February 17: “On Creating a Soulful Universe” with Keely Schneider
Click here to start at the sermon.
Once again, it is such an incredible privilege to stand before you today to talk about one of my very favorite topics – science and spirituality. I’m well aware that most of you probably were not present last summer when I first presented on this topic, so to be fair, I would like to back up a little bit, and briefly cover what we talked about and where we left off in that conversation.
As I recall, my presentation last summer wound up feeling more like a spiritual odyssey than anything else as, by and large, I shared my thoughts on science and spirituality by telling you how my own journey in thinking about these concepts has unfolded over the years. I told you the story of the first time I ever contemplated science vs. religion. A very close high school friend of mine wrote me a poem called The Pope and Darwin. This poem made such an impression on me that despite the fact the original work has been lost for many years, I have always remembered this one particular stanza – well, paraphrased at least. He wrote: The Pope and Darwin sat down for dessert. The Pope devoured his custard, savoring every delicious, silky mouthful – but he left the crust. Darwin shoveled forkful after forkful of a beautiful, flakey pastry into his mouth – but he left the curd. How unfortunate it was that the Pope and Darwin failed to realize they were eating from the same pie.
At that time, in high school, this idea that religion and science must be somehow part of the same truth was actually quite novel for me. Up to that point, my interest in science and my religious education never met. Science was an intellectual pursuit that had nothing whatsoever to do with God, religion, or spirituality. So the discussion of it simply had no place in church. My education in advanced physics ran parallel to my church schooling – never intersecting.
I told you that, I really didn’t think much about these topics again until long after college, law school and marriage. I got busy with my life after college, building my career and starting my family, and so did not turn back toward religion or any other spiritual belief system until I had children. I told you the story of my daughter, Harper’s, first brush with death – her pet tadpoles Rocky and Rosy (you remember – she had these tadpoles from a “grow your own frog” kit she received as a gift from my brother, and when Rocky was lifeless and virtually floating in his habitat – I ran to Loose Park to retrieve real pond water in a desperate attempt to revive him? Yes, it was quite the family drama for sure). Like most bright, curious children, Harper was at the age of asking the big questions and on this occasion she asked what would happen to Rocky and Rosy when they die – I really had no idea how to answer. I didn’t believe in heaven. The best I could do at the time was to tell her that Rocky and Rosy will always be with you, because they will be in your memories and in your heart. But her question stuck with me for years. And finally one day, it hit me. I questioned what was the difference between a person the moment before they die and the moment after they die? Truly, there is no physical difference between a body one second before it dies and one second after it dies. No degradation of the body has begun. But a change happens in that moment. And for me, the key was the notion of energy. The energy that brought the physical body to life – no longer resided within that body. The body was a container – something to house our human energy, for a time. But I knew from science, from the law of conservation of energy that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but it can be transferred or transformed from one form to another – including transformation into or from matter. This is basic science – this is Einstein’s theory E=MC2. Energy cannot disappear from our universe.
So, that was it for me. That energy, which infuses life into our bodies, still resides within this universe even after death – it had to. It was scientifically impossible for it NOT to exist. And upon further reflection, I realized that not only does that energy continue to exist, it has always existed in the universe in one form or another. Even Rocky and Rosy’s physical bodies were born of the stardust of the universe. I confessed to you that this one simple scientific concept was transformational in how I began to view the universe and my place in it.
And from there we went on to discuss a few areas of scientific research that are currently working on the edge of science and spirit – efforts to understand what is the “mind” and what is “consciousness.” How fascinating that scientific study has now begun to turn toward these internal or spiritual states of the mind. We talked about the growing body of scientific inquiry around the effects of meditation – on neurological function, on our emotions, and so on. The evidence is showing that if you want to create a stronger, more youthful brain, manage your emotions, improve your ability to fight disease and prevent illness, meditation (a traditionally spiritual practice) may be the key. The fact that the NIH has funded now over 700 studies on the effects of meditation on the brain – is staggering proof that science is becoming fully immersed in the study of ideas and concepts that have historically been pursued only within the realm of the spiritual.
We also discussed a little about theories of consciousness and the scientific debate over when consciousness arises. If we are all made from the same stardust of the universe, if the atoms in my body are derived from the same place where the atoms in this podium came from – how is it that I am conscious, self-aware – but this podium (by most accounts) is not? How some scientists believe that consciousness only arises at a certain level of atomic complexity. But there are many scientists who believe that the basic building blocks that we started out as, themselves must have some degree of sentience, some degree of awareness, some ability to make choices. And then as those physical components engage to more and more complex arrangements, the quality of consciousness increases.
And finally, we reviewed Heisenberg’s celebrated “uncertainty principle” which demonstrates that the only way to know which state an electron is in – wave or particle – is to observe it. So the observer defines reality by the very act of observation? Think about that! That is an incredibly spiritual notion – in essence that we create our own reality and only when there is an observer.
