The year is 1975. For two years, I have been teaching physics and astronomy at Colgate University and enjoying it immensely. Until this year, my research has been in theoretical astrophysics, but now I have accepted an invitation to try some hands-on experimental work. Today I am flying to Puerto Rico, where I will join a group that is using the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope, located in Arecibo. Our team will study gaseous nebulae—huge, diffuse clouds left over from star formation—scattered throughout our galaxy.
It would have been difficult to refuse the invitation from my thesis advisor, Professor Yervant Terzian of Cornell University. His sheer delight in doing science is utterly infectious. Besides, he has always been completely supportive—especially when I temporarily abandoned my Ph.D. dissertation in astrophysics for nearly two years while I immersed myself in various forms of psychology. His enthusiasm, my affection for him, my sense of indebtedness, and the opportunity for new research have brought me to this observational radio astronomy project. We hope that four days of observing will give our team useful data to make substantial progress on this project.
I always enjoy flying, but this time, as I wait for the plane to take off from Ithaca, New York, I am invaded by an overpowering sense of dread. I am certain that death is near. Despite years of meditation training, my mind is embarrassingly wild. My biggest fear is that I will never see my wife and two young sons again. I consider just running off the plane and canceling the trip, but that would ruin the observing run for the rest of the team. It’s very difficult to get observing time at the Arecibo telescope, so I force myself to stay on the plane.
I repeatedly try to reassure myself: “Don’t be silly. The whole thing is a stupid joke. This isn’t like you. Get a grip on yourself.” Yet, images of my wife and sons repeatedly float into consciousness, along with a deep sense of inevitability and loss. There is no doubt. I am doomed. They will soon be a widow and fatherless boys. To end this obvious absurdity, I try to read Sri Aurobindo’s Life Divine. It’s no help. My mind races on: “So this is the way it ends? So much to do and love, and I’ll never get off this plane alive. Why did I take this terrible window seat? I feel like an animal in a cage!” Torn between overwhelming dread and a voice telling me I am a hysterical fool, I am trapped, crushed, and powerless.
The plane lifts off and I wait for the inevitable crash or explosion. I have always feared death and here it is, hovering all around me—but am I not being ridiculous? My terror and sense of inevitability shout down that small calm voice. I can’t take the tension any more. Out of pure exhaustion, I surrender my fate to that which is highest in me. I give up, let go, and pray for help in dying.
Gradually, the air in the cabin seems suffused with soft golden light. My heart swells with devotion and gratitude and yet I am clearly aware of my unworthiness. Out of a deep sense of peace and joy, love radiates from me in all directions. Each person in the plane, and even the plane itself, vividly expresses divinity. I am as certain of the reality and presence of that sacred mystery as I am of my own body. I turn to the window to hide the tears of gratitude streaming down my face. As I gaze down on Cayuga Lake, embraced by the lovely emerald hills, my sense of reverence deepens even further. I put down Life Divine. There is nothing to do. This isthe life divine.
We land without incident in New York City. The peace, devotion, and soft golden hue extend to the tarmac and the terminal. It is disarmingly easy to see that all the people rushing around in the terminal are unique expressions of the sacred mystery. Although I have had experienced moments of spiritual uplift before, they have always been fleeting. This state persists as I float onto the plane headed to San Juan, Puerto Rico.
By the time our plane approaches San Juan, darkness has descended, revealing pearl necklaces of lights strewn all over the tropical island. The director of the Arecibo Observatory meets me, and we fly in a light plane to the telescope at the other end of the island. More opalescent jewels of light float to me on the soft, moist air.Still feeling a great sense of devotion and peace, I find it impossible to summon any interest in astrophysical gossip or shop talk about the telescope and my upcoming observations. I certainly cannot share my experiences on the plane out of Ithaca. We drive the last few miles from the airport over a tortuous, hilly road that twists its way into the valley that shelters the telescope. The warm air of the summer night caresses me and carries the gruesome sound of big frogs popping under the tires of our car. Even that is an expression of the great mystery.
At the observatory, my little room contains only the essentials and feels like a monk’s cell. Entering it, I realize for the first time how isolating my new experience is.
