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Consciousness: The Bridge Between Science and Spirit

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Growing up in England I thought I had no interest whatsoever in spirituality–I never thought I’d be speaking at places like this–or even an interest in consciousness. In my youth I was fascinated by mathematics, theoretical physics. I quit church when I was about 13, when I was brought up regular Anglican-Protestant. Which meant kind of going to church with my parents about once a month or so. That was considered enough to clear any sins we’d committed.

Then I went through the process of confirmation. First we were told the facts of life, which was wonderful. And then what we were meant to believe. I suddenly realize this thing I was chanting in church every Sunday morning, at least once a month or so, The Nicene Creed, I was actually meant to believe it. This was The Creed. This is what I actually meant to believe it. I just realized it didn’t go with what I was learning in physics. With all this stuff that had been laid down in 300 AD about what was meant to believe, the basics. And what physics was telling me about the universe–it wasn’t created about 4000 years ago, it was millions of years old and there wasn’t a heaven up there and all that stuff. So it was a choice. And I decided physics was my way, mathematics and physics. So I told my parents, "That’s it," I was quitting church. Fortunately, they were fine. They just said that’s great. And interestingly enough, when I gave an advanced copy of my new book, From Science to God, to my mother she said, "You know I never believed that stuff my self really."

So I went off to university and I was studying physics, well applied mass theoretical physics. I was actually fortunate enough to be in the same place as Stephen Hawking. He was actually my tutor for a while. He had just completed his own research. He could still walk and talk then. He had to have a stick. But his disease was only just beginning to come on and he hadn’t actually published any of his major work. It was just wonderful just sitting with him and working with him.

I had reached the stage where I could solve Shrödigner’s equation, which–for most of you unless you majored in physics–means absolutely nothing and I’m not going to try and explain it to you. But what it does signify though, which is just fascinating, is that just from pure mathematics you can start deducing the structure of the hydrogen atom, of any atom, and from that the universe starts to unfold. It’s like how mathematics underlies the universe. Then I realized there was a much more interesting question, which was ‘How come I could do that?’ Not how come I could do the mathematics, but how come there were beings in the universe that could actually begin to understand the universe and do the mathematics. I was studying hydrogen–the universe had started off from the simplest element, clear colorless gas. How did that evolve into all the other elements, into life and into beings such as myself who could actually stop and do the mathematics of hydrogen structures. So, to put it another way, ‘how had the universe become self-reflective?’, how had consciousness arisen? And how could I actually stop and ask that question and wonder how I could study hydrogen. So more and more I started getting interested in consciousness and what consciousness was doing in the universe, how it had emerged, because that was the really fascinating thing. I think Einstein had put it very wonderfully himself when he said, "The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible" –the fact that we can actually understand it, how it has arisen.

Science, then and pretty much still today, didn’t want to engage with consciousness. It didn’t know what to do with consciousness. And science has ignored it, for very good reasons for it’s own part. First you can’t measure consciousness. You can’t weigh it. You can’t put a ruler up against it. You can’t time it. It doesn’t fit into the things that science likes to get a hold of and measure. You can’t put numbers against consciousness. Also, science wants to be objective. It wants to look at the objective world. The very essence of consciousness is that it’s subjective. And science tries to get rid of all that subjectivity, which is so variable. You can’t control it. Thirdly, the universe according to modern science seems to work perfectly well with out any need for consciousness. It doesn’t need to engage it. It can understand atoms and living cells and what’s happening out in space. Everything works pretty well without having to explore consciousness.

So there seems to be no need for science to explore consciousness. And yet, this is the interesting thing, consciousness is the one thing of which we are absolutely certain. And we can doubt everything else. I mean right now, who knows, it could be your brain is plugged into some virtual reality machine, which is giving you this experience. We could all be sitting in the Matrix. But even if you’re sitting in the Matrix, you’re still a conscious being having a different experience.

