In this (as yet hypothetical) situation, what type of conversation would take place if Richard Dawkins sat down for a couple of hours to discuss the nature of reality with Eckhart Tolle? From the outset, this meeting is unlikely to take place, because Dawkins revels in debate and challenging dialogue, wherein sharp thinking is given lofty status, and the mind with all its cognitive faculties and abilities is revered as the apex of human achievement – and ultimately, where scientists are lauded the special status of being the only people who are in the position to view the world through rational eyes.
To enlightened spiritual masters such as Tolle on the other hand, the thinking mind has long been relegated to the lowly position of an unruly and mischievous monkey – a capricious tool, which is sometimes useful but far more often dysfunctional and destructive. For Tolle, a Cambridge scholar and thus no stranger to intellectual musing, mastering the mind needs to be an overarching priority if humans are to stand any chance of using it as a force for good, and to stop the ensuing destruction of the earth. He might offer the insight that being a human is great in spite of thinking, not because of it.
To me, the nature of such a union is intriguing because, when it comes to science and spirituality, I have one foot squarely in each camp. I studied biology at Oxford, where I had lectures in the same building, in fact, that Dawkins studied zoology in the early 1960s. To me and my classmates back then, Dawkins was exalted to demigod status (his masterpiece The selfish Gene was, of course, a key book on the reading list) and, even though I only saw Dawkins once during my time there, his name and reputation gave sense to a hallowed presence, haunting the corridors of the zoology department with stirrings of visionary scholarship and brilliance. The one time I did see him – walking down the corridor from the canteen – I was frozen in time, star struck, like one might be if meeting Darwin or Einstein. To this day, I still respect Dawkins for his genuine love of science, for his unpretentiousness when discussing it, and – above all – for striving to engage the public by simplifying and beautifying the promulgation of science so it can be understood and cherished by all – scientist and layman alike. I think Dawkins truly embraces Einstein’s dictum ‘if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough’ – and I’m sure that Dawkins would be the first to rail against the habit of many scientists to write in convoluted and ivory-tower language. In light of all this, Dawkins was appointed Simonyi professor for the public understanding of science.
After leaving university I, for one reason or another, became interested in spirituality of the secular kind, e.g. Buddhism, Taoism and Zen. Needless to say (but just to clarify), when I talk of spirituality here I am not referring in any way to religion. Useful as religious practice might be to foster a sense of community, I see religion and spirituality as diametrically opposed, for the simple reason that spiritual truth grows in accordance with one’s lack of belief. Or in other words, and as Eckhart Tolle might say, the best spiritual practices are those which require the fewest number of beliefs, since spirituality in its purest form is about accepting facts, living in reality, and realising the truth. By definition then, it would be an oxymoron to state that you believe in the truth, just as it would be if you said that you believe in the law of gravity or that the earth orbits the sun. Incidentally, this is why Buddha spoke it negative terms about the nature of reality (i.e. what it isn’t) so that people couldn’t build mental concepts around it; the Buddha being aware of the seductive belief-forming tendencies of the mind. And similarly, therefore, the Tao Te Ching begins with the immortal words ‘The Tao that can be spoken of is not the true Tao’. If you’ve read any teachings by the late Krishnamurti, you might be aware of his fondness to recite the following story to differentiate spirituality from religion:
The devil and his accomplice were walking down the road one day and ahead of them on the path they saw a man bend down and pick up something. ‘’What did he pick up’’? the accomplice asked. ‘’He picked up the truth’’, the devil replied. ‘’Oh, that must be very bad business for you’’ the accomplice cautioned. ‘’Not at all’’, the devil retorted, ‘’I’m going to help him to organise it’’.
With this distinction in mind, let it also be known that another dead end of sorts would be to study spirituality in an academic manner. Since thinking is largely incompatible with spiritual experience, some Zen masters might jokingly counsel you to put such spiritual texts to good use – by either throwing them into the fire or by using them as a doorstop. So then, just so that we are on the same page, spirituality is about living an actualised state of being, not about concepts and beliefs, and the analogy Eckhart Tolle uses is to say that you could do a PhD on honey without ever having tasted it. Spirituality is about tasting the honey!
With this logic and scepticism then, I was happy to stumble upon Eckhart Tolle’s book The power of Now in 2004, a year after leaving university. Since that serendipitous moment, I have been an avid fan of Tolle’s work – which now includes books, audiobooks, meditations, seminars, and talks/interviews which are freely available on YouTube. In a similar way to Dawkins, I respect Tolle for the beautiful simplicity with which he gets the spiritual message across. Furthermore, I appreciate the way Tolle tackles questions with the precision of a master logician; able to distil ideas which are usually shrouded in a web of philosophical narrative into simple facts, or the truth. Coming full circle, it is possible to see that spiritual truth and logic are one and the same. ‘‘That the present moment is the only time that exists is a fact that even the best philosophers couldn’t argue against’’, Tolle has said. Indeed, to become a spiritual master, you really need to be able to be rational and logical – the hallmarks, ironically, of a good scientist (N.B. all true spiritual masters fully accept scientific facts such as evolution and climate change and, perhaps paradoxically, have one thing in common – they have the mental acuity of the sharpest scientist). The Buddha was, perhaps, one of the first genius scientists to walk the earth. He arrived at his realisations not through mystical revelation, but through methodological, dialectical, logical questioning – and a deep (but compassionate) scepticism as to the nature of the mind. The Buddha said:
‘’Wise men don’t accept my words just because they are the words of the Buddha, simply out of reverence for me, but just as a goldsmith would test the gold through various procedures and then finally make a judgement, similarly accept the validity of my statements only after you have subjected them to analysis and investigation’’.
I see Tolle as a Yoda figure, with a deep humanity and a witty sense of humour – and whose voice and teachings have an unrivalled power (in my experience) of being able to encourage people to sink into the sacredness of the present moment.
