DUALITY AND NON: A Visit to the Science and Nonduality Conference

[I wrote this piece for Parabola Magazine, where it appeared some years back.]

There’s a guy over there petting the fish, murmurs one San Rafael hotel worker to another, as they watch a young man with features like an Indian Raja stroking the big golden carp clustering beneath the big lobby’s artificial waterfall. He sits there smiling, and petting the fish.

Welcome to Science and Nonduality Conference. Doctorates gleaming, academics cluster like bright fish here, encountering beaming idealists. Barefooted people–some of them freshly arrived in RVs trimmed with Tibetan prayer flags–occasionally find themselves more mystified than mystical in conversation with earnest men in horn rim glasses, rumpled suits, brown shoes, and a tendency to drone during mathematical elucidation.

Filmmaker Maurizio Benazzo (“Shortcut to Nirvana Consciousness and Beyond”) is one of the key organizers; a tall, gangly man with a Sherlock Holmes profile, he opens the conference with reminiscences about his circuitous journey as a seeker, which culminated with his discover of the book I AM THAT by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj. Benazzo chanced to film the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, and describes the event as a wake-up call, like being hit by a Zen master’s stick. Yet Advaita calls him to never be disturbed by what you see. How to reconcile the painful grit of the 9/11 reality with this admonition? Somehow the linkage of Science and Nonduality seemed a way.

Benazzo introduces Dr. Stuart Hameroff, whose talk is titled Brahman and Atman are alive and well in quantum spacetime geometry. A physician with a shaven head, Pharoahic beard and a Hawaiian shirt, Hameroff represents the University of Arizona’s Center for Consciousness Studies. He notes “life’s dualistic Cartesian theater” and proposes that the lag between perception and cognition is at the root of the appearance of dualistic separation. Hamaroff envisions a quantum jump back in time to compensate for the gap between perception and consciousness. The scientist Sir Roger Penrose suggested in his 1989 book The Emperor’s New Mind that Platonic values including mathematical truth, ethical values and beauty are embedded in the fine structure of the universe, specifically in fundamental spacetime geometry at the inifinitesimally tiny Planck scale. These subtle forces may be resonating in microtubules which form the tiniest parts of living cells including brain cells where quantum computation with objective reduction may be somehow involved in consciousness. Our direct conscious connectivity to the cosmos might be found at these levels, transcending dualistic separation.

Microtubules, in fact, are a touchstone of the conference, which often returns to the wonders of the human brain at the microscopic and submicroscopic levels–the graphic symbol of the conference arrays microtubules symmetrically around a mandala.

Science and spirituality; contrasts and convergences. Physicist Daniel Sheehan tells us about Casimir Force as electromagnetic zero point fluctuation which can shift equilibria and alter activation energies, transition states, and reaction rates. He is immediately followed by a fresh-faced young Englishman, Jeff Foster, who improvises on waking up from the dream of separation and the possibility of absolute freedom in the midst of ordinary life. The luminous simplicity of his talk slowly brightens the audience like a light-dial gradually turned up. “The experience is the experiencer,” he says. “There is no final truth in this–that’s when we move into fundamentalism. . .This isn’t to deny that there is an experience…We drive ourselves mad trying to understand what is so essentially simple. It’s like the mind wants to come to rest on one of the opposites. Is there a world or not?. . .It’s totally paradoxical–this is nothing appearing as anything. This is no one appearing as someone…It can’t be known! Anyone who claims to know is believing their story about what is true….There is only Mind. It is not my stories and your stories and his stories there are just stories.” Like J. Krishnamurti, Foster seems to indicate a state of mind that bridges the paradoxical linkage that bridges is and isn’t; is pointing the way to that state without trying to limit it with definition. “Not a word I say is true. I know that. Because they’re just words; it’s a story…I spent my lifetime believing I was right and it was exhausting!…Silence and noise are actually the same thing. The noisiest noise is an expression of silence.”

Besides the inevitable Americans, the conference has attracted people from Brazil, India, Iran, Scandinavia, from all over Europe–the widely traveled, in more ways than one. Elderly gentlemen in neatly clipped beards interpret the symbolism of Vedantic gods and exchange stories about horrific diseases they barely survived in India; young men trade harrowing tales of ayahuasca and someone asks me, “Do you remember the name of that woman hanging with R.U. Sirius–that woman who used to get high on tarantula venom?”

Commerce percolates on the fringes of the conference where someone offers hand-woven mindfulness mantles, others offer Zen-based poker techniques, and yet another new design for Tarot cards. The conference was centered on its panels and talks, however. Commerce was relatively minor and offsite.

