Sunday, March 22, 2015

MIT Alumnus Jeff Lieberman TEDx 2011 talk on Science and Spirituality - somewhat similar to Hindu scriptural view of existential reality

Last updated on 23rd March 2015

I came across this TEDx video from a Jeff Lieberman (holds two M.S. degrees from MIT), "Science and spirituality: Jeff Lieberman at TEDxCambridge 2011",, 14 min. 24 secs. This TEDx talk says something somewhat similar to what the Chandogya upanishad verses studied in my document says but in the language of modern science. [You may want to see my blog post, Some Shlokas from Chandogya Upanishad VI chapter including Tat tvam asi (You are That) Mahavakya, and comments on it.]

Here is a transcript of the above talk:

Some extract from and comments on it [I have taken the liberty of copying large extracts of the transcript as I have presumed that the author would not mind extracts of this spiritual talk of his being shared on this not-for-profit and not-monetised spiritual blog]:

So who am I? I’m a human being, and I am 33 years old. But if you take a microscope and you look at any part of me, you see cells. I am a community of fifty trillion cells doing a magic dance, but if you look at any one of those cells with an even closer microscope, you see twenty trillion atoms. So I am also a community of a thousand trillion trillion atoms, but when you look at those atoms really up close they fade away, and all you see is energy. And 13.7 billion years ago, at the Big Bang, everything that we’ve ever found in the universe was was one infinitesimal, undifferentiated, pure energy.

All of us are energy. A human being is a very complex pattern of energy.

[Ravi: Quite interesting example even if the conclusion drawn that all of us are a very complex pattern of energy may not be accepted by leading scientists as a proper scientific one. I mean, there is the easily measured and objective reality of our bodies and the material world which cannot be wished away by scientists as just a projection of energy. Perhaps a more acceptable view would be a dual nature of our bodies (and the world) being both (easily measured) matter and (difficult to measure, I guess) energy.]

Take five seconds, and think about something that you are going to do tomorrow. What you just did is something that as far as we understand, no other organism in the entire universe can do. You just built an alternate reality inside your head. You just made a prediction about the future that has never happened in reality. This power for prediction, when you can compare alternate realities, allows you to plan for the future. From agriculture to your retirement, this has changed the face of the planet. It’s probably the most significant evolutionary step forward since walking upright.

[Ravi: Capacity of human being to plan for the future, which no other organism has (at least to significant extent) has "changed the face of the planet"! I think that is a great statement, and seems to have the ring of truth to it.]

I want to look at this tool in your head, because your mind is a thought generating machine, to make, proliferate predictions about the future, to guide and goal-orient your behavior. What does this machine look like in all of our heads in 2011?

Another experiment: take 10 seconds and stop thinking…

…Did anyone make it 10 seconds? I make it about two and then I start strategizing about how I’m going to stop thinking and then I think about that the whole time. What this means is you have such an evolutionarily advantageous tool that it’s become completely compulsive, but you’ve got to remember, no other organism does this at all. And the side effect of having the most evolutionarily advantageous tool in the entire universe sitting in your head is that you have no control over it, and when you have no control and you compulsively generate all these possible realities, you always compare them to where you are, to try and goal orient your behavior. This creates an entirely new class of human suffering. Things like jealousy, and regret about something that happened in the past, and anxiety about your future, no other organism can feel.

[Ravi: Great analysis, IMHO. Though I am not sure about jealousy being limited to human beings. Regret about the past and anxiety about the longer-term future may be confined to human beings. Immediate future issues like threats from other animals may be common to all animals.]

I want to understand if it’s possible to totally eliminate those sources of suffering from humanity.

This is just a brief list of all those possible sources of suffering. [A figure shows regret, longing, jealousy, worry, anxiety, tension, stress and guilt.]

In order to find out if it is possible to remove those sources, we have to take a kind of scientific experimental objective look at ourselves. We have to look at all the layers of our own experience and try to be as objective as possible about them. This is amazingly difficult because we’re so emotionally involved in our own lives. As any of you know, if you go to a movie and you are emotionally involved, two minutes into it you totally forget that you are at a movie, and the lights turn on at the end and you are shocked back into reality. So this is even more difficult because we have to look at our own movie, the movie inside our consciousness.

[Ravi: Hindu scripture typically uses the example of a dream instead of the movie mentioned above, and I think the effect is similar.]


Read this sentence twice, silently to yourself… [A figure has a title, "The Voice in your Head" and a sentence, "I can hear the voice in my head reading this sentence."]

…It’s weird, right? But you can get this very weird, subtle perspective that you can look at your own thought process objectively. You are actually listening to the soundtrack of thoughts inside your head; in your movie of consciousness.

