Science of Spiritual Transformation
by Dr. Solomon H. Katz
This is a transcript of a teleseminar, hosted by Cassandra Vieten, originally published on July 8, 2008 by Institute of Noetic Sciences.
Institute of Noetic Sciences: Welcome to the Institute of Noetic Sciences Shift in Action Program Lunchtime Teleseminar in the Living Deeply Series. Today our host is Cassandra Vieten and her guest in Solomon Katz.
by Dr. Solomon H. Katz
This is a transcript of a teleseminar, hosted by Cassandra Vieten, originally published on July 8, 2008 by Institute of Noetic Sciences.
Institute of Noetic Sciences: Welcome to the Institute of Noetic Sciences Shift in Action Program Lunchtime Teleseminar in the Living Deeply Series. Today our host is Cassandra Vieten and her guest in Solomon Katz.
Cassandra Vieten: I am so happy to welcome Sol Katz to this program, and Sol, we’ve been doing this Living Deeply channel every week for all of 2008, and we’ve been inviting people who we think are really the leaders in the field of transformation, and you know the book we wrote, Living Deeply: The Art and Science of Transformation, and we talk a little bit about your work there with the Metanexus Spiritual Transformation Research Program, and just by way of introducing you - Sol is really, I think, a true Renaissance man, a true gentleman-scholar, and there aren’t that many of those left around. An anthropologist - someone who’s really had a lot of experience in widely varying fields from being based in anthropology, but also in psychology, psychiatry, neuroscience, religious studies and everything down to the anthropology of food, and so I think you just have such an interesting perspective to bring to this topic of spiritual transformation, particularly having just been the principle investigator for these 24 projects through the Metanexus Institute that studied an incredibly wide range of topics related to spiritual transformation, so just want to welcome you, Sol, to the program.
SK: Well, it is my delight to be, of course, with you, and with all the listeners to this IONS teleseminar, so it’s just my pleasure to be here, to share anything I can with you and also to say what a wonderful book you’ve created, and I’m so glad we can be talking with everyone that you are ordinarily are in contact with, so this is my pleasure, too.
CV: Thank you. So, I am just going to start with a challenging question right off the top, Sol, because you have been in so many meetings and reviewed so many proposals and research projects and sets of results around this. What do you think is the essence of spiritual transformation? Or, maybe that is a little too over-generalized, but what would you say are kind of the primary of elements of spiritual transformation when, when someone really has an experience that changes their life?
SK: Ah, that’s a very good question. I liked the way you phrased that, because it is more than the definition, it is sort of the key elements that are represented by that, by spiritual transformation. I think perhaps certainly the most profound is a dramatic change in the world view, your self view, your sense of purpose or purposes as well as it often influences religious beliefs and attitudes and behaviors, so I think that this profound change is a key element of it. Sometimes it happens within the, within various religious traditions. Sometimes it happens often precipitated by stress or anguish or, or severe illness, and it can happen spontaneously – it doesn’t have to have an antecedent necessarily, an obvious antecedent condition. But, I think it is this set of profound changes. Sometimes it happens over a lifetime – it is something that comes as the result of religious practice and belief, and it’s the attainment of a total spiritual state that someone arrives at. So, it is a life-changing event, and the vast majority of the people who have had a spiritual transformation, those who have had it, about half of the people in the United States appear to have had it according to some of our national opinion research polls, that Tom Smith, one of our investigators, carried out. Among those people the vast majority report it is with them for the rest of their lives. It is a living phenomenon with them, and it has been a profoundly important event in their lives – perhaps the most important event. So, it gives you some sense of what are the components of this, you know, we’re obviously interested in what precedes it, as well as what is the phenomenon itself, and then what does it mean within someone’s life, and I think we’re, you know, coming at it from a variety of directions, and have been working on this for quite a few years now, but it is exciting to start to see lots of fruit coming from all the research that has been conducted on it.
CV: And, for you, what are some of the most interesting findings? I know that the studies are just being completed, and some of the results are rolling in. What do you find most interesting or exciting?
SK: Yeah, honestly, there are so many different – well, let me just say, there are two ways of looking at that question. The first way to look at it is that there’s such a variety of ways of viewing it. In other words, we have such a wide range of really interesting projects. And, then the second way to say, alright, what are some of the things that really are fascinating about it - perhaps I can give you a few fascinating ones, but that wouldn’t do justice, I have to honestly say, to all the others who are also fascinating. So, let me just pick a few off the top of my head without in any way slighting the others because many of them have all kinds of fascinating results. But, one example, I think is, I am very glad we did a national survey of this – this is Top Smith’s results from the national opinion research center at the University of Chicago. They’ve been, they are one of the primary centers in the U.S. and in the world that does research on religious practices and beliefs. And, they have never, what was nice is that for us the point of view of doing something new, and a departure on this, they had never included any questions on spiritual transformation – that’s number one, and number two is they decided, and, we supported that whole notion, which is to do a study which is sort of off the usual record – in other words, instead of having pre-recorded questions, per se, and just getting a yes – no response, they decided to do this as an interview with a number of their subjects who are involved in being repeatedly measured over their lifetimes by going back to them on a randomized sample that has been, that is fully representative of the entire country. Anyway, in that, they did an in person survey with 1500 of these people, and because of that they collected sort of detailed data as well as the overall results, so as I said before about half, about 50.4% to be more precise, reported having had a spiritual transformation. That was much larger than any of us expected. We weren’t sure what to expect in terms of having any sort of a spiritual event or a non-spiritual event that forever changed your life and influenced your sense of meaning and purpose in the world. And, as a result of that, they were able to then look at, okay, of those who had that experience, what did they get out if. And, about 34, about 65% of them, in fact, had had a spiritual transformation associated directly with a born-again experience.