It is unwise to talk about that which is most precious, most real, with those who have neither sympathy nor understanding for such things. Of course, there is also another danger: talking about spiritual experiences can be a great way to fatten your ego. Less from humility and more from the fear of being misunderstood, I had for several years built a wall between my inner life and my scientific colleagues. The experience on the way to Arecibo put barbed wire on top of the wall. In fact, until this writing, I have told only my wife and my dearest teacher about it. Of course, walls not only protect but also isolate. Dismantling that wall through writing this book gives me opportunities for integrating my life as a scientist with my spiritual life, but it also creates the potential for misunderstanding—perhaps even ridicule.
Back in 1975, there was no question of taking down walls. I was concerned about whether I could get into the concentrated, high-energy mental state required to set up the telescope and take data. How could I make the transition from the depths of inner space to those of outer space? In those early years, I didn’t even consider trying to integrate these two worlds—that seemed overwhelmingly difficult, if not impossible.
The next day, the golden light fell far into the background as I plunged into the frantic activity and high-intensity effort that characterizes big science. The day after that, I got into a nasty fight with another astronomer over rights to a certain time for observing. We even took our argument to the director’s office. It was ugly. I learned a lesson repeated many times since then: one little glimpse of the higher self does not a saint make.
Science and the Sacred
The Arecibo radio telescope has a fixed dish, one thousand feet in diameter, anchored in a tropical valley. Pointing the telescope requires moving the signal-gathering feed, the apparatus shown in Figure 1, in conjunction with the Earth’s rotation. Even then, you can only scan part of the sky. Because of this, the objects we were observing during my 1975 visit could only be viewed in the middle of the night. My already delicate sleeping patterns were thoroughly disrupted, especially since construction was going on outside my room during the day. Instead of sleeping, I lay in my little room for hours reviewing my mysterious experience.
What did it mean? Was my glimpse of the sacred just the pathology of a neurotic who could not face his mortality and the realities of modern life? If not, where did that effulgent love for humanity go during the nasty fight over telescope time? How was I to balance my love for physics and astronomy with my love for the sacred that expresses itself in so many ancient wisdom traditions? In other words, how was I to bring harmony between my head and my heart?
It is difficult to conceive of objects more objective and independent of human concerns than those we were studying at Arecibo. On one hand, I was concerned with radiation from galactic nebulae, while on the other, with the divine mystery radiating from my innermost self. What are the essential differences between the scientific knowledge of galactic nebulae and the inner realization of soul? This question has haunted me for years. Since high school, I have had a deep love of science and even before that a natural affinity for the sacred. I could never neglect one in favor of the other. They have an equal claim on me.
Nevertheless, following my own science instructors, I was teaching my students at Colgate University that the personal equation—the particular set of preferences, unique history, and individuality that characterizes each person—must be thoroughly removed from scientific investigation. This depersonalization is one of the pillars of modern science and has contributed to its great power. But what then is the status of feelings, which unite us with the object of experience rather than remove us from it, as in scientific objectivity? Do they have any access to truth? Does the private nature of the experience of the sacred diminish its value, make it less real or less true than a galactic nebulae that can be seen by anybody with a big enough telescope? What is the nature of the objectivity so prized in science? Can we bring the objective knowledge of science into harmony with the interior experience of spiritual truths as articulated in ancient wisdom traditions in both the East and the West?
These, then, are some of the questions I explore in this book. I do not try to answer them within the context of a relationship between science and any one particular religion, be it Christianity or Hinduism, old or new. My concern encompasses all religions, in that I am interested in the relationship between science and spirituality. By spirituality, I mean that set of ideas and experiences at the root of all major religions. Spiritual principles and experiences come in many forms, and no one religion has a monopoly on them. In spirituality, as I understand it, the emphasis is less on dogmatic formulation of truth and more on a personal experience of truth, and still more on appreciating how the light of the divine refracts through different traditions into a rainbow of meaning. Not only does divinity express itself through a plurality of religious traditions, but also through the wondrous beauty and horror of the world.
