The Embodied Sacred: A Humanistic Spirituality That Integrates Science & Psychology

This article is the first in a series in which I will share installments of an unpublished work of my own with the above title. I hope you enjoy it. If you do, please share it widely!
~Julian Walker

A Personal Introduction

I ran down the center of the quiet street in a state of intense emotional turmoil. Adolescent hormones and my parent’s fighting had driven me out the back door and down the driveway. My sense of alienation, loneliness, and the desperation I felt in the air of the then civil-war torn South Africa dominated my mind. I ran wildly from our house and turned toward the school, jumped the back wall and ran out onto the sports field. When I couldn’t run anymore I stopped, heaving for breath, and looked up into the brilliant blue, early-twilight electric sky.

Silence.

A stillness I had never felt before: at once strikingly novel, and yet intuitively familiar.

Relief.

Bathed in the blue expanse, I seemed to expand outward, no longer trapped. I was awe-struck. I didn’t, couldn’t , give it a name. It was me, and it was the sky and it was something corresponding that opened inside in response to the vastness.

Ten years later I would be sitting in an ashram close to India’s West coast. Meditating with hundreds of other seekers in maroon robes, listening to morning discourses, practicing daily vipassana meditation, in which awareness of body and breath was refined into an exquisite absorption in the unfolding present moment, and nada brahma, in which the sound and sensate vibration of meditation bells became a feast for the nervous system and brain.

I also continued what had become a daily practice of yoga on the lawns and in whatever quiet corners I could find on the opulent campus-like grounds, and participated in everything from the early morning cathartic primal therapy type rituals, to the late afternoon mass kundalini meditation gatherings, to the evening celebratory dances in white robes.

julian-long-hair

Sitting still, dancing wildly, standing and shaking, breathing deep, jumping in place shouting Hu! Hu! Hu!, standing still with sweat rolling down our faces, resting in deep savasana on our backs until the sound of the enormous gong roused us, and always emerging from the marble slab floor and massive mosquito-net covering called Buddha Hall into sunrise, or sunset, or the tropical afternoon heat with an exquisite sense of aliveness and receptive awareness.

During this pilgrimage, my girlfriend and I took an overnight trip from the ashraam to see the 200 year old Buddhist caves at Ajunta and Elora, caves in which enormous statues had been carved directly into the rock by monks who had also carved their own stony beds and painted elaborate images on the walls. We also spent a timeless time looking out over the Goa coastline, minds blown open by psychedelic sacraments, watching as the rocks morphed into amorous animals, and the waves on a twinkling deep blue ocean spelled out an ancient, hieroglyphic language only we could decipher. Meditating on the eternal relationship between pleasure and pain, desire and fear, I witnessed internal imagery of a vast tiered temple of consciousness: elaborate architecture, symmetrical design, each level up more refined and slightly smaller than the one below, each home to a set of living equations that expressed instinct, emotion, thought, a mathematics of bacteria-like antagonism and cell-division harmony, until finally arriving at a single tower room with a window that opened to reveal a primordial all-seeing eye.

Like a lot of liberal English people, my mother was an Indiophile when I was growing up. She seemed to be the only vegetarian anyone had ever met in Johannesburg, South Africa. My mother taught me meditation at age 15 and wore Indian print skirts. It was on a trip to the local Indian flea-market that I remember being handed the Islamic religious pamphlets that I would use to rebel against the Christian establishment.

During our school’s weekly Anglican chapel service I would kneel in prayer and ask Allah to rest assured that I was not praying to the same God as my fellow students. I repeated internally the words I had read in the pamphlets and knew I had a subversive secret and a faith all my own. This lasted about three weeks.

Taught by my mother at 14, in turn I taught my schoolmates to meditate, sometimes in the chapel before tough examinations. My friend Revel and I got top marks in geometry once after meditating—a surprise, given it was a subject in which we both ordinarily struggled.  Alex (who played bass in our garage band)  and I would often sit in my room after school and listen to Andreas Vollenweider’s dreamy harp music while traveling in an ever deeper meditative awareness. It was amazing.

My mother liked to go to the big cathedral at Easter or Christmas. She liked the singing and the beauty of the architecture, the stained glass. My father said he felt like a hypocrite. I thought it was all a bit silly. In conversations with fundamentalist religious friends I would be the kid saying things like:

“Well if God is the most all-knowing, intelligent being in the universe, wouldn’t it make sense that he would send many prophets to different parts of the world, especially in the times before cars and airplanes, and wouldn’t he send them equipped to speak the language of the different people he was trying to reach?”

