Merrily We Roll Along

In one way or another, human beings have always been involved in scientific search and spiritual search–in the search for knowledge and for meaning.  I came away from my interview with the Indian-born, scientifically-trained Ravi Ravindra (in “Man and Machine”) with the impression that it is a quirk of Western culture to imagine that spirituality–which must be experienced–must prove itself to science–a realm of truth which is general, not contextual and personal.  Or, as Karen Armstrong explained in her interesting book on fundamentalism,  the doctrine of Creationism would seem bizarre to those who lived in biblical times because they just didn’t think that way,  insisting on the literal factualness of a story from the transcendant realm of the sacred.

An unmanned spacecraft from India–the Chandrayaan (or “moon craft”)–is on its way to the moon:  “For the first time since man and his rockets began trespassing on outer space, a vessel has one up from a country whose people actually regard the moon as a god,” writes Tunku Varadarajan, a professor of business at New York University in an op ed piece in today’s New York Times.  He includes the fascinating detail that the Web site of the Indian Space Research Organization (which launched the vessel) includes a verse from the Rig Veda, a sacred text that dates back some 4,000 years:  “O Moon! We should be able to know you through our intellect,/You enlighten us through the right path.”

Varadarajan’s point is that there is no disharmony between ancient Vedic beliefs and contemporary scientific practice.  Indeed, he relates that in the sacred Indian city of Varanasi, days after Apollo II landed on the moon, a model of the lunar module was placed in the courtyard of a venerable Hindu temple to honor man-on-the-moon.  There was no awkward gap, no friction, no problem bringing together both inner and outer kinds of truth, both private and general kinds of search.

Lately, as we witness the global financial crisis, I’ve been wondering why we aren’t more interested in a spiritual truth that is right under our proverbial noses.   Isn’t it time to acknowledge that we don’t know what we think we know?  On yesterday’s op ed page in The New York Times (which is not not really my Bible but it is a good stepping off point for blogging)  the op ed columnist David Brooks proposes that the economic meltdown is also an important cultural event.  That is, it is a moment when people are forced to recognize  that even the so-called experts don’t perceive things as they are but as we wish them to be.  People spin “concurring facts into a single causal narrative,”  patting ourselves on the back for “skill in circumstances when we’ve actually benefited from dumb luck,” writes Brook (drawing from the popular book The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb).

Long, long before any of this hit the major papers, the great mystic G.I. Gurdjieff taught that we humans are always glossing over the truth of how we really are, of how we really operate.  We dream we are actually doing what just passively happens.   At certain historical moments this truth comes close o the surface.  These days, it’s clear that the high rollers among us have just been, well, merrily rolling along.  Brooks proposes a new era of “behavior economics” and that can’t hurt.  But isn’t it ultimately the realm of spiritual truth, to , to experience, to really understand the way we are almost always and every where being carried downstream experiencing life as a dream?

What does it take to wake up?  I suspect knowledge and meaning.

2 thoughts on “Merrily We Roll Along

  1. In some ways, our search for answers to our questions and meaning is different – in that to find scientific (or materialistic) answers we have verifiable tools: our senses. We also have methodologies for proofs. A search for meaning begins with a search for tools to search with. Many traditions maintain that the TRUTH (God) is not knowable through our five senses. So, a search for meaning might very well begin with a kind of search for tools – or the beginnings of our awareness of our souls. Thomas Merton mentioned in his books that when our senses are stripped away – as in those dark nights of our souls – what remains is the beginnings of our experiencing what we can comprehend of God.
    What does it take to “wake up”? What does it take to learn to “feel” with our souls and set asside much that we think we know? I suspect silence and un-knowing.

  2. I suspect you are right. A real search begins when ordinary ways of knowing come up empty–and when all our comforting certainties have given way. As Thomas Merton said: “Prayer and love are learned in the hour when prayer becomes impossible and your heart has turned to stone.”

    In the course of my conversation with Ravindra (which had to be radically cut down for space) he explained that science is the search for public knowledge, for general laws, while spiritual truth must be private.

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