Several years after reading The Power of Now, I happened to get a job working with a lady in Glastonbury, England, who used to holiday in a B&B which was adjoined to where Tolle was living at the time in Glastonbury back in the early 1990s. Fascinated that I should be working with someone who met Tolle, I asked lots of questions about him. The one thing that stood out was my colleague’s recollection that whenever Tolle popped round for a cup of tea, all the cats in the B&B would gravitate towards him and jump on his lap as if drawn by a Jedi-like force. Eager to learn more, one day me and a friend walked up to where Tolle had lived. To our surprise, one of his old neighbours was still living there, and he was happy to regale us with stories of Tolle, which – sensing that my friend and I were on a pilgrimage of sorts and geared up like ‘number 1 fans’ in a spiritual mosh pit – spiralled into a funny Monty Python-esq satirical ramble on the shortcomings of Tolle as a neighbour and as a human being.
‘’He would bang away on that old type-writer of his all day long’’, his old neighbour lamented. ‘’God knows what he was typing’’. ‘’He would drive a Lada car’’, he went on, ‘’that let down the tone of the entire neighbourhood… he wasn’t much of a gardener either – he went to the garden centre once to buy a shrub, but he didn’t realise that he’d bought a tree and it grew to be 30 feet high!’’ Sighs… ‘’I went to Findhorn once, don’t see the point of all that presence stuff these days. What’s the use of it? It doesn’t help to pay the mortgage!’’.
I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much in my life. We were sure Tolle’s old neighbour was playing the Devil’s advocate and imbuing his (undoubtedly loving memories) with a heavy dose of British slapstick humour for our amusement. Either that, or perhaps the guy really didn’t get the point of Tolle’s teachings – teachings, in fact, which emerged in that very house atop that windswept hill in the magical vale of Avalon, and which went on to become the seminal book on practical, secular spirituality. To this day, I don’t know.
So, what then, is the point of this article? A meeting between Dawkins and Tolle would be a symbolic union between science and spirituality. A big question has emerged in the first years of this new millennium whether these two worlds can be bridged? What is the role of science, and what is the role of spirituality, in human existence? Where do science and spirituality intersect, where do they diverge, or (as alluded to before) are they really that different at all? This question is being posed by many people, including author Greg Braden and the team at Sacred Science, and a prominent debate took place between Deepak Chopra and Leonard Mlodinow which culminated in a co-authored book War of the Worldviews, Where Science and Spirituality Meet – And Do Not. A debate even took place between Deepak Chopra and Richard Dawkins in 2013 in Pueblo, Mexico, but this didn’t fare so well since Dawkins and Chopra seem to antagonise each other to the hilt.
The Dawkins / Chopra feud dates back to at least 2007 when Dawkins interviewed Chopra for his documentary called – undeclared and unbeknownst to Chopra – ‘Enemies of Reason’. The uncut and edited versions of the interview were markedly different and Chopra was justified in complaining that Dawkins had ‘played God in the editing room’. Since then, the battle raged on for the best part of a decade and has become emblematic of the rising tensions between the orthodox scientific establishment and a new wave of scientists, such as Chopra, who wish to see science embrace freer, more open and less dogmatic inquiry. In an odd way, the war of worldviews between Dawkins and Chopra harks back to a colonial past – Chopra’s ideas being informed by the wellspring of the spiritual traditions of India, and Dawkins being somewhat a caricature of a dusty Victorian relic from the Age of Enlightenment – very British, very stubborn, and slightly at odds with modern culture so much so that you could picture him feeling far more at home having an after-dinner pipe with H.G.Wells or Alfred Russel Wallace, or nosediving into a satirical and detached book by P.G Wodehouse, rather than face the incongruities and banalities of the modern age. In a twist of irony, the Age of real Enlightenment started in India, and at least 2,000 years before the intellectual Age of Enlightenment of Europe. To this end, scientific and spiritual enlightenment are both about truth – be it an outer one and inner one, respectively. As Carl Jung said, ‘’when we look outward we dream, when we look inward we awaken’’. In this way science, which has been gazing outward for hundreds of years, has become lost in a dream. And some say it needs spirituality to help it look inward and awaken to its full humanistic and level-headed utilitarian potential.
What if Dawkins met Tolle, instead of Chopra? I’m sure the dialogue would be more genial, grounded, and even constructive. However, in my satirical mind’s eye, I envisage that the crux of the conversation would amount to this impasse:
Dawkins: ‘’Amazing! One day scientists will discover the origin of the universe!’’
Tolle: ‘’Oh. Very well. Remember to do your laundry and to take out the trash’’.
Thus, in a very Zen way, Tolle might remind Dawkins that scientific discovery and intellectual wizardry don’t add much to the essential experience of being a human being. One way to understand the satirical angle I take (on this meeting between Dawkins and Tolle) is to keep in mind that science is just a part of the human story – a human story which is around 200,000 years old, within a life history on earth dating back 3.5 billion years, within a universe 15 billion years old. Like Russian Dolls. And, all this within a cosmic story which is, perhaps, timeless. To this extent, I wholeheartedly include in the definition of ‘spirituality’ anything that pertains to a deep respect and feeling of union for the sacredness of the earth and the wonder of the cosmos – whether that be shamanism (past and present), indigenous wisdom traditions, the Yogic and meditative traditions of the Indian subcontinent, certain branches of mysticism, and even texts of the Bible or other holy books which encourage direct insight and revelation of the divine within (such as the banned Gnostic texts) as opposed to seeking the divine without – as prescribed by orthodox religion.
The question is, what kind of human story best serves humanity and the earth? And, thus, what kind of human story do we choose to regulate scientific discourse? – remembering that science is only an aspect of the human story, not the other way around, and that scientific and technological progress make no sense if they come at the cost of human peace and ecological sustainability.
