Dr. Rupert Sheldrake finds scientific support for benefits of spiritual practices.
photo by: Skeptiko
Alex Tsakiris: Today I’m so happy to welcome back Dr. Rupert Sheldrake to Skeptiko. Dr. Sheldrake who has, not only appeared on Skeptiko several times over the years, but through his encouragement and guidance was really instrumental in the creation of this show, is truly one of my favorite guests to have on.
So Rupert, welcome back. So good to talk to you again.
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: Glad to be with you again Alex.
Alex Tsakiris: The reason for this visit today is this new book you’ve written, Science and Spiritual Practices: Transformative Experiences and Their Effects on Our Bodies, Brains and Health. Quite a new book, and I was saying, when we were chatting about it just a minute ago, it is great to see you back out there, just really hitting the trail with this book, doing a lot of appearances. It looks like you’re doing workshops and also lectures. So, how is all of that going for you?
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: Well, it’s going very well. So far, this book is only out in Britain, it’s not coming out in the US until Autumn of 2018, but most of this activity is in Britain at the moment, so I don’t have to travel very far, but there’s a huge amount of interest in this and I’m really excited about all of the themes in this book.
Alex Tsakiris: There is a lot of interest. I started watching your interview with Russell Brand and I thought that was fascinating on a number of levels, how did that go?
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: Well, Russell Brand is an extremely intelligent person. Here in Britain he’s very, very well-known as a comedian and as a, sort of, public intellectual. He wouldn’t like to be called that probably, but he’s very curious. He’s on a, kind of, spiritual quest himself after years of drug addiction, heroin addiction and alcohol addiction, sex addiction etc. He did a 12-step program which changed his life. He’s got a new book out himself called, Recovery, which is about recovering from addictions and he’s on a, kind of, spiritual mission at the moment.
He was curious and interested about this new book of mine and we get on extremely well. We had a really good conversation. He reaches a huge audience.
Alex Tsakiris: He does reach a huge audience and the other thing that I thought was interesting about the pairing and the conversation, we’ll try and link to it so everyone can see it, because it’s really a great conversation, but I think he’s this transitional, transformational kind of figure, in a lot of ways, in that pairing him with you, he’s calling bullshit on all the old atheistic, materialistic nonsense that you’ve called bullshit on for so long, but he’s doing it in a different way, coming at it from a different angle, and he’s pulling in a lot of different people. So, I think there’s an interesting synergy with that message, even though you’re coming at it from a lot of different ways.
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: Yes, I think so. He’s become very disillusioned with the, kind of, consumerist society, and his message about addiction is not, are you an addict or not, but where are you on the addiction spectrum? Is it just compulsive Facebook messaging etc? He sees consumerism, all these as forms of addiction.
So, I’d mostly been interested in a critique of materialism as a belief system, as a world view, he’s more coming to it from materialism as a life style, a consumerist lifestyle. But, he’s extremely smart and he does get the point about the bigger intellectual picture.
In fact, one reason that we did this conversation, was that a few months ago he asked if he could come and talk to me, and this was just a private meeting, just the two of us, to discuss the kind of issues I was discussing in my book, Science Set Free, The Science Delusion, because he wanted to get up to speed on some of these issues in science, and he hasn’t got a scientific background. But, I must say, in our private conversation it became very clear to me, what an incredibly quick mind he has and how quickly he assimilates things and is able to summarize them.
Alex Tsakiris: That’s great, and as you eluded to, what I find is that everyone’s trying to just find a way to get to the other side, because clearly, the side, the science-as-we-know-it, the dopey materialism, has never really worked for people, but they’ve just, kind of, had to carry on because that’s been the thing. I feel like Russell Brand has just jumped over the other side and said, “Oh well, of course, some sort of spiritual deeper awareness of who we are is the only thing that makes sense,” and I think that’s a position that you’ve fought long and hard for and have, kind of, built the case for scientifically.
So, it’s just an interesting way of seeing those two things come together, because I think the Russell Brand’s approach is probably where most people find themselves. I mean, most people aren’t willing to do the work, but it’s nice that when they do say, “Okay, is there anything to really support this new belief I’m growing into?” they can turn to books like yours and say, “Oh wow, there really is a basis for this new understanding I have, or an old understanding I have,” because I think it’s deep within us.
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: I think so too, yes.
Alex Tsakiris: I don’t know, you’ve been at this for a while, you’ve fought a lot of good fights. How does it feel to be proven right? Doesn’t it seem like things are, kind of, turning and not just turning your way, but do you ever feel like gloating a little bit and just saying, “I told you so”?
