Spirituality - A New dimension

Dr Chandra Mohan Bhandari

by Chandra Mohan Bhandari

You are what your deep, driving desire is.

n  Brihadaranyak Upanishad 

 

Aldous Huxley [1] refers to man as an amphibian. An amphibian known to us from our childhood days has been a frog who could live in water as also on land. Man too is an amphibian destined to inhabit two worlds simultaneously. He lives for himself looking after his own survival and other self-interests much like other animals, this is referred to as his autonomous self. However, he also tries to seek a connection with the world around him as part of the whole where he has time and opportunity to go beyond his narrow self interests. This mode of his existence is referred to as his homonomous self. The two selves are present within each of us in different proportions. At the time of birth it is only the autonomous self that guides the actions of an infant. Gradually it becomes aware of the world around and the homonomous self begins to grow reaching some sort of a steady state. Even in an individual the proportion of the two is not fixed, it could change with time. There is usually a conflict between the two selves and their needs, and this conflict is the source of many problems. However, this could also be a source of creativity.

 

It goes without saying that most of time in most of us it is the autonomous self that guides our actions. However, the ever restless and inquisitive mind of man coaxes him to step out to explore his relationship with the world at large. Moreover, there is an attempt to seek answers to some of the fundamental existential queries. These are related to:

n   the origin of cosmos,

n    origin of life

n   origin of consciousness.

 

 The scientific method seeks the answers based primarily on

n  objectivity,

n  analyticity

n  logical deduction

The most crucial and challenging problem is the question relating to consciousness.

 

The first two queries have been more or less satisfactorily answered by science, but the questions pertaining to consciousness seem still a long distance away.

 

 Spirituality

In various spiritual approaches the basic urge may usually be almost the same, although the appearance and methodology may be different. The answers sought for need not necessarily be accurate from objective viewpoint. The main emphasis is on seeking a conflict resolution, of seeking a soothing and healing solution to the existential problems. The method is unlike science which is based on analysis that requires breaking the system into its parts.  The emphasis on objectivity and logic too is not absolute.  This is a kind of holistic approach to seek connectivity between consciousness, life, the cosmos and the creator.  The spiritual experience can manifest itself in several ways depending upon the person, his inclination and the surroundings.

 

Tagore in one his poems points towards the basic nature of the search:

I dive down into the depth of ocean of forms

Hoping to gain the perfect pearl of the formless.

And then the poet experiences something unusual...

In this the playhouse of infinite forms I have had my play

And caught sight of that which is formless

My body and my limbs have been thrilled with his touch

Who is beyond touch...

 

To many including the poet this appears close to a spiritual experience. To a scientific mind this may appear contradictory whereas it makes a lot of sense if approached holistically. However, our search of the formless pearl may take two different routes, in fact several routes. It could take the scientific route of exploration and find answers with emphasis on objectivity.  It may take a route where subjective experience gets more prominent and may lead to an artistic portrayal. It may take routes with different combination of elements of objectivity or subjectivity, and aesthetics. The element of aesthetics could be a part of subjective element but can stand in its own right as a separate entity. Our search whether scientific or artistic or spiritual is based on different combinations of these elements and the unifying point is that we are looking for the ‘formless in forms’. That is the way mind works, it is used to abstract notions based on objects which usually have forms. Abstract is formless, and in Nature’s scheme of things there is a special provision for the abstract. There are particular regions in the brain which correspond to abstract thinking.

 

Science in its basic structure emphasizes analysis which is the process of breaking the whole into bits and pieces. If human body is to be scientifically investigated it is divided into components: heart, lungs, brain, kidney, liver, ..., and the sum total of all these components and their functioning defines life. However, living body is more than a sum of its parts:

             Living system = Sum of all parts + X

 

What is this X and how important it is. In many cases the factor X  may not be very important and can be neglected. In complex systems including living ones it gains importance. Many a times it is misunderstood due to unbalanced emphasis on components. An artistic experience or a spiritual one could not be analysed and will be lost if such an attempt is made. Even pain and happiness cannot be decomposed into components. An experience in spirituality is included in the x factor which is not related to components. Consciousness itself is like that.

