Patanjali in a lab coat

That modern science is somehow “catching up” with Eastern philosophy (logos uniting with mythos, as it were) is an old idea.

At least 25 years old, if you date it to Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, a good book then which could be even better if written now.

In my mind, this convergence redounds to, rather than detracts from, both science and Eastern philosophy. (It does, however, make the “Western”, ie monotheistic, religions look ever more outdated.)

I will state the premise thus:

The millennia-old traditions of India and China express in metaphorical language concepts that we are today corroborating in scientific language.


  • By “Indian” traditions I mean Vedantic philosophy and all its offshoots, from Yoga and Ayurveda to Buddhism.
  • By “Chinese” tradition, I mean Taoism and Chinese medicine.

(Zen, for example is thus included, for it is basically the Japanese form of the Chinese version of the Indian tradition of Buddhism.)

This premise yields a rich genre of research and inquiry. Here are three examples:

  1. one from within our bodies,
  2. one from the workings of our minds, and
  3. one from the entire cosmos.

1) In search of qi

A dear friend of mine is a successful Western doctor who is now also certified in Chinese medicine. In our conversations, we spend lots of our time “translating” Eastern concepts such as qi (prana in Sanskrit) into “Western” medical vocabulary.

Usually the medical vocabulary is less beautiful and less elegant but also less threatening to people in the Western mainstream, and hence useful. Qi, for example, is simply the (measurable) bioelectric energy in our bodies.

Once translated, seemingly occult claims by Eastern medicine offer themselves much more readily to scientific experimentation. The needles in acupuncture, for instance, are nothing but tiny antennas, which can receive, re-transmit and amplify electro-magnetic vibrations — in other words, qi. We should be able to measure this.

Ditto for the chakras. I’ve written before about how the chakras correspond to Western psychological concepts such as those of Abe Maslow. But in essence, they are simply the swirls of bioelectric energy you get in the ganglia along our spine where many nerves (ie, many little antennas) converge. Again, we should be able to measure and observe them.

2) The monkey mind of misery

You might recall that I awarded the prize of “greatest thinker” in world history to Patanjali, a contemporary of the Buddha in India and the author of the Yoga Sutras. His insight was that happiness, balance and unity (= yoga, loosely) are products of only one thing:

A still mind.

The rest of the Yoga Sutras are, in effect, an analysis of how things go wrong when our minds wander, and a manual of how to return the mind to stillness. (That’s all Yoga is, really.)

Buddhism and Zen aim to do the exact same thing. Our slightly modish concept of “flow” is also the exact same thing. Total absorption into any one thing = stillness of mind.

The opposite of a still mind is often depicted as a monkey mind in Eastern tradition. It makes us miserable.

Now two boffins at Harvard — Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert — have developed an ingenious experiment using (what else?) an iPhone app.

(Thank you to Mr Crotchety for forwarding their article in Science Magazine.)

The app, at random moments, asks people questions such as:

  • How are you feeling right now?
  • What are you doing right now?
  • Are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing?
  • If yes, something pleasant, neutral; or unpleasant?

The huge sample of data shows, as Killingsworth and Gilbert put it, that

A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.

Specifically, our minds (ie, the minds beings sampled) wandered about half the time (46.9%). And it did not matter what people were doing at the time! If they were doing pleasant things, their minds wandered just as much, and not necessarily to pleasant thoughts.

Furthermore, people were less happy whenever their minds wandered, even when they were thinking pleasant thoughts. (Obviously, unpleasant thoughts made them even more miserable than pleasant thoughts, but the point is that any mind-wandering discomforted them.)

And Patanjali said all that in the second sentence. 😉

(However, there is a fascinating twist — a benefit of mind-wandering — that touches on a subject dear to my heart: creativity. I’ll save that for a separate post.)

3) The cosmic parade of ants

In Indian tradition, there was not just one Big Bang. There have been infinitely many. That’s because the universe is born, expands, collapses and is reborn in an eternal cycle.

In metaphorical language,

  • each creation (or Big Bang) is the work of Brahma,
  • each expansion that of Vishnu, and
  • each collapse that of Shiva.

But these three are all part of the same underlying reality (Brahman). Metaphorically, Brahman is inhaling and exhaling, and each breath is its own spacetime, as Einstein might put it.

Because this is hard to grasp, even gods need reminding of it. Hence, for instance, the story of Indra and the Parade of Ants.


