Monthly Archives: April 2011

Fantasy and SF, the Sequel: Sex and Spirit

David Hartwell wittily tells us that ‘The Golden Age of Science Fiction is Twelve’ (1996), so it shouldn’t surprise us that where we find sf and fantasy, we find sex — adolescence is the onset of the sex drive’s attempts to complete itself, and also of the romantic inner impulses, so hard to fulfill, which seek to link sex with the noble, the beautiful, the good… in fact the spiritual. But sex + spirit can be a weird equation, as we are all only too well aware, and f/sf, in trying to address both, plays a tricky game. Kundalini plays the same game in real life on a more profound level, and does make you look at the cultural stories a little differently!

Sometimes the subconscious mind can hold completely different opinions from the conscious one. Take Ghostbusters (1984) for instance, a film I remember consciously with some fondness. I was surprised to find it coming up in meditation as an “anti-spiritual-sex story”. But when I thought about it I couldn’t argue. The plot involves a woman and a man being possessed by demons, then having sex, which transforms them into green dog-monsters, and opens the portal for an evil deity who plans to destroy the world. It doesn’t get much more sex-negative than that!

I mean come on. Who comes up with this stuff? (Dan Aykroyd? He’s a Spiritualist you know.) Why do we let such crazy ideas in, why do we find them plausible? Why do we reach for procreation and ultimate sin in the same breath, especially when we’re talking the transcendent? Christianity supposedly plays the biggest role… except as far as I can recall, mythically speaking, Eve’s problem involved apples not orgasms. Somehow lazy people writing sex manuals have to include apples on the front, or when doing reasonably serious TV shows about sex education. Even people supposedly writing on “Tantra” end up with this cheap misunderstanding — I can’t imagine a more culturally confused document than this book cover. Nobody seems to question it. Apparently the crime of Adam and Eve is now that they had sex?

Or take Superman II (1980). I don’t recall anyone even mentioning the weirdness of the idea that, in order to consummate his love for Lois Lane, Superman has to renounce all his superpowers! Is it possibly a Catholic thing (Mario Puzo wrote the story I believe)? Either that or it’s a variation on the orgasm-drains-energy idea, which leads you right to tantra and tao. But what is this level of cynicism doing in a kids’ film? I mean what on earth is that about? I was recommended a book called The Poisoned Embrace (1994) which contains an entire history of what it calls ‘sexual pessimism’. I wonder if that would help me understand.

On the other hand, some things came out of my childhood fantasy bucket looking rather better to my subconscious than my conscious recall of them. The entirety of C. S. Lewis’ Narnia series, for example, whatever you think of it, is probably justified by one exceptionally clever metaphor about Eustace Clarence Scrubb, from Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952). You may recall it: Eustace is the sullen, snobby, unpleasant boy who takes leave of the ‘good children’ to avoid working, and accidentally finds himself watching a dragon die of old age, then discovers its treasure hoard. Thinking ‘greedy, dragonish thoughts’, he falls asleep amidst the piles of coin, only to find on awakening that he has become a dragon himself. He flies back to those he has abandoned, but they can do nothing.

Then one night Aslan, the lion who represents a Christ-flavoured divinity in the stories, wakes Eustace up and offers to ‘undress him’ — which turns out to mean, digging deep into the dragon-skin with his claws, and ripping it off to reveal the tender Eustace beneath. From that point on Eustace starts to change.

I never heard a better metaphor for the process of removing what Glenn Morris used to call the ‘sweaty masks’ of the ego, with particular reference to that aspect of it which Wilhelm Reich termed ‘Body Armour’. Energetic blockage, that is, which is caused by the need to defend, prevents authenticity, and results in skewed posture, illness, and temperamental short circuits etc.; certain Psychosynthesists relate it to ‘Primal Wounding’, a very important concept (see Firman & Gila 2002). Reich had his own methods of treatment by massage, talk therapy, and energy work of various kinds. (Draja Mickaharic gives a Reichian recipe that has worked very well for me — sometimes almost frighteningly so, 1985, p. 38.) The Taoist Water Method of Bruce Frantzis (2001), with its ‘dissolving’ technique, also focuses on the melting of the external, the dying or death-based layers of the body energy, getting through to the living being at the heart. Many — including myself — have developed their own ways. Ilana Rubenfeld (2001) is great.

And Lewis’ kids’ tale gives a perfect illustration, for this particular phase of civilization, of how that works, just as a kid would need to get it. Lying on all that treasure, thinking, now I can be powerful, now I can be safe, now I don’t need to be authentic any more… you build up the tension of falsehood that only Aslan, the superconscious Light, can penetrate. And when he digs in his claws to the proper depth, it hurts.

I also found my subconscious very appreciative of the cleverness of Larry Niven’s “Pak Protector” idea (1973), a purely hard-sf concept which I hadn’t consciously remembered with any particular fondness. It attempts to explain the weariness of human old age. The story goes that our race is actually descended from an alien species known as the Pak, which (on its homeworld) gorges itself on a plant called the ‘Tree of Life root’ when it has reached middle age, and thus transforms itself into its next life-stage — in which it has incredible strength and toughness, far greater intelligence, and no genitalia.

The greatness of the idea is that we on Earth, without the Tree of Life root, simply waste away in our 40s and 50s with the sense that we are incomplete, unable to fulfil our destinies. When I first began to experience the energy ecstasy of kundalini, my subconscious realized the beauty of these notions… the revivification, the strength, the intelligence, and the mastery over sexual energy, are no fiction. (That’s why martial arts lineages know about kundalini.) Niven’s artistic subconscious had filled in the blanks perfectly. As Glenn said, meditation is the key to becoming a whole person.

Other disappointments-in-retrospect… Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series (1965-1977), which to my adult mind appears so completely Manichean in its Light-vs.-Dark-ness that I wonder how I could ever have felt it to be authentically ‘Celtic’; and that execrable film of Conan the Barbarian (1982) which seems to spend its entire length arguing against enlightenment, kundalini, eastern spirituality, and indeed anything else interesting — the evil butchering Atlantean sorcerer-villain’s symbol is a snake (into which he can transform at will, and that could be tremendously auspicious in Ancient Greece, Egypt or China, but here and now…), actually two snakes which recall the Caduceus, and his line of evil turns out to be kidnapping the daughters of chieftains and putting them in his ashram where they have to learn ‘emptiness’ and submit their wills to his. (Come to think of it, if that’s a portrait of many unpleasant modern gurus, that’s pretty good! But the solution suggested appears to be lunkheaded ferocity laced with narcissism.)