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: Well, I quite enjoy gloating I suppose, for a little while, but I don’t actually do that very much because on the one hand it’s clear the mood is shifting. Old style dogmatic materialism, militant atheism, dogmatic skepticism, they’re still around, they’re still powerful forces, and they’re still having a big impact, but they’re increasingly thread bear as arguments, it seems to me, and I hear more and more people are realizing that, but we’ve still got an awfully long way to go and changes in private attitudes take a long time to work through and to changes in institutions.
So, the kinds of things that you and I have both been talking about for years, have virtually zero impact on the curriculum of schools and universities, most students are still educated as if old style materialism and old style science is all there is. So, very large areas in public policy education etc., remain more or less untouched.
So, I have to remind myself all the time, what a long way there is to go, and not just in changing hearts and minds of individuals but changing the institutions within which we all function.
Alex Tsakiris: True enough. I do think that when we’re trying to ride the wave and really look into the future, they have a hard path forward. The ‘science as we know it’ types have a harder and harder path forward and I think we see that in the fallback positions they’re taking. I’m almost reminded of the old, truth passes through three stages, it’s ridiculed and then it’s violently opposed, and I think, more and more what I see is we’re in the third stage, where ‘science as we know it’ types are saying, “Oh yes, of course, we knew that all along. Of course, we always knew that the interconnectedness and the underlying spirituality, if you will, of consciousness has always been there.” What do you see is the path forward for the dogmatic materialist atheists?
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: Well, I think what’s very interesting is that the younger generation are actually turning to spiritual practices, and the older generation, the sort of Richard Dawkins and the Daniel Dennett generation are completely unreconstructed. It’s old style scientism all the way. In Dennett’s case it’s more sophisticated than in Dawkin’s case, but it’s still that old belief system.
What’s interesting about the newer generation of materialist is that they’re actually taking up spiritual practices. Sam Harris, for example, who’s one of the four new atheists. His most recent book is called, Waking Up. It’s about the importance of meditation and he’s been meditating for years. He’s now giving online meditation courses.
Here in Britain, one of our leading public atheists, Susan Blackmore, is a Zen meditator, who’s recently taken up going to Brazil for ayahuasca sessions, which she’s finding completely transformative.
So, we’ve got a situation where quite a lot of atheists are now taking up spiritual practices. Another one is Alain de Botton, the British philosopher, who wrote a book called, Religion for Atheists. He’s trying to reinvent religion for atheists, and here in Britain there’s now an atheist church called The Sunday Assembly, where there’s at least 70 branches so far, where atheists meet together on Sunday mornings to sing hymns together, or songs, and hear uplifting stories and so on. So, they’re, sort of, reinventing religion.
I think this is what makes the whole debate so interesting at the moment. It’s no longer one lot of people saying, “Religion and spirituality are complete rubbish and nonsense, all we need is science and reason,” by which they mean scientism and a, kind of, limited rationalism, what they’re now saying is. “Spiritual practices are good for you, yes, but you don’t need religion as a package.” In a way I agree with them.
The whole point of my new book, Science and Spiritual Practices, is that there are a whole range of spiritual practices, I just got seven of them in the book, which have now been investigated scientifically, which show that these practices are indeed very good for you. Meditation, for example, has many benefits and it’s done in both religious and a secular context.
So, it’s possible to do these practices within a secular context, even with atheist world views. You can also do them, of course, in a religious context.
So, what’s interesting at the moment is it’s open. It doesn’t mean you’ve got to be religious to do spiritual practices, and it doesn’t mean you’ve got to be non-religious to do them either. It’s a much more open situation than I’ve ever been aware of before in my lifetime.
Alex Tsakiris: Let’s talk a little bit more about the book, Science and Spiritual Practices. It begins with a very nice autobiographical sketch of your career, and in particular, your spiritual development leading up to you becoming a Christian at the age of 34, while in South India practicing a lot of Yogic and Hindu practices. I think some people are aware of your religious affiliation and your background, but most people probably aren’t, and they’ll learn that from the book. Can you sketch that out a little bit here?
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: Well yes, briefly, it’s a long story of course. But, I started out with a conventional Christian family of Methodists, and I went to a conventional Anglican boarding school in England, what we call public schools, but which are, of course, private.
So, I had a fairly conventional religious education, but by the age of about 14 or 15, I began to develop atheistic views and my science teachers encouraged that, because for them, science and atheism were just part of a packaged deal, they went together, and I wanted to be a scientist.
So, by the time I was a student at Cambridge, I was a pretty fully-fledged atheist and I remained so until my late 20s, for the same reasons that lots of other people are atheist today; they think science is just pro-religion and so on.