In the main lecture room a gray haired professor argues for “conservative” quantum physics as opposed to “speculative” quantum physics. The conference encompasses the solid science of University of Helsinki scientists Bergstrom and Ikonen–holding forth on nonduality of mind and matter based on empirical findings–and the perhaps less plausible claims of another lecturer extolling a “biodynamic craniosacral therapy” in which cerebral fluid is the carrier of liquid light.

Jeff Foster was refreshing, and so was that wry critic of excessively guru-centric spirituality, Jody Radzik: “Many people rely on the ‘folk theory’ of nondual enlightenment to help them understand what they’re going for. . .Folk theories are explanatory models of enlightenment. They work sufficiently well to serve everyday purposes…but they’re often full of non-critical assumptions.” He asserts that real nondual awareness leaves a recognition in you of your real identity, and warns that peak experiences are not actually nondual consciousness, per se ”people mistakenly come to associate peak experiences as realization. How are you going to see what’s normal in you at all times if you think it’s huge and mighty and awesome? You are kind of preventing yourself from seeing what’s immediate and now because you’re expecting it to be something spectacular.”

Nonduality and science converge fairly comfortably in some conferees, especially Stuart Hameroff. When I ask Dr. Hameroff if his ideas had been cross-pollinated, before the event, by other conference speakers, he mentioned Daniel Sheehan’s talk about Casimir force: “…in fact there is a calculation of the Casimir force acting significantly on microtubules. If the force is not random, it could reflect Platonic information embedded in the universe and guiding our choices and perceptions, as Penrose suggests, ensues from Planck scale geometry. In my imagination I see microtubules as a kind of musical instrument being played by the cosmic Casimir force.”

Apart from nonduality the three most repeated words at the conference are epistemological, ontological, and quantum. I asked Dr. Hameroff if he feels quantum theory was becoming a general tar brush for modern spiritual models, only leaving things muddier in the end. He acknowledged that. “Some circles quantum is a buzzword, and that’s about it. And some apply quantum physics incorrectly to metaphysics, consciousness and spirituality…Many serious quantum scientists steer clear of metaphysics, consciousness and spirituality. But if you look closely, there are indications in the classical/quantum duality of an underlying nonduality, and important applications. Henry Stapp is a good example of a serious scientist who raises connections between quantum physics and consciousness. The ideas of Sir Roger Penrose most directly make a link between science, consciousness and what could be viewed as spirituality, but Roger won’t talk about it. He finds the notion of spirituality ‘not useful’.”

While the conference reveled in diversity, a consistent theme was the teachings of Nisargadatta. Maurizio and Zaya Benazzo’s Neti Neti Media, inspired by Nisargadatta, was one of the conference’s organizers. Neti Neti being a Hindu expression: “Not this, not this”. A reminder to turn away from identified fixedness.

Still, the conference sometimes seemed a bit identified with Nisargadatta, especially as extolled by Dr. Stephen Wolinsky, founder of the Quantum Psychology Institute–and to a lesser degree, the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh and the Dalai Lama.

But of course, shamanists were on hand. One couldn’t miss Loibon Doinyo Laetoli le Baaba. Le Baaba is an eye-catching, articulate exponent of shamanism fused with nondual philosophy. A resident of Los Angeles, he has adopted the scarification, tattoos, and traditional costume of his African Masaai forebears.

Sufis, Jewish philosophers, Transpersonal Psychologists and Christian mystics were conferees as well, easily finding overlapping ideas and points of agreement, their discussions seeming to validate Aldous Huxley’s “The Perennial Philosophy”.

The scientists attending were for the most part comfortable with the nomenclature of nondualist spirituality. The conference might have seemed more scientifically grounded if skeptical scientists had been directly involved. David Scharf of Maharishi University of Management oriented his talk around rebuking Victor Stenger’s skeptical work, Quantum Gods: Creation, Chaos, and the Search for Cosmic Consciousness. Stenger was not on hand to reply.

There were more than 600 other people at the conference, however; there were dozens of talks and workshops; there was the experiential room, for closer engagement with yoga, healing exercises, and people like the American Sufi Sheikh Kabir Helminski, who offered a workshop on Rumi; Amit Goswami discussed scientific evidence for God; Daniel Pinchbeck ran a workshop on “psycho-technic civilization”; James Tomarelli, a representative of John Bennett’s school, offered an experience of the Gurdjieff Movements.

This was the first conference on science and nonduality, and likely a learning experience for the organizers. The conference was fertile with ideas, peopled with idealistic seekers, given gravitas by a group of real scientists. It was a kind of alchemical experiment fusing concept and experience. Sometimes, the meeting of the rational and the emotional produced a synthesis with a life of its own…

Time is a Conspirator

Time makes us possible.

Without it, no evolution.

Without it no chance for birth, no growth to adulthood.

Time is an integral part of what created us piece by piece,

 through many steps, many convergences.

