By Ben Berry
Combining the terms “Science and Nonduality” likely turns more than a few heads: On one hand, the heads of neo-spiritual acolytes likely turn in excitement and praise the emergence of a new world paradigm; and on the other, the heads of conservative-minded scientists likely turn away in mild dismissal (or angry despair, as neo-spirituality has a bad reputation for recycling - and distorting - hard won scientific terms and discoveries).
And indeed, at the self-titled “Science and Nonduality Conference” (SAND), we do find the sort of presentations that make the new-age crowd light up, and make the conservative crowd groan. One talk’s title, for example: “Mapping the Terra Incognito of Consciousness with Neuroshamanic Technology.” Or: “Interfacing with Consciousness: How to Re-wire Your Brain & Re-program Your Soul for Greater Access.”
And yet, one of the qualities that I appreciate about this conference is that there seems to be, at times, a critical self-awareness as to the dangers of knee-jerk spiritualism. Take, for example, the talk “Panpsychism: Cultural Threat or useful Stepping Stone?”, a discussion between Chris Fields (an independent scientist), and Bernardo Kastrup (a computer engineering PhD).
The eclecticism of the conference, which occurs in San Jose every October, is both its curse and its blessing. While the conference can seem like an unfocused whirlwind of wild ideas and skepticism, technology and spirituality, complex thought and intuitive mysticism, it’s precisely in this milieu that you find the real gems: The moments of dialogue and exchange, of coming together, of exploration.
For me, these moments often happen outside of the lectures. For example: I went to a talk called “The Cerebrospinal Fluid & the Fluid Nature of Consciousness”, held in one of the smaller conference rooms below the main stage. There, the presenter illustrated parallels between the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) and the central channels of yogic anatomy, and hinted at an innate spirituality inherent in our fundamental biology. I raised a question asking how the CSF could help aid the recovery process of people suffering from traumatic brain injury (TBI), and received a brief, but useful answer.
After the talk, however, the folks in the audience next to me started an excellent conversation. One woman, it turns out, was a sound healer - she uses tuning forks. She told me how the “biofield” of the brain, which carries information, extends out several feet from the body, and can be manipulated and healed using her tuning fork method. Again, interesting, and again, turned a few heads. I later found myself sitting next to an osteopathic physician who had heard my question, and had been hoping to talk to me about it. He criticized the presenter for not being thorough. He informed me that the presentation was rudimentary and his response to my question was surprisingly ignorant. We struck up a conversation about more effective, practical, and thorough TBI treatments - namely, osteopathy. (Although, even osteopathy itself is not technically considered effective for some of the conditions it is supposed to treat.)
It is these moments of discussion and connection that punctuate the conference, and make it into something worthwhile. In my opinion, the opportunity to discourse with strangers about intimate perspectives of self, of the universe, of meaning - the “deep questions” - can be rare. And a venue like SAND provides an important sort of open forum for these conversations.
The venue itself also provides a perspective on the context that these conversations, as well as the larger nondual narrative, are occurring within. First of all, for a weekend full of presentations and conversations, it isn’t cheap - un upwards of $600 for the 3 days. It takes place in the Dolce Hayes Mansion in San Jose - a luxury estate close to the heart of silicon valley - with catered meals (at an additional expense). While there is a lot of talk about the fundamental nature of identity and consciousness, there is little to no talk about ethics, about disparity, about economic systemic oppression (with the notable exception of a session with Drew Dillinger, Charles Eisenstein, and others). And it’s hard not to notice the demographics of the audience (an older crowd, majority white), or the speakers (ditto), or the spatial set-up of the presentations themselves (podium in the front of the room, rows of chairs facing the speaker). So for all of the talk about a new world paradigm, the conversations certainly seem firmly planted in a very familiar world paradigm.
However, the conference itself is not to blame for the notable lack of diversity and social engagement - it’s simply an impressively apt barometer for the current social position of the nondual/scientific/neo-spiritual discourse. And while this is indeed a very “fringe” discourse, it is a fringe that has been chosen, and is therefore a very privileged discourse. I could reduce it to “privileged people discussing privileged topics” - myself included - which is part of a broader critique of the nondual worldview that I will not be delving into here (a future post will discuss this in much more detail).
But tempering this critique is the fact that I didn’t expect diversity or social engagement coming to SAND. I expected a weekend full of interesting, head-turning conversations, which is exactly what I got. And I think it is to the credit of the organizers that such eclecticism is arranged for the weekend. The SAND organization is doing exactly what it set out to do: create a community and start conversations. And from this lens, the conference is a great success, and I would hope that my current critique is taken in the same spirit of community-building dialogue.
So, a closing note: as the non-dual perspective gains mainstream traction (Deepak Chopra was the main attraction this weekend), and as quantum - let alone conscious - scientific models of the universe gain legitimacy, the next step is to interface these epistemologies with society. If these epistemologies are going to provide some healing for the world in which we live, then that dialogue needs to begin. And I am hopeful that a venue such as SAND, with its eclectic open-door policy towards ideas and conversations - can help start that dialogue, and eventually, reflect it.
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