Friday, 14 June 2019

Ways To Go Beyond

This is the title of a book by Rupert Sheldrake. The blurb reads as follows.

"To go beyond is to move into a higher state of consciousness, to a place of bliss, greater understanding, love, and deep connectedness, a realm where we finally find life's meaning - experiences for which all spiritual seekers seek.

Dr Rupert Sheldrake, writing as both a scientist and a spiritual explorer, looks at seven spiritual practices that are personally transformative and have scientifically measurable effects. He combines the latest scientific research with his extensive knowledge of mystical traditions around the world to show how we may tune into more-than-human realms of consciousness through psychedelics, such as ayahuasca, and by taking cannabis. He also shows how everyday activities can have mystical dimensions, including sports and learning from animals. He discusses traditional religious practices such as fasting, prayer, and the celebration of festivals and holy days.

Why do these practices work? Are their effects all inside brains and essentially illusory? Or can we really make contact with forms of consciousness greater than our own? 
We are in the midst of a spiritual revival. This book is an essential guide."

Where does one start? As far as I am concerned, this shows a total lack of understanding of what spirituality is all about. I haven't read the book and don't intend to which might discount me from expressing any opinion on it. Nevertheless, going by the blurb and reading about it on his website where it talks about why "these seven practices work..., give a greater sense of connectedness.., make people happier and healthier, etc" leads me to think that Rupert Sheldrake has swallowed all the nostrums of the New Age and that, for him, spirituality is not about putting oneself right with God but the 'experiences' one gets out of it. Quite frankly, this is an inverted form of spiritual aspiration which strays perilously close to the diabolical. I will explain why.

First of all, I'm not saying that Sheldrake is in the league with the devil or anything silly like that. From what little I know of him, he strikes me as a very mild and benevolent person. However, if he is saying what he appears to be saying in this book then he is confusing spirituality with psychology.  He is saying that what matters in spirituality is how it makes you feel, "moving to a place of bliss, more connected, happier and healthier". What matters is none of these things. This is a classic case of the worldly self trying to appropriate the spiritual for its own ends instead of realising that the spiritual only arises when the worldly self is sidelined and not allowed to be the driving force behind an individual's goals and aspirations. Far from being about the search for bliss or health and happiness, real spirituality is about the sacrifice of the ego even to the point of accepting suffering if that is what God ordains.

Any spirituality that is not motivated by a pure love of God is a false spirituality, ultimately just a search for reward even if that is spiritual not material. But what's the difference if the motive is the same? That is why I call it diabolical for the devil always wants to claim the prize without paying the price. He is a thief, and seeking the effects of spirituality without qualifying for these through real personal transformation, which pace Sheldrake is not achieved through practises of any kind, still less drugs, but through dedicating oneself to the Good, the Beautiful and the True wherever these may lead and whatever they may demand in the way of sacrifice and suffering (and they will demand these), is attempted robbery.

The modern Western person wants spirituality without religion which means he wants higher states of consciousness without God. But it is only through dedication to God that one can rise above one's own petty self-concerns, and only by doing this can one really be stabilised in (instead of fleetingly touching or trespassing on) higher states of consciousness. But to do this you must love God not for what you get out of him but purely and simply for himself. If there is any hint of this in Sheldrake's book, I apologise but if there is not and it really is about what its description implies then I'm afraid I have to say he is just another blind leader of the blind.

There is no revival of spirituality just because people want to be spiritual in order to reap the perceived psychological benefits of spirituality. There will only be a revival of spirituality when people renounce their worldly egos and start to love Goodness and Truth for their own sake. But these are not mere abstract qualities. They are embodied in Christ and if that is not seen then they are not really seen.  Consequently I venture to say that there will be no real revival, in the West at least, until people reawaken to the reality of Christ. Only by following the path laid down by him, and actually focused in him, can we be truly spiritual. 

One further point.  Spirituality is not scientifically measurable. Anything that is scientifically measurable is not spirituality. 


edwin said...

