SCIENCE AND SPIRITUAL TRADITIONS
With CHARLES TART, Ph.D.
JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. Our topic today is "Science and Spiritual Traditions," and my guest, Dr. Charles Tart, is a professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis, a past president of the Parapsychological Association, and author of numerous books including Altered States of Consciousness, States of Consciousness, Waking Up, Transpersonal Psychologies, and many others. Welcome, Charlie.
CHARLES TART, Ph.D.: Thank you, Jeffrey.
MISHLOVE: It's a pleasure to have you here. You know, more and more scientists, it would seem, are taking interest in the realm of spiritual phenomena. In fact, I think especially here on the West Coast, but throughout the United States, I suppose because of mass media and jet airplane travel, we are being exposed more and more to the spiritual traditions of the Orient, and it almost seems incumbent on any thinking American to begin to evaluate Buddhism, Hinduism, the Sufi tradition. But do we have the tools to really analyze, to really make sense of these Oriental traditions?
TART: It's a good question, because we traditionally think of the conflict between science and religion. People popularly think of science as something that showed that religion's claims were all false and not to be taken seriously. Yet as you say, there are a lot of scientists who are getting seriously interested in religion, especially the Eastern spiritual disciplines. So it's interesting to think about: Do these areas of science and religion have to conflict? Can they help each other? Could science make religion more efficient -- a terribly Western view, of course? Or could the spiritual traditions somehow add more vitality to science, or make it more effective? Those are really important questions to me. I think we can have interesting discussions about those.
MISHLOVE: But where does one begin? I mean, if I'm thinking, for example, "Gee, I'd like to meditate; I'd like to become acquainted with this area," yet there are so many stories we hear in the newspapers about cults, and about people being taken in. It seems to me that as a whole our culture is very confused about what's happening here.
TART: Well, I don't think that's the major obstacle. Of course there are cults and there are people who do nasty things in the name of the spiritual. But there are people who do that in politics, in economics, in every other walk of life, and I don't know that it's actually more prevalent in the spiritual field. We're perhaps insulted more when someone who claims to be spiritual turns out to be a con man. That's not our primary problem. I think our primary problem is that we've all had some degree of scientific education. I mean, whether you think of yourself as a scientist or not, we all had to take science courses, we get it in the newpapers, magazines, television all the time. We get a world view that seems to have left the essence of religion out. So if you really buy that scientific world view, and we all do to some extent --
MISHLOVE: Godless capitalism.
TART: Godless capitalism, or godless Marxism, whatever. But if you buy that world view, that reality is nothing but what's physical, it's only the atoms and the energies that are real, then what could spirituality be? Certainly the aspects of it concerned with God or gods or something like that make no sense at all from that scientific world view, and the most you can come up with is some sort of pseudo-liberal attitude that well, meditation calms people's minds in a culture that has a lot of stress, so even though the religious side of it is nonsense, maybe it's good for your mental health. And someday we'll be able to give people a pill that will do the job better.
MISHLOVE: And we should be tolerant of other people's religions.
TART: Right. Now that doesn't set you up to approach the spiritual very well. And even people I know who are serious students of very spiritual paths still go through periods of conflict, where the part of them that's been educated in science says, "What are you doing? This is nonsense. You're hypnotizing yourself into a state of blankness, giving yourself delusions and visions that are all nonsense." So it's a problem; we have to reconcile these. Now, when we talk about a lot of scientists, especially on the West Coast, being interested, I don't think that in many cases that's because their expertise at science has led them to look at the spiritual life. Rather I think that it's in spite of their expertise in science, the gaps in their life, the emptiness that comes from not having any kind of spiritual foundation to your life, have forced them to begin looking at something.
MISHLOVE: There's some other part of their nature besides the scientific part that is motivated by these spiritual traditions.
TART: Yes, I think we're inherently spiritual creatures -- and I'll say that as a scientist and be able to put evidence behind that. But I say it as a psychologist, also as a human being. I think parts of us are inherently spiritual, and like any part of us, when you deny a part of your mind and nature, that's unhealthy. It begins to create symptoms, it begins to create funny sorts of behaviors, and we can't deny it. Now that doesn't mean that we should say, "OK, tell me anything that's spiritual, and I'll believe no matter what," because this is where I think science can be really helpful to us. A lot of what's called called spiritual is nonsense.