For a couple of hundred years, science (and by science, I mean the orthodox, materialist paradigm of science Dawkins is associated with) has been proudly and steadfastly extricating itself from anything seen as decidedly unscientific; be it religion, the supernatural, the immeasurable, unobservable and unfalsifiable, and even the spiritual. Emerging from thousands of years of magic, voodoo and intellectual squalor, science raises the human mind above the wasteland of human ignorance and delusion to become the only bastion of hope for understanding the universe in a rational and objective way – or so someone like Dawkins might have us believe.
But as orthodox science has tried to wriggle free in this way, I would argue it has ended up getting itself caught up in a Boa-Knot of stubbornness at the event horizon of discovery, only to wind itself into a tighter and tighter space – refusing to acknowledge the possibility that science needs the transcendent, or even just that it needs to be less dogmatic. As many ‘radical’ scientists hope, a new era of unshackled, open and truly sensible scientific inquiry would welcome the bridging of science and spirituality. As the scientific genius and lifelong agnostic Charles P. Steinmetz is purported to have said, ‘’the greatest scientists of the future will be those who chart and explore Spiritual Laws’’. And Steinmetz, when asked what branch of science would make most progress in the future, replied ‘’spiritual realization’’. This was in the early 20th century, and it has taken a hundred years or so for this to even begin to come to pass. Within this time, however, other scientific geniuses spoke out in support of the bond between science and spirituality. Einstein said, ‘’everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe—a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble… the most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical. It is the power of all true art and science’’.
Einstein described his spirituality as a ‘cosmic religion’ – which came to be known as an Einsteinian religion for the wonder and mystery of the universe – and he opined that cosmic religion (read: spirituality) was necessary for science, saying, ‘’science without spirituality is lame, spirituality without science is blind’’. To Einstein, science and spirituality became integrated, such that they were essentially one and the same, and so that rational scientific discovery itself became a spiritual act.
Dawkins once remarked that he thinks Jesus would have been too intelligent to believe in religion – ‘’Jesus would have been an atheist’’, Dawkins remarked. I’m sure that Tolle would agree with this sentiment, although Tolle might suggest it was Jesus’s wisdom, rather than his intelligence, which would have liberated him from the dogma of religion. In a similar vein, I believe that Dawkins is too intelligent (or, hopefully, too wise) to dismiss spirituality. Indeed, he has expressed a sympathy toward it. But I think that if he thought about it more deeply he would come to realise the profound and myriad benefits to be garnered in the modern age from the wisdom held the spiritual traditions of our ancestors – and our living, present day indigenous peoples all around the world.
Now, obviously, I’m not here to size up the achievements of science. They are many, and remarkable – allowing us to look into the depths of the cosmos to wonder at the eternal and infinite (the majesty of which, indeed, spiritual wisdom counsels into our soul like the archetypal sages Merlin or Gandalf). And we have technology, and medicine, and we have an empirical foundation for understanding any conceivable situation that arises. Such situations include those which might have caused existential dread for our ancestors. Take the sleep disturbance called sleep paralysis, for example. Before scientific understanding, religious and supernatural beliefs in many cultures around the world maintained that sufferers of this condition were possessed by evil spirits. I am glad and grateful to live in a day and age when such afflictions can be explained in a rational, scientific, and reassuring way.
On the other hand, the more science discovers in its divergence from the supernatural, the more it converges with universal truths originally born out of spiritual traditions aeons ago. For example, the ancient Vedic scriptures (of which Einstein was a reader) reveal what can be understood as a big bang theory, where the universe is thought to have begun from a single point and through the power of heat, from a singularity ‘subtler than the atom, (yet) greater than the greatest’. And, of course, Buddhist scripture over 2,500 years old speaks of the interconnectivity and oneness of all things, which is now understood in physics as quantum entanglement. Indeed, the Dalai Lama says, ‘’broadly speaking, although there are some differences, I think that Buddhist philosophy and Quantum mechanics can shake hands on their view of the world’’.
This is where it gets tricky. Science wants to use revelations in quantum physics to solve puzzles, whereas spirituality is more concerned with using insights from the quantum world to reiterate an ancient spiritual mythology of universal consciousness and interconnectivity, and to encourage us to embrace oneness and the sacred – which would improve our chances of living on this planet peacefully and sustainably. However, some scientists such as Brian Cox dogmatically demand that the wonders of quantum physics such as quantum entanglement (or what Einstein referred to as ‘spooky action at a distance’ because separated particles remain mysteriously connected across the furthest reaches of space) MUST be kept in the strict and guarded province of orthodox scientific inquiry. Cox implicitly lamented in his lecture to the Royal Institution that, in a nutshell, findings in quantum physics should never be adopted, interpreted or appropriated by ‘quacks’ and ‘peddlers’ of ‘woo-woo’ in fields such as new age mysticism, alternative medicine, or even in consciousness studies. The question of who should be the entitled gatekeeper for such powerful knowledge is a modern battle in science today, resurfacing every now and again. We have already seen the interplay between quantum physics and experience become popularised in books and movies such as Interstellar and Donnie Darko.
It is at this point where the pragmatic and widely accepted differences between science and spirituality stop. And, for better or worse, it is at this point where the visionary thinkers in science (who almost always, incidentally, seem to be interested or least open to spiritual ideas) are derided and ridiculed by the orthodoxy of the scientific establishment. Yet strangely, when the visions of these ostracised scientists come to pass and/or become more aligned with mainstream thinking, the scientific ‘establishment’ has a convenient bout of amnesia about such heretics having been the pioneers of these visionary theories in the first place. We can see how this has happened to people such as Deepak Chopra, Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock.
