Rolf Sattler: My Life Lessons in Science, Philosophy, and Spirituality

My Life Lessons in Science, Philosophy, and Spirituality

Rolf Sattler

There is so much I have learned that cannot be condensed into a short essay. So here I focus just on some of the most fundamental insights I gained in science, philosophy, and spirituality. I begin with some scientific insights and then proceed to existential and experiential ones. But even the scientific ones have an existential and experiential aspect.

I learned that most situations in life and science are too complex to be captured in one statement or one theory. The closer we look the more we become aware of the
complexity. In plant morphology, my scientific specialty, all generalizations I have come across are contradicted or complemented by other statements. But one has to know the literature very well to be aware of that, to realize that what is presented in textbooks as the truth remains controversial. I tend to think that in other fields, controversy also persists. For example, the Big Bang Theory of the origin of the universe is also controversial, although it is usually presented as the truth. Unfortunately, most people, including many scientists, remain trapped in a restricted view that does not comprise the complexity of the whole field. As a result, their views and life remain impoverished. When they teach, they perpetuate this narrow-mindedness.

I learned that science is not only based on
evidence, on facts, but is also driven by power: the power of powerful scientists and organizations that creates power-knowledge. For example, the official narrative of the COVID-19 pandemic was promulgated by powerful medical doctors and scientists in collusion with the powerful pharmaceutical industry, governments, and the mainstream media (the medical-political complex). The scientific evidence of less powerful scientists was ignored and suppressed or dismissed as misinformation, disinformation, or conspiracy theory. There is a vast literature on scientific evidence provided by the less powerful (suppressed by the media) that questioned or contradicted the official narrative (see, for example, Robert F. Kennedy Jr: The Real Anthony Fauci: Bill Gates, Big Pharma, and the Global War on Democracy and Public Health). The validity of mandates has been questioned or contradicted by scientific evidence of the less powerful. Furthermore, it has been pointed out that “evidence-based medicine has been corrupted by corporate interests, failed regulation, and commercialization of academia” (Jon Jureidini and Leemon B. McHenry 2022. The illusion of evidence-based medicine. British Medical Journal 376:o702, reviewed by Dr. John Campbell; see also, for example, the book by John Leake and Peter McCullough. 2022. The Courage to Face COVID-19: Preventing Hospitalization and Death, while Battling the Bio-Pharmaceutical Complex. This book reveals crimes perpetuated by the medical-industrial complex against doctors, patients and the public at large).
I became aware of the
propaganda in the Western world. We often point at the propaganda in Russia and China and overlook the strong propaganda in the West.

I learned to see beyond
materialist mainstream science and society. Although much has been achieved through materialist science and medicine, they are limited. There are many phenomena that cannot be explained through materialist science such as parapsychological phenomena, including ESP (extra sensory perception) and near-death experiences, and therefore they are often denied by materialists. If, however, consciousness is considered primary, such phenomena no longer contravene our basic assumptions. I see both consciousness and matter arising from a still deeper source that I call the Unnamable.
Reductionism, coupled with materialism, which tries to reduce life to chemistry is limited. It fails to recognize the phenomenon of emergence: higher levels of organization have properties that do not exist at the level of molecules. For example, a bird can fly, but its DNA cannot; a person can think, but its DNA cannot.
context is often forgotten. For example, it depends on the context whether a gene is expressed or not. Thus, epigenetics emphasizes the context that may also include psychological factors (see, for example, Bruce Lipton: The Biology of Belief).
In an article on
Science: its power and limitations and my book Science and Beyond, I discussed other misconceptions about science such as the claim that there is a single scientific method, that science provides proof, and that sciene is totally objective.