SK: And, about 35% of that have that outside of any religious context…
SK: …so, that gives you some idea at that level. But, there are many other findings like that. If you want, I can mention…I’ll just mention another couple of studies, maybe you want to follow up questions on that study, or I could talk about some of the other work that we’ve done with Gail Ironson. Gail is professor of psychology and psychiatry, she is both a psychologist and a psychiatrist physician at University of Miami, and she looked at HIV-AID - people who have HIV-AIDS - and measuring their CD4 immune cells and their viral load, which are the two key indicators that people with HIV-AIDS, that us researchers look at continuously because the immune cells, of course, get disabled and the viral load increases, so these are the best indicators that you have in looking at that within this context of spiritual transformation. And, one of the interesting things that she found is first with people who have a spiritual experience of transformation have a better chance at survival, actually. But, interestingly enough, within those who believe in God, those who believe that God will judge me harshly one day, that is an answer to that question - that was the strongest predictor of the worst outcomes. In other words, people who didn’t do well at all, irrespective of whether they had any religious beliefs or not, that belief ... influential in their outcomes.
SK: So, that was a fascinating finding. Whereas people who believe that God loves them had a vastly improved disease experience. Their CD4 cells were much higher and their viral loads were much lower.
SK: So, as an example, an interesting contrast, if you will, and then we’ve had other studies, like neurobiological ones, that Mario Beauregard at the University of Montreal did where he looked at, with the cooperation of the, in fact, Sister Constance Fitzgerald at the Carmelite Monastery in Tousen (and, this is in Canada), encouraged people to, in her monastery, Carmelite nuns came out of the monastery, many of them for the first time in fifteen or twenty years, outside their monastery, and several of them became volunteers in a very detailed study of this with contemplative prayer, and basically we were able to demonstrate in that that there was a very specific response to the state of unico mystica, which is the state that they, the mystical union with God that they achieve where they refer to that as a spiritual transformation, so we were able to demonstrate very specific neural correlates with excellent controls and been able to show some, basically, a couple of things: one is that his work showed very clearly that no central spot in the brain, there’s no “God spot,” so to speak, as he termed it, in the central nervous system, rather it is distributed over a number of different centers in the brain that become activated, and specifically activated. And, that is a fascinating finding that is now being amplified in a number of other laboratories that I am connected with as well. So, these… but its not necessarily the same for each religious experience, which is even more interesting in some respects, in other words…
SK: …it looks like different religious experiences produce very specific responses that are consistent within the religion, but are not activating, necessarily, the same pathways in the brain.
CV: Yeah. Well, I think that the themes that I’m getting from what you’re saying, number one, are that these experiences are much more common than anyone knew or thought, and, you know, at one point, I think, that the science of spiritual transformation was sort of looking at almost anomalous phenomena that seemed to happen for a few people that really had a dramatic impact on their lives in a… primarily in a positive way, but also we’ve seen cases where it is not so positive, and that scientists really wanted to see what was happening in this sort of extreme case and what we are finding instead is that this a very common occurrence and that there a great degree of variability in the experiences and in the outcomes and a lot of variability within what we call transformation and spirituality. And, I know there has been some great work on, kind of, with Ken Rice‘s work on adaptive spirituality versus maladaptive spirituality, or positive religious coping versus negative religious coping and that it is not as simple as saying spirituality improves someone’s life, or spirituality is connected with better health. There is a lot of complexity in that relationship that we’re just now starting to unpack, and I think what always interests me about this commonality and variability issue is that if you look at the psychological literature and you look at the medical literature it’s just so bereft, really, of studies on this ubiquitous human experience, and I think the Metanexus program and obviously the Institute of Noetic Sciences are two places that are really trying to change that.
SK: I completely agree with you. I think that it’s remarkable how little literature there was on this, and how rapidly it’s growing right now, and how important that is. And, I also think, just to respond to the other point you made, which is about the variability – it seems that the spiritual experiences that people have really amplify what the other experiences of their lives, so in a negative sense they could be amplified negatively, and in a positive sense they could be amplified very positively. So, I think in some respects, it’s probably, if you think about the religious communities people belong to, it’s very possible that the communities they belong to help to shape the experience and very often it’s shaped in a positive direction for those who are members of the community, so there is in a sense a great caring that is expressed and as a result of that those who stay within that community probably are benefited having had one of these experiences, are benefited by the support of the others that surround them.
CV: What are some other things that you’ve found in sort of your big-picture view that seem to support the process of transformation. I mean, we all kind of know some of the more obvious things, like spiritual practices and the, as you say, having a community of people, but is there anything that you think from your perspective is a factor that is conducive to the transformative process in the positive sense?
