Monthly Archives: March 2011

Everybody Breathes

Evidence-Based Spirituality — Part 4 of 10

As we’ve seen, especially in the West, we have a nasty habit, when we discover a new basis for truth, of overthrowing everything from the previous paradigms. When Christianity appeared it overthrew paganism, and when scientism appeared it overthrew Christianity, etc. etc. Instead of coming at our task that way, I’d prefer to look at religions from the point of view that they are giving us a great deal of our starting material in our search for an ‘evidence-enriched spirituality’, in the form of “Bud-Offs” (see previous post). They are precious for that reason — and they may be precious for others too of course.

“But,” I hear you say, “the religion we know best in the West is Christianity. And where are the Bud-Offs from Christianity? How does Christianity help evidentially? Has it not been notoriously evidence-shy?”

Well I’ll answer the more of this ‘evidence-shy’ idea in a couple of posts’ time, but the truth is that not all religions do necessarily produce Bud-Offs, and that Bud-Offs in general often require some contact with the idea of ‘secularism’. The degree of “exclusivity” of the religion, that is, the degree to which it claims to be in some sense the only valid spiritual way (which is variable for different religions) may well have a lot to do with whether it buds off or not. Some religions are always going to be more amenable to evidentiality than others, and in Christianity we do often have a very “exclusivist” religion. It just so happens — or maybe it’s not coincidence at all — that science in the West often faces anti-science thinking on a religious level, when it comes to what has been the province of religion.

But still, nothing is absolutely black/white here. For example, Glenn Morris used to mention, and not only he, that the Eastern Orthodox Christian practice of Hesychasm, a breathing-prayer method used by monks, has a similarity to the kinds of breathing techniques from Yoga and Chi Kung that he made use of for spiritual purposes. That puts those Hesychast techniques into a certain testable territory which will immediately perk the ears of the cross-cultural scientist. If Yoga and Chi Kung can be tested, Hesychasm can — that is, if it is supposed to have some definable results. Now some Christians object to this, saying that Hesychasm is orientated specifically towards Christian practice only, like any form of Christian prayer, and is not “universal”; it is about being filled with Christ and none other. So it can’t resemble yoga and is not a Bud-Off. (And those people are usually the same ones who claim that Christians shouldn’t practice yoga either, since it is Hindu and not Christian, etc. In other words they don’t believe in Bud-Offs at all.)

But I would argue that Hesychasm is already operating as a Bud-Off to a certain limited extent. Western Catholics are taking it up, even though it hasn’t been anything to do with their tradition for many centuries, and they are being very influenced by their Orthodox cousins in the process. They are going on retreats to learn it too, I believe, so it starts to sound like a testable technique. (And equally, some believe it is being enormously dumbed-down in the process; on this I’m not qualified to comment.)

It’s a fact that not all Christian theologians currently believe wholly in ‘strong exclusivity’, as one might call it, anyhow — that is, in the idea that the historical Jesus Christ was the only saviour for the whole of mankind, and the rest of mankind has got to jolly well like it. (For example, Paul Knitter is advocating quite a complete remission of exclusivism, not exactly with the Pope’s blessing, but anyhow.) Moreover, we now have Christian Wiccans and Christian Druids, say. What if they should start picking up Hesychasm, trying it alongside pranayama or something? What if, sooner or later, a non-Christian picks the technique up? There are Bud-Off events going on here. We can’t speculate too much, but these things do happen. I could certainly see Christians being interested in scientific research as to whether Hesychasm ‘works’, anyhow. Someone might even cotton onto it as a way to win converts — scientifically proven Christianity! (Christianity often has a good relationship with science in non-spiritual areas, after all, when no-one’s treading on any toes. Remember Gregor Mendel?)

Those situations can produce cultural paradoxes — it’s possible we could one day see Christian authorities claiming that “Druidic Hesychasm is not real Hesychasm”, just as many Jewish authorities now claim “Hermetic Kabbalah is not real Kabbalah”. There seems little question that Kabbalistic techniques did bud off from mystical Judaism into Hermetics somehow, so why should similar things not happen again? In any case, the relationship between testable spirituality and Christianity, for example, is by no means always and necessarily going to be an antagonistic one.

