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…