I’m back from a few days in San Rafael, CA, where I was invited to speak at the 2012 Science and Non-Duality Conference (SAND). I’m still trying to digest the experience, but that may be a mistake. The message of Non-Duality is partly a caution against over-analysis, a reminder of the limitations of our concepts, which, after all, are human artifacts. I feel it’s inappropriate to write about SAND in my usual analytical style, so I’ll try to break that habit. Just give impressions, and let emerge what may.
I was repeatedly struck by the improbability of the event. It is a confluence of people from many different streams of origin, some of which seem diametrically opposed to others. That creates, as you would expect, turbulence—but very little conflict (at least not open conflict). The atmosphere of the conference invites exploration, in an optimistic and playful spirit, of the radically different minds of others. At SAND, it is easy to fall into deep, engrossing conversations with complete strangers, ones that flow from subject to subject following their own logic, not driven by the conversers’ agendas. So it is possible to bring immunologists and Sufi whirlers under one roof; to get a Buddhist monk, a neuroscientist, a dancer, and an evolutionary biologist to sit down together and have a meaningful exchange. I heard a fascinating report from Laura Case, a researcher in Ramachandran’s UCSD lab, on “Dynamic Construction of Body and Self in the Brain,” which illustrated the huge importance of the human self-model by emphasizing the disruptions that occur when the brain’s map of the body doesn’t agree with the actual body, in cases of phantom limbs, anorexia, and transsexuality. Virologist Emmanuel Drouet from the University of Grenoble discussed pros and cons of the idea that the distinction between self and other is primarily defined by the immune system. Other talks were radically different, less like lectures than like prayers. Lots of workshops were devoted to meditation and other mind-altering practices.
Such eclecticism and tolerance carry risks. Academics being what they are, some of the scientists may suffer snide remarks from colleagues about being part of an event that, unlike their professional conferences, is not controlled by gatekeepers who restrict participation to those with approved credentials and an orthodox approach. Those gatekeepers have a legitimate policing function: they keep each discipline focused, which aids the progress of ordinary science. Their presence makes it harder for paradigm shifts to occur. Arguably, it is not a bad thing for science if new paradigms have to overcome considerable resistance before they are tolerated; that means only the strongest new ideas will survive, and weaker ones will not distract rank-and-file researchers from productive work.
But SAND is not bound by the constraints of a particular discipline. It is not disciplined at all. With some misgivings (having cringed when some speakers spouted the most egregious California pseudo-scientific BS) I feel that is more of a strength than a weakness. Organizers Zaya and Maurizio Benazzo have made a gigantic stew-pot into which they invite everyone to toss their ideas and feelings, hoping for a primordial soup from which new life will emerge. And I think they succeed. Hundreds of participants came from all over the world (15 from Australia!) of all ages and many backgrounds. Everybody seemed energized by being there; I know I felt that. Contacts were made that probably would not have been made anywhere else; and some of them will become productive exchanges well into the future. Of course, when so many seeds are cast into such a wide variety of terrains, not all will take root; only a handful will flourish. But that handful may include some wonderful new species, which our Earth—currently going through, as Zen teacher David Loy pointed out, its sixth major extinction crisis—may have need of.
The theme of this year’s SAND conference was “The Nature of the Self.” That, more than anything else, represents the unity of the event: almost everyone present agreed that human beings’ preoccupation with themselves is oppressive and limiting. All seemed aware that our inherited self-concerns aren’t working for our personal well-being or that of our shared planet. We are due for a radical makeover of how we think and feel about ourselves. Few people could take themselves too seriously in such an atmosphere; and that often lightened the conference to effervescence, creating small, happy explosions. So it was fun. Was progress made? Time will tell.