By Swati Chopra
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 Ground
It 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.’
Though 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 Lab
The 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 concentration and visualization.
The findings show that, ‘The monks (during meditation) showed greater signal in every part of the brain compared to the control group (new meditators), especially in parts of the brain related to attention,’ says Prof. Davidson. ‘Over time, the signal in adepts remained elevated through rest and meditation.’ When Matthieu Ricard was tested while voluntarily generating compassion during meditation, another Buddhist meditation practice, it was found that gamma activity, which shows recruitment of neural resources and occurs with mental effort and motivation, began increasing. In fact so large was this increase in gamma signal that it had ‘never been seen before’ said Prof. Davidson. One hopes studies such as these will translate into more people learning to meditate!
Science is also looking to spirituality, especially its streams that have explored the mind and devised ways of transforming it, for practical tools with which to correct emotional and behavioral disorders and enhance happiness and well-being. Such a collaborative venture began in 1979, when Professor of Medicine Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Stress Reduction Clinic (SRC) at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, USA. At the SRC evolved the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR), a pioneering effort in the US that integrated mindfulness meditation practices into the mainstream of medicine and healthcare, and used them to treat patients suffering from chronic physical and emotional effects of stress.
The MBSR program consists of an eight-week course aimed at the basic cultivation of mindfulness, defined as ‘an intentional focused awareness, a way of paying attention on purpose in the present moment, non-judgmentally’. This enables the individual to let go of the fears and desires that perpetually keep them either mourning the past or anticipating the future. Jon Kabat-Zinn discovered that bringing attention back to the present moment helped people face their stress and move towards a healing acceptance of their lives.
He says in his new book, Coming to our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World through Mindfulness (Piatkus, 2005), ‘The good news… is that each and every one of us can have a hand, finally, in facing and embracing the fullness of what we are as human beings, in affirming that whoever we are, it is possible to wake up to what is hidden and opaque, frightened and frightening in us that shapes our lives whether we know it or not, and to awaken as well to other, healthier, saner longings… and let them flower in our lives in ways that are restorative and healing, and in many cases, dramatically symptom reducing. My colleagues and I in MBSR clinics… have seen this happen for countless people suffering from unthinkable levels of stress, pain, illness…’ Since its inception, more than 13,000 people have benefited from the MBSR program and the results have been widely documented in the American mass media and around the world and have opened up a new avenue in the field of behavioral studies.
As we have seen from the two above examples, science and spirituality can happily come together in areas connected with the human psyche and the inner world. Where they trip up is when they come up against the conundrum of consciousness that science is still struggling with conceptually, and the scientific divide that keeps the mind tied to the physical brain and its neurons and synapses. Spiritual traditions have long maintained the mind to be a much greater phenomenon, the software that powers the hardware of the brain. Science, on the other hand, maintains the hardware to be all, and the complex processes of thinking and feeling and also meditating and enhanced awareness, even nirvana or self-realization or experiencing God, as being products of neuronal interactions and chemical processes. Spiritual seekers and practitioners, who have connected with higher planes of consciousness and levels of being through the agency of a mind refined in dhyana and samadhi, know this not to be true. Perhaps science in future will rise above its current compulsive reductionism and become more open to the idea that lamas or no lamas, all truth is not provable in the laboratory, so that this crucial aspect of human existence could also be brought into the purview of the science-spirituality dialog.
Forging an Alliance
Though I have mostly focused on how science can take spirituality into account and incorporate its ideas and spirit into its own quest to know, I believe that spirituality must learn from science too. When Einstein said, ‘Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind,’ he was pointing to precisely this mutuality, which is also the hallmark of any true dialog.
Though one comes across several spiritual gurus who refer to science in their discourses, few go beyond the immediate need of using a scientific discovery or theory to validate their own teachings, thus treating science as nothing more than a rubber-stamp of authenticity. There are some who go beyond this lip-service, and it is they who foster real dialog by being as willing to learn as they are to teach. Masters such as Sri Aurobindo, Osho and Ramesh Balsekar, among others, have stepped beyond their traditions to look and understand the workings of science. And another – His Holiness the Dalai Lama – has become involved in and helped foster what could be seen as an exemplar of a successful, modern-day dialog between science and spirituality.
