A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend the SAND (Science and Non-Duality) conference in San Rafael, California. This yearly gathering aims to bring preeminent scientists and thinkers into direct dialogue with spiritual teachers. The creation of such a space in these times is absolutely essential – faith in science has become so divorced from the consciousness of divinity that we are watching the destruction of the sacred, live giving essence of our planet in the midst of a frenzied search for more and more rational knowledge about the universe we inhabit. By bringing together the heart and compassion of spirituality with the ingenuity and creativity of science, the Science and Non-duality conference seeks to bridge this gap, in order to allow all of us to connect our hearts and our minds and become fully integrated, that we may work together to create the future we all want to see.
Here I will discuss some of the speakers and thinkers who attended and spoke at the conference (a very few out of many, I’m afraid), as well as the dominant themes of conversation and inquiry that I observed among the community at SAND. This is in the hopes of providing an abstract of the event and the of this movement of global consciousness integration as it presently stands. The theme of the conference this year was the Self, yet I found that the focus of the attendees seemed to be primarily on Ourselves, as a spiritual community and a global community, and I find this a very hopeful omen indeed.
DAY 1 – MODERN NON-DUALITY
On the first day of the conference, I found myself primarily in lectures by scientists, economists, and physicists who all, on some level, were working to integrate their lives with some aspect of spirituality.
The major question that I heard echoed throughout the day was this: how do we synthesize our spiritual practice, our internal concept of non-duality and divinity, with the real world, which can be so gritty, painful, and difficult to deal with at times. The New Age movement in the West has brought concepts of spirit to peoples who have been long, long divorced from any but the most repressive images of ‘God’. As Westerners open more and more to the ideas of compassion, renunciation, and spiritual awakening, many still find it challenging to combine those values with the consumptive, competitive attitudes that our people have so long been indoctrinated with.
So these thinkers – prominent economists, accomplished physicists, authors, philosophers, and doctors – people who have ‘won the game’, as it were, and attained success in a conventional realm of society, find themselves in a space of completely alternate concepts, concepts that are given next to no value in our social dogma today – love, compassion, nurturing, emptiness. Our history of separateness from the realm of the spiritual can make it difficult for Western people to manifest concepts of spirituality into reality, and it was the bridging of this gap that I heard discussed on multiple occasions.
In his lecture entitled “Can the Magic-Mythic Lens and the Rational/Integral Lens Ever Join in Transforming the World?”, Dr. Kurt Johnson (a Christian monk and student of evolution and ecology) brought this question directly to the forefront. In the West, we tend to place “magic” and “reality” into two distinct and incompatible categories. On one side is magic, mythology, and phenomenon that lie beyond the range of the five senses. On the other is ‘objective’ reality, something that we can measure strictly within the lens of our five senses.
Johnson posits that these views are not incompatible. It does not make sense to attempt to apply our scientific methods to phenomenon that we are not capable of testing with our present cognition, but we can still investigate the ‘known’ while accepting and being guided by the trusted unknown of the divine. Dr. Johnson posits that all religious paths and traditions are bringing humankind towards the same place – a place of essential oneness, defined by the concept of non-duality, in which we will all be able to communicate in ways we never thought possible as a human family. This, he says, will lead to a massive systemic change which will alter the structure of both our ‘real’ and our ‘spiritual’ lives forever.
In his lecture Letting Go of Nothing, Peter Russell, a physicist who has translated The Upanishads – in other words, a man of both the Scientific and the Non-dual worlds, discussed the concrete ways in which we as “rational thinkers” can let go of ideas such as “nothing”, which is widely seen as a concrete goal by Western Buddhists, in order to allow the true mind of non-separation to arise.
Quite simply, Russell states that when the ego mind is paying attention, there is a tension, which comes in the form of our wanting to be in control of our experience. Yet, resisting the present moment is futile. The first part of letting go, he says, is letting be.
Interestingly, on a purely linguistic level, we in the West have been the victims of the prejudice of our ancestors for some time now, and this has even effected our spiritual concept. Russell explains that the translations made by Westerners when contact was first made with Eastern spiritual leaders was often inaccurate at best, colonialist at worst. For example, he brings up the Sanskrit word “Dukkha”, commonly translated as ‘suffering’. But Dukkha is actually simply the negation of Sukha, a word meaning to be at peace or to be comfortable. So Dukkha is perhaps better translated as ‘discontent’ or discomfort.
