An interview with Rupert Sheldrake about his latest book Science and Spiritual Practices.
The effects of spiritual practices are now being investigated scientifically as never before, and many studies have shown that religious and spiritual practices generally make people happier and healthier. Rupert Sheldrake summarizes the latest scientific research on what happens when we take part in these practices, and suggests ways that readers can explore these fields for themselves.
SS: What’s the purpose of the book?
RS:I wrote this book because, for me, these are big issues, I’ve been practising a variety of spiritual practices over the years, I’m a scientist, and for me it’s very important to find connections between them, and connections between them have got stronger and stronger over recent years through what people call evidence-based spirituality. A lot of spiritual practices have now been investigated scientifically and the general result of these investigations is that they’re very good for you. Not surprising really, because people have been doing these things for thousands of years, if they were harmful I suppose they would’ve given them up. The one that’s been investigated the most and which is best known is meditation. There are now thousands of scientific papers in peer reviewed journals about meditation. Some of them showing that it’s very good for peoples health, lowers blood pressure, people sleep better, that it counteracts depression. You can now get a prescription for meditation on the British National Health Service, it’s cheaper and more effective than taking anti-depressant drugs, at least in mild and moderate depression. The effects of meditation on the brain have now been investigated in detail; Changes in brain activity in particular parts of the brain, even changes in brain structure through prolonged meditation. So that’s the practice that has been studied most, but all the other ones I discuss in the book have been studied in varying degrees, there are seven practices in the book. The points I’m making are that these practices are good for you, they’ve been explored scientifically, all of these practices that are part of traditional religions, but they are also things you can do if you’re not religions as well.
SS: What do you mean by science?
RS: By science I mean, really, the scientific method. I think science as a method of inquiry is extremely important, it’s completely transformative. It’s often confused with science or scientism as a sort of dogmatic belief system, and that I’m very much against. My previous book ‘The Science Delusion’ is about the 10 dogmas of science, and what I do is take the 10 standard dogmas of modern science and look at them scientifically and do they hold up in light of scientific evidence? They don’t hold up very well. The point of the Science delusion which is called Science Set Free in the United States is that these dogmas are restricting science itself. Science is a method of hypotheses, guessing what might be true, testing it by experiment, building up evidence, critical discussion of evidence, if a hypothesis is wrong then finding better one. It’s a progressive method of inquiry. Now there’s no reason why these same techniques of science shouldn’t be applied to other forms of practice or belief in other cultures. And indeed in the case of yoga for example, which is a very important practice in India and has now spread all over the world, people have applied scientific methods to look at this. Can yogis really reduce their metabolic rate? Can they really live without breathing for really long periods? What effects does yoga have on health and physiology? All these can be investigated using scientific methods and they have been investigated. So, there’s nothing about science that restricts it to phenomena in western culture.
SS: How can science encourage people engage with spiritual practices?
RS: I think we live in a very secular society were most people grow up without a religious tradition and they grow up without spiritual practices. That’s the default position in modern Europe. A hundred years ago, two hundred years ago the default position was that people grew up within religious traditions with spiritual practices. So, now a lot of people don’t have them and they’ve grown up subject to a kind of very secular ideology that says religion’s a waste of time, it’s all dogmatic, spirituality’s a waste of time, it’s all make-believe. I think for a lot of people the scientific evidence for spiritual practices is very important, it enables them to take them seriously. I mean people have taken meditation seriously all over the world for a very long time. But it wasn’t really until the 1970’s and 80’s when research on meditation showed that it was good for you that it had health benefits, that a lot of people stated saying, ok well let’s try it. I mean they could’ve tried it without any of these scientific studies, but I think the scientific studies shed light on how it works. It’s clearly working through affecting physiology, brain connections and so on. It’s not just something that’s ‘just in the mind’, or a kind of fantasy or false belief, it’s something that’s really actually affecting you. So, I think that science helps in the modern world to make these things more credible and it also helps to show that they can be done as practices detached from the original religious belief systems in which they developed. That doesn’t necessarily mean to say that they’re better if they’re outside religious frameworks. I personally think that religious frameworks are very important and that religious traditions are important as a framework within which these spiritual practices happen, but you can do them within or outside of religious frameworks and the scientific studies generally speak look at them outside of religious frameworks in a secular context.
SS: How do transcendental experiences help people in daily life.
RS: Part of our living healthily involves being connected to something greater than ourselves. We are in fact part of a vast universe. Even the most materialistic science agrees that our life on earth is part of an evolutionary process that started with a single unified universe at the moment of the big bang that’s been developing and evolving ever since. That we’re part of something far bigger ourselves. When we recognise that we’re not just isolated individuals that our minds are not simply insulated inside the privacy of our skulls, we’re related to other people, we’re related to people that have gone before, we’re connected with our ancestors, were connected with the universe, we’re connected with more-than-human nature. I think all of these things give us greater sense of meaning and purpose. And I think it’s no surprise that in a modern secular world where many people have lost this sense of connection, that depression is thee endemic mental illness of our society. Depression is about loss of meaning, loss of purpose, loss of connection. So, I think that anything that restores these things helps us to be healthier, more integrated. And I think when we get up in the morning and we go to work and when we’re doing fairly mundane things that this sense of connectedness is actually sustaining and helpful. People who have a strong spiritual life or who have a strong religious faith are often manifestly happier than people who don’t have that, they also live longer and are healthier. And you often feel it when you meet them, even if they’re doing something very ordinary they often seem happy where as some people just seem depressed, bored, worried, anxious, and so these things actually show in people’s lives.
