Developing a Bridge Between Science and Sufism

Developing a Bridge Between Science and Sufism

William C. Gough, President
Foundation for Mind-Being Research
442 Knoll Drive
Los Altos, CA 94024
Updated May 12, 2006

Published in the Proceedings of the Fourteenth International Conference on the Study of Shamanism and Alternate Modes of Healing, held at the Santa Sabina Center, San Rafael, CA, Aug 30-Sept. 2, 1997.


This paper originated from a request by the International Association of Sufism for me to present an invited paper on science at the Fourth Annual Sufism Symposium held March 7-9, 1997 at the Hilton Hotel, Newark/Fremont, CA. Since I had a rather shallow knowledge of Sufism, I agreed to give the talk on the condition that I have the opportunity to work both with Sufi masters and be provided literature to help me understand key concepts of their tradition. My goal was to explore whether the model for an expanded scientific paradigm that Dr. Robert Shacklett and I have been working on (Gough & Shacklett, 1995, 1996) would facilitate the development of a bridge between science and Sufism. The International Association of Sufism agreed and the result was a talk and article that I believe indicates the potential for bridging the teachings of a major religious mystical tradition with an expanded paradigm for modern science (Gough, 1997). This paper is a slight expansion of that article.


Modern science and the teachings of Sufism appear to be at opposite poles of our spectrum of knowledge. Yet both have a common goal of understanding, knowledge and truth (Angha, 1991a, pp. 7&8). Even some of the underlying beliefs have similarities. For example, Sufism believes that "All things exist in relation to everything, all is connected and bound together so gracefully and with such great computation that nothing can truly separate any part of existence from the greater whole" (Angha, 1991a, p.20).

In modern science, perhaps the most controversial prediction of quantum theory is that a physical system, once separated, retains a "connectedness" through the quantum wave function. This is known as the issue of "non-locality" which implies an unbroken wholeness or nonseparability that transcends space-time. In our day-to-day life we normally think in terms of a local reality -- one in which it makes sense to divide the world into separate, self-contained systems that interact by forces and signals that fall off rapidly with distance. Thus, the idea of non-locality is shocking in science, because for hundred of years scientists have said that if anything moved it was because something else acted on it. Non-locality suggests that distant systems can be connected in a totally new way -- a way in which distance and time no longer seem to matter.

Experimental results now strongly support the existence of non-locality and hence provide a scientific basis for an underlying unity (Peat, 1990). Indeed, the concept of unification remains a very powerful one in science that continually motivates physicists. A key effort of the high energy physics community consists of developing unification theories that can provide mathematical pictures of "the other side of space-time." (Shacklett & Gough, 1991, pp.14-15)

With this underlying commonality, why does there exist a chasm between science and religion? The reason results from an unspoken assumption introduced into science about two hundred years ago. Most scientists consider the three dimensional physical world and linear time to be the only reality. In science, space-time is treated as a closed system. Other spaces (dimensions) that arise in scientific theories are considered "abstract." By assuming a closed system modern science can require reproducibility (Gough, 1992). This has greatly facilitated modern physics and is the rationale behind "physical laws and constants." For scientists to change this belief requires a major conceptual leap. It amounts to a change in the personal world view of the scientists. Such changes are very difficult. They are similar to the process of changing one's political or religious belief system -- intellectual evidence is often rejected out-of-hand.

Thus, the existing scientific paradigm severely restricts itself to only space-time (physical) models and phenomena, omitting any recognition of other realities. In contrast, much of human experience and the teachings of Sufism extend beyond the boundaries of space and time (Angha, 1991a, p.48). We will address the challenge of how science could incorporate these other realms in a reasonable and effective way. This expanded scientific paradigm will then be used to develop a bridge to some key Sufi beliefs and practices.

Precursors to Scientific Change

Evidence now exists in a number of fields of science that the assumption that space-time is a closed system, although proven very useful in the past, may need to be modified to address questions in many areas. We have discussed this issue in detail (Shacklett & Gough, 1991) and will only briefly outline some of the more obvious ones at this time. In physics the underlying nature of a non-locality represents the major challenge since it implies an instantaneous influence or communication without any exchange of signals through space-time (Gough & Shacklett, 1993a:107-108). Remember, physicists don't actually know how non-local quantum events happen; they know only that they apparently occur. But there are many more questions for science, for example, the location of mind in neuroscience (Gough & Shacklett, 1995:26-27), precognitive remote perception in parapsychology (Jahn & Dunne, 1987, pp. 149-91), the dream/archetype issues of psychology (Gough & Shacklett, 1993a:61-64) and synchronicity which can be treated as non-local events in psychology (Peat, 1987).