For a more elegant translation of this word, one may break down the Sanskrit into root syllables – each syllable in Sanskrit has its own meaning. So, Sukha refers to a wheel (kha) that is moving smoothly. Dukkha, then, is resistance in the movement of that wheel, resistance to the flow. So, in other words, what we conceive of as the Buddhist “suffering” is simply referring to resisting the flow of universal consciousness.
On this same subject, I bring to your attention the Tibetan word usually translated as ’emptiness’ – Tong pa nyid སདོང་པ་ཉིད་. According to His Eminence Khentin Tai Situ Rinpoche, the term has this meaning: “sTong-pa-nyid pervades everything we see, hear, touch, etc. It also pervades our mind that sees things through the eyes, hears things through the ears, touches things through the body, etc. This is all nothing more or less than the interdependent manifestation of one’s perceptions. That is the basic definition of shunyata. Buddha did not mean that the things we see over there are not there. He is not saying that our eyes are not here or that our mind is not here. He just said that everything we see or hear is nothing more than a manifestation of interdependence. That is what emptiness or shunyata means when put in a simple context” (Tai Situ Rinpoche 2009).
In other words, ’emptiness’ is a rather glib translation of a very full word. It is hard to know how exactly to translate this word more accurately – perhaps “luminous emptiness” or “unconditioned clarity” would be better. In any case, it is likely that erroneous translations, which link spiritual concepts with words that generally bring up unpleasant associations (such as suffering and emptiness) may actually create a more nihilistic and less hopeful spiritual practice in Westerners, simply because we have not been exposed to the true, integral meaning of the concepts in question. When it comes to language, it appears there a literal gap that must be bridged as we move forward.
And so, Russell suggests that rather than attempting to hypothesize about Eastern spiritual concepts, one simply let go and experience them. By ‘letting go of nothing’, it becomes possible to become fully connected with everything.
Finally, I attended a Panel, at which David Loy, an Zen Buddhist philosopher and Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, a Sufi teacher, discussed ways to resolve the current ecological crisis with a wide variety of conference attendees. One man, a long time economist, posited that it was the economy founded upon the concept of growth as the only measure of success that was destroying our ecosystem. Another participant mentioned that if everyone consumed as Americans do, we’d need five earths worth of resources.
As with the rest of the speakers today, everyone in the room seemed to be asking: “How can we take these concepts of non-duality, of universal unity, love and compassion, and make non-dual changes in an apparently incredibly dual world. How can we ‘walk the talk’, so to speak, and make the real, lasting changes that we all want to see.”
Some interesting ideas that I heard being discussed involved the reduction of egocentrism and the return to the concept of the land as sacred. One woman mentioned that the role of women deserves to be increased – women make up 57% of the population, but only have 8% of congressional representation in the United States, for example. She didn’t spend much time on the topic, but it seems to me that this is one of the most essential aspects of our coming evolution and the restoration of balance in the ecosystem.
The other concept that came forth from the panel was the importance of renunciation. Spiritual paths have always been paths of renouncing the material world and now, as our consumption begins to destroy us, we must take that concept on as an essential part of our spiritual practice. When we are able to disconnect from the objects that we crave or despise, we are able to see the reality of our situation much more clearly, and are then able to create the necessary changes that allow us to move forward as a global family.
Although the general tone of the speakers on day one belied a certain amount of uncertainty, there was also a confidence, an acknowledgment that we are moving forward, making progress, and bridging the gap. How these final leaps may be made in the limited time that we have available to us was a question that I found much addressed on the second day of the conference.
DAY 2 – NON-DUALITY AND THE ENTHEOGENIC REFORMATION
On the second day of the SAND conference, I was able to attend several discussions related to the scientific integration of entheogens into both our medical system and the overall development of Western consciousness.
In his lecture entitled ‘The Mystical Experience: Insights from Psilocybin Research’, professor Roland Griffiths, Ph.D., of John Hopkins University School of Medicine described the research that he has been doing into psilocybin and mystical experiences. He has studied both groups of healthy people and groups of people suffering from cancer. Griffiths has been studying ‘drugs of abuse’ for over forty years, and meditation for over twenty.