Deepak Chopra was criticised and ridiculed by Dawkins in his polemical show Enemies of Reason for talking about quantum effects in biological systems. And yet, years later, a book endorsed by Nature magazine was published called ‘Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology’. Furthermore, Sir Roger Penrose – the esteemed professor of mathematics at Oxford University – became interested in how quantum effects in the brain could provide an explanation for consciousness; – and consciousness is (according to Penrose and another Oxford quantum physicist Daegene Song) non-computable. Therefore, comparing the brain to a machine would be a false and misleading analogy. Song published mathematical proof of this in his paper called ‘Non-Computability of Consciousness’ and Penrose has been working as a co-creator on the Orch OR model of the Quantum Nature of Consciousness and Memory.
Dawkins offers the advice – ‘be open minded, but not so open minded that your brain drops out’. Ostensibly, this is good advice, and should be heeded by all scientists. But, if the late spiritual master Barry Long’s premonition is right that science would become the new dominant religion – one wonders whether the high priests and priestesses of science have dogmatic rules (unspoken or otherwise) which stifle free and open scientific debate and research. To even suggest that there is corruption or power allegiances lurking in the shadows of academia and science gets you automatically branded a ‘Conspiracy Theorist’ by (guess who) the very institution you are criticising. ‘Conspiracy Theorist’ has become a 21st century super-weapon to discredit and dismiss anyone who steps on the toes of those who hold agency in the corridors of power; this includes the intelligentsia, mainstream medicine and corporate science.
As Mary Douglas is quoted as saying in an article in The Guardian called The Most Despised Science Book of 2012 is… Worth Reading, ‘’secular societies still draw symbolic boundaries to keep the permissible in and the threatening stuff out. Those who cross them risk expulsion. The media ritual of the public review offers a mechanism’’. I should add that Wikipedia has also, unfortunately, become another ‘mechanism’ by ‘guerrilla sceptics’ of the scientific orthodoxy to censor and propagandise. To give just one example out of thousands, the compound Sulforaphane has been shown in clinical trial in humans to be effective for a host of health problems, including in the mitigation of symptoms of autism. The results from the clinical trial are even available on the UK’s NHS website. However, the links to this Sulforaphane research, whilst initially put up on the Wikipedia page, keeps being taken down. It’s put up, then immediately taken down. Again, and again, and again. Sadly, the editors who lurk in the murky shadows of corporate science and who have ‘the last say’ in such matters can’t be genuine scientists; they must be pathological individuals with an agenda and severe conflicts of interest.
But how, exactly, can alternative ideas be so ‘threatening’? You only need consider the plight of Galileo in the 15th Century to answer this question. It’s easy to see that ideas and memes about medicine and healthcare will be controlled by Big Pharma with all its tentacles of power and influenced groups. Some intellectuals even describe the way evidence is collated in medicine as being ‘fascist’ in nature. And, although scientists might believe they are being totally objective – and even working in the best interest of the public – you only need read George Orwell’s 1984 to understand that control is often insidious, i.e. subtle and below the level of clear perception. For example, scientists need funding to survive (both personally and professionally) but funding isn’t apportioned liberally to anyone just because they want to study something. Far from it. Funding for science comes from organisations that have money, and usually those organisations with money also have power and strong vested interests. Under this funding regime, scientists and science itself (i.e. scientific narrative and our body of knowledge) become self-selecting and reinforcing. So, next time you hear the catchphrase ‘’there’s no evidence for natural compound X being effective in treating condition Y’’ you have to keep in mind that, likely, there is no evidence simply because no funding has been granted to study the natural compound. Why spend millions on bringing a natural compound to market at phase-3 clinical trial when it cannot be patented? Money makes the world of bio-medical science spin round.
But I digress. Basically, when it comes to the emerging clash between the worldviews of science and spiritual tradition, any challenge to the materialist paradigm – the paradigm that has buttressed up the growing mainstream of science for a few hundred years – is a dangerous idea. But, as Chopra warned, militant scepticism by scientists beholden to the materialist paradigm will fall just as it has risen, like an empire. Indeed, academics of the highest order have already broken rank, including Harvard professor of philosophy Thomas Nagel who authored the book ‘The Cosmic Mind – Why the Neo-Darwinian Materialist view of the Cosmos is almost certainly False’.
In a similar way, Rupert Sheldrake has been ostracised by the elite of the scientific establishment. Upon publishing his book ‘A New Science of Life’ in 1981 which championed a new theory and paradigm shift in biology, it was berated heavily by the then editor-in-chief of Nature magazine John Maddox, who scoffed that it was ‘’The best candidate for burning there has been for many years… Sheldrake is putting forward magic instead of science, and that can be condemned in exactly the language that the pope used to condemn Galileo, and for the same reason – it is heresy’’.
The fact that Maddox thought little of Sheldrake’s hypothesis is obvious. What is perplexing is why Maddox chose to make an analogy where he himself takes the position of religious authority and Sheldrake is gifted the Galilean stature of bravery for standing up for science in the face of religious persecution. With this clumsy analogy, it would appear that Maddox shot himself in the foot. Regardless, Maddox’s use of the word ‘heresy’ betrays a dogma at the heart of the scientific orthodoxy.
But science needs heretics, and always has, as physicist Freeman Dyson likes to point out. Overall, science progresses just as much through ‘heresy’ as it does by slow and methodical additions to an existing model, just as evolution of life proceeds both by gradual changes and spasmodic leaps.
Yet, others took a different view on Sheldrake’s book. Larry Dossey said ‘’books of this importance and elegance come along rarely… the significance of Sheldrake’s work is not less than that of the Copernican and quantum-relativistic revolutions of prior eras’’.
