All mystics of almost all spiritual traditions have emphasized the role of purification in accessing enlightenment, a direct experience of the nature of reality. As much as these traditions and their methods of inquiry have been deemed, mostly by modern science, to be outdated and misguided efforts at knowing the universe and one’s self, it would be interesting to see how similar, at least in form, are the methods of modern science and spiritual traditions in their study of their respective subject matters.
Mystics are the experimentalists of spiritual traditions. In all such traditions, there are, on the one hand, the theoreticians, called theologians, who are engaged in formulating and expressing the dogmatic aspects of the tradition; and on the other hand, there are the experimentalists, the mystics, who are set to verify for themselves the truth of what lies behind the dogma and its symbols; they are the seers of a reality that can’t be expressed except in symbolic and allegorical terms.
This division between theory and practice is built in the nature of human relationship to reality and truth in general. We see it in the division of labor in natural sciences between those who observe and report (laboratory and field experimentalists) and those who organize and formulate (armchair theoretical scientists.) For example, there’s Albert Einstein, a theoretical physicist, who arrived at the principles of modern physics from his desk at the Swiss patent office; and then there’s J. J. Thomson, the experimental physicist, who discovered the electron by playing around with cathode ray rubes in his laboratory.
Mystics are the experimentalists of the science of consciousness
Spiritual traditions have a very similar epistemological relationship with reality. They differ only in the aspect under which they investigate this reality: whereas natural sciences investigate the nature of psychophysical phenomena, i.e. the contents of human experience, spiritual traditions are primarily interested in the nature of the experiencing subject itself, i.e. consciousness or the self. But when it comes to their methods of investigating their respective subject matters, they both use purification as the most effective way of accessing the truth. Let’s explore:
It’s mistakenly thought that natural science owes its inception and success to rationalistic thought and the age of enlightenment. It’s a known fact that systematic rationality goes way back in history. In the west, it has its roots in the 6th and 7th centuries B.C.. But this systematic rationality, in spite of its brief and superficial successes in approximating the reality in Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, deviated from its intended target due to overambitious and unbridled speculations of the Middle Ages.
What freed and redirected the rational faculty toward accessing an objective knowledge of natural phenomena was the notion of repeated, controlled experiment. The guiding principle in this controlled way of investigating nature was to eliminate from the environment, by way of control or suppression, the external factors until the object of investigation was isolated enough to be known as it is in itself. In short, the object, which can sometimes be a relationship such as physical law, is known best when it is purified of all externally influencing factors.
Whereas the controlled aspect of experimentation is designed to isolate the object from other factors in the physical environment, repeatability of experimentation is designed to isolate the object from the subjective biases of the experimenters, i.e. from human subjectivity. If a particular feature of the natural world is invariant across various experiments performed by a person, and then across various experimenters performing the same experiment, then that feature is said to be an objective property of nature.
In summary, the success of the scientific study of natural phenomena came from a method consisting of isolating the object of investigation from the influence of other objects and also of the subjectivity of the scientist.
Now, let’s shift our scientific focus from the realm of natural objects to the realm of subjectivity itself, from the contents of experience to experience itself; and let’s apply this same method of repeated and controlled experimentation using the appropriate substitutions.
Molding a scientific method fashioned after the successful science of nature, it makes sense that our first step should be isolating the subject from other subjects to eliminate or at least minimize their influence. This first step implies that a subject can truly know itself only by focusing on itself and not on other subjects; this is crucial because of the essential difference between the nature of consciousness and the objects of nature: A subject has no direct experience of another subject’s consciousness; all that you perceive of the others is their external behavior and indirect reports of their internal states. So, the only direct access to consciousness is to pick one’s own consciousness. Therefore, a scientific study of consciousness must be a first person experience and science.
No one can know your consciousness for you
The second step in safeguarding a controlled experiment of subjectivity is to isolate the subject from its objective environment. What is the environment in relation to consciousness? Well, everything; everything of which we are aware. The environment for consciousness includes all the contents of experience, including sensations and ideations. Insofar as sensations are concerned, a subject can achieve this isolation, to some relative extent, by minimizing the intensity of the sensory perceptions: for example, by choosing a quiet location to minimize sound, being sheltered and comfortable in clothing to control the tactile sensation, closing the eyes to isolate consciousness from external visual data, etc. Isolation from ideation involves isolating consciousness from its own objective (objectified) attributes, that is, from its identifications with its content, from its attachments to names and forms, taking up the role of observer of its content than the participant.
If fashioned after the scientific study of nature, the scientific study of consciousness must be based on: isolating the consciousness from sensory perceptions and identification with its objective attributes. This is practically identical, in form, to the method of natural science in which the objects of nature are isolated from the influences of the environment and the subjective attributes of the investigator in order to be known objectively.
To know the object we mute the subject; to know the subject we must mute the object
A controlled experiment on a subject, involving the suppression of sensory perception and the cessation of the identification with the contents of consciousness, is a very well-known process and has been around for thousands of years: it’s none but meditation. In fact, meditation is doing to the human subject exactly what empirical science is doing the natural object: they are both purifying the context in order to arrive at a true understanding of their subject matter.
Naturally, we can’t expect the science of consciousness be mathematicised like most of natural sciences for this simple reason that consciousness is an indivisible continuum and doesn’t lend itself to discrete measurement and quantification. It can, however, be known directly as it is by the meditator. That only the practitioner can gain direct access to the authentic content of the subject matter (in this case consciousness) is not a disadvantage of this science. This is true also in natural sciences.
If you think about it, only the quantum physicists that study and perform the experiments truly understand what they’re talking about; the rest of us simply accept them as valid based on the credibility we are expected to assign to these scientists. In fact, the inner truths of the natural world are as removed from our direct experience as those about consciousness, unless we ourselves set upon decades-long journeys to bring them to our intuition, be it a commitment to several years of meditation under a spiritual master or several years of academic study or training under science professors. But whoever has done the serious work in either of these fields, hasn’t failed.
Meditation is the scientific method of the study of consciousness
As for the objectivity of the science of consciousness and the convergence of experts’ opinions about its nature, we know that all mystics’ reports of the experience of enlightenment have pointed to a nondual state in which space and time, extension and duration, are transcended. The fact that these meditative practices almost always belong to human traditions and are transmitted, and verified in their content and aim, through very specific instructions indicates that these reports about the nature of consciousness are not arbitrary constructs and merely subjective/relative.
The outward form of these scientific methods we call meditative practices may vary from one tradition to another but they all penetrate the self of the practitioner and lead to an objective reality that’s the same for all. It is easy to verify that all of these methods contain universal structures that are the same across cultural and historical variables. Each method might be clothed by the natural dispositions of a people seeking the same truth, but all of them contain an essence that is independent of the particular tradition and meditator. What is common to all of them is the necessity of purification of the subject, and that’s exactly what meditation promises and fulfills.
To sum up, both natural sciences and the science of consciousness have organically found their way toward the most effective way of knowing their objects of investigation. They both adopt the method of purification, of stripping away what does not belong to their subject matter, in order to know their truths. And they both have their own respective utility when it comes to human life: if mastery over the natural sciences has helped us tame and transform nature, mastery over the science of consciousness (by meditation) can help us tame and transform ourselves. Wholeness is always achieved by transforming and reintegrating both poles of reality, the knower and the known.