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Celebrating the Marriage of Spirituality and Science: Review of “Ways To Go Beyond and Why They Work” by Rupert Sheldrake

In a previous book, Science and Spiritual Practices, British biologist Rupert Sheldrake devoted a chapter to each of the following practices and demonstrated how our brains are affected by doing them: Meditation; Gratitude; Reconnecting with the more-than-human world; Plants; Rituals; Singing, Chants and the Power of Music; Pilgrimages and Holy Places.

In this follow up book, Ways To Go Beyond And Why They Work: Spiritual Practices in a Scientific Age, Sheldrake continues his scientific examination of the following additional practices: The Spiritual Side of Sports; Learning from Animals; Fasting; Cannabis, Psychedelics and Spiritual Openings; Powers of Prayer; Holy Days and Festivals; Cultivating Good Habits, Avoiding Bad Habits, and Being Kind.

Writing in a style that is personable and easy lay-oriented (i.e. you don’t have to be a scientist to grasp his meaning), he makes an exciting and important contribution to the next phase of religion which is to say spirituality that may or may not take place within church, temple, mosque or religious spaces.  He is also telling us what a post-religious spirituality looks like.

This is a valuable and timely book therefore, one that the growing number of people who identify as “spiritual but not religious” can affirm and learn from but that does not exclude those of religious traditions either.  In fact, it sheds light on the wisdom of our ancestors in exploring many of the practices they passed on to us and the results they can still deliver.

Sheldrake concludes that “all these practices have measurable effects.  In various ways they affect our physiology, breathing, heart rates, autonomic nervous systems, hormone levels, brain activities, mental abilities, feelings, emotions, visual imagery, since of beauty, feelings of wellbeing, happiness, and compassion.”  Set in their traditional religious contexts, their underlying purpose is to put us “into conscious relationship with more-than-human forms of consciousness,” to feel a connection “to a greater consciousness presence, or being.”  Thus we learn that despite the exodus from churches occurring at record rates in much of the Western world, the ancient practices from spiritual traditions were not without meaning or purpose or results.  Such practices were smart and wise and fed the human heart.  We can return to them in a more-than-religious context.  Today’s science is acknowledging that.

Sheldrake is not afraid to speak in the first person.  He is writing of his own experiences as well as those of many through the ages.  As he says, “I am not a guru, but an explorer” and “I have taken part in all the practices I discuss in this book.”

This book brims over with sound insights and deep applications to today’s struggles.  Just referencing from a single chapter, that on “Cultivating Good Habits and Being Kind,” consider the following two observations:

–“Not all behavior within social species is cooperative: some is competitive, especially in relation to food supplies and sexual partners.  But cooperation is predominant; otherwise the social group would not hold together.  And cooperative behavior is primarily restricted to member of the same social group…acts of compassion to strangers of the same species or from distance species are rare exceptions, which is why they attract so much interest.”  (224).  Jesus and his teachings of welcoming the stranger—from Samaritain women to lepers and other outcasts–would seem to “attract much interest.”

–Thomas Hobbes in the seventeenth century taught that individuals are primary (not the cosmos) and while this works well in chemistry, the social application results in a ‘man is wolf to man’ scenario that, Sheldrake astutely points out, misses the point since “ironically, Hobbes’s wolf imagery ignores the fact that wolves themselves are intensely social creatures with a high degree of cooperation.”  Furthermore, mythically speaking Rome (from which the ‘wolf to man’ teaching derives) was founded by two twins who were “saved by a she-wolf, who suckled them.”  So not only did a caring wolf save the humans–that wolf was female!  (So much for patriarchy and neither Hobbes nor the social paradigm he spawned and that is still with us is noticeably feminist.)    Says Sheldrake: “Under Hobbes’ influence selfishness and aggression were transformed for moral vices into psychological facts”– the notion that humans are “essentially selfish led to a wide spread cynicism about virtues in general and altruism in particular.” (215)  Thus one more naming of the origin of contemporary cynicism, a rather common disease in our time.  But to learn where the debunking of virtues derived is, surely, of great importance today.  Thank you, Rupert!

Sheldrake believes that a “spiritual evolution is accelerating.”   His work represents that acceleration and sheds light on a whole new era when science and spirituality can work together.  As he puts it: “We are on the threshold of a new era of the exploration of consciousness both through a revival of spiritual practices and also through the scientific study of them.  After several generations in which science and spirituality seemed to be in opposition, they are becoming complementary. Together, they are contributing to an unprecedented phase of spiritual evolution, beginning now.”

Of course Rupert is not alone.  Albert Einstein, Alfred North Whitehead, Teilhard de Chardin, Fritjof Capra, Brian Swimme, Thomas Berry, David Bohm, Nancy Abrams and Joel Primack, Deepak Chapra, Herbert Benson, Larry Dossey, Ilia Delio, Peter Russell, Ralph Abraham, Erich Jantsch, Arle Wyler, Beverly Rubick and many more have had the courage to pose the deeper questions of both science and religion.

Today’s post-modern scientists are putting their own stamp on what Thomas Aquinas proposed in the thirteenth century renaissance: “A mistake about creation results in a mistake about God.”  Doesn’t this also mean that an insight about creation results in an insight about God?

It is the scientist’s sacred vocation to pursue the revelation of nature which Aquinas also speaks to when he says “revelation comes in two volumes: Nature and the Bible.”  So much religion has become stuck to the Bible and has ignored the revelation of Nature—including human nature.  Sheldrake offers medicine for such one-sidedness that is, among other things, contributing to the reality of ecocide in our time.

In this book Rupert equates consciousness and spirituality when he says “Consciousness is, after all, direct experience.”  What distinguishes spirituality from religion is that spirituality is about direct experience of the Divine, of the Sacred.  That is what the mystics bear witness to—and we are all mystics.  Religion when it is healthy is meant to steer us to that experience but often it gets lost and detours along the way into projects that serve empires or create institutions that are self-serving rather than spiritual.

Rupert writes: “Cosmologists have come to see the entire universe as expanding and evolving from its very small beginnings.  This new evolutionary cosmology recalls the ancient myth that the universe began with the hatching of a cosmic egg.  The universe is more like a developing organism than a machine.”   Hildegard of Bingen painted a picture of the universe as a cosmic egg!  (See Matthew Fox, Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, pp. 48-53)  She and Sheldrake are sister and brother.  AND this book is being officially released on her feast day, September 19.  Pre-modern and post-modern wisdom, Hildegard and Sheldrake, coming together!

One of the hopeful signs of our times is that science is waking up to the very real contributions of spiritual practices.  This book is full of deep insights and connections between experience, consciousness, spirituality and science.  Rupert Sheldrake is a pioneer in the new marriage of science and spirituality.  He exhibits the smarts and the courage–and the spirituality demonstrated by his eagerness, joy and courage–to address these topics in depth and to lead the way.

~ Matthew Fox
Visit Matthew’s website here.

*By way of transparency, I should confess that I have written two books with Rupert Sheldrake, Natural Grace: Dialogues on Creation, Darkness, and the Soul in Spirituality and Science and The Physics of Angels.

Review & Commentary