By Swati Chopra January 2006 Can science and spirituality ever talk the same language, and collaborate meaningfully with one another? What are the pre-requisites of such a partnership, and do any examples of such convergence exist? In our quest to provide meaningful content to our readers, we at Life Positive are continually on the lookout for new topics of interest to the seeker, and fresh perspectives on old ones. In so doing, we are constantly challenging our own comfort zones, perceived limitations and closely-held beliefs, and often find ourselves at the frontiers of the realm of possibility. By this, I don’t mean to suggest that the conjunction of science and spirituality, the theme of this special issue, is at all a new phenomenon. On the contrary, it was part of the integrative vision of the Vedic people and the Upanishadic age that devised systems of knowledge, such as yoga and ayurveda among others, which partook in equal measure of both and remain embedded in the Indian ethos and way of life till today. The novelty value of such an interaction is more pronounced from the perspective of modern Western science, which is now integral to our lifestyles and education system in India, and so cannot possibly be ignored. In this issue, we have examined the topic at hand from both these standpoints. Preparing the GroundIt makes sense to begin talking about the bringing together of two divergent streams of knowledge by first examining what holds them apart. The historical tension between the Catholic Church and scientists like Copernicus and Galileo, and later the split between self and world caused by Cartesian dualistic thinking that created a reductionist viewpoint for science to follow, are well-documented in articles in this issue. Here, it is important to clarify that when we talk of a convergence of science and spirituality, we are talking less of organized religion of the kind that feels threatened by new thinking and new ideas represented by science, and more of the inner impulse towards seeking a larger and deeper reality than the one most readily available to us, and the spiritual traditions that have sprung as a result of such quests since time immemorial. Satish Kumar, editor of UK-based eco-spiritual magazine, Resurgence, explained this connection during a visit to Delhi last month. If we look at the roots of these words, religion comes from the Latin religare, meaning to tie down, while spirituality is derived from ‘spirit’ that in turn comes from spiritus, or breath. Thus, according to him, because spirituality is by definition free and open and searching, and not tied down in rules and structures, it stands a better chance at conversing with science, whose root word incidentally is scire, to know. I think this emphasis on malleability is important, for a true dialog relies much on the openness of mind and heart of the participants, which must translate into the ability to give up long-cherished positions if evidence is presented to the contrary. Though science’s methodologies are based on the primacy of this sort of empiricism, scientists are not invulnerable to blind belief. For when scientific theories acquire the halo of ideology and their adherents block out the possibility of anything that might present a challenge to them, science veers dangerously close to becoming a creed, even a religion. Great scientists retain their sense of wonderment towards life and its unplumbed depths, as do seekers of inner truth – a sentiment aptly expressed by the grand old man of modern science, Albert Einstein. He says, ‘The finest emotion of which we are capable is the mystic emotion. Herein lies the germ of all art and all true science. Anyone to whom this feeling is alien, who is no longer capable of wonderment and lives in a state of fear, is a dead man. To know that what is impenetrable for us really exists and manifests itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, whose gross forms alone are intelligible to our poor faculties – this knowledge, this feeling… that is the core of the true religious sentiment. In this sense, and in this sense alone, I rank myself among profoundly religious men.’ This makes one realize that the core impulse of science and spirituality is the same – the quest for truth. It is in their focus that they differ the most. While science has dedicated itself to the study of the outer world and its phenomena, spirituality has turned inwards to investigate the mind, consciousness, and their related phenomena. While science has examined reality using measures, instruments and sensory evidence, spirituality has done so through the human being herself. The exteriority of science in face of the interiority of spirituality is what makes the two seem out of step with one another. Understanding this fundamental difference would make it easier for the two to progress into dialog. ‘The finest emotion of which we are capable is the mystic emotion.’Albert Einstein Current ConvergenceThough an honest discourse between science and spirituality may still be a rarity, in recent times there have emerged several instances where the two have seemed to converge, or at least come to be on talking terms. This has happened at times through research leading from and into spiritual insights, and at others through a kind of synchronicity where science has appeared to corroborate spiritual views in one way or another. This latter has been true of discoveries in physics in the last century or so, which have radically altered the conventional scientific view of reality and matter. That what to the naked eye appeared as inert matter was actually constructed of subatomic particles in constant motion brought the static view of reality to a crashing denouement. The quantum theory ushered in a new era of dynamism in science, whose echo in ancient Indian spiritual thought was highlighted by physicist Fritjof Capra in his landmark work, The Tao of Physics. ‘Modern physics has shown that the rhythm of creation and destruction is not only manifest in the turn of the seasons and in the birth and death of all living creatures, but is also the very essence of inorganic matter,’ he said. ‘For the modern physicists, then, Shiva’s dance is the dance of subatomic matter.’ Since then, another, even more radical theory has gripped physics. According to the Superstring Theory, the fundamental particles of the universe are not points but tiny loops, what scientists have termed as ‘strings’. Moreover, these strings vibrate, and the properties of particles are determined by the resonant patterns of vibration of the strings. Thus all matter is a manifestation of the vibration of these strings. This theory is not completely proven since the kind of technology required to do so hasn’t as yet been invented, but if it were to be taken as being true, then it comes very close to the tantric view of creation according to which, energy is the building block of the universe. ‘Everything is fundamentally a vibration.’ This proclamation of Baba Batuknath, a tantric master interviewed in Life Positive’s special issue on tantra (January 2005), could easily be mistaken for the utterance of a string theorist! Environmental sciences form another area that has shown an attitudinal shift towards a more holistic perspective that could be called spiritual in nature. Gaia theory, which posits the Earth as a self-regulating super-organism, comes tantalizingly close to the old cultures and aboriginal faiths around the world that revere the Earth variously as mother, goddess, nurturer, healer. In its impact on ecology and environmental sciences, Gaia theory has caused a subtle yet significant attitudinal shift away from the scientific-materialistic assumption that the Earth is nothing but an amalgamation of chemical and biological constituents and processes. Also, proof of her ‘aliveness’, and the irrevocable interconnectedness of all its constituents (including selfish humankind) may just be what is needed to arouse a reverence towards her among those that mindlessly abuse and exploit her resources. Dr James Lovelock, the originator of Gaia theory, talks about this and more in an interview that appears later in this issue. Lamas in the LabThe one area that has great potential for collaboration between science and spirituality is the study of mind, consciousness and human behavior. This is because spirituality has pioneered deep and incisive explorations into the inner world of humankind for centuries, while science has turned the spotlight onto it relatively recently, only in the last couple of hundred years or so. It is an area where initiatives have been taken to consciously incorporate the perspectives of spiritual traditions into scientific studies. One such ongoing research program has brought lamas into the lab, quite literally. Prof. Richard Davidson, Director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience and the W.M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA, has conducted a series of experiments on monks who are long-time meditators to determine the effects of meditation on the mind. Gaia theory comes close to the old cultures around the world that revere the Earth variously as mother, goddess, nurturer, healer In this research, Prof. Davidson has been aided by Matthieu Ricard, former cellular geneticist who has been a monk in the Tibetan vajrayana tradition since the 1970s, as well as other monks from Shechen Monastery in Nepal. They have co-created several experiments to detect the replacement of negative states of mind with positive ones during meditation – part of contemplative practice in Buddhism where compassion and other positive mind-states are activated in the self through single-pointed
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