On the other hand I reserve great praise for all the He-Man stuff and She-Ra in particular. The transformations into greatness are depicted with excellent chi-imagery, and the organic-wooded-rebel-vs.-mechanized-rulers storyline has some considerable resonance with the world of today. Very magic-friendly, not often morally incorrect, and sex-positive as they come. The Crystal Castle episode is a fine one, involving moon magic, race relations, time distortion and other fine things it’s as well to let the kiddies in on.

A note: Comments received re last post have been interesting — it’s up to readers whether they want to make further ones private or post them here, I welcome either. “Not enough about Kundalini”, “not enough about sex”, and “not enough about psychology” are three observations I’ve received more generally (roughly speaking! — no-one was that rude) which I’ll do my best to remedy over the weeks ahead. In fact I’ll address a bit of transpersonal psychology next time.

I should respond briefly now, though, to a point made about the Dark Crystal movie I went on about last post — the eventual merger of the Mystics and Skeksis is actually a re-joining of the two races, which had split apart when they fractured the crystal, 1000 years before the movie begins. So what does that do to the metaphor? The answer, to me, is that it puts in a bit of Judeo-Christian acculturation. We’re back in the Garden of Eden, and the shattering of the crystal is an ‘original sin’. Hence all the prophecies — the fulfilment of prophecy is a big feature of the Judeo-Christian complex; on a spiritual-history level things almost have to be foretold in order to be true. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis both used that device.

That’s at least a decent Jungian update of Genesis — it’s not sex, but knowledge of good and evil that is imparted by the shattering of the crystal, which seems somewhere close to the original intent. As for any Freudian who thinks ‘Skeksi’ sounds a bit too much like ‘sexy’ for comfort… please consider getting some sun. :)

Next time a bit of Ken Wilber. See you then!

Shadow Climaxes

Having written 10 science posts (and thanks BTW to all who’ve read that series), a little art for a change. Kundalini brings all your previous attachments to the surface — what you believed, what you loved, and why, has to be combed through. This process revealed just how great had been the influence genre fantasy & sf on me, at a formative age, so the next two posts (in a sequel to my rather tongue-in-cheek very first one) look to see if there is any actual meat in what I loved at the time. If you like this stuff too, here’s a different way to look at it.

In a society that is probably the most fictioned in history, f/sf does seem to matter. ‘Geekdom’ aside, serious work like that of John David Ebert is very relevant — his views on 2001 and Close Encounters as millennial annunciations, amongst many other clever spots (2005, that’s my review there), will strike a chord with anyone who grew up in the cinema I remember. There seems to be quite a lot of this around that I haven’t read yet. We kids were being seeded with all sorts of beliefs about spiritual transcendence, personal power, symbolic truth, etc., in our popcorn afternoons. I’ve seen serious journalistic articles pointing out how big blockbuster fantasies are now functioning as a church-replacement.

So from my current perspective, is there anything in it? (Something has been stirred, certainly if we’re to judge by Jedi Religion, not to mention this, the horror the horror…) Do all those fantastic images get at real personal transcendence, do they seed something that can flower? Or can you not get there from here? In my meditations one definite pattern did appear — an attempted Jungian transcendence of the Good vs. Evil idea. I’ve called this the ‘Shadow Climax’.

(SPOILER ALERTS; I’m giving away four endings here.)

I got it first in The Lord of the Rings, the beginning of so much else in the field. All its beauty aside, there’s no doubt of the general relevance of this book — all the obvious societal and ecological points speak to that. Tolkien was bang on concerning the cultural need to throw away the Ring of Power, cease choking nature and allow it to speak and to be re-divinized, the inevitable decline of civilization even if the battle with tyranny should be won, and the Stoic perseverance required to achieve any victory of any kind in such a situation, etc. LoTR’s obvious moral authority and relevance in such areas is all the more striking for the book’s consistent rejection by lit crit ‘authority’, who mostly never saw any of this coming.

But it’s also a personal and psychological book. On the one hand, the big armies, the living landscapes, the noble warriors, the great battles; on the other, the true moral core, Frodo and Gollum. And I’m not the first to note that Gollum is in fact a Shadow in the Jungian sense (see Clute & Grant, 1999) — he’s the vile, the sneaking, the rejected, the perpetually desiring, the repulsive, but crucially, he was once nonetheless a hobbit, and Frodo cannot help but recognize a kinship with him on a deep psychological level. Those are the very ingredients of the Shadow, in analytical psychology.

So the stage is set for a different kind of climax to the story, not an obvious good-wins “big battle”, but a Shadow Climax. Only here, for me, Tolkien falls short because of his Christian ideals. Frodo can’t throw the ring away, so can’t win. He’s not strong enough. From a Jungian/kundalini perspective he needs to investigate his shadow, come to terms with it, discipline it, transmute it, join it, and become, since that’s where his power is. But when characters like Frodo and Gollum do come face to face, this cannot occur. Gollum accidentally destroys both the ring and himself, and never appears, in the last analysis, anything other than simplistically evil and somewhat inept. Frodo doesn’t overcome his own moral weakness, and does not transcend anything.

So yes the big war is won, but Frodo from then on is weakened, depicted as suffering. Psychologically, he has lost. He wishes only peace, evinces only vulnerability, feels much pain. He has not experienced healing, and when he leaves for ‘the West’ (that is, for the transcendent afterlife) it’s because he must heal. The idea that, through Gollum of all characters, he might have healed already, and transcended in this life, could not fulfill itself in this kind protagonist, the everyman of Tolkien’s world; I can’t imagine a divinized Frodo! (Unlike a Wizard possibly, but the Wizard turns out not to be mortal anyway.) Even today, yoga as a way to access inner transpersonal divinity comes under regular attack from Christians.

To me there was always a dissatisfaction with that result, and I probably was not the only one. (Tolkien mentions getting letters which stated Frodo should have been executed as a traitor rather than fêted as a hero — see 2000.) But that isn’t the end of it, because then the Shadow Climax got repeated and revised several times in other works of fantasy and science fiction. People were looking for another way to play it. The next place I remember seeing it was in Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), a book I probably read more deeply than Tolkien if anything. Le Guin herself has said that Tolkien is the source, the beginning of understanding fantasy, and (consciously or not) I am sure the Shadow Climax of LoTR was in her mind as she wrote her own. One critic at the time, trying to place her work, said: “… we have cast about for names and produced Tolkien. This however is only a rough guide and even unfair, for Ursula Le Guin is no imitator”. No definitely not, but her book is linked to Tolkien thematically as well as generically. (I recall the reviewer’s words from reading the book jacket at the time, BTW, which gives me some idea of how absorbedly I was reading; I don’t know who wrote them.)

