Can Science exist without Spirituality? Ten Questions with a Yoga Practitioner
I was introduced to her writings (via twitter) by my good friend and brilliant classical pianist, Wayne Mcevilly. He was highly recommending, her writing, and particularly her travelog with beautiful pictures, to anyone who would listen. A few days later, I finally read the article on her blog about her trip to India and her spiritual experiences there. Her writings were also filled with articles and references to her experiences as a scientist. Over time, I noticed that her comments were always measured, insightful, respectful and introspective – the sign of one who ‘thinks deeply before they speak’. One day, I decided to go behind the writing – to see what we could learn from her, that could help us all in our respective spiritual journeys.
So, it is with great excitement, I bring to you, a new edition of my interview series – Ten questions with Scientist, Author, Poet, Indophile and Yoga practitioner – Dr. J. J. Brown, Ph.D.
1. How did you get involved in science?
Jennifer J. Brown, Author, Poet
Scientist, Yoga Practitioner
(Photo by Lillian Rodriguez)
I’ve had a tendency to examine living and dead things since childhood, but in high school I really didn’t like science classes at all. I settled on science when I discovered Genetics. From my first undergraduate Genetics course to the last one for the PhD, I just loved every single one of them. Think of it, to understand where the physical components of living creatures come from and how this is controlled—it’s fascinating. From monk Gregor Mendel’s peas, one of the first things you learn in science class, to the variegated colors of transposons in corn, I was hooked by the stories of Genetics.
2. Were there any specific challenges being a woman scientist?
My mentor during my PhD studies was Nobel laureate Dr. Barbara McClintock, so I had one wonderful example of a woman scientist in front of me. This made all the difference. Of course, in the US, women in science–Science Technology Engineering and Math, STEM, are seen differently by men than men are generally. So a person must be particularly careful not to be used or abused. It is ever so common, but not inevitable.
3. You are also a prolific writer and author – what brought you to writing?
Living in a socially isolated and secluded rural area, as well as my parents having a tremendously varied library of books at home helped encourage my love of literature. I kept a library for my daughters too as a parent, and they both love to read books and enjoy creative writing, even though they grew up in the city.
I had lots to say as a child, all the time in fact, and was continually told to be quiet. “Little girls were to be seen and not heard,” you know. So writing became the way to express myself. I don’t think the family or my teachers much appreciated anything I wrote, but at least it kept the ideas flowing to learn how to write them down. Now I take every tragic moment in life and turn it, unfold it, and let it shape a story. This is how I not only deal with, but come to enjoy the strangeness of my life experiences. Sometimes they are entertaining, sometimes a bit horrifying. I’m preparing a collection of 15 short stories, fiction, and the book will be ready to publish later this year.
4. Can you share a little about people who have had an influence on your spiritual path? Do you have any favorite spiritual book(s)?
Life is a spiritual journey. My parents were not very religious but were open-minded and they freely let me read all the books in their varied library, which made all the difference in the world. Then the leader of the local church was a wonderful influence on me, Sion Lyman, who was always reading us the selections about peace from the Christian Bible, none of the morbid or threatening parts. During college years I studied Buddhist texts, especially The Dhammapada and Zen poetry, and often visited a Zen Center in New York.
A man swims in the Ganges at sunrise
(photo by Dr. JJ Brown)
Indian scholars in New York introduced me to the Jataka tales and the Upanishads, which I love. I studied with a great philosopher, Anant Shri Vibhusit Acharya Mahamandaleshwar Sri 108 Swami Shivendra Puri Ji Maharaj from Bombay, when he visited the Indian doctors I worked with each year in New York. As texts, I really do love Shantideva’s ‘The Way of the Bodhisatva’, and Patanjali’s ‘Yoga’ book —two of my favorites. I return to them again and again.
5. What led you to visit India?
My work as a scientist led me to India, where I was invited to present my genetics research on hepatitis B virus at a conference in Varanasi. Visiting this holy place was transformational for me. I visited Indian doctors in Delhi to give an invited presentation, and returned to New York by way of beautiful Mumbai. It was a working trip but I experienced three very different faces of India in these three cities. The following year I returned to India, not for work, but to visit friends, and my teacher in Haridwar on the Ganges for a week. It was yet another completely different experience of this great country. We traveled together to Rishikesh and then Nainital up in the mountains, for a treasured glimpse of mountain life.
6. What do you think is the connection between science and spirituality? Can science exist without spirituality?
What we call spirit, is that which allows me to create and understand what we call science. And so for me, naturally science and spirit coexist among the living. Science without spirit would be dead. The scientific view means looking for explanations for causation and prediction. What could be more essentially spiritual than this? We use different words, and we are different people sometimes, but possibly looking for the same thing – answers, predictability, direction, hope. It may be a simplistic attitude, but in my view, all that lives is imbued completely with spirit. My experience is that science and spirituality co-exist in me.