This was something Descartes realized 350 years ago when he said, "Cogito ergo sum"–I think, therefore I am. What he was looking for was ‘what is the absolute truth’, as many philosophers have done. And he suddenly realized whatever is absolute truth has to be beyond any doubt whatsoever. So he developed this technique of doubting things. And he sat down one evening to think what was there he could not doubt. Then he started doubting his own thinking, doubting philosophies, doubting what he was feeling. He even got as far as to doubting he actually had a body–that could be an illusion. Then he realized the only thing he could not doubt was that he was doubting and that he was thinking. And that let him to the conclusion, to this long series which was all written in Latin because that is what philosophers wrote in, the final line was ‘Because I am thinking, therefore I am.’ Am-ness was the only thing he could not doubt. He could not doubt, being-ness, consciousness.

And that’s true of us today. We cannot doubt that we are consciousness. So the most certain thing there is in our lives–our consciousness– is the one thing that science cannot explain. It’s easier to explain how hydrogen evolved into other elements–how those elements probably gathered together to form living systems, how those living systems evolved, how our bodies work. All of that is easier than explaining why we ever have one single thought, or experience, or feeling. According to science, it should all go on in the dark, so to speak. We don’t need awareness.

So that’s the big conundrum for science at the moment. Why is there consciousness in the universe? And at the moment it’s trying to account for it with quantum physics, or chaos theory. There are a lot of different theories going around. But none of them ever get down to the question of how is it that something as unconscious as matter ever give rise to something as immaterial as consciousness. That’s the big question.

Meanwhile, for thousands of years, the great mystics, saints, spiritual people, have been exploring consciousness first hand. Not trying to look at it theoretically, but getting in there, meditating, whatever, exploring consciousness. And one of the key questions has been, What is the very essence of consciousness? What is the self? What is the "I"? And this was a statement from the Delphic oracle, "Know thyself." It comes up again and again and again. What is the self, the essence of consciousness? Very simply, what is the "I"? What do we mean by "I"? I is a word that I use. I’m using it already. Many, many times I use the word. I don’t even count how many times I use it each day. We all know what we mean by "I", right. Until you come to define it. We think we know what we mean by it. I am Peter Russell. That’s just my name. I am British. That just happens to be my passport, my accent, what I identify with. But it’s not "I". I am a male. I could imagine myself being in a female body. I would have the same sense of I-ness. My thoughts, feelings, experiences, view of the world, might be quite different. But that deep sense of I-ness, I think, would be exactly the same. It’s just that I would identify with different characteristics.

I think what I mean by I-ness, what I feel is my I-ness, is exactly what everybody else feels, there’s no difference. At that deepest level we’re all exactly the same. It’s just the stuff that gets built around it is different. But at that deepest level we’re all exactly the same. And this was something actually, going back to Shrödinger–the quantum physicist. He was fascinated by the whole subject of consciousness. And he actually wrote something very beautiful about this. He was writing about the 1930s. And he said, "What is this ‘I’? You will, on close introspection, find that what you really mean by ‘I’ is the ground stuff upon which all experience is based."

So what he’s really saying is that the I-ness is consciousness. It’s that feeling of Being-ness. It’s not so much that you are a being who has consciousness. It’s that you are consciousness, period. And within all that self-identity and stuff grow up. Now what the mystics have said–and this is almost a universal statement from across all cultures, histories– is that when you get down and really start exploring the nature of the essence of I-ness, that universal I-ness, is when you come across the Divine, God, whatever you want to call it. That is the Divine.

I think one of the best statements I’ve come across is by Thomas Merton, the contemporary mystic and scholar. And Thomas Merton said, "If I penetrate to the depths of my own existence and my own present reality, the indefinable am that is myself in its deepest roots, then through this deep center I pass into the infinite I am which is the very Name of the Almighty." Let’s read that again because there is so much in it. "If I penetrate to the depths of my own existence and my own present reality, the indefinable am that is myself in its deepest roots, then through this deep center I pass into the infinite I am which is the very Name of the Almighty."