MISHLOVE: You mean astrology, palmistry, things of this sort?
TART: Well, I don't think much of astrology, but my friends who are into it say people with my sign never believe in astrology, so what can I do about that? It's that a lot of even the great religions have formulations of what the spiritual life is about, that are nonsense in terms of the way we are today. They might have been a useful way of describing some sorts of realities once upon a time, but the words don't mean the same thing anymore.
MISHLOVE: What do you mean? What's an example of that?
TART: Oh, take a practice like contemplation. In the Middle Ages contemplation had some well-defined meaning among the religious community. Nowadays if you tell people to contemplate, contemplate to most people means to sit down and think about something. It's lost almost all its connection with certain attention training, meditation-like practices. So the idea doesn't carry the same weight. It's also a matter of individual differences. We have different minds. You know, we all are normal after a fashion, but underneath our minds work in different sorts of ways. As a psychologist I can come up with certain sorts of procedures that will work very well for a person with a certain type of mind. For another type of person it's a waste of their time. So you get these traditional spiritual practices, which come down from thousands of years ago and are so venerable, but they were designed for people brought up in a different culture with different kinds of minds. They might not work at all for most people in our culture, or they might have the opposite effect of what they were intended to have.
MISHLOVE: So it sounds as if the first thing you're saying, for a person who's thinking of going on a spiritual path, is to know something about what type of person you are, and what type of person is likely to be most benefited by particular paths.
TART: Unfortunately though, when you put it that way, you come up against one of the great inadequacies of our knowledge. I would like to be able to say that scientists have looked at various spiritual practices as done by certain types of people, and now they can say, "We'll give you a psychological test, and we'll be able to say something like, 'Zen is the way for you, but never Sufi dancing; your type goes psychotic'"; and they'll tell somebody else, "Sufi dancing is the thing that works best for your sort of people, but Zen will just bore you," or something. But we don't know enough to say that. We could learn that; that's one of the ways that science could help the spiritual.
MISHLOVE: Perhaps in a few hundred years we'll have that.
TART: We could have it in forty or fifty years, if as a society we set our mind to it. We could have reasonable approximations of it in a couple of generations, if we set our mind to it. But what people have to do now is essentially try a variety of spiritual paths, till they find one that has heart for them -- find one where something resonates deeply inside, and something effective is happening. It's trial and error at this point.
MISHLOVE: Now, what about the issue of eclecticism versus following one teaching, one path? Do you have any thoughts on that?
TART: You certainly have the extremes, don't you? At the one hand you have mystics who've said every person's path is absolutely unique. At the other end you have people who say, "This is the way, and the steps are absolutely codified, and you mustn't deviate, and anything you mix will blow it." Well, I think they're both true. They're both true in the sense that for some types of people, if they can find the right path for them, then they should follow it very religiously. For other kinds of people to follow a path that diligently, that narrowly, will mean they'll waste a lot of time and not learn from it. Again there's a matter of experimentation. Now you have to observe yourself as part of this. We've talked about self observation before. It's quite clear you can use eclecticism as a way of not getting seriously involved in anything, and a lot of people use this as a defense. They may start to do some spiritual practice that begins to work. Things start opening up inside, and it scares the hell out of them, so they decide to go to Baba New Cuisine's lecture tonight to learn about some new technique or something to not persist.
MISHLOVE: To avoid the intensity.
TART: Yes. So there are times that you have to get some feeling for individually, when yes, you should concentrate on certain kinds of spiritual practices and try to master them, and other times you may have plateaued on those practices or taken a dead end, and you need something fresh.
MISHLOVE: I suppose there's a delicate line distinguishing between real intensity of spiritual work on the one hand, and the intensity that can come from an oppressive, dogmatic confrontation.
TART: Yes, and I think in the long run the only answer is self knowledge. You have to constantly concentrate on trying to know yourself more and more thoroughly, more and more deeply, so you can spot that fine line. Otherwise you won't really continue to grow; you'll settle for some kind of dogma that makes you feel good or superior.
