Quest into inner space

Sarah Monks

At a time when Hong Kong's growing ranks of the nouveau poor have reason to contemplate the meaning of life beyond material loss, an international festival of consciousness is coming to town.

Described as the first of its kind in the world, the Asia Consciousness Festival will run the full gamut from hardcore science to what some call 'California woo-woo'. Speakers will range from neuroscientists, quantum physicists and psychologists, to spiritual teachers, healers, quasi-scientific gurus and meditation masters.

Gino Yu, an associate professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said he began planning the festival, which runs June 5-21, well before the financial meltdown. He believes the personal soul-searching triggered by the crisis will heighten its appeal and relevance.

To have the financial equivalent of a near-death experience, he said, was a 'wake-up call' for those who defined themselves in terms of ego or work identity.

'If you look at people who have near-death experiences, you'd think, 'I almost died', is a bad thing,' Dr Yu said. 'If you look at how it motivates them to re-examine what they're doing and why, I think that's a really good thing.'

Dr Yu said the festival would combine some 20 related events with around 2,000 participants, from scientists and anthropologists to artists and seekers. The programme includes specialised conferences on artificial intelligence and cognitive science as well as art exhibitions, film screenings, music performances and workshops on personal transformation.

All events, to be held at venues around the city, will be open to the public. Three key questions would be posed, Dr Yu said: what is consciousness and how does it work; how does understanding of consciousness influence quality of life; and what role does consciousness play in human evolution?

Participating scientists include two international media celebrities in the world of brain and consciousness studies. They are Baroness Susan Greenfield, a leading research neuroscientist at Oxford University who wrote and presented the BBC television documentary series Brain Story, and Stuart Hameroff, professor of anaesthesiology and psychology, and director of the centre for consciousness studies at the University of Arizona.

Professor Hameroff appeared in the 2004 feature film-cum-documentary What the Bleep Do We Know!?, which achieved near-cult status with its quirky blend of quantum physics, neurology, spirituality and 'evolutionary thought'. Baroness Greenfield and Professor Hameroff will speak at the 15th Toward a Science of Consciousness Conference, a four-day interdisciplinary scientific event, at the festival.

Further along the 'alternative' track are Japan's Masaru Emoto, a researcher and author on the relationship between water and consciousness, as photographed in ice crystals, and US-based healer Eric Pearl, whose 'hands-off' healings have been widely documented and medically researched. They will speak at the festival's three-day About Consciousness Conference.

'That event is 'consciousness for lay people',' Dr Yu said. 'It's not so scientific and more practical. It's for the What the Bleep crowd who may not appreciate the subtleties of biophysics or neural science but have a desire to explore. Ultimately, anybody that's alive and conscious has the facilities to investigate consciousness.'

Dr Yu sees the festival as a 'coming home' to Asia for consciousness studies, which have commanded increasing attention in the western world. He hopes it will raise awareness in Hong Kong and Asia of consciousness trends around the world.

'A lot of the ideas and themes have been rooted in Asia, with Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism; they've gone to the west; they've become secular science and come back with a new language.'

Polytechnic University's department of computing is a festival co-organiser. So are the centre on behavioural health at the University of Hong Kong, the department of religion and philosophy at Hong Kong Baptist University, the Centre of Buddhist Studies at HKU and the centre for religious and spirituality education at the Hong Kong Institute of Education. The latter two have noticed rising interest in Hong Kong for self-improvement opportunities that are more about enhancing consciousness more than career prospects.

'Our programmes seem to be getting more popular as people are more aware of the importance of the Buddhist wisdom and the teaching of mindfulness,' said Carol Li Wan-yin, executive officer of HKU's Buddhist studies centre. Enrolment in its master of Buddhist studies programme has risen about 50 per cent since its launch in 2002, and five times more undergraduates now choose the centre's elective courses, she added.

Meanwhile, a Hong Kong-based event called Evolution, which describes itself as Asia's largest annual yoga conference, is tapping a deepening seam of secular interest in the mind-body connection. The Pure Group, which operates yoga centres in Hong Kong and other Asian cities, organises the conference to get knowledge of yoga 'out there'. It expects up to 2,000 participants at this year's event in June held, coincidentally, during the Asia Consciousness Festival.

'With the economic downturn, people have become more aware they need a strong body to be emotionally strong,' said Pure public relations manager Maggie Leung Mei-ki.

Dr Yu's entry to the field of consciousness study was his professional interest in teaching people how to recover the creativity they had in spades as children but largely lost as adults. 'At the heart of the problem was where do creative ideas and inspiration come from?' he said. 'To understand that led to this whole area of consciousness.

'Right now, after hundreds of years of medicine, we kind of know how the heart works, the lungs and digestion work and how the cells grow and reproduction works,' Dr Yu said. 'Science can also look into the far reaches of space and into the deepest crevices of quantum with the Hadron supercollider. So we have all this understanding but how do the brain and the body create conscious experience?'

The news, media and science had replaced mythology, art and ritual in people's lives, he said. 'The news and media all influence people's minds, and their minds influence their physiology in terms of fear, fight or flight, anxiety or depression, which then colour their perception of the world.'

Dr Yu believes video games and new media technologies provide a way for people to experience their world view in their own minds. He is interested in how such technologies can help change people's world view and shape their behaviour in a non-destructive way, so they could live in a more sustainable way. 'To be able to live at peace with oneself, with others or live in harmony with oneself, with others and with the environment, is arguably the most important challenge for the world today.'

One of the supporting organisations for the Toward a Science of Consciousness Conference is the California-based Institute of Noetic Sciences, which researches consciousness, including intention and intuition, with scientific rigour.

It was founded in 1973, two years after Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell had an epiphany while returning from the moon which led him to explore the 'inner space' of consciousness.

Institute president Marilyn Mandala Schlitz, who will be a speaker at the festival, said the science of consciousness was important because civilisation had never before faced such complexity.

'People try to find piecemeal solutions - they're going to feed starving children or eradicate violence. All these efforts are really noble and important. But the root cause of these problems is a flawed consciousness, a limited world view. The solution is a deeper appreciation for who we are and how it is that we create and solve problems.'

It was now possible to monitor changes in the brain of people scanned while in a meditative state, but that was the easy part, Dr Schlitz said. 'The hard problem is understanding how you get from the grey matter to awareness and self-reflection. The science isn't there yet. An exact understanding of consciousness is still a mystery.'

Dr Schlitz said that a group of US scientists who had mind-opening personal experiences in the 1960s and 1970s - including some with mind-altering drugs - had used science to try to understand them.

A 'critical mass' of them went to Tucson, Arizona, where the Toward a Science of Consciousness Conference is based. There was also huge popular interest, now, in mind science as a way of achieving personal transformation through, for example, positive thinking and the power of intention.

While Asia's contemplative tradition went back thousands of years, it was new that western science was turning its attention to understanding consciousness, Dr Schlitz said. 'This moment is really a convergence between the deep inquiry that came from the wisdom and spiritual traditions about the nature of our subjective mind and the prowess and rigour that science offers.

'Our survival is tied into our growing awareness of who we are,' she said. 'Consciousness matters.'