The Shadow Climax of WoE takes place between Ged, the main protagonist, and a being actually called ‘the Shadow’, which Ged has summoned accidentally in a moment of pride, then been hunted by, hunted it in return, and now comes finally to confront. There is no war, no army, no world-threatening — Le Guin’s interest is in the revision only of the personal and psychological aspects of LoTR (amongst other aims entirely separate of course.) Ged and Vetch in the Land of the Dead are like Frodo and Sam in Mordor — the hero is drawn into himself in a private struggle, while the friend is absolutely faithful but unable to comprehend; but where is the evil threat of Mordor? Completely absent. And when Ged meets the Shadow, there is no violent struggle — they simply say each other’s names, and both names are “Ged”. And they join and are one.

One person to whom I mentioned this aspect of the tale once said, “They shouldn’t give kids books like that.” But there is no horror in this powerful moment. It’s about self-realization, completion. Here, in the genius of Le Guin, we have a fantasy attempt at identifying a specifically Jungian shadow with the Yin, the necessary other half of the bright Yang, the night, the dark, cold — but not the evil in any simplistic way. We have real acceptance, real vision. As a result, Ged is healed, and the danger is past. The t’ai chi symbol replaces 2 millennia of good vs evil in the soul of the West. (This combination of opposites is distinctly Taoist of course.)

But strangely, transcendence doesn’t follow. As a matter of fact, from a beginning powerfully alive and connected to nature, Ged does gradually become lamed throughout the rest of the series of books (at least the four I’ve read) of which WoE is the first; less and less able, less and less the answer to the questions life poses. His wisdom seems impotent. He has been “healed” in a quiet way that shows acceptance of vulnerability, but is “whole” only superficially and resembles the post-Climax Frodo in many ways. This is not the alchemical rebirth of kundalini, the living vision in the waking worlds that transforms the mind and body in ecstasy. So the healing is well short of what is really possible.

In the final Star Wars movie, Return of the Jedi (1983), essentially the Le Guin solution is repeated, although with LoTR elements resurrected too. The Shadow Climax gets an additional dimension (and a very psychoanalytical one!) from the father-son relationship between Shadow and Hero — Darth Vader again is the rejected, the ‘bad’, that his son Luke must somehow deal with whilst identifying with it, and the Emperor is the tempting Ring which will be thrown into the abyss and destroyed. There is a recognition on the part of Luke, a joining of forces where there had been enmity — but Vader then dies anyway, and Luke’s story, although it has ended well, is over. He doesn’t transcend either. As in LoTR, the Shadow destroys itself (as human beings will) and with that destruction any chance of transcendence is lost.

However fascinated and stirred by these works I would have been as a child, then, I couldn’t have followed their threads to the where I’m at now. But there is one more example of a Shadow Climax that has stayed with me a long time, and which I studied as hard as any of those others, and that’s found in The Dark Crystal (1982) — a film I believe Jim Henson acknowledged as his masterpiece. As with WoE, this is a movie I have heard some say they are disturbed by, throughout even, that they find the gentle Mystics:

"Dark Crystal" -- Mystic

as unpleasant as those evil pistachios, the Skeksis:

"Dark Crystal" -- Skeksi

I had the exact opposite reaction — I loved the entire world from start to finish.

The Shadow Climax here has clearly been knowingly designed, just as with Le Guin and Lucas, using the Jungian/Joseph Cambellian formula. But it is very original too, since it takes place between the surviving members of these two races, the Mystics and the Skeksis, which although geographically separate have been depicted as profoundly linked throughout the film by the device of having a Mystic die instantly, whenever his Skeksi counterpart does, and vice versa. The Mystics, “natural wizards”, having hardly done anything throughout the story, suddenly announce that ‘it is time’, and that they are going to ‘return to the castle’ where the Skeksis are. And when they reach it there is a perfect Shadow Climax — in the Crystal Chamber designed by the extraordinary Bryan Froud, the hitherto powerful Skeksi tyrants are cowed and do not attack; the two races become drawn together and merged in a magical alchemical transcendence to reveal a third, new and obviously transcendent one, the UrSkeks:

"Dark Crystal" -- UrSkek

composed of equal parts of both. (These would originally have had glowing coloured chakras and energy flowing through them, according to Froud, had Henson not run out of time and money. Froud very deliberately employed real-life sacred symbols throughout the film, including sacred geometry, the kabbalistic tree of life, acupuncture points and the four- and five-element systems, as may be seen even more clearly in the famous accompanying book, 2003.)

The UrSkeks deliver loving wisdom to the protagonists, resurrect one of them (kids’ movie remember), and then they ascend — they rush upward, a move very reminiscent of kundalini. Here then is some real spiritual truth in a fantasy movie, which thereby becomes a real recommend for anyone wanting to meditate — or to get their kids to meditate! Come to know the Shadow intimately, and you end up with more light, and more efficacious light, than if you had simply tried to avoid the whole issue, is the message — and this transformation empowers you by transforming you outside your old identity. Sadly though, even here, the Shadow Climax is not experienced by the protagonist. The ‘gelflings’ of Dark Crystal, like the ‘halflings’ of LoTR, stand for the everyman and don’t get to experience transcendence. Perhaps this is a reflection of the essential otherness of spiritual endeavour, but I’m not at all sure it’s a necessary one.

And that’s also the last fantasy in which I recall having experienced a Shadow Climax. The idea seems to have become played out at that point. If you have seen one since, though, please mention it! I haven’t been keeping up with genre fiction in a long time. I would love to know, if this motif has reappeared, what has been done with it by subsequent authors. Have we really yet to see a fantasy in which the protagonist is reborn to superconscious power by means of accepting and transforming a Shadow? Hasn’t someone written one? Have I missed it? :)

Next post I will finish this topic off without too much seriousness. In long meditation sessions, what past weirdnesses returned for inspection! The overtly bs Christian sex-morality of Ghostbusters and Superman, contrasted with genuinely useful spiritual ideas in C. S. Lewis and Larry Niven (!), plus the 80s cartoon serials with excellent empowering imagery for the kiddies. See you then.


EDIT: Someone has uploaded the final moments of Dark Crystal to YouTube, and tagged it “kundalini”. :)

Coda: Science & Spirituality

Evidence-Based Spirituality — Part 10 of 10

I’m much more the humanities and culture guy than the science guy, but a long time ago I did win a prize for mathematics, and I still do a lot of reading in scientific fields like psychology and ecology. As a result I know there’s such a thing as genuine beauty in science, just as there is in spirituality, in art, in philosophy. When something is encapsulated in a scientific form, such that it makes sense and a deep pattern is brought into view, science yields up a visionary understanding to which people do give themselves on an existential level, sometimes a level of awe. That’s partly the inspiration for science fiction of course — the part that isn’t purely adolescent, I want to say, but then all love is built from sexual energy anyhow.