SK: Yeah. I think, I think this is where a lot of the work that Doug Ulman is doing – he is at University of California at Berkeley and he is also with a group at Santa Clara University headed up by Tom Plant and others there and also at Stanford University. What they’re doing is really emphasizing the notion of positive role models. In other words, the whole idea of a role model that is very positive, in means, as a source of identity in some respects that people have. So, that’s a really clear advance. In other words, if you have someone who is a spiritual leader who has undergone their own transformation and then influences others in their role model approach, they’re not just, they haven’t just had a transformative experience, they’re also charismatic leaders…
SK: …and, that combination of a charismatic leader who has had a transformation that other people, can lead other people to identify with them, so that’s a very powerful phenomenon, and I think Dr. Ulman, Doug Ulman‘s work along with Carl Sorenson and now Albert Bandura, a very well known psychologist, perhaps the best known psychologist in the world, has joined in with that program of research.
CV: What are the next steps for Metanexus? I know that some people who are going to be listening to this, who are listening and who may listen in the future to this recording know a little bit about Metanexus, but they may not know a lot about it. I know we’re talking about one program of the Metanexus Institute, which is the spiritual transformation research program, which is I said earlier has funded twenty-four projects on spiritual transformation that are now being completed, and the results are being published, and what’s next for Metanexus?
SK: Well, that’s a good question. Metanexus has become a large organization with many different program and activities. Let me just give you a sense of where Metanexus is going right now. First of all, Metanexus has a very active organization – it’s basically an organization that’s been around since 1998, although it became Metanexus in, I guess, the year 2000, just, oddly enough, right at the time of 9/11. And, it’s currently headed up, executive director is Eric Weislogel, and Eric is a very dynamic guy who replaced Billy Grassie after he retired. And, basically what we’re doing right now is running about, we have 240 active groups. It’s become an interdisciplinary global, interdisciplinary think tank. And, we have 240 active groups in 42 countries that are interacting all the time on this, and to give you an idea of how complex it’s become, we not only sponsor lots of projects like spiritual transformation and gather, you know, different people to sponsor those, and organizations to sponsor those projects, but we’re also carrying on a global network, and we have two ways of doing that. We have an online way, sort of like IONS is doing, but we have a magazine, a very successful magazine, that comes out electronically every quarter actually, or every month but with quarters doing very specific things, and then in addition to that we have an annual meeting, and this year we took the week to go outside the United States because we have many international members, member organizations – 240, as I say, of them, and we went, we’re doing this one is Spain, in Madrid, and honestly I think there was some worry as to whether or not this is going to succeed or not, and although the meeting is going to start on Friday (actually, on Sunday – sorry, I leave on Friday for Spain), the fact of the matter is, is that, there has been an overwhelming positive response to it, so that we can’t handle – literally – we had to close registration because no more people could be handled at the physical site. In other words, we’re oversubscribed, just incredible response in Europe to this, and around the world, so people coming from all over the world to this meeting which is a departure from the past. It has become a phenomenon all by itself. I think just as IONS has become a phenomenon all by itself, likewise an organization like Metanexus has, which supports all kinds of different initiatives.
CV: And, most of those have to do with stimulating the connection between science and religion.
SK: Yeah, the vast majority is between science and religion. I might add, though, that there is a humanistic side as well, and trying to apply transdisciplinary approaches to the most profound questions of our lives and the cosmos and humanity, and the point that I’m raising, though, is that much of that, of course, involves faith communities and religion and science, but it even goes beyond that in some respects and it’s exciting to sort of take a new synthetic approach where religion is once more, though, a central part of the discussion, compared to the way universities of operated in the last century, so, where religion has been put aside, it’s something to be studied under a magnifying glass, so to speak.
CV: That leads me to, you know Sol and I, you and I first met in Barcelona at the Parliament of World Religions, and…
SK: Oh, Yes.
CV: …that was such a great experience, and I know that we’re working on some science and religion ideas at the new parliament that will be in Australia next year, and I wonder if you would like to say more about that.
SK: Oh, I would love to share some things about…thank you for asking. Yeah, the Parliament of the World’s Religions is an organization that’s based in Chicago, actually. It started in terms of 1893 with respect to having, there’s a World Parliament of Religions at that time, which was the first time that Eastern Religions were actually introduced to people living in the west. That was an exciting historic event. So, in 1993, 100 years later, a group in Chicago decided they would reintroduce the idea and form this parliament, and it’s been going very strong since. And, there’ve been meetings, a major parliament meeting in Chicago, and then five years later in Cape Town, and then five years after that in Barcelona where you and I met. But, in addition to that there is another meeting, as you say, that’s going to be in Melbourne, Australia from December 3rd to 9th, 2009, and it’s amazing because the government of Australia has gotten totally behind this and is supporting it fully, so it’s the first time that any meeting of any kind, actually, has been supported by their federal government, their provincial government, and their city government all at once in a sharing way because they believe so strongly that inter-religious communication needs to be a part of the every day dialogue. And, of course, particularly Australia, had a history of asking for forgiveness now…the Aboriginal populations that were poorly treated in the past, they’re trying to, in a sense, make some amends for the past and become ideal world citizens of the future, if you will, in this regard, and supporting this in a very big way. In addition to that, there’ll be all kinds of aspects of science and religion introduced in the program this year, and people who are interested can go online, actually, and find out by just going under Google and just going, “Parliament of the World’s Religions, Melbourne,” and you’ll come up with all kinds of website connections to it. Sometimes its hard to remember the specifics of a very long website name, but I think if you, like with Metanexus (m-e-t-a-n-e-x-u-s), you just go under that name, you can find it and Google and immediately click in, like the Parliament of the World’s Religions.