And that is something that comes up again and again. ’I AM’ is the name of God. The Ramana Maharshi said exactly that. He said, "’I AM’ is the name of God…God is none other than the self." It’s in the phrase, "Be still and know that I am God." I don’t think that means, " You, over there, be still. Stop fidgeting around and be quiet. And recognize the fact that I, over here, am the Almighty Creator of the universe. So shut up and listen to me." It doesn’t mean that at all, clearly. What it means is "Be still" –still the mind. And when the mind is completely still, and you get in touch with that essential nature of consciousness, then you know–not an intellectual understanding, but as a realization–that the sense of I AM-ness is the Divine. Be still and realize that I AM—ness is the Divine in each of us. It’s interesting, when Moses was at the burning bush and met the Great Spirit, and asked the Great Spirit to identify itself. It said, "I AM THAT I AM." The I AM-ness.

And probably one of the best statements of it is, if you go to India, some of the oldest, or the oldest scriptures we have are in the Vedas of ancient India–3-4000 years old or even older if they were handed down by word of mouth. And there you find the idea that Atman is Brahman. Atman means really the essence of consciousness. Atman is when you take away all one’s thoughts, one’s feelings, one’s experiences, one’s sense of being an individualized, localized self. When you get down below everything, when the mind is completely still, you reach that Atman–which is the universal pure consciousness. That is the same for each and every one of us. And that Atman–which is the universal pure consciousness–is Brahman, which is the source of all. We might translate that as God. The essence of self is God.

Of course, what has happened in our culture, in the past when people have woken up to this and said, "I am God," immediately classical religions have jumped on top of them. Meister Eckhart was often preaching this in his sermons, "I and God are one." Of course the Vatican jumped on top of him and said you cannot say that. You can have an experience of One-ness with the Divine, but you cannot actually say you are God because that’s blasphemy. And there were actually people burnt at the stake for saying it.

I think what we are coming to realize now, today, is that there is an absolutely profound truth in that, which is probably the essence of all spiritual teaching, all spiritual awakening. And I think that that is what science is about to open itself to. It doesn’t realize this yet. At the moment science thinks it’s studying the material world. But it’s beginning to get interested in consciousness. There are lots of conferences now on science and consciousness, and new journals and papers being published, and people talking about it. Some of you may have even been to these events.

If you look at most of the scientists are doing, they are trying to explain consciousness within the current worldview. And the current worldview says the real world is the world of matter, space, time and matter. And so they’re struggling with how does consciousness come out of that. Some people are looking to quantum physics, others are looking to chaos theory. Some people think it’s all to do with the chemicals in the brain. But they’re all stuck in this idea that consciousness has to come out of matter.

What I think, what I am proposing, is we actually skip that and say let’s just accept that consciousness is. Period. Consciousness is absolutely fundamental to the cosmos, that everything is conscious. And I don’t think that consciousness is limited to human beings. Maybe our particular mode of self-consciousness is. But we’re not really even sure of that. I mean, who knows what goes on with dolphins and whales and things. Well, I think all creatures are conscious. I mean a dog to me is clear a conscious being. It may not think like we do, or reason. But it has experiences. It seems to dream at night. In fact, if we didn’t believe that dogs were conscious, we wouldn’t give them anesthetics when we operated on them. We’d just say, "Oh, that’s just some biological reaction, all that yelping. Don’t worry." And we don’t. We feel it’s experiencing pain. So we, we protect it.

What’s happened, I think with evolution, is not that consciousness suddenly appeared on this planet or the universe. It’s always there, right from the very start. But what’s happened is, as life has evolved, and senses have evolved, and nervous systems have evolved, what manifests in consciousness–the images, if you like, that appear in consciousness–they’ve gotten richer and richer and more complex, until today we probably have the richest consciousness of any creature on the planet. I mean, in terms of sensory experience, we’re no richer than any other mammal. In fact we’re less rich. A dog hears sounds we don’t hear, and smells things we don’t smell. What we’ve added is a whole realm of understanding, perhaps emotions, a whole depth of perception that isn’t there with other animals. So we have the richest consciousness.