In a 2006 double-blind crossover study, 36 participants took either a high dose of psilocybin or a high dose of Ritalin. To prevent selection bias, none of the participants had a prior history of entheogen use. The mean age was 46, and half of the participants were female. These were community members from the area surrounding John Hopkins University – most were highly educated, very active members of the community, and all participated in some sort of church or other spiritual activity on a regular basis.
The effects on participants were what we have come to expect with medicines like this. The interesting part is that 72% of participants who received the psilocybin had significantly higher scores in criteria designed to measure mystical experiences. The medicine increased non-dual consciousness, unity, sense of the sacred, noetic qualities, universal joy, love, transcendence of time and space, and so forth. Not only that, there was no diminishment of effect up to 14 months after the study concluded. My favorite aspect of the study, though, was that community observers who regularly interacting with the participants also reported noticing significant positive changes in their demeanor and behavior!
Griffiths is now in the process of studying the effects of psilocybin on meditation practice. At this time he is working on a study with inexperienced meditators to see what effect psilocybin use has on a developing meditation practice. This study, and other similar ones are most interesting in that they are beginning to bridge the gap between Science and Non-Dual Spirituality that I noticed on the first day of the conference.
Psychedelics are substances which seem to create mystical experiences. Thanks to the fundamentally stable nature of their chemical makeup, it is now possible to use Western materialistic science to study the non-dual through the lens of Western Medicine.
Pahnke began to study the role of Psilocybin in mystical experiences in his Good Friday Experiment, in which he gave psilocybin to Christian Divinity students attending a Good Friday service and found that the mushrooms did indeed enhance their experience of the mystical. And Griffiths is continuing this work, looking to see if these medicines can enhance the mystical spiritual path of meditation practices most often associated with Buddhism and Hinduism.
It has been discovered that psychedelics cause less blood flow to the part of the brain that defines ‘I’ – in other words, they may shut down the ego, providing access to a non-dual state of consciousness within moments. After psychedelics burst into Western mainstream culture in the 60’s and 70’s, they were met with great fear and suspicion, were made illegal, and research into them came to a complete halt for almost forty years. After all, enlightenment is subversive – it threatens the structure of culture. While meditation can take many years to produce tangible results, entheogenic medicines can produce results in moments. So, it is not surprising that the dominant culture reacted to them with such fear.
However, with the new influx of interest into ancient forms of wisdom of spirituality, the concept of plants as teachers is arising in the Western consciousness directly alongside the concept of plants as researchable psychiatric medicines. Unlike in the 60’s and 70’s, entheogen use in the West is no longer relegated to hippies using the substances in a careless recreational manner – now both scientists and spiritualists are using these plants with conscious awareness for the betterment of all humanity, and are beginning to come together to combine modern scientific methods with ancient methods of expanding the mind.
Near the end of the day, I was able to attend a MAPS panel in which Jessica Nielson, Virginia Wright, and Tom Kingsley Brown participated in a lively discussion with audience members about the benefits of ayahuasca and MDMA for treating PTSD and ibogaine for treating addiction. All of these substances have a history of successful underground use in healing psychological difficulties that traditional psychiatry has a difficult time treating. It is due to the overwhelming failure of modern psychiatric techniques to make so much as a dent in these diseases that mainstream society is willing to allow psychedelic research to take place publicly and legally.
There is still a clear disconnect between the ancient and the modern in this research – recent iboga studies, for example, use an HCL extract of ibogaine rather than a full spectrum extract (containing all of the plant’s alkaloids) or the plant teacher itself. It is still difficult for the materialist consciousness to break away from the idea that it is single chemicals (rather than conscious plant teachers) that contain potent healing effects. Nevertheless, with this research we see a movement away from a model of pharmaceutical healing that seeks to simply suppress symptoms, and towards a model that seeks to allow patients to work through painful experiences with the help of entheogenic medicines. There is still much work to do to bridge the gap between ancient plant medicine healing modalities and modern Western medicine, but organizations such as MAPS are making great progress in bridging that gap. Please enjoy the embedded videos, which will provide more information about MAPS mission and endeavors.
