8.The Meeting of Science and Spirit
Although I returned from India with a new understanding of God, I was not about to advocate a return to conventional religion. I wanted to translate what the worlds spiritual traditions had discovered about human consciousness into terms and practices applicable to the late twentieth century.
Back at Cambridge, I was faced with the question of how to integrate this new interest into my academic life. In my final undergraduate exams in theoretical physics and experimental psychology, I had been awarded a "First Class" degree (the closest American equivalent is probably summa cum laude). This virtually guaranteed acceptance for Ph.D. studies. I therefore put forward a research proposal on the subject closest to my heartmeditation. I wanted to investigate the changes in brain and body that meditation induced. But the incumbent professor of psychology was not impressed. Meditation, he told me, was not an acceptable subject of study. If I wanted to study fringe phenomena, I could work on hypnosis, but not meditation.
A little crestfallen, I was thinking that it might have to be a job in computers after all. I had, by then, completed a post-graduate degree in Computer Science, and had been approached by IBM about the possibility of working in their research labs in the newly emerging field of computer graphics. Who knows how my life might have developed had I taken that routeespecially considering the vital role computer graphics plays in todays world? However, thanks to some unanticipated events, my career took a different path.
The Stress Lab
A week after my Ph.D. proposal was declined, a friend of mine told his father about my professors disparaging comments on meditation. His father was Professor of Education at Bristol University, in the West of England. A few days later, he happened to mention my story to his colleague, Ivor Pleydell-Pearce, who ran the Psychology Department at Bristol. The next thing I knew, I had an invitation to go down to Bristol to talk.
Ivors research focused on stress, and he was particularly interested in meditation as an antidote to stress. Furthermore, he had an entire laboratory that was not being used, and which he could make available to me. Did I want to come and do my Ph.D. there? Needless to say, I had no difficulty accepting. Funding soon followed, and I was off.
The laboratory at my disposal had a sign on the door saying "The Stress Lab," which amused me, since I was doing research on the very opposite, relaxation. The lab was, however, very useful. It was full of equipment for monitoring physiological processes, the very equipment I needed for my own research. As if that were not perfect enough, the lab also contained a soundproof room. There could hardly have been a less stressful place. With its door closed, there was no sound of the external world at all, total silence, and, when I turned out the lights, total darkness tooa Himalayan cave in a laboratory. I could provide the ideal environment for experimental subjects to come and meditate with minimal disturbance. And at the end of a long day at work, I too had the perfect place for meditation.
Bringing Spirit Down to Earth
My studies, along with those of several researchers in the USA, revealed that Transcendental Meditation elicited physiological changes that were the exact opposite to the stress response. Virtually every indicator of stress, from heart rate and blood pressure to body chemistry and brain activity, changed in the opposite direction during meditation. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School dubbed this the "relaxation response," and almost overnight meditation became respectable. Doctors began recommending it to patients; teachers encouraged students to take it up; even city business people took lessons on the quiet.
This scientific validation of meditation also had a major impact on my own life. During my second year of research I was again approached by IBM, but not about computer graphics. They had heard about the research results and asked if would I teach TM to some of their managers?
So began my corporate career. Over the next twenty years I designed and ran programs for a variety of companies, large and small. My work expanded beyond meditation and stress management into creativity, learning, and communication. Yet my focus was always, in one way or another, on self development. I wanted to take ideas and practices that Id found valuable on my own inner journey and put them into forms that were meaningful to people whose principal concerns were managing staff, meeting corporate targets, and making deals, not to mention paying the mortgage and schooling the kids.
I never spoke in spiritual terms. Most of the people I was working with would have run a mile at any hint of religion or mysticism. But if spiritual wisdom is eternal and universal, then it should, I reasoned, be possible to express it in language appropriate to the current timesthe language of science and reason. For spiritual development to be acceptable it must be reasonable. It must make sense within the current worldview.
Bristol also saw the start of my writing career. In my final year there, the editor of an academic journal invited me to contribute an article on consciousness, I explained that I was a scientist, not a writer. He assured me it was his job as an editor to turn whatever I wrote into good prose. Having submitted my piece, I was surprised to hear him say that it was finein fact, quite lucid.
Only several years later, and with quite a bit more writing behind me, did I understand why. I wrote as a mathematician, constructing a logical sequence of ideas that took the mind step-by-step towards my intended conclusion.
Before leaving Bristol I had begun my first book, The TM Technique. I wanted to tackle some of the misconceptions about TM and to integrate the spiritual aspects of meditation with the scientific research on its effects. On its publication the BBC invited me to produce a radio series on meditation, as a result of which I wrote a second book, called simply Meditation. Two years later, I co-authored a new translation of the Upanishads, one of the cornerstones of Indian philosophy. My growing work in the corporate world led me to write The Brain Book and The Creative Manager. Two more books, The Global Brain and The White Hole in Time, explored the relevance of inner growth to contemporary issues, particularly the information explosion and our ever-accelerating pace of development.