Joseph Campbell, the great Comparative Mythology scholar, does not believe that science and mythology (or religion) conflict. He says, “Science is breaking though now into the mystery dimensions. It’s pushed itself into the sphere the myth is talking about. It’s come to the edge, … the interface between what can be known and what is never to be discovered because it is a mystery that transcends all human research.”
So, as I explained last summer, my hypothesis in all of this, and what I invite you to explore with me again this morning, is that science and spirituality are both seeking answers to the same question and can actually be reconciled. I believe that not only are science and spirit borne of the same reality and consciousness, but that ultimately, they are also part of the same truth.
So how do we integrate? That is the question yes? What would it mean if the great thinkers from our wisdom and spiritual traditions got together with the top scientists of the world – and together they birthed a theory – one that truly integrated science with spirit? What would that look like? How could it operate in our world?
Well, first I want to be sure that we are all on the same page with respect to religion and spirituality. Because the integration I speak of is not simply the idea of integrating the great religions of the world, like the Perennial Philosophy does under the concept of Enlightenment. In 1944, in an attempt to offer a solution to humanity’s ills, Aldous Huxley wrote that the “highest common factor” among world religions and spiritual traditions was enlightenment – knowing God experientially, and that at our soul-level of being, we are one with the Source. If the world could come to an agreement on the baseline commonality of the great religions and sacred traditions — no matter the culture, civilization or era – then humanity could unite under a single core truth and communities could shed their need for religious domination and the violence resulting from that quest. If the religions (and their religious fanatics) would come together under such a convening philosophy, then indeed, I would go so far as to say that the violence we experience in our world today might just vanish. However, that is ultimately not the type of integration I seek. I seek to go further – to integrate the core truth of Enlightenment with the core truths of science. Unfortunately, the birth of the Perennial Philosophy came about around the same time as modern science began to take off. Instead of working on this integration, modern science launched an attack on the Perennial Philosophy as scientific breakthroughs came rushing in beginning in the mid-20th century. Modern science began to view the world in a purely materialistic way – that only those things in the world that were directly observable and measurable were “real” – undermining the very existence of our inner world. This scientific worldview painted humanity as alone in a hostile, unsympathetic universe without any purpose or meaning. Our worldview became increasingly dualistic.
Last summer I posed the idea that – of all things – science may ultimately (and ironically) be what might lead us to a marriage of these two concepts. But now, I think I was wrong. At least, I don’t believe science alone would bring us the knowledge we need to understand the spiritual world. For there are realms that I don’t believe science can observe, and therefore cannot measure and explain. And it is these realms that require the knowledge of the spiritual traditions in order to understand them – the knowledge of the inner self that often cannot be scientifically replicated in a lab. Yes, we did discuss last summer that fMRI machines can now show us exactly what is happening in our brains when we are experiencing emotions of joy and love and anger – we scientifically know what cocktail of chemicals are produced to create the experiences of love or fear or the Divine in our bodies. But, I ask you – are those chemicals the totality of that experience? I don’t believe they are. As science advances, and is able to observe and demonstrate more and more of WHAT is happening in our world and in our bodies, does that necessarily mean that that which science is observing and explaining objectively, becomes reduced solely to atoms and quarks and chemicals?
Joseph Campbell lays this out beautifully, he states: “Anyone who has had an experience of mystery knows that there is a dimension of the universe that is not that which is available to his senses.” Thus, for our ultimate theory or truth (as I like to call it), science can only get us so far. Those places and experiences in the universe – and I trust that many of you have had some type of peak experience like this – those that cannot be explained, observed objectively, measured or tallied – it is those spaces which require the knowledge of the internal or spiritual world in order to understand them. I myself recently had such a peak experience – a couple of weeks ago in fact at a spiritual retreat with my meditation teacher. He guided us through a meditation that included a specific type of breathing exercise – one that I had not experienced before – some may know it as the “Breath of Fire.” It was extremely physically challenging – something I never expected. While I was in the middle of this forceful breathing technique, the bridge across my eyebrows began to burn like fire; my upper back where my lungs sit also began to burn like fire. But I pushed through, not really understanding why we were doing this or what it was “good” for. But I kept on, more out of curiosity than anything else. When suddenly at a point when I truly was in pain, an image of the universe coalesced in my mind, with stars and galaxies unfolding in front of me. And right then, when I honestly thought I just could no longer breath in this manner, I had a sudden moment of clarity where I knew that I was the breath. I was the Source of that vast expanding universe before me. But for me it wasn’t God, it wasn’t any type of human presence or understanding – it was simply “I am the Breath.”