But what began to change me was, first of all, I went to live in Asia for a year. I was working at the University of Malaya, in Malaysia on tropical plants, and on the way there I travelled through India, I spent several months. That was an enormous revelation to me, to be in a culture that had such a deep and rich tradition, with all of these temples and holy men and sadhus and cannabis smoking holy men sitting in caves in the Himalayas and so on. It was a whole world that I knew nothing about, and which I found tremendously intriguing, and I couldn’t regard all of these people as stupid, they had a deeper philosophy than most of the people I knew in Cambridge. So, I had to take seriously this whole new perspective.
Then, I spent a month in Sri Lanka, where I spent some time talking to monks in a Buddhist monastery and again, that gave me a perspective on the mind, which I was completely ignorant on from my scientific education.
Then I lived in an Islamic world in Malaya, where people believed in spells and witch doctors and all that kind of thing, so it was a completely different thing.
All of this opened my mind in new ways, and when I got back to Cambridge, around 1970, 1971, I discovered psychedelics, and that again had a huge mind opening effect.
So, the result of that was, I got interested in meditation and started doing transcendental meditation, and then got more and more interested in Yoga and Hindu philosophy.
I then took a job in India,. In 1974 I became the principal plant physiologist at the International Crops Research Institute in Hyderabad in India.
So, I live in India for about seven years, partly because I was so intrigued by oriental philosophy, and the last thing I expected was being drawn back towards a Christian path, I thought I’d left that far behind me. But the longer I was in India, the more I realized that a great deal about my own nature and being was shaped by my Christian background.
For example, I had a conversation with one of my Hindu colleagues [Abramin 00:16:09], this was in the evening after work and he said, “Why do you do what you do?” and I said, “Well, I want to help poor farmers and I want to help poor people lead a better life by improving cropping systems and breeding better crops,” and I said, “What about you?” He said, “For me it’s a job, it’s a good job.” I said, “But what about helping people?” He said, “If people are poor, that is their problem, it is their karma, that is from their previous life. That is not your problem. Your problem is to look after your own spiritual development,” he said.
Then, I realized so much of Southern Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism and Hinduism is about following your spiritual path that basically leads to vertical takeoff for those who follow it. The rest of the world is a hopeless place with waves of reincarnation and samsara and karmic bondage, things are basically getting worse, according to their world view and will continue to do so, and the only thing an individual can do is get off.
Then, I realized that in the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions, there’s a very different dimension, it’s much more about community, about, we’re in this together, and this very strong sense of interlinking with a community, rather than just an individual quest. It made me realize I was much deeper in the Christian tradition than I’d thought, and of course, my own ideas about morphic resonance, a kind of memory and collective memory, which I’d already developed at that stage, made me realize that the influence of many generations of my ancestors in a Christian culture were going to shape how I was, whether I liked it or not, and whether I was aware of it or not and it was better to be aware of it than not aware of it. So, I felt that being drawn back to a Christian path made sense for me.
Then I met a wonderful Christian teacher, a monk living in South India in an ashram, Father Bede Griffiths, who’s a Benedictine. He wore the orange robes of an Indian holy man. The ashram was very simple, it was actually much simpler and more Indian than most Indian ashrams, which at that stage were completely inundated with foreign visitors. Most foreign visitors didn’t go to Christian ashrams, so it was actually paradoxically more Indian. He brought together a deep understanding of the Hindu philosophical tradition with the Christian mystical tradition. I hadn’t known much about the Christian mystical tradition, people like Meister Eckhart and Hildegard of Bingen and the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, and he showed me that many of the things I so liked in the Hindu tradition were actually there in the Christian tradition, it’s just no one had mentioned that in the more protestant side of Christianity. That part of the Christian path had been rather blotted out, but it is still a very key part of the orthodox and roman catholic monastic and mystical spirituality.
So anyway, for me that was a kind of bridge that enabled me to follow and rediscover a Christian path, while still doing Yoga and meditating and acknowledging the deep insights of the Hindu and Buddhist traditions.
So, Father Bede’s approach was not, either/or, it was, both/and, and that appealed to me tremendously. I much prefer an inclusive approach to an exclusive sectarian one. The problem I have with many people who made science into a religion is that they’re a, kind of, [unclear 00:20:14] sectarian, narrow and dogmatic. There are some Christians like that, I don’t meet many of them here in England, but I know they exist. Most people now that I meet are more inclusive and generous in their view of other traditions.
But for me, anyway, this has been a path that makes sense. I don’t try to convert people from other ancestral backgrounds to a Christian path. I think it’s better that Hindus follow a Hindu path and Muslims follow a Muslim path, but I do think it’s important for people from a Christian background to recognize their own tradition and not simply to try and reject it, but to come to terms with it in some way.