I also believe that Christ is the sine qua non of any spiritual revival in the West, but I don't think it will be a revival so much as a new awakening. Traditional forms of religion have not been able to make the transition into a world in which experience is valued as the guarantor of truth. Most people do not have access to spiritual experience and the dogmatic formulae of the Churches rest on their institutional authority, which rests on ... what? And intellectual assent to a proposition does not translate into a living experience. You enjoy the advantage of having had communication with the Masters, i.e. a convincing experience of the reality of the spiritual world. Few are so blessed. Faith has come more and more to mean unverifiable belief, which experience tends to trump in most instances, which is why most "relgious" people live in a manner indistinguishable from the non-religious: both base their actions on
practical experience of the physical world. Steiner's insistence that the circumstances we find ourselves in now require that we develop what he calls "spiritual science" - experience of the spiritual world - makes increasing sense to me. Of course, one must have an intuition of spiritual truth before being inclined to explore the possibility of such a science. Why did some recognize Christ as the Christ while others did not? Truth is self-evident, but why is it not self-evident only to some people and not to everyone? I digress. Faith in Christ must be based on experience, not creeds. People no longer accept creeds. Sheldrake, on some level, must realize this, and so he proposes ways to gain experience of "spiritual" states through drugs. But then we are only experiencing the passing effect of a drug, which effect will soon become a memory, not a transformational principle. Anthroposophy may offer us an answer, a way to make Christ central to our lives, but it requires work. And those who represent anthroposophy, at least in the U.S., come to it with a Leftist ideology into which it is fitted, as much as it is even understood, which is not very much in most cases I've encountered. To come to the truth now requires a great force of will and steadfastness.

William Wildblood said...

When I used the word revival I was just using the word employed in Sheldrake's blurb but I agree that awakening is what's required since that is an inner thing. Revival is more of an outer recovery that potentially concerns letter more than spirit.

As to why truth is only evident to some I would say you must have truth in you to be able to recognise it. To some degree, at least.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - I slightly know Rupert Sheldrake as a penfriend, in relation to theoretical biology - and found him likeable, helpful and very well mannered. I own and have read a lot of his work (although hot this book). Nonetheless, I agree with your assessment of his spirituality!

He has, for years, hung out with New Agers (e.g. Terence McKenna) and (what I call) 'spoilt priests' - mostly ex Episcopalians/ Anglicans who have become ultra liberal eclectic relativists and (in practice) leftist supporters and activists (e.g. Matthew Fox, and Mark Vernon - who is, unfortunately, soon publishing a book of his interpretations of Owen Barfield,,,).

In sum - a failed approach that reduces to a mere self-therapy lifestyle option.

William Wildblood said...

Thanks for confirming my impression, Bruce. I'm sure he's a very pleasant person but his attitude to spirituality seems fundamentally misconceived,bringing it down to our level instead of us going up to its.

Faculty X said...

It doesn't matter where you start. Somewhere along the line the few people who are interested will need ways to awaken their own inner perception.

John Fitzgerald said...

Sheldrake et al need to sit down with TS Eliot's 'Four Quartets'. An austere cataphatic theology of renunciation is just what they (and we) need - the stripping away of the ego, going 'by a way where there is no ecstasy,' etc.

Rowan Williams (another contentious figure, I know) has always seen this purgatorial aspect of Christianity as the most important aspect of the Faith. Iris Murdoch - a major influence on Williams - illustrates the self-serving, self-exalting nature of contemporary spirituality brilliantly in her novels, e.g. 'The Nice and the Good.'

Disappointing that Sheldrake, who I've always thought of as a brave, imaginative, profoundly counter-cultural scientist and thinker, has chosen to go down this shallow and deceptive road.

Keri Ford said...

I have some sympathy for Sheldrake although I don't find that blurb inspiring. I have looked at this book a few times but decided against reading it. Sheldrake's background is biology and he has sought to critique dogmas of science from within science, I like how he has formulated scientific experiments that confront scientific orthodoxy and formulated a theory of form in plants and animals. Although I suspect Goethe probably did better. I have recently got but am yet to read Goethe's "The Metamorphosis of Plants"

He's kind of a Carl Jung of biology. I don't think Sheldrake has been able to delve into the roots of thought and needs more philosophy and Theology, he does seem to be among the majority who see that spirituality is some kind of add on to our material self, at the top of Marslow's triangle to be catered to once all the other needs have been met, spirituality enjoyed as a dessert. It is weird that we are living in a time where even this is too much and is considered radically unorthodox.