Time is an automatic conspirator: time is complicit

in fatal accidents.

Time is active in taking us apart,

gradually removing our ability to rebuild our cells….

Time inexorably rusts us, deconstructs us,

crusts us…

Dusts us.

Then…time makes us possible.


from notes and some online posts I made.

//Every bad decision I ever made was as mindless as the jerk of a thumped knee. Nothing guided the decision but fear or animal wiring or trauma. It was as if my thumb was making a decision for my whole body (sometimes another familiar part made the decision). Some dusty, bloated little person in a tiny corner office of me made the decision; an incompetent bureaucrat who runs the government from a forgotten department.

//Some like to pit heart against mind, feeling versus rationality. I tend to the rational and trust it more on the whole but it seems to me that if a feeling, a reading on reality from “the heart center” consistently bears fruit, if a distinct feeling proves its rightness then it IS rational, it’s a higher reason manifesting in the heart. And if we understood the whole process we’d call that one for reason.

//Some scientists speculate the cosmos is a gigantic 3-D computer program–that “nature operates like a computer program.” This is a gigantic vanity. It’s not that nature is modeled by a programmer; it’s that programs are inspired by patterns seen in nature…and feebly imitated, in small measure. The vanity of the hyper-analytic mind has mistaken its own faint, surfacey modeling for the superstructure of reality. 3-D is not enough “D”.

//It’s fashionable to speak of “the present moment”–and that’s good. But there are levels of mindfulness most don’t experience. Even the first level of mindfulness, being in the present moment–self-remembering–can be startling. Suddenly you’re in the real world. Birdsongs, insects, car sounds, sounds of children, the 3-dimensionality of things–suddenly seem to ‘appear’. This was here, around me, all along?

//Libertarianism? Anarchism? Fine–when we can count on unregulated companies not to pollute, not to rip out most of the world’s forests, not to endanger employees, not to engage in child labor, not to commit consumer fraud, not to wreck the economy for the sake of greed, not to insanely drive up the cost of health care…And when we don’t need guidance while flying planes; when we don’t need cops, fire dept or infrastructure. Arrange that and I’m all for it.

//Looking at trees with new apples, strange to think that the apples are communicative, a call to other species, “Eat this and spread my seeds”. Flowers also are communicative between species. Plants calling silently to animals, to insects, “Let’s trade.”

//Does falling organize the world? Isn’t gravitation falling? It’s indicated by falling; by things pulled downward, toward a center of mass. Gravity, anyway, organizes the world; it gives us an up and down, a surface we can walk on, collects mass to offer resistance we use for propulsion; it makes it possible to drop trash in a trash can and have it stay there; to put forks in drawers; to remain seated at my desk.

//For unknown reasons, when consciousness is increased enough the possibilities for free will are mysteriously (not supernaturally–mysteriously) increased. I don’t quite understand why–or, I almost understand it, but I don’t think I can express the why and how of it.

//Old age is right and proper, however dismaying it may seem as we age. What use is a candle that is not lit? It merely takes up space. When it is lit, it gives light, but it also melts. A candle that gives light but does not also melt away is either an abomination of nature, or a miracle. If it’s a miracle then it is not in our province to construct it.

//Conditions have weight. Behavior has momentum.

//There’s a misunderstanding that the right-hand-path, to use a short hand term, is about abasing or losing yourself or demolishing yourself. Not true at all. It’s simply about being in right relationship to the divine source of consciousness, and the Bodhisattvas who try to mitigate, and eventually end, the world’s suffering. But it’s not self annihilation. It’s more like a reshuffling of the inner person so that the ego takes its rightful place, as just one more part of the inner machinery. It’s like taking the keys away from a drunk driver.

//Machines that pollute are only half invented.

//The word “God” has psychological weight that distorts our understanding in a way that’s analogous to a gravity well; to gravitation bending spacetime. We can’t hope to understand the external intelligence as long as we insist on calling it God.

//Music temporarily changes our relationship to time; it reconciles us with time’s disintegration of form.

//I think that the universe is front-loaded to create life just the way it’s front loaded to produce gravity or suns or atomic motion. But I don’t see a creator being necessary. It’s just that in this (one of many?) universe the probability of life is built into the structure of things just as the structure of things is built into the structure of things. How did the strong/weak forces come about? They’re in the nature of materials at hand at the big bang; the probability (not inevitability) of life is presumably in some wise also simply in the nature of matter. There is no need to assume that life requires a supernatural spark and therefore there’s no need to assume that it arises purely by chance as such–if things are innately organized to produce it, *just because they are*, that is no more supernatural than that things are innately organized to produce gravity. It’s not intelligent design–because it’s not design. Life is not designed in; it’s just likely due to some only barely (so far) intuited immanent structuring of matter and energy.

//My character is smarter than my calculator.

