Tuesday, January 01, 2002

Bridging Science and the Spiritual

The True Path: Western Science and the Quest for Yoga

By: Charles Whitfield, M.D.


This book is about two vast, complex, often mysterious topics: the human brain and the spiritual quest. It is the juxtaposition of these realms that intrigues Roy J. Mathew, M.D., professor of psychiatry and radiology at Duke University and clinical director of the Duke Addictions Program, who grew up in India in a world of spirituality that included a mother whose psychic abilities deeply puzzled him. Indeed, the first 45 pages of The True Path are devoted to the story of his mother and an introduction to the history of Indian spiritual philosophy. Mathew tries hard, often successfully, to interpret knowledge of the brain in the context of the spiritual quest, although in the spiritual search we customarily go beyond the brain by asking three perennial questions–Who am I? What am I doing here? Where am I going?—that he addresses only indirectly.

The obvious challenge to the Western scientist and physician is how to reconcile our understanding of spirituality with our understanding of hard science and medicine. About this, Mathew makes clear and appropriate statements. Our prior Newtonian understanding of time, space, and the world, he explains, was that space was a three-dimensional continuum and time a separate-dimensional one. He writes:

These age-old concepts held sway till 1905, when Albert Einstein obliterated this firmly entrenched belief of absolute time and absolute space and the related reality. Einstein argued that space and time were not inseparable. In fact he combined time and space into a single “spacetime.” Neither time nor space, nor space-time, was absolute. All were relative to a single absolute factor, namely, the speed of light. Speed of light is always consistent at 186,282 miles/second....If time, space, and matter are relative, then everything that is dependent on time, space, and matter, including Earth, its inhabitants, humans, and the human brain, is also relative....It would seem that modern physics after Einstein provides minimal, if any, support for basic tenets of materialism. Since matter is interchangeable with energy, the argument that matter is the ultimate reality stands on weak ground. Perception (of matter), dependent on time and space, cannot be relied upon. The perceived world around us, therefore, cannot be real. Life and death that are dependent upon neurophysiology based on time, space, and matter cannot really be the true beginning and end. According to the Yin-Yang theory, the world is made of opposites. Everything is relative and made up of polarities with few, if any, absolutes.

Now Mathew has cleared the way to enlarge on some of the possible relationships of the material world, including the brain, to the world of spirituality. His description of spirituality is mostly from the perspective of Indian and Hindu philosophy, with brief references to Buddhism and Christianity. Although I admit to finding this book slow going, it nonetheless offers one of the more concise summary descriptions of the essence of Hinduism—probably the oldest of our “brand-name” world religions.

From his perspective as a psychiatrist and neuroscientist, Mathew introduces us to spirituality slowly, and at times starkly, considering our current and commonly held three-dimensional view:

Consciousness, at the most basic level, transcends time and space and becomes independent of the matter of which the brain is composed. Since evolution of the mind represents progressive superimposition of creative elements of increasing complexity upon consciousness, the more advanced the organism in the chain of evolution, the more contaminated consciousness will be. Thus a dog will manifest the Primary Principle [God’s Mystery] more clearly than a Nobel laureate. Perhaps that is why some of us envy animals and consider associations with them blissful. The purity and simplicity they display belie proximity to the Absolute.

Although he devotes most of the book to Hindu history, philosophy, and spirituality, Mathew relates them to the brain often enough for those interested in this important connection. He spends some 25 pages on an overview of neuroanatomy and physiology, which, admittedly, he must do; but, as compared, for example, with Candice Pert’s recent book Molecules of Emotion, an easier though longer read, I found Mathew ponderous. For example, he says:

The brain is responsible for all cognitive, connotative, and intellectual functions. Transcendental consciousness, however, is a striking exception. It is not a function of the brain, it does not reside in the brain, and the brain is not required for its existence. It is necessary for the existence of the brain and everything it does. The idea that a non-material, ethereal entity called consciousness may supersede the brain may seem chimerical. Neuroscientists may frown upon this notion and reject it out of hand so long as they believe in absolute time and space and the supremacy of matter, as physicists of the last century did. According to Einstein, “in this new kind of physics there is no room for both matter and field, for the field is the only reality.”

Unfortunately, he refers to the ego from the outdated and conventional Freudian perspective. More modern psychologists eliminate the term “ego,” using instead simply “self” or “real self” in contrast with the false self. Spiritual psychology today mostly equates the ego with the false self.


