Thousands of years of struggling to survive, of conquering new territories and exploring new lands have shaped the way of thinking of a modern-day human being, who is constantly looking for resources of any kind, which can help him to feel more safe and comfortable in this world. Human beings have got used to relying on what is tangible, like things that can be eaten or used to construct a shelter or weapons. But there is another side, and that is we’ve been contemplating within ourselves for as long as we exist, trying to understand who we truly are and what is the purpose of our existence. Thus the duality of external expansion, necessitated by the fact of our physical existence, on the one hand, and the internal quest for comprehension of universal truth, on the other, has always been present. And that is reflected in the concept of scientific West and spiritual East nowadays, since the West has achieved much in understanding of material nature in the last 200 years, but the East for centuries has been more focused on spirituality. But is there really a contradiction of some sort between science and spirituality ? Is one of them more reliable than the other or more beneficial for the humanity ? Let’s try to find out.
Application of scientific methods, which involves logical operations such as analysis and synthesis, as well as research and experiments, allowed us to push the boundaries of our existence greatly. Now we are exploring the data from all over the Universe and able to observe quantum particles. We have computers and all kinds of powerful machines. But what about us, human beings ?
It looks like all those achievements that serve as a testament to the power of our intellect, haven’t helped us much in our internal quest. But even on material plane modern science faced a lot of difficulties. In certain cases, such as of a very popular now theory of dark matter (and dark energy), it seems to be a blind alley. In spite of the ability to observe very small particles, many of their properties haven’t been fully understood yet. Scientists still unable to find truly reasonable explanation of particle’s behavior in double-slit experiment, which seems to show that we can affect material existence simply by observing it. We understand what gravity is, but we still do not have comprehension of how it works essentially. Quantum entanglement remains a mystery. After all, as for today, we don’t even have a good theory of how the Universe came into existence (unless you consider the theory of big bang out of nowhere a good one of course).
When it comes to the understanding of human mind and even human body (try to remember all those incurable diseases) things don’t get much better. Despite countless experiments with human brain and consciousness we still don’t have clear understanding of how it actually works. For instance, why do we dream when we sleep, why human beings sometimes behave in an irrational manner (like in a case of suicide, for example), what is the role of subconscious mind, how can we define love and its effect on our existence… Those are just a few questions out of many, that are so important and for which we don’t have clear and consistent answers yet, despite the existence of so many scientific theories around them.
However, certain results have been already achieved in sciences related to human mind. As an example, it is very interesting to look at a recent research on a state of human brain during different kinds of activities, including sleep, relaxation and meditation. In a nutshell, it revealed that a brain during the state of meditation produces different kind of brain waves compared to those produced during the state of sleep or simple relaxation. So called Theta waves were very prominent during meditation, and are said to originate presumably in the frontal parts of the brain. They are different from alpha and delta waves which occur during simple relaxation and sleep respectively. And it also was noticed that theta waves can exist simultaneously with beta waves, which occur when we are fully awake and in normal alert consciousness.
As exciting as it is, this experiment still leaves many questions unanswered. What is the meaning of theta waves ? Why do they positively affect human body and mind ? It’s as if we looked at a process, but would still be missing the principles governing it. In that regard the phrase once said by Max Planck comes into my mind: “Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are a part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.”
For many people spirituality is a vague idea. It is a common belief that in contrast with science spirituality lacks structure, organization, rational approach and that this is something intangible. I think this is a big misconception. Whereas science has been actively developing approximately for the last 4 centuries, the beginning of spiritual pursuit of mankind dates back at least few thousand years, meaning that a significant progress is likely to have been achieved.
You can imagine how in fact well organized, consistent and rational spiritual legacy of humanity is by looking, for instance, at the Vedic culture of India, which includes a collection of hundreds of ancient treatises on different aspects of life, such as birth, physical body, mind, action, structure, death, universe, cause and consequence.
Knowledge is the basis of spirituality, and that includes knowledge of the self and the world as a whole. It appears that what modern science is trying to do now – to understand how everything works, humankind was doing long before. Up until recently scientific vision implied that everything can be measured and understood within the limits of gross matter; that is what I’d call the period of scientific arrogance, which didn’t last long fortunately. Now science is becoming more open-minded, which is a good sign; and we can see that theories such as string theory, and dark energy theory appear as a result of experiencing something that can not be measured by known means so far.
But spirituality is not merely a collection of knowledge of course, but a path. A path beyond the limits of our four-dimensional perception. In fact there are many paths which lead to self-realization, and each of them is a system in itself. Yoga (or astanga-yoga) system is one of them, and it involves much concentration of the mind and sublimation of sensual desires. Among others are logical system (Nyaya), which focuses on using various logical methods to eventually free the mind from the illusions of this world; Vedanta philosophy, which relies on ancient sutras and puranas (treatises), describing in details the nature of this world and Supreme Spirit; Sankhya philosophy, concentrating on exposing the difference between a matter and eternal consciousness.