One thing I have not experienced much of, when it comes to evidential spirituality, is this ‘deep sense’ that science can give of how reality works, that provides a kind of meaning. That meaning has sometimes been the meaning in life itself for many — Tart thinks that materialism cannot yield meaning, but it’s not so simple. Yes, I believe spirituality is at the root of meaning, but the outskirts of meaning run through many human endeavours — art and philosophy of course, but science too.

Meanwhile in evidential spirituality I see a lot of — well, evidence, and it’s great, and more will be welcome. But what I’m really hoping for is that the beauty of science might one day get an angle here. Is that possible? Plenty would say it isn’t. Even more than with psychology we are dealing here with the unquantifiable, and as a result, we cannot get those interesting patterns of quantity from which science makes beauty.

But perhaps we can dream. I look at the cover of Basic Ecology by Buchsbaum/Buchsbaum…

Cover of Basic Ecology by Buchsbaum/Buchsbaum

It’s so simple, so beautiful. The grass is eaten by the insects, the insects by the frogs, the frogs by the snakes, the snakes by the bird. The bird has parasites feeding on it. Then the bird dies and the decomposers rot its body down to soil, from which new grass will spring. A cycle of life that you have seen around you all your life clicks into place. We have a simple, deeply real and evidential pattern to which life conforms. That is beautiful. In seeing that cycle complete itself we experience a fullness of meaning — even a fullness of meaning that can take us out of cycles altogether, or what is the same thing, into the heart of them, past the point at which time is passing, towards the eternal point at which spirituality aims. One finds Lao-Tzu recommending exactly that at many points:

Attain the highest openness;
Maintain the deepest harmony.
Become a part of All Things;
In this way, I perceive the cycles.

Indeed, things are numerous;
But each cycle merges with the source.
Merging with the source is called harmonizing;
This is known as the cycle of destiny.

Tao Te Ching ch. 16, tr. R. L. Wing (1986)

Can we get something like that going? With systems maybe? Spirituality is kind of hidden, (the literal meaning of the word ‘occult’), albeit in plain sight. Even really good methods just get you to the point of being in it, hoisting you out of your degeneration to see some of the wonders of the universe. But explanation? That’s a whole other thing.

An order which works and explains, that can be used in a truly scientific manner. It would be nice to think it was possible. Maybe it is. I mentioned the four elements (or five, depending) at the start of this series, because Glenn found them as psychologically valid as ever on some pretty heavy testing. Or consider Yin and Yang, the dark and the light. This concept runs through absolutely everything in Chinese culture, from medicine to engineering to chemistry to art to politics to… yes, ”enlightenment”. (And let’s not forget that, at least until the 18th century, the Chinese were ahead technologically — decimal point, gunpwder, movable type, suspension bridges, you name it. Plus their agriculture.) On every level the simple idea was applied. This is a deeply-explaining-pattern-idea in action.

When you look at symbols like:

T'ai Chi Symbol

… or for that matter:

Kalachakra Mandala

… you are seeing something that really is a little like the cover of the ecology book, only even bigger. Something that fits together in that way, to interlock and make sense, simple and beautiful sense, of what we we live in every day, on every level.

Is there anyone who wants to look at theorizing from there? Or is that even possible? Are we stuck too much in the measuring mindset after all? Does that kind of sense only get made when a culture keeps an idea going for a millennium or two? But then, when we test Bud-Offs, we are actually testing systems that have that kind of age, and perhaps that level of deep sense in them. We might be closer to this beauty than we think.

One thing’s for sure: when it comes to spiritual understanding, humanity is only at the very beginning of what there is to discover. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of surprises. I look forward to them, and I think evidential enrichment could give us a few of them as well as proving very valuable in other ways, whether it ultimately ends up making this kind of deep sense or not. Let’s keep going and see what happens next.

Tart Comments

Evidence-Based Spirituality — Part 9 of 10

Here’s a miscellany of reactions to various points made by Tart in his ‘Towards an Evidence-Based Spirituality’ video. Certain issues jumped out at points which I haven’t squeezed into other posts of the series.

On the definition of ‘spiritual’ — people it’s easy — read Hufford. Spiritual means: pertaining to a separate order or world of ‘spirits’, that is, beings without bodies, such as gods, souls and angels. There, sorted.

Small Takeup ?Problem — Tart gives the example of Shinzen Young’s meditation seminar weekends having a ‘95% dropout rate’ (that is, the next year, when Young is back that way, only 5% have stuck to meditation), as a way of showing that meditation methods need improvement. “What? 95%? If I as a teacher had that problem I’d assume I wasn’t teaching very well. Maybe Shinzen isn’t teaching very well. We need to help him evidentially.” And so on.

Well not necessarily. Does Tart teach college courses consisting of one weekend’s teaching followed by a year of unsupervised daily homework? If he did, would his dropout rate be higher? Thought so. Not everyone does have the discipline for some forms of meditation. There are methods which are very good that take a lot of time. But they are still very good methods. Those people who don’t come back to Shinzen — do we know they gave up spirituality altogether? We do not.

There are also methods that work very quickly, and as a result people drop them because they are scary. Some think that is better because at least something happens. Many Zen techniques are for those who’ve dedicated themselves to sweeping up in a monastery for the foreseeable future, and might not feel the consumerist urge for a quick return as advertised. But is fast best? Many think so and Glenn was one. Here’s a way to increase the takeup if you agree: learn Bruce’s NEW Energy Work. It works immediately, and even though it’s far from complete and doesn’t in any way represent a full spiritual programme, you can’t ignore real results. Once you’re convinced this stuff is real, then you can pick training up more seriously. If you go too far too fast though, you may wish you’d tried it Shinzen’s way. :)

You cannot assume Bud-Off — Do we know Zen is a technique and not a culture? Do we know you can practice Sufism without being a Sufi? Have we ever examined the differential evidentially, between just doing a ‘technique’ on the one hand, and being a believer then doing the technique, on the other? My hunch: experience and feeling and aptitude is the key, not belief. But can we assume that? And commitment levels matter. John Michael Greer tells me lots more people do his magical trainings on a sustainable basis, now he’s put them into a Druidic religious form. Inspires devotion.