True, cloistered Western Christian orders have no Bud-Off techniques I know of — you must be a full member to participate, and you see yourself as participating in an exclusive truth to a great extent I would think, and one that is certainly not trying to be ‘scientific’. But that doesn’t mean there is no spiritual result, either, and therefore some respect for the practices (despite any and all scandals and puncturings) is still in order. Michael Murphy (1993) gives adequate evidence of high Catholic spiritual achievement, in case you assume it is all fake because you happen not to believe (or like) it yourself. :)

But a major point here, which we’ll return to next time, is that Christianity is in many respects not really typical of religions. I’ve mentioned that the dismissivist/exclusivist aspects of it may have helped to sell it, which from the scientific point of view is rather unfortunate. But that in turn has resulted in dismissal of “all religions” by some people (who ought to know better) on the ground that “all religions” must be similar to Christianity in these respects — a peculiar mistake if you happen not to believe in Christianity, as most of those who make such statements do not, but one that results from not seeing much of the complexity of the religious milieu. More of that next post.


The Bud-Off

Evidence-Based Spirituality — Part 3 of 10

So Scientistic Dismissivism/Exclusivism is just one form of D/E, a much wider cultural phenomenon with a long ignoble history in the West, and one we want to move past if we can. When one looks at Tart’s view of religions, though, as expressed in his presentation, one finds that the ghost of scientistic dismissivism is not altogether laid.

For example, Tart, like many scientists, tends to lump all religions together with Christianity, and also to be dismissive of his caricature of them. Clergy ‘must pretend to be all-knowing’, religion ‘has not seen any advances in centuries’ and ‘is stuck where it is’, vested interests abound based on ignorance and power-hunger, all religions must claim to have the truth, the exclusive truth, which can never be questioned, etc. etc.. These are very oversimplified ideas, it seems to me; in fact, to be blunt, they are not really supported by the evidence. That they can be stated so confidently without any evidence shows that a form of D/E is at work.

Instead of endlessly pointing up the shortcomings of that viewpoint right now, though, I want to suggest that there could be another spirit in which to approach religion as we move towards ‘evidence-enriched spirituality’, rather than assuming it is bound to be standing in the way of the whole enterprise — although this alternative would never have occurred to me, by the way, until I decided to look into the nature of religion for myself rather than depending on hearsay.

I’d like to introduce a term here: the Bud-Off.

A Bud-Off is defined as a spiritual technique which was developed as part of a religion, but has since — well, budded off. (That is, acquired some degree of autonomy from belief and become a “practice”.) Bud-Offs are important because they constitute an arena in which science can more easily interface with many important aspects of spirituality, namely those aspects having to do with spiritual development. And to a certain extent, Bud-Offs require a lack of Dismissivism and Exclusivism, because they are often taken up by people with different belief systems (or ethnicities, cultural identities etc. etc.) from the original religions out of which they budded.

Meditation in general is one example of a Bud-Off (very generalized idea though it is, as Tart reminds us). Yoga is a Bud-Off — it budded off from Hinduism. Transcendental Meditation, which provided Herbert Benson with much of his material and inspiration, was another Hindu/Yogic Bud-Off. Chi Kung/qigong is a Bud-Off from Chinese religion and practice, including but not limited to Taoism. Hermetics could be seen as a Bud-Off from Hellenistic Egyptian religions, etc. etc. (I’ve seen Bud-Offs in many other ‘spiritual’ areas too, for example in sorcery, but we can’t cover it all in one go.)

All of these are incredibly rich practices, with big histories and numerous variations, and they all have in common that they have many testable aspects. The characteristic of Bud-Offs is that they are able to exist as technique-practices by themselves, as things you can ‘pick up’, ‘do’, which don’t necessarily require a philosophical or belief-system change right away. They do something, and they claim they can prove their worth on a practical level by doing it. They are also thus more testable than ‘religion in general’. It is Bud-Offs upon which most (although not all) evidential testing of spiritual techniques has been based so far.

We instantly see, then, that Bud-Offs are an incredibly valuable resource. And that makes religions, too, an incredibly valuable resource, because they generate Bud-Offs. By the time a budding-off event occurs, after much gestation within the religion, you have a full set of techniques accreted over many generations. And although there may not have been statistical scientific testing going into producing those techniques, there certainly has been a lot of trial-and-error work put into them by committed members of the religion in question. That work needs honouring.