Alex Tsakiris: That’s a whole other subject, maybe we’ll talk a little bit about that at the end. But, where I was going to bring you to, where I think will create an image for people is from the book, where you say, in 1978 you are living in a palm leafed thatched hut, under a banyan tree, writing your book, your quite famous and controversial book, A New Science of Life.
So, here you are, you’ve gone on that amazing journey that you just talked about, you’re 34 years old, you’ve now reconnected with your Christian roots, and now you’re beginning this scientific writing career that has sent you on this path and I had a new sense for how that has informed you all along while, at the same time you’ve, kind of, let that stay in the background, in terms of being out in front of your writing.
Even in this book, this book is probably more out there than any of your previous books, in terms of your spiritual orientation, but why have you chosen to lead with the science aspect of everything, because you’re obviously a deeply spiritual person? Why lead with the science? What is science bringing to spirituality that spirituality needs?
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: I think potentially quite a lot. The reason that I’ve been focusing mostly on the science is because that is my area of expertise. I’m a scientist, I’ve studied philosophy and history of science as well.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, yeah, yeah, but if the nature of the world, if the nature of the universe, if the nature of our being is essentially spiritual, why science? I mean, as a career, as a job, as an interest, I get all of those things.
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: No, I see science itself as a, kind of, spiritual path. For me it is. It’s a path of enquiry and all religious people believe that there’s a consciousness behind the universe. Materialists and atheists believe there isn’t, they think the universe is unconscious matter, working in accordance with mechanical laws, but if there’s a consciousness underlying nature and underlying the universe, which is, I think, shared by all religious traditions, then how does that consciousness work itself out in the way nature is and what does nature show us about the underlying principles?
So, one of things that I think it shows us straight away is that nature is not just mechanical and unconscious, which is the dogmatic view of most materialists and atheists. So, to show that nature is more than just a mechanical system, that animals and plants are more than that, that minds are more than just brains, is an important part of understanding the world, because it’s not just a matter of spiritual practice, it’s a matter of understanding how we bring together our minds, our understanding of the practice of science, with a relationship to a deeper reality.
One aspect of that is, for me, the idea of there’s a memory in nature, the idea of morphic resonance is that there’s an inherent memory in nature, that nature is truly evolutionary, radically evolutionary. New habits can grow up. There’s a creative process as well in evolution. If it was just habits, nothing would change. If it was just creativity, nothing would stabilize. What we have is a, kind of, interplay of habits and creativity.
So, what is the creativity that underlies the world? To what degree is conscious process working in nature and in evolution? To what extent is it just blind and chance?
These are all scientific questions, as well as being spiritual questions, because they help to make sense of where we are in the world. So, for me, the two go on together.
Most of my books are primarily about science and about how to enlarge the frontiers of science, how to take science further. I’m not anti-science, I’m totally pro-science, so my whole endeavor is to try and enlarge the realm of science.
The title of my most recent book in the US, Science Set Free, is about that, I mean the book before Science and Spiritual Practices. But I have actually written on these things. I did two books, for example, with the theologian and philosopher Matthew Fox, one called, Natural Grace: Dialogues on Science and Spirituality.
Another one called, The Physics of Angels. I’ve also been doing an ongoing series of dialogues with the British philosopher Mark Vernon, and with the Episcopal Bishop of California, Marc Andrus, who’s at Grace Cathedral, who’s a great friend of mine.
So, this other side of my work is all there online and full of dialogues and also in these books. So, for me, they go together, but this is the first book, solo authored book, in which I brought together science and spirituality, looking at spiritual practices from the scientific point of view, and the reason I think that’s important is because, first of all, spiritual practices, which used to be embedded in the world’s religious traditions, can now be practiced outside of those traditions, and we can learn from all of the different traditions, like meditation. Every religion has its own traditions of meditation, but we can now learn Buddhist types or Hindu types or Sufi types or Greek orthodox types or whatever, there’s all these different types of meditation available now, but they’ve also been studied scientifically and the science shows that these practices affect the brain in particular ways, affect physiology, affect health and affect our mental state, protect against depression for example.
So, I think this is a very, very rich field and I’ve been interested, but this is the first time I’ve actually put them all together in this way, which is why this book was, in some ways, a kind of coming together of these two different sides of my life, which, in my own life of course, are combined, but which, in the public domain, may seem somewhat separate.