We humans tend to personify such experiences and anthropomorphize these natural forces – but the reality is, the ultimate energy or Source can be impersonal – and that’s ok. Joseph Campbell says, “What is the meaning of a flower? … There is no meaning. What’s the meaning of the universe? What’s the meaning of a flea? It’s just there. That’s it. And your own meaning is that you’re there. We’re so engaged in doing things to achieve purposes of outer value that we forget that the inner value, the rapture that is associated with being alive, is what it’s all about.”
So whatever our ultimate truth is – it must integrate both the observable science of the Universe – our “operating system,” as well as the experiential spirit of the Universe – our “internal consciousness” – and must do so in a way that transcends them both! You see, the ultimate truth must go beyond the operating system that bounds our experience to time and space and to categories of thought – even beyond categories of thought related to spirituality. Because the ultimate truth that we are so desperately seeking, is not so enclosed. We only enclose it so that our human mind can wrap around it.
But now we come to the “so what” question. What exactly do these scientific principles do for us spiritually? And how do our spiritual answers play out certain scientific truths? What do scientific answers and spiritual answers matter unless they somehow drive how we live and why we live. Right? So what if I am energy? So what if this energy that is Keely has existed since the dawn of time and will continue to exist long after my human body has become worm food? So what about all of the scientific principles from quantum theory to atoms with consciousness? So what about the spiritual principles? So what if enlightenment is the recognition of ourselves, our soul as the Source or divine? These concepts mean nothing unless applied to how we live our lives.
In John Green’s great coming of age novel, The Fault in our Stars, the father confesses to his teenaged daughter Hazel. He says, “I believe the universe wants to be noticed. I think the universe is improbably biased toward consciousness, that it rewards intelligence in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed.” Later in the book, Hazel and her friend Issac sit thinking about the death of their mutual friend Gus and his confession before his death that he feared oblivion. Hazel says, “And I told him that … the problem is not suffering itself or oblivion itself, but the depraved meaninglessness of these things, the absolutely inhuman nihilism of suffering. I thought of my dad telling me that the universe wants to be noticed. But what we want is to be noticed by the universe, to have the universe give a shit what happens to us- … each of us, as individuals.”
I think both Hazel and her father are right. The consciousness of the universe wants to be noticed, why else would it strive for and evolve to ever-higher levels of consciousness, including those highest levels with the intelligence to create science to observe or “notice” itself. But likewise, we humans crave being noticed by our world, which is why we anthropomorphize nature and our experience of it – we imbue the universe with a “soul” because with a soul, the universe has life, and can care. To somehow know that the universe cares, that the universe notices our individual human lives. That is why we create our religions, why we find comfort in a perceived personal relationship with an almighty being.
So how do I propose that we link the two worlds – that seemingly unsympathetic, cold observable universe with the inner knowledge that we are part of the Source of that creation and are not separate from it? How do we bring these two spaces together in a way that honors and elevates both – yet properly integrates them into an ultimate truth? I believe that we must look to that place where science and spirit currently are intersecting – the place where we are at the edge. And in my view, that is in the study of the mind and consciousness. I believe we can look to the growing field of epigenetics as well as to the tenets of Systems Theory and Chaos Theory to help us marry these two worlds. These are the places where science is at the cutting-edge – where we are beginning to understand that our human minds can physiologically alter our experience. Let me explain.
One simple example is the fact that we all know that contemplative practices such as meditation can lower blood pressure and heart rate. But even more impactful, as discussed last summer, is research is demonstrating contemplative practice can have a direct effect (often in as little as 6 weeks) on the physiological makeup of our brains (enlarging our prefrontal cortex area and reducing the size of our amygdala). And now, we are learning through studies in epigenetics– and this is astounding to me – that meditation can also turn on gene receptors for disease prevention (and likewise can turn off receptors for disease expression). Dr. Bruce Lipton, a noted cellular biologist and other leading-edge epigenetic scientists, are beginning to figure out how (scientifically) that works. They have made stunning new discoveries about the interaction between your mind and body and the processes by which cells receive information. Dr. Lipton has shown that genes and DNA do not necessarily control our biology, that instead DNA is controlled by signals from outside the cell, including the energetic messages emanating from our thoughts. Think about that! That concept alone, in my view, beautifully integrates our interior mind with our exterior environment – in this case our bodies.
General Systems Theory, which began in the 1940s, is the study of how organisms are able to sustain themselves in their environment. In particular, the “open” system model – the view that one exchanges energy with its entire environment – has had a tremendous impact on how we view our place in the universe – requiring us to understand the world in terms of interrelatedness and interdependence of all phenomena.