SS: Are people happier because they’ve had an experience of connectedness, or because their practice has starts to infuse daily life as a living moment-moment practice?
RS: For many people having a spiritual experience of a spontaneous mystical experience, or a sense of connectedness or a vision of a greater connectedness is often an inspiration for starting out on a spiritual path. But, in order to sustain that, regular practice is quite important, that’s why my book’s called Science and spiritual Practices, these are things you do. And for many people spiritual practices are a daily thing they’re not just something you do occasionally when on holiday. Many people meditate every morning, I do myself, it’s part of my daily life. That sense of calmness that comes through meditation is a very good way to start the day. Many people practice yoga, do yoga exercises which help to align mind and body. I do some yoga exercises every morning as soon as I get up. Many people pray on a regular basis, I also do that, I meditate in the mornings, I pray in the evenings. And many people as they go about their daily life retain this sense of connection of the more-than-human world, just look up at they sky and there is this vastness of space in the blue sky or in the night sky of which we’re a part. Just looking at trees and leaves and flowers, and looking dogs and cats and other animals, reminds us of our connectedness to the rest of nature, and these are all everyday experiences. For many people connecting with plants, which is one of the subjects I discuss in this book, it’s one of the seven spiritual practices. Some people find it surprising that connecting with plants should have a spiritual dimension. But I think it does in all religious traditions, flowers and offerings of flowers are important in all of these traditions, flowers are an important representation of the beauty of nature, one of the most powerful representations. And the most popular pastime, in Britain at least, is gardening, people love growing plants and connect with plants through their gardens, through house-plants, through cut flowers in their houses, through walking in woods, through trees. And these again are part of everyday life. People have plants all around them. We get used to this we don’t pay attention to it, but on almost every high street there’s a florist, there are people selling flowers in stalls, and that’s because all over the world people recognise that these are something that’s an important part of life.
SS: What advice do you have for people living in large cities, full of distractions, visual over stimulation and high levels of ambient electromagnetic radiation?
RS: Well, I think that there are some-things that can take us out of this constant bombardment and distraction, one is singing. Singing is used in all religious and spiritual traditions, chanting or singing, brings together the mind and the body. The whole body literally vibrates when you’re singing, if you’re singing with other people, then singing together brings you into resonance with each other. And if you sing songs that are of a spiritual nature, that have a kind of connective role, this can be a very powerful way of quickly changing your mood and your focus. I think other ways of detaching from all this distraction is just spending some time in quietness, in silence, turning off the mobile phone and being in a quite space. One of the practices that I discuss in my book Science and Spiritual Practices is finding a sit-spot, somewhere outdoors where you can just sit quietly in the woods or in a garden, somewhere near your home where it’s fairly convenient to do it where you feel safe. And just spending, if possible, twenty minutes a day in that place just sitting quietly. Then you’ll become more aware of nature you’ll see the changing seasons, they way that trees and plants change. If you sit quietly birds and other wild animals get used to you being there and start behaving normally and you can get to hear the way they’re communicating with each other. It’s a way of tuning out from your distracted human world and tuning in to the world, the environment around you.
SS: Will people who dedicate them selves to a spiritual practice by tuning out of the distracted worldly state, start to isolate themselves from the social groups around them?
RS: I think that by taking up these spiritual practices that I discuss in my book is not going to make people more isolated, of course they’ll be temporarily isolated if they’re sitting quietly in a natural place, if they’re sitting meditating quietly at home, during those periods they’re not going to be constantly interacting via facebook or other social media with people. So there are periods of withdrawal from interaction which I think will make periods of actual interactions with people more meaningful more powerful. And some of the practices I talk about, one of them is singing and chanting, singing with other people is an extremely powerful way of building community and connecting. So, that’s the opposite of isolating. It’s different from just listening to music, everybody listens to music, but making it through the most basic form of making music singing is one of the most fundamental universal ways in humanity of connecting with other people. And one of the other practices I discuss is pilgrimage, walking to holy places, and that again is something which people often do in groups, they’ve traditionally done pilgrimage together, you can do it on your own, but doing it with other people is an immensely bonding and connecting experience. Doing something with a common purpose is much better than just ‘hanging out’ with no particular purpose. So, I think that the pursuit of these spiritual practices will not isolate people, I think it will make people feel more connected with themselves, with the universe, with the natural world around them and with other people.
SINA SAFFARI is a writer, facilitator and events organizer at Watkins Books. After studying alternative healing modalities in Canada and New Zealand, he now lives in London and is an advocate of whole person living and harnessing the creative power of collective intelligence.