Science and Spiritual Practices by Rupert Sheldrake

This is a talk by Rupert Sheldrake, who is a biologist by training from Cambridge, and has studied Philosophy and History of Science at Harvard. He worked with Francis Crick, one of the fathers of genetic research, and has published many cited papers in the field of biology.

I’ve read two of his books so far, and I find him to be a careful thinker, always seeking and presenting evidence for his hypotheses. In fact, I’ve found him to be a true sceptic, very original and especially fearless. That’s the kind of stuff I like. Maybe you do too.

Here’s his talk on his latest book called Science and Spiritual Practices which he claims are proven by science to be helpful for human beings.

Here’s the transcript:

Sciences spiritual practices we’re in
the new situation today we’ve on the one
hand in a situation where we have access
to the spiritual practices of all the
world’s religious traditions a few
generations ago people hadn’t heard of
them and the Theosophical society did
pioneering work in introducing people in
Europe to Eastern practices like
meditation which most people had not
heard of before we’re now in the
position where these are widely
available things like yoga are no longer
the preserve of an esoteric minority
it’s kind of mainstream in Western
culture with millions of people doing it
we’re also in an unprecedented situation
that traditional religious practice in
Europe has declined to a remarkable
degree last year for the first time more
than half the British population said
that they had no religion has probably
never been a society before in which
most people have had no religion and
this has been associated with the rise
of secularism most of much of which is
anti religious or at least it’s meant to
be neutral to religion but a lot of it
is actually anti religious but despite
that the number of actual card-carrying
atheists in the population in Britain is
not that large it’s about 13 percent
it’s more than the number of people who
regularly attend religious services
which is about five percent now in
Britain but the majority of people are
somewhere in-between
many classify themselves as spiritual
but not religious or as non practicing
religious so we’re in a very unusual
situation all traditional religions have
had a whole wide range of spiritual
just part of what they do when people
stop going to church or synagogue or
mosque or temple or whatever then they
usually cut themselves off from all
these traditional practices it doesn’t
mean they can’t do them but it means
they’re no longer just part of their way
of life and what we have now in our
society is a variety of ways in which
people are reclaiming spiritual
practices usually one by one piecemeal
another unique feature of our situation
today is that these practices have been
investigated scientifically in the last
few decades as never before and
basically the scientific research has
shown that religious and spiritual
practices are very good for people
recently in nineteen in 2012 the second
edition of the handbook of religion and
health and monumental a summary of
research in 2,800 peer-reviewed papers
comes up with various conclusions about
four percent of those studies showed
negative effects of religion and that
was mainly for people who were came from
situations of religious conflict or who
felt very guilty and belonged to
religions that made them feel even more
but the great majority of these studied
showed enormous beneficial effects
people who had religious or spiritual
practices basically were healthier lived
longer and happier so there’s now a
great deal of scientific evidence that
these practices can’t infer great
benefits that’s not a surprise to people
who’ve been doing them for years or who
are part of various religious traditions
because it’s always been believed that
they haven’t give these benefits but for
people in the secular world it is a
surprise because old-style atheism
they’re militant anti religious
sentiments dismissed not only religion
but spiritual practices as a waste of
if not a harmful if not actually harmful
well it turns out that they’re not
actually harmful at all and the
situation we’re in today is that many
atheists and secularists are actually
taking up spiritual practices themselves
the Atheist philosopher Alain de Botton
wrote a book a few years ago called
religion for atheists in which he argued
that atheists are missing out on the
benefits of all these practices and that
their lives are greatly impoverished
compared with religious people who go to
church and sing together on Sundays
most atheists don’t sing together they
may join a few may join community choirs
but basically that’s not part of their
life they no longer have the sense of
community no longer a regular connection
with sacred places no longer go on
pilgrimages no longer give thanks before
meals no longer have channels of
expressing gratitude and of course they
can take up these things and he indeed
suggests ways in which they can he
thinks that 8004 ought to have an
atheist temple that he’s planning to
fund one himself though since he
inherited a 200 million pound trust fund
that’s well within his capacity he
thinks that atheists ought to have love
feasts or agar pays so he’s planning to
institute those he thinks atheist
thought to have sermons because sermons
are talks that help that are designed to
help you lead a better life whereas
lectures are just about thanks
so he’s instituted a series of sunday
sermons for atheists in London I don’t
know how popular they are but I’m a
regular churchgoer myself and I
personally appreciate sermons and there
have a fairly high standard in the
Church of England today but I also like
the singing in the ritual and the
liturgy I’m not sure that I’d go if it
was just a sermon so he he also points
out that
traditional religions encourage people
to cultivate virtues and avoid vices and
he points out that in say medieval
chapels and churches you see pictures of
the seven deadly sins and the
representing the seven cardinal and
Christian virtues and he points out that
in a secular world there’s no model for
virtue though the most that people can
model themselves on our pop stars and
film styles and so on and they’re not
even aware of the seven deadly sins and
are those the secular space is supposed
to be neutral in fact there’s every
inducement to all seven deadly sins
gluttony food adverts all over the place
and and a massive obesity epidemic lasts
plenty of encouragement stew lust and
vast amounts of pornography flooding the
internet the envy the advertising
industry is based on encouraging envy
and so on so he shows that does a need
to try and recover these practices even
for committed atheists like himself
meanwhile Sam Harris one of the militant
new atheists in America author of the
end of faith has now taken up meditation
in a big way and is now giving online
meditation courses Susan Blackmore one
of our homegrown public atheists is also
a keen advocate of meditation and two or
three years ago a couple of comedians
started up something called the Sunday
assembly which is a church for atheists