I learned that various modalities of
alternative medicine may be helpful where conventional medicine fails or has severe negative side effects. Furthermore, alternative medicine can be helpful for the prevention of diseases and thus reduce spiraling health care costs. I have benefitted from alternatives such as herbal medicine, acupuncture, the Alexander method, Feldenkrais and the Mitzvah technique.
To a great extent, conventional medicine is embedded in the materialist dogma of mainstream science. Even within this dogma, the focus is mainly on biochemistry, ignoring important insights of modern physics. Practitioners of alternative medicine are often not given sufficient credit for their successes or may even be persecuted. The bias against alternative medicine is still strong, especially in North America. If one person treated by an alternative modality dies, it makes headlines, whereas the death of hundreds of patients in hospitals is accepted as normal.

I learned to see beyond
the myth of the given, “the belief that reality is simply given to me… instead of a world that is con-structed in various ways before it ever reaches my empirical or phenomenal awareness" (Ken Wilber: Integral Spirituality. 2006, p.176). This realization liberates us from the straight-jacket of normal constructed reality and thus creates an immense opening. Postmodernism also emphasizes how our so-called reality is constructed and therefore points out the need for deconstruction. Deconstruction is often seen as negative and destructive, but I see it as rather positive because it shows the limitations of all constructions and thus can be liberating. It can, however, become nihilistic when the mystery beyond all language is lost.
myth of normal takes whatever is considered normal for granted and overlooks that it is constructed to a great extent. Recognizing this myth frees us from the straight-jacket of societal normality (see, for example, Neurodiversity below).

I learned – reading Alan Watts’
The Way of Zen – how Zen transcends the common Western mindset and long ago I began practicing Za-Zen and other forms of meditation from other spiritual traditions. Reading Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, I became aware of the parallels between quantum physics and Eastern mysticism. In a summer course at Naropa Institute (which became Naropa University), I then explored parallels between holistic biology and Zen. My focus was on no-thingness in biology and Zen. For the Dalai Lama’s 60th birthday celebrations in 1995, I was invited to give a talk on Divergence and Convergence of Life science and Spirituality (published in Holistic Science and Human Values 4: 41-48, 1999). The divergence is evident in materialistic science, whereas the convergence can be seen in holistic science that stresses integration and oneness. However, even holistic science, relying on thought and language, cannot completely reach mystical experience that is beyond thought and language.

I learned that language and thought cannot capture reality as it is. This means that if Truth is understood as that which is, language and thought cannot convey Truth. Thus, as Hermann Hesse put it in his novel Siddhartha: “Everything that is thought and expressed in words is one-sided, only half the truth: it lacks totality, completeness, unity.” Language that expresses thought functions like a map, and, as Korzybski put it, the map is not the territory. Therefore: “Whatever you might say something “is”, it is not” (Korzybski). Hence, this insight emphasizes the importance of silence (see also This by H. W. L. Poonja (Papaji), who kept reminding us: Be Quiet).

I learned that language and mathematics (a form of language and logic) can capture, at best, aspects of reality. Hence, what they convey are
abstractions from reality. Abstracting means to select. Thus, certain aspects of reality are selected by the process of abstraction. Unfortunately, most people, including most scientists, are not sufficiently aware of the process of abstraction and therefore mistake their abstractions (selections) for reality, which means that they mistake a part (an aspect) for the whole. They mistake an aspect of Truth for Truth. This mistake can have grave and even catastrophic consequences. Korzybski referred to them as semantic reactions that can lead to insanity. It seems that much of the insanity in the world results from a lack of awareness of abstraction, what Whitehead called the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.
In his book
Exercises in Style, Raymond Queneau presented 99 different descriptions of an event that happened in a bus. Since they are abstractions (selections) none of them could convey what really happened. Each one could present at best only an aspect of reality, a perspective, as it is recognized in perspectivism. But all perspectives together present a more comprehensive account than only one. Thus, different perspectives, even contradictory ones, complement one another (see the principle of complementarity).