7. How did you get interested in India from a spiritual perspective?
I began studying yoga at 16 at home. I was not aware that it was actually from India, but I practised yoga every day from then on for about 20 years — both the breathing exercises and the postures. Yoga profoundly affected my physical and psychological development during adolescence. At around that time I also began drawing Hindu Gods – as a child I used to draw a lot in my free time. I did not know what they were (the Hindu Gods), but I somehow imagined them, and drew them and carved them.
None of us at home knew what they were, but soon I realized they resembled Brahma in the lotus, and Shiva dancing in the circle of fire. As an adult, I did keep many old scriptural books that I would read and re-read, like Yoga Patanjali, and the Bhagavad Gita. It was much later, when I was training Indian doctors in Molecular Biology techniques in the laboratory, that I fully ran into the spirituality of India and settled into studying it.
8. Can you share a little bit about your experiences in India? What impressed you? What saddened you?
The majestic Himalayas from the air, the holy temples of Varanasi from the ground, and inside the carved caves of Elephanta Island at Mumbai — these are some beautiful experiences of India. Sweet mint tea with Kashmiri rug merchants in their tiny shop, boat ride at dawn on the Ganges with a Varanasi sailor, a ride in Delhi atop an elephant with the animal caretaker – some unforgettable moments! Healthy diet was simple for me in India where vegetarian food is found everywhere, and alcohol was scarce. I was impressed by the compassion for animals in India and their respect for the forests, nature, temples, and spiritual traditions.
It only saddened me to see how so many wanted to leave India, when I clearly wanted to stay. I thought – if they only knew what New York is really like, then they may not want to go there that badly! But isn’t that always the case? We desire and hunger for what we do not know – this is our nature. They could not leave, I could not stay!
9. Can you share any specific lesson(s) that you learnt in your visits to India that could benefit those trying to progress/engage in their spiritual journey?
When it is possible, and it is not always possible, I learned that the two very important things to find in the journey are the “place” and the “teacher”. It is one thing to read a book about philosophy and quite another to visit blessed places, like the Ganges River. Touching the river, walking in the river, I would not trade that experience for any tourist attraction in India. So, if you can, spend time in blessed places like the temples and the Ganges and the mountains.
And the twin to the “place” is the “teacher”. Sometimes the journey seems motionless, but no matter where on the path you are, it will be more calm and directed in the presence of a blessed person who is an authentic teacher. So spend time with enlightened people in blessed places if possible – that is the best of what I learned and can share.
I would also like to thank your readers for this opportunity to talk with you about science, spirituality, books and most of all, India.
Author’s note: Connect with Dr. Brown and her work at her website or catch up with her on twitter.
Postscript: Some keen readers may be thinking – where is the tenth question? No, I did not make a mistake. The tenth question belongs to you! Please ask it in the form of a question, or in the form of a comment – either way, hit the comments section below. I am sure Dr. Brown will be delighted to hear from you!
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18 Responses to Can Science exist without Spirituality? Ten Questions with a Yoga Practitioner
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Hi there, my name is Rennita Prasad Sanghera. I Have been baptized by Guruji ever since I was 8 years old. At that time. Chota swami was just a big kid just like us. really fascinated me because I always remember when I would be a child Guruji would be approximately 50 years young. Guru ji visited us in Toronto. I was too young to know what and who guru ji was and is. Actually I am embarrassed to say this but I would have never known, had it not been for a yag Guruji and India iyc members put together in rameshwaram. I was amazed to travel from haridwar to rajistan to dehli,to chennai. It was magical. I at that time was ending a relationship and was very scared and lost. No book, no doctor, no magic could have gaven me the answers I seemed. I was well cared for, and would sit with mrs. Nandini sharan who I developed love for immediately. I had never ever stayed in a Ashram but wasnt feeling to great, but after a day I got better and was surprised by how dedicated people were in hardwar. I then began my journey to chennai and unlike in Canada where access to Guruji is so simple but yet hard for people to get to do to our so called “busy” social life. I wish I had realized this earlier, but Your never too late. I now in my heart know not to only pranam our guru ji in time of need but to take all the time in he world to let his legacy for iyc live on. Guru ji has helped me so much in life and whenever I have been tested for the worst, I feel like he is always lifting that burden off my shoulder. It makes me proud to say that my guru ji is the bestest gift I have ever gotten in life. He takes pride in all of us and never really joins in to politics but to be courteous to each other and work as a team.
Rennita aka Anita iyc Canada
I am so impressed with your take on the union of science and the spirit! You mention the culture of respect for (and spirit in) all living things. My Q. #10- Do you believe that there is a “hierarchy” of creatures or their spirits?
It is the way for New Era to really understand, that for outer material world, the Science may experience the future happenings with practicl auspect where as the inner world with the hepl of spirituality , one can experience the happening who is with very high strong experienceto arrive at conclusion ,both are related for collective out come ,
the topic is of very high esteem
Lillian this is a great question, I had not traveled much at all when I first felt deep connections to special natural places and blessed texts. One of the best ways to travel is in your mind, when no means are available to get very far physically. This is one of the great pleasures books bring. But travelling later in life when I finally had the means to, really helped me understand that people all over the world were discovering and embracing spirituality all the time. So travel helped with a sense of community, wholeness, and is a wonderful to do if you can.