Alex Tsakiris: I still struggle, and I struggled while reading the book with those two sides. I mean, it’s like two ends of the telescope. On one hand I certainly get what you’re saying, and, in the book, Science and Spiritual Practices, you make a strong case for, as you were just eluding to, “Look at the science of meditation. How can we possibly deny it? Look at it from a scientific standpoint. How can we possibly deny the health benefits? We can’t.”
You further go on to talk about gratitude or connecting with the non-human world, and relating to plants and on and on, we could go through all the different seven spiritual practices if you will, and then you give us the science behind it and make the case for that, from a scientific standpoint. Yet, at the same time, and as you eluded to, that this is a deep part of your being and something you’ve explored, and I’ve explored on this show as well, including an interview with Mark Vernon, who along with you, hosts that very excellent Science Set Free podcast.
But, the other end of the telescope, as I was eluding to, is that we’re talking about spirituality here. We’re talking about the mind of God. So, are we looking through the wrong end of the telescope when we insist on bringing it down to some scientific study, so we can convince somebody to reconnect with what they already know. I understand that as, maybe, being effective in winning the hearts and minds of the masses, kind of in a political sense, but on a deeper spiritual sense, does that really make sense? Does science really relate to that deeper spirituality in us, in the way that you’re talking about?
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: Well, I think it should do, and where this becomes the most pressing question, is when we come to the nature of consciousness, because the area of materialist science that’s weakest, is in dealing with consciousness, because after all, materialism says matter’s the only reality and matter’s unconscious. So, there’s a real problem in explaining why consciousness exists, at least in us, and that’s why it’s called the hard problem in the philosophy of mind.
All of us grow up in this scientific society, we go and see doctors who take our pulse and sometimes do scans of brains and the rest of the body and so on, we’re engaged in a world, a scientific and technological world, we use it every day, computers, the internet, smartphones, etc. So, we’re embedded in that world and I think it’s really important to make a bridge between that and spiritual practices, most of which grew up long before the scientific revolution and the modern technologies.
Alex Tsakiris: Hang on Rupert, I guess I’m questioning that bridge. You’re very inclusive in the book, saying that this is a book that atheists and secular people can, kind of, get into, and you said that earlier on, but is that really true? Aren’t there some fundamental, philosophical and scientific questions, as you’ve just related to, regarding consciousness, that leave people on one side or the other side of the divide and when we paper that over and say, “No, here is a bridge,” is that really a bridge or do people just have to take a hard swallow and say, “Gee, that isn’t true. My understanding of consciousness is being a product, a 100% product of my brain and this dopey materialism… that just isn’t true.” Don’t they need to take a hard swallow and accept that, to really have an understanding of this?
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: Well, I think they’re more likely to accept that, not as a result of intellectual or scientific arguments, but as a result of experience. That’s the whole point of spiritual practices, they’re about experience rather than about argument.
Now, you see, meditation is a very good litmus paper for this, because lots of people meditate, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, many people have meditated over the centuries and many religious people meditate today, but so do millions of people who do it in a completely secular framework, including Sam Harris and Susan Blackmore, both of them card-carrying atheists.
Now, the interesting thing here you see, is that when you meditate, if there’s an experience of an expansion of consciousness, and you get to know your mind better, you see thoughts passing through, but by having another point of view from the breathing or the mantra, there’s sometimes an opening up of a space of being part of a far greater consciousness than what we normally experience.
The same also happens to people who take psychedelics and for some people psychedelics are a very important right of passage, particularly those that give near-death type experiences, like DMT. I’m writing another book, dealing with more spiritual practices, and that includes a chapter on psychedelics.
So, for people who’ve had those experiences, the experience of being part of a far greater consciousness than one’s own, which is a, kind of, mystical experience and all of these spiritual practices lead to something like that sooner or later, then what do you make of it? You see, if you’re a complete card-carrying materialist then you say, “Oh, well this is all just changes new nerve connections in the brain, the release of dopamine, reward systems being activated, the shutting down of the default mode network etc.” You can say all that, but the experience you have goes rather far beyond these theories, these observations and goes far beyond the dogmas of scientific materialism, which after all, is based simply on an act of faith and assumption, that matter is the only reality and there’s no greater consciousness in the universe than our own, or possibly that of other animals or little green men or something, but basically saying that the rest of the universe is unconscious.
Now, if you have experiences through meditation and through other spiritual practices that make you feel that your consciousness is part of something far greater, that’s much more likely to make you accept the possibility that there really is a greater consciousness than some abstract intellectual argument, which would never be convincing. Very few people have been convinced of the existence of God or the spiritual realm through purely intellectual argument, it mainly comes through experience.