now has about 70 branches people gather
together on Sunday mornings singing
together hymns or songs and and share
uplifting stories and they’re now trying
to rebrand it no longer corny is an
atheist church but saying that what they
are Rep
his mystical humanism these are all very
interesting shifts in our culture and
this is the context in which I’ve
written this book science and spiritual
practices in this book I deal with seven
different spiritual practices there are
many more than seven but couldn’t do
them all in one book so there’s a
selection of spiritual practices all of
which have been investigated
scientifically the seven I cover in the
book are meditation gratitude connecting
with nature relating to plants singing
and chanting and music rituals and
pilgrimage these are all things I
practice myself and so they’re all
things I have personal experience of
they’re also ones where science has some
light to shed on these I don’t have time
this evening to go through all seven so
I have to be selective in what I talk
about but I’ll start with gratitude
gratitude is part of all religious
traditions there are lots of hymns of
praise and thanksgiving the Jewish
Psalms are full of expressions of
gratitude all religions encourage
gratitude and is part of the practice of
all religions traditional Christian
societies involve saying grace before
meals in my College in Cambridge Clare
College every night to this day before
dinner a gong rings everyone stands up
and there’s a long Latin grace that’s
read out and that’s true of many other
traditional institutions in Britain so
this has been a very traditional
practice this has not been investigated
by positive psychologists and for those
of you who haven’t heard of positive
psychology just in a nutshell this was a
movement started about 30 years ago we
in psychology and the positive
psychology movement was an attempt to
investigate what makes people happy as
opposed to traditional psychology which
is more about what makes people
miserable it’s not surprising really
that psychotherapists tend to see people
who’ve got psychological problems
they’re miserable in one way or another
so the emphasis of people like Freud was
on what makes people miserable neurotic
and obsessive and so on the positive
psychologists had the original idea of
trying to find out what makes people
happy and what they did was they started
off by getting lots of people as
volunteers they equipped them with
pagers and they at random times during
the day the pager went off and people
had to write down what they were doing
and how happy they felt on a one to nine
scale and what they found out was that
of course people’s happiness and mood
shifted throughout the day depending on
what they were doing but when people
felt most happy it was when they were
doing things that put them in a state of
flow they felt they were flowing with
what was happening lots of things could
bring about that state of flow one was
dancing singing a good conversation
being absorbed in work playing sports
there are a whole variety of states put
people in the state of flow and in those
states they felt happy and one of the
things that made people happy was a kind
of flow which is Thanksgiving giving
thanks being gratitude is an
acknowledgement of what has flown too
into us as a gift from the universe or
from other people something we’ve been
given giving thanks is like continuing
that flow something comes in the flow
goes out the opposite of gratitude is a
sense of entitlement or taking for
granted get something and just think as
you’re right so you don’t feel the need
to say thank you
anyone that blocks the flu and people
like that generally unhappy they did a
big survey of people’s attitudes and
they found that that happy people were
grateful people ungrateful people were
generally speaking unhappy people who
had a sense of entitlement who
complained were less happier than people
who felt grateful for what they had and
gave thanks then the critics said well
of course these these happy people are
grateful they’re grateful because
they’re happy so they then did some
experiments to find out are they happy
because they’re grateful or grateful
because they’re happy so to do the they
did actual experiments of the kind of
psychologists do they divided random
groups of volunteers into three groups
they randomly selected three groups one
group was asked to write down all the
things that have gone wrong in the
previous week the hassles they’d
confronted another group was asked to
write a story about things that had
happened in the previous week and the
third group was asked to make a list of
all the things for which they felt
grateful in the previous week and once
who did the simple gratefulness exercise
were measurably happier four days
afterwards than the others their most
successful experiment was where they
asked people to write a letter giving
thanks to somebody who’d helped them in
their life who they thought they’d never
properly acknowledged and then go to
that person and read them the letter
people who did that were measurably
happier for two months afterwards it was
a very big effect so what they showed is
that gratitude actually makes you
happier it also makes you more liked
people are grateful and more popular
than people who complain all the time
and who are miserable
not surprising really I mean in a sense
it sounds proving the obvious but it
the fact is gratitude now has a very big
stamp of approval from science and it
makes you feel happier and better and
healthier but you might think what’s
wrong with gratitude in that case well
there are some people who think there’s
a problem and one of them is an American
writer Barbara Ehrenreich who actually I
like her work a lot and she read a book
called smile or die in which she
criticized the positive psychology
she didn’t criticize gratitude per se
but she criticized the way this has been
co-opted by American corporations they
discovered that when they found that
people who grateful a happier more
cooperative and more popular they
started handing out self-help books on
gratitude to their employees because it
meant the staff got on better with each
other they got on better with customers
the business improved made sense
commercially well I suppose that’s
relatively harmless but what she
objected to most was that when they were
firing people they had they had positive
psychologists consultants to talk to the
people they were firing to tell them
that they ought to be grateful for this
amazing career opportunity that was
opening up before them as they could
look forward to an entirely new career a
new job and all the excitement that that
would involve she saw this as a form of
exploitation nice pays it is and so what
this shows is that even really good
things that gratitude can be exploited
sometimes cynically but there doesn’t
mean there’s anything wrong with
gratitude itself in fact as everything
right with it and one of the things in
my book at the end of each chapter I
suggest simple ways that people can put
these into practice and one very simple
way is restoring saying grace before
