Science and Consciousness

(This article was originally published in ‘Yoga International’ magazine Aug-2011. I don’t think the magazine exists any longer, which is why no link is provided.)

During the past few years, an increasing number of scientists have claimed insight into the nondual nature of reality. These claims, however, ignore a fundamental truth: Consciousness falls outside the scope of scientific investigation. Therefore, by their very nature, such claims cannot be valid.

There has always been a degree of animosity between science and spirituality. The Catholic Church’s persecution of Galileo over his insistence that the Earth was not the center of the universe comes to mind, as does the current debate between Creationists and those preferring the more down-to-earth tenets of Darwinian evolution. It is encouraging, therefore, to see the growing number of books and articles written by scientists on the subject of nonduality. There is even an annual conference with the title “Science and Nonduality,” thus making it possible to explore these two avenues of knowledge in the same forum.

Paradoxically, both the power and the ultimate shortcoming of science as a tool for investigating the nature of reality lie in its objectivity. The scientific method of empirical observation and subsequent reasoning is something it shares with Vedanta, along with the acceptance of findings from those who have gone before (providing these findings do not contradict more recent discoveries).

Science has made a significant contribution to persuading people to consider that the world may not be as it initially appears to our limited organs of perception. At one end of the scale, the scanning electron microscope looks into the supposed solidity of the matter beneath our fingertips. At the other extreme, the Hubble telescope peers toward infinity into the swirling clouds of galaxies invisible to the naked eye. ‘Reality’ is far more subtle than everyday experience would have us believe. The hardness of the table on which I write is due to irrevocable laws regarding the spin of electrons and their sharing of orbitals around atoms. Massive energy sources in the universe result from entire galaxies being sucked into black holes. Our own senses are quite inadequate for the job of explaining the behavior of the world around us, whereas science seemingly can. Continue reading

Is there Rebirth?

Deep in the remote thick jungles of Dandaka, there was a tribal village called Bhrashtakshi. It is said that two moons appear in the sky of that village. Ask any villager, child or adult and they can easily show the two moons when the sky is clear – one a little right to the other, same size but a little less bright.  All their songs and school books have been singing of the two moons for generations. The moon-pair is worshiped as the Goddesses of the Twins. People pray to these Goddesses to beget children.

Dr. Sulochan, M.D., happened to go as a Health worker to that village. She was surprised to detect everyone had a double vision. Further investigations showed congenital issues and also deficiencies in their nutrition. But the villagers were not convinced. They were sure it was all a play by the powers of the City to take over their ancient properties. Their ancestors always said that there had been two moons in their sky. How can the knowledge coming from their forefathers be wrong? They have their texts to prove the two moons in their sky. They have seen and lived with two moons for centuries. It’s a huge huge conspiracy, resolved the Village elders – the City dwellers want to steal their moons. Continue reading

Advaita Vedanta

A) Advaita Vedanta can be called a mystical path, a spirituality, science of reality, or a combination of both (which I prefer). It can be called nonduality or ‘Monism’ (preferably the first): monism because it takes reality as being One (“without a second”). Nonduality because – though reality is one in essence or ultimately – it presents itself as apparently two: purusha-prakriti, Self- not self, sat-asat, subject-object, Atman-brahman. That apparent dichotomy, as stated, is reducible to the one reality which can be called variously ‘pure consciousness’, ‘the absolute’, ‘sat-chit-ananda’ (being-consciousness-bliss)… the unnamable. Words – language – are secondary, needed to express what is in itself inexpressible. What is inexpressible can be/is a (self) realization of ‘what is’  (anubhava) arrived at by intuition and (Vedantic) reasoning. Continue reading

jIvanmukti – An Illustrative Case

The highly revered Sringeri Pitham in India, as is well-known to all, is the sterling center devoutly upholding, preserving, maintaining and propagating the Shankara Advaita. The unbroken succession of the Pontiffs right from the time Shankara established the Matha to date has many a jIvanmukta in its line embellishing the holy precincts of the Ashram. Their exemplary lives illustrate the way one attains liberation while in life (jIvanmukti) and provide answers to many of the doubts a seeker may have in his/her quest to freedom from the bondage in samsAra. Continue reading

Q. 431 Emergence vs. Consciousness

Q: In Advaita one learns to ‘unravel’ objects: table as wood, wood as cells, cells as molecules, molecules as atoms, atoms as subatomic particles, etc. (neti neti!) all the way down. What Advaita says ‘lies at the bottom’ is Brahman, the oneness from which all apparent objects of form manifest.