We are convinced that there exists a scientific rationale for the existence of a "phase" of existence that is beyond the world of physical form and that, if incorporated into the scientific paradigm, could facilitate answers for many of the questions now confronting science (Gough & Shacklett, 1996). The theoretical groundwork is being laid since there are a number of scientific models that can link the non-physical (a realm of intelligence) to the physical (a realm of matter and energy). We have discussed one such option based upon twistor theory in our earlier papers (Shacklett and Gough, 1991:29-32). The work of David Bohm provides another excellent option (Bohm, 1980). Such models provide the rationale for creating a larger wholeness that encompasses mind/spirit.

Such models assume the source of the creation process originates beyond space-time, which is contrary to the bottom-up creation process assumed by many scientists. In addition, scientists typically assume that meaning and purpose arise out of the increased complexity from the assembled parts, a viewpoint called reductionism. We define meaning as the significance or importance that humans attribute to a collection of objects or events. However, purpose arises from realms beyond the physical. We believe that the human mind represents an aspect of us that can function beyond space-time and thus can access the creative intelligence of the whole. Here we are addressing a major mystery in modern science. We will outline a few of the issues.

Biological morphogenesis, the structural development of an organism, remains a mystery in science. How does a seed go to an oak tree; or an egg to a human being? DNA can specify the parts or components but where is the guidance for the dynamic assembly? To answer such questions, Dr. Rupert Sheldrake's theoretical ideas and supporting data on morphogenetic fields involve a creative agent or intelligence beyond space-time (Sheldrake, 1981, 1988, 1995). In addition, scientific studies are providing increasing evidence for creative non-physical realms of active intelligence that transcend space and time. These include the studies on prayer (Dossey, 1996), life after death and reincarnation (Stevenson, 1996).


If space-time emerges out of a non-physical phase of reality, then what "material" does God use to creatively "weave" the physical phase of space-time with the great diversity of natural patterns that we observe? Could light waves be the threads that weave the physical world? The idea of light is one of the most important aspects of Sufism. Hadith (collections of the sayings of the Prophet) refers to light as the first creation of the Divine (Angha, 1991a, p.61). In the Koran the Prophet said: "God is the light of the heavens and the earth." (Cleary, 1993, p.82 Koran 32-42).

As discussed below, we believe that science can support the hypothesis that light gives rise to space-time -- i.e., to every form or pattern that exists in our physical reality. In electromagnetic theory, change in the speed of charge corresponds to light. Mass and matter would be secondary properties which arise from charge. Hence, light becomes the interface between the physical world of form and the intelligence of the non-physical world of mind/spirit. In a manner similar to that of most modern scientists, we use the term "light" to mean the entire electromagnetic spectrum from the frequencies associated with phenomena at the Planck length (10-33 cm.) to those corresponding to the size of the universe.

Space-time provides the platform from which modern science operates in its study of the patterns of physical form. Yet the non-scientist needs to recognize that this structure is built upon scientific mysteries. Great scientists including Einstein have recognized our underlying ignorance of the true nature of space and time. An even greater mystery to science is the nature of "light" (Gough & Shacklett, 1995:20-22). The properties of light are unique, and a photon of light can not be treated as just another form of matter (See Gough & Shacklett, 1995, p.12 for discussion of why). Yet almost all the scientific knowledge of our universe comes from the interaction of light with matter. Light is at the foundation of all science. However, we don't really know what matter is, and as Dr. David Bohm has stated, matter could be considered "frozen light" (Weber, 1986:45).

Indeed, research on the physics of the quantum vacuum lends credence to the belief that the world of physical form can arise from light at the quantum vacuum level. (The quantum vacuum extends from the elementary particles down in smallness to the bottom of space-time and represents a "sea" of essentially infinite energy.) Based upon the theoretical research work of Dr. Bernard Haisch and others on the quantum vacuum there now exists a scientific rationale for this possibility. The implications of this work are far-reaching, since gravity, inertia, and mass can now be considered as aspects of electromagnetism, i.e., "light", thereby suggesting solutions to age-old questions about the fundamental nature of these phenomena (Haisch, Rueda, and Puthoff, 1994ab, 1996; Haisch, 1996).

