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In the Realm of the Senses: The SAND 2013 Conference

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Ever since prehistoric man first glimpsed, in some primordial pool, his own perplexing reflection, our ancestors have asked themselves the same question: "Who am I?"

In a forested conference center in the Dutch countryside, several hundred scientists, sages, and seekers gathered earlier this month for the annual Science and Non-Duality (SAND) Conference to ponder this eternal mystery amidst copses of beech trees and fields strewn with yellow wildflowers.

"SAND is a playground where we come together to explore and share insights on what is emerging in consciousness," according to Zaya and Maurizio Benazzo, the husband and wife team (she's a Bulgarian engineer, he's an Italian filmmaker) who founded SAND five years ago. The atmosphere is, indeed, more festive than and playful than you find at most so-called spiritual events. Piety, purity, and polemic make way here for intellect, humanity, and stimulating questions. True to their "non-dual vision," the SAND folks mean to tear down the divisive wall between worldliness and transcendence, intellect and holiness, once and for all. These barriers are a thing of the past, they contend, a relic of the pre-Relativity age (SAND's logo is OM=Einstein's E=Mc2) that belongs on the trash heap of history along with tribalism, fundamentalism, and the obsolete notion that human beings are separate from nature, or from one another.

"There is no outside world," the Benazzos write in the program for this year's conference, The Nature of Perception. "There are no others. We are complex living systems, part of each other and of the larger world we inhabit." Far out as this may sound, SAND's guiding philosophy, loosely known as "non-duality," is as ancient as human inquiry itself and forms the mystic core of all the world's religions. Dubbed the Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley, non-duality instructs, simply, that each of us is One with the world and people around us, rendered from the same cosmological stuff, and separated only by mental boundaries that have no reality in nature.

"All mystics speak the same language and come from the same country," in the words of the 18th century philosopher, Louis Claude de St. Martin. Jesus pointed this out in the Gospel of St. Thomas: "When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner ... then you will enter (the kingdom)." Vedic philosophy uses the metaphor of a goldsmith creating myriad forms -- planets, people, puppies, protozoa -- from the same luminous substance. While different in form, non-duality teaches, the universal content is the same. Though diverse in our iterations, our source and destination are identical.

Only one thing separates us from this wisdom -- individual perception -- which explains the subject of this year's conference. All of our conflicts (and suffering) stem from the fact that no two people perceive the same reality with their senses. This is why spiritual practice aims at releasing the human mind from the delusion of separateness caused by sensory interpretation. This idea is not to be taken on faith, however -- faith, in the sense of suspending disbelief, has no place in non-dual teaching. Truth must be discovered through direct experience and self-inquiry.

To spur this investigation, the Benazzos constructed a mindblowing three-day program aimed at challenging basic assumptions of what is spiritual and what isn't. There were sessions in quantum theory and yoga, transpersonal psychology and "trance dance," cosmology and chanting. Mystics mingled with scientists, true believers with hard-headed skeptics. There's a saying in the Talmud that "The heart is the seat of the mind," and this paradoxical notion could well be the SAND motto. Both the emotional being and "higher self" are part of the same symbiotic whole. Wisdom arises when all of creation is known to be part of the same great being, and we know ourselves as part of it, too.

When we recognize this eternal truth, we are never separate from one another, never lost and never alone as long as we are in this world. Nothing but the idea of duality separates us from ongoing communion. My boyfriend and I got a lesson about this on our last morning in Holland. During our morning walk in the woods, we managed to get completely lost. As we tried and failed to find our way out, I couldn't help thinking about Bishop Berkeley, the British philosopher famous for asking, "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" Wandering among the beech trees, I asked myself, if two jetlagged Americans get lost in a forest and no one is around to find them, are they lost?" Esse est percipi, Berkeley had concluded: To be is to be perceived. As an hour passed and we continued to wander, I considered the idea that maybe we weren't lost at all. Maybe we just thought we were. Just as this notion crossed my mind, the path appeared as if out of nowhere. And then we found our way out of the woods.

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