samadhi in space

an interview with apollo 14 astronaut Dr. Edgar Mitchell

Edgar Mitchell conducting an experiment near the telemetry station on the Earth’s moon. February 5, 1971. Photo taken by Alan Shepard, courtesy

In 1971, Navy Captain Dr. Edgar Dean Mitchell traveled on the Apollo 14 mission and became the sixth person to walk on the Moon. Instead of returning to Earth with moon rocks, Dr. Mitchell brought back a message of unity. While looking at the blue planet spinning outside his spacecraft window he experienced a transformative awakening and had a sense of the interconnectedness of all things.

Although Dr. Mitchell has done what most of us only dream of doing – traveling in outer space – it is on Earth where he does his most important work. He followed his outer space samadhi by devoting himself to exploring the mind and the scientific and transcendental potential for a sustainable future on Earth.

In 1972, after retiring from NASA, Dr. Mitchell founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences to facilitate research on the relationship between consciousness and cosmology. Over the past 35 years he has lectured and written about intuition, quantum physics, and the belief that a “learning, self-organizing principle” underlies all creation. He examines these themes in his book The Way of the Explorer, as well as in numerous essays and thoughts published on his website

Dr. Mitchell holds a doctorate of Science in Aeronautics and Astronautics from MIT as well as several other honorary doctorates. He has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and three NASA Group Achievement Awards. Dr. Mitchell was inducted to the Space Hall of Fame in 1979 and the Astronaut Hall of Fame in 1998. 

Calling from Ground Control in the mountains of British Columbia, ascent editor Sarah E. Truman reaches Dr. Edgar D. Mitchell at his home in Lake Worth, Florida. – AD

Sarah Truman  In my generation, astronauts already existed when I was a child. But you grew up before people actually went to space – what inspired you to become an astronaut?

Dr. Edgar Mitchell  I was a Navy test pilot. In October 1957, while I returned from duty in the Pacific aboard an aircraft carrier, the Soviets launched Sputnik – the first robot spacecraft. I knew then that humans would soon be in space. So I decided to try to qualify to be an astronaut. It took nine years to complete my studies and duties before being selected into the Apollo program.

SET  In 1971, as you pulled away from the Moon and made your way back to Earth, what did it feel like to be in the space between worlds?

EM  I’ll have to set up the story for you just a little bit. The spacecraft was oriented perpendicular to the plane that contains the Earth, the Moon and the Sun. Not flying perpendicular to that plane – but moving through it back to Earth. The spacecraft was rotating to maintain the thermal balance of the Sun. What that caused to happen was that every two minutes, with every rotation, we saw the Earth, the Moon and the Sun as they passed by the window. The 360-degree panorama of the heavens was awesome and the stars are ten times as bright and, therefore, ten times as numerous than you could ever see on a high mountaintop on a clear night. It was overwhelmingly magnificent.

SET  What were you thinking then?

EM  I realized that the molecules of my body and the molecules of the spacecraft had been manufactured in an ancient generation of stars. It wasn’t just intellectual knowledge – it was a subjective visceral experience accompanied by ecstasy – a transformational experience.

SET  You were raised as a Southern Baptist and studied as a scientist. Then you had this visceral, spiritual experience in space: how did you reconcile this with your upbringing and training?

EM  The experience in space was so powerful that when I got back to Earth I started digging into various literatures to try to understand what had happened. I found nothing in science literature but eventually discovered it in the Sanskrit of ancient India. The descriptions of samadhi, Savikalpa samadhi, were exactly what I felt: it is described as seeing things in their separateness, but experiencing them viscerally as a unity, as oneness, accompanied by ecstasy.

SET  Can you speak to the division that is often drawn between science and spiritual experience, between the material world and consciousness?

EM  The materialist worldview says that everything is due to the bumping together of little atomic structures like billiard balls – and consciousness is an accident of that encounter. The opposite extreme is the idealist interpretation, which has been around since Greek times or earlier. It says that consciousness is the fundamental stuff, and matter is an illusion, a product of consciousness.

Science and religion have lived on opposite sides of the street now for hundreds of years. So here we are, in the twenty-first century, trying to put two faces of reality – the existence face and the intelligence or conscious face – into the same understanding. Body and mind, physicality and consciousness belong to the same side of reality – it’s a dyad, not a dualism.

This is what I’ve been working toward for the past thirty-five years and why I founded the Noetic Institute. After my experience in space, I believed it was time for us to take a look at spiritual or religious experiences from the point of view of quantum science.

SET  What aspects of quantum science?

EM  The quantum attributes that we are concerned with are entanglement, coherence, resonance and non-locality. The important part is that information is understood as a non-local, coherent structure.

SET  What is non-locality?

