Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain
Iconoclastic but impeccably credentialed biologist Rupert Sheldrake is best-known for his seminal work on morphic resonance and his investigations into the science behind such mysterious processes as the homing instinct of pigeons, human telepathy and a dog’s ability to know when his or her human is coming home. His seventh book—The Science Delusion—was a critique of the pragmatic, materialistic worldview upon which the scientific orthodoxy of today is based. This new (eighth) book is very different, yet it is a logical step in what appears to me to be a discernible developmental sequence.
In a way, this sequence parallels the author’s own story. As he explains in his short, autobiographical introduction, Sheldrake was raised in a Christian family and attended an Anglican boarding school, but his education and training as a scientist led him to adopt, at first, the secular, atheistic worldview of his fellow scientists. Except that neither his enquiring mind nor his soul’s hunger for meaning would let him rest there. So even as his professional career was leading him into undiscovered scientific country, he was also embarking on a quest for spiritual knowledge and understanding. His searching took him to many places, both figuratively and literally, and led to the gradual discovery of the perennial wisdom that lies beneath all religious traditions, including the one in which he had been brought up—and to his re-embrace of Christianity at the age of thirty-four.
In this new volume, Sheldrake looks at the rise of secularism in modern society, at certain phenomena that a purely rationalist/materialistic worldview cannot satisfactorily explain, such as near-death experiences, at the psychological/emotional gaps that a life devoid of spirituality leaves unfilled and the consequent huge rise in the numbers of people who call themselves ‘spiritual but not religious.’
Secularism, he says, …has not led to an extinction of interest in spiritual realms, nor to an eclipse of spiritual experiences. But many people’s spiritual interests and experiences now take place outside traditional religious frameworks.
He goes on to maintain that: The old-fashioned opposition between science and religion is a false dichotomy. Open-minded scientific studies enhance our understanding of spiritual and religious practices. Which brings us to the core of this book: an ‘open-minded, scientific’ study of seven key practices shared by most religious traditions. We learn about the origins of these practices, what shape they take in the various traditions, which human needs they fulfil and how we might all benefit by incorporating some version of them in our daily lives, independent of any religious trappings.
These seven practices are:
– Meditation: now widely practised in secular settings and even recommended by the NHS as a stress-reducer and anti-depressant.
– Gratitude: how we can all improve the quality of our lives by remembering to be thankful for all that we have and are.
– Reconnection with the more-than-human world: how we need to recognize ourselves once more as animals deeply connected to all other forms of life. (I particularly like the point this author makes about ‘species boundaries’ and how every species interacts socially almost exclusively with members of it own kind but that humans are the only species to conceptualise themselves as being somehow ‘above’ and apart from all the rest instead of an integrated, interwoven part of the whole.)
– Relating to plants: this includes such things as ‘forest bathing’, the healing power of green places, our long association with certain sacred plants and how we can tap into the wisdom of trees.
– Ritual: this section explains how the principles of morphic resonance apply in human traditions, and how rituals link past and present, link us with our ancestors, and mark the cycles, transition times and significant moments in each year and in each lifetime.
– Music: science has already shown the health benefits of music—particularly choral singing and chanting. Music therapy is already a well-established healing modality.
– Pilgrimage: with its roots in the seasonal migrations of hunter-gatherers, and, more remotely, in many millions of years of animal migrations, can take us out of our everyday lives into a space of mindfulness and give psychologically satisfying meaning and purpose to a journey, regardless of its length or destination.
I found this a useful and interesting book and I look forward to the proposed sequel, in which Sheldrake plans to examine various other spiritual practices such as fasting, prayer, psychedelics, holy days and festivals.