Once a young American evangelist came to our school. He played guitar and spoke like someone out of a movie. He led us in prayer in a way that clearly created a hush of reverence and sense of the whole chapel turning inward. I knew he was onto something powerful—but this didn’t change my sense that the whole Jesus-thing was not really the point.

I loved to sing during the services. Harmonizing with my trouble-maker buddies, fooling around, trying to make each-other laugh, and vying for the attention of the girls. Ah the girls… The pews were display cases for rows of crossed over silky legs draped in maroon skirts at one end and rolled-down white bobby-socks at the other. Hallelujah! The weekly chapel service and the daily morning assembly, reading and prayer were the only times when the whole school was together for all to see.

I spent the night at our class president Kevin’s house once, and we went to his large evangelical mega-church in the morning. Live rock band, big screens, amphitheater seating. I cried and was hugged and stood up when invited to receive the Holy Spirit. It moved me deeply. When his folks were taking me home that afternoon, I told Kevin in the back of the car that I felt tense. He said it was the devil.

“The Devil lives in your house, he controls your parents and now that you have the Holy Spirit you can feel it. You have to bring them to God.”

Dad explained it later as emotional manipulation. He was right.

For some reason, I was always comfortable with death. It confused me that people were so concerned about what might happen afterwards, that this scared them. I thought: Either you go somewhere new and get to experience that, or you don’t. If death is the end then there will be no-one there to know it, and so what? I certainly didn’t believe in Hell, and Heaven seemed like a fairy tale to comfort children and old people.

All of this was complicated by the fact that the Afrikaander pioneers were Dutch Reformed Christians who identified with the Old Testament Israelites. My first few years of schooling were begun each morning with both Old Testament stories and Voortrekker tales of how God helped the Afrikaanders to win bloody wars against both the native ungodly African savages and the English  colonialists.

They had a point; the war-faring, God-imploring, infidel-killing inhabitants of the Bible seemed to my seven year-old ears quite similar to the founding fathers. It didn’t help that they used chapter and verse to back-up arguments for the correctness of Apartheid’s brutality and the supposedly Biblically-ordained destiny of black people to be servants.

The supreme racist insult to Africans during the Apartheid years was “kaffir” which literally means non-believer. It also carried a sense of being subhuman and dirty.

Thus began my consciousness of the relationship between religion and politics and the use of faith to perpetuate dogma and oppression.

I fled South Africa at 19 as a conscientious objector, avoiding both the Apartheid draft and the six year-jail sentence I would almost certainly receive. I would take the long walk from Hollywood and Highland to the Bodhi Tree bookstore on Melrose Avenue. With materials procured from this legendary new age bookstore I would immerse myself in self-hypnosis audio cassettes listened to on my walkman while falling asleep, or read about creative visualization, teachings supposedly channeled from other dimensions and fantastical alternative cosmologies of the human race.

It was that year that I started my yoga practice—alone in my bedroom diligently working with the 9 or 10 basic postures I had learned from a book. Postures that were painful but ultimately transformative for my stiff and toxic young body, and that brought the sobs and moans of my short but emotionally intense lifetime to the surface.

The above is a sketch of the beginnings of a path that led me eventually to writing this book. I have been a hardcore seeker: everything from yoga and meditation, to psychedelics and ecstatic dance, to playing in a rock band, to a pilgrimage to India.

Over time my fascination evolved from diving headlong into every altered state experience I could find, in a quest to (as Jim Morrison would put it)  “break on through to the other side,” to attempting to reconcile psychology, scientific method, and embodied practices in an intellectually coherent and consistent way.

 

Standing At The Edge Of The Big Bang

As I write this, (circa 2014) the media celebrates the advent of the largest scientific experiment ever conducted. Decades in the making, this staggering endeavor is an attempt to re-create the conditions less than a billionth of a second after the beginning of the universe itself, and thereby to penetrate some of the unsolved mysteries at the heart of quantum physics and cosmology. Called the Large Hadron Collider, it’s a massive particle accelerator designed to send beams of protons crashing into each other at almost the speed of light.

All of this happens inside a technology-lined, twenty-seven kilometer tunnel under the Franco-Swiss border built in collaboration between over ten thousand physicists and engineers from eighty-five countries around the world. So far, early results appear to have discovered the long sought after Higgs Boson, the missing particle (or field) that gives all other particles mass. The Higgs has been predicted as a necessary variable in the equations based on the “standard model” of physics, which accounts for all known forces in the universe and their interactions.

