Archive for November, 2015

The Mother of all Threats to my Yogic Worldview?
Friday, November 20th, 2015

Sky full of rippling cliffs and chasms/That shine like signs on the road to heaven

Bruce Cockburn


It is not uncommon for a student who has been practicing for a while to inquire about the literature behind the Ashtanga practice. I often recommend the basics that were offered by Pattabhi Jois when I asked him that question. He said Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras were the first and most important, followed by Bhagavad Gita, Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Shankara’s Aparokshanubhuti. When I pressed further, he suggested Shankara’s Brahma Sutra Bhashya, and he gave me a look that this one was important. He would often chant quietly under his breath while teaching, and when I asked he told me it was the Isha Upanishad. In his book Yoga Mala he quotes from the above texts, and also references Shankara’s Yoga Taravali, Vedanta and Ayurveda in general, various other Upanishads, and the Rg Veda.

When one begins to pursue this library, it quickly becomes complicated. In particular, we begin to notice that disagreements have arisen and debates have ensued on almost every topic under discussion. These debates have been part of the story from nearly the beginning: around 500 BC, the Buddha argued and disagreed with, among others, Upanishadic thinkers as well as materialists who were remarkably similar in their ideas to many scientists and philosophers today who argue from scientism (which is the belief that empirical science has all the answers to everything). The 8th century  Brahma Sutra Bhashya is a very long debate between Sankara the Vendantin and his opponents. How do we sort through all these arguments and find the truth about yoga?

I’ve come up with three categories that we can see today for those pursuing the theoretical aspect of the yogic quest. First: those who put their work into mastering and even memorizing a chosen canon, and for a large part, accepting those teachings exactly as presented. This is essentially taking a perspective of faith, and especially in the older texts like the Yoga Sutras,  it is also considered one of the main ways of gaining knowledge: resort to textual authority. If this seems quaint to you, think again: when the media presents a scientific finding, do you subject it to rigorous scrutiny or even try to replicate the experiment yourself? Most of us accept such reporting on faith; we have faith in science, and those who don’t come off as crackpots, such as climate change deniers. However, this first category is the least critical and the most poetic, if you will, of my three, sinking deeply into the languages and, in particular, how the meanings therein can influence practice. And with good reason: all of the texts above, if pursued with sincerity, will reliably guide one’s spiritual practice towards relative degrees of what has been considered enlightenment. I would put Pattabhi Jois in this first category. When he gets critical, it tends to be about practice guidance rather than scholarly quibbling, for example, criticizing those who consider themselves “scholars beyond compare” who nonetheless give in to lust and rage.

The second category could be exemplified by Georg Feuerstein, who took the position of a critical scholar of yogic culture and languages in addition to viewing the literature for its spiritual value. In the process, he clearly declares himself as one who follows the guidance of these texts, not just one who looks at them from a distance.

The third category can be represented by a group loosely calling themselves the Modern Yoga Researchers, who identify more as cultural and linguistic historians and critical scholars; they just so happen to be focusing on the yogic/eastern spirituality field, and as a rule, make no claims as to their own experiences. Spiritual values are less important from this perspective than truth (whether modern or post-modern), morality, analysis of historical influence, and attempts at precise determinations of the meanings of old texts. Santa Barbara’s David Gordon White and his entertaining writing (such as Sinister Yogis) is an exemplar.

If we put aside practical debates about the best ways to  practice, we are left with arguments about the ideas themselves and the world views contained within these ideas. Of the above categories, the first category values primarily spiritual ideas, the second both spiritual and materialist/ postmodern, and the third primarily materialist/postmodern.

What do I mean by materialist/postmodern? In academics today, almost everybody is either materialist or postmodern, or they take the spiritual angle through aesthetics, or they do some combination of the three. This is to say that by and large they belong to my third category above. They often don’t  agree with each other but what they do agree on is a wariness toward actual spiritual practice-generated spiritual data, which I’ll get into in a bit. This has been the circumstance with intelligent respected thinking; academics doesn’t have a yoga and doesn’t seem to want one. As Pattabhi Jois used to say, “No yoga there!”

Which leads us to the following situation: if we pursue a practice such as yoga with the intent of self-development, with perhaps a quiet or not so quiet yearning for the possibility of enlightenment, we will begin to familiarize ourselves with the history of ideas behind such a quest. Researching these ideas, we will find that although the traditional literature clearly has spiritual intent behind all the debating, this literature is often surrounded by modern scholarship, much of which is neutral towards-  or even dubious of-  the value of spiritual practice itself. As we try to discern our way through these different perspectives, both within the traditions and in the more recent scholarship, we come to recognize that we have undertaken a process of philosophical inquiry, and that we’re going to have to weigh the evidence and come to our own conclusions. And if we follow any thread in philosophy, it will not take long before we run into a flat out declaration that the entire spiritual pursuit is…One Big Illusion And Thus A Falsehood. Or, at best, begrudgingly, of possible practical benefit.  The entire spectrum of higher spheres of which almost the whole corpus of spiritual literature, East and West, is built upon is typically cut to ribbons and left for dead. And we will begin to note that this voice is very loud and very prominent: the voice of materialism. The prominent current version is scientific materialism. And it is a formidable opponent.

