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Science and Spirituality

Discovering the Creation of the Universe and the Divine: Interview with Dr. Alan Lightman, Part 3 of 3

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In his essay, “The Temporary Universe,” Dr. Lightman states how everything in our universe, even the Sun, moon and stars, is impermanent. “One of the central beliefs of Buddhism is that everything is impermanent, that everything is passing away. So even in science, we’ve learned that everything in nature is impermanent. Energy and matter, the two combined cannot be created or destroyed, just transformed.” Since matter cannot be destroyed, what happens to the physical elements in our body when we pass away? Dr. Lightman explains. “When we die, my view is that the atoms in our body just disperse. They become part of the soil, become part of the air, become part of the oceans. And eventually our atoms will become parts of other people.” In addition to being a distinguished scientist, Dr. Lightman has had spiritual experiences for which there is no scientific explanation. “I'd been watching these baby ospreys grow up all summer long. And I’ve never had any communication with any animal that was that intense. And I felt, in that split second, they were telling me that we’re brothers. We have shared this land together. And ‘Go in peace.’ And it was a wonderful feeling of kinship with these wild animals, that we were all living beings sharing this piece of land together. It was an incredible experience.” “And I lay down in the boat and turned off the engine and it got even quieter. And I just looked up at the stars. And after a few moments I felt like I was falling into infinity. I felt like I was part of something much bigger than myself. I felt a connection, not only to the stars, but to all of nature. That was what I would call a spiritual experience or transcendent experience, where I lost all track of my body and where I was and what time it was, and just felt this connection. And for me, that’s what spirituality is, that feeling of being part of something larger than ourselves, of being connected to the whole cosmos.” Dr. Lightman explains that in order to have a deeper understanding of the wonders around us, we need to spend more time in nature. “I think that our modern lifestyle is too fast, that we’re always rushing from A to B without taking time to just be present and appreciating the moment, of slowing down and just appreciating where we are and who we are. I think that our high-speed communication devices have made us feel like we need to be plugged into the grid all the time. And that is also taking us away from the moment, from the present, from just appreciating where we are. We need time to think about who we are and where we’re going and what our values are. And those moments of reflection require quiet. They require slowness.”
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