Part 1 of “A Scientist Goes to an Ashram for a Personal Retreat” can be found HERE.
Part 2 of “A Scientist Goes to an Ashram for a Personal Retreat” can be found HERE.
(Note: I do not use the real names of people, nor do I identify the specific Ashram. I changed a few details. The purpose is to protect the privacy of the individuals. Readers who are familiar with this Ashram will probably recognize it.)
The Idea of God
God is an idea. God is a thought. God is a concept. God is an abstraction. The idea of God originated in the human mind. Like any other idea, it has no reality apart from the human mind's ability to conceive it, develop it, use it, and communicate it to others.
As with other powerful ideas, the idea of God manifests itself in human experience. The idea of God is observed in the affairs of humanity in ways that are small and large, obvious and subtle, assuaging and painful, creative and destructive, capricious and profound, vengeful and compassionate, loving and tyrannical, indifferent and personal.
The idea of God can inspire the most exquisite of humankind's devotional expressions in art, poetry, literature, architecture, music, and ritual. The idea of God can be usurped and reshaped into an instrument of the powerful and the greedy. The idea of God can intoxicate the spirit of humankind in an embrace of all creation as one. The idea of God can corrode peoples and cultures when forged by the sadist and hater into a sword of punishment, suffering, and murder.
Because God is an idea, it is accessible, along with other related ideas, to science and the scientist. Science is an approach to understanding nature and ourselves. Science has method and it has content. The method of science is systematic observation of phenomena, and the recording of data. The content of science comes from organizing information into a body of knowledge.
The basic function of science is to describe the properties of things. Things include ideas. Darwinian evolution is an idea. The particle nature of subatomic phenomenon is an idea. Mating ritual is an idea. Borderline personality disorder is an idea. Darwin described the origin of species in words and illustrations. Physicists describe quantum mechanics with differential equations. Social scientists describe a culture's mating rituals in words, videos, and cross cultural comparisons. Psychiatrists and psychologists describe mental disorders in statistically consistent patterns of behaviors and objective assessments.
The Idea of Now
Hans Kraus is a widower and a member of the Ashram community. He is not a monastic; He is what you might call a devotee of the founder and his teachings. Like many other devotees, Hans lives in his own house, adjacent to the Ashram properties, about a mile or two from the main buildings and offices. He lived there with his family for over twenty years. His daughters were educated, partly, in the small school at the Ashram. They are grown, emancipated, and pursuing professional lives elsewhere. Like many other devotees, he earns a living outside the Ashram. While maintaining his professional life as an engineer and contractor, he participates in the spiritual life of the Ashram community, and volunteers on various committees. He contributes to the financial support of the Ashram, and contributes his labor and professional expertise as well.
I met Hans outside the dining hall. Thinking he was a transient, like myself, I struck up a conversation. He was well educated, literate, a man of the world, an avid fan of Barack Obama, and quick to tell you how well his daughters are doing and how he is so proud of them. He asked how I was doing, and was I having a good visit and personal retreat at the Ashram. I told him about the people I met, the wonderful conversations I had with them, and that I decided to follow my nose instead of a prescribed schedule of activities. During dinner and afterward we talked about everything: family, jobs, things spiritual, theological and ecumenical, philosophy, and about Eckhart Tolle. Several people mentioned his name and his work in the course of previous conversations. I had no idea who or what was Eckhart Tolle. Finally, I asked Hans to explain this whole thing about Meister Eckhart. Everyone in the world [at least at the Ashram] had, and assumed for me, a base of of knowledge about which I was totally clueless.