So  the view we’ve been gaining through practice, and through familiarity with spiritual materials and literature and community, gets directly and rudely “trumped” by aggressive and sophisticated materialist negators and debunkers. In the face of this, many yogis just steer clear, carrying on with their practice and/or teaching entirely unconcerned. I did this when I was younger, but lately, for better or worse, I’ve found the subject impossible to ignore. As I go about my research, I’ve learned to recognize when my “geiger counter starts clicking”  as Ken Wilber puts it, which indicates an intensification of my interest level,  and this is often the loudest when I feel a threat to my worldview.

I’ve actually developed a taste for such threats. As a long time professional yoga teacher, I can now say that the scientific materialist negation of spirit and ultimate meaning in life has been the mother of all threats to my yogic bliss. At existential hazard, I’ve chosen to face it and it has led me on a lengthy search for light in the darkness. This post represents one way through this maze. The argument I will engage has played itself out through history in a lengthy and dauntingly complicated process, but it can be generally simplified as that of Materialist vrs Idealist, which I see as the main issue. (Post-modernism has its own attacks against both fields but I see this debate as relatively peripheral, and I believe waning in influence now that its touch has been felt.)

Aggressive materialist negation of spirituality can lead us to doubt some of the more hopeful implications of our yogic experience. It certainly has in my case. This is not necessarily a bad thing. If what we are doing is real, it will be able to withstand challenges, and any serious practitioner will feel doubts coming and going as the self inquiry process proceeds. On the other hand, a common teaching in yoga  is the need for some protection for our practice realizations, treating them like delicate plants which require loving care until they can get rooted more strongly. I believe this is true, and if you put yourself in this category, you may want to stop reading this now (spoiler alert: this post has what I think is a happy ending). The first 15 or so years of my efforts at practicing, teaching and holding a community of yogis together were periodically marked by internal and external upheavals that could make it extremely challenging to gracefully face the room of students in front of me. To make a Mysore-based Ashtanga Yoga Shala work day by day, with the many trials of what it is to hold a higher kind of energy which manifests collectively and maintains interest month after month, one often feels he has little room for error. My first five years I would sometimes nearly get whacked right out of the room. About five years ago I must have finally put down deep enough roots, and I felt ready to drink the materialist kool-aid straight, determined to get at the truth.

One of my drives in this was to engage the larger picture behind a feeling I get after being exposed to  some materialist ideas and approaches, a feeling captured by David Loye as “degraded world view”, a view also frequently referred to as “flat-land”. The strongest I’ve felt this has been after reading Stephen Pinker’s How The Mind Works. And when it comes to that feeling of raw threat, a sense that something precious and essential is being gutted and raped, the best author has been Daniel Dennett, especially his Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. One of the reasons that they both rattle me so effectively is that I admire them and their work, especially Dennett.

Indeed, about a decade ago, I began to hear geiger counter clicks around neuroscience. I had been swimming in the yogic arts and literature, as well as psychology, both developmental and Jungian, and had been a working yoga teacher and musician. I did lots of meditation and hatha yoga. This was where my research had been, this was the kind of data I had been taking in. I recognized I was fairly ignorant about science. Undaunted, I began studying the sciences, in particular the literature of the brain, as much as I could, and derived great benefit. But as Stuart Kauffman notes, virtually all neurobiologists hold the view that consciousness is entirely mechanically generated. It wasn’t long before I felt the tension growing between this materialist outlook and my own view. Simultaneously, I began following the growing avalanche of data from the lab about the material benefits of spiritual practice, i.e: yoga makes your brain grow, decreases stress markers, is good for heart health, etc. This is the current emergence of clear evidence, from the material view, that spiritual practices have material benefit and can be fruitfully pursued entirely from that perspective. In fact, as I was checking out the popular current Atheist group The Four Horsemen, I pretty quickly sniffed out that Sam Harris, one of the horsemen,  has legitimate yogi credentials, which is to say lots of hard practice, quite beyond just trying the hat on. Which is also to say, it is possible to pursue spiritual techniques from an entirely materialist, even nihilist, point of view. And if yoga and mysticism really are simply ways of tapping into unusual brain states, including getting good at recruiting the brain’s happy chemicals, then what’s the problem? Don’t worry, be happy! But as Daniel Dennett hints, many scientists may not have actually followed that materialist view all the way to its necessary conclusion, don’t really want to, because it can be rough and scary, more on that below.