Inner Light

In the Sufi tradition Divine light appears as an essence within all human beings. Each stage of the spiritual journey is illuminated by its appropriate light. This light is known as the light of the "intellect" and imparts wisdom. The intellect that the Sufi refers to is a concept broader than just the capacity for rational or intelligent thought. To the Sufi, the intellect refers to the wisdom "found beyond the limitations of matter, and can thus take as its object of reasoning the whole of existence, not just the small manifestation of the material world" (Angha, 1991a, p.22)

Our hypothesis is that light (Divine light) gives rise to space-time, and the intelligence it imparts creates the patterns or forms that appear in nature. Since a human being has a physical body, we represent a pattern occupying a portion of space-time. Thus, each human being can directly experience an "inner light" (inputs of wisdom from spiritual levels) that does not come through the physical sense organs. In addition, since "inner light" manifests within our bodies, changes at the cellular level can occur.

Thus, we can view the interior space that the human being occupies in physical space-time to be like a soap bubble in air. We are effectively a probe in a sea of waves. Our choice is whether to align with the non space-time realm or not. When we are aligned we experience an "inner light" or inner peace. The alignment can be experienced through any or all of normal sensory channels. We wish to emphasize that inner light does not originate in the physical but is experienced or perceived in the physical. The physical body is the end point of a process that starts beyond space-time. Hence, "the differences in spiritual levels among human beings derive to a large extent from the different degrees to which the light of the intellect penetrates the veil of the ego" (Chittick, 1983, p.34).

The Heart

How do we align with the non-physical phase of reality to create the most efficient coupling? In the Sufi tradition, the seeker, under the supervision of the teacher, settles in his heart. This is the base for his spiritual traveling for "the sight of heart surpasses the dimensions of time and space in their ordinary senses." "The Prophet said, 'Shun the ignorant learned!' The ignorant learned is he who is learned in mind and ignorant in heart. Our mental activities can only understand the surface. The human being has another center of understanding, namely the heart. Here we speak not of the actual organ of the heart, since the organ is still but yet another limited part of the body, but rather we speak of the spirit and essence of the heart. One must be intelligent and possess an illuminated heart, a heart that is capable of witnessing Being." (Angha, 1991a, pp.23-24)

In a similar manner, when we speak of the human body as a tunable probe. We will need to overcome the tendency in most modern deliberations about human beings to focus solely upon the brain. For over 2,000 years the cardiocentric doctrine was dominant, and the heart was considered the seat of the soul and the organ that controlled mental functions, emotions and behavior. We believe this concept needs to be reconsidered, since we regard the entire human being as a "probe" in a sea of infinite vibrations. Recent scientific research has shown that there are electrophysiological correlates associated with intentional heart focus. (McCraty,, 1993, 1995ab, Tiller,, 1996)

Thus, the body is like a musical instrument and can be tuned. That tuning can be accomplished via mental and emotional control via the heart. Emotions can be considered the body's thoughts which manifest as feelings. We can be in tune with the music of the whole -- with God's orchestra. This is in agreement with the Sufi viewpoint that "These inward sensibilities awaken only after the heart opens to the knowledge of reality through a perfect harmony with it." (Angha, 1991a, p.52). The purpose of Sufi meditation is to "concentrate all energies in the heart, thus gradually the heart becomes able to see, to listen, and to experience what is beyond the limitations of the senses, a perception attained without the need of any body organ of the senses." (Angha, 1991a, p.60).

The source of our heartbeats is within the heart itself -- from pacemaker cells within the heart. Thus, the heart appears to function as a self-controlled organ, although the heartbeat rhythm can be modulated by other portions of the body. From the brain we have signals that travel to the heart via the sympathetic and parasympathetic nerve links which represent two branches of our autonomic nervous system.