I learned that
time and space may not be real in a fundamental sense, although they appear real in a more superficial sense. In deep meditation we may transcend space and time. And even according to some theories of physics, time and space arise from a deeper reality beyond time and space (see, for example, Anton Zeilinger, Nima Arkani-Hamed, Donald Hoffman, Doug Matzke & William A. Tiller: Deep Reality). “And if time is not real, the dividing line that seems to lie between this world and eternity, between suffering and bliss, between good and evil, is also an illusion… every sin already carries grace within it, all small children are potential old men, all sucklings have death within them, all dying people - eternal life…the Buddha exists in the robber and dice player, the robber exists in the Brahmin” (Hermann Hesse: Siddhartha).

I learned that, as stated in the Buddhist Heart Sutra, form is emptiness and emptiness is form. Emptiness here means not having a separate existence, which means interconnection or inter-being (Thich Nhat Hanh). According to another translation of the Heart Sutra, form is boundlessness (Tanahashi: The Heart Sutra). I began to explore the Heart Sutra in 1979 with Master Lim in Malaysia, whose unpublished translation of the Hart Sutra states: the visible (form) is the invisible.
Form can be named, whereas boundlessness remains unnamable. Hence, everything that is named is actually unnamable because it is boundless. When we read in the Heart Sutra that there is no birth and no death, it means that birth and death, named as separate events, do not exist because they are boundless. Similarly, there is no suffering, no old age, no goodness, no evil, there are no emotions such as anger and fear, no thoughts, no sensations, no perceptions, etc. (see, for example,
Karl Brunnhölzl: The Heart Attack Sutra). We have to go beyond all of them because they are all boundless and unnameable (although we name them for practical reasons). Thus, the Heart Sutra reminds us not to get trapped in anything that is named but to go beyond it. It culminates in the mantra: Go, go, go beyond, go totally beyond, be rooted in the ground of enlightenment (The Dalai Lama’s translation). Our true nature is beyond name and form.
Whereas the Heart Sutra states that form
is boundlessness, which means that the namable is the unnamable, the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching) refers to the source of both, stating that both the namable (form) and the unnamable (boundlessness) arise from the same source. “This source is called darkness. Darkness within darkness. The gateway to all understanding” (Stephen Mitchell’s translation) or “the gateway to all mystery” (translation by Addis and Lombardo).
When I was a student at university all I knew was form, the multitude of forms: I, my mother, my father, animals, plants, etc. Later in my life, I discovered emptiness, boundlessness, oneness. And then, as I became familiar with the Heart Sutra, I learned that form
is emptiness and emptiness is form. And finally, as I studied the Daodejing, I learned that form and emptiness arise from the same source, darkness “darker than any mystery” (Waley’s translation, see Shantena Augusto Sabbatini: Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching, Chapter 1). The nonduality of form and emptiness implies the source.

I learned to remain skeptical of
doctrines (scientific, philosophical, religious, etc.). Since they are formulated through language, they remain one-sided. They cannot give us the complete Truth. Furthermore, they often lead to intolerance: one doctrine against another, which leads to conflict and even war.
Although many people believe that science is objective, it is not free of doctrines. As I pointed out already, one major doctrine in mainstream science is that reality is fundamentally material. Philosophies and ideologies can also be doctrinal, and religions often have doctrines. Many people have turned away from the doctrines of religions. They say that they are not religious but spiritual. I hope they do not fall prey to spiritual doctrines or fabricate their own doctrine.

I learned that
Aristotelian logic based on identity and either/or is still commonly used, even in most sciences. But identity does not exist in the real world. Even so-called identical twins are not completely identical. And thinking in terms of either/or appears rather limited. In many cases it needs to be replaced by both/and logic, a logic of complementarity, and a continuum logic, called fuzzy logic. Thus, for example, instead of arguing whether this person is good or bad, we can recognize that (s)he is both good and bad, although in particular cases one or the other trait may predominate. Or instead of debating whether something is true or false, we can see a gradation, a fuzziness, between these extremes. As Bart Kosko has demonstrated in his book Fuzzy Thinking: The New Science of Fuzzy Logic, we live in a fuzzy world. Almost everything appears fuzzy upon closer inspection.
Yin-Yang thinking recognizes the complementarity and the continuum of Yin and Yang as one flows into the other. Furthermore, it emphasizes the unity of Yin-Yang, the unity of all. Remaining centred in this unity we can find peace.