Back in May of this year, there was a fairly interesting exchange that illustrates this year’s model of the ongoing fracas, published in the Washington Post, between popular author Deepak Chopra and Steven Newton, who is the director for programs and policy for the National Center for Science Education. Newton began the exchange with a “tongue-in-cheek” piece that dripped with acidic sarcasm towards Chopra’s apparently obvious pseudo-scientific New Age buffoonery on the subject of evolution, Newton offering instead a perhaps humorously exaggerated grim view of eat-or-be-eaten Darwinism. It may have been tongue-in-cheek, but it was definitely not friendly. Chopra fired back in a manner that made it clear that he may not be such a clown after all, offering his case for the role of consciousness in evolution, in addition to chiding Newton for flirting with internet troll-vibe. Newton responded in turn with an altered demeanor of recognition that he had to take this debate seriously, concluding his conservative materialist outlook with a warning that Chopra is aiding and abetting fundamentalist creationists and intelligent designers because his untested  ideas resemble theirs.

Now, Newton has a point as regards creationists in America: currently, the number of Americans who believe that matter and life happened as described by the book of Genesis is at approximately 45 percent. And Newton’s urgency has some justification: surveys currently show that somewhere between 25 and 50 percent of Americans don’t believe in climate change, and this view is typically accompanied by a skepticism toward science. Also, on the other side of the coin, Newton was warning Chopra to stay out of the scientific playground unless he is willing to enter the fire of peer-reviewed discussion, which has zero tolerance for speculation without lab quality evidence. In his response, he marshals experimental findings to support his points. Chopra, in his turn, while clearly demonstrating his familiarity with the contours of the current rich debate about mind, consciousness and evolution, offered his position as that of provocateur of new ideas. “I work with high-level scientists, including physicists, geneticists and others who believe, as I do, that mainstream science, like mainstream medicine, has a lot to gain from keeping the flow of ideas moving.” Presumably, it will be these scientific colleagues of his who will enter the actual scientific journal environment, their imaginations piqued by Chopra as to how to set up the experiments. And Newton also made a big mistake: Chopra is no friend of the creationists; he is a practitioner and integrator of current psycho-spiritual technology, which can be likened to creationist religion in a similar manner as string theory is to medieval alchemy. Chopra has a “substantial audience” partly because many people are practicing yoga in some form right now, and many people with spiritual inclinations have moved far beyond mythic level religion.

Allow me to present two stories at this point. The first is heavily indebted to Shri Aurobindo, who in turn drew from both the great corpus of Indian philosophy as well as European idealism of the early nineteenth century (Fichte, Hegel, Shelling), to help unpack his own profound yoga practice. We could call this story a version of the Life Divine or the Great chain of Being. It goes like this, story number one, the Idealist story:

   There was a Being. Call It any name, it could be Satchitananda, or Krishna, or Yahweh with or without Jesus, with or without the Prophet, it could be Great Spirit: God. Any name. Let’s just call it Spirit for now. It had no form that we can understand, but it desired to fulfill itself by coming into being as matter, like that in our universe. So it caused a Big Bang.* Hydrogen and helium suffused into space. The basic laws that governed these elements were either already there or they developed over time. Gradually gravity shaped the hydrogen and helium into clumps which heated up through fusion and became stars. The hydrogen in the stars turned into helium. As the stars ran out of hydrogen, they begin to create other elements, including oxygen, nitrogen, iron, zinc. Stars eventually began blowing up and expelled these elements out into space. Time passed. Some pieces of these blown up stars got caught in the orbits of other stars and turned into spherical planets. Some of these planets- at least ours- happened to reside in the “goldilocks zone”: places in solar systems where the ratios between sun and planet and moons are such that the stage is set for the elements to begin radically arranging themselves into organized patterns. Some of these patterns became complex enough that they begin to show signs of agency: separate units acting of their own accord. Time passed. The complexity of these patterns increased. Some units developed features that others didn’t have, which allowed them to proliferate better than the others, or at the expense of the others. They took on more elements and put them and their unique capacities to use, such as iron and zinc, in ways that conferred further advantage. Complexity increased. They gained more abilities. Bacteria arose, and then worms, and fishes, and then lizards, and then rodents, and then monkeys and then…people. There were other branches, such as the dolphins, but it was the monkey line that burst through first. Along the way amazing things called neurons developed and those who found themselves with larger numbers of neurons proliferated abundantly. Humans grew this “cognitive niche” to the degree that they began to outsmart all the other creatures. And they also begin to  think and reflect on their situation. They created civilization and culture and gained safety and leisure. From this place they slowly accrued a knowledge of the forces that operate in the universe.* Some of them also awakened within themselves a consciousness which was “sleeping” as it subtly guided the elemental play, but now was capable of being perceived. People developed psycho-spiritual technology of various types which allowed some of  them- the brave pioneers at first-  to go  along inner “pathless paths” whereby they awakened to the fact that this Spirit is within them, and is and had been the “eyes” through which they had viewed the universe from the beginning.