But we’ve also screwed things up somewhat with that. We’ve got so caught in this illusory sense of self and what we think we want in the world that we’re now actually destroying our very planet out of this misguided consciousness because we’re always wanting something else. You know a dog, if it’s got nothing to do–like this one down here–it doesn’t actually worry and get bored and start complaining that it doesn’t understand this particular thing that it’s having to go through right now. It just lies down and goes to sleep. It’s far more intelligent than us. We start wondering what’s on the television, or I haven’t read the newspaper, or let’s just go surfing the internet and see what’s actually out there.

So, if science begins to accept that consciousness is fundamental, things begin to look very different. Instead of trying to explain it, just accept that consciousness is part of the cosmos. It doesn’t threaten anything in modern science. So I want to put a big notice up for modern scientists saying, "This is no threat." Making consciousness fundamental, and stop trying to explain it, doesn’t actually threaten anything. All of physics, chemistry, biology, works perfectly well as it is. Nothing changes. It does actually change some of the problems we see in relativity and quantum physics. At the edge of physics there are various paradoxes, which come from the observer affect–it is often called. Those paradoxes aren’t so problematic when you make consciousness fundamental. I mean, it doesn’t actually change anything.

But what it does do–it’s what I find so fascinating, for what is does do when you accept consciousness as fundamental rather than trying to explain it–it open up the worldview and begins to include spirituality. It begins to make sense of what all the great spiritual teachers and saints and yogis and mystics for thousands of years have been saying in their own particular way and particular language. But, of course, we don’t fully understand it. But, actually, it begins to make sense of it.

And, in particular what I’m interested, in is how it begins to make sense of the Divine, of God. Because where you end up is with a worldview that starts saying the self and consciousness and God are actually all the same. There’s an identity there, a trinity. The self, what we mean by the self when you get down to it, is consciousness. The self is the experience, the feeling, the first person feeling-ness of consciousness. And that the consciousness is Divine. And to me that trinity parallels the Christian trinity of God, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost–if we just drop some of the masculine language there. But God the Father I call God the Source, the source of everything, the Brahman. God, the Source of everything. God the Child. The Child of God. We are each a child of that. Our own consciousness is a Child of that Infinite Great Spirit, the Source of everything. We are each that Child of God. And that is the Spirit. The consciousness is the Spirit. The light that lighteth every mind. That is our essence.

Then you find that when you make that hypothesis, so many statements about God start making sense in a while new way. I find that really, really powerful. It starts impacting how we live our lives. For example, God is the truth. That’s what Descartes saw. Consciousness is the truth. The one thing we cannot deny is consciousness. It is the truth. God is omnipresent. I already said how consciousness is in everything. But it also only present with us.

You know the old phrase–I’m sure you’ve heard it–"Wherever you go, there you are." Which, on the surface level, we can interpret as "You can’t escape yourself." And your stuff–your worries, your fears, all that–you can’t run away from yourself. But it also means wherever you go, there is that sense of Being-ness. There has never been a moment where there has not been consciousness. You may have been fast asleep. You may have been dreaming, whatever. But the consciousness is there. It’s impossible to think of yourself as not being conscious, not in some way. So wherever you go, there is consciousness. Wherever you go there is the Divine with you as your essence.

What we tend to do is look outside for everything. What I want to talk a bit about this afternoon is how we get stuck in certain ways of thinking, certain modes of consciousness, which really are not only screwing up the planet, but screwing up our personal lives. And the whole of spiritual practice starts to make new sense. But what happens is we get stuck in various ways of looking at the world. But what it is that you’re looking for out there is actually within you. The peace you’re looking for is actually there. It’s always with you. The joy you’re looking for out there is actually there. It is the Divine. The love we’re looking for. I mean God is love is a statement that comes up again and again and again. That is something that is our essence.

