This formula lies at the heart of all religious traditions. It can be said to be the underlying science of religion.
I’ll be the first to admit that it is difficult to see anything that looks remotely like a science when one first examines the welter of precepts and tenets held by the orthodox believers of the myriad world religions. I have come to appreciate, however, that the bewildering and often contradictory mix of practices and beliefs surrounding religions reveals far more about human nature than it does about the transcendent origins of religion. It has been said that Christ was crucified once but his teachings have been crucified every day since. Over the centuries, Christ’s words of unconditional love have been turned into rationales for prejudice, oppression, brutality, and war. The words of Buddha, Krishna, Mohammed, Lao Tzu, Moses, and countless other spiritual teachers have suffered similar fates.
The original and universal message of all true spiritual teachers is easily lost, or worse, twisted out of all recognition by the unfortunate tendency of people to want to have the corner on truth. This same unfortunate tendency is equally apparent in politics, sports fandom, and even science—but in religion it is particularly intense and fervent. Orthodox religionists are much more concerned about proclaiming the differences of their religion (which are to them, clearly superior) from all other religions than they are concerned in emphasizing shared truths. Worse yet, most orthodox religionists are unassailable in their belief that their religion, and their religion alone, is true.
Ironically, what is most obscured in the confusing fog of religious teachings and claims of exclusivism are the shared commonalities of the original teachings of the founders of the world’s major religions themselves; as well as of the thousands of Christian saints, Sufi masters, Zen roshis, Hindu savants, Taoist sages, Tibetan adepts, and unaffiliated mystics who have come after them. It is the testimony of these men and women that should interest us most, because it is they who have had the actual transcendent experiences from which all religion springs and by which it is perpetually refreshed.
These men and women often demonstrated abilities and perceptions that go beyond the norm—intuitive knowledge, instantaneous healing, and material miracles. Further, and most tellingly, they exhibited profound states of peace, harmony, and love to such a degree that, while they were alive, thousands of people were drawn to them like iron to a magnet. If we are clearly to see the science of religion amid orthodox religion’s obscuring welter, it is to the experiences of these enlightened saints and sages that we should look.
Theologians may quarrel, but the mystics of the world speak the same language, and the practices they follow lead to the same goal.—Eknath Easwaran, creator of Passage Meditation
On close examination, one soon sees that all these enlightened saints and sages achieved their transcendent states by using variations on two indispensable practices: stillness and inner absorption. Stillness and inner absorption are the core disciplines of the science of religion. When practiced to perfection, they will always bring the practitioner—regardless of the practitioner’s beliefs (or nonbeliefs), culture, gender, era, or stage of life—to transcendent, beyond-sensory awareness.
The enlightened saints and sages of all religions disciplined themselves to be able to remain profoundly still for hours, days—even weeks. Gautama Buddha is said to have sat beneath the Bodhi tree in determined meditation for forty-nine days. Jesus Christ spent forty days in the desert in fasting and intense prayer. Accounts abound of Himalayan yogis, Zen masters, and Christian monks and nuns remaining locked in stillness for lengthy periods.
Sit quietly, and listen for a voice that will say, ‘Be more silent.’ Die and be quiet.—Rumi, Sufi mystic
Stillness is the altar of Spirit.—Paramhansa Yogananda, yoga master and author of Autobiography of a Yogi
We need to be alone with God in silence to be renewed and transformed. In it we are filled with the energy of God himself that makes us do all things with joy.—Mother Teresa of Calcutta
Be still and know that I am God.—Psalms 46:10
Why the need for stillness? The purpose of such profound stillness is to withdraw from bodily awareness, to withdraw from the continuous flood of information coming through our senses, because it is the sensory flood that drowns out our ability to perceive other, more subtle, but always present, realities.
Scientific studies confirm that deep states of stillness result in a pronounced shift in awareness away from sensory input and bodily awareness. In the late 1990s, leading neuroscientists Andrew Newberg, MD, and his (now deceased) colleague, Eugene D’Aquili, MD, studied the brains of Buddhist monks during meditation and of Christian nuns during intense prayer sessions. (They injected their subjects with a radioactive substance and then monitored their brain activity with Single Photon-Emission Computed Tomography, or SPECT.) They discovered that during their subjects’ meditation or intense prayer sessions there was significantly decreased activity in all the regions of the brain that process sensory information.