They are gradually remembering who they have been all along. The purpose of the entire “show” has been to awaken to this Spirit and to realize it within oneself, such that Matter and Spirit are united. From this perspective, humans can become agents of proliferate creation, much like Spirit before them, taking things into greater and greater complexity and beauty, the delight of the experiencing of which joins them with the ongoing Lila- divine play- which was the reason Spirit began the whole ordeal and passion in the first place. The delight of Lila allows us to see that the messy nature of evolution, the starts and stops, mistakes and triumphs, were part of a creative process, like a work of art. People now can consciously assume their role in the ongoing delight, drama, passion and satisfaction of the Kosmos.

Quite an appealing story, isn’t it? This is my updated edition; even since Aurobindo wrote The Life Divine much has been discovered- by science-  to flesh it out.

OK. Now take the above story and cut out the first part all the way to the sentence about the big bang, and turn that sentence into simply: There was a Big Bang. Now, read along as it is, all the way to they slowly accrue a knowledge of the forces that operate in the universe. (See asterisks). And from there we’ll proceed with the story, which becomes story number two, the materialist story:

Through this process of discovery they conclude that, unlikely as it might seem, all this beauty and complexity and design is the product of mere chance working through  the physical forces and elements over time. We are what we are, consciousness and all, merely because certain organization of atoms survive better than others, and right now, the human form is among the best out there suited for continuing as an organized unit through time, up there with cockroaches and ants. None of it means anything. Organizations of elements are no better than unorganized elements just lying around. There is no purpose to life, not even survival. Urge for survival just so happens to be a trait that gives one organization of atoms a greater likelihood of continuing in that state of organization than others. Complexity often confers greater abilities to a form, allowing it to continue and reproduce. We are here in our complexity because through an accumulation of accidents a design has developed which is fairly well suited to continue in its form over time. There is no value in survival, it is just that forms which survive are the ones still here. Our form is one of the ones still here. There is no value anywhere. This being the case, we might as well take advantage of the accidental by-products of this big nervous system of ours and enjoy ourselves, maximize pleasure and minimize pain, because we seem to like pleasure, we have this personality system that has a hard time without it. But “hard time”, suffering and pain are meaningless, they are just survival mechanisms and survival is meaningless. We have a life-span and if we participate in human civilization which was set up to minimize pain, we can make it easier to pass the time that our particular body will be “alive” by attempting to realize variations on pleasure. All culture, and human relations, including the spiritual pursuits, are a result of the fact that we prefer pleasure to pain and happen to accidentally have a brain that can have variations of pleasure rung from it; “meaning” is just a subtle form of pleasure, no better than what the rapist feels during violent sex or the pleasure that many animals feel when they kill. Civilization allows an increasing number of us to live until the body dies of  its own accord. But pleasure and long life are meaningless. Once the organization which is our body stops surviving- dies- the personality system is no longer conjured like a movie from our neurons, and there is nothingness. The big bang happened and the elements exist, and there is nothing else to be said as to why they happened and why they are here.

And, in the words of Daniel Dennett, “that’s all there is to it”. If we faithfully follow the implications of materialism, there can be no other conclusion.

Degraded worldview. Kinda grim.

A common materialist response to this bleak picture is “We don’t necessarily want it to be like this, but, uh, this is how it is. We need to tell the truth. This is the truth that has been revealed to us by the data. The data does not support that first story. We have and must build our meanings and purposes in life on top of empirical truth. Stop worrying about it. Get over it. You can still enjoy your life. Besides, you get to be free, within and without, from all those old power trips parading as religious rules.”

Such a dichotomy between these two worldviews! Here’s another way it can play out: say you listen to a piece of music. You are quite touched by it, tears come to your eyes and you feel an exquisite feeling, it seems to open your heart; you’ve had a fabulous aesthetic experience. Straight-up materialist Stephen Pinker would render it like this: the music fan has “a mind that rises to a biologically pointless challenge: figuring out how to get at the pleasure circuits of the brain and deliver little jolts of enjoyment without the inconvenience of wringing bonafide fitness increments from the harsh world.” This follows from the observance that “Some parts of the mind register the attainment of increments of fitness by giving us a sensation of pleasure.” (How the Mind Works, p 524)

Here’s a version of the other side: Eros is a force that is woven into the fabric of the universe. It is a subtle guide that beckons arrangements of matter into ever greater complexity through a force which is ceaseless new creativity and, in the case of those who have attained a sufficient level of self-consciousness, (i.e. humans, dolphins?) toward ever greater self-recognition. At the simpler levels of organization, jolts of enjoyment are part of a useful reward system towards self-preservation and reproduction. At the human level- and for animals that play-  they become part of the on-going Lila, pulled by a loving urge for ever greater complexity, and ever increasing recognition of the Spirit which lives within us. The experience of musical delight is a significant eros event, a contribution to the divine dance and an education for the listener about her true identity, which is non-different from Spirit itself. It has revealed “signs on the road to heaven”.