meals and my family and I always do this
at home
the simplest four minutes just me and my
wife all with our sons we hold hands
silently for a little while before
eating just to give us all time to
recollect what’s happening and to give
thanks in our own way if it’s more
people than one of a sense of formal
grace or if there are gatherings like a
Christmas and birthday parties and
things like that we sing a grace we
usually sing a grace in in the form of a
round it’s fun to sing and everyone’s
much more cheerful after seeing it a
very simple thing to do and if you’re on
your own just pause and give thanks
these are very very simple practices and
most of these spiritual practices can
free-of-charge are simple and take up
rather little time and they can actually
transform the meal that you have and if
you don’t do it most people feel the
absence of saying grace because it’s
been part of every culture for so long
some kind of ritual before meals most
people feel the absence of it and so
there’s this kind of awkward pause
before dinner oh don’t wait it’ll get
cold or do start or sometimes people say
Bon Appetit
well I think a proper grace is better if
only a silent period beforehand anyway
that gratitude is one of the simplest
practices that we can all practice and
which has this clear makes a clear
difference in people’s lives
meditation is another practice I discuss
in this book and that is something which
many Theosophists familiar with because
as I say it’s one of the things that
Theosophists helped pioneer in Europe
teaching meditation meditation is in
fact part of all religious traditions
it’s big thing in Hinduism in Buddhism
in many Christian monasticism many monks
some nuns who spent centuries from the
earliest period are in his third or
fourth century
in meditative practices in monasteries
and convents repetitive mantra like
prayers like the Jesus Prayer
have been common in the Eastern Orthodox
tradition for centuries so this is part
of the Christian tradition it’s not
being so much part of the process of
tradition but is definitely part of the
Orthodox and Catholic tradition and
saying the rosary with beads is is a
kind of mantra like pursuit which is
still very common in Roman Catholic
countries and Sufis have forms of
meditation and Islamic forms of
meditation usually using the name of God
like a mantra and meditation exists in
the Sikh tradition the Jain tradition
and so on there’s many forms of
meditation what they have in common is
that they involve forming a focus in the
mind which enables you to detach
yourself from the stream of thoughts
that’s constantly going through your
mind and there’s two main kinds of
there’s mantra based meditations which
are more common in the Hindu tradition
and there’s also mindfulness type
meditation which don’t involve mantras
but do involve focusing attention on the
breathing or on bodily sensations like
in the personal meditation takecare
techniques now I’m guessing most people
here will have some experience of
meditation how many people here have
meditated or do meditate well there’s I
think practically everybody so I don’t
need to tell you what it’s like because
you know for yourselves but let me just
summarize what these two techniques do I
mean the mantra one by returning to the
mantra as thoughts flow through the mind
enables one to come back to a focus
which is different from the flow of
thoughts in which we so easily get
ruminations and fears and anxieties and
so on and there are sometimes moments
when thoughts cease and as I often a
feeling of great calm but you can’t
force it to come it comes when it comes
the breathing does very much the same
thing by providing an alternative focus
for consciousness which is aside from
this flow of thoughts which pass through
like clouds in the sky or fish swimming
through the sea you’re not usually aware
of the thoughts passing in that way
unless you can see them from outside the
thoughts as it were with you’ll feel
with it within them you’re just
completely absorbed in this stream of
consciousness well in the 1970s
scientific research on meditation began
primarily in the United States and there
were two main lines of research one was
started by Herbert Benson who was at
Harvard Medical School and he was
impressed by Transcendental Meditation
based on the kind taught by the
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi a Hindu mantra
based form of meditation many of his
students were doing it so he tried it
himself and then he thought be good to
look at this scientifically and he did a
whole series of studies on what he
called the relaxation response what
meditation actually does to people
physiologically one of the things he
found is that it activates the
parasympathetic nervous system as you
probably know we are unconscious nervous
system the autonomic nervous system has
two sides which work in opposite each
other one is the sympathetic nervous
system I need to do with sympathy but to
do with fight-or-flight reactions when
you’re frightened or aroused it makes
your heart beat quicker you start
sweating you it inhibits a lot of bodily
functions like digestion and so on so
there’s plenty of blood available for
muscles Satan fight fight or run away
and what he showed is in the modern
world these very appropriate response
if you run into a tiger or you know
someone’s about to attack you these are
entirely appropriate responses and very
necessary but in the modern world many
people are in a state of chronic anxiety
where they’re frightened all the time or
much of the time and in in the state of
arousal of the sympathetic nervous
system which creates chronic stress it
when you relax the parasympathetic
nervous system becomes predominant and
that’s the nerve that the sight of the
nervous system has to be active to do a
range of bodily functions like excreting
if you’re terrified running from a tiger
you you the last thing you think you
know is going to the lavatory or making
love or sitting down to a delicious
dinner these are things that happen when
you’re in a more relaxed state when the
parasympathetic nervous system is
activated and he found that when people
meditated this is just what happened
there was this activation deactivation
of the sympathetic and promotion of the
parasympathetic nervous system going
along with that was a lowering of blood
pressure a laying of lowering of stress
hormone levels in the blood and people
who meditated found a slept better they
were less anxious and less depressed so
these are physiological effects of
meditation meanwhile Jon kabat-zinn also
in Massachusetts was in started
investigating the effects of the partner
type mindfulness meditation without a
mantra and he too found very similar
benefits from these forms of meditation
later research then involved studying
the brains of meditating Tibetan monks
who’d had thousands of hours of
meditation experience and found that
different parts of the brain lit up in
their brains from normal people or from
novice meditators even certain parts of
the nervous system were better developed
it was not surprising really if you lift
weights your biceps get
