Tarka #010

On the New Science of Spirit

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On the New Science of Spirit


Science and spirituality are familiar bedfellows. Since the scientific revolution of the mid-16th century the disciplines of science have etched a place distinct and separate from spirituality, religion, and superstition. As distinct as the bright moon against a dark sky, the scientific method has challenged religious ideas and ideals. It is verifiable and built upon the idea that fact is a based on reason and as such, is utterly different from faith, fiction, or myth.

Debates around medical ethics, medicine, and vaccines open old wounds and non- scientists are, at times, chided for questioning their doctor’s recommendations.  If I say, “I believe homeopathic medicine works,” I am being un-scientific because, supposedly, belief has nothing to do with it. Yet, all out “faith” in the scientific method has become prevalent enough that it has garnered its own name, scientism. The first four articles in this month’s Tarka look at the concept of scientism in some depth.  As such, faith in the scientific method curbs insight from other disciplines. It not only undervalues other kinds of knowledge, i.e. literary, artistic, aesthetic, it also maintains a kind of blind faith in the ability of scientific knowledge to deliver humanity from suffering. Following this introduction to scientism and “scientific orthodoxy,” we have a collection of scholar/practitioner, research based articles that specifically look at new developments in the field of contemplative science.

Writing originally for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Thomas Burnett, explores some of the historical underpinnings of scientism and argues that science is not only distinct from scientism, but that the latter jeopardizes the integrity and future of the former. He states, “By disentangling these two concepts, we have a much better chance for enlisting public support for scientific research than we would by trying to convince millions of people to embrace a materialistic, godless universe in which science is our only remaining hope.”

Next, Susan Haack, author of books like, Defending Science - Within Reason, and, Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate, offers her article, “Six Signs of Scientism.” Here she makes several interesting observations, including the fact that the term science at one time referred to a wide variety of fields, including history, theology, and law. At that time, scientism was not a negative term. However, since it clearly now does refer to an excess, Haack explores six specific points that demarcate scientism from true, scientific inquiry.  She states, “it is a trivial verbal truth that scientism should be avoided. It is, however, a substantial question exactly what it is that is to be avoided.”

Massimo Pigliucci, Professor at CUNY and author of Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk, begins his article, “The Problem with Scientism,” by demonstrating the prevalence of scientism.  The “straw-man” idea that scientism is an exaggerated description of a select few is quickly undercut. Pigliucci draws upon and discusses Haack’s previous article, adding some nuance and critiques to her landmark article.

At the precipice of scientism and what might be termed a “new science,” or “new orthodoxy,” is the critical reflection of philosopher, John F. Crosby in the article, “Against Scientism.” Crosby delves into the work of scientist and philosopher of religion, William James, and reminds us that we exist in an atmosphere or world that we cannot fully account for through philosophical or scientific means. Scientism, like fundamentalism in religious belief, limits knowledge. Epistemological humility challenges both science and philosophy/ spirituality/religion and it is in the meeting of these realms that new forms of science are developing.

Director of Nalanda Institute and returning teacher at Embodied Philosophy, Joe Loizzo subsequently introduces the field of contemplative psychotherapy as part of what he terms is the “rebirth of contemplative science.” In this excerpt from the introduction to his recent book, Advances in Contemplative Psychotherapy: Accelerating Healing and Transformation, he also outlines three critical differences between Buddhist psychology and modern psychology   and argues that the combining of science and spirituality is not really a new approach, but rather a return to an approach towards knowledge that has prevailed for much of the world’s history. Loizzo is teaching “The Science of Spirit: Neuroplasticity, Contemplative Practice and the New Scientific Paradigm,” this month at www.embodiedphilosophy.org/p/science-of-spirit.

Two additional chapters from Advances in Contemplative Psychology, by Rick Hanson and Dan Siegel expand on the use of Buddhist mindfulness practices in psychology. The first, Hanson’s “Positive Neuroplasticity: The Neuroscience of Mindfulness,” specifically looks at the physiological role of mental conditioning, i.e. training the mind to focus on the positive vs. negative, and how mindfulness training aides this process. Hanson then introduces a four-step process for installing positive memories and thought processes in daily life.

Siegel’s “Interpersonal Connection, Compassion, and Well-Being: The Science and Art of Healing Relationships,” turns to the field of interpersonal neurobiology to interpret and   further the possibility of compassionate relationships. Siegel focuses on the concept of consilience, or the integration of interdisciplinary fields for the purpose of healing and instilling mental and physical well-being. Both of these chapter/articles will inform and prepare students for Loizzo’s January course on The Science of Spirit.

The next article by Bruce S. McEwen looks at the possibility of programs like, Mindful Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) to provide an intervention that opens “windows of plasticity,” and thereby allow for an individual to redirect patterns of behavior towards better emotional regulation and resilience. This exciting study examines stress, its negative effects on the brain and body, and the potential for preventing and treating chronic stress through contemplative practice.

A fifth article on the convergence of psychology and contemplative practices is Isa Gucciardi’s “A Call to Action: How Depth Hypnosis Fulfills Stanislav Grof’s Manifesto for a New Paradigm and Definition of Healing.” As the title indicates, the article details Gucciardi’s own contemplative based therapeutic practice of Depth Hypnosis (DH), some history of Stanislav Grof’s life and work in the field of psychotherapy, and how DH aligns with Grof’s therapeutic paradigms.

Kenneth Rose, author of Yoga, Meditation, and Mysticism: Contemplative Universals and Meditative Universals and Meditative Landmarks will be teaching a related course in February here at Embodied Philosophy. His article here is the first in a two part series excerpt from his book that looks at “Biological Essentialism and the New Sciences of Religion.” In this article he specifically discusses recent developments in the study of religion, neuroscience and in “neurotheology.”

Stephen Porges, keynote speaker in Embodied Philosophy’s upcoming online conference, The Embodied Brain, offers a paper that examines the neurological markers of compassion and discusses important distinctions between empathy and compassion. In particular, compassion would be associated with “a calm vagal state,” that is, a state where the nerve that connects the body to the brain is not agitated (as it might be in an empathetic response). Porges goes on to consider how the rituals associated with contemplative practice function to induce the state of compassion.

David Shannahoff-Khalsa, another contributor to the upcoming conference, subsequently provides a narrative review of his progression as a researcher and practitioner of Kundalini Yoga, including references to many of his published scientific works that were based on concepts and teachings in Kundalini yoga. As scholar, researcher, and enthusiastic practitioner, Shannahoff-Khalsa’s unique perspective on the experience and validity of Kundalini Yoga has done much to further medical understanding of this practice and the neurosciences in general and, consequently, it has worked to make the practices more accessible and known to a wider audience of people, and especially to those in psychiatry.

Finally, the Sanskrit and Vedic scholar, Katy Jane connects the study of the Vedas to contemporary study of physics and String Theory. She writes, “…Veda isn’t so much about ancient and outdated beliefs, but about providing us with the answers to where modern physics leaves off.”

Much of the material featured in this quarter on The Embodied Brain began with a practitioner, immersed in the experience and new knowledge of an ancient practice and its efficacy.  Fortunately, new branches of scientific research are taking these experiences seriously and we are now able to share and communicate about contemplative practice and its potential in more serious, practical, and accessible ways.

To engage with this quarter's many courses and programs, consider our 75-Hour Certificate in Yoga, Neuroplasticity and Contemplative Science. To register just for Joe Loizzo's course, check out the Science of Spirit: Neuroplasticity, Contemplative Practice, and the New Scientific Paradigm.

Stephanie CoriglianoTARKA Managing Editor
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