That’s why I think these are so important and I think that people who meditate, who start meditating with a scientific approach, “It’s going to make me feel better, reduce stress levels, lower blood pressure, make me sleep better, etc.,” do it for health benefits, they may do that to start with for scientific reasons or scientifically validated reasons, but through practicing it, they may have experiences that lead them to see the world differently, to move to a different perspective, and I think that’s what’s likely to happen to a lot of secular meditators.
So, I don’t think the leap is something that’s going to happen as a, kind of, intellectual leap of faith, I think it’s going to be something that, for most people, happens as a matter of experience and then adjusting their intellectual view, in better accordance with their experience. So, I think experience comes first for most people. It certainly does for me.
Alex Tsakiris: Maybe. I mean, you’re kind of advocating, shut up and calculate becomes shut up and meditate.
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: Well, sort of, yes. I mean, I think that actually, at the basis of all spiritual traditions and religions, experience is the primary driver. I think it’s what is in it for most people, not a belief system. I think religions do have belief systems, but I don’t think they’re primary. Most people who go to church are not going to church because they’ve sat down, thought about the Christian creed, and come to the conclusion that every little bit of it is absolutely true, and then go to church. There are people who go to church because they like singing hymns or they feel part of something bigger than themselves, are part of a larger community, open to a spiritual dimension through the sacraments and the creed because it’s part of the service, without often understanding very much about what it’s saying. I think that’s much closer to the reality for most people.
Alex Tsakiris: Probably true. I’m not totally comfortable with that. I’m less geared that way. I’m more geared towards the rational knowing before I experience and I have to say, in talking with so many people over the years who’ve had extraordinary experiences, paranormal experiences and spiritually transformative experiences, one of the things I’ve always appreciated about your work is that it injects science, or at least the scientific method, back into the process in, I think, a very appropriate way, because a scientific method is about tools for better thinking. I can’t tell you how many times I talked to people and they say, “No, the spirituality is this way because that’s my experience. Near-death experiences are exclusively Christian, because that’s my experience. Reincarnation doesn’t happen, because that’s my experience in travelling to the astral plane and getting this download of information.”
You balance these two wonderfully, but I think, when we’re kind of open to tricking people into having an experience that transforms them, without, at the same time saying there is… which I think you are saying, there’s a basis and a method for understanding this rationally, I don’t know, I think we short-change folks.
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: I totally agree with you Alex, I’m not trying to short-change anyone. The reason that my book’s called Science and Spiritual Practices is precisely because I think it’s important to have a rational understanding of why these experiences may work, why they work, what they might mean and how they might connect to a bigger picture. It’s precisely for that reason that I try to combine these two.
You’ve talked to people in the line of doing your program who’ve had these experiences and think, “This is it,” extraterrestrials, channeling this and that and so on. Well, I get emails the whole time, I’m bombarded with them from people who’ve had all sorts of strange experiences or people who’ve got strange theories. I get all kinds, but like you, I think it’s very important to hold these two perspectives together and it’s exactly why, really, I’m trying to emphasize both in this book, not just the science, not just the spiritual experiences and where I think that our understanding relies both on experience and on rational understanding. After all, science is based on the experimental method and the experimental method is essentially about experience. In French, the same word means experience and experiment, expérience means both, and empirical means to do with experience. So, in a way, science and spiritual practices are both empirically rooted, they’re both rooted in experience.
There’s only really a conflict between the two if one has an ideology of science that rules out everything spiritual. If one has a scientific world view that includes the spiritual, at least the possibility of openings to the spiritual, then the conflict isn’t there really, in the same way that it is in the context of materialism.
Alex Tsakiris: Rupert, you make a strong case for the science of spirituality and you’ve made it over and over in this show and in the book it’s overwhelming I think, but let’s talk about religion, because I sometimes feel like you’re letting religion tag along for free on that ride, on that science ride, in a way that it doesn’t deserve.
I’ve done a number of shows on Christian apologetics, included, like I said, Mark Vernon, who I just think is wonderful and I really enjoyed our conversation on this show, but when you dig into Christian apologetics, biblical scholarship, they don’t hold up well, from a scientific standpoint, and don’t we have to hold that lens, hold that lens of better thinking that the scientific method brings us and say, “While there is undoubtedly an underlying spiritual truth to Christianity, there is also a lot that needs to be swept out and cleaned up, in terms of the institution, the dogma and the practices that don’t really make sense from a rational, logical way.” How do you deal with some of that?
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: Well, first of all, I’m not in favor of dogmatic credulity, I’m a regular practicing Anglican. I go to church almost every Sunday, wherever I am, that’s one of my practices. So, I meet a lot of people who are practicing Anglicans and the first thing is that practically everyone I meet, when I go to church, bears almost no relation to the caricature of what most people have in their minds of what religious people are.