Now imagine that I do this process for thousands of hours, and I just try to look as objectively as possible at my thoughts, my emotions, my perceptions, and even the way that my brain has modeled space and time. The more I pull the attention away from the thoughts and perceptions, the more I seem to notice myself noticing these things inside my consciousness. Eventually maybe I can pull all of the attention way from all of those layers of thoughts, perceptions, my body, my sensations – and there’s nothing left to perceive. There’s nothing left that I can consider myself because I have seen it all in front as not me. Yet the one thing that remains is this feeling of existence. I am remains. This feeling of I am. What I find when I sit in that state is that what my identity is, is beyond perception. It cannot be perceived, but it is still experienced. This I am is the root of our entire existence. I am is latent in every single aspect of our existence, but just like a fish might never notice the water that it swims in, we might never notice the I am, because it’s covered.

[Ravi: One Hindu word for this "I am" feeling of existence is Chaitanya. From, "The Sanskrit word, Chaitanya, means 'consciousness' or 'spirit' or 'intelligence' or 'sensation'.". Chaitanya is also roughly translated by some as awareness.]

I am is a completely empty experience. It’s devoid of any content, and when I experience it directly, on its own, there’s the possibility for a realization.

[Ravi: That may be the author's experience. But Hindu spiritual masters say that a deeper I am experience cannot be described as empty as in that experience one experiences oneself in all and all in oneself. So 'universal fullness' may be somewhat closer to describing that experience rather than emptiness.]

Maybe I’m not a human being that has consciousness. Maybe I’m consciousness that is shaped into a human being.

[Ravi: Well expressed!]

Einstein said that thoughts suffer from an optical illusion of consciousness. This illusion that there is a separate person inside an environment, when in reality there’s just energy in motion, everywhere. Just like an ocean is water in motion – we can call a certain part of that ocean a wave but that gives us the illusion that the wave is a separate entity in the ocean. A wave is not in the ocean, a wave is the ocean. Similarly we might not be waves, maybe we’re the ocean. Maybe all of us are energy and we can realize that directly.

This experience could never be reduced to words – because it makes words, but it could be experienced. I think that is such an important experience that people have been trying to name it for thousands of years. They call it spiritual enlightenment.

[Ravi: Hindu scripture quite often uses the wave and ocean/sea example to illustrate the relationship between individual (consciousness) and cosmic/universal consciousness.]

All of them say the same thing – it is the complete ending of human suffering. Of course it’s the end of human suffering! All suffering is based on the illusory separation that there’s an individual in the environment, that there’s a person that has to survive, that this specific collection of a thousand trillion trillion atoms has to hold itself together. However, if I realize directly that I am energy, and I realize that the body and the mind are a temporary manifestation of that energy, then I can fully accept that the death of the body and the mind was never something that happened to me, because I was always energy and I always will be.

[Ravi: Antah Maya! All is illusion. The only reality is the changeless self/Atma which projects this whole illusive existence.]

If I were to experience that directly, this voice in my head that tells me I have to do certain things in order to be fulfilled loses all of its power. At this very moment I never have to listen to that voice again. Everything in life becomes a game, for fun; a play. We’ve all experienced that, but it’s very hard to remember, because we were so young. Maybe we were at the beach building a sand castle and the entire world faded away because we were only building it to build it – and we weren’t trying to get somewhere else. We hadn’t even learned how to plan, so the only moment that mattered to us was right now. I think that this experience is so important and powerful that every religious tradition at its core has been trying to convince us of its importance, and if it’s true. – if the true end of all human psychological suffering is actually possible – it is the most important thing science could be studying.

[Ravi: Well, I am not so sure that the above is a well balanced view. For a detached spiritual aspirant such an attitude may be fine. But what about a person with family responsibilities, which is what the bulk of adult humanity falls into? What if such a person claims he/she is now self-realized and abdicates all responsibility towards his/her family? That will be a disaster for the family. Even after self-realization, IMHO, a person who has family responsibilities should fulfil those responsibilities by doing work in this illusory world. How to be engaged in such activity (karma) thereby fulfilling one's responsibilities but in a spiritually fulfilling manner is what the Hindu Nishkama karma (detached action) path teaches.]

When we look at monks and nuns who have meditated or prayed for thousands of hours we see remarkable shifts on their brain scans. Trillions of neural connections have changed configuration. Along with this quantifiable, objective change in the operating system of the brain, they describe a feeling of undifferentiated, infinite, oneness. To me that sounds like they are having the direct experience of being energy. Enlightenment science and enlightenment engineering would study these ancient technologies of prayer and meditation as data sets to understand what has to change in the structure of a human brain for a human being to understand that they are energy directly. We still have no idea how much modern technology could completely change our ability to understand that. Maybe it’s possible that within our lifetimes we could eradicate human suffering.

[Ravi: Interesting, especially the term, "enlightenment science and enlightenment engineering". However, "eradication of human suffering" within our lifetimes seems to me to be a case of wishful thinking taken to the extreme! Of course, I would be very happy to be proved wrong :-).]

When you let go of individual survival, all of your priorities change because you actually see the entire world as your body. You see the suffering of others as your own suffering and you want to help. What is the actual power of a human being to really benefit the world, when they are able to put the priorities of the whole system in front of themselves, even if that means they have to die in the process? How many of us can do that right now?

What if seven billion of us did that?

Maybe the one thing that keeps us from actually solving all of the other problems in the world is this persistent, flawed thought that we are separate from the world. Maybe it’s time we change our minds.