Of particular interest, they saw a significantly decreased level of activity in the orientation association area (OAA), located near the top of the brain. In our normal waking state, nerves constantly send information to the OAA, from which our brain provides us a continuously updated mental picture of our body’s current position, orientation, sensations of temperature, points of contact with other objects, etc. While in deep stillness, these nerves, normally stimulated by movement, stop sending new information to the OAA. This happens naturally when we fall asleep. When it occurs during the conscious practice of disciplined stillness, test subjects say that they became increasingly less aware of their bodies until many feel entirely bodiless.
Physical stillness also slows the metabolic processes of the body. Anyone who sits still for any reason will experience a decrease in heart and breath rate; stillness reduces the body’s need to take in oxygen and to expel carbon dioxide. Disciplined stillness can slow the heart and breath rate below normally achievable levels. Many studies, such as, “Heart Rate Dynamics during Three Forms of Meditation,” published in the International Journal of Cardiology, confirm the efficacy of such techniques to significantly slow breath and heart rate.
The practice of stillness can become so pronounced that the heart and breath can actually stop. Yogis and Tibetan monks in India have demonstrated the ability to remain breathless and without heartbeat for extreme periods. In 1973, a study was conducted at the Rabindranath Tagore Medical College and Hospital in Udapur, India. An experienced yoga practitioner, Yogi Satyamurti, volunteered to be tested. While connected to a twelve-lead electrocardiograph (ECG), he remained in continuous meditation for eight days. Soon after the experiment began, Yogi Satyamurti’s heart beat stopped altogether and did not resume until nearly the end of the eighth day.
Such experiences are not found only in the East. Saint Paul wrote, “I die daily” (I Cor. 15:31). Western spiritual teachers, such as St. Teresa of Avila, offer practices to intensify the experience and depth of prayer that will induce beyond normal stillness.
A pleasant surprise for anyone, who achieves a deeper than normal state of stillness, even if only momentarily, is the accompanying result. Even beginners soon experience a relaxation of emotional tension, a sharpening of mental clarity, a feeling of well-being, and a strong sense of peace. And these results are just the beginning. Deep stillness allows the practitioner to experience feelings and states of awareness far beyond what most people can imagine. Perfect stillness—no breathing or heartbeat—takes one beyond awareness of the physical world altogether.
Practitioners of the science of religion soon discover that one cannot achieve perfect physical stillness without achieving perfect mental and emotional stillness as well.
Not till your thoughts cease all their branching here and there, not till you abandon all thoughts of seeking for something, not till your mind is motionless as wood or stone, will you be on the right road to the Gate.—Huang Po, Zen master
Still the bubbling mind; herein lies freedom and bliss eternal.—Swami Sivananda, yoga master
To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.—Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Anyone who has tried to meditate can attest to how readily the mind flits from thought to thought even when the body is relatively calm. Yogis wryly compare the experience to that of a drunken elephant randomly and unstoppably careening through the landscape of one’s mind. Fortunately, enlightened saints and sages have passed on successful techniques and practices for subduing the drunken elephant. They fall into two broad categories, devotion and concentration: focusing the heart and focusing the mind.
Many scientific studies have been conducted to measure the effects of meditation and prayer. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), allow scientists to measure activity taking place in specific areas of the brain and thereby provide us a deeper view of the effects of meditation. Activated areas of the brain—areas with increased blood flow—appear to “light up” on the fMRI’s computer screen. Studies using fMRI scanning have given us a thorough map of the specific areas of the brain that light up when subjects perform specific activities. We know, for example, which parts of the brain become active when the body is in motion or when the senses are actively engaged. We know which parts of the brain become active when solving problems or being creative. We know which parts of the brain light up when various emotions are stimulated from sexual arousal to loving kindness.
We now know that, during meditation, the areas of the brain that process sensory information and physical movement become inactive. These areas include those which receive sensory input from specific body parts and those involved in motor control, spatial sense, speech, object recognition, and primal emotions such as fear and anxiety. These areas are located in the cerebellum, in the parietal and temporal lobes in the back of the brain, and in the brainstem.
