reductionist paradigms to a holistic vision.
This is actually not as impossible and fanciful as it may seem to some of us. The reason being that because of its essential amorality, there is no inherent goodness or badness inbuilt in science. It is a tool, and much depends on its wielding. And so, much depends on the human hand, and the human mind behind it, that does the wielding. To train the mind in a way that optimizes its positive potential and limits its negativity is one of the aims of spiritual training, through techniques such as meditation, prayer, chanting mantras, and so on.
This is one of the reasons why it is important to involve the scientific community directly in the dialog, and enable them to shed their reservations regarding spirituality. A number of scientists equate spirituality with superstition, unquestioning faith in a set of predetermined beliefs, and so on. Though these may occur in the space of spirituality, it would be wrong to equate the entire arena of spirituality with these aspects alone. For, as I have mentioned before, the spiritual seeker's quest for truth is at par with the scientist's. While the latter's is based on external observation, experimenting, and theorizing, the former too undergoes all these stages, but in the laboratory of her own self.
The only true realization is that which occurs within, and though the scientist also knows this, for her it is important that the realization be borne out with facts and figures, and be demonstrable. The seeker is bound by no such requirement, and can simply touch the earth as witness to his realization, as the Buddha did when asked to prove that he indeed was enlightened.
It is this issue of concrete proof that has been one of the major stumbling blocks of this dialog, and one that is now being remedied in a way. Meditators and spiritual practitioners are being brought into the lab and the changes in their neuronal and other physical responses during meditation and samadhi are being gauged with the tools of science like MRIs and so on. Such experimental studies are needed, not necessarily for validating the efficacy of meditation and other spiritual practices because these are widely known and accepted in any case, but to serve the functional purpose of speaking to science in its own language, and perhaps convince it to embark along with spirituality upon the path of true synergy.
Swati Chopra writes on spirituality and is author of the
book Buddhism: On the Path to Nirvana (Brijbasi Art Press).
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