In the menu above this comes after the practical application of wisdom traditions as it is “less important” – “thinking” rather than “doing” is a very western trap in this regard. In many ways we “learn by thinking” as opposed to “learn by doing”. However whether thinking or doing all of our existence is very much informed by our understanding and core beliefs. Many of our core beliefs are implicit as we gradually absorbed them as a subtext. At school you were almost bound to have been faced with two alternate “explanations” – religious or scientific with nothing more nuanced in between. Like everything you were taught at school this is too simplistic by far. Albert Einstein late in his life was asked if he had any regrets. His answer was that he wished he had read more of the world’s great mystics earlier in life…
A “religious” person will have a whole raft of answers to this question. These are, in the main, generally as “un-falsifiable” as they are “un-provable”. Notwithstanding which of course there are shelves of books “proving!” or “disproving!” the existence of God. Western “debate” – though it hardly merits that term – is this kind of medieval “yes he does exist”, “no he doesn’t” kind of thing with an implicit division of the world into theists and atheists. But you have to go a long way to frame Taoism in this way – doubtless both atheists and theists would probably claim that the Tao for their side of the “debate”. And of course not just between different religions, but often more passionately within them, there are vast doctrinal differences – each sect believing they are “right” and others “wrong”. Anyway if you are religious and happily believing in what you have been told in your sect then that’s great, there is no more to be discovered – it’s certainly simple – as long as you keep doubt at bay. At the core the base metaphysic is of course the belief that a person is more than just dust and dead matter, that there is more to the universe than meets the eye.
The predominant modern paradigm is “scientific”. Philosophers of Science long ago distinguished between Science as:
i) “scientific method” (being rigorous and systematic),
ii) as a cultural “activity” (research) and “body of knowledge” (approved textbooks)
iii) any underlying metaphysics.
This last point is often an extraordinary blind spot, in many contexts (fuelled by the whole creationism thing in the States?), “Science” has become synonymous with philosophical materialism – the idea that the universe is “just” space-time/matter-energy. This is a logical nonsense however (notwithstanding which it is so implicit it took me decades to notice I had fallen for it!). Science confines itself to the objective examination of the objective material universe using material instruments.
It should thus be obvious that “the Science of the material” can thus say nothing about the existence or otherwise of an immaterial, subjective component to the universe accessed subjectively using immaterial instruments (consciousness/mind).
An important point to be made here is that Descartes in proposing a split between mind/soul and body in the early 17th Century was doing so in part for political reasons at the time .. to create some “clear blue water” between Science and Religion so that the former would be seen by the latter as no threat. In an atmosphere where being a prominent scientist could lead to your death this was an understandable political compact. So something that started with “we (Science) will keep our tanks off your lawn” morphs centuries later into rabid soi-disant scientists saying that the other lawn doesn’t even exist! Mind must be “just neurones” as that’s all we have on our lawn.
The crippling impact of this schism and reduction of western Science to the investigation of the material has had echoes for centuries and to this day. Western psychology only started in the late 19thC as a result (and then frmo medicine with a consequent leaning towards disfunction as its core). Elsewhere the Sufis came up with a very sophisticated system of psychology centuries before and in Asia Buddhist psychology (which is now heavily influencing western psychology) millenia before. Even echoing into the 21stC we get this “Science of our lawn” seen as the only/real/true Science and other cultures Sciences (which I mention below) deemed to be “woo-woo”, “unscientific”.
But this is changing fast not only due to increasing numbers of folks investigating these other “Sciences” for themselves and finding them to be rigorous and correct (in so far as they go too … everything can only look at the universe from a certain angle), but also due to increasing familiarity with transformational techniques which lead people to direct personal experiences which are incomaptible with existence being something “purely material” [and let’s not forget that matter is really a quantum beast anyway – a very strange, “un-concrete” phenomena indeed]. Furthermore not only from such experience or from philosophical argumentation, but more practically, Science as a method has (although you would not know it from reading the media) built up a vast body of evidence for the existence of (psi) phenomena that are impossible to reconcile with a purely material universe (Dean Radin is a notably scientific summariser of this). At a minimum, to explain these phenomena we have to premise that “consciousness” is something in its own right … not some bizarre by-product of having atoms and molecules arranged as neurones which suddenly somehow develop a sense of “ouch!” when the foot is trodden on.
