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The New Science of Spirituality

The Discoveries of Science

Our modern process of science began with outside-the-box thinkers and visionaries such as Copernicus and Galileo. They were among those who postulated that the earth was not the center of the universe. These early scientists observed the movements of the stars, sun, and moon, first with their eyes and later with the telescope. What they saw convinced them that things are not as they appear.

From our point of view, it seems as though all the heavenly bodies revolve around us. It looks like the earth is flat and is a static, still point at the center of the universe. It looks like this because we are standing on earth, with limited perception, unable to see things in their entirety.

It took some radical thinkers to question such basic assumptions about the earth and our place in the universe. And with systematic experimentation and observation, they discovered that the earth is a round ball spinning in space and revolving around the sun. Scientists went on to discover that the universe is mostly empty space, with planets and suns in solar systems like ours extending infinitely in all directions.

Darwin's theory of evolution suggests that all life is in process and constantly evolving into something else. And Einstein's theory of relativity suggests that everything here is connected, with nothing standing alone as it appears.

The discoveries credited to Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, and Einstein unraveled our previous assumptions and radically changed our concept of reality. In each case, their theories pointed to a continuum of movement, or wave of energy, rather than isolated particles.

The lesson here is profound. We tend to see everything in our world, including ourselves, as fixed objects, all separate from each other. We once saw the earth as a flat, fixed point in the center of a moving universe. And we once saw all life forms on earth as fixed entities. However, science has proven us wrong time and again. It has demonstrated that reality is a movement, a flow, or a continuous wave of energy, rather than static or fixed forms. The famous double-slit experiment from quantum physics proved that energy is a wave until it is observed by a person, at which point it appears as a particle.

If we want to understand reality, we are compelled by our past mistaken beliefs to continue to question our most basic assumptions and look deeper.

Observing Consciousness

Spirituality is the practice of looking deeper within ourselves. Instead of merely observing the physical world around us, we can turn our vision inward to discover the origin of consciousness itself. I think of spirituality as another application of science. It takes the basic principles of experimentation, observation, and discovery and applies them to our own conscious mind.

The practice of Insight Meditation, which I described earlier, is a major tool in this new application of science. It enables us to see what is actually going on inside our own mind. What we find, as documented by teachers such as the Buddha, is that we are not a fixed entity as we imagine ourselves to be. Instead, we are a continuum or pattern of energy waves constantly in flux and ever-changing.

The way the Buddha put it over 2,500 years ago is that there is no separate self or ego. The idea of me as a separate person is an illusion fabricated by a continuous stream of thoughts in our conceptual mind. The thought stream, like a movie film projector, creates the image of a defined personality that is separate from the world around it. Just as in a movie, this image seems so real that we mistake it for reality.

The Buddha discovered that when he stilled his mind and focused his awareness inward, he could find no evidence of a static personality or self. The sense of self or ego simply disappeared in the light of pure presence and awareness. Another way to say this is that when our thoughts stop, so does our concept of self. The isolated, separate self is a convincing illusion perpetuated by a mind programmed to create the story of "me." It does not exist in reality. The significance of this is enormous, especially for the crisis we find ourselves in now.

This revelation is in line with the other major scientific discoveries mentioned earlier. Once again, reality is demonstrated to be a flow or continuum of energy, rather than a fixed object. This discovery frees us from the constraints of being a vulnerable, separate self who must compete for survival in a hostile world. The Buddha discovered that this mistaken perception of being a static, fixed personality creates unnecessary suffering in our lives. This is why we cannot act in our own best interests and continually undermine our own well-being.

Practical Spirituality

A practical way to explore the hypothesis that you are not your ego or personality is to notice how you think of yourself. Similar to how our ancestors experienced and imagined the earth, we each see ourselves at the center of the universe. In our minds, the world revolves around us. Our thoughts focus on how things happening around us relate to us personally. Our minds are programmed to make everything about ourselves.

Most of us are absorbed in thought most of the time. If this is not yet apparent to you, try sitting still and having no thoughts for just a few seconds. You will notice that it's nearly impossible. This is one reason meditation can be difficult to practice: our minds are conditioned to process all our experience by thinking about it.

When we are absorbed in thought, our ego or idea of self is front and center. We dwell on our past, trying to figure out what it meant for us or trying to change what happened. Or we focus on the future, rehearsing all the possibilities and imagining how we will respond. If you watch your thinking mind for just a few minutes using a technique like meditation, you can see this for yourself.

If you practice meditation long enough, with clear intention and gentle self-discipline, your mind will gradually be less absorbed in thought and more aware and present. In that state of present awareness, there is no trace of an individual self—it is as if the ego simply vanishes into thin air. Meditation prepares us gently and gradually for this experience. This is important because the moments when we are fully present, with no concept of a separate self, can be quite disorienting or even frightening.

Imagine the disorientation of our ancestors when they recognized the reality of a round earth spinning in infinite space. How confusing it must have been for them to consider that life on earth evolved very slowly over millions of years, and that we are a product of that evolutionary process. None of these major paradigm shifts came easily, and neither will the one we are facing now. So it is wise to have a practice like meditation that can introduce you to this new reality gradually.

A Seismic Paradigm Shift

As previous scientific discoveries precipitated major paradigm shifts, so does this one. And as each new way of perceiving reality opened up new opportunities, realizing the truth of our existence does also. Recognizing that we are not our ego breaks us out of our self-destructive trance. Once we let go of our identity as a separate self, isolated from the rest, our world becomes cohesive and meaningful again.

Breaking the spell of ego enables us to see that we are all connected to each other and share a common source. This spiritual or mystical experience of ourselves being connected to all of life changes everything. Our vital energy can now be used to serve life instead of feeding our ego.

Quieting the thinking mind through a practice like meditation enables us to experience ourselves as pure conscious awareness. This is not some special state of mind or a vacant emptiness. It is simply what exists before thought—it is who we are in reality, before the thinking mind generates our self-image or personal story. When your mind is still and you are not absorbed in thought, you can feel consciousness directly. It is obvious that you are part of it, and it is part of you. And it is evident that it is eternal and infinite.

When we recognize ourselves as part of an eternal process, we are no longer obsessed with our personal story. Our sense of belonging and connection to a larger whole is clear. We don’t have to prove our worthiness by seeking validation from others. And we don’t have to compete for attention or live in fear of survival.

When we recognize each other as part of ourselves, the game changes. The urgency to be special falls away. Our place in the circle of life and flow of creation is assured. And we are left with the calm realization of our own uniqueness and inherent belonging to the whole of life.

The anxiety that permeates our lives melts as we recognize who we are without ego. We are no longer threatened by each other. We don’t have to defend ourselves or dominate others. The need to hoard wealth and material goods fades, replaced by a serene certainty about our existence.

When we remember our place as essential parts of one infinite conscious whole, the ego has no power over us. We can now recognize our true needs and support the life-force continuum that we all make up together.


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