As I continued to explore what spiritual teachings had to say about consciousness, I became increasingly interested in evolutionnot just biological evolution, but evolution in a larger context, from the emergence of primordial matter in the early universe to the development of human culture in modern times. Furthermore, it was clear that along with the evolution of physical form there had been a parallel evolution of consciousness. The future development of the human species, I realized, was not headed further out into space, but inwards into the hidden depths of consciousnessand ultimately to the divine.
As I mentioned at the start of this book, this interest in the evolution of consciousness led me to conclude that the current scientific metaparadigm was incomplete and that consciousness needed to be included as a primary aspect of reality. Pondering the nature of paradigm shifts further, I saw that just as science had evolved through a series of paradigm shifts, so too had religion. Moreoverand this may intially sound surprisingthe two sets of shifts appeared to be heading in the same direction.
The earliest religions probably date back to the time when human beings became aware that they were aware, and recognized that other people were aware. It was then only a small step to suppose that other creatures were also aware. Looking into the eyes of a bear or a crow, it was not hard to imagine that "in there" was another conscious being. The same, it was assumed, applied to plants, and natural phenomena such as rivers and mountains. They too had their own souls or spirits.
The existence of such spirits explained many things to which early peoples had no easy answer. Why rains fell. Why volcanoes erupted. Why people fell sick. Why accidents happened. If a rock rolled down the mountain, injuring one of your tribe, it was possibly because the spirit of the mountain was angry. So you might try to appease it in some waymake an offering perhaps, or pray for forgiveness.
If you had grown up in one of these traditions, its various beliefs would have been taken for reality. It would have constituted the paradigm of your culture; not a scientific paradigm, but a paradigm neverthelessthe worldview that shaped your perception of reality. Day-to-day experiences would be understood within that framework. Any anomalous observationsoffering sacrifices to the mountain did not always prevent rocks falling on peoplewould be ignored, or incorporated in some way within the prevailing worldview.
As cultures evolved, so did peoples views of these spirits. Not only did each animal and plant have its own spirit, so did entire species. There was an oak deva, a bear deity, a crow god. Other natural phenomena had their own ruling spiritsthe god of thunder, the spirit of the wind, the goddess of the earth. These beings did not dwell within the physical form of a particular plant or animal, but often lived up in the sky, on the tops of mountains, or in some other faraway place.
This shift from spirits within natural forms to supernatural ("above nature") gods and deities signified a new religious paradigm, that of polytheism, or "many gods." As with the spirits of earlier religions, the existence of these gods explained many things. In Greek mythology, Apollo rode across the sky carrying the sun in a chariot drawn by four flying horses. Hercules held the world aloft. Cupid made people fall in love. These gods often had very human characters; they could be kind, ambitious, quarrelsome, jealous, angry, or wise. Some were evil, others were forces for good.
They also took an active interest in human affairs, taking care of people in need, and administering a degree of cosmic law and order. Those who behaved badly the gods would punish, either in their own lifetimes or in the afterlifewhich by then had gathered its own rich mythologywhile those who showed due repentance for misdeeds would be forgiven.
The next paradigm shift was the reduction of many gods to one almighty God. Around 600 BC, in Persia, a young man named Zarathustra (said to be born of a virgin) began preaching that there was one true God. There were still various angels, archangels, and a devil, but there was only one saviorAhura Mazda (the Wise Lord). Zarathustras teachings gave rise to the religion of Zorastrianism (Zoroaster is Greek for Zarathustra). It is only a minor religion today, but it paved the way for the major contemporary monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
In these monotheistic religions God was a unique, absolute, personal beingthe supreme intelligence, omnipotent and omniscient. He (for God was usually cast in male form) had not only created the natural world, but continued to watch over it and take care of its peoples.
Love took on an increasingly important role; not emotional romantic love, but devotional love. Love God and God would love you in return. Love for your fellow human beings was likewise importantalthough many found it difficult to practice this with those who worshipped some other God.
Along with the transition from polytheism to monotheism came the emergence of atheism, or "no God." It might seem contradictory to have a religion without a god, but several major traditions have arisen around this theme.
In India, in the sixth century BC, a young prince named Mahavira became disenchanted with his traditional Vedic religion, which advocated the sacrifice of innocent animals, the performance of meaningless rituals, and the belief in fictitious man-made gods. Renouncing the grand lifestyle of his palace, he wandered penniless for thirteen years seeking a better way. Then one day, engrossed in deep meditation, he experienced a unity with all creation and a liberation from worldly woes. He consequently proclaimed himself Jina, the Conquerorthe conqueror of the mind, that isand encouraged his followers, the Jains, to attain a similar liberation through righteous living, non-violence and harmlessness.