DAY 3 – NON-DUALITY IN ANCIENT TRADITION
On the third day of the Science and Nonduality Conference, I was able to attend lectures by several extremely talented individuals who represented the nature-oriented practices and traditions of ancient peoples. It is important for us to remember that while Western science and New Age practices have both made great contributions to our cultural understanding of the concept of non-duality, these concepts were originally created and integrated into everyday life by the indigenous peoples of the world. Indeed, most of the practices that have been created in the New Age tradition are based upon the wisdom of ancient peoples, and it is important to respect and honor their teachings and traditions even as we innovate and explore exciting new frontiers.
Bӧn is the ancient religion of Tibet, the source of Tibetan Buddhism. Many Bӧn practices are similar to what we in the West know as Shamanism – the Bӧn make offerings to nature spirits and perform soul retrievals and healing rituals, for example. However, many aspects of the Bӧn cosmology and practice are very different from Shamanism, meaning that the tradition is considered a form of Buddhism.
Geshe Chaphur of the Gyalshen Institute gave an excellent basic introduction to the concept of non-duality in the Bӧn tradition in his talk entitled “The Nature of Self Awareness from the Tibetan Bӧn Dzogchen View”. (Read more about Yungdrung Bon, the tradition from which Geshe Chaphur Rinpoche comes)
Essentially, there are three major paths of Buddhism, all of which may be followed as part of the Bӧn tradition. When working within the sutra system, one renounces the five poisons – Ignorance, Attachment, Aversion, Pride, and Jealousy – often by entering a monastery, choosing not to marry, and so forth. This is like the ordinary man, who avoids eating poison as a rule. When following the tantric path, one transforms the five poisons into beneficial experiences. This is like the doctor, who mixes other plants with poison to make a medicine. When following the Dzogchen path, one experiences all emotions and phenomenon – good and bad – as no different from the self. This is like the peacock, who eats poisonous plants, which make his feathers more beautiful. In other words, the Dzogchen view is the view of Non-duality in Bӧn.
Geshe Chaphur recommends that everyone make space in life for a meditation practice – even if one only takes a few minutes in the morning at first, to sit in silence and experience the brilliant spaciousness of the non-dual state, it is enough to completely change one’s life.
“Dark places always have light switches. It is in our power to turn on the light. No matter how long the room has been dark, even a thousand years, whenever the light is turned on, it is always the same.”
Next, I was able to listen to a talk by Denise Groves on Indigenous Cosmology. Denise is a member of the Pilbara, an indigenous Australian tribal community. It was her community that raised the money for her to come to the conference. At this time, her community of 1100 is up against the second richest man in the world, who is actively destroying and mining their land. She told us that her people have 20 years shorter life expectancy than non-indigenous peoples in the area. When the land is sick, it is said that the indigenous people are sick. For the Pilbara, the land is the church and the people are the custodians.
The Pilbara people talk about the time of creation, The Dreaming, when the world was soft and there were no borders between land and sky. This was the non-dual time.
Of particular interest were Denise’s comments about the Principles of her community. There is no superiority between genders. The society may be considered matriarchal, but both genders are recognized as equally valuable and necessary for the support of the other. However, when patriarchal values were placed upon the community, this system began to break down, often with terrible results.
Nevertheless, women still have their own private ceremonies in the Pilbara culture. For example, when a baby is born (or comes forth from spirit), it is held over the smoke of various burning herbs to remove lingering spirits. The umbilical chord of the child is buried in the ground, so that the child will always be connected to the land. Members of the community are born on the land and die on the land, and so they experience a deep, eternal connection to the natural world that we in the West lack completely.
Alongside the land, the community is a most essential aspect of life. When you are born the community cares for you. When you are old you care for the community. You can learn more about the Pilbara people in Denise’s documentary entitled “My Nan and the Yandi“.
It felt clear to me that on this final day, I was receiving clear and straightforward answers to the looming question that was being asked throughout the conference – how do we integrate our concept of non-duality with the seemingly dual world in which we live? Through meditation (healing the self) and the creation of egalitarian communities in which every voice – including that of the planet – is considered equal (healing the other), we are able to create space for the potency and potential of non-duality in our everyday lives. By healing self and other, we come to realize that there are far fewer barriers between ourselves and others, and by breaking down those imaginary barriers, we make the first strides towards universal non-dual consciousness. We already possess all of the solutions to our troubles in the words and teachings of the ancient nature-based traditions of our ancestors. Now it is simply up to us to start listening.