What seems just as (if not more) intuitively plausible to me is that what lies at the bottom is: a few primal emergent ‘rules’. Perhaps even just one rule: attraction/repulsion. Electrons are attracted to protons and repelled by other electrons giving way to atoms, atoms are attracted to other atoms giving way to molecules, and so on, all the way up to the forms we know and love.

In this view of reality, there is no top-level overarching ‘organizational’ principle: Consciousness. There is instead a vast web of ‘stuff’ that arises from a few simple low-level emergent rules. As with all emergent systems, the application of these rules, once sufficiently complex, creates a system that seems to have an overarching top-level intelligence/intentionality/organizational principle, but in reality doesn’t.

So, friends: Who wins? Emergence or Consciousness? Or is it a non-zero-sum game: Are emergence and Consciousness not mutually exclusive?

A (Dennis): If you have read my articles about science and its views, you will know that I do not regard it very highly when it comes to consciousness and reality!

The ‘unraveling’ is an explanation of the concept of mithyA and provides an intuitively reasonable explanation as to why all ‘things’ are just name and form of brahman. If you try to turn this around you are then tacitly assuming that the empirical reality has some absolute reality, which it doesn’t (unless you are just accepting that ‘everything is brahman’). Or you are just attempting to use science to ‘explain’ Ishvara. Because Advaita would call your ‘fundamental laws’ or ‘primary emergent rules’ Ishvara. Ishvara is both intelligent and material cause for the (apparent) creation. In reality, of course, there has never been any creation. Both the ocean (universe) and the wave (individual) are always only water.

Q. 428 A dialog on getting to know brahman

Q: I’m struggling (a lot) with ‘believing in’ Brahman.

I realize the problems inherent in this struggle: (1) It’s probably futile in my early stage of Advaita studies; (2) Brahman is beyond mind, so any attempt to truly apprehend it is doomed to failure. And yet I persist. 😉

I can walk with Advaita Vedanta through all the Neti-ing – I/Truth am not this, not this – but when Advaita makes the leap to IS THIS … I shake my head and turn away. Brahman seems like an abstraction born of fear/uncertainty, like other similar abstractions such as Heaven, The Ground, The Truth, etc. (I am not saying I know that Brahman IS an abstraction born of fear, rather that it seems to me that it could be.)

So I keep looking for analogies, things I can/do or ‘believe in’ that might be similar enough to Brahman that I could relax into it a bit.

Today I thought: Perhaps Brahman is (quasi-)synonymous with Nature? Nature – ‘everything that is’ – is all-encompassing in a way that suggests Brahman to me. Science’s take on Nature is conceptual, but the essence of Nature is, I think, not conceptual.

So: ‘Everything that is’ + non-conceptual – this sounds Brahman-esque to me. Yes? No? Continue reading

Q. 427 pramANa and reason

Q: Regarding the relationship between scripture, logic, and experience in the context of Vedanta being a pramANa:   It seems like the ‘rule’ is that for scripture to be considered valid it must be both supportable by reason and non-negatable by reason. But what exactly does that mean?

A (Dennis): Basically, according to Advaita, THE pramANa is scripture (shruti). In practice, this should be unfolded by a qualified teacher, who you trust not to mislead you. You make the conscious decision to take what is said ‘on trust’ until such time as you realize its truth for yourself. Shankara said that you should not accept any scripture that is contrary to reason. But ‘unreasonable’ scriptural statements usually turn out to be gauNa, which effectively means ‘figurative’, and are explained (reasonably!) somewhere close by in the text in which they occur.