And Graham Hancock, who wrote Fingerprints of the Gods in the mid-1990s to suggest that civilisation might be far older and more mysterious than we thought, as well as follow-up books such as Underworld which expounded on the same core theme, was ridiculed by New Scientist magazine. 20 years later, New Scientist bought out an edition with the proclamation that civilisation is far older and more mysterious than we thought! (link: https://archive.org/details/NS-5-10-2013). No mention of Hancock. Interestingly for me, Graham Hancock’s approach to studying archaeology is, actually, the mark of a true scientist, even though Hancock has never called himself a scientist and even though the orthodoxy in archaeology have viciously berated him for decades. Hancock investigates as a true scientist by considering all the layers of nuance which need to be considered. Thus, even though Hancock might not be seen as an ‘expert’ on Egypt, for example, he has developed – by considering all the layers of nuance which need to be considered – a far more complete picture of that civilisation. Some of these nuances include astro-archaeology, spiritual practices of the time, and connections of Egypt to other civilisations, distant in both space and time. It is important to note that a scientist can be both right and wrong on the same topic, depending at which scale they focus a question – and on how much nuance they allow in or block out. Dogmatic scientists from many disciplines in the mainstream have the nasty habit of being highly selective and biased when deciding how much nuance should be allowed to shape a debate. If nuance helps their case, pile on the nuance. If it doesn’t, dismiss it. Fortunately, there are researchers like Hancock who dive into the bigger picture straight away because, quite rightly, a jigsaw puzzle can’t be completed without adding up each of the pieces.
If you think that the science has lessened its grip and become more inclusive, or that squabbles are just the dog-eat-dog nature of science, then perhaps consider that TED talks by both Hancock and Sheldrake in 2013 were banned by TED for, basically, being at odds with scientific consensus. This was particularly ironic in Sheldrake’s case given that he was discussing dogmatism in science in his talk called ‘The Science Delusion’. In Hancock’s case, the reasons given by TED were a bit more nebulous but, ostensibly, Hancock was viewed cynically as being unscientific and for alluding to the potential benefit that the drug Ayahuasca has for individuals and society. Even on this matter, the bare facts speak the loudest (as they should in science) – namely, that Ayahuasca has powerful potential therapeutic uses, such as in the treatment of drug addiction, in psychotherapy (e.g. in alignment with both traditional wisdom and Ken Wilber’s 4-quadrant integrative model for transpersonal psychology), and – above all – for engendering in us the shamanistic tradition of having a great respect for the inherent sacredness of the earth. [N.B. similarly, Dr. Andrew Weil’s informative and rational book From Chocolate to Morphine: Everything You Need to Know About Mind-Altering Drugs was criticised by the mainstream and put in the ‘book for burning’ naughty corner – albeit during the 1980s – showing an historical bias and prejudice against promulgating information on drugs, however rational and scientific].
What do these two examples of banned TED talks have to do with spirituality? Simply this, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet insights, ‘’there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’’.
This is no truer than when engaging in the hard problem in science – consciousness. ‘Hard’ because it raises the hurdle of subject-object (i.e. trying to objectively gauge reality with our subjective minds, as illustrated by the observer effect of Schrodinger’s Cat experiment) and because it is seemingly intractable because it demands philosophical insight as much as, if not more so, than physics and biology. Essentially, on one side the ‘materialists’ (or naïve realists as they have been referred to) believe that consciousness exclusively originates within the brain, i.e. is just an ‘epi-phenomenon’ of brain activity. On the other side are those who believe that consciousness is an inherent aspect of the universe, i.e. for life to be conscious, consciousness must have pre-existed beforehand, even at the rudimentary level of the atom. Thus, either mind arises within the brain, or it originates elsewhere.
It’s easy to dismiss this latter option, you might say, because if you damage part of your brain then your ability to use certain aspects of your mind changes. But, not so fast. Some argue that the brain might simply be a receiver of consciousness, and they state the analogy that if you were to damage the aerial to your TV this would affect the output even though the signal remains exactly the same. This might be a relatively radical tangent of the ‘Hard Problem’ – but rest assured that the core debate (of whether consciousness is simply an emergent property of the brain or if it is more apt to see it as an intrinsic aspect of the universe) has drawn equally brilliant scientists to either side of the debating chamber. Scientists on the radical ‘post-materialist’ side include Roger Penrose, Michio Kaku, John Hagelin, as well as many popularisers of science.
This debate was perhaps best popularised by the debate between Richard Dawkins and Deepak Chopra in Mexico in 2013, which centred around this very topic. Chopra said Freeman Dyson had said an atom has consciousness. A disbelieving Dawkins said that Dyson should sue him. The rest is history.
It’s precisely because scientists of all persuasions get so het-up that I hold out the last hope for someone like Tolle to have a breakthrough experience with Dawkins. It is possible, of course, that Tolle misunderstands science in the way any non-scientist could. But if so, it’s likely that this is largely because science is dogged by the wrath of egotism which Tolle’s teachings inspire us to renounce and transcend. Perhaps, just perhaps, the wise words of a spiritual master such as Eckhart Tolle could even help to foster the public’s engagement with science as much as anyone else. As Einstein suggested, science would do well to be humbled and enlightened by spiritual insights, and scientific discovery is itself a spiritual act.
Now then. It would be easy for an article like this to remain entrapped within the domain of philosophy and nebulous debate – but this isn’t the intention here and, besides, it wouldn’t be helpful to either science or spirituality. I end this article with a list of practical, tangible and down-to-earth ways in which the bridging of science and spirituality would benefit us and life on planet Earth.