[Ravi: Well, I think such an attitude of letting go of individual survival and seeing the entire world as your body (or the body/family/brotherhood of God, Christ, Vasudeva, Allah ...) cannot easily be self-imposed and sustained over time, by simply accepting this attitude (or belief) as truth. Further, one may fail in fulfilling one's family responsibilities if one focuses on the entire world without paying importance to oneself and one's family. I think the attitude of seeing the entire world as oneself can be a well entrenched and sustained attitude in a person only if he/she has tasted that mystical experience, and is able to easily relive/stay in that experience. That is why mystics become a magnet which attracts devotees/followers. But such genuine mystics are very, very rare persons in the world, at any point of time. The highly accomplished mystics among them tend to become founders (intentionally or unintentionally) of religions, religious sects and/or spiritual movements.

Many of us (including me) may fall into the belief-but-no-experience group in this matter. For such people, an attitude of helping others whenever feasible viewing (believing) them as our own selves (you and I are one type of attitude), but without failing in family and other responsibilities, may be the right and safe way to go. Practice of such an attitude as well as activity over time may lead to some experience of oneness with others which may reinforce the attitude and activity, without disrupting the family and other responsibilities bit. One inescapable feature of this behaviour, IMHO, will be a self-imposed ceiling on material desires by the person and his/her family.

Perhaps if even 0.1 percent of seven billion of us do the above, it may be enough to inspire a good part of the rest of us to try to adopt such an attitude themselves, thereby bringing a lot of community happiness, peace and joy in the world.]


Jeff Lieberman responded on March 23rd 2015, to the above post contents, over email as follows (and was OK with it being shared publicly here):

Thanks for watching and the feedback Ravi. I don’t necessarily agree with many of the things I said 4 years ago, but I do think that if we get into it there’s overlap, and disagreement. Much of it is semantic, as someone might use ‘emptiness' to describe another’s ‘fullness’, while someone else uses ‘God’ and another uses ‘communion with nature.’ Are any right or wrong?

The argument about energy and matter is a whole other rabbit hole. I would argue that you can’t prove any existence of matter, or energy - as they are both descriptions of experience, and anything I label as ‘matter’ is actually only a label on a perceptual experience; I can never prove that this ‘thing’ exists without it being perceived, which is one place where many of the QM and other physics arguments clash with consciousness ones.

Also, I don’t think family responsibilities are at conflict with what I’m saying at the end (though honestly I do not agree with what I said at the end!). Responsibilities are fine, activity to support a family can happen quite well without there being a perceived feeling of being a separate individual that needs to accomplish such tasks - that is all a mental manifestation. Does a dog need to know it’s a caretaker to give care to its pups, or is that a natural intuitive action of love? I think a lot of ‘spiritually fulfilling’ ideas are often just that, and I’ve yet to be convinced that many of those paths truly lead practitioners to liberation. I think mystics may appear rare at this moment but I think most of that is because of so many traditions not looking beyond their walls at the many ways toward liberation - there are so many useful pointers to share between traditions that I am hopeful that with more communication and openness between traditions, that many more people will be exposed to the mystical experience (which needn’t be a jarring unity-with-god experience but can present itself much more subtly), and will enable them to live lives in whatever way they currently are, while free from the psychological suffering that often accompanies these lives. Everything else feels like a conceptual understanding of liberation and leads to more mental attempts to achieve the freedom that is already present.

--- end Jeff Lieberman response ---

I wrote back on the same day (slightly edited):

Thanks a ton for your valuable response, Jeff....

I think there is a tremendous amount of overlap between what you are ultimately aiming at (more people getting self-realized) and whatever little I write about on the little bit I have understood and tasted of the Hindu Upanishadic path of enquiry (Who am I) to self-realization.

And when you bring stuff like prayer and loving attitude to rest of humanity/rest of life, into it then it fits in very well with a lot of the activities that our Sathya Sai movement is all about. What I have understood from my decades long exposure to the Sathya Sai movement is that most people in a deeply devout country like India can relate quite easily to prayer and selfless love, though it does not necessarily translate to people immediately making selfless love a key part of their lives (prayer to God is almost a given in deeply devout India even if the view of God varies slightly depending on the religion followed). Relating to Hindu Upanishadic stuff like self-enquiry (Who am I) appeals to only a few but usually these few are well educated and quite influential as well.

I wish you all the very best in your efforts to spread self-realization and selfless love in the world, with a scientific basis to your arguments for it. Today's materially rather unequal world both in the West and the East or in the North and the South, needs it pretty badly, IMHO.

--- end my response ---

1 comment:

  1. This is Bullshit! It is a 'what if' scenerio. What if doesn't work because of the individuality of all these consious beings. Each one has it's own motives and desires and therefore, can never become One. The entire occupancy of the ocean cannot become One fish because they need other fish to feed on. One doesn't feed on oneself but one must feed on others to survive.
    So while you're sitting there thinking, peace and harmony, someone else is looking at you as food, and you are about to be eaten. ALL things must feed on others or get something from other beings, in order to survive. You are either eating or going to be eaten.