Science and Spiritual Practices


Meditation and the Nature of Minds
  • Meditation involves a detachment from normal everyday concerns, with inward-directed consciousness. It usually involves silently repeating a mantra, a word or phrase, or paying attention to breathing. What happens is that one part of the mind is involved in repeating the mantra or attending to the breathing, while other parts of the mind continue their normal activities.
  • One of the effects of meditation is an increase in self-knowledge, a greater awareness of the workings of our minds.
  • Meditation is a spiritual practice because it is about living in the present, which can also be experienced as living in the presence of a mind or consciousness or awareness greater than one's own.
  • Scientific journals have published thousands of papers on the effects of meditation on health and wellbeing. Studies of school children and college students who meditated showed significant positive effects on social competence and wellbeing. A small minority have adverse reactions where meditation has caused or worsened symptoms in people who have certain psychiatric problems.
  • Religious traditions put a strong emphasis on guidance by a competent teacher.
  • Meditation is often portrayed as a self-improvement practice, good for stress reduction and enhanced productivity.
  • Meditation tends to reduce ruminations, obsessions, cravings, fantasies and being lost in thought. During rumination and when we are lost in thought, a linked set of brain regions become active. These are called the default mode network, made up of interacting brain regions that become active by default when someone is not involved in an outward-directed task.
  • As meditation proceeds, and as meditators become more experienced, there is a decrease in the activity of the default mode network. Meditation is not the quickest way of shutting down the default mode network. Engagement in physically or mentally challenging activities shifts the mind very quickly, focusing attention in the moment.
  • The changes in brain activity that occur when people are meditating are not merely temporary; they seem to lead to changes in brain structure as well. There was also more grey matter in the frontal cortex, associated with working memory and decision-making. Astonishingly, in just eight weeks there were measurable changes in the brains of the meditators.
  • The crucial question is whether meditation enables our minds to connect with a mind or consciousness vastly greater than our own. This is what meditators have traditionally believed, and this has been one of the principal motives for meditation. It can help us to transcend our own minds and our own being. The experience of bliss, nirvana or samadhi is not just about wellbeing, but about experiencing more deeply the nature of reality.
  • Secular Buddhists are practitioners who use Buddhist techniques, but reject Buddhism as a religion. They interpret the life of the Buddha as that of a philosopher teaching a way of life, rather than a religious leader.
  • In the Tibetan tradition, the transmission of Wisdom involves more than words. It needs a living contact.
  • Just as we can come into a kind of resonance with each other through love and through taking part in shared activities, so we may come into resonance with more-than-human minds when we are not preoccupied with our own desires, fantasies and fears.
  • Finding times and places to be silent is one of the simplest ways to expand our sensory and spiritual awareness.
The Flow of Gratitude
  • The opposite of gratitude is a sense of entitlement. Our everyday life in a money-based economy heightens ingratitude because there is no need to feel grateful for a service we pay for.
  • As soon as we stop taking almost everything for granted, we begin to realise that we can be grateful for almost everything.
  • For materialists, although nature is mathematically and physically amazing, it is not deserving of gratitude, because it is not a gift, or an act of choice or purpose, but an inevitable consequence of blind laws and forces.
  • If we believe that God is the source of all things, and that God's being sustains the universe then our ultimate gratitude is to God for the very fact of existence.
  • Study after study has shown that people who are habitually grateful are happier than those who are habitually ungrateful; they are less depressed, more satisfied with their lives, have more self-acceptance and have a greater sense of purpose in life. They are also more generous.
  • In all religious traditions, hymns of praise and expressions of gratitude towards the divine source of all being are part of reciprocal interaction.
  • Grace itself has several meanings. First, in Christian theology, it is a gift of God, a divine favour. Grace also refers to proportions or actions that are pleasing, as in graceful movements, or gracious manners. Likewise, it means attractiveness or charm, as in elegant proportions. Thirdly, grace also means thanks, or gratitude, as in saying grace before meals.
  • What unifies these meanings is a sense of free flow in both directions, and from this flow comes graceful movement or beauty. The giver and the giver of thanks are connected together.