Indra was haughty and summoned a great architect to build a splendid palace. He kept adding requirements so that the architect was never done. Brahma (ie, also Vishnu and Shiva) decided to teach Indra a little lesson and appeared to him as a boy.

Boy: Will you ever complete this palace? After all no Indra has ever completed it before.

Indra: What do you mean, “no Indra”? There were other Indras?

Boy: Oh yes. When twenty-eight Indras have come and gone, only one day and night of Brahma has passed.

And just then, an endless parade of ants filed in and through the palace. Each one, said the boy, was once an Indra.

Our science currently tells us that our universe started (in earth time) 14 billion years ago. But now I read that Roger Penrose, a famous British mathematician, and V. G. Gurzadyan, a physicist, have found patterns in the microwave radiation generated by the Big Bang which suggest that

our universe may “be but one aeon in a (perhaps unending) succession of such aeons.” What we think of as our “universe” may simply be one link in a chain of universes, each beginning with a big bang and ending in a way that sends detectable gravitational waves into the next universe.

28 thoughts on “Patanjali in a lab coat

  1. “What’s it all about, Alfie?”

    Sorry, do not mean t o be flip. The oldest question in the world (universe), and one which spawned religion and science.

    Where did it all come from?

    I ask… why does it matter? Because it doesn’t. Not a whole lot, in my opinion. See also “maya”… or Poe (A Dream Within Dream).

    • Is that a quote from the film “Alfie”? Not familiar with it.

      I’m all for Maya (etymological root of magic), though. We might “prove” Maya scientifically some time….

      Your impulse of “Why does it matter? Because it doesn’t” also has a Sanskrit/Vedic name:

      Lila. The “game.” It’s a “dream” (Maya) and a “game” (Lila), ie it doesn’t ultimately “matter”.

    • Is that a quote from the film “Alfie”? Not familiar with it.

      It’s from the title song for the movie.

      “What’s it all about, Alfie?
      Is it just for the moment we live?”

      Written by Burt Bacharach I think it was sung by Dionne Warwick.

  2. Thanks for the article Andreas. A lot to digest!!

    I love the story of Indra and the ants. I remember reading it for the first time in Joseph Campbell’s book. I have also seen a video where Campbell tells the story in such a captivating manner.

    As Douglas pointed out, what is this life about?
    We come OUT into this universe and we go back INTO the universe…if that makes sense, and if there is such a thing as ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘we’,‘it’, etc…!!!

    As Joseph Campbell said in one of his books…don’t look for answers as to why we are here or where we are going after this life…instead enjoy the life we have to the fullest, because this is it. There is no heaven or hell. Those two things are right in our minds, right now, in THIS life. This may sound negative but it actually is not, if one grasps the meaning of life. If there is one that is 

    Am I making sense? I guess that is my point. 


    • Hi Aruna (love your name, btw: You’re the Indian Apollo/Helios. ;))

      I think you’re making perfect sense. That’s the sense I think these Asian traditions want us to make.

  3. I also enjoyed that story about the ants. It’s exactly the type of poetry I was talking about in my post you commented on that the nonreligious don’t need to abandon. The more creative ways to ponder and celebrate the universe the better.

    I’m a little more skeptical of acupuncture as more than just a placebo, but the important point you make is that if real its mechanisms should be measurable.

    • Stories (ie, narratives) never need to be “abandoned”. That’s implicit in the story-telling thread here on The HB. We just have to learn not to take them literally, and instead to seek their metaphorical messages.

      Re your second point: Yes, I’d never ask you (or myself) to accept anything indefinitely on faith. So acupuncture should yield measurable results. It does seem to, by the way. There are some studies to this effect, and I’ve observed results first hand and second hand. To me, the area is one that whispers “search here, you’ll find something….”

    • I’m not trying to get into a debate about the effectiveness of acupuncture because I just haven’t read enough about it to make a strongly informed decision. However, I’m actually unaware of (doesn’t, of course, mean they don’t exist) of credible scientific studies that demonstrate acupuncture is doing what its proponents claim it is doing. That is different from saying something like, “acupuncture yields results.” For example, my dad used to suffer from back pain due to a slipped disc bothering his sciatic nerve. Before he got surgery he tried lots of things to reduce the pain. The only thing that “worked” according to him was acupuncture. So, if you’re defining acupuncture as working if patients leave with reduced pain than I’m not skeptical of that. Acupuncture, at least temporarily, worked for my dad and I’m happy it did.