I learned that our culture is too cerebral due to a long tradition from Plato and Aristotle that overemphasized the importance of the
thinking mind. Aristotle described the human species as a rational animal. But although the mind is important, we need to live also in the heart and the gut to be fully human. Love and other emotions are considered an expression of the heart. And the most primal feelings reside in the gut. When rationalists violently argue with each other, they often express deep-seated emotions or gut feelings, although they may not admit it or may not even be aware of it. Many meditators focus on the all-embracing gut, called the hara in Zen, to achieve liberation from the strictures of thought, emotion, and feeling, the ego.
The brain, the seat of the thinking mind, the heart and the gut are interconnected. Hence the importance of fascia, a connective tissue that forms a continuous network throughout the whole body, enveloping and permeating all tissues and organs. In addition to providing continuity and integration, fascia are involved in high-speed energy transfer and play a role in acupuncture (James L. Oschman: Energy Medicine).

I learned to appreciate
the body. In many religions the body is considered inferior or even sinful. However, in some spiritual traditions such as Tantra and Daoism, the body is sacred and can be the door to enlightenment. As the mind may influence the body, so the body may influence the mind. For example, a depressed body may lead to a depressed mind, whereas an erect posture supports openness.
When we refer to the body, we usually mean the physical body. But in addition to the physical body,
other bodies have been recognized. They radiate from the physical body beyond the skin, and like the physical body, they represent energies. Different numbers of such bodies or energies have been distinguished and they have been given different names. Some authors distinguish the gross body or energy, the subtle body or subtle energy, and the causal body or very subtle energy. In her book Endless Energy, Debra Green refers to the vital body, the emotional body, the mental body, and the universal body, and she stresses that these bodies form a continuum of energy and information, which she calls inergy. The universal body/energy connects us to the whole universe.

I learned that
happiness that depends on external things or events cannot last because sooner or later they may change. The Buddha emphasized impermanence and Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher, concurred when he stated: Everything flows. You cannot step twice into the same river because the second time both the river and you have changed. Hence, go with the flow. Yet if we transcend space and time, change (that requires time) is also transcended, and then we may reach a serenity that cannot be shaken by the flow of external things or events. Therefore, the most profound happiness appears to be independent of external conditions. It comes from within, from inside (see, for example, Shinzen Young: The Science of Enlightenment). No object or person can give you lasting happiness.
Among the books I read about happiness, my favourite one is by
Deepak Chopra: The Ultimate Happiness Prescription. In this book, he outlines seven keys to happiness, one of which is: Give Up Being Right. If you think you are right, you are caught in the opposition of right and wrong, which needs to be transcended to be happy. Elsewhere Chopra lists 10 keys to happiness.

I learned that one cannot always rely on
promises because of impermanence. After a promise was made, the situation may change in such a way that the promise may not be kept or no longer make sense. It may not be just ill will when a promise is broken.
Also because of impermanence, do not rely on expectations. Act according to the present situation. In Stephen Mitchell's translation of the Daodejing (Chapter 55), we are told:

The Master's power is like this.
He let's all things come and go
effortlessly, without desire.
He never expects results;
thus is never disappointed.

And in Chapter 59:
The mark of a moderate man
is freedom from his ideas.
Tolerant like the sky,
all-pervading like sunlight,
firm like a mountain,
supple like a tree in the wind,
he has no destination in view
and makes use of anything
life happens to bring his way.

