Science and spirituality on the California coast
The Esalen Institute is a cluster of meeting rooms, lodging facilities and hot tubs all nestled into a stunning craggy coastal outcrop of the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur, Calif. In his 1985 book, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman”, the Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman recounts his experience in the natural hot spring baths there, in which a woman is being massaged by a man she just met. “He starts to rub her big toe. ‘I think I feel it,’ he says. ‘I feel a kind of dent — is that the pituitary?’ I blurt out, ‘You’re a helluva long way from the pituitary, man!’ They looked at me, horrified … and said, ‘It’s reflexology!’ I quickly closed my eyes and appeared to be meditating.”
With that as my introduction to the Mecca of the New Age movement, I accepted an invitation to host a weekend workshop there on science and spirituality. Given my propensity for skepticism when it comes to most of the paranormal piffle proffered by the prajna peddlers meditating and soaking their way to nirvana here, I was surprised the hall was full. Perhaps skeptical consciousness is rising!
It was in the extracurricular conversations, however, during healthy homegrown meals and while soaking in the hot tubs, that I gleaned a sense of what people believe and why. Once it became known that Mr. Skeptic was there, for example, I heard one after another “How do you explain this?” story, mostly involving angels, aliens and the usual paranormal fare. But this being Esalen — ground zero for all that is weird and wonderful in the human potential movement — there were some singularly unique accounts.
One woman explained the theory behind “energy work,” a combination of massage and adjusting the body’s seven energy centers called chakras. I signed up for a massage, which was remarkably relaxing, but when another practitioner told me about how she cured a woman’s migraine headache by directing a light beam through her head, I decided that practice and theory do not always match. Another woman warned about the epidemic of satanic cults. “But there’s no evidence of such cults,” I countered. “Of course not,” she explained. “They erase all memories and evidence of their nefarious activities.”
One gentleman recounted a lengthy tantric sexual encounter with his lover that lasted for many hours, at the culmination of which a lightning bolt shot through her left eye followed by a blue-light-being child entering her womb, ensuring conception. Nine months later friends and gurus joined the couple in a hothouse, sweating their way through their own “rebirthing” process before the mother gave birth to a baby boy. The father then told him that he would need to become an athlete in order to get into college; two decades later this young man became a professional baseball player. “How do you explain that?” I was asked. I quickly closed my eyes and appeared to be meditating.
People have and share such experiences and impart larger significance to them, because we have a cortex big enough to conceive of such transcendent notions and an imagination creative enough to concoct fantastic narratives. If we define the spirit (or soul) as the pattern of information of which we are made — our genes, proteins, memories and personalities — then spirituality is the quest to know the place of our essence within the deep time of evolution and the deep space of the cosmos.
There are many ways to be spiritual, and science is one in its awe-inspiring account about who we are and where we came from. “The cosmos is within us. We are made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself,” began the late astronomer Carl Sagan in the opening scene of Cosmos, filmed just down coast from Esalen, in referring to the stellar origins of the chemical elements of life. “We’ve begun at last to wonder about our origins, star stuff contemplating the stars, organized collections of ten billion billion billion atoms contemplating the evolution of matter, tracing that long path by which it arrived at consciousness … Our obligation to survive and flourish is owed not just to ourselves but also to that cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.”
That is spiritual gold.