‘Cultural Bias’ — Again: do we know, when a being of light comes for a Christian having an NDE, and the Christian calls it an angel, whilst over in India someone else calls it a Deva, that they are the same being with different names? We don’t know that. Non-physical fauna are not in any way a simple subject. I think there’s a lot there, and I also suspect the simplified stories have too much prevalence. This isn’t just my blatherings. See for example Greer 2001, Vieira 2007 on how much there is to know.

Testing OBE — it’s assumed that’s straightforward but it’s not. Why do experienced traditional teachers of astral projection (see Bardon 2009, Mickaharic 2002) have the student spend ages in their rooms, when they first learn to project? Why do they insist that these students study minutely their rooms, and not leave them until the place they see whilst out of body is exactly the same as the one they see with their physical eyes?

Because OBE sensing is a learned skill — just like physical sensing — with the added difficulty that believing illusions is really going to cramp your spiritual style. You have to learn to operate in that environment. At the start you may be seeing a lot that isn’t there, shifting to other locations, editing with your subconscious etc. Mickarahic says it can take a whole year before you have really learned the difference between reality and illusion, and that’s just for seeing the dense underlayer of the physical world. Other more tenuous worlds are correspondingly trickier to be steady in.

So if you haven’t done that training, are your scores in any objective physical-world test going to be so good? How about doing a test before and after such training? Anyone? Monroe Institute? :)

That’s that… next time I’ll post a final thought about the ‘beauty’ of science and the ‘beauty’ of spirituality, and how they might link.

Spirit Bodies

Evidence-Based Spirituality — Part 8 of 10

Ah, Spring! Can there be any more joyful English sound than the birds of spring, sight than the sun on the ivy, after a long and not altogether easy winter?

Still, chi work made my winter easier. One need only begin Chi Kung to feel the warmth of chi appear. This warmth is connected to consciousness and isn’t the same as the kind of warmth yielded by other kinds of exercise. It is however, in my opinion, very related to what Andy Goldsworthy (who “officially” knows nothing of chi) experiences in making icy works of art such as these:

Andy Goldsworthy Ice Spiral

As he says:

Felt better once I had begun working; warmth began to flow and I was able to work without gloves. Art generates its own energy and warmth — different from the heat produced by physical work — something I cannot explain. After a few hours, the work collapsed. A wave of cold went through me and I had to put my gloves back on. (Goldsworthy 2008.)

He might not be able to explain it, but any practitioner of Chi Kung can, and methods of working with this basic wai chi, external chi, are amongst the first things you will learn — pick up Takahashi and Brown 1986 or Liang and Wu 1996, amongst others, if interested.

To me, this is easier to test than almost anything else. First, do people feel it? Then, can’t it be detected? Or at least some residual EM? So many interesting questions… do people move chi when they are spiritually advanced, even if they don’t realize it? As I circled chi in the arm-heart pattern this morning, I thought, if I had a SQUID here, might I not get some sort of reading? I can’t work out if this has been tried properly yet. Chi has been proven to exist in principle and to be manipulable by Chi Kung (or qigong if you prefer pinyin) but there’s so much more to test! Elmer Green’s stuff on energy, done in a Mahatma-style copper room, is excellent.

All of this vitalism is ruled out by our current science, purely on dismissivist grounds. Robert Becker (1998) is an absolutely amazing example — his work showed small levels of electromagnetism throughout living bodies, which was connected to salamanders’ abilities to regenerate limbs, and could even cause full regeneration in the limbs of frogs who normally wouldn’t regenerate. (BTW anyone thinking there is a link between this, our human bone marrow-based regeneration, and Bone Marrow Nei Kung, is onto something IMO. Did you know a child can regenerate fingertips?) But Becker, despite having been replicated, is also ignored as ‘vitalism’.

Becker also used his careful techniques to look for acupuncture points electromagnetically, and found them, which is why Jwing-Ming Yang recommends reading him (2003). Surely of great importance? (For one thing, only some of the points were found in the same places as you find them in the acupuncture atlases…) I hope someone in China is following up! Or has falun gong ruined the party?

Here’s another great one: two beginning Taoist techniques still used today (see Kohn 2009, Chang 1988) are for men, control of ejaculation, and for women, cessation of menstruation. The Taoist theory is your body puts a lot of energy into these reproductive processes, and you need to recycle that energy rather than wasting it — assuming you’re not trying to have a kid. (Yes, that also means there could be good energetic reasons for celibacy, although the Chinese might regard it as a somewhat blunt instrument. As Douglas Wile says (1992), for Christians, sex is for procreation, whereas for the Chinese, ejaculation is for procreation, but sex is for pleasure, therapy, and salvation.) Now put that alongside PMS, the cause of which is still basically admitted to be completely unknown, and some other interesting male equivalents such as ‘Post Orgasmic Depression’ and ‘Post Orgasmic Illness Syndrome’.

Some tests would be interesting here. Get suffering members of both sexes to do the appropriate Taoist exercises and check up on them at monthly intervals for a year. Of course you need dedicated people. But if you improve their systems and mental states, you also show that Taoist concepts of jing have something to them. (Which I have little doubt is true, but this is about evidence.) If they come out believing that sex energy and spiritual energy are strongly related, so much the better for them.

Maybe I’m slightly less keen on ‘psi’. It’s not that it doesn’t exist, and it’s not that I don’t have experience of it — it’s that we’ve done so much of it already. The idea of Glenn Morris that ‘enlightenment is a biological process’, which makes so much sense in India or China but so damn little in the body-hating ex-Christian West (and yes, monotheism and body-hatred correlate IMO) really hit me like a ton of bricks when I got it. My spirituality is very body-based; the body is its locus, its site, the temple we all live in. I started to realize that the warmth of energy flow and the power of internal jing forces were indeed related to the amount of contact with shen (self or spirit) that I had in my life. Jana Dixon wrote a book I haven’t yet read called The Biology of Kundalini. When you’re having visions and your saliva turns sweet at the same time, it seems to me that testing the saliva is worth a go.

Is anyone else interested in this stuff? Let’s not forget that in what I would call real Christianity (the stuff that goes on in convents and monasteries) all sorts of weird bodily stuff happens too. Murphy has produced a great guide (1993), and there are some interesting experimental results. I think this is a major aspect of evidential spirituality. It’s something you can touch and feel easily. When the energy in your body throws you across the floor (common in kundalini risings) you know you’re not in Kansas any more.

That of course doesn’t mean the directions mentioned by Tart in experimentation aren’t interesting too — next post more on those.