1. Accepting the reality of Death. Mark Twain once said that he did not fear death, remarking ‘’I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience’’. This is a blazon expression of a simple fact – and might be a helpful way of looking at it – but for many people this sort of atheistic pragmatism wouldn’t be enough to spare them this ultimate fear; the fear of death. This is where spirituality can help a great deal, and is – like a profound cosmic paradox – where spiritual truth becomes most solidly useful. In many spiritual and indigenous traditions, death is a sacred cosmic event to be honoured and respected deeply as the other side of the coin to birth, and this has been portrayed in profound movies such as Aronofsky’s The Fountain.
Death is the opposite of birth, not of life, as Tolle reminds us. Life is eternal and, like love, has no opposite. Studies have shown that prescribing terminal patients with magic mushrooms can significantly help to alleviate their fear of death, and there are many respected institutions doing research into the therapeutic use of psychedelic substances, such as the Yale Psychedelic Science Group. Ultimately, it must be remembered, when people confront their fear of death by using psychedelic drugs, their transformation in consciousness isn’t due to a clinical experience, but a spiritual experience. As the great late Terence McKenna said, there is no deeper truth than the psychedelic experience – the truth of opening to the kingdom of heaven which is within you, here and now, and to the interconnected oneness of everything in the universe.
2. Encourages us to fully realise the sacredness of the earth. The idea of ‘sustainability’ and the way we talk about it (in our socioeconomic and political models of the world) is a relatively superficial and obfuscating way of engaging in this vital topic. As Einstein so eloquently declared, you can’t find the solution at the same level as the problem. And yet, this is the short-sightedness with which many scientists, economists and politicians operate. There’s nothing wrong with trying to find technological fixes to the problems facing the planet – it’s just that this approach only treats the symptoms and does nothing to address the cause. The cause is, ultimately, a spiritual one – as understood by the profound saying of Pascal who said ‘’all human evil comes from a single cause; mankind’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone’’. If you understand this quote, you understand the enormous power of genuine spiritual practice to make the world a peaceful and sustainable place. Whilst the world becomes increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple, as another saying goes.
At almost every level in society, we’re fatally addicted to treating the symptoms instead of confronting the root cause. It’s analogous to an over-flowing sink – we’re racing around like madmen around the sink mopping up the water from off the floor, and yet few are talking about how we can turn off the tap. Of course, with science and technology, we can keep destroying the planet only to patch it up again, Ad infinitum. But not only is this assumptive approach risky, it’s also an affront to ethics and to the reverence for life for its intrinsic value – which is at the heart of the Deep Ecology movement. In a paradoxical way, science and technology allows (and in some ways even encourages) us to destroy the earth, simply because we are so divorced and decoupled from the natural consequences of our actions. For example, our monocultural model for agriculture can deplete the soil in endless cycles because farmers can simply keep replenishing it with artificial chemicals to compensate for the damage. In pre-industrial times, people had to take care of the land if they were to grow food, and even nomadic hunter-gatherer societies held a reverence for land they might never see again which we can’t get our heads around.
Archaeologists and scientists were found to be totally wrong, for example, in their earlier conclusion that the demise of the people and culture of Easter Island in the Pacific was self-inflicted due to the indigenous ‘ecocidal’ exploitation of the land. As British archaeologist Jago Cooper explored in his documentary for the BBC, nothing could have been further from the truth. The peoples of Easter Island had a great respect for the land, like all indigenous traditions. Moreover, it simply wouldn’t make logical sense for them to have abused the very land they were so dependent on for their own sustenance. This faux pas of archaeology is perhaps also an example of projection – i.e. in industrial civilisation our worldview and narrative has become so inculcated that it’s difficult to imagine there is another way, another paradigm, by which to exist in the world.
The great civilisations such as the Inca showed an incredible in-depth working knowledge of land management and protection which, even if partly born out of fear of reprisal from the nature Gods, served to maintain a respect for the land. The Kogi today – the ‘last ancient civilisation’ to remain in the world – regard themselves as guardians for the earth, an earth which we in the developed world (the Kogi refer to us as ‘little brother’) are destroying because we don’t understand natural law. As the proverb goes, never does nature say one thing and wisdom another.
For the Kogi, even the idea of Deep Ecology isn’t deep enough – because what we refer to as ‘ecology’ they see as the cosmos. As without, so within. Whether it’s the Kogis of Colombia with their cosmological understanding, or the indigenous peoples of Peru who believe that mountains are deities, or many other wisdom traditions who worshipped (or still do) the Gods of nature – (the ‘many gods’ in paganism has been driven out by the one God, as Merlin said in Excalibur) – the most important thing to consider is, as Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis says, whether these beliefs mediate sustainable and peaceful societies.
‘’What matters is whether it’s true!’’ Dawkins would interject. But others like Davis would say that whether it’s true or not must come second to whether a belief helps to foster a sustainable and peaceful society. This is especially true in this period of human history which stands out for its carelessness toward ecology and sustainability. At present, we as a industrialised society would be wise to reconsider the detached habit of walking along the Occam’s Razor of scientific snobbery as if absolute facts were more important than the cultural consequences of those facts. You don’t cut down a rainforest if you believe that’s where your dead ancestors rest among the Gods of nature. If you see the Amazon as a just bunch of trees, it’s much easier to chop them down. Facts can be deadly.
Ultimately, this is a tale of Karma. We can’t expect to exploit the earth with no repercussions. There is no such thing as a free lunch. As we use science and technology to compensate for the damage we create, we are simply ballooning the karmic debt bigger and bigger. Man-induced climate change is an example of how that bubble has burst.
However inadvertently, the fallout of the materialistic paradigm of producing atomised, individualistic and dualistically-minded individuals has given rise to a society of ‘us and them’ – I and the earth… the earth as property, as something different and outside of ‘I’… the human who has risen above the parapet of primitiveness. But in spiritual and indigenous traditions, we are the earth – we are the eyes through which the universe looks at itself. This truth is beautifully captured in the 1981 movie Excalibur where the knight Percival declares to King Arthur that the secret of the Holy Grail which Arthur lost is the realisation that ‘you and the land are one’.