The Sublime Homecoming

A chapter from the novel by Mukesh Eswaran has just been posted to the main site.

Here is a brief description of the book by the author:

The life of Michael Pearson, an American scientist, falls apart when his wife accidentally dies. His search for a way to deal with his grief, which takes him to India and back, leads him to spirituality. Since he firmly accepts Darwin’s theory of evolution, he is skeptical of the validity of the claims of spirituality. But Socratic dialogues with an enigmatic man in India called Swami and his subsequent life-experiences compel him to gradually rethink his position. The novel traces Michael’s arduous odyssey to self-discovery in a secular life, ending in a crisis that decidedly resolves his doubts about the compatibility of spirituality with evolution. This novel clearly illustrates how everything in life—from the mundane to the sublime—can be approached in the light of nonduality or Advaita. And if one wants to understand how and why spirituality is completely consistent with the theory of evolution, this novel is worth reading.

Mukesh Eswaran is deeply interested in spirituality, especially Advaita. He is an academic by profession and teaches at a university. He lives in Vancouver, Canada.

Tattvabodha – Part 31

Part 31 of the commentary by Dr. VIshnu Bapat on Shankara’s Tattvabodha.This is a key work which introduces all of the key concepts of Advaita in a systematic manner.

The commentary is based upon those by several other authors, together with the audio lectures of Swami Paramarthananda. It includes word-by-word breakdown of the Sanskrit shloka-s so should be of interest to everyone, from complete beginners to advanced students.

Part 31 provides the bare Sanskrit shlokas in Devanagari script and concludes this series.

There is a hyperlinked Contents List, which is updated as each new part is published.

Q. 426 Flow

Q: In response to my question “Can one ever KNOW that reality is non-dual?”, Ramesam wrote: “Yes, when you are in ‘zone’, (the flow of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi).”

I’m a big fan of flow, know it quite well, teach it in fact to my students. I’d like to know what your take is on flow, specifically: Do you agree with Ramesam, that being in flow is knowing that reality is non-dual?

– Is being in flow a desirable ‘state’ according to Advaita Vedanta? In other words, if, as often happens, I spend most of the day in flow, is this a ‘good thing’ for my Advaitin development?

The reason I ask is because I’ve wondered a bunch about the difference between pure awareness and flow. Flow is very goal oriented; pure awareness is not. Also, when in flow, you are deeply aware of that which you need to be aware of to keep flowing (holding a conversation, skiing a narrow downhill trail, etc.), but you are typically NOT aware of your awareness. In fact, if you become aware of your awareness, you’ll probably lose the flow, get tripped up in the conversation, fall down on the trail, etc. It’s as if you were completely lost in the activity.

So, is flow a less desirable state than pure awareness? Or some other state that Advaita recommends?

A: I came across Csíkszentmihályi when I was writing ‘How to Meet Yourself’ and of course the feeling of ‘flow’ is recognizable. And it is a great feeling, obviously invaluable for sports and other activities. It represents single-mindedness, concentration etc – the control of the mind and senses – dama, shama etc. And it is in this sense that it has some relevance for Advaita – mental preparation to make one ‘ready’ for taking on board self-knowledge.

But that is as far as it goes. It has nothing to do with actually knowing that reality is non-dual. In fact, I would suggest that the vast majority of people who know about ‘flow’ have no interest (and have probably never heard of) non-duality. They are interested in its value in furthering their materialistic ends (by this, I don’t mean obtaining objects but improving their sporting achievements or whatever). If one also has spiritual ‘ambitions’, then pursuing flow could even be counter-productive. It is said that mokSha has to become your sole, overriding aim in life to the exclusion of everything else if you are to succeed in this life.

So your assessment is correct, except that you do not really become ‘aware of awareness’. The non-directed stillness of the mind in deep meditation is the nearest you come to such a thing. nirvikalpa samAdhi has nothing as its object whereas, as you say, flow is invariably goal-oriented.

Finally, Ramesam said that it was possible to know that reality is non-dual when you are in the zone, not that being ‘in flow’ is knowing it.