if you meditate regularly some of the
connections between different regions of
the brain become stronger and there is
more nerve cells there there are
anatomical differences so all of this
showed that meditation has these effects
the effects are positive and beneficial
for most people in fact so much so that
meditation is now available on
prescription on the NHS because it’s
been found in clinical trials that for
people who have mild or moderate
depression doing meditation is more
effective at relieving their symptoms
than courses of antidepressant drugs and
more importantly from the point of view
of the NHS cheaper so this sued in many
parts of Britain this is now available
on the NHS and they’re rolling out
meditation teachers to meet the demand
in America about 18 million people now
meditate so this has become a mass
movement and meditation is taught in
many schools it’s there are at least a
hundred members of parliament do it
every week they meet together in Palace
of Westminster to meditate together it’s
being taught in prisons in in the Armed
Forces and so there are many places now
where this has become a common practice
but in its secular context the people
are doing it simply because it helps
them to become more relaxed lead a more
effective life greater success in love
and business and so on or just deal with
the stresses involved in life Ruby Wax
the comedian wrote a book a couple of
years ago called frazzled about the
benefits of meditation and is keen on
promoting them but all of this is
completely secular and
for anyone who’s studied religious
history or theosophy will know that
that’s not why issues in the Himalayas
were meditating or why the Buddha and
his followers were meditating they
weren’t doing it so he could be more
effective in business and overcome the
stresses of a competitive lifestyle and
they were doing it for completely
different reason they were doing it
because they thought that our
consciousness is as it were a kind of
fractal version of the great underlying
consciousness of the universe but our
minds reflect the ultimate mind in their
own way a common Hindu metaphor some of
you will know is that comparing you are
individual human consciousness to
reflections of the moon in buckets of
water you can have hundreds of buckets
of water full of water each one reflects
the moon and it looks as if each one’s
got a moon in it that’s different from
all the others but they’re all
reflections of the Moon which underlies
all these separate seemingly separate
images in a similar way our own minds
are as it were refractions of the
ultimate consciousness and through
meditating one reaches the ground of
mind which is where the ground of our
mind is the same as the ground of
ultimate mind in the universe the Hindu
summarized this by saying Atman is
Brahman the individual spirit is an
aspect of the universal spirit now
that’s why people have traditionally
meditated and that’s why many people
still meditate today but is not why a
lot of secular people meditate atheists
who meditate like Sam Harris think that
the meditation is just affecting their
brain it’s like going to a kind of
mental gym and it’s all inside the head
the atheist or materialist worldview is
that consciousness is nothing but the
activity of the brain it’s confined to
the inside of the head and there’s no
consciousness are there that’s a fantasy
of anything
there’s anything like God or Nirvana or
any form of consciousness out there it’s
all inside our heads and the entire
universe is unconscious that’s the basic
materialists worldview people who think
that still meditate because they get the
benefits from meditation but they don’t
think of it as connecting them to
something greater than themselves and
this split in attitude is actually
perhaps most obvious within the Buddhist
movement that many Buddhists are secular
Buddhists Sam Harris for example thinks
of himself as a secular Buddhist Steven
bachelor here in Britain is a secular
Buddhist he’s a Buddhist teacher but
secular Buddhist think that Buddhism is
about things going on inside your head
and they reject many of the beliefs of
traditional Buddhist like the Dalai Lama
they say there’s no such thing as
reincarnation it’s all rubbish and
superstition they criticized the Dalai
Lama for consulting Oracle’s and and
they say you should strip away all these
things it’s just about our brains and
what’s happening inside our heads so
it’s it’s the this is actually the
frontier of the debate today old-style
atheism sort of Richard Dawkins
old-school atheist thing is kind of
blanket hostility to everything to do
with religion and spirituality in favor
of a kind of stripped-down form of what
they call science and reason new style
atheism is different it says we’ll take
the spiritual practices from these
traditions and make them part of an
atheist lifestyle sam harris uses a very
unpleasant metaphor for this process he
says our job is to is to steal the the
gems of spirituality from the dunghill
of religion and and bring build them
into an atheist lifestyle so the
frontier is now no longer about do
meditate or not but within what
frameworks you’re under
and what’s going on and I myself think
that many people in the secular world
take up meditation for purely secular
reasons but if they persist in
meditating I think they’ll discover
realms of consciousness that simply
don’t fit onto this rather limited
materialist map and they may well find
themselves changing their attitudes in
fact some of them are rather frightened
of this happening I had a conversation
with Susan Blackmore the who I’ve known
for years the who’s an atheist skeptic
and materialist
and as I said a meditator and I I said
to her well so don’t you find it you’re
a bit worried about your atheist beliefs
you know went with all this meditation
don’t you feel you stretch the atheist
envelope about as far as it’ll go and
she said yes it does worry me and she
said and I’ve started taking ayahuasca
and having these amazing experiment
experiences with ayahuasca she said it’s
stretching it even further
I said well aren’t you getting even more
worried about that and she said yes that
I’m worried that might one day be a kind
of whooshing sound as it bursts as it’s
sort of the experience breaks through
this belief system that she’s still
within I think what we’re going to see
is a change of worldview brought about
by experience hasn’t happened to her yet
or to sam harris but for many people who
meditate it does lead to a shift in
worldview and i think myself that the as
a kind of spiritual revival going on at
the moment and that what it’s based on
his experience rather than doctrine and
for people who’ve lost all forms of
spiritual experience or rejected them in
their religious form recovering these
experiences is a much better way in than
people saying you ought to study the
works of madame for that skill or you
ought to read the bible or read the
quran that’s not going to work for some
for many people but personal experience
is and is the it’s
all religions start from the first place
and the Buddha didn’t counter Buddhism
by studying sacred texts and libraries