To some people, past civilisations, indigenous cultures and wisdom traditions appear ‘primitive’ when compared to our technological and scientific age. But, lest we forget, it is our civilisation of the techno-science age that is perpetrating something that has never been seen before during the history of the earth: a species causing a great mass extinction. As Graham Hancock has so insightfully pointed out, if the human race were to be confronted with an apocalypse – natural or manmade – it is the indigenous peoples of the world who offer us the wisdom, skill and knowledge to survive if technology fails. If you were to look at the earth from space at night, it is the dark places – the ‘primitive’ and ‘undeveloped’ pockets of people – that would survive and thrive in a post-apocalyptic world which had been reduced to sticks and stones. We would then re-classify indigenous cultures as being the most capable, most civilised, and most developed. Indeed, as Wade Davis has eloquently pointed out, all peoples of the world have the same genetic potential for intellectual wizardry and scientific progress, but many of those so called ‘primitive cultures’ have simply chosen to adopt and live a different vision of life. He cites the story of how the British colonialists in Australia were ‘offended’ that the Aborigines simply weren’t that interested in the ‘progress’ the British held to be an integral aspect of humanity – and this was one of the reasons the British were still debating whether the indigenous people were human well into the 1900s.
3. To help revolutionize healthcare – e.g. integrative medicine and integrative psychology. Many believe that, contrary to mainstream thinking, modern medicine is unsophisticated and clumsy – Stone Age medicine, in fact. According to pioneers in the field of integrative medicine such as Dr. Andrew Weil (founder of the Arizona Centre for Integrative Medicine), medicine for diseases of lifestyle can only become more sophisticated and effective if it adopts a holistic approach – to consider the spiritual and emotional needs of a patient alongside just the physical.
Perhaps though, it is in psychology where the greatest potential therapeutic benefit is to be found. I remember chatting to a psychologist friend once about meditation, and him saying that he was sceptical of meditation because of its religious overtones. I tried to allay his concerns by saying that, firstly, meditation as a method of internal reflection and quietude is mainly rooted in spiritual traditions and that, secondly, meditation is essentially the same as mindfulness – and mindfulness practice is now a part of mainstream thinking in psychology. However, on this second point, I think I was wrong. Whilst mindfulness and meditation are, practically, the same thing, meditation has the added benefit of being spiritual in nature, encouraging people who practice it to connect with the transcendent. In short, mindfulness is more geared toward becoming aware of ourselves, and meditation is more geared toward us transcending the self and seeing the bigger picture. The spiritual nature of meditation lends itself to help people realise the true oneness and interconnectivity of all things – as the Buddha spoke of – and mindfulness (as taught in psychology) helps us to become more aware of our own habits and patterns. To categorise them simply, mindfulness is about bringing awareness to the little self (the generator of the ‘pain body’ of emotional and psychological past pain as Tolle refers to it) and meditation involves the transcendent dimension that opens when we bring awareness to the big self. If I were to hedge my bets, I would guess that when Jesus said, ‘know thyself’ he was talking about the big self. Both are useful, of course.
As mentioned before, the psychedelic drug Ayahuasca used in the shamanistic cultures of the Amazon has been shown to have great potential benefit for the treatment of drug addiction, as well as use in psychotherapy and even in medicine. Proponents for its responsible use include Dr. Gabor Mate and several respected research institutions around the world. Perhaps – even though this is speculative – just like trauma can be passed down generations epi-genetically (and has been shown to happen in a study published in Nature), perhaps wisdom and/or knowledge of our environment can be passed between generations in DNA. If so, perhaps shamanistic medicines such as Ayahuasca could allow us to ‘unlock’ this wisdom.
But, where does the spiritual come into this, you might ask. Why not just use Ayahuasca in a clinical setting like any other medicine? To my mind, Ayahuasca without shamanism is not Ayahuasca, just as a Yin without a Yang is not a Yin-Yang. Shamans are the master gatekeepers for knowledge of Ayahuasca, having used it ceremonially for thousands of years, and we would do well to respect this knowledge and context. As anyone who has tried Ayahuasca will attest to, the experience is inextricably linked to nature – and, in the allusion to Arthurian legend made earlier, when we are one with nature we are one with ourselves. For example, in the mythology of The Lord of the Rings, only those at one with nature (such as Tom Bombadil) are immune from being seduced and afflicted by the power of Sauron’s ring.
Why am I going off on a tangent about mythology? Because it’s not a tangent. As the Jungian scholar Joseph Campbell said, ‘’mythology is the penultimate truth – penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words, beyond that bounding rim of the Buddhist Wheel of Becoming. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known but not told’’. The power of Ayahuasca is greatest when respected within the spiritual, mythological and natural context it has been used in by the ancestral peoples of the Amazon for thousands of years. Shamans see Ayahuasca as a gift from nature, and some have even spoken of the timely introduction of Ayahuasca to the western world as being a symbolic act from Mother Nature to remind us of the sacredness of this planet – a last ditch effort to change our ungodly ways.
4. Informs priorities, encourages perspective and informs decision-making. In an interview, the intellectual and activist David Kubiak said that he recommends everyone watch the YouTube video ‘Powers of Ten’ to get a better perspective on things (link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0fKBhvDjuy0). Indeed, as the video zooms out from a park in an American city, and does so by incremental orders of magnitude, it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that we – the earth and life on it – are but a tiny and insignificant speck in the vastness of nothingness. A pale blue dot. Both science and spirituality ultimately lead to this realization. However, science reveals this in its trajectory of seeking and learning, whereas in spirituality we come to such truths only by unlearning, and getting off the trajectory of seeking altogether. With science, we walk in a straight line on the equator all the way around the world only to end up where we began. In spiritual traditions such as Buddhism, the greatest journey is an inner one, and we know we have arrived when we stop seeking fulfilment in the future. In science, it takes time to get perspective. In spirituality, we must step off the treadmill of time itself to find perspective. Enlightenment takes no time at all, and so we can gain transcendental perspective in a heartbeat.