Occurring at the same time during meditation, the areas associated with attention, creativity, and the finer emotions, such as love and compassion, become active. These areas are located in the frontal lobe of the brain, including, especially, the prefrontal cortex that lights up when we concentrate. The frontal lobe, especially the prefrontal cortex, is associated with our higher abilities: imagination, creativity, appreciation of art and music, problem solving, planning, conscience, manners, and morals.
While science can detect what parts of the brain are activated during states of concentration and devotion, we must rely on the testimony of meditators and practitioners of devotion to describe the experience qualitatively. Universally, they describe their experiences as far more rich, far more expanded, far more real, than anything they experience in their normal waking lives.
When we raise ourselves through meditation to what unites us with the spirit, we quicken something within us that is eternal and unlimited by birth and death. Once we have experienced this eternal part in us, we can no longer doubt its existence. Meditation is thus the way to knowing and beholding the eternal, indestructible, essential center of our being.—Rudolf Steiner, mystic and founder of Anthroposophy
The kingdom of God does not arrive when we are looking for it, nor do they say, “Here it is,” or “There it is.” Behold, you have the kingdom of God within you.—Luke 17:20–21
Profoundly uplifting and transformative experiences of harmony, oneness, peace, and love are not the only results of the practice of the science of religion. Those who achieve both perfect stillness and perfect inner absorption tell us that they often become aware of realities beyond the physical world. Such descriptions are part of the core revelations of all religions: descriptions of heavenly worlds and angelic beings inaccessible to normal sensory perception.
Such revelations are also the most controversial aspect of religion because there would seem to be no way to validate them. But in the last fifty years or so, the efficacy of twentieth-century medicine has inadvertently given us very convincing corroboration of transcendent realms through the now ubiquitous phenomenon known as near-death experience (NDE).
Near-death experiences were known, but rare, before the advent of highly effective emergency medical treatments. Since the mid-twentieth century, however, advanced practices of resuscitation and life-support have saved millions of people who might otherwise have died, resulting in a huge upsurge in the number of people who have had near-death experiences.
In 1982, pollster George Gallup, Jr. and author William Proctor released “Adventures in Immortality,” which contains the results of extensive surveys conducted in 1980 and 1981. According to their surveys, at that time over eight million people in America had had a near-death experience. (Nor is the phenomenon limited to America. Researchers have found that people all over the world have had near-death experiences.)
Near-death experiencers have—obviously without intending to—achieved perfect stillness and complete inward absorption. Going beyond all sensory awareness, they frequently describe being irresistibly drawn toward a light. Arriving “in” the light, many then see a luminous reality that most describe as heaven.
I thought I had seen all colors. I was thrilled to death at the beauty that was incredible. In addition to the beautiful colors, I could see a soft light glowing within every living thing. It was not a light that was reflected from the outside from a source, but it was coming from the center of this flower. Just this beautiful, soft light. I think I was seeing the life inside of everything.—Jayne Smith, transcribed from the video, A Moment of Truth
Everybody there was made of light. And I was made of light. What the light conveyed was love. There was love everywhere. It was like love came from the grass, love came from the birds, love came from the trees.—Vicki Umipeq, blind from birth
The higher up you go in Heaven, the more it becomes impossible to give a human description. I try to explain it by saying there are flashes of Light and brilliant colors of every spectrum everywhere. In fact the colors that are in Heaven are more brilliant than the ones we have here on Earth.—Christian Andreason, near-death experiencer
NDEs leave people deeply changed:
Although Steve was successful in reviving me, one thing was certain—the woman he had brought back was not the same one who had left. After learning that I was in essence a Being of Light, I had to come back into this world and reenter a dense, physical body. Furthermore, almost every belief I had embraced only hours before—that I was a physical being, that love was outside of me, that God was some patriarchal monarch sitting on a marble throne somewhere in the sky, that death was something to fear, that I was doomed by my past, that religion and spirituality were the same, that spirituality and science were different—was no longer true to my experience. Virtually every picture of reality I had used to define my existence—not to be confused with my life—had been cremated. The ashes of the woman I thought I was were scattered on the wind.—Lynnclaire Dennis, The Pattern
I had been alive, and aware, truly aware, in a universe characterized above all by love, consciousness, and reality. There was, for me, simply no arguing this fact. I knew it so completely that I ached.― Eben Alexander, Proof of Heaven
Although it’s been 20 years since my heavenly voyage, I have never forgotten it. Nor have I, in the face of ridicule and disbelief, ever doubted its reality. Nothing that intense and life-changing could possibly have been a dream or hallucination. To the contrary, I consider the rest of my life to be a passing fantasy, a brief dream, that will end when I again awaken in the permanent presence of that giver of life and bliss.—Beverly Brodsky, Lessons from the Light
One cannot read the stories of such life-changing experiences without being moved to wonder. Open-minded researchers, including doctors and scientists, find the sincere testimony and profound life transformations of near-death experiencers impossible to dismiss as fraud or fantasy. A thorough study of near-death experiences leads any but the most determinedly skeptical to conclude that only something beyond a solely physical explanation can satisfy. These were not brain-centered, dream-like experiences drawn from an individual’s random thoughts and impressions: The near-death experiences were broadly similar regardless of prior beliefs. Many of those who experienced near death were atheists. Most had no preconceived ideas about heaven or astral realms. Many who did have preconceptions about such transcendent realms found their actual experience to be quite different from their preconceptions.