Hans invited my back to his house for tea, and said he had some books and DVDs on Meister Eckhart, and would lend me a couple. So over the kitchen table I got a cup of tea, and a minimal biography of Tolle. Tolle was a Ph.D. physicist and one-time colleague of Steven Hawking. In the midst of his heady days of theoretical physics, he had a very personal, transcendent, and life changing experience. To the naive observer, who was not participating in his experience, he probably manifested behaviors that would be described, in common parlance, as a mental breakdown. He withdrew from his 'normal' life and environs, lost friends, alienated family, lost his job, and eventually was homeless, penniless, and living on a park bench. In Tolle's words, he was experiencing a state of bliss and enlightenment that lasted for two years, uninterrupted. To those observing him from the outside, bliss and enlightenment would not have been the descriptive words of choice. The words 'disturbed', 'mentally ill', and 'on drugs' would have been the more likely associations. So what did Eckhart Tolle experience for two years without interruption? I thought it was worth a little investigation. Following his transforming experience, Tolle traveled to the East and sought spiritual guidance and study with several spiritual masters. I believe this took place over a period of nine years. This is sounding like the story line of “The Razor's Edge” by W. Somerset Maugham, or the mid-career diversion for the Fab Four. Am I stepping into a cliché?
Hans offered to loan me his copy of Eckhart Tolle's book, “The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment.” He later gave it to me as a personal gift. A blurb on the cover read, “…Tolle uses words to guide readers beyond words. Pointing to the portals of the eternal present, [emphasis mine] this practical mystic's modern gospel offers transcendent truths that set us free.” This idea of the eternal present, or the state of being in now, is the central concept in Tolle's work. If one can judge a book by its cover, it would read, “Scientist beware. This is a pile of shit.” Yes, I am a scientist, but I am always interested in belief systems, and in religion as a natural phenomenon. The table of contents was not anymore illuminating or palatable for the scientist, other than providing another reason to chuck the book and not waste my time. I was intrigued, though, by the fact that Tolle was a Ph.D. Physicist. At least he understood the Einsteinian concept of energy and its equivalence to mass. I didn't expect him to talk about personal energy fields or auras of positivity or negativity. Wrong!
The book was quite easy to read, and moved along at a nice pace. It had fewer than 200 pages, so I thought I would knock it off in no time. That was not to be. I wasn't interested in breezing through the book, rather I wanted to understand and analyze his views. I found myself having to stop and think about what he was trying to say. I was looking for a core of truth or insight, if there was one, that would explain his departure from the worldly pursuit of theoretical physics, and his claim to having a practical approach to peace and enlightenment that was accessible to all. In the end, I regarded Toole's book as a philosophy and spiritual guide for Everyman.
I carried the book around with me and would read it, mostly, in the small lounge area outside the book store and dining hall. It was was a sunny area with a huge picture window, and visitors and residents coming and going. My reading was easily a topic of conversation for the newbies and mystical sages I met. The younger people who passed through the Ashram would recognize the book and the author immediately and, to a person, claimed it was terrific and one of their favorites. I discussed it briefly with an older Swami who said she tried to get into it but didn't find it especially helpful. She asked me, rhetorically, “You know that saying about old wine in new bottles?” A couple of days later, Hans invited me back to his house for lunch, and a chance to talk about “The Power of Now”, and watch one of Tolle's DVDs. We ate, had tea, talked a great deal, and sat down to a two hour video of Meister Eckhart. He was addressing an audience of interested grown ups at his conference center in the U.K. As his book was easy to read and follow, so his lecture was easy on the eye and ear, and showed him to have a sense of humor. I enjoyed the whole thing, and it added to my understanding of Tolle and his practical guide to everyday life and spiritual enlightenment.
Mental Health and Modern Social Science
The psychotherapist, in her training, spends years trying to master the control and suppression of her own ego, so as not to bias the assessment and treatment of her clients. For you fans of “The Sopranos”, Dr. Malfi wrestled with the control of her ego, and its intrusion into the therapeutic needs for Anthony. Not infrequently, she had to discuss these issues with her mentor and seek the benefit of his wisdom. Suppression of the ego is found in many religions as a precursor to enlightenment or redemption. Tolle has been greatly influenced by his Eastern spiritual masters in his embrace of this fundamental idea. The control of the ego, by the psychotherapist, is not practiced in the service seeking spiritual enlightenment. But it is closely related, as the psychotherapist tries to provide what is needed for the client, and not what is needed for her own ego.