So religions look like they are worth the effort of getting to know. They are like trees of innumerable varieties which produce important fruits that we can use for evidential work. This starts to suggest a different way to handle them, less on the dismissive side. More on this next post, when the question of whether Christianity is an exception to the above will be considered…

Dismissivism & Exclusivism

Evidence-Based Spirituality — Part 2 of 10

In his presentation, Tart talks eloquently about ‘dismissive materialism’, a force I’d wager he’s battled more than most, and how we need to work at ending its hegemony. On this, I hear him. He sees it as a psychological phenomenon, which indeed it is partly, but I’d argue it’s also a cultural one. To define a couple of terms:

Dismissivism — The view that something doesn’t exist or is evil, (or strangely, often both), taken up so as to dismiss and overthrow a competing hegemony, ignoring all evidence to the contrary as self-evidently inadmissible.

Exclusivism — The view that one has sole access to truth of a certain kind, often the only important kind, which allows one to employ Dismissivism against those who do not have such access.

Dismissivist/Exclusivist statements make sense from within their worldviews, eg. the materialist ‘no gods or spiritual reality could ever be said to actually exist’ makes sense from within a dismissivist/exclusivist materialist scientism. But the worldview, the map, doesn’t match the reality, the territory, because that reality is ‘officially inadmissible’.

Dismissivism/Exclusivism (D/E for short) thus allows the coining of universal “certainties” by means of ignoring evidence to their contrary. One can win favour with people who like certainty by positing these universal ‘truths’, to which no contradiction is ever allowed. (I was going to make an acronym out of this ‘False Universal Certain Knowledge’, but decided against that, for a variety of reasons.)

D/E actually has a long history in the West. We are not here talking about a development that began with science.

Scientism, in overthrowing spirituality, did certainly come to claim that there was no divine reality, by means of D/E — dismissing not only Christian versions of the truth, but all spiritual and religious truth whatever, as false, and also as evil, since it stood in the way of the truth. By this means it declared Christianity, and any other spiritual system, unfit for purpose in the culture.

Interestingly, in doing so, as often happens, it also went against its own principles. After all, the statement that ‘there is no truth to any form of spirituality’ really only qualifies as a hypothesis, in scientific terms. By establishing it as a “fact” with the fiat of D/E, Scientism could avoid actually collecting any evidence and attempting to prove this hypothesis, thus keeping power by violating the principles it claimed to espouse. (Which is why, to some extent, it feels its own hegemony is threatened now, since said evidence has been collected by people outside Scientism, but still within the educational remit of the scientific method.)

But these more recent cultural moves reflect longer habits here in the West. Especially since the 4th century and Constantine, Christianity itself had employed D/E to impose its reality, to the effect that the Christian deific principles were the only real ones, and that all previous Roman religion was false, and also evil. By these means paganism was declared unfit as well, and on as little evidence, so a new hegemony could be declared — proof to the contrary (that paganism was real and did good for its members) was hardly thin on the ground, if anyone had cared to look for it. And again, the principles of the new hegemony were traduced in the enforcement of this “truth”, most obviously by the violent persecution of the pagans, including their torture and execution etc. (see MacMullen 1999, my review here.)

I’ll avoid detailing other interesting examples of Dismissivism/Exclusivism. Any time you see a reality enforced against mounting evidence in the traditional Kuhnian paradigm-defence, of course, you find D/E — but maybe not only then. Communism is a great example. Freudianism operated as a D/E through much of the 20th century, and Nietzsche’s entire philosophical method sometimes seems to me to have consisted of arrogantly dismissing everyone else without looking for any evidence on any topic! ^_^ But let’s stick to the territory Tart is in. This being a set of posts about evidence-based spirituality, the key thing to notice about D/E is that it becomes a way of not admitting evidence. You actually simply don’t see the contrary to the view you hold, always supposing you ever even think of looking for it.

Thus, Tart is quite right in saying, we are going to have to question Scientism, its dismissiveness of spirituality, and its claim to exclusivity of truth, in face of evidence of contrary truths. But there is a proviso: we will have to do all that without becoming in our turn dismissivist/exclusivist. That is, we will have to find evidence to justify our statements. And when it comes to religion, with which science has sometimes found itself in a bit of a fight, that could be tricky. Many scientists have felt above the task of knowing anything about religion for a long time. That habit is quite hard to break. I propose that we will need to know what we are talking about on all sides.