I like how you take concepts that seem complicated and wrought with conflicting views and make them seem clear, beautiful, and simple. Thank you for sharing your thoughts here in this interview!
My 10th question- How important do you think travel is to discovering and embracing spirituality?
Travel is a big part of my personal development. It’s when you are standing on foreign ground that you truly learn how to rely on yourself.
What an interesting commentary and question Simon. That inner glow you describe, for me it's like being plugged into or properly tuned to some power or frequency that while there, was somehow missed. One particular spot in the Bronx Botanical garden on a hill under pines does this to me, as well as most large stone cathedrals and a very small shrine in a remote area of St. Albans Vermont–many holy place all around.
To respond to the question on spirituality today, in society at large and in communities of faith I see a great power in recognizing, acknowledging and understanding–even accepting–science. Astronomy in particular comes to mind, where the visions of the universe we now can photograph and record on film, give a new experience of places very far away from us and inspire awe, which can be a kind of faith. Where science shows a particular detail sometimes then older spiritual texts may be reinterpreted or seen in a new light–rather than rejected. And I've always found it so interesting that the deeper inquiries of spiritual studies are often very scientific. Some are observational like the very long uninterrupted meditation sessions of Zen sesshin I participated in, or experimental like the Tibetan thought experiments with visualization, or theoretical like some of the Indian masters.
I think that spirituality today grows with science, and can be nourished with science. It will be interesting to share views here.
I Loved this, wonderful to gain a deeper insight into the people that one follows on the internet. I agree with you about spirituality and science. They go together, how can they not. We are all part of a massive and complex universe of systems. All parts interacting and mostly unaware of the affects we have on the systems that we touch, or SLAM.
This makes me think of your Thor post, as science touched myth and them spirituality within, as in having the faith to believe in something we can not touch physically but touches us in a far deeper way.
It is interesting to read your mention about blessed places, and while I have not visited India and her blessed places I am always caught by an inner glow, a sense of being part of what is so much more than myself when in or around places that hold ancient memories and spiritual depth. For me when I encounter places of extreme beauty in nature, I feel that same feeling a beckoning to let go and welcome in that which I can not touch..
Perhaps these blessed places act as a conduit to what so many of us deny ourselves, to have the faith to understand what we can not describe in words, or in a more scientific way, these are places where our own spiritual reinforcing feedback loop works the best.
My question #10 is:
Can spirituality today grow without science.
This was enlightening for me. I never thought to look at spirituality and science co-existing within ourselves. But it makes sense. So, if this is the case then there never needs to be a battle between spirituality and science. They are indeed opposites sides of the same coin that need each other to balance the other.
Thank you J.J. Brown for sharing your insights that have sparked something for me that needs further investigation.
I think that sometimes 'religion' – well, at least the superstition and dogmas in religious thought and practice – rub scientists the wrong way. And for good reason.
Like Swami Vivekananda said – "Abandon that religious thought or practice which cannot stand up to science" – if more folks were to contemplate that and practice that, the battles between Science and Spirituality would be few and far between. Then, the symbiosis of the two could help both of them grow within us.
Or maybe I'm just out in left field here?
Its a rare intelligence that can so effortlessly integrate Mendel, the study of genetics, and the insight and spirituality of great Indian philosophers. I feel honoured to share in Dr. Brown's journeys.
I think science and spirituality are definitely two branches of the same tree. Science mostly concerns itself with understanding our world from an external/outside perspective while spirituality mostly concerns itself with understanding our from from an internal/inside perspective. Great interview. I will definitely try to follow Dr. Brown's work more in the future. She sounds like she has a very rich background.
interesting perspective on science (external) and spirituality (internal). So, if they coexist, where do they meet? #wondering
External and internal meet all the time for me I think, like in the space between the breaths; breathe in, act, breathe out, think.
A great read on spirituality and science is the book "Universe in a Single Atom", by the Dalai Lama on this same subject.
Perhaps it's like a dance….for instance they meet on the dance floor (us), and flow to the rythm of life where at times one leads the other follows and vice versa. And perhaps once they meet in the middle is when fullfillment of all that is occurs……just a thought, I'm still trying to assimilate all the information flooding my brain!
I love this dance analogy. It reminds me of the cosmic dance of Shiva and Shakti. Shiva has all the 'potential' energy of the universe within him. But, he needs the assistance of his consort, Shakti (also known as Parvati or Uma or Maheshwari), to manifest that energy into the universe.
So, which is which? Is Shiva like Science? Or is he Spirituality? I think I'm falling down the wormhole here – it feels like there is a book (or at least a book-chapter) in the making….
What a great interview. I'm so glad to know you better.
Jennifer – This interview is one of the richest uses of cyberspace I have ever seen. Right now I am 'on the road' but will be back.
I am so fortunate to be communicating with both of you!
Loved this: 'Spend time with enlightened people in blessed places if possible – that is the best of what I learned and can share.'