I think one of the most important contemporary cultural questions are in relation to the fundamental assumptions of scientific world view, as I think these are thought forms dominating both the religious and secular, the religious may have other thought forms but they have not been able to vanquish the scientific ones, at least in the public square. I think Steiner and Barfield have best addressed them, Sheldrake is attempting that but takes way too many of the basic suppositions for granted, religion and spirituality are supplementary rather than fundamental.

In relation to Bruce's comments regarding Mark Vernon's upcoming book, I recently listened to a Vernon talking about Barfield, he's done some short clips that I quite liked, but in the interview he seemed to be saying that the change in consciousness that Barfield talks of at the time of Christ was the content or point of Christ's teaching, which seems upside down to me.

Unknown said...

I think this is a bit too harsh.

Religion obviously brings joy and bliss - all the religions have said so, and indeed why else would anyone become religious?

In the modern world we lost religion partly because it came to be seen as all sacrifice and no bliss - just dreary rule following and deprivation and harshness with no payoff.

And at the same time, this aversion to happiness and bliss is characteristically modern in a way - it is very common for a modern to say happiness is not the point of life (generally because ego development is, and someone who is content won't develop his ego), whereas all traditional religions emphasize precisely happiness. Of course, happiness in traditional religion is not defined as absence of suffering and trouble - but connection with God.

Only the modern world is against happiness - because happy people aren't restless and agitated and don't want "more" constantly and aren't trying to develop their ego constantly.

I think we precisely need to emphasize the note of bliss and joy in religion more and not less.

Yes, you cannot have this joy and bliss without God, and yes asceticism and death of the ego is the way to this. I think this needs to be clearly brought.

The "via negativa" is actually the only effective path to joy and bliss that mankind has available to it - there literally is no other. And God is also the only path to bliss (genuine belief in God implies via negativa anyways).

The great secret that modern people do not understand is that death of the ego brings joy and bliss - they are terrified of it. Everything in the modern world teaches them the ego is the way to happiness.

In fact this is probably the major thing that defines our joyless and unhappy modernity - the mistaken belief that ego is happiness.

But one must experience this not talk about it. That's why the best thing you can wish a modern is to have some sort of catastrophic ego collapse :) He expects misery but will find fulfillment for the first time in his life.

But back to my point - we must beware making religion some kind

William Wildblood said...

Unknown, I believe you've missed the point. The point is how does one approach God? Is it from the level of the ego seeking pleasure or happiness or fulfilment or whatever it may be for itself, or is it on the level of the soul which means from love of God? Is one's motive to get or to serve the Good? If you try to get rid of the ego because you think that you will get something better in exchange, well that's just the ego trying to do a deal for its own advantage.

Spiritual happiness is not an emotional thing like the earthly variety, and I think the word bliss connotes a kind of self-indulgence, like spiritual sunbathing or wallowing in self-absorption, so I avoid it. I'm all in favour of happiness (!) but real spiritual happiness comes from the knowledge that you are standing right with God. It is not simply a matter of having pleasurable feelings.

I rather suspect your approach to religion is based on feelings and therefore, when it comes down to it, tending to the therapeutic, what makes a person feel good. You might be more modern in that respect than you realise.

Unknown said...

I think in Hinduism bliss - ananda - is listed as one of the three main blessings of religion.

No offense, William, but this dour, Calvinistic, Protestant, attitude seems to be in large part why religion died out in modern times.

Protestantism being a precursor to modernity.

Unknown said...

Of course my religion is based in feeling! What else would it be based on?

St Augustine said that man is not primarily an intelligent being, but a loving and feeling being.

Happiness comes from the mere intellectual knowledge that one stands right with God? Religion is existential, it involves the whole nan - not just the intellect.

This disparagement of feeling is very modern and has no analogue in traditional religion - of course religion is therapeutic! Of course it is supposed to make you feel good!

Christianity was explicitly described as medicine, as was Buddhism.

The Psalms, one of the most beautiful works of devotion ever written and the centerpiece of the monks liturgy, goes on and on about how God consoles, heals, saves, gives joy.

This modern fear of feeling has the same root as everything else modern - pride. We should be such superior beings that feelings don't matter. We should be wholly intellectual.

And we should be such superior beings that we hardly need to be healed - yet traditional Christianity talked about how man was broken and needed healing and refuge.

Another reason for this modern dislike for feeling good is the desire to encourage restlessness - whereas traditional religion encourages contentment. Restlessness serves the ego, it makes you want more, to be more, etc.