Signals from the sympathetic system cause the heart rate to increase, those from the parasympathetic system cause the heart rate to decrease. In the reverse direction signals can flow from the heart along nerves of the baroreceptor system to the brain. Such flow can alter the sympathetic/parasympathetic relationship The heart rate variability (HRV) which is the periodic variation in number of heart beats per minute represents the interaction between the signals flowing in these two nerve links. The HRV is now recognized as an important indicator of an individuals' inner self-management of mental and emotional states -- and signals from the heart can alter one's HRV.

Although often not generally recognized, the heart has 40,000 neuron cells (Armour, 1997). This is a small number when compared to the 10 billion neuron cells in the brain (LeDoux, 1996, p.22). Nevertheless both our hypothesis and Sufi tradition suggest that the heart may serve as a direct conduit to the intuitive wisdom that transcends the dimensions of time and space. An analogy would be to consider the heart like a remote control unit that is capable of reprogramming the "brain" of a more complicated VCR or television unit. Recall that the heart's electrical signal is 40 to 60 times more powerful than the brain's. Thus, the heart's electrical signals permeate every cell in our bodies.

A common conception is that the brain is a cognitive computer that runs the physical body. We are suggesting that there is a two-way communication system between the brain and the rest of the physical body, in particular the heart which serves as a key area for "input" from the non-space-time aspects of reality. Unlike cognitions, we know that for emotions the brain does not usually function independently of the body. Neuroscientists have discovered that the biological machine of emotion (but not cognition) crucially includes the body (LeDoux, 1996, pp.39-41).

Research has shown that sensory signals from the body travel first in the brain to the thalamus, and then to the amygdala - the so called emotional brain. A second signal from the thalamus is routed to the neocortex - the thinking brain. The branching allows the amygdala to begin to respond before the neocortex, thus neural pathways for feelings exist that bypass the neocortex. Hence, "the amygdala can have us spring to action while the slightly slower - but more fully informed - neocortex unfolds its more refined plan for action" (Goleman, 1995, pp.17-19). We suggest that by focusing our intention upon a feeling state in the heart, we can activate the "emotional brain" of the amygdala. The feeling state which will maximize input from the higher self or "soul" level of reality we believe is love.


Enhancing the flow from the realms of wisdom and intelligence can lead to a more meaningful and hence desirable life. To the Sufi this is accomplished via heartfelt Love. The development of the seeker on the journey will come through his love and attraction to the Divine. As this attraction and love grows it will cause the purification of his inner heart. It is love that takes the seeker's journey into annihilation since it is directed towards unity. (Angha, 1991a, p.65)

Love ('ishq) is the central theme of all the works of the famous Sufi master Jalal al-Din Rumi who is known in the west as Rumi. Rumi was born in what is now Afghanistan in the year 1207 A.D. In Rumi's view, Love totally dominates and determines the Sufi's inward and 'psychological' states. But because Love pertains to the experiential dimensions of Sufism, not the theoretical, it must be experienced to be understood -- it cannot be explained in words. Rumi often remarks on the impossibility of explaining Love. Love exists to be realized, not discussed. (Chittick, 1983, p.p.194-195)

Thus, we are now suggesting there may exist a physics that delineates the importance of the particular "station" to which we tune our thoughts and emotions. To what and how do we tune? Scientific research at the Institute of HeartMath has emphasized deep heart-focused feelings of love, care, and appreciation. Scientific measurements have shown an entrainment of the body's oscillators in the heart, brain, and respiration systems which bring the body's systems into synchronization. As the practice is continued, an internal coherence state is reached and can be identified by its harmonic spectrum or overtones. It is through heart-felt love that we will enhance the coupling to the realms beyond space-time (Gough & Shacklett, 1995:35-39).

The Magnetic Connector

Let us explore a little more the interconnection and feedback that exists between the physical and non-physical realms. The human body contains a system of biological oscillators. We have the ability to tune and bring these oscillators into resonance via the control of our thoughts and emotions. These biological oscillators, called pacemaker cells, are known to be present in the heart, the brain, the respiratory system and the digestive system. The shift of focus of attention to the area of the heart with the conscious attention upon deep feelings of love, care, or appreciation injects a positive element into the feedback process to the realms beyond space-time. Experimental observations of the effect of maintaining such a positive feedback process show that the body's biological oscillators can become entrained. That is, we can intentionally bring the body's systems into synchronization with each other because they act as coupled electrical oscillators. As this process is continued, a further shift is made to a state called internal coherence in which one's inner mental and emotional self dialogue is reduced to a very large degree (McCraty,, 1993, 1995ab; Tiller,, 1996).