CV: I had such a great experience at the Parliament, and, you know, one of my lifelong memories, I think, are two things from there. One was watching the sea of people entering the conference center, probably, you know, five thousand people, and it was almost like a tapestry or a quilt because there were the black robes of the nuns, and the saffron robes of the Buddhist monks, and the white robes of the Sikhs, and everything was sort of blending together – it was a very beautiful moment. And, then I have another memory of being on the top of an open-topped bus, whipping around Barcelona with fifteen Sikhs, men with turbans and their beards flying to either side of the bus, past the Gaudi Cathedral. And, I would just say it’s a great experience for people who are interested in the kind of universal aspects of the religious traditions. And, this year it sounds like there’s an invitation for science to play a role and to be a part of it. In what way will that be happening? Do you know?
SK: Yeah. There is a substantial portion of the program that’s going to be, that is automatically being set aside for people to submit proposals for symposia and parts of the program at the Melbourne meetings, so literally you can go online and look at their program opportunities or you can if you want you could email in to me, or as I say, just go online and specifically look up “programs” and you’ll see the application procedure on there. And, that is not only open, but there is a wide invitation – in fact, I’m going to Barcelona – I’m in Barcelona, I’m sorry – to Madrid this week with the notion of inviting hundreds of, you know, people to participate in that, in that process of submitting proposals to it. So, we’re, we’re very excited. We’re doing, I know, we’re going to be doing one on compassion, for example, that is sort of collecting all of the latest research on this, and housing it, maybe in three or four sessions, on compassion alone. But, there are many, many others, including spiritual transformation, of course, will be there as well, but many, many other themes, so it’s a – when you said five thousand, actually there were probably about seventy-five hundred or so at that meeting, and they’re expecting upwards of about twelve to fifteen thousand people in Melbourne. It will be just exciting there because Melbourne is a super dynamic city, and it has a brand new convention center that will be open for this meeting, so it will be a breathtaking experience, I think, right in the very beginning of their summer, actually, because they’re below the equator, as you may remember.
CV: Right. Now, you’re involved with another group called, “The Institute on Religion in an Age of Science, “ and I think, you know, so much of your work has been there at that sort of sticky and exciting intersection of religion and science, and what is that organization all about, and…?
SK: Yeah. Well that one - yeah - thank you for asking about that, too. The Institute on Religion in an Age of Science is perhaps the oldest organization - continuously meeting organization – there is on the topic of religion and science, and that goes back into the early 50s, so it’s about 54 years old now. It helps to support the journal, Zygon, which is the journal of religion and science, a very large journal, perhaps the premier journal in the world today. And, it holds annual meetings, and the annual meetings have been on Star Island in, just of the coast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. But, what they do, is that they have a whole week meeting that’s specifically explores a single theme. So, there was one, for example, a specific theme, on spiritual transformation. Very soon after we got started, we proposed that idea, and they loved it, and there was a whole meeting on that. And, oddly enough, this morning in fact, I got a brochure from a good friend of mine who is, who helped chair that meeting – Karl Peters, a very well known philosopher and expert on religion and science, and he just completed a book on it that just got published, essentially, today, so here is the - he sent me a brochure on his new book on spiritual transformation, which apparently just got listed today on the book, large, I don’t know, Barnes & Noble or Amazon, and…
CV: And, just for our listeners, what’s his last name again?
SK: Oh, Peters. P-e-t-e-r-s. Karl. K-a-r-l.
SK: Really, a fascinating book based upon – he, he assumed the role of chaplain for the week of the conference on spiritual transformation, so here we did a science and religion conference on spiritual transformation for an entire week focusing exclusively on that from many different directions, and then he did reflections as the chaplain of the week, did reflections every day, and then he turned that series of chaplain talks into a book, and he added some more dimensions to it. And, it’s a fascinating book, as I say, I had a chance to look at parts of it, but not all of it before I came up, but all that I’ve looked at was wonderful. It’s very rich, and I think it will be a very successful book, but that’s just one of the examples of the spin-off of our, our research that we did in the spiritual transformation research program.
CV: You know, I want to kind of bring this conversation back down to, sort of, a personal level, because I know that you’ve got such a unique big-picture view of kind of how the field of science and religion is advancing, and the science of spiritual transformation, and just kind of come back to what are a few things that stay with you that might be applicable to people who are listening who may be aren’t academics or scientists - a lot of our people are, but people who are teachers, people who are counselors, people who are working on helping other people with their own transformations and people who are working on their own transformation in their own life. What have you learned from all of these high level meetings and scientific studies that maybe have, you know, surprised you, or have stayed with you in a way that moves you?