There is another branch of ancient Vedic philosophy, which I think is very interesting on account of its similarity with a general approach of modern science. It is called Vaisheshika and originated presumably around 2nd century BC. The essence of this philosophy lies in the belief that everything in this universe is comprised of atoms, which are eternal, and knowledge and liberation are possible only after achieving complete understanding of the world. The only two means to knowledge accepted by that school of philosophy, founded by Kanada Kashyapa, are perception and inference. Sounds very much like modern science to me. And it is amazing, considering the fact it dates back more than 2 thousand years.
Science of spirituality.
So, are science and spirituality actually absolutely different ? Or are they just two sides of one holistic process of understanding this world, including ourselves ? Both concepts rely on knowledge as a basis of uncovering mysteries of the Universe. And though they are situated at the different poles of the whole process, eventually they are destined to meet at the equator. Maybe the time for that has come.
And if so, can scientific methods be applied to spiritual pursuit, for instance ? In fact not only they can but have to be applied, because being scientific means being rational and relying on facts, as our mind perceives them. Let’s say you try to meditate. In this case you’d constantly analyze the data that comes from within as to how do you feel before and after a meditation, does that help your mind or physical body in some way, what can you do in order to improve the length of meditation or the quality of it and so on. Being scientific means that not only you are reasonable enough, but also that you are curious, willing to explore inner, as well as the outer world, and open-minded just enough to accept it as it is, and to change existing concepts if necessary.
But, perhaps, what’s even more important is that the principles of spirituality can be applied to scientific concepts. In fact nothing except unnecessary prejudices can hamper that process. In any case science is supposed to be unbiased and seek answers wherever is possible, and spirituality is all-encompassing anyway.
Here is an example of such synthesis of two universal approaches. There is a concept of 3 modes (gunas as they are called usually) of nature – tamas guna (which can be best described as ignorance), rajas guna (associated with passion and activity) and sattva (benevolence). This is a very old concept, whose age possibly is the same as the age of great Vedas themselves. They are extremely important, since, basically, they are one of the principles that constituted the creation of this Universe, in which everything is based on those 3 modes (gunas). For instance, when you are awake and fully conscious, sattva guna is prominent, when you are dreaming, rajas (passion) guna is predominant and when you are in a deep sleep, like during anesthesia, tamas (ignorance) guna takes over. It can be applied practically to anything; people’s behavior is always under the influence of one of these gunas (but usually a mixture of two or all three). It may sound just like some trait of character, but in fact it is a complex and deep principle. You’ll understand it better in a moment.
American physician and neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean in 1960s formulated a theory (which was propounded at length later in 1990 in his book) according to which the human brain consists of 3 brains (the concept is called “triune brain”), namely, protoreptilian brain, paleomammalian brain and neomammalian brain. MacLean considered it as the reflection of the vertebrate brain evolution process. Protoreptilian brain is said to be very similar to the anatomy of the brain of the lizards (hence the name) in terms of functioning of autonomous nervous system. Paleomammalian brain goes one step higher and involves behavioral and psychological layers (including all kinds of social emotions), which can be observed in behavior of all mammals. At last neomammalian brain is something that only human beings developed to a significant degree and it allows reasoning, logical thinking and conceptual thinking to exist. The theory has been supported by a significant number of scientists.
And it turns out that this “triune brain” theory and the concept of 3 modes (gunas) of Nature perfectly correlate with each other, the fact that was first noticed by Sam Geppi, the founder of American Academy of Vedic Art and Science. For example, protoreptilian brain operates exclusively in tamas guna, the purpose of which is to keep your body functional and it does it very well, since you don’t even need to control, for instance, you heart beat, temperature and blood pressure, since all those functions are taken care of by this primal part of the brain. So, basically, it ignores everything and focuses on preserving the physical body. Rajas (passion and action) guna has to do with the paleomammalian brain, since our actions are almost always directly or indirectly related to the social environment in which we exist. Sattva guna and neomammalian brain is where the main distinction between human beings and animals lies, since only highly evolved species are able to think abstractly and form concepts, which give meaning to our lives and inspire our existence. So, both the concept of the modes of material nature described in Vedas and the 20th century “triune brain” theory reflect the same foundational principle.
Examples such as this show that in fact science and spirituality are not different in essence and can work together to help us understand this Universe and ourselves better. From this point of view they complement each other perfectly. After all, both spirituality and science rely on the mind as the main instrument of knowledge; and the mind creates a reality both within and outside ourselves, which means that our inner world and the external reality that we create or alter are perfectly interconnected. But how we use it, for good or bad, depends entirely on ourselves.