William Wildblood said...

I said feelings not feeling. There's a big difference. I am not disparaging feeling at all. I live by that but try not to be ruled or motivated by my feelings which means the search for pleasure and the avoidance of discomfort. These relate to the earthly self not the soul. The soul is love not feelings. Also, ananda is one of the qualities of reality not a reason to seek it out because that search would be motivated by the ego.

How is it dour to say that religion should be inspired by love for God?

Not the intellectual knowledge that one stands right with God but the inner certitude which is of the whole being. Intellectual knowledge is an outside looking in thing. Or if you call this knowledge of the intellect then it is the intellect as the word is used in medieval theology which is basically the spiritual intuition.

Yes, we do need spiritual healing but spiritual healing and psychological therapy are poles apart. The word as used traditionally does not have the same implication as modern people use and understand it. Traditionally it means to heal the rupture in the soul caused by having turned away from God and towards self - which means towards one's own feelings.

Belief in God is not a self-interested act or should not be. It is an act of love and a recognition of reality, and self-interest has nothing to do with it even if it is in one's real self-interest to believe in God. You ask what else would religion be based on if not feeling. I take your point and don't disagree if we take feeling to be related to imagination but not if it's related to emotion. The reason I took to a religious view is because I saw the reality of the soul in the imagination. I certainly felt the absence of that in my life before and that caused me unhappiness. But it was not the search for happiness that drew me to God. it was the recognition of his reality and that was perceived in the imagination.

Going back to the subject of the post, my point was that Sheldrake appeared to be advocating spiritual practices for what the earthly self gets out of them. I don't think it's harsh to say that's entirely wrongly motivated. It has things back to front implying the search should be motivated by desire for God's gifts rather than God himself. Desire for heaven rather than love of God. This is what I call diabolical because it is.

Of course the spiritual path ends in joy but the reason to follow it is not for spiritual reward which is why Christ said that those who would follow him would have to deny themselves and take up the cross. The Psalms may say that God consoles, heals, saves, gives joy. They don't say that it is to take advantage of these nice things that one should turn to him.

William Wildblood said...

Unknown, I think I may have deleted one of your comments by mistake. Sorry, that was unintentional! Anyway, here it is. If anyone else is reading this comment by Unknown comes after his one of 16.05 and before my last one.

And yes, killing the ego to get something in return is a self interested act - that is still the best way to describe the phenomenon, though.

And belief in God is a self interested act - this idea that it should be bloodless, emotionless, etc, this dissociation of God from pleasure, is disastrous.

Everything man does is for pleasure on some level - the modern dissociation of God from pleasure - joy, bliss, healing, refuge - is rooted purely in pride.

We are too superior to need healing - that's merely therapeutic - and feelings are childish. Adults are serious and grim.

Unknown said...

Yes, but we love God out of self interest.

I think it makes sense to tell people that the happiness and peace they seek is impossible without God and self sacrifice, and that it is not found where the world thinks it is found - in developing the ego.

But I don't understand telling people they should not seek happiness and joy.

However, I think I get what you are saying. It is sort of like the Faith of Job - he trusts in God even though God brings him nothing but suffering, and he does not ask God for anything.

Shin Buddhism has a similar idea, where someone says he simply trusts God (Amudda Buddha), whether he takes him to hell or to heaven, and does not even ask for salvation (previously, the idea was that you ask for salvation).

This is indeed a kind of Faith that betrays a profound trust in God to somehow, in some way, take care of us even if we cannot understand His ways. We ask for nothing - how can we even know what is truly good for us? - and put our hands entirely in God.

We show a proper humility and we have a Faith greater than our intellect and understanding, and a childlike trust of the kind David wrote about in the psalms.

Is this what you are getting at William?

If do, then I can heartily concur and take back all my words.

This great faith and trust is indeed the last refinement and true flower of religion - after all verbiage is done with, a Faith greater than our understanding and intellect.

Unknown said...

But I think it is absolutely vital to link religion to our deepest self interest - indeed, our True self interest, our real concern.

We may argue how to achieve our deepest self interest, and maybe we can say Sheldrake is remaining content with toys and not the real, satisfying thing - God.

But our deepest and truest self interest must be bound up with religion and God, and we must vividly bring this out to moderns who have learned to see religion as just a dreary round of senseless ritual and self denial.