      That said, our brains are amazingly good at responding to conditioning and placebos – we can heal ourselves in many ways. The procedure may result in real psychological and physiological changes in our brains and bodies. I’m just unaware of any studies showing that acupuncture works by a mechanism other than conditioning or placebo.

      Well, I hope the search continues.

  4. “…….Indra……..summoned a great architect to build a splendid palace. He kept adding requirements so that the architect was never done……..”

    For a moment I thought you had confused the story of Indra and the building of his never-to-be-finished palace, with the story of WR Hearst and the building of his never-to-be-finished castle at San Simeon.

    • For a moment I thought you had confused the story of Indra and the building of his never-to-be-finished palace, with the story of WR Hearst and the building of his never-to-be-finished castle at San Simeon.

      [snicker] and I thought the ants were a lesson in the insignificance of humans (however great they may become). Or me and any project I start.

  5. Thank you for this post at this time. I been rereading my favorite book on Zen and have noticed how out of balance I have been for some time.

    Always in such a hurry that I do not read carefully or take the time to really think about the content.

    The iPhone app you write about makes me smile, but there is great significance in the questions the app asks. Our minds do wander and to redirect into the present moment takes discipline and practice.

    I stare up at the hawks and vultures in our sky and watch the squirrels scamper around, looking for walnuts.
    Even the Labrador retriever is focused on the moment.

    I am planning to sign up for my first yoga class in January but am unsure about which type to take.
    Any thoughts you can offer (or direct me to) will be appreciated.

    • I stare up at the hawks and vultures in our sky and watch the squirrels scamper around, looking for walnuts.
      Even the Labrador retriever is focused on the moment.

      I look at them and wonder if they feel exhilaration and accomplishment. It would seem so empty to me to not feel that, that my sole interest would be in finding and attaining food without an accompanying emotion. Therefore, I suspect they also feel strong (to them, at least) emotions.

    • If you look at the Science article, there is just one activity that substantially stops the wandering mind (three letters, begins with s and ends with x). Who knew? I’m going to try it some day.

    • Mr Crotchety, DO report back to us about how you fared in the experiment.

      Cheri, what’s “your favorite book on Zen”?

      Re the best style of yoga for you: It’s all very confusing, this being America, which turns all traditions into marketplaces of competing brands.

      Try to find a teacher with LONG experience, ideally predating the hype-and-fashion phase of yoga. Ie, the 1980s at least. That’ll narrow it down a lot. 90% of the “teachers” these days are tight-bunned babes who got sick of working for Goldman Sachs, took five months off and went to india, and now hang out their shingle on snazzy web site with Om sound effects.

      Ashtanga yoga is the style I practice. Variants are Vinyasa and “Flow”. Very athletic, classes full of youngish, sweaty, occasionally tatooed types.

      Iyengar is the most common. Endless focus on “alignment”, in a cold room. Housewives outnumber men by about 3 to 1. But BKS Iyengar is the real deal, and serious, long-time teachers know what they’re talking about.

      Viniyoga, the style taught by Desikachar. Very gentle, very bespoke for each student, focus on breathing and calming. Recommended.

      Anusara: An Americanized brand of yoga associated with John Friend. Fun, optimistic, light hearted. Go for it.

      Bikram: Avoid

      And on and on and on.

  6. I wonder if anyone has ever compiled statistics regarding the ratio of hits vs. misses of collective ancient sagacity. Modern Western science tends to be presented as the backwater troglodyte that is only slowly and reluctantly catching up to what those brilliant Eastern folks have known all along. I wonder if this isn’t merely another instance of the grass being greener on the other side.

    Of course, no one ever states flat-out that that, on balance, ancient Eastern philosophies and traditions are in any way “better” than modern ones, including modern science, but this notion always seems to ooze through the lines.

    For instance, you write that

    our science currently tells us that our universe started (in earth time) 14 billion years ago. But now I read that Roger Penrose, a famous British mathematician, …

    What do you mean “tells us”? Scientists who try to figure this thing out report their tentative conclusions based on the available evidence which are subject to revision the moment new evidence comes in. And when they do “tell us” whatever they tell us about the universe, they speak about the universe we live in without either advocating nor denying the possibility of multiple universes; at least I’ve never heard a denial of this sort.