//Many scientists think there’s a black hole at the center of every galaxy, central to the formation of galaxies. What is a black hole but a void, an almost infinite gravitational compaction rendering space as a sucking vacuum. Nature it appears does not abhor a vacuum but relies on it. Many philosophers have noted the necessity of death and emptiness; the importance of unoccupied space to occupied form. It should be no surprise when that principle extends to a galactic scale. Principles are as macroscopic as they are microscopic. It is also noted, in the most recent research at this writing, that the massive black hole at the center of a galaxy spins off material which somehow revitalizes the galaxy’s capability of creating stars and planets. From death, life.

//Depression is a concession.

//Everyone shares the unfolding of the universe. We call it “time”.

//We feel insignificant in the vastness of the universe but one could probably travel halfway across the galaxy before coming across another truly intelligent lifeform. It takes an enormity of planetary resources to add up to the building blocks of life and a great many other factors must converge to make possible intelligent life and then civilization. We conclude, then, that while it’s out there somewhere, it is comparatively rare. Any intelligent being then in the vastness of the universe is a rarity. Hence we are no longer to be considered insignificant as individuals.

//People without regret are either fools, self deceiving, or psychopaths. Everyone’s done something wrong, and regret shows you know it and want to do better.

//Organized religion is like organized playtime: it’s for children. But children need reassurance; reassurance is a form of compassion.

//It may be that life at best is just a series of consolations for death. Still, if you identify with perception itself, and not with the memory/personality lost at death, then perhaps death is simply immersion of point of view into the great sea of consciousness. But for most people this is cold comfort. Who knows? I am merely convinced that the root of perception is an extension of a permanent part of the universe.

//Corporate interests rule and will continue to rule. Their alliance with the theocrats will mean only science that makes the rich richer and the environment poorer will be allowed and hence, ignorance will thrive and when ignorance thrives, corporate interests rule and will continue…

//The stars are a contradiction. They are each one a gigantic sphere of nuclear energy burning furiously in the sky, large enough to consume a planet like ours many many times; they are so big they can be seen across countless light years of interstellar space. But we see them as glimmers, scarcely there, and there are so many that, in contrast to the vastness of the universe each one is indeed tiny. Looking at them dramatizes their vastness and tininess at one time. The scale of the universe is contained in the sight of a single star.

Yes, I’m writing a Speech for Sarah Huckabee Sanders

“SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS TO GO AT ‘WOKE’ LEFT IN STATE OF UNION REBUTTAL”, says the headline–and I thought in a spirit of reconciliation, I’d offer her some free speech-writing:

“Truly, America, remaining unwoke is the traditional way to be. Sleeping through life is the time-honored way of true Americans. We’re a sleepy people; we’re the walking comatose and we like it that way. Who likes being rudely awakened? Me? You? No! We are a snoozy, snoozy people. We are snoozy…and proud!”

A startling secret!

A neurologist told me a remarkable secret…As one gets older, the mind slows, in some ways at least, a bit. Names come more slowly, and so on. So I consulted a neurologist and he showed me a scan of the gears of my mind. “You see the rust; flecks of rust get crammed in, slowing the turning. But the real problem, the one thing that gums up the gears most, is rodent droppings. Mice and rats. You see it, here and here? However…if you loose a cat within your brain, it may improve…”

When I got hate posts from the White Supremacists…

I gave up social media many years ago, then recently decided to try Mastodon. I am at Mastodon.cloud. I posted about an article that explained more than 1600 Native Americans were systematically slaughtered in California in the 19th century (hundreds of thousands of others enslaved, or driven into places where they starved). So a guy responded by saying “too bad they stopped at 1600 red niggers, should have killed them all”. I looked at his other posts–racist hate for anyone of color, incel misogyny, virulent homophobia. I posted about it giving his screenname, saying he should be banned from this domain of Mastodon. This got me retaliation from his cronies–a couple dozen obscene hate posts from his fellow White Supremacist incel homophobes.

When I got hate posts from the White Supremacists, I’d look at more of their posts to know what to say when reporting them. It was a deep dive into a mind. Post after post after post. Anyone’s posts reveal a mind, but these were all one state of mind; an id oozing like sweat from a person long ill. Claustrophobic. Rants gave way to hate memes; pics of guns, sputtered mocking cartoons, sneers. Over & over. Charnel free-association, random spurts of rage; tormented humor: all of it iterating. Isolated, claustrophobic.

They’re trapped in an endless hunt for the same rage-release spurts. They communicate with one another–but that’s just a hall of mirrors, a paradoxical confirmation of their isolation. All their communication with one another is endless hate ritualism; it becomes a kaleidoscope of their own nightmarish maze of hate…And the great irony is that they believe their maze of hate is a glorious celebration of freedom.