Science tells us that the universe as we know it came into being some 13.7 Billion years ago in an explosive outpouring of energy called the Big Bang. Two key things happened in the first few moments of expansion after this explosion. Gravity emerged from the other forces and the quarks, gluons and electrons that make up everything that exists developed mass. Within the first few minutes of expansion and cooling the universe was made up of hydrogen and helium. Next we jump to about three hundred million years to the universe becoming large enough for the transparency that would allow light to travel through it.

Another hundred million years brings the forming of the first stars, which would then cook hydrogen and helium into the other elements, like carbon, oxygen and iron. When those stars exploded, these elements were thrown out into the universe creating more stars and now planets – on which water was possible through the combining of hydrogen and oxygen.

On at least one, and perhaps only one of those planets primitive life formed and evolved over millions more years to eventually (about three and a half million years ago) create human beings that could look up at the night sky in wonder.

Brian Cox is an appealing, smiling-faced young Englishman who looks like he might not be out of place making teenyboppers swoon as the singer of a pop band. But when he opens his mouth at the TED (Technology, Education, Design) conference in California to explain what I have just paraphrased above, his precocious grasp of the most complex aspects of modern physics is astounding. He ends his talk by pointing at the various props behind him, saying:

“As I look around the stage and see Saturn 5 rockets and Sputnik and DNA and literature and science, it makes me think of what one of my great heroes, Carl Sagan said, that these are the things that hydrogen atoms do when given 13.5 billion years, AND the beautifully balanced laws of physics.”

I love science, but I am a yoga and meditation teacher and ecstatic dance DJ with a fascination for mythology and poetry—for a symbolic language that evokes intuitive meaning through metaphor and image. I also am fascinated with what happens both experientially and scientifically when we affect the mind and body via spiritual practice. A big part of my journey is exploring how to integrate different ways of knowing so as to complement and enrich each perspective.

 

Interior Evolution

Some things can’t be spoken of directly, they can’t be communicated in a linear fashion, so we have music and poetry and spiritual practices like yoga, meditation, prayer, dance, drumming and touch. Throughout human time, we have used elements like breath, rhythm, movement, stillness, mental focus, mythic images, poetry and even certain plant medicines to access states of consciousness in which we open to a soulful language of metaphor and archetype. In these states insight and healing can arise from the territory beyond, or perhaps deeper than, our ordinary ego awareness.

Above, we considered the Big Bang, a scientific creation story based in observable evidence. Let’s turn now to a more metaphorical explanation of the cosmos. All cultures have come up with creation stories that fill in the gaps of our limited knowledge and stoke the embers of our awe and wonder.

Several of the world’s spiritual traditions say that consciousness existed before anything else. That everything emerges from a vast open space or a sea of consciousness—call it the mind of God, if you like. In this poetic conception, everything is imbued with some level of consciousness. As life evolves each level of complexity enables organisms to more deeply reflect the whole – and, they say, be at one with the mind of God itself.

Literal interpretations of these ideas may always leave a lot to be desired. Like all poetry or mythic symbols, they exist more to capture a feeling than to express any facts. Indeed the images I just evoked are already a synthesis of ancient myth and modern science, and although it remains profoundly mysterious, consciousness so far seems to be an expression of biological organisms under specific conditions and at a certain point in the evolutionary process.

But organisms evolving to the point where they can reflect the whole, isn’t that, to some extent, what we are doing as we try to describe the Big Bang and quantum physics; to capture an accurate reflection of the cosmos in which we find ourselves aware?

I think whether you answer this question with a gleeful yes or a rueful shake of the head probably depends more on temperament than anything else, and this may be the heart of the matter: mystics find scientists lacking in an appreciation of poetry, while scientists find mystics lacking in respect for the facts. Feelings vs. evidence, experience vs. analysis, imagination vs. reason.

Consider the mythic Hindu image of the universe as Indra’s Net: an infinite meshwork matrix. At each place where this net of crisscrossing lines meet (perhaps we could say where space and time intersect) there is a jewel and that jewel reflects all the other jewels and the net itself. This is marvelous cosmic poetry, and I think it can sit side-by-side with a scientific cosmology. But be careful, because how we weave the two together is the tricky and fascinating part!