    My point is, I don’t understand why you opened the sentence about Penrose with a “but.” I see no contradiction whatsoever between modern science currently “telling us” that our universe began 14 billion years ago and the notion of a “chain of universes, each beginning with a big bang and ending in a way that sends detectable gravitational waves into the next universe,” a concept which lines up with certain Eastern rebirth philosophies.

    The expression “our science tells us” connotes an air of authoritative narrow-mindedness as if these findings were set in stone from the perspective of those doing the telling and hence amounted to an act of worshipping at the feet of the monotheistic Western god of modern science, and then, via the “but” you posit a non-existing contradiction, to what end—other than to make the Eastern folks look more insightful than modern scientists and their religious-like pronouncements—I cannot fathom.

    • Well, I probably shouldn’t have used the words “tell us” and “but” in that case. For I implied no such connotation. I’m totally with you.

      Re “the ratio of hits vs. misses of collective ancient sagacity”: It would be fun to compile such a list. Aristotle, for instance, was wildly off on so many things, just to name one ancient. The beauty is that this does not discredit the ancient sages but only places them in a lineage of progressive enlightenment.

      The Eastern traditions I was talking about above of course render themselves somewhat immune to this exercise, because they’re in the realm of mythos and metaphor rather than logos and concrete knowledge.

  7. Hi Andreas,

    Love your posts!

    It is my experience that as I dive into deeper perceptions of “fundamental aliveness”, my term for qi, it doesn’t get simpler, but more mindbogglingly mysterious. If you are interested in some deeper enquiries into “Western Science explores the energy body”, here are 2 fun ones. James Oschman’s “Energy Medicine in Therapeutics and Human Performance” looks at acupuncture and many other modalities that use a ‘hands on’ approach to healing. The Structural Integration community, ( the Ida Rolf lineage), has opened up a world wide scientific enquiry into fascia, and the collagen and water molecule matrix, collectively known as ‘The Living Matrix”, that carries and exchanges information in amazing and complex ways. Also, Mae-Wan Ho’s “The Rainbow and the Worm” goes into the physics of life and she is quite comfortable taking it into the quantum field realm. Not simple, but endlessly fascinating.

    And I did not know you were a fan of Patanjali. I am slowly writing my own translation/commentary on the Sutras from a neuro-scientific perspective, my own East/West symphony. Patanjali was a codifier, trying to integrate and synthesize a teaching from several different schools and approaches to awakening that were alive in India in his time. Like the bible, it can be a bit of a hogdge-podge, but there is so much delicious stuff about the layers of mind and consciousness. Neuroscience is offering new languaging possibilities to help reveal some of the secrets hidden in the Sanskrit.

    ” Yoga is the resolution of dysfunctional mind states”
    Then “I am Wholeness” remains stable.”
    At other times self identity is entangled in dysfunctionality.
    Mind states come in five basic flavors and can be dysfunctional or not.

    nirodha is an elusive term to grasp, as it is a highly integrated vibrant and alive state. Too many meditators drive themselves crazy trying to still the mind. We need to recognize that thought is but one expression of mind activity, (one that is way over-emphasized in modern culture) and then learn to be able to sort out the healthy from the unhealthy thoughts. This can lead us to explore attachment theory and attachment profiles and the amazing work Dan Siegel is doing in the emerging interdisciplinary field of interpersonal neurobiology (see his books, The Developing Mind” , The Mindful Brain” and more).

    As far as wandering = suffering, I could be blissfully wandering through the infinite delights of creating, and having a fantastic time, or suffering as I wander in and out of the hell realms of my undiscovered dysfunctionality. So I would say that it is the unconsciousness that is the source of suffering, but also acknowledge that some discipline is needed to cultivate the mind states that allow me to process and resolve my ego-centric/dualistic/dysfunctional ones. Like strengthening the immune system of the mind.

    Thanks Andreas for your amazing expanse of interests.

    If you read this Cheri, the type of yoga you practice is less important than finding a class where you feel a heart connection with the teacher. There are also differences in the level of physical challenges offered, and you want to be safe here, but yoga is about opening the heart. Good luck

    • Great to have your expertise here, Arthur. I’ll google those books and might Kindle some of them into my queue.

      A few years ago, I began looking into the fascia during a stay at Esalen (where Rolf did some of her work — they even have a cabin named after her. I may even have stayed in it, can’t remember.)