  • Spirit (which I think of as the flow of conscious life) flows through us when we give, and when we give thanks. In my view, this flow is a fundamental aspect of all human societies, and also of human relationships with ancestors, saints, spirits, angels, gods, goddesses, and ultimate reality, which Jews, Christians and Muslims call God.
  • Being grateful makes us part of this mutual, life-enhancing flow. Being ungrateful separates us from it.
Reconnecting with the More-Than-Human World
  • A sense of direct connection with the more-than-human world is of vast importance, and helps to inspire us spiritually.
  • Evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson thinks humans have an instinctive need to connect with animals and plants, based on a long evolutionary history as hunter-gatherers. He calls this instinctive love of nature biophilia, from the Greek bios = life and philia = love of. Inherited biophilia underlies "the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life."
  • Wandering in woods had calming physiological and psychological effects, including a reduction in the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the blood, and an enhancement of activity of the immune system.
  • Those who walked in a natural setting had a reduced tendency to brood and, sure enough, the region of the brain most associated with brooding, the subgenual prefrontal cortex, was less active in those who had walked in a leafy, natural setting than those who walked along busy roads.
  • The Protestant Reformation thus prepared the ground for the mechanistic revolution in science in the following century. Nature was already disenchanted and the material world was separated from the life of the spirit.
  • Panpsychism does not mean that atoms are conscious in the sense that we are, but only that they have some aspects of mentality or experience.
  • Only self-organising systems, in other words systems that form, organise and maintain themselves, have mind-like properties or experiences. And their mental aspects are not necessarily conscious.
  • If nature is alive, if the universe is more like an organism than a machine, then there must be self-organising systems with minds at all levels, including the earth, the solar system and the galaxy.
  • All qualities are in the divine mind. Animal minds, including insect minds, are the underlying basis for the beauty of flowers, and their minds participate in the divine being. Their minds and their sense of beauty participate in God's nature, as the ultimate source of Truth, Beauty and Goodness.
  • If you ask the tree a question, you may receive an answer, not in the form of a voice, but in what you see or feel or hear. If you are angry or upset, you can ask the tree to transform your emotions, absorbing your anger, or worry, or sorrow.
Rituals and the Presence of the Past
  • Rituals imply a kind of continuity, a memory transmitted from past generations to the present generation through the practice of the ritual.
  • The myths told stories of origins that took place in another time, the "dream time", but which are still enacted in the present. Every technique, rule, and custom was followed because "the ancestors taught it to us."
  • The purpose of many rituals is to connect participants with the original event that the ritual commemorates. Rituals cross time, bringing the past into the present.
  • Rituals are traditional by their very nature. Gestures and actions should be done in the correct way; and ritual forms of language are conserved even when the language is no longer in everyday use.
  • In rituals of remembrance, present participants are linked to the primal creative moment that the observance commemorates.
  • Initiation rituals are concerned with the crossing of boundaries such as those between boyhood and manhood. Typically they have three phases:
    • The initial state is removed. The individual is separated from his or her initial state and left in transition.
    • This threshold state is dangerous and ambiguous.
    • Finally, a ritual of integration ends this phase, and emphasises the individual's integration into his or her new state.
  • Morphic Resonance: the Laws of nature may be more like habits, memory may be inherent in nature. Stars, atoms, molecules, crystals and living organisms may behave as they do because their predecessors behaved that way before. Nature's habit-memory works through a process called morphic resonance, which involves the influence of like upon like across space and time. Similar patterns of activity or vibration pick up what has happened in similar patterns before.
  • The more the repetition, the deeper the grooves of habit. It is in fact well known that the more often crystals are made, the more readily they tend to form elsewhere. Morphic resonance also applies to behaviour.
  • The key to morphic resonance is similarity. Through morphic resonance, rituals bring the past into the present.
Singing, Chanting and the Power of Music
  • Humans have a very long history of mutual entrainment. When people are walking together and chatting, they often entrain each other without thinking about it, and come into step.
  • The most widespread forms of mutual entrainment take place through chanting, singing and dancing.
  • In an evolutionary perspective, music probably emerged both in the context of courtship and sexual competition, and also as an expression of group solidarity, connectedness and unity.