SK: Well, I think, I think the, I think there are two, two parts to that, for me, personally. One is just the whole idea of, of enabling something to happen - that is, scientific research to come into an area that was, was sort of a taboo area for science to be involved with. In other words, for scientists to come in and ask about religious or religious experience or spiritual experience irrespective of religion, per se - that was a, that’s been a long taboo, in other words it’s sort of like a place that science, scientists ought not to go, and instead to say, “look, this is, this is the work of some scientists, some psychologists that were going in that area for sure, for, before this, but to do it in a very broad way, and bring other sciences in and bring into the light of day, so to speak - that there is a, that there is a scientific side to this that can be looked at has been a very exciting, new direction in, you know, in my own personal life – to know that you can actually get that to occur and that good things come out of it. Really important and interesting things are coming out of it. So, I think that’s one piece of …, I think the other side of it is that what’s so profoundly interesting to me is the people who have had, the numbers of people who I’ve personally had interactions with, now, who’ve come up to me and said that this gives them the courage, personally, to talk about spiritual experiences that they weren’t sure they should be talking about, meaning that in the past they’ve had these experiences, they’ve been profoundly important in their lives, but they were afraid other people won’t understand them, that they won’t come through and, sort of, they won’t take it, they’ll take it in the old Freudian approach as being something abnormal, and that they don’t want to be labeled that way, therefore they won’t talk about it….
SK: …and, now we’re giving an opportunity for people to talk in the open about their personal experiences which has been transformative, again, to them because they feel that now there’re other, they understand that other people have had this, this is not so uncommon at all, and because of that… and, it can happen outside of their religious realm, it isn’t necessarily only under those circumstances. Even though, when it does, I think, they are ready for it, so to speak, the religious communities, in general, are really ready for it and can help shape them and perhaps hold it near and dear to their hearts, so to speak.
CV: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it seems like for some people the structure of religion is, can be really helpful for providing a lot of the elements that, in our studies and I think in some of your studies, are conducive to integrating a transformative experience into long term shifts in one’s way of being in the world and, you know, providing a community, providing a language for it, sort of a cosmology within which to understand some of these experiences that can be kind of ineffable and hard to put words on. And, and at the same time, I think there can be some limiting aspects of religion as opposed to spirituality where the dogma can sometimes take over for, what, you know, the symbols become the reified ends as opposed to being the means, and I think a lot of people who are a part of IONS have found a lot of comfort in spiritualities that are self-created or alternative or are, you know, embodied and really played out in the world, as opposed to within the context of a religion, so…
SK: Yeah. Let me, let me, let me respond to that. I think it’s really important to say. I’m not necessarily advocating that if you’ve had a spiritual transformation you have to be a member of a religious community. I’m only suggesting that when, for many communities that works well for people, however, however, what this is also doing, the kind of work we’re doing, is it gives voice, it gives opportunity for people who’ve had spiritual experiences…as I say, a large number of them occur completely outside of the religious communities – they have nothing to do with that, per se, but it gives an opportunity for the people now to know that others share in the same experience, and that with greater scientific understanding there will be greater insight that people can read about and understand and integrate these experiences into their lives more fully in the light of scientific understanding then they could have before, and I am hoping that this will be a gift to them as well because the gift should, you know, they, in a sense people remained in the closet before with their experiences….
SK: They might share them only with a very few people, and now there may be an opportunity to share these much more widely, and I hope that IONS community certainly will benefit from all that we learn about them.
CV: Yeah. I want to open it to people asking questions in a moment, but my last question for you along those lines would be do you have any thoughts about the ways that science is being brought to spirituality and religion at the moment, and you know there seems to be, there’s so much excitement about, sort of, the more reductionistic approaches, which is looking for places in the brain that light up, and, you know, these are all incredibly interesting. Do you think that there is too much reductionism is the scientific approach at the moment, or, you know, I know you have a very strong grounding as an anthropologist and qualitative research, and I am curious about your thoughts about the ways that we study spiritual experience and how we can do it well in a way that doesn’t oversimplify or reduce, kind of, the enormity of the subjective experience.
SK: Yeah. That’s a great question, and I might say that part of my motivation for doing this interview with you is that you ask such great questions, so I’m so glad you’ve asked this question. I think that – look, I think this is, this is the key question to be, in other words, science in a sense, the scientific method requires some reductionism to take place. That’s the way it works. That is, the lens of science is not complete on everything. We have to know that to start with, and we shouldn’t think that we can answer all questions with a scientific approach, but what we can do is bring new light to bear on it, and so the light is the shining voxel in a brain scan using the latest, you know, tracers and that sort of thing. Well, so be it, but what we should realize, and what I’ve tried to stress to everybody involved in this – right from the very beginning that we did any of this work – is to stress that these are people. We are all people, we are all humans, very complex humans with very complex operating minds that don’t easily succumb to the typical scientific methods, so we can do certain things, and we probably won’t be able to do everything, and we’re hoping that the profound challenge that these questions represent - that we can add, as I say, some new light to it. But, at the same time, what we have to do is to recognize that the scientists involved in this, and the scientists, all of the scientists, I think, connected with me on this, all recognize a key truth, and that key truth is that we’re not here to take away anything – we’re not here to provide a scientific explanation of a, one’s spiritual experience and assume that having that explanation, the experience will have been totally accounted for. I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. Every experience is different. I think there is such a rich range of variation that we may be able to shed, as I say, some new light on it, but necessarily… we will not be taking it away. So, we’re hoping that whatever we do adds to it. That’s number one, and number two, I think, is that we’re involved, I think, in a constructive dialogue between religion and science. There is a lot of destructive dialogue that I don’t get involved with at all because I don’t want to spend any of my effort and energy on that kind of dialogue that’s involved in showing that science is a better way of explaining religion than religion has of explaining the world. I don’t look at it that way. I think the world is much more complicated, and the problems of the world are so much more complicated than either science or religion can solve. We need all of the energy and the effort of the world, so to speak, to, and all of humanity to deal with the problems that we now have, you know….