      “Too many meditators drive themselves crazy trying to still the mind.”: Yup, that was me at one point. 🙂

  8. Thank you, Andreas and Arthur, for your ideas and support. I had to laugh about the heart part, Arthur.
    I’ve just finished a stressful quarter in school, led by a woman with no heart (or one very hard to find).

    Andreas, the book that I read again and again (especially when I am out of big-time qi 🙂 )
    is entitled Everyday Zen, Love and Work by Charlotte Joko Beck. I understand what she is saying and recommit every time I read it.


    I will find an experienced Yoga teacher in January and report back. Or maybe blog about it.

  9. Mr. C,

    I have also found, in addition to the activity that you mention that begins with S and ends with X, that chopping onions, celery, and carrots does tend to focus the mind.

    Those whose minds wander, end up in the ER ( at least that is what my doc friends tell me)

  10. Any thoughts on the possibility of “Western” practices that can act on the mind like yoga? A few years ago when I returned to dance classes as an adult, I found myself describing my experiences in the studio in the same words that many yoga practitioners use.

    Re: placebo effects in acupuncture – it does seem to me that acupuncture may be much more effective in tapping into the placebo response. Perhaps the right question to ask is why it’s better at helping us heal ourselves than Western medicine is. When you take into account the side effects of many Western drugs, it seems nothing short of wonderful that acupuncture has given us another option.

    I’d also like to hear any thoughts on the current obsession with figuring out how to make ourselves “happier”. I’ve seen some references to research showing that parents aren’t as happy as their childless peers (at least until the children are older), and while I can see that as a parent of little ones I’m not always happy, I do enjoy a deeper sense of purpose and accomplishment. Call it satifaction. How are these things related? Did I stumble onto Zen parenting somehow? How is the struggle connected to our satisfaction? And how can I continue asking inane questions until you all stop reading?

    • “Western” practices that can act on the mind like yoga?…

      Dance, as you discovered, skiing for some, gardening for others, doing the dishes for the very Zen, making love as Mr Crotchety is now constantly doing (see above), walking down the street and enjoying the sunset….

      None of that is “Western”, admittedly. But I suppose there is a universality in the experience. It’s the mind-wandering that is the problem, the mind-stilling that is the solution. The Yoga poses just help, with the breathing, to prepare one for a state of physical comfort and mental focus where that becomes easier.

      Mind you, I have days when my yoga does nothing at all for me.

      Re the Placebo effect of Acupuncture (and all other medicine) that you and Dan mention: No doubt it must be there, just as it is there when you take a sugar pill.

      The trouble is (to answer Dan above), that it is harder to design experiments to factor out the placebo effect in acupuncture. We can give 1,000 people a pill, and another 1,000 a sugar pill without telling them. But we can’t stick needles into 1,000 people and pretend to stick needles into another 1,000, for they’d notice.

      I suppose we could stick needles into the “wrong” meridians (ie, points), but that would be unethical, would it not? But perhaps worth a try.

      Re happines and parenting: I’m in the same boat as you. Ie, parenting can be misery AND SIMULTANEOUSLY the highest bliss.

      Personally, I think “happiness” has become a cheap and hackneyed term. “Fulfillment,” “satisfaction,” “Contentment” etc all seem to have more meaning. When I hear “happy” I think of an emoticon :), which somehow is not what I think Jefferson had in mind when he put happiness up there with life and liberty.

      Blah, blah blah….. Yes, Lainey, I do think that you “stumbled onto Zen parenting somehow”. Congratulations!

  11. Re: “Western” practices – I guess I was thinking less of activities that can lead to that flow or zen or mind-stilling states, and more along the lines of an actual discipline. Letting yourself just move into the music is certainly a universal way of acheiving that state. But what about ballet as a specific disciple for reaching it? Like yoga it demands physical as well as mental effort (or perhaps not-effort as you progress) and is something that can forever be approached in a deeper way. I’ve taken only a few yoga classes so I’m not sure if I’m missing something. It felt very similar to ballet, but I missed the dancing!

    Re: Acupuncture – studies have been done with the placebo group getting needles in the “wrong” places. I believe most of these have shown no difference between the two groups (I did not do an exhaustive literature search).

    Do you think it skews the research when they ask “how happy are you?” because of the cultural tendency to see happy as an emoticon (yes!) instead of that deep satisfaction?

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