MISHLOVE: You know, I have had a sense that going back into the Sixties there's been a resurgence of spiritual movements -- Zen and Transcendental Meditation, they grew very, very big. And then there was a sense in which people began to be concerned about what was called spiritual fascism and the harm, the danger that could come from following a guru too obediently. Now there seems to be a new awakening with more of a balance, perhaps a softer approach going on.
TART: We had spiritual faddism along with spiritual fascism, you know -- the Guru of the Month Club, as it were. And lots of people doing spiritual practices mainly because they were fashionable and that's what their friends were doing; that's not really what they wanted. And a lot of those people have dropped out. So we do have a more serious core of people, and things like Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, things like that, I think are solidly established in American culture now, although they're still not completely adapted. I see this conflict in many of the teachers. On the one hand there's a desire to preserve the tradition. That's a very understandable desire. It's the way things worked for them; it's gone back for hundreds of years. On the other hand you can't make Tibetans out of Americans. You can't make Japanese out of them. You can widen them to some extent, but if you insist on preserving the spiritual practices and system wholesale, you're making it inaccessible to large numbers of people. A friend of mine, for instance, spent years in Zen monasteries, eventually came back to the West, and for a while was teaching in a very Japanese-style monastery in Los Angeles, and he realized, now wait a minute; there were very few people he was going to be able to teach Zen Buddhism to. But actually we don't need Zen Buddhism, we need American Buddhism. In fact we don't even need American Buddhism. We need an American practice for people to become more enlightened, more awake, more compassionate and effective. And that's the challenge. If you have spiritual insights and you got them from some other culture, we still have to adapt them. That's where I think anthropology is one of the great blessings of our time. We really have precise knowledge on cultural relativity, and realize how things have to be translated into the culture of the people you're working with if they're going to be effective.
MISHLOVE: You know, I recall a discussion I had with Idries Shah about fifteen years ago. We were talking about what's happening in California -- how excited people are getting about this and about that, and how people smile at each other, and there's a way in which people recognize the essence of each other when they talk. And he said, "Well, in our part of the world" -- referring to Afghanistan, India -- "this has been going on for a thousand years. We don't get so excited."
TART: Well, yes, we can look back and see what we've done as naive in certain ways, and at the same time it's also necessary growth in a lot of ways. You always have to take comments like this, too, from the perspective of how much is this part of the adaptation to the culture, and how much of it is holding on to the old stuff. Shah is someone I admire greatly for really promoting the idea of time, place, and people -- you have to adapt spiritual teachings to a culture. And yet at the same time if you say, "Well, we've been doing this for thousands of years in our culture, and not getting excited by it," that takes some of the vitality out of what people are doing. I feel delicate about that kind of remark. It could go the wrong way.
MISHLOVE: Well, from the point of view of people who are scientists, or who want to maintain, who value the scientific methodology that we have developed, how far do you think it is appropriate or reasonable to expect that we will go into the spiritual realm? How far is it integrable?
TART: I think we can go extremely far compared to what we think we can. We think there's this conflict here, but in my experience the traditional conflict between science and religion has been between third-rate religionists and third-rate scientists. It's been between people who are insecure in their own discipline and not that bright about it, so they need to defend it -- between scientists with a very narrow view and not a good human development, or between religionists who are really very insecure and mustn't ask any questions. The first-rate scientist knows not only the good side of science, he also knows the limitations. A really good scientist has humility about what can be done, as well as excitement. The same thing for a really first-class spiritual practitioner. He or she knows that yes, I am working with a system. It does important things, but it's a human formulation, and it's got its limits. If both those kind of people are committed to truth and have a sense of humility, then how can there be conflict? There's a saying that's attributed to the mythical Sarmouni brotherhood, to sum up religious ideas. The saying is, "There's no God but reality. To seek him elsewhere is the action of the fall." As a psychologist I've always found that profound, because the interpretation I take of it is that the idea of God, which includes the idea of everything, has to include everything that is. As soon as you say, "No, God is good, and God is A, B, and C, but not E, F, and G," psychologically you're starting to have partial perception. You're starting to tune out some things and overemphasize others. And we know what happens when you have partial perception. You get an unbalanced view of the world, you begin making stupid decisions based on that false information, and you create suffering. Now I don't think that anyone who really seeks the truth about spiritual paths can quarrel with the idea that there's no God but reality -- I mean, by definition. No scientist could quarrel with that if he's really interested in the search for truth. Now there may be some conflicts at some very high level, but most of what we've seen is unnecessary. The conflict I worry about is that religion has often been presented to us as a path of faith -- you're to believe, really deeply, certain things, and base your whole life and practices around them. Whereas science is often traditionally presented as a path of doubt: yes, we could formulate it this way, but let's assume that's not true and think of it another way, and then let's knock that one down and think of it another way, and the explanation that doesn't get knocked down after we really try hard is provisionally the best sort of one. Now that doesn't square with a simple sort of faith, and they're both very powerful. Obviously science has gone a long way practicing this path of doubt. Obviously some spiritual people have gone a long way practicing faith. But faith is tricky; you can get into blind, ignorant faith, where you really put all your energies into something that turns out to be false. And doubt can become very corrosive, so that the quality of people's life can be just eroded away till they're empty.