Systems Theory, coupled with the emerging quantum theory at the time, ultimately gave rise to Chaos Theory – which is the mathematical sub-discipline that studies complex systems and the unpredictability of nature. While most traditional science deals with supposedly predictable phenomena like gravity, electricity, or chemical reactions, Chaos Theory deals with nonlinear things that are effectively impossible to predict or control, like turbulence, weather, the stock market, our brain states, and so on. It is the scientific underpinnings of the “butterfly effect” – the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in Mexico at a precise moment could cause a hurricane halfway across the world – (this is called “sensitive dependence on initial conditions”). Complex systems are systems that contain so much motion (so many elements that move) that massive computing power is required to calculate all the various possibilities. Which is one reason why Chaos Theory could not have emerged before the second half of the 20th century. The concepts contained in General Systems Theory and Chaos theory of interrelatedness and sensitivity to initial conditions explains that as human beings, we interact with our environment and have a very definite input into the world we experience. We shape our reality, bring meaning to the world and determine our future.
We now know scientifically that we are not just balls in a pinball machine – Newtonian reactions to the blind whim of the universe (or as humans reacting to the daily things that “happen to us” from the outside world); our mind, our consciousness has an energy of its own that affects our world and our experience in it. We are certainly more than our biology, our instincts and our conditioned responses.
What if instead, we took to heart that everything is really just energy, in some form or another. I mean really took that scientific concept to heart and lived it daily. What if we accepted that the “stuff of the universe” – the light, the quarks, the strings, the black holes and the dark matter – what if we accepted that all of that “stuff” has a certain level of its own consciousness? Think about what that does to our place in the universe. First, it would prioritize our human existence right up there with the energy of a gravitational pull or of a spinning planet or a dying star – because energy is energy – no one form is better or worse than another. We then would no longer be “subject” to the whims of the universe, but rather an equally vital part of it.
Secondly, a deep understanding that all of the stuff of the universe is energy in one form or another, gives rise to the idea that we are the creators of our world. If thought, intention and vision can all be reduced ultimately to energy – that energy can transform into physical reality every single day. It means the universe lives through us – with or without a belief in God or in a particular religion. If so, then every single person, every being, every life is spiritual. In fact, at a very deep level it is virtually impossible NOT to lead a spiritual life. You cannot opt out of it. Science is really like the operating system of the universe. And as such, it applies to everyone equally and it even works along principles that do not require our participation at all. But, here is the rub – and here is where the spirit piece is most important. Most lives are led without awareness or intention – so people create their inner and outer worlds without realizing that they are the creators – so they live as though they are like that ball in a pinball machine – reacting and bouncing off the “external” world they live in. But those who choose to lead a consciously spiritual life – they create their world with intention and with vision – with an awareness of how the energy of their thoughts can manifest in the physical world. Isn’t that what ties science and spirit together?
Suddenly then, the universe, and its scientific rules of creation, become personal. Your physical world mirrors your mind; it carries intention and intelligence in every atom. The duality that our human existence, our ego, craves and perpetuates – the me vs. them, the inside vs. the outside, the nature vs. nurture, religion vs. science – it all ceases to exist. We live in unity. We no longer live according to an assumption that we are separate from the outside world, or that we live among a chaotic unsympathetic universe.
These understandings for me did not come until years after the passing of Rocky and Rosy. After my divorce and subsequent searching for answers. It was science that brought me closer to spirit. When I was my darkest hours, when I was collapsed in the middle of my living room floor sobbing over the loss of the vision of my life, when no amount of consoling by my children or my family brought peace. At those times, I strangely found that the only thought that could instantly take that pain away – was thinking about the greatness of the universe and how temporary my human existence really was. I know it seems odd that it actually made me feel better – but for some reason it did – I think because I somehow knew that my human existence was just a temporary housing of my universal energy. And now, years after that painful time, I not only continue to be comforted by thinking about the universe in this way, but I am also fully aware of how that painful time was also my own creation. I know I create my life and shape my existence — all according to the choices I make and the thoughts I think everyday. And when I recognize this and strive to live intentionally, and with full awareness – painful feelings just melt away and I shift into a sense of oneness with something much greater than my current experience. Oneness with a vast and soulful universe.
My closing words speak not only to our efforts here today – to understand the great possibilities that exists when we carefully integrate science and spirit into one united truth – but they also speak to the next adventure – to how we can use this united vision of science and spiritual enlightenment to bring about political enlightenment. And to that, I share with you the closing paragraph from Ken Wilber’s The Marriage of Sense and Soul:
“And perhaps political freedom joined with spiritual freedom, time joined with the timeless, space joined with infinity, we will come finally to rest, finally to peace, finally to a home that structures care into the Kosmos and compassion into the world, that touches each and every soul with grace and goodness and goodwill, and lights each being with a glory that never fades or falters. And we are called, you and I, by the voice of the Good, and the voice of the True, and the voice of the Beautiful, called exactly in those terms, to witness the liberation of all sentient beings without exception.
And on the distant, silent, lost horizon, gentle as fog, quiet as tears, the voice continues to call.”