Alex Tsakiris: Absolutely.
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: The caricatures are, kind of, mostly shaped by Southern Baptists, fundamentalists or televangelists or creationists or something. Well, there’s actually no creationists in the Church of England or in the Roman Catholic Church here in England, there may be in America, but there aren’t here, and I practically never meet them.
So, that kind of dogmatism, kind of fundamentalist dogmatism, I don’t meet in a religious context in England, in my own experience. I meet it all the time when I encounter so called sceptics and atheists.
Alex Tsakiris: Right, but that’s not really the point, the point is, does the historical Jesus matter? Does the historical Jesus of the Bible stand up? Does biblical scholarship reveal that the authors of the Bible weren’t who we were told, and for a thousand years we’ve known that? There is a fact base there, there is a knowledge base at the end, that I think makes a difference, I think makes a difference, and I just am uncomfortable with Christians who are too quick to gloss over that and say, “Well it doesn’t really make a difference. What matters is”, again, “my experience, my personal experience with Christ consciousness,” which I would never deny anyone their personal experience with Christ consciousness. But, I want to know, how that measures with the historical record, that is important.
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: I agree, and biblical scholarship has revealed all sorts of things about the Bible and it’s clear that some elements of it are mythic, they’re stories that grow up. Is it literally the case that the Virgin Mary was intact, a virgin when she had Jesus? Well, personally I don’t think it is, and where biblical scholarship plays a role in something like the so called virgin birth, to say that the word in the Greek New Testament ‘Parthenos’ means young woman or maiden, it doesn’t, it doesn’t necessarily imply an intact virgin, and you get stories of virgin births in relation to the Buddha and in all sorts of other historical figures. So, that looks very much like a, kind of, mythic accretion.
I was in my own parish church here in Hampstead, the sermon last Sunday, was saying more or less the same thing. No one seemed particular shocked or bothered.
The key thing is, I do think Jesus actually existed. I do think that Jesus actually went around teaching many of the things we read about in the New Testament and most biblical scholarship suggests that that was the case.
It also suggests that his followers believed him to have reappeared after he was crucified, and that’s why the Church got going. If he hadn’t have done that, it wouldn’t have done. It wasn’t a belief imposed later, it was a contemporary belief that was very vivid for them.
Alex Tsakiris: Let’s just leave that, let’s just leave that hanging. I don’t think that really holds up to really careful scrutiny, either one of those. So, I guess my question is, without diving into that and try to pull all of that apart here, at what point does that matter?
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: At what point does it matter? The thing is, well let’s just take the resurrection.
Alex Tsakiris: I mean, here’s my point, I don’t think it does matter in the way that Christians have been told it matters, and the way that Christians function.
I just had an occasion recently to attend a funeral ceremony, a celebration of life ceremony at a local church, a very nice church, very well attended, and they’re wonderful people, and like you say, all people that I would enjoy sitting down over lunch and talking to and not the caricatures that you see. But at the same time, I mean, let’s get real, they’re holding to a certain set of beliefs, historical accounts, that I don’t think hold up to scrutiny and we can disagree on that, but they seem to be central to what they believe. They’re not at the point of saying, “It’s about where I am,” which, as I say, you can encounter Christ consciousness, without ever reading the Bible. I mean, pray to Jesus and Jesus shows up, it doesn’t matter, and I think every religious tradition says that.
I just heard a great story, an Indian story about the buffalo boy, the boy who’s out herding buffalo and he sees the Brahmin priest and he goes over and says, “I’m just a humble buffalo boy, help me, help me see God,” and they all, kind of, snigger and laugh and go, “You’re a freaking buffalo boy.” So, they play a trick on him, they say, “Here’s what you do. You go and stand under that tree and say, ‘Buffalo, buffalo, buffalo,’ that’s your mantra.” So, he doesn’t know and they’re Brahmin, so he goes, “Okay.” He goes and sits under the tree and you know how this story’s going to end. He sits there, and he’s determined, and he says, “Buffalo, buffalo, buffalo,” and he meditates, and he says that mantra over and over again and God does come to him, because God shows up.
That’s, I think, the underlying reality but that doesn’t have anything to do with the Bible. I mean, you can have the Bible or not have the Bible, God shows up. What if that’s the truth?
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: Well, I think it is the truth. I’m not saying it’s not the truth. What I’m saying is, I have an option, living here in Hampstead, England, on Sundays I can stay at home and read the Sunday newspapers and I can meditate, which I do anyway, every day, or I can go to a church service on Sunday morning, where I sing beautiful hymns, there’s incredibly beautiful music, there’s a community of people I like and respect. I take part in the communion, that for me is important, the holy communion. I take part in collective prayers for the welfare of local people and people all over the world, and I usually emerge from that experience feeling uplifted and inspired, and I receive a blessing from a priest in beautiful robes. I emerge from that feeling uplifted and inspired and better than if I hadn’t gone.