MISHLOVE: There's also something akin to blind, ignorant doubt, I think, as well.
TART: Yes, you can come up with all these interesting categories. So what I'm struggling with, and I'm still not quite clear on, is how do you reconcile a path of doubt and a path of faith? How do you balance those so you get the best of both, without the corrosive or the blindness effects?
MISHLOVE: Charlie, you're one of the foremost parapsychologists. You've done dozens and dozens of research studies in parapsychology, and surely this must be one science, if there's any science, that bridges these two worlds.
TART: Yes. That to me is the main importance of parapsychology. It's that you find out that stuff like telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition -- there's something real going on there, and it doesn't fall into any kind of reasonable physical explanation, so it tells you to keep your mind open to the possibilities of spiritual realities. That I think is its main function for our times. And it's scientific. It's using science in a very hard-nosed, rigorous kind of way. We say, "Look, I set it up so according to our physical view of the world, nothing can happen in this experiment. Nevertheless this subject picks up some of the thoughts that this person, isolated in another room miles away, is having. Well, if it can't happen in terms of what I know about the physical world, but it is happening, that tells me that my view of the physical world isn't complete." Now, parapsychology is a long way from proving the reality of specific spiritual concepts; that's going to take a lot of research. But it does say, look, we know that the mind is not necessarily limited to inside your head. It can reach out. The mind is not necessarily limited to the present time. It can seem to reach into the future. Well, just "simple" things like that tell you it's a big and interesting universe. So if somebody talks about praying and having an effect, I'm not going to a priori say that can't be. Maybe it involves some telepathy.
MISHLOVE: Many of the skeptics criticize the parapsychologists for encouraging credulity and gullibility in the populace. I think there may be an issue there. How does one maintain the balance of being open-minded to the possibility of psychic phenomena, and yet not swallow so many stories hook, line, and sinker?
TART: Well, there's a real issue there, and there's a pseudo-issue there. I think parapsychologists have almost zero effect on increasing anybody's credulity, because people have such an enormous amount of credulity to begin with that the experimental data of parapsychology is a drop in the bucket. At the same time that credulity is a problem. There are people who will believe anything if it's labeled spiritual or psychical, and I think they make a lot of mistakes; they're believing nonsense. I have a hard time getting across to people the idea of balance in this area. Yes, you should be open-minded, but your mind should not have holes in it, where everything just goes through. There's still a need for evaluation and understanding. Now, parapsychology as an experimental science opens up our limits and says some of the things talked about in the spiritual may be real from scientific criteria. Of course that's a long way from learning any wisdom about it -- that's a long way from learning emotional balance, from learning to actually develop yourself spiritually. So parapsychology is a basic science for learning something about the spiritual, but it's not an applied science for the art of living.
MISHLOVE: Is there anything from your experience in parapsychology that would be useful to provide guidelines for people who begin to encounter psychic experiences, or claims of psychic experience, within spiritual traditions?