5. Unearthing logical truisms in deep meditation. I have often wondered whether deep meditative practice can be just as powerful as physics and mathematics to come up with answers about the universe – e.g. to unearth deep truisms and logical deductions – since, often, the most complex questions have the simplest answers. As mentioned, the Vedic scriptures speak of a Big Bang, and Buddhism seems to have had an intimate knowledge of quantum mechanics – not just a symbolic grasp, but a deep understanding of the interconnectivity of entities across space and time as described by quantum entanglement. For example, E = MC2 is a beautifully simple equation, though arrived at through some of the most complex mathematics imaginable. But such profound equations don’t arise solely by juggling mathematics – they are also born out of faculties of logic, lateral thinking, and even intuition. They involve imagination too, and philosophical insight. Is it possible that the relationship between energy, mass and the speed of light (i.e. E = MC2) could be (or perhaps even was) discovered through profound insight in meditation or other spiritual practices? You might give a resounding ‘no’ to this question, and that’s fair enough. It’s only speculation after all – but it’s the principle that matters. And, after all, ancient spiritual traditions developed ideas about the big bang and quantum entanglement, which are just as complex.
We know that meditative practice can help the brain work more effectively, and a still mind can really be a wonderful tool. Magnus Carlsen, world chess champion and highest ranked player in the history of the game, has remarked how his chess is best when his intuitive faculties are best – even though we often categories chess as being a game of rationality and sheer calculation. Intuition, whilst itself perhaps being nothing more than the subconscious recall and integration of a lifetime’s worth of memories in a single moment to elicit a ‘feeling’, is – importantly – one of the signs of a brain that is working in the integrated state of flow. ‘Flow’ is a psychological concept coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and is characterised by several other attributes such as: present moment awareness; the merging of action and awareness; feeling that activities are intrinsically rewarding. There are many other examples in history of geniuses who attest to the power of intuition. One of them is the great Indian mathematician Ramanujan, who felt that his ability to solve difficult problems in mathematics came from intuitive insight rather than raw calculation. And, as discussed, Einstein was a deeply spiritual man and relied on intuition as well as the conventional rationalism of science.
6. Only hope for free-will. The issue of whether we have true free will or not is, like the hard problem of consciousness (and in some ways inextricably linked to it), a difficult and perennial question in science. As many see it, the likelihood of us having true free will (and not merely the illusion of free-will, as Dawkins puts it) is dependent on the ideas arising from understandings in quantum physics, such as the concept of there being true randomness.
Perhaps surprisingly, Eckhart Tolle has said on this topic that he finds it difficult to see how we could have free-will, given that most of our behaviour is driven by deep-seated, unconscious patterns. Accordingly, however, our capacity for free-will is dependent on our becoming more conscious and self-aware – states which are developed by spiritual practice. In a powerful insight, Tolle suggests that true free-will would only be possible if we are aligned and one with the universe – the logic being (as I understand it) that as we experience the state of oneness, the less we resist the natural state of things, and thus the more unshackled we become by the things of this world which keep us locked into repeating automatic behaviours. In other words, the more we transcend our biology and practice the spiritual practice of oneness, the less bogged down we become by the things which keep us enslaved in the dualistic way of the mind. In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins holds out hope that we humans can use our minds to escape the enslavement to our genes and biology. But, just like the philosophical-myopia of Descartes who believed that ‘I think therefore I am’, Dawkins stops short of the more profound and helpful realisation that we need to transcend our minds, too, if we are to escape the enslavement to our biology.
7. Fulfil the purpose of the universe. Related to the point above, spiritual masters hold the point of view that consciousness is ‘’the why’’ – the purpose of life – because consciousness is the evolutionary impulse of the universe. Obviously, this spiritual ‘truth’ isn’t necessarily a perspective that can be proved one way or the other, but we can be sure that evolution of complexity, life, and consciousness is an inherent natural law of the cosmos – and this is the logical basis for the Drake Equation to estimate the probability of finding intelligent life in the universe.
Scientists get very uncomfortable when words like ‘purpose’ or ‘why’ are used to grapple with the mystery of the universe. However, the inexhaustible search for understanding and knowledge is at the heart of science – not because of the utilitarian function that science serves, but because discovery for its own sake has an intrinsic value. Thus, paradoxically, the key ethos of science to endlessly and ceaselessly discover and research is a value – even if value judgements are typically outside best practice of science. ‘’science doesn’t make value judgements’’ is the slogan of dogmatic sceptics in science. But, in truth, science makes value judgements all the time. Examples abound, but one dramatic one is the funding of space missions to the outer planets of the solar system, instead of spending that money on the hundreds of millions of people starving and struggling on the planet. Whatever reasons scientists or politicians would give to explain this use of money, it all boils down to one thing – a value judgement.
Thus, we see that the driving force behind science (to evolve and develop) is, at it’s root, indistinguishable from the very essence of the universe which science studies. It is a Zen Kaon and a closed circle. If the natural laws of the universe have no purpose then science couldn’t have purpose. But science does have a purpose; a purpose born out of the laws of the universe itself, and which our ancestors partook in.
To return to the satirical dialogue between Dawkins and Tolle – what, then, would be the point of discovering the origin of the universe if the expansion of our understanding had no intrinsic value? And, what is this intrinsic value at the sacred heart of all inquiry, scientific or spiritual? Well, Eckhart Tolle could expound on that. But the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon, and the Tao that can be spoken of is not the true Tao.