EM  When subatomic matter is engaged, entangled in a process and then separated – the various parts remain quantum correlated or entangled.

SET  They remain tangled with each other?

EM  They’re all entangled. Let’s just talk about two particles – but it happens to all particles. If something happens to one, the other one instantly responds even though they are across the universe: that is non-locality.

A discovery of a non-local phenomenon relative to our scale size is called the quantum hologram.

You happen to be familiar with mystical literature and have heard the term ‘Akashic Record’?

SET  The etheric field where all past events are recorded.

EM  Mystical literature says that nature has a history and you can receive that history in the Akashic field. The quantum hologram is a mechanism that allows that to be true. It is the explanation for why we are able to pick up remote information – similar to remote viewing. Virtually every psychic or intuitive event is related to this phenomena. We have seen examples of this resonance between mothers and their children, between identical twins, and between lovers.

SET  If you receive non-local information from the Akashic field or quantum hologram, how do you learn to trust what you perceive?

EM  Our brains, minds and bodies interpret information. These interpretations are not always perfect because they are based upon our experiences and our belief systems and the whole bit. But we have a protocol in science that if several people get the same results they create a theory that seems to explain these results. If everything continues to be copacetic then we say “that’s true.” It constitutes a consensus reality. In this way, we validate our intuitive perceptions with other evidence.

In this way, many years ago I began noting my “feelings” or hunches and then observed which ones were accurate. As time went on, I got very good at recognizing accurate ones when they came. I do not know how to tell anyone to do this except observe yourself and over time you will learn to trust and validate these intuitive perceptions.

SET  Many religious people have strong convictions about what they believe. What if you don’t want your beliefs subjected to inquiry and observation?

EM  There is a well-known saying: “Don’t confuse me with facts – my mind is made up.” But if we want to get beyond belief systems and arrive at a unified understanding about the existence face and the conscious face of our world, we need to start basing our belief on scientific evidence.

SET  How would you describe God?

EM  Well, my concept of God is probably quite different than the normal. The universe that we are in is an intelligent, self-organizing, learning, participatory, interactive, non-locally interconnected evolutionary system. It’s all of those words. So to me – the universe is the body of God, and God is still learning. The evolutionary mind, the consciousness that exists in the universe, is the mind of God. I do not embody God in a being, but in the collective of all that is.

SET  When you were in space and had that sense of the unity that underlies the universe, what did it feel like to be back on Earth and see how humans can treat each other and how we treat our planet?
EM  Part of my epiphany in space was recognizing that beneath the blue and white cover of Earth, we humans were behaving like juveniles. We are a juvenile species. By and large, we are so consumed with greed and self-service that we miss the larger point. This is what the great mystics in all religions have tried to get us to see. No one who has had such an experience could be violent.

The problem is, those who have not had those transcendent, transformational experiences continue to operate just like we’re seeing the world operate right now – ignoring the message of unity and the greater good. My life has been devoted since that time to pursuing the issue of helping move global civilization toward a sustainable future. Clearly we are not there yet.

SET  We’re not on a sustainable trajectory as a species?

EM  No, we’re not on a sustainable path – every measure of human activity is on an exponential growth curve. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that exponential growth can’t continue indefinitely in a finite space. We have a finite space and we’re overpopulating, we’re destroying the environment. Until we turn these trends around, we haven’t got much of a future. That’s what sustainability is all about.

SET  So, if you could outline a few steps that we could take to get going, what would they be?

EM  To learn about physical sustainability, I recommend Lester Brown’s book Plan B 2.0. You know what plan A is – business as usual. Plan B is exactly what we need to do to get sustainability moving. And it’s a very vital approach to it.

I would then say that we have to practise and teach transformational transcendental experiences of consciousness. Unless we do that, people will not take seriously what we have to do to be sustainable. It takes both together – it takes the physical choices, but it takes a mindset that allows you to see we’ve really got a problem.

SET  If we’re living unsustainably on the Earth, would that have ripple effects throughout the entire cosmos?

EM  Most of us believe that the laws of physics are the same throughout the universe. There’s no assurance that there’s a star or planet that we could move to that would allow us to continue to do what we’re doing because it’s not sustainable. In other words, if we don’t make it here because of our sustainability problem, it is quite possible that intelligences elsewhere would shake their heads and say, “Well, they didn’t make it, but we’ll have to learn.”

It’s important to realize that our solar system has a finite lifetime. We’re about halfway through it – we’re about five billion years old, so our solar system maybe has another five billion years to go at most.

SET  Five billion years – that’s not very long!

EM  No, not in ecological, geologic time. But it gives us time to get our act together if we hurry up. 

Sarah E. Truman is the editor of ascent magazine.

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