Thursday, March 24, 2011

Is there a Role for Science on Spirituality's 'Lonely Path'?

". . . And I will speak to thee of that wisdom and vision which, when known, there is nothing else for thee to know.

Among thousands of men perhaps one strives for perfection; and among thousands of those who strive perhaps one knows me in truth."                   
("Bhagavad Gita," VII:2-3)
It's been said, over and over, in all the world's great wisdom traditions, that the road to enlightenment or true liberation is a lonely path. Indeed, even in the world's most widespread religion, Christianity, those who traveled the furthest down the spiritual road, those like St. John of the Cross and Meister Eckhart, were often isolated by the Church authorities themselves. Speaking many centuries after the Bhagavad Gita was set down, Jesus (cryptically as ever) warned of the same existential loneliness in store for the true spiritual aspirant, saying, "The harvest is indeed great, but the laborers are few," (Matthew 9:27).

Essentially the spiritual quest for enlightenment is a lonely quest because it is an internal journey. Over and over, we read and hear testimony that it is essential for the spiritual aspirant to let go of the search for outward satisfaction, even his or her attachment to thoughts of outer things, in order that our real inner life is opened to us. The renowned 20th-century theologian, Paul Tillich, spoke of "the lonely self-inquiry" necessary to find the "depth" of one's existence:
". . . (A)ll those who have been concerned - mystics and priests, poets and philosophers, simple people and educated - with that road through confession, lonely self-scrutiny, internal or external catastrophes, prayer, contemplation, have witnessed to the same experience. They have found they are not what they  believed themselves to be, even after a deeper level had appeared to them below the vanishing surface. That deeper level itself became surface, when a still deeper level was discovered, this happening again and again, as long as their lives, as long as they kept on the road to their depth. . . ."                                   (Paul Tillich, "Shaking the Foundations," page 56)
Karlfried Graf Durckheim
Moreover, in today's Information Age, while our interconnectedness to a growing body of individuals seeking a higher meaning in their life seems to make this 'spiritual road' less lonely, it is deceptive. The pursuit of enlightenment is inherently a solitary business. While more people are striving for higher consciousness (perhaps "of hundreds," rather than "thousands," one strives to find the "Truth" of our existential being), even more individuals are hemmed in by the ever-illusive quest for more material wealth and 'security.' Such is the "Westernizing influences" of a worldview that tends to exult the material and discounts the spiritual.

In an interview with French Orthodox priest, Alfonse Goettman, the modern German mystic, Karlfried Graf Durckheim (see video at end of article), remarked that, "(t)he destiny of man is to become the one who can witness to the transcendent Reality at the very heart of existence." However as a culture, he observes, we seem to have turned a blind 'inner eye' to that destiny, much to our detriment.
". . . (C)ivilization in the West," he notes, "has developed only one pole of the human being and has sacrificed the other. Yet man is always called to a double mission: to recognize and master the world in which he lives, for which he needs efficiency, but at the same time to mature on the inner path which is vital to this fulfillment. The fruit of this maturity is seen in a person who is transparent to his essential being which he expresses in his daily life. It is a fact that western civilization has completely neglected this aspect of our nature."
His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama
Perhaps it is the Dalai Lama, with his profound respect for both scientific and spiritual inquiry, who best summarizes the basic existential problems - even threats - that an over-weighting of a 'mastery' of the physical world to the detriment of 'maturing' on the 'inner path' poses. In his insightful book, "The Universe In A Single Atom," he writes:
"The central question - central for the survival and well being of our world - is how we can make the wonderful developments of science into something that offers altruistic and compassionate service for the needs of humanity and the other sentient being with whom we share the earth."

". . . First of all like any instrument, science can be put to good use or bad. It is the state of mind of the person wielding the instrument that determines to what end it will be put. Second, scientific discoveries affect the way we understand the world and our place in it. This has consequences for our behavior."
Einstein famously remarked, "Science without religion is lame, while religion without science is blind." An apt paraphrase of this prescient observation in the context of over-weighting the importance of mastery of the physical world over mastery of one's inner self might be: "Spirituality without science is mute, while science without spirituality is deaf to humanity's deepest needs."

If the Information Age is to live up to its evident potential, it will perhaps do so by breaking up the relative loneliness of the spiritual path, thereby increasing the odds of finding the 'Truth' that Krishna gives in the Bhagavad Gita. The tool that might be most effectively wielded to break down this existential loneliness, given our overwhelming reliance on science and its technologies, is an authentic inner spirituality that is informed by open-minded scientific inquiry. Yet, the Western scientific culture by its logic and strictures continues, in most instances, to exclude the exploration of how inner, subjective spiritual experiences might fit into a more expansive worldview informed by both science and spirituality.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

No comments:

Post a Comment