Alright. We have these opposing cosmic views. Our first cosmic story, the variation on the great chain of being, has shown itself to be the predominant view arrived at by people who have seriously pursued spiritual practice throughout history; these often aren’t the church fathers or popes or preachers or rabbis or brahmin royalty but rather the monks and mystics and nuns and yogis, the ones actively engaged in spiritual practices-  which is different than just thinking about spirit or laws or ideas. And it is different than controlling others. There are no laws inscribed on stone tablets from this spirit-  although laws such as gravity and electro-magnetism are likely closer to the mark-  but rather a subtle beckoning towards greater complexity and delight. On the other hand, variations on the second story have been the view of materialists, accepted at varying degrees, since at least the time of the Buddha.

Ken Wilber has a good response to this. Here’s my take on his approach. His is an insistent voice that there are different ways of gathering data. The position that raw empirical materialism is the only valid source of data eventually runs into trouble in a variety of ways and here’s one: the scientist supposedly is just working with the simplest forms of sensory experience, like a tree as seen by the eyes and their technological extension such as a microscope. Only problem with this: “tree” itself is a concept that our mind does for us, usually without our conscious realization. If we go all the way to our eyes, we are left with “colored patches”. Hard to do much meaningful science if we are just hanging around with colored patches. We need to resort to mind, which is a different level than elemental material and can’t be “pointed to” at the deepest material level. All that can be pointed to at the material level is colored patches, vibrations in sound, smells, etc. “Tree” like “square root of 2” is a concept and exists at the level of mind. It can’t be pointed to at the material level, only at the mental level which organizes the material level. The material level needs things like mathematics and logic to organize it. So, our cosmic story number two above, the materialist story, involves many mental ideas, and is not an actual material assessment based on our senses and nothing else. Materialism wants to keep everything as close to actual sensate experience as possible. But it needs to resort to the level of mind to say anything meaningful. So, strict materialism is out the window.

Most people  who have spent time with mind agree that there are ways to work with mind which are valid and those which aren’t. Your math test in 8th grade, some of those answers you gave were not. There are also good ways and poor ways of conducting scientific experiments. Likewise, having recognized that we need mind, many people claim that there is another level to our existence other than mind. This is the spiritual level. It has been recognized by humans for a long time. And there are ways of working at that level which are good and ways that aren’t. Which, Wilber insists, tells us that there is data that can be gathered at each level: material, mental and spiritual. Mental data is gathered by doing things like math. Logical Positivism argued that math only serves to organize sensory data; Wilber is arguing otherwise. He is arguing that mathematical objects, like the square root of two, are real things at the mental level. Moreover, spiritual data works the same way; it is gathered by doing things like…yoga. It can be done well, like the other levels, or it can be done poorly. The objects it discloses are real. Wilber’s argument here is the best I’ve seen for integrating science and spirit.

Those who do yoga and mysticism well, in all its myriad forms, often eventually report a story which is a variant on story number one above, the idealist story. This story has emerged across cultures far removed. And again, these yogas, these psycho-spiritual technologies, are NOT mythic religious stories like the biblical creation myth. They are rather the “contemplative core” of the world’s religions: Judaism has Kabbalah, Christianity has monastic monks and nuns, Islam has sufis, and for some reason India just went straight for it and emerged with their yogas right on the surface in Buddhism, and Vedanta. Good yogis are just as intently focused as good scientists, and have equal integrity.

These yogis and mystics residing at the nucleus of the world’s religions were not just thinkers and theorerizers. Rather, they were primarily practitioners learning, using, experimenting with and propagating psycho-spiritual technologies, with certain features shared cross-culturally, such as intensely focused inward attention and periods of solitude. To deny their validity, one must undertake the practices themselves and then prove them false- without that, no yogi could take you seriously. It would be like a yogi walking into a science lab, looking at a few test tubes, and declaring the whole venture a big charade, which would have the scientists rolling on the floor; any materialist who denies spiritual experience and reality without undertaking spiritual practices is just as foolish, and the intimidating yoga ladies would look at him askance. Add to this that many scientists and philosophers in general don’t even conceive of ever going outside of or beyond discursive mind.

I’ll lay out my personal position at this point, what I can report from actual experience, without any leaps into “metaphysics”. This is to say, that although I am inclined toward story #1 above, I cannot claim the entire thing with much certainty, although it feels intuitively right. My current yogic experience, both individually and collectively, is that there is without a doubt a subtle realm (sukshma sharira) with its subtle senses (sukshma indriya). Subtle phenomena can be seen as less dense forms of matter/energy, for example a person’s energy field. Gross phenomena are on the denser end of the spectrum, for example a football. The entire spectrum from gross to subtle to very subtle plays itself out in a spaciousness that can be likened to the theater in which a play occurs. This spaciousness carries an unmistakable sense of “I-ness”; it feels as if it is our own identity, and this is where the plot thickens. I’m not inferring that this spacious I-ness must be there, I actually experience it regularly. It presents empirical data to my subtle senses.