Shortly afterwards, another Indian prince, Sidhartha Guatama, likewise left the luxury of his palace and set out to find a way to end suffering. Six years later, in deep meditation, he too attained liberation, and was called Buddhathe awakened one. Buddha realized that suffering was both self-created and unnecessary, and began teaching others how to wake up and find true freedom.
During the same period, two atheistic religions arose in China. Like Jina and Buddha, Lao Tse and Confucius both taught that people could discover truth and find inner peace without believing in any deity. They, too, advocated lives of simplicity, virtue, honesty, and above all, kindness.
This fourth religious paradigm had to forsake some of the benefits provided by a benevolent deity. There was no longer any supernatural agent in human affairs; your destiny was now in your hands. But much of the rest remained. Love, kindness, and right living were important; salvation from the sufferings of the world was still possible. In a sense there was still even a devil, but now the devil was within oneself. The goal was to liberate the mind from its self-imposed limitationsfrom desires, attachments, delusions, and false sense of self.
All is God
Along with the various polytheistic, monotheistic and atheistic religions, another recurrent spiritual theme has been pantheism, meaning "God is all."
Pantheistic ideas have appeared from time to time within most cultures. The sufi mystic Ibn al-'Arabi wrote:
And Meister Eckhart preached that
In Western philosophy pantheism came to prominence in the early nineteenth century in the writings of Georg Hegel, who held not only that all existence is God, but also that the whole of history is part of Gods self-realization. Similar sentiments are found in the twentieth-century philosophies of Alfred North Whitehead, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Sri Aurobindo.
Einstein was a pantheist. He may not have believed in any conventional notion of God, but he did believe that "a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universea spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble."
Pure pantheists believe that God is the essence of all things. Others, called panentheists (meaning "God is in all" rather than "God is all"), believe God is in all things and also beyond them. Some pantheists believe in the reality of the material world; others think it is illusion. Some believe in the existence of individual souls; others do not. But they all reject the notion of God as a separate, supreme, supernatural being, the creator of the world and judge of human affairs.
Many people today are probably pantheists without realizing it. Having no church, no holy text, and no gurus, pantheism is not as visible as other religions, nor is it something you formally join. But many of those who have rejected their traditional monotheistic religion, yet still retain a belief in some deeper divinity, would probably find themselves sympathetic to pantheist ideas.
With pantheism, religion has almost come full circle. The first religions held that all things had an inner spirit; but they projected very human qualities onto these spirits. The pantheist also sees spirit in everything, but a divine spirit rather than one with human qualities and frailties.
Clearly, pantheism is not so very different from the panpsychism discussed in Chapter Three. Indeed, if we identify God with the faculty of consciousness, then the view that consciousness is in everything becomes the view that God is in everything.
The worldviews of science and spirit have not always been as far apart as they are today. Five hundred years ago, there was little difference between them. What science there was existed within the established worldview of the Christian church. Following Copernicus, Descartes and Newton, Western science broke away from the doctrines of monotheistic religion, establishing its own atheistic worldview, which today is now very different indeed from that of traditional religion. But the two can, and I believe eventually will, be reunited. And their meeting point is consciousness. When science sees consciousness to be a fundamental quality of reality, and when religion takes God to be the light of consciousness shining within us all, the two worldviews start to converge.
Nothing is lost in this convergence. Mathematics remains the same; so do physics, biology, chemistry. The shift may throw new light on some of the paradoxes of relativity and quantum theory, but the theories themselves do not change. This is a common pattern in paradigm shifts; the new model of reality includes the old as a special case. Einsteins paradigm shift makes no difference to observers traveling at everyday speeds; as far as we are concerned Newtons laws of motion still apply. In a parallel way, making consciousness fundamental does not change our understanding of the physical world. It does, however, bring a deeper appreciation of ourselves.
The same applies on the spiritual side. Much of the wisdom accumulated over the ages remains unchanged. Forgiveness, kindness, and love are as important as they ever were. Many of the qualities traditionally ascribed to God remain, they being equally applicable to the faculty of consciousness. The difference is that spiritual teachings and scientific knowledge now share a common ground. This too often happens in paradigm shifts. Newton brought terrestrial and celestial mechanics under the same laws. Maxwell integrated electricity, magnetism and light in a single set of equations. With the shift to a consciousness metaparadigmthe paradigm behind the paradigmsthe integration goes much further. It is the two halves of humanitys search for truth that are now brought under the same roof.
This meeting of science and spirit is crucial, not just for a more comprehensive understanding of the cosmos, but also for the future of our species. Today, more than ever, we need a worldview that validates spiritual inquiry, for it is the spiritual aridity of our current times that lies behind so many of our crises.