But this is not something that we have to just understand and accept theoretically. The real challenge we are facing today is not just how we understand this. That’s beginning to happen. But how do we live it. How do we turn this into practice in our daily life, as well as expanding the worldview to include a much richer understanding of spirituality that’s relevant to the 21st century. It’s actually, how do we now understand spiritual practice. And that’s what I’m most interested in–things like prayer. How does prayer become when instead of thinking it as praying to some external being, we’re praying to our own inner most essence? That shifts. How compassion changes when we recognize that every single being is absolutely the same as us in their deepest essence.

So, I think what we are living through are the most exciting and challenging times ever–I was going to say in human history–but probably the most exciting and challenging ever in the history of this planet. It’s partly because of all the developments that are taking place–the science, the technology that there, the internet. But I think that’s small compared to what is really happening. The crisis we are facing is really a spiritual crisis. The crisis we are facing in terms of the environment, various aspects of society. It actually because we have lost sight of what the great traditions have been trying to tell us for thousands of years. We’ve gotten so wrapped up in our materialistic worldview, we’re ignoring it, or even ridiculing it. When a mystic says, "I am God," or something, science says, "That’s just clearly a deranged mind–the result of too much mediation. How can anybody seriously think anything of that."

I think what we’re opening to is realizing the profound truth to that. And that is what is needed today. And that is something happening collectively in our society. In the past it may have been an individual realized that–Mohammad, Buddha, Jesus–individuals realized that incredible wisdom and started teaching it to other people. But inevitably what happens when you start teaching it and passing it on, bits begin to get lost and bits start to get changed, bits get forgotten. It’s like taking a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy. It get worse and worse and worse and worse. That’s called truth decay. The truth just gradually decays over time.

What’s happening today is something completely different. I don’t think it’s ever, ever happened in the history of humanity. It’s happening globally. Millions and millions of people are beginning to wake up and realize that essential wisdom. It’s like we’re pulling ourselves up together. It’s not like there’s one of us who’s got it and telling everybody else. There are certainly some people who have a lot of wisdom or are enlightened–quite a few maybe. But what is really happening is this grassroots movement putting things together. And that’s what I think makes these times so exciting.

When I first started getting interested spirituality, back at Cambridge, when I sort of realized there maybe something there after all–after my ten years of atheism. I would go to the local bookstore–the second biggest bookstore in England, the one at Cambridge University–and there was this tiny shelf up in a corner. It had books on spirituality. You now go into a reasonably sized city and there’s a bookstore devoted to it. And that’s partly a reflection of the growing interest in the market. It is also a reflection of thousands and thousands and thousands of people working on their own inner awakening, coming to realizations, having experiences, writing a books on it, people reading those books, integrating that into their own worldview, growing a little bit themselves, putting out something else. You coming here today is a part of that. We are continually learning from each other. It’s a collective movement that is happening. We are gradually raising ourselves up.

I think that in the future, historians will look back on this time–2 to 3 hundred years in the future–the end of the 20th century, the beginning of the 21st century and see this as the time of the great transformation, the great awakening, or whatever they want to call it. We’re so immersed in it we don’t actually see what’s happening. But it’s something that’s actually just been happening over the last 20 to 30 or 40 years. And it’s happening faster and faster. I think this is the most fascinating thing. And science isn’t there yet. As I say, as science begins to open up to consciousness, and when it begins to accept that consciousness is fundamental, and that that is no threat to science and it’s ok to do that, it’s going to unwittingly find itself opening up to what all the great spiritual teachings have been trying to say and tell it. And that, to me, is what makes these times so exciting, that real integration of these two worlds.


Consciousness: The Bridge from Science to God - Peter Russell

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