 

Even a purely scientific definition of life has not been easy and it required a person of Schrodinger’s [2] insight to give it a meaningful expression:

Life is a joint venture between information storing genetics and energy transforming thermodynamics.

Or just look at another definition:

Life is not a clone, it has two parents -- natural selection and thermodynamics.

 

Thermodynamics deals with flow and transformation of energy from one form to other. One wonders what thermodynamics has to do with life? For that matter life is basically a flow pattern, an incessant multi levelled flow of matter, energy and information.  Along with this it has a capacity to replicate.

 

Having reflected on science let us take a diversion and start thinking of spiritual aspects. Life is a flow pattern of matter and energy but what is spirit. Rene Descartes, one of greatest mathematicians- philosopher is often quoted: ‘Ergo cogito, ergo sum’, I think, hence I am. Ghalib says it somewhat differently:

                                 My being became the cause of my troubles.

                               (Duboya mujhko hone ne) 

 

Couple this couplet with the statement “Ergo cogito ergo sum” and the real situation emerges. If there is no mind, there will be none to observe.  When there is none to observe, who can say if there is something existing. A mountain exists, it exists for us. The mountain does not exist for itself.

 

I am aware of my existence and that of the world around me because I think and I think due to the neurons and their cross linkages.

 

Among the greatest achievements of man are those in arts and sciences. However, the greatest of them all is the language without which everything else would be redundant. It is because of efficient use of language that man is different from other species. It is because of language that we can think and communicate. We can also think of even the abstract. Mathematics for example is an art or science of the abstract. The abstract can take many dimensions and directions. If mathematics finds a climax in abstract thinking, then poetry or art are also in the same category. The notion of spirituality is another dimension of abstract thinking. What is a seeker trying to seek? What is he or she up to? Whatever be the detailed answer one thing is certain; the seeker transcends his own self and seeks an integration and identification with the larger unit, the larger unit may refer to the society, group or entire mankind; or we may include all life.  Transcending the self is an important step in any truly spiritual experience. Transcendentalism could never be de-linked from a truly spiritual experience.

 

Religion and Spirituality

In conventional terms it is customary to link the spiritual quest with some religion. To a certain extent this is understandable. Yet beyond that point it is not justifiable. A simple analogy is sometimes useful. Spirituality to religion has somewhat same linkage as science to technology. Of course this is a crude and oversimplified way to express the deeper reality. In spite of this the analogy is meaningful. Spirituality is the basic truth and religion is its outer peripheral structure. The rituals, modalities and traditions that define religious practice may change from place to place and from time to time. The basic scientific principle remains almost the same and unchanging.  On the other hand technology may change with time and circumstances. Spiritual under currents are almost same irrespective of race or culture but the religious infrastructure keeps changing.  

 

In conventional sense the spiritual means different to various persons but there is an element of commonality in various experiences.  It is an experience seeking oneness with the creator, nature or with the entire creation. When this feeling is dominant you may have an experience and that is called spiritual.

 

It is interesting to note that in a different way oneness is at the very core of scientific world.

 

Birth of Atoms

Living body including brain is composed of atoms of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. Let us look at the scientific explanation of the origin of these atoms. The cosmology tells us that 15 billion years ago the universe was created in a big-bang. At that time there was only energy and matter existed in the form of quarks and electrons. The quarks combined to create protons and neutrons. Proton and electron combined giving birth to the atom of hydrogen which was the first atom to be born. Our oldest ancestor atom is that of hydrogen. Next came helium and after few steps came carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. The journey from hydrogen to helium was not easy. The atom of helium was produced by cooking hydrogen in a furnace, the stellar core [3, 4].

 

It is believed that in the beginning the whole universe was filled with hydrogen.  Under gravitational force large chunks of mass came together. The process of coming together of atoms continued and the pressure inside kept increasing. Rise in pressure inside the gathered mass led to increase in the temperature and gradually temperature of one million degree was attained. At this temperature nuclear fusion started, and helium atom was formed. This event is supposed to be the birth of a star as the process of fusion produced vast energy. The rising temperature and pressure had the tendency to bring about an expansion of the stellar mass whereas the gravitational pull opposed this. By the time almost all hydrogen was thus used the star grew old and became a supernova with matter scattered around the space. The star was nearing the end of its life.