How can we judge truth in the spiritual realm? For the material world, we use the scientific method of formulating a hypothesis to explain the phenomena observed, making measurements via one or more of our senses (aided or unaided), with or without a control group, and applying the appropriate mathematical testing formulas. Confirmation by several independent experimenters and properly performed experiments is essential. But, as Gregory Bateson and Ken Wilber point out, testing at the level of the mind (for example, in psychology) by using the scientific method alone often produces erroneous results, which they call “category errors.” To ascertain truth about the mind requires us to go beyond the scientific method into observation (phenomenology) and interpretation (hermeneutics).

To identify truth in the spiritual realm of human existence, while avoiding category errors, the most useful and accurate method is what we call ontology, the study of consciousness or being, which Mathew addresses from the age-old spiritual Hindu perspective. The most sophisticated and accurate measuring device in the spiritual realm is experience, direct or shared.

People who have been in Twelve-Step self-help groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, or other support groups or therapy groups, are familiar with this use of shared experience to validate many aspects of their lives, including the spiritual. Direct experience is what we have every second of every day, in relationship with ourselves, others, and the universe. An important part of direct or shared spiritual experience may be clearly delineating its impact or aftereffects. (In the material realm, the analogue would be the particle physicist measuring an atomic particle only by the shadow or the trail that it leaves.) To try to measure the spiritual with either the scientific method or phenomenology and hermeneutics is again to make a category error. Such measurement and testing will not work in the spiritual realm of our human existence.

So, too, spiritual experience leaves us with a different set of beliefs, values, and traits (unless we were fully spiritually realized prior to the experience). While Mathew addresses these realms (matter, mind, spirit) according to his understanding of Hindu spiritual philosophy, his presentation would have been clearer had he delineated the differences among them in testing for truth in them.

Perhaps because I am familiar with neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, and spirituality, the book becomes labored as Mathew summarizes them at length; but I believe that for the mostly scientifically minded reader his thoroughness in attempting to relate spirituality to science is appropriate.

The True Path has ten chapters, plus the introduction in which Mathew describes the cocaine-addicted patient. The chapter titles capture the flavor of the book:

 “Illogical Logic,” “Seeing Is Not Believing,” “The Unseen Reality,” “Consciousness and Its Veils,” “Consciousness: Fact or Fancy?” “Pharmacological Spirituality,” “Beauty and Beatitude,” “Selfless Self,” “Getting Past Altered Consciousness,” and “The Beginning.” The book also has an excellent glossary and a good reference section and index.


Although he does not use the word “God,” Mathew seems to refer throughout his description of the spiritual to what I and others consider an aspect of God— Divine Mystery. For example, he says, “Can this omnipresent ethereal entity be witnessed? Obviously, the transcendental vastness of the Primary Principle will not lend itself to simple human perception.” This reminds me of the quote from Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, when the fox says to the Little Prince: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Mathew continues with a quote from another Indian holy book, Kena, one of the later Upanisads, composed after 200 A.D., “The Absolute is implicit in everything but not completely in any. Those that say that they do not know it, do know it, and those that say they know it for sure, do not.”  This teaching is similar to some of the messages of the Christian gnostic Gospel of Thomas.

Mathew says that God cannot be accurately described—only experienced:

The term “illusion” cannot have any meaning except as the antithesis to the real. When physicists argue that time and space are not real they are also inferring that something else is.…The Absolute is totally devoid of qualities, and, therefore, cannot be perceived. Since it is beyond time, it cannot have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It cannot be compared to anything else, since everything has its basis in it.… However, experience antedates thoughts; the Absolute can be experienced.

At times, Mathew also appropriately confronts us, as do the paradoxical teachings of a bold spiritual leader: “According to Samkara, ‘Study of scriptures is meaningless of the experience of the Absolute. And after the Absolute is experienced, study of scriptures is still meaningless.’”


People have sought for millennia to juxtapose the spiritual with the material. Witness the Shroud of Turin and the search for the Arc of the Covenant and for the Holy Grail. Mathew is attempting much the same juxtaposition, linking the spiritual with the brain. Andrew Newberg, M.D., a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, points out that, for several decades, at least a few scientists have sought ways to demonstrate a link between the brain and spiritual experience. We are birthing a new area of inquiry.