he came into it by meditating under a
peepal tree you know Jesus didn’t get
there by just studying the Hindu or the
Hebrew Scriptures and Muhammad didn’t
channel the Quran by study in libraries
it was experience came first well the
next set of practices I want to talk
about are rituals all religions have
rituals and rituals involve usually
repetitive actions they have to be done
the right way the right gestures the
right signs the right words and in many
religions the rillette ritual languages
are highly conservative in the Brahmanic
rituals of India they’re down in
Sanskrit in the Russian Orthodox Church
they’re in old Slavonic in the Coptic
Church in Egypt they’re in the ancient
Egyptian tongue the only form in which
it survives today so there’s a belief
that they should be done the way they’ve
been done before and very often there’s
a whole category of ritual rituals of
remembrance which connect the present
members of the group with people who’ve
done the ritual before right back to the
first time it happened to some seminal
event in the history of the group so for
example Jewish people when they
celebrate the Passover every year a
recalling and re-enacting the original
Passover dinner which happened in Egypt
just before the Jewish people started on
their journey out of slavery through the
wilderness and to the promised land and
they at a land they sacrificed a lamb
and smeared the blood of the lamb on the
doorway of their houses they were passed
over from the destroying power of God
who killed the firstborn of the
Egyptians and of the
cattle the Jewish people were passed
over and survived and it was that final
one the tenth curse on Egypt that caused
the Pharaoh to tell them to go couldn’t
bear any more of this and off they went
it was a seminal event it started the
whole process of Jewish history as
related in the Old Testament there’s so
every year it’s reenacted and two for a
Passover to work they tell the story of
the original Passover eat lamb with
better herbs there was a prescribed way
of doing it and it’s a key ritual by
taking part in it Jewish people become
Jewish it affirms their identity and
they connect with all those who’ve done
it before right back to the first time
it was done a Christian Holy Communion
is itself a Passover dinner is the same
kind of thing it’s a reenactment of
Jesus’s last supper with his disciples
and people who take part in it and
become part of the Christian community
by having this ritual meal together and
connect through doing it with all those
who’ve done it before right back to the
original Last Supper and a very similar
pattern underlies secular rituals like
the American Thanksgiving dinner every
year Americans in November reenact the
original Thanksgiving dinner of the
first settlers in New England who gave
thanks after the first year in which
they survived
they had this Thanksgiving dinner with a
turkey a new world bird and every year
Americans gather together to celebrate
to reenact as Thanksgiving which could
makes them American by taking part it
gives them their American identity
connects them with all Americans before
right back to these first settlers in
New England I think actually it’s quite
interesting that the most American of
ceremonies they’re characteristically
national characteristic national
ceremony is one of Thanksgiving of
gratitude and I think there’s one reason
that Americans on the whole tend to be
rather optimistic it’s an
extraordinarily interesting thing that
the principal sign of national identity
is Thanksgiving we don’t have anything
quite like that here in Britain so why
is it that rituals have this
conservative quality and why is it that
they seem to connect people across time
well my own hypothesis for this is based
on my ideas about morphic resonance some
of you know about morphic resonance
others may not so I’m going to summarize
it very briefly morphic resonance in a
morphic resonance is the idea of a
memory in nature what I’m proposing is
that the so-called laws of nature are
more like habits and that each species
has a kind of collective memory such
that each individual draws upon it and
contributes to it
this hypothesis so is not unlike the
Theosophical idea of the Akashic record
the idea of a memory within nature which
itself is based on the idea of a memory
in nature in Hindu and Buddhist
philosophy in Hindu and Buddhist
philosophy the idea of a memory in the
universe is totally mainstream in
Western science and philosophy
it’s an outrageously shocking idea
because our science is based on the idea
that nature is governed by fixed laws
that were all there at the moment of the
Big Bang and have not changed since
there’s no memory in the Western
materialist view of nature but Hindu and
Buddhist philosophy have memory as an
intrinsic part of them well my
hypothesis of how it works is morphic
resonance the idea that similar patterns
of activity resonate with with
subsequent similar patterns of activity
the transmission of memory across time
is based on resonance across time based
on similarity the theory predicts and as
evidence to support it that if you train
rats to learn a new trick in London rats
all around the world should be able to
learn it quicker there are
if you crystallize a new compound in
London then that same compound should
crystallized more easily and more
quickly everywhere else in the world
thereafter I summarized this in my books
a new science of life and the presence
of the past together with the evidence
I’ve talked about it here before I don’t
have time to go into it in more detail
this evening this is just very brief
summary but the reason I mention it is
because this sheds a new light on
rituals in rituals people are
deliberately doing things in a similar
way as possible to the way it was done
before the right kind of incense the
right kind of food the right gestures
the right words in the in the ancient
liturgical language and this sets up
precisely the conditions that would be
needed to bring about morphic resonance
so I think through rituals there’s
literally a presence of the past a
connection with those who’ve done it
before right back to the first time it
was done which is exactly what people
think is happening in rituals so it and
in fact in most cultures it’s taken for
granted that the present group of people
who make up a society has the invisible
presence of the ancestors within them in
China traditional Chinese households
they have ancestor shrines which
perfectly explicit same in Japan in
Africa is taken for granted that
ancestors are part of the life of the
people here on the whole people ignore
the ancestors apart from a few photos on
mantelpieces but there’s we do have
proper ancestral ceremonies like All
Souls Day the Day of the Dead November
the second which was celebrated in
Catholic and Anglican churches and the
eve of the festival Halloween is
celebrated by children but for most
people it’s been hollowed out and
there’s no longer that direct ritual
connection with the dead
so rituals are a very important way of
establishing these connections there’s
another kind of ritual on which science
now shed some light which are rites of
