The philosopher orders the pancakes and sausage. The shaman asks for the egg whites with cheese, the Jungian waits for her unbuttered toast, and the mindfulness teacher -- a paragon of amusement and patience -- stands next to me on the breakfast line beaming like a hundred-watt bulb.
We're here with hundreds of fellow scientists, spiritual teachers, academics, artists, and seekers for the third annual Science and Non Duality (SAND) Conference in San Rafael, Calif. Part think tank, part ashram, part arts festival, part Doctors Without Borders, SAND is a unique melting pot for interdisciplinary dialogue among groups that don't ordinarily mingle to compare notes on what it means to be a 21st century human and how we can close the unnecessary gap between scientific knowledge and the world's most ancient wisdom tradition, known as non-duality.
Science and spirituality have always been odd bedfellows. Since the Scientific Revolution, when empirical discoveries began to undermine religious doctrine, tensions have steadily grown between those who sought truth through rational inquiry based on observation and those who accepted truths based on the authority of religious dogma. "While the liberation of science from religion resulted in tremendous advances in science and technology," according to one of SAND's founders, Maurizio Benazzo, "it also led to the fragmentation of knowledge, and to a science no longer engaged with the big questions: what it means to be human, to be conscious, to be a seeker of meaning amid the vagaries of life."
"We realized that we are at a dawn of a new spirituality, which is beyond the religious traditions, beyond dogma or any certain belief system," continues Zaya Benazzo, a Bulgarian-born engineer and environmental scientist who co-founded SAND with her husband. "This new paradigm emerging in spirituality is grounded in cutting-edge science and consistent with the ancient wisdom of non-duality."
What is non-duality? Described by Aldous Huxley as the perennial philosophy, non-duality focuses on the simple idea that humans exist together in a unified field and that all phenomena are interconnected. Non-duality teaches us that there are no borders, boundaries, or true separation in nature, and that all of creation is One, arising from the same non-dual source. Like a vein of pure gold, this fundamental mystic vision runs through all world religions and has been mined by sages and saints since the time of the Vedas (and by indigenous shamans before that).
Non-dual awareness -- known as nirvana, satori, communion, "no self," enlightenment, moksha, liberation, and other names -- is the state of union aspired to not only by meditators, yogis, and people who pray, but also by people making love, artists seeking absorption in their work (the "flow" state referred to by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi), as well as hard-nosed scientists pushing the envelope of human knowledge. Indeed, many scientists are closet mystics who recognize the parallels between quantum awareness and transcendental knowledge. Albert Einstein insisted, famously, that "The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical," "the power of all true art and science," and that a person "to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead."
That is why SAND may be at the cutting edge of a revolution of consciousness in the coming century. Philosopher Ken Wilber, considered the godfather of the non-dual movement (and whose books Bill Clinton used to read on vacation), calls this imminent convergence "the marriage of sense and soul." Unlike traditional religion, which asks followers to take things on faith and bend to ideology and authority, non-duality is purely experiential, addressing the mystic awareness that we are all born with. In an age dominated by scientific materialism at one end of the philosophical spectrum, and fundamentalist Bible-, Koran-, and Torah-thumping on the other, garden variety mysticism has gotten a bad rep. To be called mystical these days is to conjure images of astral colon cleansing and aura massage instead of bona fide spiritual mastery.
Mysticism is a formidable, time-tested approach to investigating the nature of reality, however. A glance at Evelyn Underhill's classic book Mysticism, for example, with its rigorous studies of modes of perception, varieties of consciousness, and intimations of a non-dual world, is more than enough to silence accusations of fatuous, woo-woo dilettantism. From Kabbalah in Judaism, to Sufism in Islam, to the great Christian mystics (Teresa of Avila, et al.), Advaita Vedantists of Hinduism, Zen and Madhaymiya of Buddhism, as well as Taoism shamanistic traditions, the mystic vision has survived across the ages. According to the folks at SAND, this non-sectarian, non-dual approach to awakening is the way of a more enlightened future free of religious quarreling and focused on human brotherhood, liberation, and the relief of suffering on this planet.
"Mystics describe their experience in many ways," says Maurizio Benazzo, who was brought up in Italy and worked as an actor, model and filmmaker (Short Cut to Nirvana) before embarking on the SAND adventure. "They speak of non-dual awareness as loving, open, and lacking any sense of separation. More than a feeling, the experience also conveys a deep and liberating insight into the truth of life, death, self and world. To see the turnings from the perspective of these non-dual insights is the beginning of a fuller, freer, happier life."
"Non-duality gives us a deeper understanding and experience of the interconnectedness of life," Zaya says in agreement. "We can no longer live as independent individuals driven by our egocentric concepts. We are all connected, with the stars, with one another, with all the species within and around us. We are a link in an evolutionary process that includes all, from the smallest particles to the largest galaxies. This process is the timeless dance of the cosmos that has been described by mystics of all traditions, the mechanisms of which now start to be explored by modern science. The non-dual approach will help us, as individuals and as a species, go beyond the myth of separation and be more in tune with life itself while having a momentary glimpse of the eternal dance."
Most of us long to join this dance. After breakfast, the Jungian stops to chat with an astrophysicist in the hotel lobby. They are joined by a priest and a Reiki master. A writer-poet approaches a Zen abbot to talk about the presidential race. For a moment, this feels like a taste of the future. We can only hope.
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