I don’t say that science and religion are never legitimately at odds, far from it. It seems to me to be an uncomfortable truth that, whereas science positively requires openness to evidence, some versions and aspects of religion (including Scientism, as stated) positively require closedness to it. Worse still, there is something to be said for the idea that such closedness allows for the very sense of ‘comfort’ that some religion brings, the sense of universal truth depending on that closedness, and that this tends to boost the popularity of the religion by making followers feel that ‘all important things are known’, giving a simplified worldview that can be resorted to by ‘faith’ in all circumstances.

Thus, certain aspects of the ‘impulse to religion” militate against examination of truths that the spiritual religions claim to address. And this of course is the reason one sees people like Richard Dawkins, as John Michael Greer has said, behaving ‘more and more like Pat Robertson’.

But, as I’ll show, this is hardly a characterization of ‘religion’ itself; it is true only of certain aspects of certain religions. Just as D/E Scientism is not the whole truth about the scientific aspects of our culture, the D/E elements of religion also are not the whole truth about them. The level of exclusivism varies amongst religions — not all claim they have the one universal truth, and even the ones that do exhibit considerable variety in practice. The level of dismissivism also varies as a result.

We do want to remove the straitjacket of scientism, but some aspects of the discourse about ‘evidence-based spirituality’ seem to me to have taken on the scientistic view of religion without thinking. Part of what I’ll be doing here is to point up different ways of looking at religion from the ones which science, and more importantly its Scientistic branch, has often ended up defaulting us to, so as to make the relationships more productive on all sides.

For example, how ‘stuck’ is religion generally? Or can it possibly develop in very evidentially beneficial ways? That’s my next topic.

Evidence-Based Spirituality: 1 of 10

Dr. Charles Tart’s excellent ISSSEEM (that’s the International Society for the Study of Subtle Energies and Energy Medicine, keep up) lecture, Towards an Evidence-Based Spirituality, has made it onto YouTube. A valuable contribution on a subject dear to my heart, it prompted an extended set of musings. This will be a 10-part series, new parts posted every 2-4 days.

NOTE: I genuinely want to see what others think as well. Conversation is good.

I have to declare an interest. If not for evidence-based spirituality, such as it already is, I would never be where I am nor doing what I’m doing. I lucked into methods that worked. The results have been spectacular, and sometimes I wonder at it all. (Why do I deserve this?)

Turns out the methods, mostly those of Glenn Morris, were actually as entirely evidence-based as one could be in this current era. After Glenn got over the shock of a massive and totally unexpected kundalini awakening/enlightenment event one summer, his first instinct as a trained scientist was, as he said, “Right — replicate!” His college and martial arts students became the testing ground for a system that he refined and wrote about, based on interlocking elements of meditation, psychology and chi kung, which did indeed begin to produce the goods in others, and quickly. He had really found something.

Since his death, others have carried forward this tested legacy. Rob Williams, Santiago Dobles and others over at UMAA Tantra, Robert Morgen, and many more I should think, are teaching things based directly on the system Glenn put together. I hope to join them one day if I can figure out my own way of doing it — culturally I’m in a slightly different space. The UMAA guys even feel they have optimized the method still further, so that it works even quicker, whereas I, if anything, am slowing it down a trifle. All probably emphasize personal experiment, that the practitioners test for themselves. At least I hope so, for Glenn never claimed to have all the answers nor anything like. I’m not sure quite to what extent the succeeding generation has taken forward Glenn’s scientific and evidence-based approach to spirituality, but I do know the whole system joins a select group of other modern developments that are close to developing actual prototypical evidence-based lineages. So this is something that is happening now.

Glenn obviously was familiar with ISSSEEM material. You don’t write, “Subtle energy manifests in high-voltage, slow-wave EEG activity originating in the hippocampal-septal area and imposes a synchronous slow-wave pattern on the frontal lobes. Control of subtle energy is usually associated with right-hemisphere dominance, cortical synchronization, and a dominant parasympathetic state” ( 1998) without having read a few papers. His books are popular so no citations (although their bibliographies are highly useful.) His last book contained a psychological test based on the ancient elements system that he had tried on over 5,000 people. That’s Glenn all over, that’s his thing.