The Shadow of Evidence

Evidence-Based Spirituality — Part 7 of 10

So far I’ve talked on the upside — we don’t have to go for broke and try to save the world, we can avoid the dismissiveness of the past, religion is a resource, quite possibly a friend, and not necessarily as unevidential as everyone assumes, and spirituality + scientific testing can do a great deal of good overall, with steady and patient work. But is there a dark side to the idea? Am I the only one through whom goes a slight shudder sometimes, at what is being contemplated?

Spirituality does touch on the most primal, mysterious, ineffable and sacred things we know. How much faith should we have that measuring it all is bound to make it better? Consider this excerpt from Mark Fox’s collection of Lightform events (2008):

I cannot now remember the exact year but it was in early summer and it was cloudy and we all took our seats in the front room of the house. Sister Gemmell spoke to us about her work among the methylated spirit drinkers that she cared for down on the Stepney ramp. Gradually as she spoke I became aware of the fact that she was bathed in light. It was as if the sun had come out and a shaft of light was falling on her. It was only when we emerged outside that I realized it was still cloudy. For the first and only time the 4 ladies in the car were silent with wonder on the journey home. I always regret that I did not share my experience with the 3 passengers in my car — perhaps they had seen it too.

I don’t choose this anonymous experience for any particularly exceptional features it shows; you can find far more spectacular ones. What I want to point to is the ending. Why did she remain silent? Along with a never-ending jabber about spiritual experiences, there always has remained an equal silence about them, a cloak of almost leaden air. The writer ‘regrets’ not speaking up because she wanted to share, but greater safety lay in silence, and of course, in not being made a fool of if it turned out to have been her perception alone. (You can imagine what the modern virulent strain of ‘skeptic’ would make of such a delicate and touching moment. That delicacy is often a part of the importance of spiritual experience, and to me, it often becomes necessary to choose not to violate it.)

These experiences, although widely distributed and therefore in some sense ‘normal’, are not “ordinary”. When a moment comes which shows meaning through the veil of the everyday, one is aware of seeing something beyond. A train of echoes appears inside the soul, as one becomes aware of things within, which our social personae are developed to cover up — our series of ‘sweaty masks’, as Glenn said. The connections made run faster than common sense.

John Michael Greer, someone whom I choose to Watch Very Closely, has made a career out of writing books, many of which have a spiritual slant, but in none of which (so far as I’m aware) can one find any of his personal experiences. As an Hermetic, perhaps he takes quite seriously the kind of admonition given by Franz Bardon (2009): “Silence is might! The more you keep silent about your experiences and knowledge without separating yourself from humanity, the more you will receive a fountain of knowledge from this source.” This has influenced me. I’m not saying I’ll never talk about such things, but sometimes I know that talking about them removes their power. There has always been this aspect of spiritual encounter, that it remains just out of reach of where human beings normally have to be, the way they usually talk.

Where does that leave the quest for evidence? From the beginning in spirituality, there have been secrets. Religion does touch the ineffable… as Greer has pointed out (2005), although there might be a language that can express some of these things in theory, in practice we often don’t have it. Could testing, by insisting on knowability in the one particular dimension of scientific measurement, actually prevent truths of some important kind from manfesting in languages science can’t read? Paradoxically, your own answer may depend on where you place your faith. But spiritual religions or their Bud-Offs, which can produce the ineffable, seem to me to have a right to go on producing it. (Patrick Harpur’s Daimonic Reality (2003) is an excellent read on why the spiritual doesn’t always fit the evidential boxes.)

Another important element around which we can’t skirt is that of commercialization. Where you have secular spirituality in accord with science, there you have commerce, as one can easily see today.

Here we have the benefit of experience in what has come to be known as ‘evidence-based medicine’ — a recent project in the medical world to base every single medical decision on fully worked trials, which certainly seems an important aim. Not everyone, however, thinks it is without its downside, as a quick google will show. And some very well-educated medical people, looking over the system, have reported that conventional medicine is now the number one cause of death in the US. Whether literally and unequivocally true or not, this suggests that not all is as well as it might be, to put it mildly, and perhaps that more considerations exist than the purely evidential which are being overruled, even in this area (a much less slippery one than spirituality.)

Of course there are many suspicions that relying on the numbers has robbed modern GPs of their intuitions — that’s the kind of phenomenon dealt with above though, really, under ineffability. Less esoteric difficulties with this evidential system have included strong accusations of massive corruption involved in drugs testing by big pharma, with evidence bought, paid for, and duly falsified. The boom in antidepressants has been given as a case in point, described a triumph of selling over substance.

All health controversy aside, the fact that in an ‘evidence-based’ system selling can triumph over substance ought to give us pause. Earlier, I mentioned the idea of Christianity paying for research on Hesychasm. If ‘evidence-enriched spirituality’ takes off, are we in a world where ‘big relig’ can pay for the tests it wants, along with the ‘right’ results? Because that is a world we don’t want to be in.

And I already see some of that happening on a small scale. Bill Bodri wrote a book with Nan Huai-Chin called Measuring Meditation, which runs through every spiritual system in the world in order to convince you evidentially that the (mostly Mahayana Buddhist) approach offered on Bodri’s site happens to be the only safe and true one that will take you ‘all the way’.

I’m a big fan of the Mantak Chia stuff, but the way Michael Winn sells his particular version of it gives me pause too — one has to be reasonably awake to realize that the “3,500 studies” he links to on his front page don’t all recommend precisely what he is teaching, and don’t talk about spiritual realizations either, only medical benefits. This may be quite innocent, but not all of the studies are necessarily trustworthy either. Initial testing of Chi Kung was quite spotty and the evidence really is in its early stages still. Tart is quite right in general to put ‘spiritual healing’ as one of his ‘5 already proven’ psi phenomena, but that doesn’t mean every method works! And every time a scientist tests a Bud-Off, s/he is going to have to be aware that the results might later form part of a marketing plan. (Winn, by the way, says he’s going to live to 150 years old, so I can’t complain about his commitment to evidentiality! Although it’s kind of long game to play…^_^)

Make no mistake, this selling by numbers has begun already. It’s not as bad as it might be yet, so far as I’ve seen, but the usual questions of ethical objectivity in testing are raised, and they are joined by others that address the less-usual topics of Truth, Poetry, and the Beyond. Clipboards don’t always allow privileged access to these areas of life.

He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom — Tolkien.

Spirituality is Evidential

Evidence-Based Spirituality — Part 6 of 10

Tart gives “Evidence-Based Spirituality” as a completely new idea, but I’d argue most spirituality, and indeed most religion, is actually evidence-based. Of course the scientific form of the evidence-taking is new, but that’s not the only form of evidence.