Mathew uses the word “consciousness” in two ways: one spelled with a small “c” to mean our ordinary waking consciousness and the other with a large “C” to mean God. Although Mathew does not use it, I like the analogy of the radio and the broadcast. Without the broadcast, the radio sits silent. Without the spiritual, says Mathew, the brain is silent. That makes his discussion of spiritual practice essential.

Spiritual practice is the path to realizing our spiritual connection. Without such a practice, our radio does not pick up the signal. Fine-tuning our brains through spiritual practices such as meditation, prayer, selfless service, yoga, reading, and contemplating holy books and spiritual literature, including The True Path, can help us reach the place where we can most easily find and experience that sacred connection:  what the sages have called the “eternal now” and what a modern holy book that many recovering addicted people have been studying, A Course in Miracles, calls the “Holy Instant.” In that moment, we are free of our ego’s fears for the future or suffering about the past. Staying in the now is both a major goal and a way of spiritual practice. Because meditation is one of the more effective kinds of spiritual practice, I include a few paragraphs on it from Mathew’s book at the end of this review.


Remarkably, Mathew is open enough to include, in his chapter on pharmacological spirituality, a fairly accurate discussion of peyote, LSD, and cannabis. While these drugs can be abused, some cultures have sought spiritual enlightenment from them. Mathew makes the mistake of calling peyote and LSD hallucinogens, however, and he describes the visual distortions that these drugs produce as being actual hallucinations. Although they distort what the intoxicated person may see, these drugs do not cause true hallucinations (that is, seeing things that are not there); instead of seeing a wall that is not there, the LSD user might see a wavy wall or a wall of a different color. Thus the term “pseudo-hallucination” is more appropriate. People with their eyes closed, however, often can see visions and colors. This is why the editors of the Journal of Psychedelic Drugs choose the term “psychedelic” (mind-enhancing) to name these drugs, instead of “hallucinogenic.”

Throughout the book, Mathew continues to undercut the Western scientist’s distinction between the material (and therefore real) and the spiritual (and therefore unreal) aspects of our existence. He writes: 

Whether such experiences are “real” will depend upon our point of reference. Most regard the waking experience as real. However, philosophers and scientists alike question this viewpoint. For over 2,000 years, Indian philosophers have believed that the waking experience that rests on the slippery slopes of time and space is not substantial.…Since Einstein, scientists, too, have recognized time and space as relative.

All in all, it is heady stuff, but that very headiness may enable some of us to use our intellects to see the importance and advantages of eventually letting go of our intellects in favor of natural being and natural knowing. That is the mark of spiritual practice and a major goal of the spiritual path.

Mathew intends the book’s global concerns to be grounded in the problems of alcoholics and addicts; he dedicates his book to them and to the people who care for and about them. He does begin by describing a cocaine-addicted patient who hit bottom, then had a spiritual awakening that helped free her from her addiction, but in the next 240 pages he never again mentions her or any other addicts. When he returns to them at last in the final chapter, he leaves many questions unaddressed. I had hoped that The True Path would devote more discussion to the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, a powerful spiritual path of recovery and living for countless alcoholics and drug addicts.

I nonetheless recommend this book for all health science libraries and for readers wanting to explore science and spirituality. A sometimes slow and difficult read will reward the reader with many pearls from one of the world’s great spiritual paths: the Indian philosophy of Hinduism.


From The True Path: Western Science and the Quest for Yoga by Roy J. Mathew, M.D. © 2001 by Roy J. Mathew. Reprinted with permission of Perseus Publishing.

If the uncreated absolute lies within the labyrinth of our minds, there should be a way to access it without having to circumambulate. The Upanisads declare that the central core of the subjective self is the transcendental Absolute and that it creates the rest. If such is the case, we should be able to reach the Absolute by directing our attention inward into the depths of our being. This is the royal path, R¯aja yoga, which includes meditation.

I am uneasy with the confusing, polyvalent term “meditation.” In its present usage, at least in the United States, it is only peripherally related to Indian philosophy and yogas. The Sanskrit word dhya¯na, which is translated as meditation, has strong spiritual and religious connotations that meditation may or may not have. In its secularized version, meditation is at least as often a relaxation treatment for psychiatric and psychosomatic disorders as a spiritual exercise. It is as often, if not more often, practiced in gymnasiums than in places of worship. Ideally, dhya¯na should mean contemplation or reverie and not relaxation. I will use the term “meditation” in that sense.