passage many rites of passage are about
moving from one state of being to
another for example from adolescence to
material from childhood to maturity so
there are many cultures have rites of
passage for adolescence marriage is a
rite of passage you move from the state
of being a single person to being a
married person there’s a different
social role a different way of being the
adolescent rites of passage especially
for boys very often involved the theme
of death and rebirth people die to their
old role and they’re born again in this
new role in society and in many cases
like the vision quests of Native
American tribes this is a very dangerous
experience they go out into the
wilderness fasting there are wild
animals they could get lost
some people could die I’m sure some do
so it is a death and rebirth experience
sometimes they involve trials by ordeal
extreme pain and suffering getting very
close to the borderline of death now we
know something about what it feels like
to go to the borderline of death because
in the modern world there’s been a lot
of research on near-death experiences
everyone here I’m sure has heard or read
about them some of you may have had them
they’re more common than they’ve ever
been before thanks to modern medicine
and coronary resuscitation never before
have so many people had near-death
experiences through accidents heart
attacks and so forth and and what this
research on near-death experiences shows
is that for many people who have them
there’s a fairly common pattern
people float out to their body they see
themselves from above with people
looking on nurses and doctors looking
after them for example then they often
feel themselves going through a tunnel
and they emerge into the light where
they feel a state a state of grace light
love peace and they often meet beings of
light sometimes deceased ancestors
sometimes beings of like sometimes Jesus
depends on their religious background
but there’s many common features here
and then of course because it’s a
near-death experience they feel
themselves pulled back and they find
themselves back in their body and that
what they say is they’ve died and
they’ve been born again they come back
to life after dying it’s so it’s a
near-death experience well I think that
some initiatory rituals are designed to
induce just such near-death experiences
and for people who’ve had them
spontaneously many people in the modern
world they’re generally speaking
transformative most people have had
these experiences say that has changed
their life and studies that people have
had them have shown that people who’ve
survived these near-death experiences
are very often much more spiritually
minded they often lose the fear of death
they become more motivated to help
others their lives are transformed by
something that may have taken five
minutes and they’re so we now know that
they’re very transformative if they
could be induced ritually in rites of
passage these transformative effects
could be brought about as it were on
demand and I think that’s exactly what
many rites of passage do and the most
familiar one in the Western context is
baptism John the Baptist as described in
the Bible was carrying out rites of
initiation for people on a large scale
this were people all over
Palestine will get flocking to the banks
of the river Jordan where John the
Baptist was immersing them by total
emotion and people who had that
experience fund their lives are
completely transformed now the usual
interpretation of this is that it was
just symbolic of death by drowning
inducing and death experience by
drowning and near-death experience by
drowning but why have a just symbolic
experience if you can have the real
thing it only takes about two minutes
longer and I think that John the Baptist
was a drummer I think he was actually
holding people under long enough to
induce a near-death experience I’ve
probably had a team of helpers on the
bank to help with the resuscitation and
then you know the next one could come
along Jesus himself underwent this rite
of passage and initiation with John the
Baptist and it transformed his life – it
was the beginning of his awareness of
his ministry and his his role in life of
course John the Baptist may have lost a
few and it was before health and safety
legislation or liability litigation and
so but people thought this was a truly
important vital thing they probably went
into it with their eyes open it’s risky
the whole point is a near-death
experience is risky because you could
actually die well within a few
generations the early Christians had
abandoned baptism by total immersion
except for a few new converts babies
born to Christian families were baptized
symbolically by spring canoe a
sprinkling of water over them infant
baptism but one of the wilder and more
exciting aspects of the Protestant
Reformation in the 16th century was a
revival of this practice by a
particularly enthusiastic sect called
the Anabaptists Anna means again or back
to and the Anabaptists read the Bible
and they said that’s how people
did baptism then that’s how we should do
it now and so they started baptizing
people by total immersion here in
Britain and in Germany and elsewhere in
Europe so the anabaptists reinstituted
this kind of rite of passage is this
initiation rite and the Anabaptists
unlike most christians at the time went
round saying they died and they’ve been
born-again they were filled with
enthusiasm literally means anthias God
within they were dismissed by more
moderate Christians as being enthusiasts
enthusiasm was a derogatory term you
know because it meant they went round
they were they were preaching on street
corners saying turn to the light die and
be born again you know would undergo
baptism and they were unpopular with
both regular Protestant and Catholic
churches and they were persecuted in
Europe which is why most of them in 17th
century went to America to escape this
persecution and they gave rise to a
number of churches in Europe which were
continued in America the Mennonite
Church for example and the Baptist
churches and of all the churches of all
the Christian churches the ones that
maintain this Rite of baptism by total
immersion is the Baptist’s and they’re
the ones that go on all the time that
have you died and being born again are
you born again born again Christians are
Baptists and for them I don’t think it’s
a metaphor I think it’s at least for the
earlier ones is an experience I’d love
to see a detailed survey of present-day
Baptist practice in Europe and America I
imagine that by now they are afraid of
liability litigation and health and
safety regulations have probably caught
up with the Baptist’s but I’m I think it
makes most sense of that whole movement
I think the earliest stages at least in
the 16th and 17th century they
rediscovered the power of this rite of
passage and initiation
in our present society we have very few
rites of passage and people constantly
reinvent them gangs reinvent them people
to join gangs often have to go through
trials by ordeal often horrible ones
involving killing people to prove
they’re worthy member of the gang better
