Science and meditation both resulted from man's inquisitiveness - a desire to know the very basis of existence. Science dealt with the external world consisting of all matter embedded in space-time, while meditation attempted to understand the intangible reality behind all these manifestations. Although there is some tendency to regard meditation as a science the domains of the two disciplines are separate. Science in its present form has a relatively short history, but meditation has been around since the dawn of civilization. It is not something that was discovered and invented in time. It is an ageless human experience where only the techniques for getting the experience have been explored and refined. Meditation has nothing to do with any particular religion. However, since the experience in meditation involves the Ultimate Reality (identified with God in most religions), people often think of it as a spiritual or religious activity.
In science physics has always been at the vanguard of discovery and in the past hundred years it has brought revolutionary changes in our understanding of nature. The main contributors have been the quantum theory and the theory of relativity. These theories have taken physics almost into the realm of metaphysics and in recent years there has been much discussion about the convergence of science and religion (or science and philosophy). We do not wish to get into that discussion here. Our intent is to just point out the similarity of the concepts in modern physics (especially in relativity theory) and meditation.
Special Theory of Relativity
The development of the theory of relativity involved two phases. Einstein first presented it for the special case of uniform motion and abolished the concept of absolute space and time. Length (a measure of space) and time were dependent (relative to) on the frame of reference, i.e. depended on the observer. For an observer moving with a uniform velocity the length became shorter (contracted) and the time became longer (dilated). These results follow from the two main postulates of theory: 1) the speed of light in vacuum is the same for all observers; 2) the laws of nature are the same for all observers. This is called the special theory of relativity as it applies to the special case of uniform motion.
Since space and time are dependent on velocity that combines space and time (speed is distance divided by time) it is no longer possible to treat them separately. This means that an object is not completely described by its position alone, the time also has to be specified. Thus in relativistic terms there are no objects but only events in four-dimensional space-time.
Another conclusion that followed from this theory was the equivalence of mass and energy given by the famous equation E = mc2 derived by Einstein shortly after presenting the theory. At the time this result seemed absurd to Einstein himself. Years later came its experimental verification that had enormous consequences for Mankind.
General Theory of Relativity
Even though the results of the special theory were spectacular, Einstein was not satisfied. He wanted it to be generalized for 'motion' in general including accelerated motion. The simplest example of such motion in nature is the motion in a gravitational field, which had been investigated since the time of Galileo. Based on the knowledge of the earth's gravitational field Einstein concluded that the effects of an accelerated (nonuniform) motion must be the same as that of the gravitational field. He called it the equivalence principle . From here he reached the conclusion that, since bodies in the universe move along the space-time surface, space-time itself must be curved and the curvature of space-time represents the gravitational field. It is not possible to cover the intricacies of the space-time curvature here; we shall simply mention the consequence of this fact as described by Stephen Hawkins. "Space and time are now dynamic quantities. Space and time not only affect but are also affected by whatever happens in the universe."
This leads to another important fact pertinent to our discussion: if there is no matter in the universe (i.e. the universe itself disappears) space and time also disappear. If space and time disappear, what remains? In Einstein's words nothing remains. Yet this state of nothingness must contain the potentials for matter, space, and time to reappear when conditions are favorable. In philosophy there is a term to describe it; it is called "shunyata" in Sanskrit and is usually translated as emptiness or void, although neither conveys the real meaning. We will discuss it in the next section.
Relevance to Meditation
At times there may be a wrong impression that according to the relativity theory everything is relative. To use the famous quip of Bertrand Russell: if everything were relative, there would be nothing to be relative to. The theory says that space and time (and everything embedded in it) are relative to the observer. The only absolute things are the velocity of light and the laws of nature. However, when all matter vanishes from the universe there is no light and there is no nature (in the conventional sense), only total nothingness or shunyata. This is the only thing left with nothing else for it to be relative to and so it must be absolute. What is the relationship of this shunyata to the observer? If it is absolute, it must exist also when everything in the universe is intact. The relativity theory leads us to it but it cannot tell us what it is. This is where meditation comes in.
What causes the observer to observe? It is the consciousness that makes him function as an observer. Without consciousness there will be no observer and no observation. Can we know consciousness? Knowing is a function of the mind and it operates only because of consciousness. In effect consciousness is the knower. How can one know the knower? We cannot. At the physical level our eyes see everything but we cannot see our own eyes; we can see only their image in a mirror and realize that we have them. In the same way we cannot know consciousness, we can only realize it or experience its presence. And that is the goal of meditation.
Each individual is conscious in his own way; in other words the consciousness in each individual is unique. But that is only a partial aspect, which is subjective consciousness. The consciousness that is experienced in meditation is universal and in this experience the subjective merges with the universal. A simple analogy is the ocean and a drop from it. As long as the drop is separated from the ocean it has its own identity. But when it goes back into the ocean it is no longer distinguishable from it, even though in the interim it may have gone through different phases of transition (water vapor, cloud particle, rain drop, etc.). The Absolute consciousness is the ground for everything in the universe. It is the ultimate source and sink for the universe.
Let us get back to relativity and shunyata. As we have seen, this total nothingness cannot be confused with emptiness because it contains all the potential for existence and change (space, time, and matter). In order to realize its true and all-pervasive nature we digress here a little and consider the nature of existence of fundamental particles (electrons and quarks for example) in quantum theory. The mathematical equations used there do not describe the existence of these particles but only the potential for existence in terms of wave functions. One of the potentials becomes real due to wave function collapse. What causes the potential to become real is the observer's consciousness. Thus matter and energy remain as potentials and become real only when they interact with consciousness. Consciousness is the Absolute Reality and shunyata is the experience of this Reality. It includes all and transcends all at the same time. This experience can be gained only through meditation.
How can nothingness be the backdrop for everything? For observing a picture we need some background such as paper, screen, canvas, etc. This refers, though, only to physical visualization. In meditation we are using the mind in its highest state and consciousness is the background for all visualizations. We can also use an analogy from everyday experience. We see different things in the sky and take the sky as the background. But the sky is not a material object; it is just empty space, in fact a sort of nothingness.
Science and meditation both attempt to clarify the reality of existence although their domains are different. One seeks the reality behind the phenomenal world, while the other tries to find the reality behind all existence. Spirituality has always dealt with abstract phenomena. Now science has also gone into the world of intangibles. Physics, in particular, has gone into the realm of the unknown through quantum and relativity theories. The theory of relativity has done away with the old concepts of space, time, and matter. Quantum theory has shown results (quantum void, nonlocality and phase entanglement, breakdown of causation, etc.) that resonate with the ideas of ancient philosophies. The concept of nothingness that relativity leads to is in some respects similar to that of shunyata in Vedanta and Buddhism. Although these similarities may not imply a convergence of science and religion (spirituality) they do suggest that the quest of reality is taking parallel paths and the reality in spirituality is simply an extension of that in science.
Dharmbir Rai Sharma is a retired professor with an electrical engineering and physics background. Dharmbir maintains the website Cosmos Ebooks, dealing mainly with philosophy and science. You can download his ebook, "Where Is God," which traces the development of the concept of God.