TART: Oh yes. I think you should realize, for instance, that all spiritual traditions have the same set of paranormal phenomena. Every miracle that tradition A claims, tradition B will claim, tradition C will claim. And each one interprets it in a narrow-minded way as proving they're right and everybody else is wrong. So the first conclusion you can draw is that almost any spiritual tradition will at least occasionally produce psychic phenomena that will be interpreted as miracles that seem to validate the tradition.
MISHLOVE: No one has a monopoly on that.
TART: Right. So you have to look beyond that. In terms of personal development, you have to ask, "Well, what are these being used for? What do they contribute? So someone miraculously figured out what was on my mind, but then what was the quality of the advice they gave me for growth afterwards?" Just because you can get information doesn't mean you're a good advice giver.
MISHLOVE: In other words, not to be so swayed by psychic evidence to suggest that we automatically link that with spiritual authority.
TART: Yes, and it shouldn't be so. Spiritual authority has to be evaluated on its own basis, not because it can pull off something psychic once in a while. I've known a lot of psychics. Some of the psychics I've known have struck me as very spiritual people. They have a depth and a compassion and an openness and a maturity that's really wonderful. And some of the psychics I know, who are just as psychic, are real neurotics. I wouldn't ask their advice on how to live; they're no more integrated or mature than the rest of us. If their psychic ability is mistakenly interpreted as spiritual ability, you can make a bad mistake.
MISHLOVE: What about in the area of healing? I think that's one area that many people are uncertain about, because at times when people are in need of healing they are desperate, and we turn to spiritual traditions for healing. Are there any guidelines you can offer there?
TART: Well again, just as with psychics, I think because someone may heal you in an unconventional fashion or an apparently psychic fashion, doesn't necessarily make them a spiritual authority. I mean, my doctor heals me in all sorts of ways that are quite mysterious to me at times. That doesn't mean my doctor is a spiritual person. Now on a deeper level I think there is an intrinsic connection between a kind of overall healing and a correct sort of spiritual attitude toward life, but that's not the same as being able to cure very specific kinds of things. I don't feel like there's a very satisfactory answer, because it's not clear in my mind.
MISHLOVE: Well, there's a paradox. It's almost as if on the one hand parapsychologists will someday come up with a scientific explanation for psychic phenomena which would almost totally remove it from the realm of the spiritual, and on the other hand it seems as if at least to some degree there's a residue of instances in which spiritual tradition may have some deep knowledge of psychic phenomena, and that there's a link there.
TART: But you know, there's an implicit assumption behind what you say -- that to be spiritual something has to be mysterious. I would raise interesting questions about that assumption. A lot of the great mystics have said we're surrounded by miracles all day long, but because we're used to them we pay no attention to them. Ordinary life is an incredible spiritual experience if you open your mind to it, if you wake up to it. But if you don't pay attention it's just that familiar stuff all the time; you don't get the message.
MISHLOVE: That must be the ultimate lesson of the spiritual path, I suppose.
TART: A lot of people make this connection -- that the spiritual is what's mysterious. I don't think that's a very solid basis to have a good spiritual life on.
MISHLOVE: In other words, auras and healing and telepathy and past lives and spirit guides may ultimately have very little to do with a genuine spiritual view of life.
TART: I think the real test of people's spirituality comes out in simple things. Are they decent to a clerk who doesn't wait on them properly? Or are they too superior to deal with people who have bad karma? And things like that. There is a whole side to the spiritual life of unusual experiences and mystical insights and all that, but if it doesn't manifest it as compassion and decency and intelligence in ordinary life, I think it's a very shallow kind of spirituality.
MISHLOVE: That would seem to be a guideline that would apply to Occidental or Oriental traditions ultimately.
TART: Yes, and here's an excellent example of science contributing to the spiritual path, because the science of psychology knows so much now about how we can use things for ulterior motives. Psychologists can be of immense potential help to see what in your spirituality is genuine, and what is actually a mask for negative feelings of one's worth that you don't deal with.
MISHLOVE: Charlie, we're running out of time. I'm going to have to cut you short here. But I think we've got the point that psychology can offer us a sense in which we may have other motives that are influencing our spiritual search.
TART: Right. Psychology is part of reality too.
MISHLOVE: Charlie Tart, thank you very much for being with me.
TART: Thank you, Jeffrey.