Our “Science of the material” is great – it has made real progress. But the Science as method approach can be applied to many things – and has been by many cultures in many different ways. All the Asian meditation traditions were precisely about what happens when one systematically observes and records meditation experiences – “the Science of the Mind”. In many non-western cultures we have “the Science of bioenergy (chi/prana)”. Michael Harner – the anthropologist who was the first to investigate Shamanic cultures, especially in South America, from the experiential as well as academic perspective, and has now done that for over fifty years – describes Shamanism as “the Science of the Spirit”. In Taiwan Feng Shui – “the Science of subtle energy in the environment” – is applied as a Science in hospitals – experiments are carried out to see how the positioning of things affects recovery.
Now some of these “Sciences” may sound bizarre or crazy to you or I but that’s just a commentary on what are core beliefs are. Solid experiments are solid experiments – if you really get into any of these you will find that these are not a “believe or disbelieve” or a “take it on trust” issue but something that one can experience for oneself (with sufficient practice of a sufficiently powerful technique). In all these cases (and I am sure there are many more) the techniques of this “non-western Sciences” .. Sciences of other cultures applied to other domains than the material have been used by millions of people over time who get the predicted, replicable responses from performing set procedures. There are many more “Sciences” than we believe.
One interesting example is how bioenergy is slowly seeping into the mainstream – you can now get acupuncture on the NHS – although only for lower back pain and then they are very sniffy about why it works. “Lack of scientific evidence” mumble, mumble. But this is a very culturally arrogant position – Science as “culture specific activity” – lack of our Science (but even that is not true – plenty of western-science research on meridians et al). Implicitly they are saying that another culture has not been doing Science qua “systemic method” for centuries. If they hadn’t where do all the acupuncture points come from (other than repeated, systematic observation)? Are Chinese people less scientific than us clever bureaucrats in the NHS? It seems unlikely if you look at the huge list of things that were invented in China before the West (wikipedia).
For most of my life I had no doubt that “Science” was “correct” and no mere metanarrative and quite rejected any idea that is might be “culturally biased”. However based on an ever harder-to-ignore mountain of personal experience, and the compelling scientific data on mind-/psi-phenomena, I now know, as Shakespeare wrote quite some time ago:
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”
The practical import of this is that many apparently “unscientific” healing ways produce excellent results on body and mind. Even more importantly as a whole the universe/existence is far richer than our culture commonly conceives it. You are far richer, with far more potential than Science and medicine conceive, your true essence is something completely different from their conceptions.
The inadequacy of the current “western scientific” worldview does not of course mean that any given religion is “true” either. Indeed a short examination of any religion will lead one to see how much beliefs change and mutate over time and were influenced by society, culture, authority, and expediency. What starts with revelation ends up with dogma. David Steindl-Rast, born 1926 in Vienna, with a PhD in experimental psychology (1952), has been a Benedictine monk since 1953 and co-founded the Centre for Spiritual Studies with Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Sufi teachers, as well as having done a lot of work on the interaction between Science and Spirituality. This guy knew more than I know now before I was even born:
The religions start from mysticism. There is no other way to start a religion. But, I compare this to a volcano that gushes forth …and then …the magma flows down the sides of the mountain and cools off. And when it reaches the bottom, its just rocks. You’d never guess that there was fire in it. So after a couple of hundred years, or two thousand years or more, what was once alive is dead rock. Doctrine becomes doctrinaire. Morals become moralistic. Ritual becomes ritualistic. What do we do with it? We have to push through this crust and go to the fire that’s within it.
In a similar way we might say that science starts with curiosity and replicable experimentation and in many cases encrusts itself into hardened dogma. The medical sciences are a prime example. For example early in the 20th century German researchers had suggested that ulcers were caused by chronic bacterial infection of the gut but it wasn’t until Barry Marshall actually drank a test tube of bacterial culture that this view started to be believed.
So there is no easy way out here! No easy answers. Even the “I believe my religion” approach is a very kind of “popular” level … as per Steindl-Rast’s quote monastics who have dedicated their lives to their religion always report that it takes time drilling through the rock to get to the fire, the living truth. Zen talks about “the finger pointing at the moon” – very easy to believe in the finger, harder to see the moon.
Of course in practice most folks are just too busy and too rushed to consider theses matters – always something more pressing. The default answer is “haven’t given it much thought”. Above that we get “I believe” some general set of beliefs. Above that we find that many people end up clinging to a teacher or guru as “having the right answer”.
But to pour fresh tea into a full cup we first need to empty it. We can see that the true spirit behind all true science and true spiritual understanding is direct investigation with an open mind, to go beyond belief.
How do we get “beyond belief”? Can we get “beyond belief”? I deal with that question here but first in terms of the fruits to be gained from studying wisdom traditions old and modern we might touch on awakening