Science and Nonduality Gathering: SAND—Italy, 2016

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The Science and Nonduality (SAND) 2016 Italy Conference took place at Titignano Castle in Orvieto, Terni, this August 2 through 8. Here, the founder of Non-Duality Press Julian Noyce offers a glimpse inside this explorative, multidisciplinary event including science, spirituality, dance, and much more.


We all have the urge to know and understand, to make sense of our experience, whether this is through science, therapy, art, or spirituality. The Science and Nonduality (SAND) Gatherings are a beautiful place to explore this very human desire.

This is my second visit to Titignano, the venue for SAND in Italy, a medieval castle perched high in the magnificent Umbrian hills. Each gathering has its own flavor; this event leaned more heavily toward the spiritual and the feminine than the scientific approach, but there were some excellent academic minds present as well in the form of Susan Blackmore, Peter Russell, and Chris Fields.

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Each day begins with a guided meditation led by one of the presenters or, alternatively, a yoga or bodywork session in a different room. After a break for breakfast, the concurrent presentations begin. Maurizio Benazzo, one of the founders of SAND, likes to explain that after the first two days of scouring the program to choose the sessions to attend, the bemused attendee usually gives up and finds himself wherever he is meant to be. He also points out that some of the most rewarding encounters take place outside the presentations, over lunch, or while drinking tea in the castle piazza—both proved to be true.

I had previously enjoyed the science presentations but, predictably, I felt more drawn to the spiritual and the artistic this time. Daniel Odier, the French Tantra and Chan master, gave an excellent opening talk on the Tantric path of accepting all experience, which was followed the next day with an experiential workshop of Tandava movement and dance.

Jac O’Keeffe’s wide-ranging and impressive presentation on “Trust and the Spiritual Path” went beyond conceptual ideas of awakening and into deep embodiment, liberation, and service.

From the science side, Susan Blackmore, a confirmed skeptic of paranormal phenomena, gave a very engaging talk on “Out-of-Body Experiences.” Despite her concerns that it might not be well received by the SAND audience (her conclusion after lengthy study is that almost all paranormal phenomena can be explained as “workings of the brain”), her talk received prolonged and enthusiastic applause.

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The Italian SAND Gathering is the smaller and more compact cousin of the event in San Jose, CA. Both gatherings host world-class spiritual teachers and respected scientific minds. The original inspiration of SAND was to foster meaningful dialogue between non-dogmatic contemporary spirituality and humanistic science in order to consider questions of context, perception, meaning, and purpose. In the times that we live there seems to be a vital need for this dialogue.

While adhering to its core mission, SAND is continually evolving and widening its scope to focus on ecology and alternative economic systems. My overall experience at these gatherings is of meeting openhearted people and being exposed to compelling ideas well outside of my usual experience. Needless to say, I highly recommend them.

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To learn more about Science and Nonduality, and to find out about the upcoming SAND 2016 US Gathering, “On the Edge of the (Un)Known” (San Jose, CA, October 19–23), visit www.scienceandnonduality.com.

Science and Nonduality Conference, 2012, The Netherlands

What to say? It was great – a beautifully organised conference of diverse views; from quantum physics, cutting edge economics and ecology to hardcore nonduality. All human life was there… well, the sort of human life that readers of this blog might find interesting at least.

The first European SAND Conference was held at the beautiful Zonheuvel Hotel set in the forested outskirts of Doorn, no small treat in itself. The program was structured with multiple events happening at the same time; although a little overwhelming this added to the vibrancy of the event and allowed a sampling of different speakers and subjects. We could wander freely between presentations or stay in the same room and enjoy a series of presentations by different speakers (around 40 minutes in length) around a predetermined theme. Panel discussions were also scheduled so that agreement or discussion of different perspectives could be explored followed by Q&A session with the audience.

What struck me was the unfailingly high quality of the speakers – Maurizio, Zaya and their team do a remarkable job of selecting truly interesting and well-qualified presenters from the fields of science, neuroscience and nonduality.

Ok, so much scene-setting, what about the conference? For this attendee, memorable highlights include a surreal and engaging first-evening session with Karl Rentz, a panel discussion between Amanda Fielding, Susan Blackmore and Rita Carter centered around advances in understanding brain function and the use of psychedelics. Presentations and talks by Jeff Foster and a beautiful guided meditation by Rupert Spira. True to type, I found myself predominantly drawn to the nonduality speakers  and whilst I didn’t see all their presentations it was good  to see Isaac Shapiro, Tim Freke and Marlies de Cocheret, and of course, Jerry Katz in attendance. The talk by Julian Baggini, a Western philosopher, was also fascinating for its intellectual and semantic rigour.

I’m not well versed in quantum physics so perhaps the subject I found most vital was the work of Amanda Fileding and The Beckley Foundation. I’m not necessarily advocating the use of drugs, but their work is an interesting focal point where a number of important issues converge, namely:  campaigning for an intelligent and humane drugs policy, neuroscience, an honouring of the subjective experience, the therapeutic use of entheogens…  and so much more. Despite the crushing legal obstacles they have to contend with, the Beckley foundation continues to do intelligent and pioneering research in these areas.

Overall, there was a fledgling sense of community about this event – on paper, there were two camps, the scientists and the experiential nondualists; the objective approach and the subjective approach. I have to confess, my thinking hits a brick wall when I try to understand the meeting point of these two. Scientific explanations don’t speak to me and I have never felt that nonduality needs scientific validation. But, for some people, the scientific approach is meaningful and there certainly didn’t seem to be any heated arguments or hostility. In fact, the Conference had an air of good humour and acceptance.

So, altogether, I will certainly be going again next year and I hope you’ll consider attending too if you didn’t make it this time.