So, for me, it’s not a question of, is this all totally true and is every word of the Bible literally true? I don’t think it is, but for me the question is, is taking part in these rituals, this communal singing, all of which are spiritual practices, these collective spiritual practices, is this helpful or is it not helpful? I do find it helpful. There are some people who don’t find it helpful, and that’s fair enough, I don’t think it’s necessary for salvation or for connecting with the ultimate. I’m not saying that at all.
Here in Britain, only about 5% of the population go to church regularly, so we’re talking a very small minority. 95% have no regular religious observance. So, the great majority of people on Sunday morning are cleaning their car or reading the newspaper or just hanging out. Well, I do that on the rest of Sunday. I don’t have a car, but I do all sorts of things, and usually have quite a bit of fun.
So, for me, the issue is not whether it’s true or whether every aspect of the Bible is true, but whether being part of and connecting with this tradition is helpful or not, and I do find it’s helpful. I find it roots me in the local sacred place, it roots me in sacred time, it gives me a sense of special time on Sunday as being not just all about emails and work, another dimension to life and to collective practice.
Of course, you can have that without going to church, of course you can. I’m not saying everyone ought to go to church, I’m just saying that for me it’s a valuable practice and I think it’s a valuable practice for a lot of other people too, and it might be a valuable practice for people who’ve never thought of giving it a try, it might be worth giving it a try.
Alex Tsakiris: So Rupert, final question for you. You just touched on several of the seven spiritual practices outlined in the new book, Science and Spiritual Practices. You just touched on, quite beautifully and I think very naturally, talking about your Christian expression and your Christian faith and how it manifests in your life. Tell folks, what do you think is one or two of those spiritual practices that they’re probably not aware of, that you think can be particularly impactful?
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: Well, I think most people are aware of the connection with nature aspect, which I talk about, and I think that’s something that’s, probably for many people, is a very important part. But one of the aspects that’s probably more relevant in Britain than in North America, but is relevant everywhere, is the rediscovery of pilgrimage, going on a sacred journey. In the chapter where I talk about pilgrimage, I’m particularly interested in that because I’m with a group of people here in England, I’m part of an organization called The British Pilgrimage Trust, that’s reopening the ancient footpath pilgrimages throughout Britain.
Now, we have, of course, a different situation here from North America, because most white Americans, well all white Americans are descendant from colonists and settlers, and the indigenous people there, who did have lots of sacred places as part of their culture, might not want their sacred places being taken over by the white settlers. So, it’s a slightly more difficult situation.
I’m a native English and my ancestors were English for as long as records show, so the sacred places of England, which some are pre-Christian, like Stonehenge, and some of them are Christian, like Canterbury Cathedral and so on, Glastonbury, these connect with my ancestral traditions.
I think that this is a somewhat harder thing in America, although I do think that the national parks and the state parks are the modern equivalent of sacred groves, and as I discuss in my book, one thing that people may not have thought about, quite in these terms, is how sacred groves were a very major part of all religions in the ancient world, including the Jewish religion in Palestine to start with. Abraham had his visions, he was sleeping under a sacred tree, his initial vision that set him out on his path.
I think that reframing national parks and sanctuaries and nature reserves and so on, as sacred groves, helps to see that they’re not just about being close to nature, they’re not just about going for a walk and getting fresh air and being healthy, they have a spiritual dimension and this was actually built into the National Parks Movement in the US by John Muir, who was very spiritually motivated in his struggle to conserve these great places.
So, I think a revisioning of the sacred groves of North America, which has some of the finest and greatest in the world, is something that would perhaps be a new take on spirituality for some people.
Alex Tsakiris: Wonderful, wonderful. Well, thank you so much for joining me.
Again, our guest has been Dr. Rupert Sheldrake. His new book, Science and Spiritual Practices: Transformative experiences and their effects on our bodies, brains and health. It’s a book that is available in different parts of the world right now, probably when this show comes out you might have to wait a couple of months in the US, but it’s worth it. I was able to buy a copy on Kindle, by the way, so other people can do that. You just have to fool around on Amazon, they have different international rights, but definitely pick up this book, it’s so, so worth it and to connect with Rupert through this book is going to be a tremendous experience, and hopefully you all had that experience in the last hour in connecting with him.
Rupert, thanks again so much for joining me.
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: Well, thank you Alex.
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