Meditation would seem to be as old as human civilization itself. Indus Valley terra cotta seals from more than 3,500 years ago show meditation. The Vedic Aryans practiced a pantheistic religion. They worshiped a multitude of gods and goddesses, many associated with such natural phenomena as dawn and dusk, sun and moon, and fire and wind. As time progressed, the nontheistic spiritual element became more prominent. While some took to the faction with a theistic bent that emphasized rites and rituals (karma ka¯nda), others sought spiritual experience through intuitive knowledge (jna¯na ka¯nda)....

We search for God everywhere, and since mind is the mirror where we see and experience everything, our search cannot be external to the mind. Those who have found God have done so only with and within their minds. Prayer calls for attention focused on a mental locus. Devotees who seek the divine in objective space need to be reminded that the objective space is a component of the mind. Even those who believe God is in the sky do not live in roofless buildings in their search for God. The search is always internal, at least in a neurophysiological sense. Places of worship are cloisters where the devotees are shut off; all perceptual experiences are considered distractions, and total silence is essential. Although songs and sacraments are conducive, silence and solitude take us to the peak experience of contact.

As practiced by the desert monks around the fourth century, Christian meditation had Jesus and verses from the Bible as objects of contemplation. Sufis, the Muslim mystics, direct their meditative efforts toward Allah. Theistic Hindus focus on their beloved gods or goddesses. The major and perhaps the only difference between R¯aja yoga and prayer is this exclusive focus on a godhead in the latter. In devotion, the search is for the godhead; when the god is devoid of name and form it becomes meditation.

Silent entreaty for communion with the divine was central to the Jewish and early Christian faiths. There are many references to meditation in both the Old and New Testaments. In Kabbala, the ancient spiritual tradition of the Jews, meditation was used as a vehicle to higher states of mind. The Bible also recognizes meditation and fasting as important spiritual practices (Matthew, 6.6, 17-18). Meditation was fundamental to early Christian monastic life. Monasteries were situated away from human habitation, on top of unscalable sheer cliffs or in the heart of arid, uninhabitable deserts. Scriptural knowledge in its own right was inadequate; each monk had to engage in a rigorous personal search for divine communion. Simplicity, austerity, and self-denial were central to the search.

A number of Christian scholars, notably St. Augustine, advocated meditative practices similar to those recommended by ancient Indians. The Christian mystics, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, reached states of spiritual ecstasy identical to those described by Eastern, non-Christian spiritual masters. In the contemporary, secularized version of Christianity, such beliefs and practices seem to have fallen to disfavor....The main goal in all forms of mediation is silencing the mind. First and foremost, sensory input has to be minimized. A quiet, dimly lit environment is definitely beneficial, but perceptual stimulation cannot be avoided completely. One simply has to evolve a mechanism to disregard signals from the environment. In most systems, including the Patañjali system, withdrawing attention from the environment and the body to an internal locus in the mind is recommended. Since the human mind can process only one signal at a time, total attention to one will automatically mean withdrawal from all others. While some use chants or mantras to focus their attention, more experienced practitioners can direct it inward with no clearly defined focus. Under such conditions, the yogi becomes oblivious of, and detached from, all sensory inputs....

A number of meditative techniques, including Zen, yoga, and transcendental meditation, have been investigated. These physiological changes suggested decreased activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the well-known fight-flight response. Significant decreases were observed in oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide elimination. Heart rate, respiratory rate, and arterial lactate concentration dropped. There was stabilization of muscle flow and decreased palmar perspiration.

Most investigators could not find significant changes of systolic and diastolic blood pressure and temperature. Several investigators documented decreased muscle activity as measured with electromyogram. While these findings are of interest, meditation is not primarily meant to produce relaxation. The relaxation response is simply a by-product. There are any number of techniques unrelated to spirituality, including hypnosis, progressive relaxation, autogenic training, and biofeedback, which produce comparable relaxation. Meditation, unlike the others, is designed and developed to take us away from the mundane world of time and space into another arena. While it is difficult, if not impossible, to prove the experience of the new reality, detachment from the mundane one is easier to establish.

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Bill Glovin, editor
Carolyn Asbury, Ph.D., consultant

Scientific Advisory Board
Joseph T. Coyle, M.D., Harvard Medical School
Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D., The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Pierre J. Magistretti, M.D., Ph.D., University of Lausanne Medical School and Hospital
Helen Mayberg, M.D., Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai 
Bruce S. McEwen, Ph.D., The Rockefeller University
Donald Price, M.D., The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Charles Zorumski, M.D., Washington University School of Medicine

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