To be integrated and indeed relevant in today’s world, we must surely stay true to the real details of science, or else fall into the wishful thinking and self-delusion represented by pseudoscience and naively grandiose magical thinking. At the same time, we must acknowledge the value of interior subjective experience, meaning, the poetry of life and love, or else feel ourselves diminished in a reductive way that denies something essential about the reality of being human.

What if we included the evolution of spiritual (or interior) qualities of consciousness like compassion and wisdom in our larger story of the evolution of the universe, or at least of our universe?

Consider these lines from the great 12 th century Middle Eastern poet Rumi, who is also the most widely read, best-selling poet in America today:

            This

            that we are now

            created the body, cell by cell,

            like bees building a honeycomb.

            The human body and the universe

            grew from this, not this

            from the universe and the human body.

 

When he says – “This we are now..” He is referring to a specific state of consciousness—one arrived at through spiritual practice. Like all other religions, Islam has a sect that is concerned more with mystic poetry, ongoing transformative practices and a relationship to our inner world than with dogma. Rumi belonged to this sect: the Sufis. To give you more of a sense of what he is saying, here’s the whole poem:

 

            This we have now

            is not imagination.

           This is not

            grief or joy.

           

            Not a judging state,

            or an elation,

            or sadness.

           

            Those come

            and go.

         

            This is the presence

            that doesn’t.

           

            It’s dawn, Husam,

            here in the splendor of coral,

            inside the Friend, the simple truth

            of what Hallaj said.

           

            What else could human beings want?

            When grapes turn to wine,

            they’re wanting

            this.

            When the nightsky pours by,

            it’s really a crowd of beggars,

            and they all want some of this!

           

            This

            that we are now

            created the body, cell by cell,

            like bees building a honeycomb.

           

            The human body and the universe

            grew from this, not this

            from the universe and the human body.

 

Notice the word “Friend” with the upper case first letter. I hear it as representing the compassionate heart, perhaps symbolizing a metaphorical higher self, or holy spirit. We could also understand this as a specific brain state that practices like meditation train us to experience.

Husam is the scribe to whom Rumi is dictating the poem, while Hallaj is a famous Sufi who was stoned to death by the clerics for proclaiming the realization of his personal divinity.

Rumi says that when we are “inside the Friend,” we know the “simple truth of what Hallaj said,” and this is what we all really want. In a way spiritual practices are a unique expression of humanity’s ability to consciously participate in our own evolution.

Notice the nature metaphors: grapes turning to wine, bees building a honeycomb, and the assertion that the human body and the universe “grew from” this state of consciousness. I get the sense that it is morning after a night filled with spiritual practice and community. A deeply shared meditative journey that arrives in the “this” that is not joy or grief, judgment, sadness or elation, but rather that is established in an experience that does not “come and go.”

Interpreting this experience through a scientific and psychological lens can only deepen our appreciation of it in the modern world and need rob it of none of this poetry.

Integrating Perspectives

In a series of groundbreaking experiments that culminated with the measuring the brains of both Tibetan Buddhist monks while meditating and Catholic nuns while in contemplative prayer, neuroscience researcher Andrew Newberg showed some fascinating results.

He found that the parts of the brain that allow us to locate ourselves in time and space were turned off during these states of consciousness. This correlates nicely with an experience described by spiritual practitioners of a connection to all that is, a sense of timelessness and vast open space, feeling oneself to be at the center of the cosmos or at one with “the mind of God.”

He also observed that brain centers that have to do with mental focus and problem solving were activated, along with an enhanced connection to the limbic or emotional centers. This correlates, in turn, with the experience of centered presence, and the arising of insight, compassion and states of deep psychological healing reported by contemplatives over hundreds if not thousands of years.

Might this be a scientific glimpse into what Rumi, and many other contemplatives, describe as that which does not “come and go?”

Newberg is part of a bold and fast-moving inquiry into the new territories of Neuroscience. His colleagues, people like V.S. Ramachandran, Michael Merznich and self-proclaimed “neuro-philosophers” Pat and Paul Churchland, claim that we are closer than ever before to being able to answer puzzling questions about learning, creativity, mental illness, consciousness, love, God, and the nature of the self.

As we consider these kinds of complex questions it is helpful to keep integrating multiple perspectives. What follows are some of the voices I will be adding to the conversation as we continue.