The theory of electromagnetic waves (light) contains quantities called the electric and magnetic potentials. These quantities serve as a mathematical convenience in the classical theory. They are not regarded as important as the "real" fields and forces of EM. The physical implications of the potentials were ignored by physics until a crucial experiment suggested by Aharonov and Bohm was performed and showed the magnetic vector potential to have physical consequences outside of the conventional, classical field effects (Bohn & Hiley, 1993).

Our model predicts that the coupling that connects the physical aspects of the body to its non-physical counterparts can be symbolized in EM theory by the magnetic vector potential. This coupling is vital to maintaining the wholeness and integrity of the parts as envisioned at the spiritual level. In other words, the relationship between the parts is maintained via linkages to the non-physical realms that are of a "non-local" nature.

Hence, "inner light" can be contrasted with "outer light" which is commonly understood to refer to that electromagnetic radiation which affects the retina of the eye. The "inner light" experience is the end product of a chain of energy conversion processes of electromagnetic waves that changes them from higher to lower frequencies. The process originates beyond space-time and eventually appears as atomic and molecular changes within the physical body. In this process the magnetic vector potential, being "outside of space-time," provides the mechanism for introducing the wisdom of the spiritual realms into the physical via magnetic effects.

Dr. James Robert Brown, a philosopher of science, devotes an entire chapter of his recent book to answering the question "What is the Vector Potential?" He concludes that "There is a third kind of thing in the universe: it is not mathematical, but it is abstract; it is not physical, but it plays a causally determining role in how the physical world works. --- Being outside of space-time the vector potential does not transmit signals at any velocity" (Brown, 1994, pp. 158-159). Thus, via the vector magnetic potential, any magnetic centers in our bodies could serve as "receivers/transmitters" for our linkage to the non-physical realms. The implication to Sufism of magnetic centers of the human body has been discussed in the literature of the International Association of Sufism.

"Magnetic centers of the human body have been a subject of interest for many centuries and a point of importance in many schools of spirituality. The reason lies in the fact that concentration on any one of these centers will end in fruitful spiritual understanding. Thus distinguishing these centers, their locations and their power is of greatest importance for anyone who seeks spiritual knowledge." Hazrat Shah Maghsoud (20th century Sufi) states that "there are thirteen magnetic centers in the human body. These centers have constant communications with the electro-magnetic systems of the universe." (Angha, 1991b, p.30)


Force of habit, and resistance to change remain great in all realms of human thought. Modern science and religion are no exception to this rule. To develop a bridge between science and Sufism there must first develop an expanded paradigm in science, one which will challenge individual scientists to scrutinize the deepest, darkest, and most fearful parts of themselves -- for the new scientific paradigm that we have been discussing will link our outer world of modern physics and our inner world of thoughts and feelings. Thus, for both the scientist and the Sufi, the difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in recognizing and escaping from old beliefs which over a lifetime have permeated every corner of one's mind and body.

Fortunately, science is an open system amenable to change but strongly resistive (and rightfully so) to change without proof. We believe that evidence from multiple fields of science is now available to facilitate the emergence of an expanded scientific paradigm that can bridge between our outer world of modern physics and our inner world of thoughts and feelings.

In the introduction to his book The Essential Koran: The Heart of Islam, Thomas Cleary comments upon an appealing aspect of Islam as follows: "Islam does not demand unreasoned belief. Rather, it invites intelligent faith, growing from observations, reflection, and contemplation, beginning with nature and what is all around us. Accordingly, antagonism between religion and science such as that familiar to Westerners is foreign to Islam." (Cleary, 1994, p.vii)

Thus, the hope exists for a bridge between science and Sufism. It will be up to all of us to focus our attention and intention upon the proper construction of that bridge and build it from the heart with love.


This paper is an expanded version of the copyrighted article "Developing a Bridge Between Science and Sufism," published in the Proceedings of the Fourth Annual Sufism Symposium held March 7-9, 1997 at the Hilton Hotel, Newark/Fremont, CA by the International Association of Sufism and republished in Sufism, Vol VI, No 4, 1997. The core article is being republished with the kind permission of the International Association of Sufism.


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