The other fundamental idea in Tolle's writing, is the focusing of consciousness in the present, the now, the eternal experience of being in this very moment. I've heard others reduce this idea to the oversimplified catch phrase, “Fuck the future, fuck the past, there is only the present.” Yeah, and now what do I do? But there is an important element in the idea of the eternal present that is an important element in the treatment of different types of mental illnesses and disorders. Cognitive therapy and other psychotherapeutic techniques seem to be able to restructure the client's thought process. This is done, in no small part, by anchoring the client in the here and now, and then having them examine their self-defeating behaviors and their consequences. To achieve this, the client must be in the present to assess the behaviors of the past, but not live in the past, or not have the past intrude upon the present choices to be made. Being grounded in the present helps the client's decision making, without being paralyzed by fear and anxiety of what might happen tomorrow. I don't see Tolle's approach to be greatly different.
Being in the present is a technique that aids relaxation, reduces stress, and controls anxiety. Worrying is leaving the door open to the past, and the window open to the future. The eternal now, as a prescribed mental practice, or meditative technique, is an effective process for dealing with symptoms of many disorders, and helping people improve their lives. Learning how to put oneself into the Now is really a method for repossessing one's own body. The untreated trauma victim, particularly those traumatized by sexual abuse, are not in possession of their own body. Examples of this are dissociation and physical/medical symptoms that evoke the specifics of their abuse. Techniques that can help trauma victims attain being in the now, may very well facilitate the repossession of one's own body. That which was in the past is no longer in possession of the body. Fear of future harm is no longer in possession of the body. The client in the being of now is in total control of her own body.
One thing a scientist learns, is that two contradictory and mutually exclusive theories can still lead to the same correct prediction. The earth-centric model of the solar system, and the heliocentric model are completely irreconcilable. However, they both do a very good job at predicting the time and place of the rising and setting of the sun, moon, stars, and planets. They both yield extremely accurate calendars that can inform changes in climate, time to plant and harvest, and when to throw a big mid-winter party. Acknowledging this is not surrendering to pure relativism, nor abandoning all hope at discovering the laws of nature. After all, if we are going to travel to the moon and beyond, only one of these theories has a chance of planning a successful voyage out and safe return home.
A Call for Tolerance
The scientist can be more tolerant of people of faith who seeking enlightenment, peace, and salvation in religious practice, and who identify with a faith community or religious tradition. Tolerance is not a compromise to one's profession or ethics. I've heard more than a few narcissists and egotists declare that they were compelled to speak out against all religion and matters of faith because to do otherwise would imply that they agreed with the opposition. Those who are deluded with self-importance and the grandeur of universal responsibility feel they must reply to all those who proffer erroneous views.
The scientist can be more tolerant of the language and vocabulary that believers adopt for themselves, and that do not impinge upon the work of science. It is not necessary for us to clarify their words with our definitions. It is characteristic of many faith traditions to be untroubled with vague, general, and diffuse meanings.
The scientist is a member of a world community. Would the scientist not rejoice when people of faith act on their responsibility for establishing peace and embracing universal brotherhood? would the scientist not give thanks and praise when a faith group unites to share shelter, food, and clothing with a devastated community? Would a scientist not be proud of working with a fundamentalist Christian church that believes they have a responsibility to take care of our planet and its species? Would the non-believing scientist not rejoice if Jew, Christian, and Muslim could find common ground, and a way to peace, on the fact that Abraham is father to them all.
I am amazed that many scientists, who are generally very analytical, do not distinguish between religion as a club of privileged, asset hording, dogma enacting, ruling oligarchs, on the one hand, and the community of faithful, on the other. Our criticisms of religion should, at the very least, allow for the distinction (although I am making it more black and white than it really is). When we find views that are unacceptable for our own systems of thought and philosophies, must we always find them abhorrent when embraced by others? Some beliefs are quite abhorrent, but do all non-rational, non-scientific beliefs deserve uninvited condemnation?
I still like the two basic creeds of the Ashram: Truth is One, paths are many. Love all, and serve all. I think they are ideas that can be embraced by believer and non-believer.
Thanks to everyone who read and followed my reflections on my retreat at the Ashram. My next article is going to cover very different ground, and I hope you will find it interesting. The title tells it all: “My Life as a Crime Fighter.”