Science and Spirituality

Here the author (which, er, would be me) talks about balancing his spiritual life with his research into particle physics.

People ask me do I find a conflict between my research in particle physics and meditation - is it not a waste of time calming the mind in meditation only to let it loose again a couple of hours later? they ask. Well, in one way they have a point, yes, my meditation-life would probably be a little more undisturbed if I were a basket-weaver by trade.

But on the other hand, one has to keep a focus on what the end goal is. Is it merely to improve our meditations, or is it to live a happier and more fulfilling life? If you want the latter, then you have to conquer the barriers keeping that happiness from you whilst remaining in the world. We all have the idea of meditation as being an escape from the world, but many contemporary spiritual paths, Sri Chinmoy's among them, say that the time when people hotfooted it to the Himalayas to meditate away from the hustle and bustle of life are firmly in the past. Far from being an escape, meditation is a tool for transforming the world you come into contact with, because the peace you gain from your meditation cannot help but spread, like ripples in a pool.

I look upon my work as an opportunity to overcome some of those barriers. Patience is one thing I need more of; the ability to persevere in work without getting attached to its outcome is another. And in the research-life you need to develop both of those qualities if you're to stay in the game. Because results in particle physics have a time-scale of their own, almost wholly independent of how much you push or shove to get them.

But is science not about trying to find a mental explanation for everything and negate spiritual approaches to the truth? is another question asked.

This ongoing suspicion between science and spirituality reminds me a little of the suspicion one sometimes gets between two different religions and paths. Indeed, I would dare to say science is also a path of sorts - it may not necessarily lead to the top of the mountain, but the people in that path search for Truth in their own way, and are basically aiming to expand their horizons as best they know how. The same yearning to understand why we're here and what's our purpose is aflame in their hearts too; it's just that they still think the mind holds all the answers.

Or do they? The people on this 'path' of science can essentially be divided into 2 main groups: the rishi-scientists who change the way we view the world (of which in the entire history of mankind there have perhaps been about 20), and then the rest of us who fill in the gaps and do a spot of tidying-up here and there once this new world view has been handed down. The former group are, of course the Newtons and Einsteins, the ones we draw the inspiration from when we look at the world of science, and their accounts of their discoveries invariably have this tinge of divine revelation about them, or the sense that their discovery was more an uncovering of a higher Truth that had always lain there.

For example, consider this: The modus operandi for great scientific discoveries seems to be to strain and strain yourself searching for the answer until it almost kills you (and in doing so preparing the mathematical framework to assimilate what you are about to recieve), and then give up and go for a spot of hiking in the mountains, or something similiar. The French genius Henri Poincaire would describe such a process and then recount how the answer would come to him as he was stepping off the bus. Einstein always shaved very slowly in the morning, wary of repeating one particularly bad experience where the Truth burst in on him unannounced. Another great scientist (whose name eludes me), when asked the formula for great discoveries replied, "Bath, bed and bus." Richard Feynman would describe experiences of floating around in complete bliss for four days after a major breakthrough, which apparently happened to him three times. "Is 12 days of bliss enough return for 30 years of slavery? I'm not sure," he would sigh wistfully.

Unfortunately, the second group of people never have been able to rise above the mental plane, although some of them get so painfully close. But of course the mental plane is where the dance of superiority and inferiority begins, hence you'll find in this second group all the people who trumpet forth the supremacy of science and give scientists a bad name in the process. And seeing as I'm well and truly incapable of leaving the mental plane myself when I do research, why should I kill myself trying to approach the truth mentally, and in doing so fill my mind with stuff I'm going to have to throw out again during meditation?

Sri Chinmoy believes you can draw inspiration from different paths as long as you mantain one-pointed concentration on following your own path and don't try to put a foot each in two different boats, as he would say. In my search for the highest Truth, I already have a path, and I'm sticking to it. But when I take my research not as a search for Truth in itself but as a golden opportunity to progress in my spiritual life - that's where the satisfaction lies.


This essay was inspired by postings on the Sri Chinmoy Inspiration Group

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