 

The first generation of star was over and now the story of the second generation began. The helium atoms along with remaining hydrogen came together under gravitation and again a new generation star was formed. With mounting pressure and temperature helium nuclei combined to make lithium, beryllium, carbon and the story goes on.

 

The Implication

This scientific understanding of the creation of atoms has a deeper implication. The trillions and trillions of atoms in my body are either created at the time of big bang or in the hot furnace of the first generation star or the next stellar generations.  All matter living as well as non-living, organic or inorganic –everything around us has gone through that cycle. This is the history of the atoms that construct us and everything around us. In a way the atom has in it the experience of having travelled vast distances and spent long time intervals in stellar cores. The poet expresses himself with the words: “To see the world in a grain of sand”. There are several thousand atoms in a grain and each has a long and turbulent history covering vast distances in space and time.

 

Evolutionary biology

Darwin’s theory of evolution was a landmark in our understanding of nature and its processes. Starting from water, air and solar energy complex molecules came into being. In these complex molecules were amino acids and proteins which were essential for life. The living and non-living are different only in one context, that a living system has the capacity to replicate itself. What is life after all?  Consider a flame of a candle, a burning candle. The flame is a flow pattern of matter and energy [5] in which hydrocarbon from the wax and oxygen from the environment produce energy which gives heat and light.  The flame is almost like a living thing and lasts till the hydrocarbon and oxygen are available.  A flame is born, it grows, passes through its prime and finally is out. A cyclone is somewhat like that. It is created as a flow of wind under pressure and temperature gradients, grows in intensity and size, passes through a climax and then withers away.  A flame and a cyclone are full of life, however they cannot replicate themselves.

 

We were talking of evolution. Single cellular living units were first to arrive on the scene. An amoeba is the oldest ancestor of man and a chimpanzee is the most recent one. Nearly 3 million years ago man started becoming bipedal walking straight on two feet. This act of moving straight on two legs might have evolved his brain in a way different from others and speeded up its efficiency. The evolution connects humans to all other species right from oldest amoeba to the relatively recent chimpanzee. This connectivity of every form of life to every other form is the truth most of us do not probably like. We always thought that we were special, chosen children of God. According to the theory of evolution there is nothing special except for the large brain and that too was a matter of chance. The large brain of which we are so proud is the handiwork of Nature.

 

We talked of evolution of atoms in the stellar furnace. We also talked of the evolution of life forms starting from very simple molecules. Combine the two and we come to a strange notion where everything is connected to everything else. All life is connected at the molecular level. All matter is connected at the atomic level. The connectedness is realised by our minds which is an outcome of the evolutionary processes in the brain. Nature appears to have a scheme and a design in the evolution of brain without which the marvel of language based communication would not have been possible.


The understanding that all life is connected and has a right to exist is borne out by science. Not only life, the entire biosphere must remain intact and unharmed. Man’s survival and the survival of all life is dependent on the eco-system, and it must be preserved in all its glory and dignity [6]. That is the message emerging from the scientific findings. From the scientific viewpoint the connectivity of all life forms and their connectivity to stellar cycles has strong ecological overtones, and could provide a strong eco-philosophical bias.

 

Gandhi’s vision of village republics with green pastures was a vision with sound eco-philosophical overtones. In a sense that was a spiritual vision.

 

Psychological considerations

Ken Wilber [7] has put forward a model to describe human psyche. This is called spectrum psychology.

According to this model the psychic spectrum consists of four broad categories or levels:

Ego Level: A major part of our psychic activity is the tendency to assert of the self; each of us has a self-image or ego. Many of our actions in everyday life are guided by this level of our psyche. Important in its own right this region by itself presents only a partial and fragmented experience of the self which needs to be supplemented by other experiences. 

Bio-Social Level: Second major part of the psychic spectrum is related to our social environment. As a child grows his relationship with the family, friends and neighbours, and to an extent the cultural traditions tend to determine part of his experience at this level.