I do believe in this stuff. I want to see it work, and that’s part of what prompted these posts. There are, as Tart points out, still a lot of ‘dismissive materialist’ forces in play which look askance on all this to say the least; Tart tackles the psychological aspects of the dismissive phenomenon but it has cultural elements also which I’ll look at in my next post. Subjects I plan to tackle afterwards include a few questions of religion — particularly, whether religion really likely to be such a negative force as Tart seems to imply. (What’s the evidence for this idea that it’s ‘stuck’?) I’ll give the concept of the ‘bud-off’ to explain some of the role religion can play in evidentiality.

I’ll also be pointing up the fact that ‘evidential spirituality’ is not new, but as old as spirituality itself; noting some difficult areas in the project of mixing science with spirituality, including a comparison with ‘evidence-based medicine’; and giving some of my favourite ideas for testable phenomena in the form of body-based spirituality, as well as many other things.

A note: Tart rows back a little in his presentation — evidence-based spirituality, he says, is probably centuries off. What we can get for now is evidence-enriched spirituality. I’m glad he said that. It’s clear we can do great things with this evidential enrichment, but we can’t prejudge just how great. Enthusiastic as I am, I will sound some cautious notes.

The reason Tart gives, out front, for doing all this, is that we’d better or the planet is screwed. This kind of messianic thinking seems inappropriate to me, because it implies we can save the world situation, which we can’t. The best we can do is make it easier to deal with.We’re about to go through some great travails as a culture, as we reduce from 7 billion to 2 billion humans, and Libya or Fukushima might be on anyone’s doorstep before long. Yes, spirituality can help with all that, in terms of guidedness, health, and so on. But even with the best systems in the world, spirituality can’t prevent it.

When I think of evidential spirituality, I think not only of Glenn but of someone like Herbert Benson, who gave Glenn some initial impetus. His experimental proofs of the usefulness of some mantra-style meditation were very valuable, as was the fact that he got the phrase ‘relaxation response’ into the general medical and scientific vocabularies, to balance out the ‘fight/flight’ thing. If doctors recommend meditation for hypertension, it’s in many ways thanks to him. Great work, useful work. But not the Second Coming! (Our culture believes strongly in an upcoming apocalypse/rapture on a subsconscious level, as John Michael Greer has so insistently stated. It’s believed this for 2,000 years, so I wouldn’t call the event ‘upcoming’ any more, in any evidential sense! Robert Conner points out how Christianity was predicting the imminent End of All Things almost as soon as it came into being… why not give ourselves a break and believe the evidence on that one?)

This isn’t the ‘end times’. We’re just in a mess, that’s all, a mess resolving itself into a dangerous series of contractions, the ongoing decline and fall of western industrialism… and it would be desperation to think that we could do that much to influence that aspect of our situation, which is mandated by forces beyond anyone’s control, before we even know what our evidential endeavours are capable of. The general tenor of the times is as it is. There are plenty of difficulties in the way of pioneering an evidential spirituality without trying to save the world as well!

Meanwhile, first post out of this pandora’s box will be a take on Tart’s idea of ‘dismissive materialism’ — and just how old a force that turns out to be. Let’s just say scientists weren’t the first to use that one… hope to have you along, and thanks for reading.


I’m not a “hard perennialist” — I don’t think every world spirituality is “the same thing in different clothes”. But I also don’t think anyone could read, say, the first essay in Eliade’s Images and Symbols, entitled “The Symbolism of the ‘Centre’”, and not come away thinking that the human use of the central and the axial in sacred contexts hasn’t got something remarkably consistent to it worldwide. That kind of universality does exist.

When Chi Kung, or Yoga, or even Hermetics say, bud off from their original cultural contexts, they too can become something more universalized (or even perennialized). Although knowing some Yogic scripture before having any kundalini experiences is probably an excellent idea, still — you don’t have to be a religious Hindu to practice Yoga. Such a system has become more of a technique, settling into different cultural atmospheres in interesting ways. Techniques instill sacredness, changing the energetic nature of the person practicing, partaking of whatever is in the air around the practitioner as well as of the culture which birthed the technique.

Glenn Morris, for example, practiced mostly Chinese and Japanese Chi Kung ideas, and had not only a kundalini rising (which I suppose should be regarded as universal rather than just Indian), but also strong experiences of Hindu deities. Later, he sometimes used to say ‘the gods are Indian’ — yet he had no interest in Indian spiritual culture prior to his kundalini. (Similarly Andrew Paquette has seemingly never practiced much beyond yoga asanas, yet many of his strongest experiences have been in the Judeo-Christian tradition, in which he had no prior interest.)