SK: I mean, we are all aware of the environmental, we’re, you know, I have to be very heavily involved in the world food crisis right now, and these problems are not easy, they are not going to be solved by single-minded approaches to anything. And, so, we need everybody’s activity, and it’s just like the World Parliament of Religions – no single religion has a handle on all there is and we need great dialogue and great understanding and more constructive interactions. So, that’s the philosophical foundation, if you will, of this kind of work that we’re doing with spiritual transformation – that we can be helpful, and that there is something important to be learned, and, lo and behold, there is a huge new science out there that will be helpful but hopefully will not be hurtful to any of the experiences that people have had.
CV: That’s great. That’s really well said. Well, I’d like to open it up to phone calls, Angela, or to, not to phone calls, but to questions from folks who are listening.
IONS: All right. We can do that. In just a second, you will hear a recording that will open the lines:
Recording: All callers are muted and may un-mute themselves by pressing “6.”
IONS: You actually need to press “star 6” on your phone to un-mute your line. We ask that you say your name and where you are calling from and your question and then please do press “star 6” again to re-mute your line, otherwise we could get an echo if there’s too many lines open at one time. So, just press “star 6”, and who has the first question?
Q: This is Ben, in Tiburon. Your last statement on reductionism and how that is mainly in science, and how religion and it’s basic base came from a whole different assumption system, and they’re two different assumption systems, and then in the spiritual is, really, instead of reductionist is expansionist, and it…
SK: I’m sorry, can you just speak a little louder? I’m having trouble hearing you.
Q: Yeah, I’m sorry – I was on speaker phone.
SK: Okay. Thank you.
Q: Yeah. And, beyond religion is what I call, you’re doing reductionist way, which is extremely valuable, and expansionist, to me, of the spiritual is beyond both (expansionist) is both beyond science and religion, and brings in the spiritual in a way that I’m not sure has been brought in. Do you know of anybody that’s trying to get it to that larger view that is, so that they’re all one to start with, and what we’re working on when you reduce it and you expand it, there is something there that is common?
SK: I think that, Ben, you’re asking a really good question, and I think that this is what we’re trying to do at Metanexus, in fact, right now, that is, is that we’re really trying to expand the dialogue, and that’s why I was, when Cassi was asking me before about the humanistic side of it, as well, I was suggesting that we’re going beyond that in all kinds of questions and engaging the faith communities of the world in a different way than we have before. So, we’re hoping that out of our global network at Metanexus that we’re able to delve into the very kinds of questions that you are asking, and that we don’t want to see a separation of these, of these realms any longer. We were trying to, sort of, open up a dialogue among all these different dimensions that you’re talking about.
Q: Is there any specific way that I might connect with that?
SK: Yeah, well I think Metanexus has a wonderful online magazine that you can take a look at. There a publication called The Global Spiral that is quite a (s-p-i-r-a-l, The Global Spiral), and it has a, it has, it comes out six times a year, and we’re up to, we have nine volumes, and we’re on issue 4 right now. […] It’s a place to look
Q: Any individuals?
SK: Gee, there is such a wide range of people contributing to this…
Q: But maybe you’re the one who has the larger context because, to me, I’ve been working in this field about 40 years and working with relationship, and relationship processes, and how we create our perceptual reality and how that becomes barriers to what you are talking about. So…
SK: Well, let me… yeah, let me just say that I think that Erik Weislogel has the, has some interesting things to say about this. Perhaps a person who is, who does it beautifully in a, in a poetic form, but who is a scientist is V. B. Raman.
Q: How do you spell…?
SK: R-a-m-a-n. V, period…
Q: Okay, and how do you…?
SK: B, period, Raman. R-a-m-a-n.
Q: And, what was, how do you spell the last name of Eric?
Q: Thank you.
SK: And, I think they would be a couple of, but there are so many, also look in the journal Zygon, for any issue. Just flip through it, you’ll see (Z-y-g-o-n) …
Q: Thank you.
SK: That’s a fantastic journal that, I have to honestly say, I am co-chair of the publications board of that, so I don’t want to, I want to plug it but also say that I am connected heavily.
Q: Thank you. This has, this has been an incredible session. Thank you.
SK: Oh, you are very welcome. Thanks for the question.
IONS: Anyone else have a question for Solomon?
Q: Hi. This is Heidi Souza, and I’m from North Carolina.
IONS: Hi, Heidi.
Q: Hi there. I’m not quite sure how to verbalize my question, but I was wondering whether you experience challenges in people understanding one another because the way people language these experiences varies depending on their background, or whether you’ve found metaphors or descriptions that help to cross bridges, and help people gain some common understanding. I’m thinking in particular of some people would be more comfortable with scientific lingo, so to speak, and some people, like you said that you, the survey included born-again Christians, I’m thinking that their perspective on the transformative experience, some of them wouldn’t maybe necessarily cross the bridge to thinking that someone else’s experience if it didn’t use the language of Jesus or Christ or whatever. Then, I’m hoping that at some point we can see that there is commonality, and we just, you know, are speaking different languages, but I’m wondering how that is – what your experience is.