It is indeed a strange set of circumstances that has obscured this fact from our view — essentially, Christianity and Scientism have been in cahoots for a while now in asserting that there can never be any actual evidence for anything spiritual. And everyone went right ahead and believed them. When religions admit this, who’s going to argue against it? A few people on the margins to whom no-one pays attention.

Thus we’ve had a lot of arguments about ‘faith as opposed to evidence’ being the reason for religious belief. Yet all this time, people have been going to Lourdes and being cured. Leaving aside the contested nature of those cures, doesn’t the fact that people believe they have happened show that spiritual belief has sometimes been held for evidential reasons? That is, if some person has (as they think) been cured of a deadly disease by a spiritual agency, don’t they have something more than unevidenced ‘faith’ to justify their belief?

This is what I call the Hufford Point, after brilliant folklorist and researcher David J. Hufford, who has shown how Dismissivist/Exclusivist assumptions about spiritual belief have shaped our perception of it in recent times in a number of excellent papers (eg. 1995, 2008). No-one ever stopped having spiritual experiences, yet these were dismissed by the ruling Scientistic religion as impossible. That left two interpretations — either ‘hallucination/madness’ or ‘high-interpretability ordinary events’, those latter being events ambiguous enough to be misinterpreted as something spiritual (“swamp gas” and the like).

As Hufford shows (2008), NDE research, his own research into sleep paralysis, and research into after-death visitation, amongst many others, demonstrate that such dismissive explanations don’t really wash. But whatever one’s belief about these experiences, the people who have NDEs, sleep paralysis episodes with entity appearances, and after-death visitations from loved ones (and the percentages in the US population are sometimes quite high — 35%, 17% and 27% respectively, on the surveys used by Hufford) usually tend to believe in their reality. And this is a basic reason why spiritual and religious belief is not likely to go away anytime soon, even if Dawkins manages to get a death penalty put in place. :) It is, to that extent, evidential.

This has always been the case. As MacMullen points out (1999), at the time of the Christian takeover of Roman religion from the 4th century on, the average farmer would have known better than to convert without some evidence that the religion being proposed to him would do what was necessary in the way of divination and healing. Prior to the Christians, the pagan systems had handled that, and you find just as many ancient testimonies to the healing power of Asclepius, say (see Edelstein & Edelstein 1998), as you will find modern ones to that of Lourdes. The usual method was to sleep in the temple, and a curing dream would come during which the god operated on the sufferer, healing lameness, paralysis, blindness, etc. Who could afford to give up such benefits as those? They were believed in from evidence, from experience — not universally, and not always considered ‘proved’ (certainly not by intellectuals) but the reason they were perceived was not ‘faith’ merely, it was experiential in large part.

This of course is the reason for the magical face-offs that an exclusivist religion such as the Hebrew one had to have with the prophets of Baal, or a Christian like Saint Patrick had to have with the Druids. They had to show they could do the job, and others couldn’t, because that was part of their belief system — and in the case of Christianity, sales pitch. And however galling non-Christians might find it, in modern Christianity you have many people who still believe their god, or Jesus, the Virgin, etc. not only hears their prayers but has answered them, so the religion in their view still does the job. Not all followers of old religions are following “empty” forms therefore.

All of these are more evidential ways in which a spirituality could make its reality felt. By the time of the era of Biddy Early, the Irish clergy couldn’t match Saint Patrick’s feats, whilst she, a redoubtable pagan-shamanic worker, was capable of divination and healing to a very high standard. Consequently, the farmers went to her with their lame livestock, simply because she could deliver the goods. The bishop didn’t like it but what could he do? What was against him wasn’t superstition, nor was it Satan — it was plain old evidence.

A major change in our culture is being made simply by being able to talk about these experiences, which have been taboo so long. In his presentation, Tart shows how Moody (2001) completely altered the game by bringing the NDE experience into the open and popularizing accounts of it. (He also mentions that, since the concept went viral, actual NDE evidence is not always of the same quality, although he doesn’t make clear whether that’s because people have standardized their language, or because they might actually now be altering their accounts to fit in with preconceptions — either is an interesting evidential result in my view.)

But not all modern experiences have become so popular to read about as NDEs, yet. Wade’s Transcendent Sex (2004) hasn’t gone viral in the same way, but is just as extraordinary, and certainly, with its 100-odd examples of spiritual experiences that occurred in the act of making love, mounts (no pun intended) a considerable challenge to the standard Christian worldview. Books like Wade’s, or that of Mark Fox on Light Events (2008), are part of a new publishing-based evidentiality which has embraced OBE and NDE too, and many other things besides. I detect in Wade’s work particularly a very smart classifying mind that embraces both the experiences themselves, and the way these can be understood ‘scientifically’. What we have here unquestionably is already evidence-based spirituality.

Surely all of the experiences themselves have always occurred. Once the modern phenomena are seen it is relatively easy to see their counterparts in older times, written into the surviving records. As a rule then, spirituality has always had a level of evidence attached to it — empirical observation has been part of its basis.

The ‘Bud-Offs’ I’ve mentioned before, the techniques that spin off from religion, are another example of its fundamentally evidential nature. Could bone marrow Nei Kung (Chia 2006, Yang 2000), a Chinese meditation technique which (for very good spiritual reasons which it’s not possible to go into now) regrows the bone marrow, have evolved without a lot of thought and experiment? Certainly such experiment involved careful observation of actual outcomes. Come to think of it, isn’t it rather easy to test that Bud-Off now, since it’s been made available to the general public? (More on that subject later.) Similarly with any meditation technique, any energy technique — they have survived because they are at least perceived to do something. Evidence.

It will be the task of any ‘evidence-enriched spirituality’ to try and determine just how true these claims of experience are, of course, from the scientific point of view, to the extent that seems possible. Initial testing of Chi Kung produced some promising results, for example, but much more work needs doing on it and on other Bud-Offs. Still, these new scientific forms of evidence-taking aren’t the only forms. They join a long tradition of basing spirituality on empiricism, and even on replicability to some extent. It’s worth remembering that. The alternative to science isn’t simply and only ‘blind faith’, which has become a scientistic cultural marker for ‘idiocy’. These people weren’t fools.

Come to that, can science always actually determine and arbitrate truth in all these areas, let alone the heights of mysticism? Does that form of evidence-taking reign deservedly supreme? I see a danger here as our figuresmiths go prying in the Soul Lanes. That’s the subject of my next post.


