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The changes this book discusses are not the stuff of New Year's resolutions: lose weight, get a better job, stop smoking. Rather, it's about deep, positive transformation in the way you experience the world. It examines not just the peak moments that can provide glimpses of insight, humility, gratitude, or transcendant beauty, but the practices that can nurture a more positive worldview and the ways that life-altering experiences can manifest themselves in thought, feeling, and action.
This book is the result of a ten-year research project at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) that investigated multiple perspectives on life-transforming experiences. The Institute was founded by astronaut Edgar Mitchell and others in 1973 to explore our experience of consciousness with scientific rigor but with an openness to people's direct perceptions of phenomena that might lie outside the purview of mainstream science. Researchers at the institute held three focus groups in the late 1990s for people to discuss the transformation of consciousness, and then selected 50 high-profile scholars and practitioners from a wide range of spiritual traditions for in-depth interviews. The book is a distillation of what the researchers learned, emphasizing the common threads they found.
Quotes from the interviewees make up a large part of the book. This gives the effect of sitting in on a conversation, and the diversity of the voices allows for the expression of multiple viewpoints on key questions. There are plenty of opportunities for further exploration; many of the interviewees have web sites (URLs are given in capsule biographies) or books (listed in a reference section) that you can turn to for more information on a topic or viewpoint that resonates for you. Overall this book is a rich resource for seekers; however, it lacks an index, so it can be hard to locate a particular name or concept. A companion DVD offers guided introductions to nine practices from a variety of spiritual traditions, but this review does not cover the DVD.
The book begins by discussing the nature of life-changing experiences and the many doorways that can open onto transformation. The change can be sudden or gradual, and can take place in an ordinary setting (an epiphany while taking a walk in your neighborhood) or in an unusual place (like Mitchell's experience of seeing the earth from space). They can be triggered by pain and loss, or by an exhilarating peak experience. The factor linking them is that they have the potential to shift the foundations of your worldview in profound ways.
Even if your transcendant experience happens, like Mitchell's, in someplace well outside of the everyday, such moments of deep insight are most valuable when they are used as seeds for permanent change. The middle of the book explore ways that people can prepare themselves for and nurture positive changes in worldview. Two chapters explore the essentials of a useful spritual practice and the ways that practice can help people change their behavior and their outlook. This is followed by a chapter on how to incorporate the sacred into relationships and everyday activities. The book concludes with several chapters describing the results that a sustained effort at transformation can produce, in particular a feeling of connectedness with other people and other living things, a sense of responsibility for the well-being of others. and a feeling that the sacred permeates the everyday world.
Each chapter concludes with an exercise, mostly journal exercises that guide your reflections on how the material in the chapter applies to your own life. The exercises are not linked to any particular religious tradition, except for one involving Tonglen meditation, a practice from Tibetan Buddhism. While some of the exercises are stronger than others, and some might need to be repeated regularly for best results, their presence emphasizes that this book will yield the greatest benefits if you work with the material.
The use of the word "science" in the subtitle is problematic. While psychological explanations are woven into the discussion, they form only a minor thread in the whole. Furthermore, some of the connections to science are dubious; for example, although Dean Radin claims to be investigating the science behind parapsychological phenomena, many mainstream scientists find his method unscientific. Although this goal is not articulated in so many words, the book seems to be about how to tap into a spiritual truth that exists outside of us, rather than to tap into the capacity of the human brain for feelings of transcendence, connectedness, compassion, and overwhelming beauty. The book is not about understanding the neurochemistry, evolutionary history, or other factors that might provde a scientific understanding for this capacity.
However, the approach is empirical. If you view religious and spiritual traditions as providing time-tested guidelines for changing not just behavior but our experience of the contents of our minds, the IONS research project can be seen as a search for general rules and practices that have proven valuable. Readers are invited to try different approaches for themselves and see what works for them. Before deciding if the book is for you, you might want to look at the IONS web site and see how closely the institute's approach matches your own views. If they mesh, you may find this book useful for learning about some of the many ways humans have found to try to live according to their better natures.
© 2009 Mary Hrovat
Mary Hrovat is a freelance science writer and editor; she has written about science and information technology for Indiana University's Research & Creative Activity magazine, Indiana Alumni Magazine, and Discovery Online. She also posts news items, book reviews, and articles on the Thinking Meat Project [http://www.thinkingmeat.com/], which deals with brain science, psychology, human evolution, and related topics.