Spirituality and science in prizewinning book

Dr Rohana Ulluwishewa

How do you follow a spiritual path in an age of rampant materialism where scientific truth is king? Rohana Ulluwishewa, an honorary research associate at Massey University’s Manawatū campus, has tackled that quandary in an award-winning book.

Re-interpreting spirituality in scientific terms won him the Unpublished Manuscript category worth $10,000 in this year’s Ashton Wylie Charitable Trust Mind Body Spirit Literary Awards, for his work; Spirituality Demystified: Understanding Spirituality in Rational Terms.

Sri Lankan-born Dr Ulluwishewa, a development geographer, says after a 30-year academic career exploring development, environment and sustainability issues, it dawned on him what the genuine solution to many of the world’s problems might be.

Spiritual vacuum underlies failure to alleviate poverty and inequality

“I came to see the root causes of the failure of conventional development to alleviate poverty, inequality, unsustainability and unhappiness lie within us, and it is our spiritual underdevelopment being manifested as self-centeredness, fear and greed,” Dr Ulluwishewa says.

Although he is not a scientist in the conventional sense, he has re-framed spirituality in scientific terms to reflect the latest neuroscience discoveries that provide credibility for the rationally-minded.

Spirit in energy of atomic particles

“I spent a substantial amount of time in familiarising myself with the basics of quantum physics, psychology and neuroscience, and in collecting information on the relevant issues from a variety of books and journals written by scientists on spirituality-related issues. What I did when writing this book was similar to making a jigsaw puzzle; drawing scientific evidence from various sources and putting them in the right places to fill the gaps in order to make a complete picture of spirituality in scientific terms.”

In most religious movements, he says, spirituality – referenced as God, soul, spirit, heaven, hell, karma, life-after-death – is presented as mystical phenomena. “Most of them are inconsistent with modern science and rational thinking.”

However, “recent discoveries in modern science, especially in quantum physics, biology, neuroscience, transpersonal psychology, and scientific studies on consciousness and near-death experience, are now beginning to shed light on the field of spirituality and de-mystify some of its key elements,” he says.

Ultimately, energy is what connects science and spirituality, Dr Ulluwishewa says. From this comes his definition of ‘spirit’ as “that which gives life to a system [a biological system such as the human body].”

“We are nothing but energy, constantly emanating from the quantum reality which is the ultimate source of everything. Everything around us – the air we breathe, the food we eat, the people we associate with, the plants, birds and all inanimate things are composed of spinning and vibrating energies, subatomic and atomic particles.”

Economic to esoteric

A specialist in investigating the impact of development programmes in less wealthy nations, he studied the conflict between economic development and environment. He also studied the links between indigenous knowledge – including Māori – and sustainable development, as well as the role of gender and marginalisation of women in development programmes.

Before coming to Massey University, he was an associate professor at Sri Jayewardenepura University in Sri Lanka, having gained a Master of Science from the London School of Economics then completing his PhD at Kyushu University in Japan. He has worked as a senior lecturer at the University of Brunei, and was a Visiting Fellow at Wageningen Agricultural University and Leiden University in the Netherlands, and at Leeds University in Britain.

His previous book Spirituality and Sustainable Development (Palgrave MacMillan, 2014), an International Book Award finalist, also addressed the age-old tension between worldly and spiritual happiness.

Although a Buddhist, he distinguishes between being religious and being spiritual. “Each religion constitutes a core, which contains teachings and practices leading to inner transformation, and a periphery, which includes ritualistic, cultural and political elements. Unfortunately most religious people follow the peripheral elements rather than core teachings,” he says.

He would like to see a style of secular, non-partisan spirituality integrated into formal education as a way of creating a higher level of consciousness that generates a new type of global citizenship based on collective interests, rather than competition and consumerism.

Idealism for the real world?

“Development experts naturally want to alleviate poverty, but people – especially in wealthy nations – also need to reduce consumption,” he says. “There are too many people on the planet consuming more than they need.”

Dr Ulluwishewa doubts his views are singular, as he’s observed the beginnings of a socio-spiritual  transformation across the globe with a move towards more sustainable, simple lifestyles – such as the Slow Movement – based on a rejection of consumerism and greed.

Judging convenor Adonia Wylie said entries were of the highest in calibre since the awards began 12 years ago, and described Dr Ulluwishewa’s work as “mind blowing in its simplicity.”

“If one were to only read one book in one's lifetime, this is the one. Its clarity, its cogent use of words, its ability to cover the most abstract of topics seamlessly while staying fully grounded, completely clear and coherent makes it a brilliant work,” she said.