The consistency of the experiences of near-death experiencers is matched by the consistent revelations of enlightened saints and sages:
The astral kingdom is a realm of rainbow-hued light. Astral land, seas, skies, gardens, beings, the manifestation of day and night—all are made of variegated vibrations of light. Oceans heave with opalescent azure, green, silver, gold, red, yellow, and aquamarine. Diamond-bright waves dance in a perpetual rhythm of beauty.—Paramhansa Yogananda, yoga master
It is filled with some sort of beautiful light . . . people . . . flowers . . . angels. . . . All is filled with some indescribable joy. Your heart stands still when you look at it. Heaven is a vast space, and it has a brilliant light which does not leave it. It is a life which we do not know here on earth. We saw people dressed in gray, pink, and yellow robes. They were walking, praying, and singing. —Vicka Ivankovic-Mijatovic, one of the six children who experienced the Visions of Mary in Medjugorje, Bosnia Herzegovina
I could add quote after quote after quote to the ones above. I have read hundreds of books containing stirring accounts of near-death experiences as well as inspiring descriptions of transcendent realms given by monks, nuns, yogis, Sufis, adepts, Roshis, saints, sages, and mystics from all religions and all ages. The more one reads, the more one finds such an overwhelming consistency in what they describe that I find the evidence compelling beyond doubt: many thousands have testified that, once they have transcended the senses in perfect physical, emotional, and mental stillness, they have perceived beautifully luminous realms and angelic beings and have experienced nearly indescribable and overwhelming feelings of well-being and oneness.
The primary difference between the science of religion and the science of matter is in the discovery process: the science of matter’s view of reality is based on the repeatable and consistent findings of physical experiments; the science of religion’s view of reality is based on the repeatable and consistent findings of transcendent experience.
One of the foundations of the scientific method is the importance of repeatable results. An experiment conducted by one scientist is not considered valid unless the experiment can be repeated by another scientist with the same results. There are clear similarities between the experiences described by those having near-death experiences and the descriptions of transcendent experiences given by enlightened saints and sages. Those who achieve perfect stillness and inner absorption—whether achieved by intention (meditation or devotion) or by accident (near-death experience)—have the same results.
Stillness + Inner Absorption = Transcendence – every time! This formula underlies all spiritual experience—and anyone can put it to use. No matter what teachings you are drawn to you will find meditation or intensive prayer at the heart. Practice like you practice a sport to get better at it. Learn to become ever more still, ever more absorbed, and you will find your heart-mind awareness gradually expanded, uplifted, transformed—and ultimately transcendent.
Joseph (Puru) Selbie, author of The Physics of God, is known for creating bridges of understanding between the modern evidenced-based discoveries of science and the ancient experience-based discoveries of the mystics. He is a founding member of Ananda — a global spiritual movement inspired by Paramhansa Yogananda, author of Autobiography of a Yogi. A dedicated Kriya meditator for nearly fifty years, he has helped hundreds of people awaken to their own spiritual potentials throughout the US and Europe. He has also authored, The Yugas, a factual look at India’s tradition of cyclical history, and a sci/fi fantasy series, The Protectors Diaries, inspired by the abilities of mystics.
Visit his website at: www.physicsandgod.com