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 (It does, however, make the “Western”, ie monotheistic, religions look ever more outdated.)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.

Stuff = Dead space: The Feng Shui view


As a way of getting deeper into our new thread on stuff, here is a basic way of understanding why clutter is so bad for you: it “kills” space and blocks the flow of energy around your house and in your mind.

That’s how a Feng Shui guy explained it to me when I lived in Hong Kong.

Feng Shui, if you’re new to it, means wind water (characters above), which is entirely unhelpful in understanding what it is. It’s the ancient Chinese version of geomancy–figuring out how to place buildings, furniture and other features of interior and exterior living in such a way that they make us feel healthier, more energetic and positive.

Feng Shui shares the fate of most things Eastern that are becoming fashionable in the West. That is: there are all sorts of quacks and weirdos eager to sell it to you as modern snake oil. If you know somebody who suddenly put mirrors, crystals and fish tanks all over his house, he probably became a Feng Shui victim.

800px-RepulseBay_holeOn the other hand, if you encounter buildings such as this (right behind a great beach I used to go to), you know you’re in Hong Kong. In this case, Feng Shui (ie, the hole that allows better energy flow) makes for idiosyncratic local architecture.

But if you’re lucky, you meet an expert who treats Feng Shui as the subtle application of common sense. I was lucky.

Ki-hanjaLike Chinese medicine (and indeed Indian Ayurveda), Feng Shui tries to optimize the flow of vital energy, or qi.

That qi is the ki in Aikido and the chi (different transliteration) in Tai Chi and the qi in Qigong. In Sanskrit it is called Prana. It behaves a little like electric energy, as it flows between a positive and a negative “pole”, Yang and Yin. When they stick needles into you in acupuncture, they are using the tiny conductors to amplify the flow of qi along certain conduits (called meridians in Chinese medicine, nadis in Ayurveda and Yoga).

What, you may be asking, does any of this have to do with stuff?

Stuff = dead energy

The way this Feng Shui master explained it to me, clutter in your home or office blocks the flow of qi in that space. The space becomes not just dusty but in effect dead.

Think of a corner of your house, or a drawer or a basement or a tabletop, that is hopelessly cluttered with stuff. (I’m using stuff to mean extraneous things here.) You don’t even want to look into that direction because it makes you feel bad. It reminds you that you should clean it up. Perhaps it reminds you of things on your to-do list that you never did because you didn’t want to, and now they’re piling up in that corner. Perhaps there are really important or useful or sentimental things hidden underneath that crap, but how would you ever know, without digging through it? Just thinking about all this makes you …. go somewhere else–anywhere else–and run away from the clutter once again.

And so your house becomes deader and deader with each cluttered corner. You walk through it as through a graveyard. The constricted space constricts your thoughts, perhaps your breathing (in Sanskrit, Prana means both breath and qi.)

So, to you hoarders: It’s not true that storing stuff costs nothing. It costs you more than any accountant could tally up.

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