Despite the tolerance built into this position, it does not mean that all expressions of divinity are equal. Nor does a genuine spiritual position shy away from the many intellectual challenges provided by the plurality of religious views. Instead, a spiritual position fully embraces direct personal experience and the demand for coherent understanding in the face of the multiplicity of religious forms and the obvious evils in the world. From this position, I address the complex question about the relationship between science and spirituality or, equivalently, science and the sacred.
I believe this question is not only personally pressing but also has great significance for our planetary culture. Ravi Ravindra, a physicist and professor of comparative religion, thinks it is the pressing problem for our generation:
It is possible to hope that modern science and ancient spiritual traditions can be integrated in some higher synthesis. I would even say that such a task is the most important of all that can be undertaken by contemporary intellectuals, for on such a synthesis depends not only the global survival of man but also the creation of the right environment, right both physically and metaphysically, for future generations.[i]
I fully agree with Ravindra that understanding the relationship between science and ancient spiritual traditions is of the utmost importance. However, I will argue that, given the nature of science and the sacred, a synthesis, in the sense of combining separate elements into one coherent whole, is impossible.
Reality and Truth
Over the years I have learned that reality, divinity, unity, or the absolute—whatever term you choose to describe the sacred mystery—cannot be limited either to the rationality and objectivity of science nor the unity and subjectivity of spiritual seekers. This book tries to show that reality is both intrinsically rational and objective and, simultaneously, a super-rational and subjective unity underlying diversity. In other words, reality cannot be reduced to the objective world of science nor to the subjective unity of the mystics. It intrinsically has both these seemingly incompatible aspects. Failure to embrace them both artificially limits reality and diminishes both our experience of reality and our sense of what it means to be human. Such lopsided views lead to extremism, despair, and moral paralysis.
Through the interplay of elegant theory and powerful instruments, our knowledge of the natural world has exploded in the last century. In the last decade, there has even been progress in unifying all the forces of nature (gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces) into a grand unification, a “theory of everything.” Such a theory would provide an explanation of all natural phenomena through a set of equations that could be written on one standard-sized piece of paper. Because of both the great success and future prospects of science, many believe that one great scientific truth, one theory of everything, encompasses all of reality.
Well before the advent of modern science, various religions offered their version of the one great truth that supports and explains all things in heaven and on Earth. Unfortunately, the truths offered by the great religions are not in harmony with each other. For example, many speak of God, whether the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition, Allah of Islam, or Brahman of Hinduism. Yet, Buddhism denies the existence of any creator god, while the grand unification sought in physics encourages many to question even the need for a god.
Who then has the absolute truth? Is there one absolute truth? These are not merely academic questions. History clearly shows that when one group firmly believes that they have the one truth, all other groups are, by definition, in error and must be eliminated. Monotheism, or more properly “monotruthism,” is always hostile to those not espousing the one great truth. Thus, clinging to the belief in one great truth, whether a “theory of everything” or the one true God, sets the stage for conflict, which modern technology makes more barbaric every year. As I will show, understanding the relationship between science and the sacred, between the head and the heart, sheds light on this issue of competing truths, whether among religions or between science and spirituality.
In elementary calculus, we must learn to differentiate before we can integrate. In a similar way, we must clearly differentiate scientific knowledge from sacred knowledge. Only then can we intelligently approach the problem of bringing some harmony between mathematically based sciences that provide only one clear answer to a problem and philosophical mysticism, astrology, depth psychology, and meditation. In other words, careful differentiation between the head and the heart must precede any possible harmony between them. However, harmony emphatically does not mean reducing one type of knowledge to the other.
Many of us seek a worldview that can accommodate both the latest vision of modern science and the many forms of traditional wisdom, one solidly based upon reason that embraces the reality of quarks and the big bang alongside the sacred inner world. However, such a comprehensive postmodern view has not yet emerged, and its absence leaves us two alternatives, both unacceptable. We cannot revert to a premodern view that neglects the vast explosion of science and its handmaiden, technology. Nor can we stay on our present course where modern science and technology make possible the savagery of modern warfare, unsustainable economic growth, ecological destruction, and life devoid of meaning.