Evidence-Based Spirituality — Part 5 of 10

I’ve been going out of my way to talk about Christianity in an attempt to show that a) even ultra-dismissivist/exclusivist doctrines aren’t an evidential dead loss; and b) what you mean by religion, if you’ve never studied any general or comparative religion, might well be just Christianity with a few regional bells on.

Many people for some reason think Christianity epitomizes all religions, where in fact it is in many ways highly atypical of religions worldwide. In its insistence on Faith in an exclusively-salvific historical truth, which is what many non-Christians see as central to it (myself included), it doesn’t actually resemble most religions. Certainly not the ones which interest me more, and which have given birth to most of the techniques I use.

Religions in general often don’t make these kinds of claims. As Eva Wong points out for example (1996), Taoism never really developed a concept of ‘heresy’, because Taoists never usually claim to have ‘the one right way’. A bit of study on polytheistic religion (see Paper 2005, my review here) in general shows it tends to be less exclusivist than the monotheistic variety, too. I’ve seen Hindus defend British paganism against Christian attack before now. If admitting to not knowing everything is one of Tart’s, and science’s, tests for likelihood of reaching the truth, then some religions are closer to that standard than others, and closer than most secular people ever really notice, because most secular people assume otherwise (D/E).

So I think it’s necessary to know something about religion in general, before you begin talking about religion in general. Otherwise you might just mean Christianity when you say ‘religion in general’, which would be rather unevidential of you. It would also miss the fact that many religions might happily ally with science even on spiritual questions, without it being such a big deal as it would be with the rather touchier monotheistic faiths. Scientists have trained themselves to look right through religion, as if it wasn’t really there. But let’s face facts: in turning the scientific lens onto spiritual phenomena, we’re turning it onto religious (that is spirituo-cultural) phenomena too, at least to some extent. Tart, in asking Shinzen Young questions about Buddhist meditation, is to some extent asking religious questions. (And scientists often feel more at home with Buddhism than with Christianity, as you may have noticed!)

Case in point: Tart, as mentioned, thinks it is self-evident (there’s that word again, so often a sign of D/E in progress) that ‘nothing new has happened in religion in centuries’, ‘religions are stuck where they were’, etc. But has he checked this out? Is he speaking from a position of knowledge here? He talks as if he wants to discomfort his audience into an admission he’s right — but as far as I’m concerned, he might be the one who should be feeling more uncomfortable. He hasn’t tried to gather evidence. He’s being dismissive, in fact.

When I look over the recent world of spirituality and religion, I seem to see almost nothing but ferment and experiment. I’ve already talked about some, and the Hesychasm stuff in Western Christianity shows just how much people are looking for the new within that religion — as they regularly have since its inception, by the way. But I see so much more… I see the Dalai Lama co-operating with scientists. I see yogis participating in work with Dean Radin. I see a massive new set of nature-based religions appearing, drawing millions in, some of which, like the Druidry of John Michael Greer, have strong relationships with sciences like ecology. (Certainly they’re not all anti-science, since archaeology matters to so many of them! They need to be able to reconstruct the pagan past.)

I see Christian priests using NDE evidence to counsel the grieving. I see figures like Mircea Eliade weaving Christianity into a wider context and writing major work on Yoga and Shamanism at the same time — come to that, I see the broad Western interest in Shamanism generally. I see Rawn Clark testing the effectiveness of the Bardon Hermetics training system using questionnaires (2003, and Bardon was rather Christian, as are some of his followers eg. Moryason, although not all. Which means Christian Occult techniques, which have a long history BTW, are being used by pagans already). In fact I see people experimenting with many meditation systems and feeding back to each other on numerous websites with multiple agendas, some more religious, some less.

I see an entirely new bud-off in China since the eighties, Chi Kung, with its enormous boom that profoundly affected China and the world (see Palmer 2007) and its emphasis on empirical testing — which falun gong, unfortunately a lot more dismissivist like its Communist parents, has somewhat damped. This is a massive set of training ideas and systems with a lot of different branches.

And I see whole slews of psychologies interacting with religion in new ways — Jung, Assagioli, Wilber. I see new test-based spiritual lineages beginning to form, not just Glenn’s but, for example, the Monroe Institute, (which is one of the few to be entirely based on original research without any budoffs) or the similar IAC of Vieira. These ‘OBE schools’ have many aspects of their craft down to a teachable set of skills, like Glenn arranged for Chi Kung and meditation — and like many Druid orders too for that matter. And I believe those organizations are actively testing to improve their understanding. I see the Esalen complex, to which Tart himself owes so much, and their “religion of no religion” as Kripal has termed it (2008). I see Quakerism in the UK (formerly a Christians-only movement) turning pagan…

I could go on; the point is, there are huge developments happening in religion and spirituality. The ferment of the 20th century touched it just as much as any other aspect of life. Before one says even the most traditionalist religions are “stuck”, it’s really worth looking at their history, which is often one of constant seeking — the Western ones certainly not least. Sudden flowerings and movements have occurred in all the ‘big’ religions and they are far from over. Look at the recent history of Judaism, Reform here and Hasidism there, by the gods! I simply don’t think we can accept this idea that religion and spirituality never change. I suspect that people who think this haven’t given the matter more than the most cursory investigation.

And even this isn’t the whole story, for I see it assumed by some that a religion which simply preserves old forms isn’t doing anything much, when it might be doing something very important. Can we afford to just dismiss that on no evidence? How do we know that in 100 years something won’t bud off that has been preserved for centuries, like Kabbalah, like Chi Kung, like Yoga? This is the point. Such concentrated forms of spiritual technique need many generations of work.

Before dismissing religious approaches, then, I think we need to understand them to some degree. It might not be religions that are ‘stuck’, nearly so much as one’s ideas of them. They have been a bogeyman but we need more subtlety now. Religions provide us with much of our basic view on spiritual questions still. Tart’s idea that religion’s job is to make us more compassionate, usher in a more peaceful earth, and prepare us for the afterlife, for example, has a very Christian tone — not all religions have those particular focuses, but he assumes them. His thoughts on life as illusion come from Buddhism. For all (what we can consider their obvious) ‘faults’, religions are a natural outgrowth of the human system, and they are the default setting for connecting with the world of spirit. As Donella Meadows says, before you change a system, you have to feel its rhythm.

And please, don’t say ‘religion’ if you mean ‘western abrahamic book religion’. That’s lazy. Especially if you haven’t realized that’s what you mean!

Next post we’ll come to a nub that applies to “spirituality” and to “religion” equally – I will argue that all of it is evidential and always has been. The scientistic assumption (and it really was no more) that religions believe things on no evidence needs to be laid gently to rest. See you then!


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