Existential Level: Although the first two levels determine most of one’s psychic behaviour in early life other factors tend to play their roles. With time there emerge many problems and concerns arising out of dualistic situations, such as subject-object dualism, good-bad dualism, mind-body dualism, life-death dualism. A conflict on these lines is almost always present to varying degrees from person to person and from time to time. A grown up person then lives a life almost entirely determined by the three levels of psyche, the ego, bio-social and existential levels. At times there are problems and tensions related to various psychic activities which cannot be resolved easily. That is true for most of us. Can something be done to resolve the conflicts arising out of the dualism of the existential level as also tensions within and between the three levels. Wilber tries to integrate the recent experiences of psychologists with the traditional knowledge acquired by spiritual experience of saints and seers. Wilber considers the existence of yet another level of psyche which he refers to as transpersonal level.

Transpersonal Level: The fourth level of psyche according to Wilber relates to the so-called transpersonal experience which seeks to provide us with a larger sense of identity in which a person transcends the concerns of his own self. Many of the problems and concerns of various levels can be resolved only with the help of transpersonal experience. This is the ultimate solution for the conflicts in human mind and in social context as well. The transpersonal domain of our psyche is an important factor in determining the quality of an individual as well as that of the society.

 

It is the transpersonal level of psyche which may be largely responsible for spiritual experience. We can strive to enlarge and strengthen the transpersonal domain. Transcendental experience is not far from transpersonal and both may at some stage lead to the spiritual experience.

 

The part of the whole trying to seek an identity and a sense of oneness with it (the whole) is at the root of scientific understanding. That kind of experience is at the basis of spiritual experience. Man, his brain and its neuronal connectivity and above all its creativity - are all nature’s creation, and therefore, transcendence is at the core of conscious experience. The transcendental experience is the very basis of spirituality and seems to be present in nature’s scheme of things. It could have ben by default but it is up to us to give it a design borrowing concepts from science and arts.  Transpersonal domain of our psyche is a reality even though our autonomous existence seems to dominate in most of us much of the time.

 

Possible Future Trajectory

It is interesting to note that the scientific method which is supposed to be value-free can help us to ascribe some value to our existence. Of course, that is not science’s domain, we for our own sake can take note of reality and make a model of our possible trajectories for the future. The aim of scientific pursuit has been to seek the truth as it is, anything beyond should be treated as bonus. I am of the opinion that certain findings of scientific method have been in this category. Beyond that it’s up to us to interpret things in accordance with our own subjective vision and value system.

It’s interesting to note that scientific findings lead to a scenario which: (a) connects birth of atoms to stellar cores, (b) connects all animal life through evolution, (c) shows the humans in no uncertain terms the indelible marks of their lowly origin [Darwin 8 ], (d) outlines the special evolutionary journey of human brain that led to consciousness, ( e) brings forth in an indirect way elements of transcendence as a feature of higher levels of consciousness [9]. Put these facts together and you come to a scenario where man connected with the rest of the animal world, yet endowed with a high level of consciousness creates a conflicting scenario which is the root cause of his problems as also his creative urge.

 

The unity of all life forms could be the starting point of a new spiritual experience which has the capacity to transform human thinking.    

 

[1] Aldous Huxley, Education of an Amphibian. Complete Essays: 5; 191-209, First published 1956.

[2] Ervin Schrodinger, What is Life, Cambridge University Press, 1944.

[3] John Gribbin, In Search of Big Bang, Bantam Books, 1986.

[4] Cosmology: Conversations about the Invisible, Jean Audouze, M Casse and Jean-Claude Carriere, Wiley Eastern Ltd, 1990.

[5] E D Schneider and D Sagan, Into the Cool: Energy, Thermodynamics and Life, University Of Chicago press, 2006.

[6] James Lovelock, Vanishing face of Gaia, Penguin Books, 2019.

[7]  Ken Wilber, The Spectrum of Consciousness, M B Publishers Pvt Ltd, Delhi(2002), Published by arrangements with Theosophical Pub House, USA (1977).

[8] Charles Darwin about man: ‘’Man with all his qualities still bears in his bodily frame the indelible marks of his lowly origin.”

[9] C M Bhandari, Entangled Realities: Road Not Taken, Unpublished. 

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