Just as Einstein’s new physics responded to data in ways that disturbed the scientists who themselves were discovering it because of what it did to the secure Newtonian world view, so yoga practice which generates subtle data tends to do the same to materialism. This is largely because the exploration of the subtle realms is not just a “looking at things” but also brings us into engagement with a process of identity and consciousness itself, thereby confirming the reality of that consciousness empirically: we actually sense it; I have sensed it.

Keeping this in mind, if we practice yoga today, we  can arrive at an understanding of the cosmos which includes every shred of good science that’s been done through history right up to today, and it will still remain possible to have room for a view that recognizes Spirit. I would like to back this statement up with two approaches, one that reveals the way that a good percentage of hard scientists and rigorous philosophers themselves have viewed the debate, and the second is to offer a few suggestions that speak of data sources difficult or impossible to collect in traditional empirical scientific lab settings.

First, let me offer an extremely condensed view of the rise of materialism: although the strands disappear into the darkness of history, including the above mentioned opponents of  the Buddha, the strength of the current Western view stems from the irresistible urge for human thought to liberate itself from the confines of established religion. A first big flower was in the 1500’s when Copernicus presented his discovery that it was the sun at the center of things, not the earth, which rattled the Pope’s metaphysicians. Copernicus was careful and savvy, and stayed mostly out of trouble, but Gallileo, in furthering the ideas,  nearly got on the wrong side of the inquisition, which threatened hot consequences. Nonetheless, science was not to be stopped, and it began blooming forth at every angle. By the late 1700’s Kant, who himself was not a materialist, blew the candle out of traditional metaphysics, such as the classic proofs of God, unintentionally giving rise to an unfettered proliferation of materialism. 19th century notables were Karl Marx with his socialism and communism, Friedrich Nietzsche and his nihilism- freaking out about the death of God-  and of course, the big guy for our current materialists: Darwin. Into the 20th century we find the existentialists, gleeful of the freedoms from the big brother church yet mourning the “god shaped hole in their head where god used to be” and  the exceptionally influential Freud, who told us God was just a part of our subconscious, and called it the super-ego. Not long after, The Holocaust left Jews and people of faith everywhere muttering, “What the hell happened to God? There’s no God here.” Simultaneously,  logical positivism took over large swaths of philosophy, influencing scientists and beating up idealists and theologians. By the 70’s, even the post-modernists, who were whacking with all their might at science, also attacked Spirit with their assault on introspection, demanding that everybody remain on the surface, far from the depths required for any actual knowledge of Spirit. And today, as evidenced by the Newton-Chopra exchange above, materialism is still currently trying to carry the day and banish the spookiness in much of academia. And again, in its scientific materialism mode it is formidable; whereas the logical positivists and behaviorists at its roots went way too far, including denying any  interior life to the mind at all, which is one very efficient definition of insanity, the current crop of cognitive scientists “allow” and even practice much of the richness of life that any humanist or artist would insist upon, but couch it in strictly material causes. However, as a yogi, I hold the position that there is more.

And the case is far from closed. Within science and academic philosophy, there are many thinkers who have delineated limits to the materialist view, opening up the possibility of our first story above, the Life Divine. Before I get into them though, it is essential to side with Stephen Newton here that this definitely does NOT mean that we can plug our good old fashioned Christianity story, or any other myth, into the gaps in materialism noticed by these thinkers. In fact, every one of these guys would debunk a merely mythical level religion. Rather, I find that the following hard scientists and philosophers are actually closer to a mystical view that can work in today’s world than most of the theologians of their times, and they present a very solid theoretical foundation which a strong yoga practice can infuse with bliss.

Beginning with the new physicists who broke open that field in the first part of the 20th century: Einstein likened his spirituality to the view of Baruch Spinoza, who held that God has thought and extension, the extension being our creation, this universe,  presumably among others. This view fits in well with updated great chain stories. It is also similar to Erwin Schroedinger’s view, which has been described as Vedantic. De Broglie  declared that “the mechanism demands a mysticism” and Max Planck said that god is “the crown of any reasoning concerning the world-view.” Arthur Eddington said “Consciousness is not sharply defined, but fades into subconsciousness; and beyond that we must postulate something indefinite but yet continuous with our mental nature”. Wolfgang Pauli had the following side to his life, as quoted in wikipedia: “The Pauli Effect was named after the anecdotal bizarre ability of his to break experimental equipment simply by being in the vicinity. Pauli was aware of his reputation and was delighted whenever the Pauli effect manifested.” This led him to work with CG Jung, no great fan of materialism,  exploring the paranormal. (This will lead us to an affirmation of the subtle realm, more on that below). Werner Heisenberg held out for Platonic archetypes, and he shares variants on this view with Roger Penrose the eminent contemporary mathematician and physicist, as well as  Noam Chomsky, the man who gave birth to Cognitive Science and was convinced that our language capacity cannot be explained by materialistic Darwinism. The brilliant and lauded mathematician, Kurt Godel , was quite sure that his two incompleteness theorems proved that materialism was an inadequate view of the mind.