in a less destructive way I think that
many adolescents or young people in our
modern world undergo uncontrolled
unorganised often chaotic and often
dangerous rites of passage through
taking psychedelic drugs and some
psychedelic drugs induce death and
rebirth type experiences in the 1960s
before LSD was banned Stan Grof at the
check and then American psychologist
studied about 2,000 people who take the
LSD and found that many of them had had
near-death type experiences they found
themselves drowning being deep within an
ocean as it were or being oppressed or
compressed and then going through a dark
tunnel and emerging into the light which
was a kind of beatific experience he
interpreted that as re-enacting the
birth process through the passage
through the compression and the womb at
childbirth through the birth canal and
into the light and I think this way of
understanding near-death experiences is
a very interesting one some people might
think Stan graphs account is fanciful I
didn’t think so myself because I
actually had just such an experience in
1971 when I first took LSD and there are
other drugs high doses of ketamine and
the most powerful of all psychedelics
DMT dimethyltryptamine often induced
near-death experiences so many people
who obtain psychedelics are very moved
by their experiences they find them life
transforming and for many young people
a kind of spiritual awakening I think
they’re the main form in which people
experience spiritual awakenings at least
young people in our society today but
because they’re illegal and because
they’re not part of our traditional
religion and they’re certainly not part
of the official educational system they
happen under most unsuitable
circumstances very often and sometimes
susceptible people become psychotic or
even develop mental diseases as a result
of doing them
there are however situations in which
they’re taken in a more responsible way
in a more transformative manner for
example in the psychedelic churches of
Brazil there are several psychedelic
churches in Brazil now one is called
Santo diamond in others called une autre
vegetal which are based on taking the
psychedelic mixture ayahuasca as a kind
of sacrament I suppose it was inevitable
that they should emerge if you send
Christian missionaries to places where
shamanic cultures traditionally take
psychedelics it’s only a matter of time
before psychedelic Christianity emerges
as the product that’s happened in Brazil
it’s happened in the southern part of
the United States of the Native American
church which uses peyote which contains
mescaline as a sacrament and these
churches are now legal in Brazil and in
many parts of the United States and in
some parts of Europe so it’s now
possible for young people to take
life-transforming psychedelics with
people who know what they’re doing in a
sacred eyes context there are many
psychedelic churches now operating
underground in London Oxford Cambridge
and other British cities of course
they’re not advertised and they’re not
they don’t have websites because it’s
illegal so it happens by word of mouth
and some people have called this a
reverse missionary movement you know
Westerners have missionaries too
America and the mission is from these
churches are coming back and they mainly
targeting young people well you may
think this is desirable or undesirable
but the fact is it’s happening and I
think it’s needed the rituals of right
of passage are very important ones and
if our societies don’t provide suitable
ones which are truly life transforming
people will find them somehow or another
because they’re just such a basic
traditional part of human society and of
growing up finally I want to say a few
words about pilgrimage pilgrimage is
found in all religious traditions
Muslims go to Mecca into Medina and to
Jerusalem to the Dame of the rock Hindus
go to many sacred places in India and
near India like Mount Kailash the river
Ganges the great temples the source of
the Ganges the Jewish people go to
Jerusalem and all over the world we find
these pilgrimages in traditional
hunter-gatherer societies and all our
ancestors were hunter-gatherers until a
few thousand years ago the whole society
had to move around in search of animals
and food they had annual cycles of
movement they were nomadic the
Australian Aborigines had what they
called song lines these journeys they
went on and it told the story of the
places when they came back to the media
through singing the song when so when
settled agriculture began about 10,000
years ago in Britain that began about
5,000 years ago people settled in
villages and farmed fields and had
domesticated animals and they started
building ceremonial centers here in
Britain Stonehenge in Avebury for
example were ceremonial centers where
people gathered for
festivals they were not temples in the
middle of cities as they were in Sumeria
and and Mesopotamia they were places
where people would migrate to them for
the festivals and then go away again so
this idea of pilgrimage to sacred places
is rooted in much more ancient patterns
that go back hundreds of thousands of
years and of course in Christian Europe
the many of the ancient sacred places
were Christianized in Ireland for
example the holy mountain Craig Patrick
is still a major place of pilgrimage the
holy lake lot is still a major place of
pilgrimage they were only certainly
sites of pilgrimage before the Christian
period and they were Christianized and
being remained major sites and still are
to this day and then there were many
more places grew up through where the
relics of the saints were kept and
people went on pilgrimages to great
cathedrals and shrines of the saints
Europe was criss-crossed in Middle Ages
with pilgrimage routes and England was
to the main pilgrimage in England was
Canterbury as everyone knows from
Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales set
around 13 80 stories pilgrims told each
other on the way to Canterbury as they
set off from South London and Walsingham
in Norfolk the black madonna of
Walsingham was one of the great places
in england to say was Glastonbury Abbey
so was Hales Abbey in Gloucestershire
and many others well all this came to a
stop in 1538 with the Protestant
Reformation Thomas Cromwell worker who
worked with Henry the Eighth issued an
injunction against pilgrimage banning
all pilgrimage thereafter in England the
shrines were desecrated the image of the
Black Madonna was taken from the shrine
and while singin burned in a public
bonfire the the wealth accumulated by
was nationalized and became property of
the king and the monasteries this who
supported the pilgrims but gave them
places to sleep and fed them on their
roots were dissolved and privatized and
given to private landlords so the
Reformation was a radical break in
Britain and in Northern Europe in
Scandinavian countries and in the
Lutheran countries of Germany all of
them suppressed pilgrimage and I think
that this left a great void in the soul
of the the British which is why a few
generations later the British invented
tourism and I think tourism is best
understood as a form of secularized