  • In chants, unlike songs, there is usually no fixed rhythmic beat; they often follow the rhythm of the words. Repetitive chanting, brings groups of people into a literal resonance with each other. When people are chanting a mantra together in a group, they are simultaneously resonating in at least three ways: first, with physical resonances within their vocal tracts and bones, as discussed above; secondly, through the resonant entrainment of the members of the group with each other, chanting the same sounds in synchrony to a shared pulse; and thirdly, through morphic resonance between those chanting in the present and all the people who have chanted the same mantra in the past, tuning in across time.
  • It has been found through research that singing together contributes to mental and emotional wellbeing, accompanied by measurable physiological changes and enhanced activity of the immune system. Oxytocin levels were also found to increase.
  • Oxytocin facilitates trusting behaviour and reduces fear and anxiety.
  • Music has many positive effects on health, wellbeing, social bonding and group cohesion.
  • Most if not all religious traditions assume without question that the ultimate reality of the universe is vibratory or sonic and at the same time conscious.
  • The Pythagoreans believed that numbers, ratios and proportions underlay the entire cosmos. They also showed that music provided a bridge between quantity and quality, between mathematics – measurable aspects of music – and subjective experience.
  • We can only chant in the present, and if we listen to the sound we are making as we make it, we create a circuit of attention. This allows us to integrate with the unfolding duration of the now, where joy is to be found.
Pilgrimages and Holy Places
  • Pilgrimage seems to be a deeply ingrained part of human nature, with its roots in the seasonal migrations of hunter-gatherers, and, more remotely, in many millions of years of animal migrations.
  • Pilgrims go to connect with a holy place; reaching that holy place is the purpose of their journey. They go with an intention to give thanks for some blessing they have received, or to pray for some blessing they want to receive, or as an act of penance to make amends for something they have done wrong, or for healing, or for inspiration.
  • Walking itself has many proven benefits. It promotes mental health and wellbeing, improves self-esteem, mood and quality of sleep, and reduces stress, anxiety and fatigue.
  • People who take exercise in the fresh air and in green spaces tend to benefit more than those who exercise indoors.
  • Purposeful activity is more satisfying and contributes more to wellbeing than purposeless activity.
  • Physical exercise protects against depression and other kinds of ill health.
  • Healing is influenced by people's hopes and expectations.
  • Some places are holy because they are naturally numinous, like some mountaintops, or springs, or waterfalls, or caves.
  • Some places may have a particular power because of their orientation, or because of underground water flows, or underground flows of electricity, called telluric currents, or because of their connection with the surrounding landscape.
  • The techniques of geomancy are not easily translated into conventional scientific terms, but include an understanding of the relationships of the topology and the flows of energy through the landscape.
  • If pilgrims to a holy place have been inspired, uplifted and healed there, we are more likely to have similar experiences of spiritual connection. Holy places can grow in holiness through people's experiences within them. Thsi may be due to a kind of resonance.
  • Materialists have not proved that matter is unconscious, or that nature is purposeless, or that minds are confined to brains. These are assumptions.
  • The triumphs of science and technology, such as computers, the Internet, smartphones, antibiotics, keyhole surgery, jet engines and space probes are the result of the "scientific worldview". But this does not support the materialist philosophy of nature.
  • The philosophy of modern science has hardened into a dogmatic belief system that is actually holding the sciences back. The least successful aspect of the modern sciences is in the understanding of consciousness.
  • Religions are about consciousness, and are founded on the assumption that consciousness transcends the human level.
  • People who regularly went to church tended to have less mental illness, suffer less depression, show less anxiety, and live longer than those with little or no religious participation.
  • The advantage of most spiritual practices is precisely that they are about practice rather than belief.
  • Spiritual practices have the unifying theme of connection:
    • Gratitude is about the flow of giving and receiving. Being part of a flow connects us.
    • Meditation makes us aware of the activities of our minds.
    • Connecting with the more-than-human world. We can go as far as we choose with our minds and our senses.
    • Plants offer us connections to life forms totally different from our own.
    • Rituals connect us with those who have performed the rituals before.
    • Singing, chanting and music link members of the group in synchrony and resonance.
    • Pilgrimage connects us to holy places, places where heaven and earth are joined.

These notes were taken from Rupert's book Science and Spiritual Practices.
See his website at www.sheldrake.org


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   Rupert Sheldrake

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