I learned how thoughts and emotions that have been buried and disowned are projected onto others without one’s awareness. Such
projections can be discovered if we pay attention to behaviours that elicit strong reactions in us. For example, if an angry person evokes a strong reaction in me, I may ask whether I have repressed and disowned anger in me. It is easy to focus on the angry person, who may indeed be angry, but for my personal development it will be more helpful to investigate my reactions. Shadow work can be helpful in this regard. Ken Wilber developed a 3-2-1 process for shadow work. 3-2-1 refers to 3rd -person, 2nd person, and 1st person. Thus, we first face our shadow in 3rd person, then we talk to it in 2nd person, and finally we accept it in 1st person and thus we integrate what we have disowned, repressed, and denied.

I learned much about
relationships, especially romantic relationships. Falling in love appears to be one of the most exciting and beautiful experiences in life, full of mystery. So much attentiveness to the beloved lifts us beyond our restricted ego. But we know only one aspect of the beloved that attracts us. Sooner or later we may discover other aspects that we may not like or even detest. Then our ego returns in full force and the paradise is lost. Now there may be conflict and sometimes even hate. Furthermore, even if this decline does not happen, over time the beloved changes and may change in a direction more or less contrary to our wishes. Accusations will not help, but looking deeply into ourselves may help us to grow, maybe in a way that will evolve into a relationship based on a deep acceptance and non-egoic love (see, for example, Eckhart Tolle on Personal Love and his book The Power of Now. Chapter 8: Enlightened Relationships).

I learned that there are many
different intelligences such as cognitive, emotional, moral, interpersonal, spiritual, and others. These intelligences are often not correlated. For example, someone may be highly developed spiritually but morally at a low level, or someone may be cognitively very intelligent but underdeveloped emotionally (see, for example, Ken Wilber on Multiple Intelligences).
The recognition of a diversity of intelligences, also referred to as neurodiversity, leads to a re-evaluation of what has been classified as mental illnesses such as ADHD, autism, dyslexia, and bipolar behaviour. These “illnesses” can be seen as a variation of “normal,” a variation that in some ways may surpass intelligences that are considered “normal.” For example, it has been pointed out that Albert Einstein had symptoms of ADHD, autism, and dyslexia; and Van Gogh and Winston Churchill had bipolar behaviour.

I learned to see health as
balance and wholeness, as understood in Chinese medicine. The balance can be seen as the balance between yin and yang, including all opposites, and as a dynamic balance. Wholeness refers not only to the wholeness of the individual organism, the wholeness and oneness of body and mind, but also to transpersonal wholeness that comprises the whole universe. Wholeness is related to holiness because holiness means being one with the whole, the most encompassing whole.
In Stephen Mitchell's translation of the Daodejing (Chapter 77), we are told:

As it acts in the world, the Tao
is like the bending of a bow.
The top is bent downward;
the bottom is bent up.
I adjusts excess and deficiency
so that there is perfect balance.
It takes from what is too much
and gives to what isn't enough.

And in Chapter 42:
Ordinary men have solitude.
But the Master makes use of it,
embracing his aloneness, realizing
he is one with the whole universe.

I learned to appreciate
softness and patience. For example, water can erode the hardness of rocks, but it may require patience. Softness is also related to fluidity and flexibility. It underlines the importance of yielding. In Stephen Mitchell's translation of the Daodejing (Chapter 78) we are told:

Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.

And in Chapter 76:
Men are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead, they are brittle and dry.

Hardness has to be balanced with softness. The masculine and the feminine need to be balanced.

I learned to see
the extraordinary in the ordinary. For a long time in my life, I looked down on the ordinary. But I learned that what we call ordinary people have also their stories that may reach deep into the mystery of life. The profane can then be seen as sacred.
In his book
The Tao of Zen, Ray Grigg pointed out: "In the world of words, haiku comes closest to capturing the poignant extraordinariness of the ordinary, to saying something that is simultaneously lofty and grounded." And he added a haiku by Basho:

Come! Let's go see
The real flowers…
Of this painful world

I learned, to some extent, how to deal with difficult and
troubling perceptions, thoughts, emotions, and feelings (body sensations). Do not identify with them. They are empty (in the Buddhist sense), which means that they have no separate existence. Realize that you are infinitely more than any one of them. They arise out of this infinity of being and then pass sooner or later. Don’t cling to them.