pilgrimage tourists still had the urge
to go to these great sacred places but
when they got there they couldn’t just
say a prayer because they may think that
they’ve risen above all that kind of
superstition their modern enlightenment
type people educated people who don’t go
in for these simple minded practices of
the ignorant and the stupid they still
go to the great sacred places the
temples the cathedrals but when they get
there they have to pretend that their
primary interest is in art history and
people who died spring up to fill their
heads with facts about when things were
built and so on the style of
architecture and they go in one ear and
out the other
because what they’re really there for is
they want to connect the sacred places
but they can’t they can’t kneel down and
say a prayer or light a candle because
they’re tourists not pilgrims so in fact
better than secularized pilgrimage I
think tourism’s best seen as frustrated
pilgrimage and this suggests an obvious
paradigm shift from tourism to
pilgrimage go as a pilgrim rather than a
tourist if you’re going to visit a
sacred place go with the intention of
spraying when you get there or giving
thanks or asking for something and
making an offering to the place go as a
tour as a pilgrim not a tour
interestingly one of the symptoms of
this revival of spirituality that’s
going on in the modern world is the
revival of tourism Abbi sorry of
pilgrimage everyone’s heard of the great
pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in
Spain most people don’t realize that
this is a fairly recent revival it was
one of the great pilgrimage places of
medieval Europe but the number of
pilgrims fell off when pilgrimage was
suppressed in the process of North then
in France it was suppressed by the
French Revolution who abolished
Christianity and installed instead the
cult of reason in 1793 during the reign
of terror they closed the monasteries
and forbade pilgrimage in Russia under
the Bolshevik Revolution pilgrimage and
Christianity was suppressed brutally in
many cases and so all these things meant
the number of foreigners going to
Santiago decreased and then the number
of Spanish decreased until it was a mere
trickle it wasn’t consciously revived
till the 1980s when a group of
enthusiasts put together the
infrastructure they created place so if
you could sleep and get food along the
route because you can’t do this without
somewhere to sleep or to eat and in 1987
the revived pilgrimage there had about a
thousand people walk to Santiago last
year was three hundred thousand it’s a
massive increase and this has helped
trigger off a resurgence of pilgrimage
all over Europe here in Britain in the
last two years there’s been an
extraordinary growth through a movement
catalyzed by the British pilgrimage
Trust which is now reopening the ancient
footpath pilgrimage routes to Canterbury
and to other sacred places in England
the pilgrimage Trust website British
pilgrimage org now has about 30 or 40
ancient routes which have now been
reopened and a similar movements going
on in Ireland in Scotland in wales in
germany in scandinavia the great
pilgrimage route from
to trondheim where the shrine of st.
Olaf is the patron saint of Norway was
reopened 10 years ago by the Crown
Prince in Norway there’s now a major
pilgrimage route in Scandinavia so these
are all very interesting and significant
changes that are going on in Europe
today and it’s a wonderful way to
express a spiritual quest to go on a
pilgrimage I’ve been on several myself
and I’d strongly recommend it check out
the British pilgrimage ‘trust website
and you’ll see that some of them are
organized ones they were just one day or
weekends all there are routes you can
follow yourself before I finish I’d like
to mention I haven’t spoken to this
evening about singing and chanting as a
spiritual practice I think this is one
of the most accessible and powerful and
it’s one that works best in groups some
of these others are individual like
meditation others are collective and
have a great power in bringing groups
together this is something my wife job
purse has been teaching for decades now
and I I’m not going to talk about the
sealing signs as it were outsourcing
this to Jill and there are several of
her I brought some of her pamphlets
healing voice workshops which she gives
here in London and she’s had years of
experience and she gives wonderful
workshops on how to sing in chant and
even if you can’t think you can’t sing
you can if you chant she and so many
people have recovered the power of their
voice through doing these and it’s a
very good way to do so in fact it’s
really Joan’s work showing that a spirit
an ancient spiritual practices could be
available to anyone whether they’re
religious or not that’s one of my
inspirations for writing this book
because she’s proved to me over and over
again that you don’t have to be part of
a religious tradition you don’t have to
believe in any particular doctrines you
can just do it and you learn through
direct experience and that’s really the
essence of what I am saying in this book
these practices are open to people who
are religious and they have always been
part of religious traditions they’re
also open to people are not religious
and and I think that some by doing them
I think people are much more likely to
recover a sense of the importance of the
spiritual life that’s something which
the Theosophical society has been doing
for decades and I think that in many
ways it pioneered what’s now becoming a
mass movement it’s not all happening
under the umbrella of theosophy it’s
who’s become a kind of movement
throughout our societies multi-centered
pluralistic movement but it’s a major
transformation as underway now and I
think it’s got a lot further to go
finally I just mentioned that there are
all sorts of unexpected ways this is
happening and I recently had a
conversation with Russell Brand the
comedian who has now taken on a
spiritual mission Russell Brand was a
heroin addict two alcoholic a sex addict
he underwent the 12-step program as in
Alcoholics Anonymous and has now got the
sense of the huge power of the Spirit to
transform our lives his recent book a
best-seller called recovery freedom from
our addictions is the one way he’s
getting this message across and as he
says it’s not are you an addict or not
is where are you on the addiction
spectrum you know is it just Facebook is
it too much TV
is it excessive eating too many carbs
etc there’s many forms of addiction and
Russell Brand’s know a man with a
we had a conversation together about my
book science and spiritual practices and
we got an extremely well it’s now gone
viral has been seen by about half a
million people and it had an
extraordinary effect I mean lots of he
reaches a lot of young people that
regular religious organizations and the
Theosophical society and so on would
and he’s one further symptom of this
extraordinary revival is going on today
well that’s all I want to say to
summarize what are the themes of this
book and there’s time now if you’d like
to comment or make ask questions

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