Reviewed by Marian McCain
What does it mean to ‘go beyond’ ? Research scientist Rupert Sheldrake defines this succinctly on the first page of his new book. To ‘go beyond’, he says, is to: …deepen our connections with the more-than-human realms of consciousness, and become more aware of the underlying source of all consciousness and all nature. He believes that it is only through spiritual practice and direct experience that we can do this effectively.
In his previous book, Science and Spiritual Practice, Sheldrake described seven spiritual practices that aim to achieve this goal. They were: gratitude, meditation, connecting with Nature, relating to plants, singing and chanting, ritual, and pilgrimage. Now, in this companion volume, he examines seven more ways by which we can potentially move out of our ordinary, everyday shell of individual selfhood and touch into something more expansive and universal. These are: The spiritual Side of Sports: Learning from Animals: Fasting: Cannabis, Psychedelics and Spiritual Openings: Prayer: Holy Days and Festivals: Cultivating Good Habits, Avoiding Bad Habits and Being Kind.
Like the meticulous scientist that he is, he examines each of these seven in a very thorough and well-rounded way, by looking at it through the lenses of history, anthropology, literature both popular and academic, religious significance across cultures and, where appropriate, the hard science involved.
For example, in his chapter on fasting, he discusses not only the ways fasting has been used through the millennia across cultures – including several examples of the Jain and Buddhist spiritual practice of end-of-life fasting in terminally ill or very aged people – but also the modern benefits of fasting on health and the body chemistry involved in the fasting process.
Having been interested since the early 1980s in Sheldrake’s experiments and theories about morphic resonance, I was particularly fascinated to read, in the chapter on psychedelics, some interesting findings about people from urban settings taking Ayahuasca. Although these were middle-class people who knew nothing about tribal cultures, they had visions of jaguars and snakes, which are major features in the mythologies of the cultures that used this visionary brew traditionally. Admittedly, those people probably came to the experiment knowing something of those cultures already. However, people taking ‘magic mushrooms’ from Mexico tended to have Mexican-themed visions despite being totally unaware of where the mushrooms came from. Based on these observations, he suggests, experiments could be designed to test the hypothesis that morphogenetic fields are involved when we ‘go beyond’ by means of psychedelic substances.
The final chapter – Why Do Spiritual Practices Work? – revisits this issue in more depth, with a simple explanation of the nature of fields and why matter alone cannot be the sole source of consciousness. Particles…are not hard enduring stuff, like little billiard balls; they are vibratory structures of activity. They are made up of energy bound within fields. Energy gives things their actuality, their activity and their ability to interact, and fields give them their shape, form and organization.
There are many ways to access whatever wider field of consciousness lies beyond the everyday, waking reality. Some of them we may already practise, some may well be new ideas to us (for example it would never have occurred to me to include sport in this list, even though I am aware that the practice of any sport can induce what is known as the ‘flow’ state – an experience more colloquially referred to as being ‘in the zone’.) But no matter how much we know about the various methods described in this book, there will almost certainly be something new we can learn about every one of them as a result of this author’s comprehensive, well-researched and many-sided approach to his subject.