‘For the modern physicist, Shiva’s dance is the dance of subatomic matter.’
Held under the aegis of the Mind and Life Institute, the Mind and Life Conferences have been held regularly since 1987 with the aim ‘to establish a powerful working collaboration and research partnership between modern science and Buddhism – the world’s two most powerful traditions for understanding the nature of reality and investigating the mind’. Each conference is structured around one particular topic, some of which have been – Sleeping, Dreaming and Dying; Altruism, Ethics and Compassion; New Physics and Cosmology; Destructive Emotions; Nature of Matter, Nature of Life, Neuroplasticity, among others. Spread over five days, they include presentations by scientists in the first half, followed by comments and discussions with the Dalai Lama.
In the Mind and Life Conferences, the Dalai Lama has displayed the rare quality to listen and be open to contrary views, modifying his own when sufficiently convinced. His is a dynamic mind that refuses to be dogmatic about anything, least of all his own tradition: very much in the spirit of the Buddha, who instructed his followers never to accept anything, not even his own teachings, without adequate questioning and reasoning. Only those that stood the test were to be applied, the others discarded, not unlike the research method of the contemporary scientist. This attitude has enabled the Dalai Lama to accept scientific theories where applicable, and also contribute the wisdom of his own tradition to the dialog from a place of understanding. Thus a two-way interaction has been created from which Buddhism stands to gain as much as science – accepting new challenges to its teachings and methods will not only increase its vigor but also keep it updated and relevant to its times. This is the gauntlet that will be thrown before spirituality in any dialog with science, and one it must accept in the interest of its own continuing growth.
The split between self and world caused by Cartesian dualistic thinking created a reductionist viewpoint for science to follow.
A recurring demand that science makes of spiritual traditions, certainly during the Mind and Life Conferences, is a plea to help sort out its ethics. The 2004 conference on Neuroplasticity, for instance, saw the scientists ask the Dalai Lama to respond to their ethical dilemma – in a situation where resources were limited, should they use their research findings in the field of brain development for the most mentally-disadvantaged children, or enhance the already bright ones? In the 2002 conference on ‘Nature of Matter, Nature of Life’, the Dalai Lama was asked to help resolve the difficult ethical questions thrown up by genetic engineering by geneticists working on the human genome project.
While science itself may be seen to have an inherent ethic of open-mindedness, it seems to find itself groping in the dark when faced with issues that are ethical in a relational sense, in terms of the impact of their discoveries and research. Science is essentially amoral. The same processes and theories can be used to manufacture cheap electricity and the atomic bomb. It needs ethics at the impact stage, when its findings begin to take shape and affect people’s lives. And because science is stumbling upon these ethical issues, spirituality must find ways of addressing them. As the Dalai Lama has said, ‘With the ever growing impact of science on our lives, religion and spirituality have a greater role to play reminding us of our humanity…’
For his part, the Dalai Lama responded to the above-mentioned queries on ethics, and to similar ones put before him at other times, by referring to the ethical touchstones of motivation, intentionality, and above all, compassion. ‘By establishing the foundation of one’s actions in genuine affection,’ he told the neuroscientists they could resolve all problems of ethics. ‘You don’t need expertise or high education to do this… this is a natural instinct in all of us. If we act out of compassion, it is positive even if it outwardly appears harsh. And if there is any other motivation, even though it may seem beautiful, it is unethical.’
The hope held out by existing and potential dialog between science and spirituality is of the evolution of a science that is gentler and more aware of its responsibility towards humankind, the Earth and its environment, and of a spirituality that is more experimental, non-dogmatic, and open to new influences and ideas. This is the motivation with which this issue of Life Positive attempts to explore the interaction between science and spirituality.
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