SK: Very interesting question. First is, is I do think there are, you know, some universal elements to our spiritual experiences, and, you know, as Cassi said in her introduction, I’m also an anthropologist, and because of that I think I’ve had a lot of experience and understanding of what I would call, and what anthropologists call, “the other,”- in other words, “the other person,” or the “other society” - and being able to understand, I think, and have an openness to that, I think, is really an important part of it. Perhaps a great book you might look at is Joan Koss-Chiono’s book on spiritual transformation and healing and there’s a, as I say, a wonderful book she just authored, again, out of our project. She has this concept called “radical empathy” that is related to what you are talking about. In other words, how do you identify – you sort of give yourself over so much to the other that you can completely understand what they are, or try to understand what they are all about, and they feel that they are really totally communicating with you, and that’s, she suggests that that’s widely used in spiritual healing, as an example. But, I think also, another way of thinking about your question is, look at the progress that the World Parliament of Religions has been making with establishing new sources of dialogue and the language that they’re using. You really should look at their website and the counsel, the Parliament of the World’s Religions and that, again, you can find on Google just by searching for those terms, and under the word “Melbourne,” perhaps, “Australia,” so, as a quick way to get at it. The important point, though, that I’m making is they’ve established a set of guiding principles that encourage cross-religious dialogue so that everybody is talking about the same thing and yet talking from within their own personal and their own traditional communal experience as well. So, I think that there is room for this, and I think that arriving at that sense of “the other” is a global movement right now that is going to make it an enormous difference in the potential for world peace as well. So, we’re really working hard on that front to enable a better cross-understanding to occur, and to understand how the language of, of religious or spiritual experience can be shared more universally without necessarily taking it as only coming from within your own religious experience, if you will. It is a capacity, you might say, that evolved with being human. Long before, long before we have any of the civilizations that support the religions that we, the world religions as we now know them.
Q: Well, this is Leota from the Bay Area, and something related to that, but changing the subject a little bit is, and that was a great actual question and answer right there. You know, you’re talking about the investigation that’s being done scientifically and they’re looking at the brain stem and this and that sort of thing. Well, you know, I kept thinking, because there is certain traditions that, you know, what’s lighted up in certain kinds of transformation, the pineal gland and the other one that’s in the brain – I’m forgetting the other little gland in there at the moment - but it’s primarily the pineal gland. And when I was in a Tibetan meditation, actually, they specifically have a routine that you do to get the Buddha going and to get the milk and honey flowing, and actually once you’ve gotten the milk and honey flowing you’ve arrived, and then you go into the exercise - it’s a particular meditation - but getting there is usually the same no matter what practice it is. And, one day I was just sitting there, and I started singing that song, “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore,” you know, “hallelujah,” milk and honey on the other side, and I went, “Wow, I wonder if that was what is hinted at in that song?” And, so then I was thinking about Judaism and how, you know, Passover is like the, the, you know, the roasting of the, I was going to say of the pineal gland, but it’s the roasting of the lamb that really symbolically is the pineal gland in the head. So, I started looking at the entire Jewish calendar, you know, religious calendar, and it seems to me that it was like a secret, hidden path to actually that realization of getting to that same place you get to in Tibetan Buddhism, where you begin at the beginning, and have to deal with atonement first, and purification. Once you’ve done that - touch the hem of the garment which is the memory and clearing it and purifying it – then you can go ahead and blow the shelf off, which is another thing, you know, in the brain of activating a brain center, and if you go around its really, the Jewish calendar, is like, kind of like, tells you the different steps that you go through in a meditation until you’re connected with the Divine. So, I was wondering would you guys, because it seems like you are sending, you know, here and there, but is there an overview that all these different that all of these different studies kind of merge into where there is a whole-ism at the end of it, and all of these different centers and types of experiences and then eventually there is a whole understanding how they all relate, fit in together?
SK: Yeah. I think your, I think your question is, is great from the point of view of, alright, where we going with all of this? How does it, how does it integrate back?
Q: Yeah. Yeah.
SK: I think there, there, we started off with two premises in the work we did. We started off by saying, well, what could we do – we had a large program with, where we could go in a variety of directions, and we, the decision was when we did our spiritual transformation research program, we decided that we would go after high quality science, number one in the, number one priority rather than having a paradigm of all the questions that needed to be asked that come up with the holistic understanding that you are suggesting. And, we went that way to start with, in part because in the past this kind of research was scorned by science. Scientists were saying, “well that’s, that’s not the, that’s bad research, bad science, and therefore, no wonder, and we shouldn’t pay any attention at all to those kinds of results.” Instead, we said, “look, we really want to have the most legitimate scientific perspectives possible to be asked about, and the most legitimate questions that you could ask scientifically on a first round.” The truth is that as a result of having a lot of projects we covered a lot of ground and lot of different areas. That is going to be findable, you can find that under our spiritual transformation program, our spiritual scientific research program that’s listed under Metanexus. You can see all of the questions we asked initially, etc. So, we’re filling in pieces of it, but the truth of the matter is right now we have, we have an incomplete carpet that we’ve been able to weave with the answers that we have. We have lots of missing pieces, so to speak. We have some great scientific results in some specific areas, which really are tantalizing and encouraging lots of others scientists now to follow in our footsteps, fortunately, and so there are a lot of other research programs being started that follow up on these. And, but still, I, I completely am sympathetic with, alright, what does it all mean? How does it, how does it weave together? And, we’re just, honestly, we’re not completely there yet, so we start out with a philosophy, I think, that does what I already explained in some of my other answers plus the philosophy that I mentioned to you, which is we really want to support really high quality science, to start with high quality scientific groups to start with. We have hundreds – literally hundreds – of applicants. We had over, about 500 applicants, and we’re able to choose about 22 of them, as an example, so it gives you some idea of the, of the quality of the people. We’ve got incredibly good people involved in this, and what we’re hoping is that that will light a fire in a variety of people to start to answer the broader questions that need to be answered, but in order to even do that as well, we have things, like that book that I mentioned by Karl Peters actually is trying to integrate that - just looking at that in a very, in the broadest perspective. The book by Joan Koss-Chioino is exactly doing that in the, in the health and spiritual healing areas. And, there are other books that are coming out on that, including a book we’re going to put out on the entire program, so the answer to your question is yet to be answered. Parts of the answers are there, and we hope that we can stimulate a lot more research. And, I appreciate the question very much because it gives me a chance to talk about the future as well as what we’ve done in the past.