Ken Wilber is a contemporary philosopher whose work is a great influence on my thinking. He is a theorist best known for his broad scope of inquiry and ability to create vast maps of knowledge and information, maps that include data from empirical science, psychology, spirituality, anthropology, and many other fields. Though it does get a lot more complex than this, his approach to integrating what we know about the cosmos centers on two big ideas: the Four Quadrants and stages of development.

The Four Quadrants are a way of dividing reality up into interior and exterior, individual and collective – and then, importantly, seeing how these domains relate to, overlap with and inform one-another. In our examples above, the Buddhist monk or Catholic nun would be having an individual, interior experience, but Andrew Newberg would be looking at the individual exterior expressions that correlate with their internal experience, also called their “brain activity.”

Someone like Joseph Campbell, arguably the greatest scholar on world mythology ever to have lived, might then (were he still alive) have looked at the cultural context, the socially constructed mythology, perhaps the geographical and political conditions in which the experience was arising and being interpreted. These would have to do with both exterior collective (geography, politics) and interior collective (culture.) He might also have looked at it through the lens of psychology in an attempt to glean the common human existential concerns being worked out through the myth and explored via the spiritual practice – which can be seen as an extension of ancient ritual.

Wilber’s emphasis on stages of development (along with lines, states and types, but that’s too much for right now) has to do with the recognition, from multiple fields of study, that everything we know about goes through a developmental process—especially living things, and especially as you get higher up the evolutionary ladder into creatures that have complex interior consciousness.

Using Wilber’s work as well as that of developmental researchers like Piaget and Kohlberg, moral psychologists like Jonathan Haidt, and Self-Psychology theorists Heinz Kohut, I think we can get an interesting picture of how our individual, interior worlds evolve.

Looking at the work of Transpersonal Psychologists and spiritual practitioners like Jack Kornfield and Stuart Sovatsky can situate that Western developmental model in a broader spiritual framework and include insights from foundational voices like Freud and Jung as well as more contemporary Somatic Psychologists like Alexander Lowen and Peter Levine.

Interpersonal Neurobiology is the brainchild of Dan Siegel. He brings together research from psychology, spirituality and neuroscience to examine the connections between the brain, the mind and our relationships with other people.

What is spirituality, and does it evolve over time? The call in our era is for unity, for the recognition that under all of our seeming differences we are the same. We are united in this one human experience. Yet the face of our humanity has evolved over time. This is visible in the changing cultures, social systems, mythologies, rituals, philosophies, and values across our history and across this precious blue planet.

The very idea that we are one people, that our humanity and the survival of our world depend upon coming to that insight and applying it in action, is a very recent development in our evolution. It is part of a worldview that includes democracy, equal rights, and freedom to live, work, relate and believe as you choose. Those that hold this set of values are more comfortable than ever before exploring the cultures of others and adopting ideas, beliefs and practices from other countries and traditions. The ethic is one of inclusion – multiculturalism, marked by a respect for all perspectives.

In a way we could say that the above worldview transcends the more limited identity of belonging only to a specific tradition or ethnicity. It is able for the first time to extend the individual’s perspective and see to some extent through the eyes of the “other” with an expanded sense of empathy. When we move from an ethnocentric perspective to a world-centric perspective, something momentous has happened, something that allows for a deeper and broader sense of empathy and compassion. These are vital indicators of an aspect of current spiritual evolution.

But any momentous step forward is always scary. For many on our planet it represents a loss of culture, an erosion of familiar values, the rug of tradition being pulled out from underneath their feet. Some respond by turning even more deeply back into the old world ways, some demonize post-traditional values and wage war on those they feel are not only threatening their cultural identity, but also going against the will of God.

In the 21st Century, how we think about the relationships between science, spirituality, psychology, philosophy and the imagination is changing. This book is about how our search for meaning and answers to the perennial questions of human existence can be updated, enhanced and deepened even further as we step back and gaze in awe at how far we have come since that outpouring of energy 13.7 billion years ago, and at where we stand right now.

4 thoughts on “The Embodied Sacred: A Humanistic Spirituality That Integrates Science & Psychology

  1. Deep insights Julian… u have read much and evolved to become a spiritual person indeed…glad am on your mailing list. I live In India and am now delving into meditation and yoga from a universal perspective..India is home to the evolution of it but its good to see perspective of integration of science and spirituality that leads to the understanding of the Evolution of Consciousness.. I have read Sri Aurobindo extensively his take on it got me on this path..hope we can meet someday in India or the US..have my family there my sole sibling a sister who lives with her husband in California and my son with his family in Arizona!Would love to discuss…and reflect.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *