Excerpts From an Interview with Dr. Cassandra Vieten, President and CEO of the Institute of Noetic Sciences
Conducted by Philip Hellmich, Director of Peace for The Shift Network
This is Philip Helmich, the director of peace at the Shift Network. I'm really delighted that we have a close friend of the Shift Network here, Dr. Cassandra Vieten. We're doing this call from Earth Rise campus, which is part of the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS).
Dr. Cassi Vieten is the president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences and a scientist at the Mind, Body, Medicine Research Group at California Pacific Medical Center Research. She is a licensed clinical psychologist and has been with IONS since 2001, previously serving as the director of research.
Cassi's research on mindfulness-based approaches to dealing with addictions and mood disorders, and for stress reduction during pregnancy and early motherhood have been funded by the National Institute of Health, the state of California, and several private foundations. She is the author of Mindful Motherhood: Practical Tools for Staying Sane During Pregnancy and Your Child's First Year. Cassi is also co-author, along with Marilyn Schlitz and Tina Amorok, of Living Deeply: The Art and Science of Transformation in Everyday Life.
Also, from my heart, I just want to say that I've enjoyed several conversations with Cass over the last several years. She has a deep interest in the intersection between science and peace, and has hosted a series of conversations with different scientists on the science of peace. Those recordings are available in the World Peace Library. Cassi, thank you so much for being with us.
Thank you for inviting me. It's a pleasure to be here.
I love the topic that we're going to be exploring today, which is the theme of IONS’ upcoming conference, ”The Science of What Connects Us,” which will be held July 20-23 in Oakland. Connection is a key part of peacebuilding. You’ve said that spiritual traditions and extraordinary experiences point to a subjective sense of interconnectedness or oneness that lies beneath or encompasses what distinguishes us from one another. You've been looking at how modern science is exploring these phenomena and the ways that science is revealing new understandings about how we’re connected and what its relevance is to peacebuilding. How did this interest of science and peacebuilding emerge for you in your own life?
Dr. Cassandra Vieten
I was born in 1969 and was raised by a family that was quite progressive. My mom and dad became disillusioned with a lot of church and authority figures and started to notice the hypocrisy of what was being said about values and morals, which was not in alignment with what was happening in Vietnam. I was born in 1969. My mom was in Beyond War, a movement started in 1984 seeking to end war. There was a lot of that kind of consciousness happening in my home.
When I was about nine years old, my parents and many parents like them thought it was important for their kids to watch the television mini-series, “Roots.” At that age, I was just excited that I got to stay up late and watch TV. After the first episode, I was horrified. I was like, Why would you let me watch this terrible movie?
They said, it's not a movie, it's a real thing that happened. That shook me to my core. I thought, How can I even go to school tomorrow? It was hard to process. I probably didn't put it in these words, but somehow I resolved inside myself to say, Okay, the only way to keep going, knowing that this kind of thing happens, is to dedicate my life to understanding what kind of worldviews could lead people to do such things and then try to figure out how we can transform those worldviews into a world that would make such things impossible.
That was just such a really deep experience. As I went through my teenage years, a lot of existential things bothered me. I definitely had some anxiety and depression but I got through it. I just thought, I really want to help people not suffer, both at an individual level and at a collective level. I was thrilled to find the Institute of Noetic Sciences and be able to dedicate my life to bringing together science and spirituality and the pursuit of thriving on the planet and reducing suffering.
Please let our listeners know a little bit more about IONS and the type of forward-thinking research you're doing.
Sure. The Institute of Noetic Sciences was founded in 1973 by the Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who was the sixth person to walk on the moon. I’m happy to say he became a friend and a mentor. He had an experience when he was in the space capsule returning to earth after his moonwalk where he, number one, had a deeply profound experience of sensing himself as interconnected with everything he saw, including the earth and stars. The way he put it was, “I recognize that the molecules of my body were exactly the same as everything I was seeing, that it was all connected and there was some sort of intelligence or divinity or order or light shining through everything.”
He also looked at the earth from space and felt a sense of despair at the amount of suffering on the planet and how much of it was unnecessary. There are no boundaries between countries when you look at the earth from space; we have collectively invented them.
There are obviously enough resources on the planet to feed, clothe, house and get water to everyone. We don't do it because we have the idea that it's not possible. What Edgar noticed was that if we could change the way people view things it wouldn't be hard to take care of each other technologically. That’s what the Institute of Noetic Sciences has been dedicated to doing for the last 44 years.
I am so grateful you're doing this type of research, Cassi. As you know, I was just in India for the Yoga Day Summit. One of the themes that came up during the interviews we conducted — on the Ganges and in the Himalayas with swaminis and yoga teachers — was that through the ancient science of yoga, people can tap into the natural intelligence that is guiding everything. And that invariably leads people to take action for the betterment of the larger whole because of the essence of interconnectedness. What you're exploring on a scientific level is similar to what I was hearing from these yoga practitioners at the birthplace of yoga, a science that's five to ten thousand years old.
Yes, the core of IONS’ work is to bring together modern science with ancient wisdom traditions. You mentioned our upcoming conference, “The Science of What Connects Us,” which is our 17th conference. In almost every session, we're pairing one of our scientists who's doing empirical research on these topics with somebody who's a wisdom-keeper or an on-the-ground practitioner.
For example, we’re pairing someone who studies biofields and the energy body using traditional science with an energy healer. We've got Dean Radin who's studying whether there’s real science behind things that over millennia we've called magic, and he's paired with somebody who is actually a magician and has studied that aspect of it. It's a cool pairing, but in general, that's the DNA of IONS — to bring together science and spiritual wisdom and know that they're not incompatible, that they are in fact complementary and can inform and influence each other.
I noticed that one of the pre-workshops you have for the conference is about when power meets purpose. I think there's probably quite a bit of not only science, but deep spiritual metaphysics about being aligned with purpose. Think about Martin Luther King’s, “I Have a Dream.” That just woke up people. And John F. Kennedy with the moon shot. It's inspiring when something bigger than our small little world gets us caught up in it. Can you speak to whether there's any science around connecting with purpose?
At the conference, what you're going to find is a lot of scientists talking about rigorous empirical scientific methods to get at things like what’s happening when people feel like they've contacted their ancestors. Is there any truth to feeling like there's some wisdom coming through you?
Helen Wahbeh, our new director of research, has just launched a comprehensive research program on channeling, which is getting information from somewhere other than the five senses. Some people feel like it's coming from specific beings. That just sounds so crazy to mainstream or very conventional people, but real innovator — people who have made serious inventions — often feel like that information has come to them. The feeling of, I did not invent this; this was invented through me, is very familiar to great scientists and great innovators.
The conference also features Shamini Jain, who’s head of the consciousness and healing initiative focused on biofield science and exploring whether there’s an energy body that accompanies our physical body. As doctors are working to heal our physical body, is there any benefit to someone trying to also heal the energy body? We’re pairing her with an energy medicine practitioner. We'll also be looking at mind-matter interactions, like whether it’s possible that what you think and intend is influencing something in the field in the physical universe. These are very frontier-like concepts. They're not hugely accepted by the mainstream of science, but for peacebuilders and change-makers, when you encounter those kinds of ideas, it forces you to stretch your worldview.
Philip's interview with Dr. Cassandra Vieten in its entirety is part of the free online summit, Inspiring Positive Social Change: Cutting-edge Insights from Spirituality, Neuroscience and Peacebuilding.
To register for free, click here.
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This article appears in: 2017 Catalyst, Issue 14: Inspiring Positive Social Change