Into the Mystic

Scientists confront the hazy realm of spiritual enlightenment

12:55pm, February 15, 2001

After spending 8 years training in the meditative practices of Zen Buddhism, neurologist James H. Austin spent a sabbatical year from 1981 to 1982 at the London Zen Center. On a pleasant March morning, while waiting for a subway train on a surface platform and idly glancing down the tracks toward the Thames River, Austin got his first taste of spiritual enlightenment.

Instantly, the panorama of sky, buildings, and water acquired a sense of what he calls "absolute reality, intrinsic rightness, and ultimate perfection." He suddenly shed his formerly unshakable assumption that he was an individual, separated from the rest of the world by a skin suit. The sky and river remained just as blue, the buildings just as gray and dingy, yet the loss of an "I-me-mine" perspective imbued the view with an extraordinary emptiness, he says.

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