Q: Thank you.
SK: You’re very welcome.
IONS: We are at the top of the hour, Cassi.
CV: There was one more question, so why don’t we go with that, and then finish after that.
Q: I have a question about the brain and spiritual transformation, and I was wondering if you have any information on the levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, and what effect, or, what do they have on the whole process? And, what’s your experience of this?
SK: Yeah, that’s a, that’s a great question. The, you have to sort of stay tuned to get an answer to that because I’ve been working with Andy Newberg right now, Andrew Newberg, in fact we have a new center we started – I mean, this thing has gone a lot of different ways, but we started a new center at the University of Pennsylvania at the medical school there – Andrew Newberg has been doing all the, he is perhaps one of the pioneers, one of the true pioneers in this work, and he was involved in our advisory board for the program, and now he and I are just getting to the point where we’re going to conduct some studies on this. There are, of course, ways of studying neurotransmitters – specifically dopamine and serotonin levels and responses for specific parts of the brain. So, there are areas of the brain where you can actually measure them as you’re looking at FMRI kinds of data, that is this data where you look at blood flow, cerebral blood flow, live in a person in a non-invasive way. That’s what a lot of these brain scans are all about. And, this combines radioisotopes or serotonin and norepinephrine or dopamine, and you can actually start to look at different parts of the brain. So, the answer is they’re bound to be involved, but don’t forget for one moment that just because we know those two neurotransmitters, there are at least a hundred other neurotransmitters in the brain, and, you know, including - the previous caller talks about the pineal – I thought at first she might have been talking about the posterior pituitary or, which is putting out oxytocin and vasopressin, and oxytocin is clearly…
Q: That was the other one. It was the pituitary and the pineal together…
SK: Okay. Oh, good. Thank you for helping me. I, honestly, at whatever point that was now, whoever is saying this, if this is that speaker, that’s great because I couldn’t hear definitely…
Q: Yeah, it is.
SK: Oh, now I hear you so perfectly, it’s amazing.
Q: (laughs) Oh, sorry.
SK: Anyway, the point, though, is that there are lots of neurotransmitters in the brain. And, and these experiences clearly when you look at them with regard to cerebral blood flow are involving lots of different parts of the brain, and not all of them are involved with dopamine and serotonin, but on the other hand we are going to be able to measure that, we are, those things are being measured right now. They’re not yet fully integrated – the results are not yet fully integrated, but you can be sure they will be added as well - other neurotransmitters will be added. So, there’s an exciting future prospect in this, which is going to be, if you … mind-boggling as we uncover more of it, and other programs of research are going on. Mario Beauregard, of course, at University of Montreal is doing all kinds of new work on near-death experiences and other receptors that are involved in that as well, so there are many, and likewise Rich Davis who has been working a lot with the Dalai Lama on issues regarding, in Tibetan Buddhism, and its neuro-responses as well, so there’re many different programs of research going on here and in, as I say, in Canada and in Europe, so this will be happening. As I speak, lots of, lots of new research is being done, and publications are in press right now on these things.
Q: It’s amazing, what you’re doing.
CV: This is Cassi … happy to have the chance to spend this time with you, Sol, and usually what happens now is that there’s a thirty-minute community conversation, and unfortunately I need to get off to the next meeting, but you’re welcome to stay on the line, and if you need to go that’s fine, too. And, I really appreciate you having come on.
SK: Well, thank you very much for the opportunity to share with you all and all of your listeners. It’s been my, honestly, my great pleasure and privilege to interact with so many good questioners and so many ideas that were flowing out, so, and most of all, of course, of all, stimulated by all the great questions you were asking me. So, thanks again for that opportunity. I think I’m going to sign off now, and because I have previous commitments, and so if you don’t mind, I’ll say goodbye and just wish you all the very best in your work at IONS. I have enormous respect and interest in everything that you’re doing and just wish you all all the best.
CV: Thank you.
SK: Bye now.
Q: Bye. Thank you, Solomon.
SK: You’re very welcome. Good luck to you all.
Q: Thank you. And, thank you, Cassi. That was a great interview.
CV: You’re welcome. Bye.
Published with Dr. Solomon H. Katz’s permission.