My previous book, Synchronicity, Science, and Soul-Making,[ii] addressed some of these issues via the psychological, scientific, and philosophical consequences of the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung’s concept of synchronicity. Here my effort to understand modern science and its relationship to the sacred is both more personal and more general. It is more personal because I draw directly upon my own experiences of both science and the sacred. Greater generality comes from making use of many traditions, from depth psychology, to Neoplatonism, to philosophical Hinduism, yet relying exclusively on none of them. Instead, I build the discussion from first principles and analysis of personal experience.
I write about my experiences, such as the one that begins this chapter, with much trepidation. Speaking openly about our most intimate inner experiences can be a gross form of ego aggrandizement. Although spiritual effort should not seek to destroy the ego, that being neither possible nor desirable, the ego must become a servant of the higher self or soul. This shift is impossible if I boast about spiritual experiences. Nevertheless, I admit my ego’s involvement and take the risk for four reasons. First, it allows me to embody abstract ideas in concrete experiences. Second, it makes the analysis more engaging and compelling. Third, I believe Ralph Waldo Emerson when he writes in his essay “The American Scholar”:
He then learns that in going down into the secrets of his own mind he has descended into the secrets of all minds. . . . the deeper he dives into his privatest, secretest presentiment, to his wonder he finds this is the most acceptable, most public, and universally true.[iii]
Although this was written nearly a century before Jung’s major works, in Jungian language we would say that in going deep enough into our personal material we reach a universal, archetypal level.
Finally, there is a philosophical reason for paying homage to the personal. There is a tradition, widely represented in both Eastern and Western thought, that exalts the impersonal over the personal. For example, many traditions encourage us to abandon, even destroy, the psychologically unique individual or ego in favor of the undivided, unitary soul or self. One of my heroes, Albert Einstein expresses one variant of this approach. He tells us how his religious devotion to science allowed him to transcend the “merely personal,” an existence “dominated by wishes, hopes, and primitive feelings.”[iv] I too have had some limited experience of the liberation that impersonal science affords from the merely personal. Nevertheless, I will argue that denying the personal turns the majestic unity of soul into a sham. How could soul be a true unity, an undivided whole, if it excludes me, an individual expression of both human folly and excellence? How does this lopsided emphasis on the impersonal fully express the unique miracle of Einstein as both a person and a scientist? For an example of how limited a view such impersonality gives, consider Einstein’s autobiography, written at age sixty-seven. There we find no mention of his two wives and two sons, let alone his illegitimate daughter.
Rather than remove or denigrate the personal, I will argue for embracing both our timeless unity and the unique expression of that unity in daily life—you and me as transitory individuals in space and time. I am not elevating the ephemeral ego at the expense of the transcendent unity. Instead, I believe that our task is to experience the unity and simultaneously to appreciate plurality, that is, to appreciate soul as simultaneously an eternal, undivided unity and as a temporal, divided plurality. This approach allows us to cultivate life’s intrinsic sacredness, including our personal expression of it in the empirical personality.
My approach to harmonizing science and the sacred involves a parallel appreciation that unity expresses itself in a plurality of religious, philosophical, and scientific views. Appreciating how unity expresses itself as plurality, both personally at the level of our own souls, and universally through the diversity of religions, is my path to harmony between science and the sacred. Showing this requires me to oscillate between intellectual analysis and personal narration, between the world of science and philosophy on one hand and that of psychological and spiritual experience on the other. Only by encompassing both experiences of the head and the heart can we get a glimpse of the fullness of reality and what it means to be human.
[i] Ravi Ravindra, Science and Spirit (New York: Paragon House, 1991) p. 146.
[ii] Victor Mansfield, Synchronicity, Science, and Soul-Making (Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 1995).
[iii] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Selected Essays (New York: Penguin Books, 1982) p. 97.
[iv] Albert Einstein, “Autobiographical Notes,” in P.A. Schlipp (ed.), Albert Einstein, Philosopher-Scientist (New York: Harper and Row, 1959) vol. I, pp. 3-5.