I have learned many ways of
meditation and relaxation, lying down, sitting, standing, dynamic, laughing, dancing, etc., which can be helpful to let go into infinity and eternity (see, for example, Osho: Meditation; Osho: The Book of Secrets; Reginald A. Ray: Mahamudra for the Modern World). And I have also learned that for some people and in some situations, meditation may be counter-indicated. Those persons may first need psychotherapy.

I learned, to some extent, about being in the present moment, as so well explained by Eckhart Tolle in his book
The Power of Now. Living in the past and the future drags us into often useless worries, whereas the present moment can be the door to infinity, eternity, oneness, wholeness, and holiness in which we experience the sacred mystery of existence.
The Secret of the Golden Flower, the Chinese sage Lu-tsu concluded: the true home is nowhere, which also means now-here (Osho: The Secret of Secrets). The Indian sage Ramana Maharshi reminded us that we are always already home, but the challenge is to be aware of it (see Gay Hendricks and Philip Johncock (eds.): Already Home). We are at home in the universe because we are one with it since we are interconnected with everything (see Deepak Chopra & Menas Kafatos: You are the Universe. Discovering Your Cosmic Self and Why it Matters). Potentially, we can become aware of this oneness in each moment (see Dainin Katagiri Roshi: Each Moment is the Universe).

I learned, to some extent, to look at life as what Hindus call
lila. According to lila, the world is seen as the stage of divine play. Life is a play of the divine. Since it is a play, we should not take it too seriously with all its joys and sorrows, pleasures and pains. We partake in this playfulness that can be effortless, spontaneous, and selfless. We change what we can change and accept what we cannot change.
Divinity can have different meanings. It can be seen as
universal consciousness that expresses itself in creation, preservation, and destruction. Or it can be seen as the source, the unmanifest, out of which the manifest plurality of the world arises. Sometimes the manifestations may appear beautiful, sometimes ugly or tragic or blissful. In any case, play along with it but remain centred and compassionate (see also Stanislav Grof: The Cosmic Game). In other words, remain centred in the Dao, but remember that it gives rise to both good and evil (Daodejing, Chapter 5, Stephen Mitchell’s translation).

I learned that the
human condition can be transcended, although this may be difficult or impossible for most people because of strong conditioning.
I see
three major roots of the human condition: our animal ancestry, thought, and language. Like chimpanzees, we have the instinctual propensities to be egocentric, power-hungry, hierarchical, competitive, territorial, xenophobic, and to engage in violence and deadly warfare. But like chimpanzees, we are also capable of cooperation, reciprocal and genuine altruism, empathy, and compassion. Like bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees), who are matrifocal, we can also be playful, egalitarian, and peaceful. Thus, "we are born with a gamut of tendencies from the basest to the noblest" (Frans de Waal: Our Inner Ape). This gamut of tendencies becomes exaggerated positively or negatively through language, ideas and logic, science and technology. Thought and language can be very useful, but they can also imprison us when we identify with them. We are much more than our thoughts and words, but we tend to forget that we are one with the universe. We are not separate.
To transcend the human condition, we have to transcend the identification and separation created by language and thought. We have to embrace the wholeness of existence. Wholeness means also holiness.

I learned that writing or talking about insights that are beyond the grasp of language involves a paradox, as so well expressed by Laozi in the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 56): “Those who know, don’t talk. Those who talk, don’t know.” But he said it. And by saying it, he submitted to the limitations of language.

Latest update on November 23, 2023.

See also
Integral Visions and Nonduality


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