science & yoga by Prakasha

What motivates a scientist?

To me, science is best described as a love affair with the truth. Reason is only a tool used in one aspect of this pursuit, and not the driving force. Without the passion of really wanting to know, very little would be accomplished. To work best, a scientist's passion must be very refined, clearly distinguished from the desire to be right or to appear knowledgeable or to confirm existing dogma.

As in any love affair, part of the allure of the beloved is that she or he remains full of surprises and can never be completely known. So too, truth for the scientist has remained elusive, and every time we think we have found the final theory, something deeper emerges. Our old certainties are revealed as only crude approximations to something very different. Gravity, investigated deeply, reveals the relativity of space and time. Light, studied carefully, reveals its quantum mechanical nature, in which it is at once both a particle and a wave. The trend is for each seemingly separate aspect of nature to become part of a larger whole in which they can more freely interchange their individual identities. Space and time merge into space-time, and particles show their fundamental unity by transforming into each other.

This trend toward unity is not a passive characteristic of nature. Instead, it actively gives rise to forces of attraction in which the potential energy of the parts is converted into directed motion as they come together to form a larger, more symmetric whole. For example, positively charged ions of sodium and negatively charged ions of chlorine move together to form a salt crystal in which the two kinds of charges are exactly balanced. In forming water, atoms of oxygen and hydrogen come together to share their outer electrons so that the shape of the resulting electron cloud becomes more round. The nuclear forces that hold the cores of atoms together are named in analogy to colours because, like the primary colours, their three fundamental varieties come together to form something that, like white light, has no colour. These forces are so strong that such "coloured" particles can never be individually separated. When scientists try, new particles are spontaneously created that exactly balance the missing colours so that each new assemblage of particles remains "white."

I suspect that the scientist's attraction to the truth is analogous to these processes and involves the attraction of the knower to the knowable, forming a larger whole in which, as the yogis express it, existence delights in knowing itself. They have a special word for this unified state, sat-chit-ananda, which translates literally as "existence-consciousness-bliss." Not coincidentally, as one of the easiest ways to attain it, they advocate devotion.

The initial phases of a scientific study are much like the practice of devotion. They begin with a glimpse of something the practitioner would like to know more deeply and proceed to a careful and disciplined process of investigation. Here, the mind repeatedly observes and remembers the attributes of the object of devotion, while being alert for the flashes of inspiration and deeper insight that can spontaneously arise from such concentration. A scientist, devotedly meditating on a set of equations or observations, might call these insights hypotheses, while a yogi meditating on an image of the Buddha, representing the state beyond mind, might speak of them as "knowings of the heart." Both emerge more from intuition than from reason.

For both the scientist and the yogi, this is not the end of the process. The hypotheses must be tested, and the knowings of the heart must be put into practice in daily life. At this stage, reason becomes an essential tool that can be used to predict the consequences of both hypotheses and actions, and to discriminate against wishful or complacent thinking. For example, if the hypothesis is that electricity and gravity are fundamentally the same force, I can deduce the circumstances in which electricity should give rise to gravitational attraction. Similarly, if the knowing of the heart is that we are not fundamentally separate from each other, I can test this by observing the difference in how I feel when I hurt someone and when I act compassionately.

I have often wondered how I will ever reconcile the scientist and devotee in me. But I've gradually come to realize that they are not fundamentally that different. Instead, the problem lies mostly in the selfish desires that lurk behind their masks, using reason as a tool to justify instead of test, and devotion as an excuse for holding onto familiar gratifications. I am working to develop the courage to see through these masks more quickly. In one way, though, the essence of this relationship is clear: true science and devotion both begin and end with awe and wonder.

Prakasha holds a Ph.D. in physics from the University of California at Berkeley. He worked for over 28 years in the physics department at the university's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory before taking early retirement to pursue full-time studies in yoga and its relationship to physics.

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