Stuart Kauffman and Henry Stapp are two scientist’s scientists, among many others, who hold a quantum view of mind, which opens the door to the same mysteries that the above pioneering physicists could only fill with Spirit. But my primary interest in Kauffman stems from his other main idea, which he culled from his pioneering work in chaos and complexity theories: that of self-organization, which was the result of “years of muttering at Darwin” that there must be some other force at work in evolution beyond simple mindless natural selection. Stephen J. Gould also held out for some additional process in Darwinistic evolution.

Another theme that has developed among serious thinkers has been panpsychism, which views consciousness as existing in all things, the smaller the particle the lesser the consciousness, all the way down to atoms and whatever is below them. Leibniz, the creator of calculus, held this view, as did William James. The esteemed mathematical philosophers Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell supported it. Russell’s view was that mental and physical aspects of existence are the same but not reducible to the physical. More recently, philosopher David Chalmers has offered it as a plausible explanation for consciousness.

Chalmers made a big splash twenty years ago with his breaking up of the philosophy of mind between the easy problem and the now famous “hard problem”.  The hard problem takes up the challenge of  how to use strictly materialist explanations for the sense of self that accompanies all of our experiences, the sense that there is an “I” looking at that tree. Many philosophers and scientists currently share his view that mere neuronal processes are insufficient to provide us with this experience, that there is something about consciousness which cannot be reduced to materialist explanation, that consciousness is an irreducible force in the universe.

The issue with philosophy of mind is that either one affirms this view of irreducibility of consciousness, or has variations of skepticism about it. The skeptics may claim instead that consciousness is, for example, merely a projection of neural spike trains in an algorithmic process, similar to the way pits and lands in a dvd puts us under the illusion that a real scene is being projected onto our tv screen; the sense of I is a creation of algorithms in the brain.

On the other hand, if one affirms consciousness as an irreducible reality, then the gateway to a full expression of yoga has been opened. Yoga has always stated that that very consciousness within you, the entity that feels a sense that there is someone viewing the tree, that very someone, if pursued with rigorous focus in various ways, becomes all the god there is and ever has been, the Spirit that is dwelling within you right now and has been there all along without you knowing it. The mystics and yogis tell us that that presence is actually the witness that views the entire “show” of life, and yogic process will allow us to free ourselves from needing to keep it just to ourselves in selfish egoistic form, realizing rather that this is the self that pervades all of the”eyes of the world”.

So, all of these above mentioned scientists and thinkers together- each of whom is a heavyweight in the scientific/philosophical world-  offer a broadside toward the grim materialist view. Again, they don’t in the least herald the triumphant return of Jesus, or even bring back the god who will answer our prayers with interventions on our behalf. Rather, these are guys who bring scientific findings to the table that we cannot ignore while hoping to remain in integrity with the state of current human knowledge. But, wonderfully, they also offer a view of the cosmos into which Spirit can easily integrate. And there is also one other thing to notice about these guys, along with the strict materialist opponents who they debate. That is…they are all guys.

Which brings in the next question, into which I will tread carefully: where are the women in this story? I bring this up because of my belief that there is something about the feminine that breaks another hole in the materialist view.

In Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, there are exceptionally few women among the multitude of characters he draws into the argument. Why is this? Women are just as smart as men and they write just as well. What happened to their voice? Is it because academia has been and still is unfair to women who are having to fight to break down these barriers? This is certainly one part of it; The Washington Post just ran a story about women trying to work their way into Astronomy at UC Berkeley and having to contend with a sexually predatory potential nobel prize winning male professor who rules the department. This is just the latest in a series of such whistle-blowing events revealing that the hard sciences are the academic departments most resistant to female cohabitation. They are also the ones most likely to espouse the materialist world view.

Compare this to my yoga studio where the roster is 90 percent female. That number is a bit higher than Yoga Journals’s report of the national average, which is 83 percent. The reasons for this gender disparity in current western yoga has been debated for a few decades, but suffice to say that there is something about embodied psycho-spiritual technology that attracts women, and  gets into what has been called “women’s ways of knowing”. I will take Carol Gilligan as a suitable and relevant feminist scholar and offer the results of her research, which indicate that men are more inclined to “rights and justice” and women toward “care and responsibility”; another contrast has been “separate agency” for men and “connectedness” for women. Taking the broad brushstroke of these male/female differences, how can we view our opposing idealist versus materialist world views?

Quite simply, the yoga process, especially a group hatha yoga process among a community of people familiar with one another, can lead to a deep feeling of connectedness, connectedness to community, one’s own body and to Spirit. Yoga, often translated as “union”, and spirituality in general, aside from old religious trappings and rules, is a way of connecting with physical and mental process and investing energy in these processes, thereby eventually breaking down inner barriers, into which floods new life and new data, which has always been said to facilitate the capacity to transcend the isolation of the separate ego and opens one to higher connections. When Ken Wilber talks about Spiritual data, he means the stuff that comes in during this process. Those who do this a lot frequently state that they feel a presence all around them, a spirit that both transcends and is infused into ordinary life and matter. And feeling is a valid source of empirical data, although it has been without value in the scientific lab where vision is god. In intimate relationships, research has shown that whereas men value looks in a woman, women place more value on how it feels to be with a particular man.

Finally, my position becomes the following. The materialist world view has missed two things: psycho-spiritual technology, and, the influence of strong women. It has missed the data that comes from a sustained, quality yoga practice, and it has missed the connectedness of women. I’ve noticed that many women who are hard-headed scientists do not buy the materialist view; one example is Clare Pert, the discoverer of endorphins, who in her book, Molecules  of Emotion, offers a passionate urge for both science and embodied real connection to this earth and the spiritual process; she’s big enough to embrace them both, and I wonder why so many materialist men have such a hard time with that. And of course there are also deliberate straight-ahead materialist women, and there are also atheist women, but I believe this is partly because religion has been a dreadful misogynistic force in history; our atheist Buddhist friend Sam Harris notes that his fan base is 70/30 in favor of males. (Thoughts on atheist women here and here.)

I would like to bring in one more angle on the subject, one that I will develop in my next post, that of the subtle realm. In materialist views, there is frequently not only just a denial of the possibility of any kind of spirit in the creation and development of the world, but there is also a debunking of the entire subtle realm, which I find incredibly clueless.

What is the subtle realm? Vedanta has likened it to the dreaming mind, but experienced while wide awake. EEG machines have borne this identity out. This is the realm where various connections and occurrences which are “non-ordinary” happen, such as the Pauli effect mentioned above.

Just the bones here, more in my next post:

  1. Those of us who do a lot of yoga, especially in intimate proximity with a group of long term students, begin to feel an “energetic” connection that is every bit as real as the vision in front of us, and it therefore has an empirical aspect. It manifests essentially as something that we feel, and suggests an empiricism based on feeling as the relevant source of data, although it can take on pan-sensory qualities.
  2. It’s effects can be studied in a statistical way by those who have developed the capacity to sense it, but it doesn’t hold up well in the scientific lab. Why? One clue is the dream analogy: dreams are often ephemeral and difficult to remember in the glaring face of waking consciousness. Likewise, achieving specific psychically transmitted data in a lab, such as mind-reading the number on a card that a person is repeating in her mind, unfortunately often kills this more sophisticated aspect of the subtle realm. Which is to say, my claim is that there is an aspect of the subtle realm which allows transmission of actual mental discursive content such as a number or complete thoughts. But the more reliable and more routine subtle exchange mentioned in #1 is that of feeling based content, which is a different kind of data than labs can typically measure, and is often less about specific discursive information, and more about what one’s subtle body is expressing, which can be emotions and their subtler extensions, such as feeling someone’s anger. This sensing often picks up feelings that the person being felt may not be aware of, or is in denial of.
  3. It could potentially be explained “within casual closure”, meaning that it might fit into the materialist world view without any need for a spirit behind it. It could be explained by some currently unrecognized  capacity to detect electro-magnetic energy; or it could be related to quantum gravity which we haven’t figured out yet; or some other as yet unexplained force we could call prana. Prana transmission may involve dark matter, which makes up 26.8% of the universe, or dark energy, which makes up 68.3%, both of which we know next to nothing about. (Ordinary matter makes up 4.9%). 95% of what’s out there (and in here) is still basically unknown to the sciences.
  4. Typically though, the subtle realm is taken for granted and used in a daily way in yogic circles, and has traditionally been seen as a step toward realization of the witness or emptiness.

I’m a lover of science. I really look forward to what’s coming out of the lab next, especially about the brain and the effects of mindfulness practices. But I’ve done way too much yoga to ignore what I’ve learned by doing it. If I keep this spiritual knowledge in mind, I find that I do not love the materialist story and find it exceptionally partial, just one part of a much bigger story.

Stephen Pinker has said that science, “to put it mildly”, has not been kind to common sense. My response is that history has not been kind, to put it mildly, to scientists who say, in the words of Daniel Dennett, “that’s all there is to it.”

Experience in yoga tells us that there is more.

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