Don’t let them hand you that nonsense, then, that people’s spiritual experiences are the result of their cultural expectations. In Jenny Wade’s sensational book Transcendent Sex, the 100-odd people surveyed (all Westerners) had a range of things to tell of including kundalini and light phenomena, encounters with deities and spiritual beings, enlightenment experiences, etc. etc., all of which had occurred during the act of sex. None of these people had any spiritual training, most had no interest at all in the spiritual, and many had no idea what had happened until much later. And they all lived in a culture which taught them that sex and spirituality go together roughly like fish and bicycles. This book alone forever does away with any idea that people’s spiritual experiences are determined by cultural expectation. In fact expectation has nothing to do with it.

Similarly, practicing Chi Kung or Yoga doesn’t necessarily mean you will have ‘Chinese experiences’ or ‘Indian experiences’, or not only those exactly… universalized systems of spiritual energy, they work alongside whatever is available in the life practicing. The locals will take an interest. It’s not easy to determine what causes this person to have that subjective experience accompanying their spiritual and energetic transformation; there’s nothing linear about it. Plenty of Christian mystics got branded as heretics when they’d made it past a few of the veils.

Still, Chi Kung is Chinese through and through. And some aspects of the systems taught over there will always strike modern Westerners initially as a little a strange. For instance, why must all these Chi Kung people be so obssessed with their bellies? Buddha is shown with a fat belly, not because the fellow had an eating disorder, but because he had a lot of energy stored at the navel centre. This is not something that gets written about much in the West. We don’t have fat Merlins particularly.

Glenn points out quite simply that you can store energy there because the intestinal coil holds a charge of chi — which is true as you can easily test for yourself. You can also read Gershon’s very interesting stuff about the digestive tract amounting to a second brain in terms of the neural connectivity, and wonder about all sorts of psychological relationships arising. But instinctive understanding of the spritual implications may seem less easy. It’s all very well for someone to tell you that the navel can be useful in developing the ability to speak with spirits or generate and harmonize energies, but nothing is necessarily set off in the mythical mind about it. And then there is all that Taoist stuff about mixing elixirs within the belly that you can use to become immortal. What are we round-eyes to make of that?

That’s where symbols come in so handy. We do have interest in navels in Western spirituality. The most obvious navel we have is known as the Omphalos, a stone that originally sat in Delphi at the temple of Apollo. It was said in fact to grant communication with spirits and gods. In addition, it marked the spot where Apollo defeated the dragon Pytho — auspicious kundalini imagery. “Omphalos” means ‘navel’ in Greek In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the navel point itself is known as Shen Que, “Spirit Watchtower” or “Spirit Gateway”.

In fact many other omphaloi existed in Greece, usually at oracle centres. In the Jerusalem Church of the Holy Sepulchre lies yet another, Christian one. These points in Jerusalem and Delphi are said to mark the ‘navel of the world’ in their respective traditions — imagery that will resonate with the Chinese Taoist ideas of the navel as the creation point. In fact there are numerous such ‘world navels’. As with the ‘Centre’ idea detailed by Eliade in his essay, it is one that repeats throughout human spirituality. Anywhere can be the centre — the choice is cultural (likely energetic too). Just as we all have an axis mundi in the form of our own spines in Yoga, we all have a centre of our microcosmic worlds at our bellies in Chi Kung.

One could go on. It can be eerie how, even when there seems no evidence of similarities of practice, the symbolism connects universally. Another great symbol connected in Taoism with the navel is the Cauldron, that in which the elixir is mixed. Cauldrons go back very far in China, but of course we don’t lack for cauldrons in the West either, and here it’s Celtic mythology that applies most. Cirlot points out that cauldrons in Celtic myth, associated with rebirth spiritual nourishment and enlightenment, are often found at the bottoms of seas and lakes, which is interesting when you consider the name of the lower navel entrance point in acupuncture, “Sea of Chi”, and that the navel and belly form part of both the water chakra system (see Allisa of the Mists) and the elemental water area of Hermetics. That’s aligned Chinese, Celtic, Indian, and Hellenistic systems in one fell swoop.

The cauldron symbol in the west of course became heavily linked to that of the Grail. That indeed was a vessel that some legends connected with immortality. Just as some Taoist sages are said to be able survive without food by ‘eating chi’, so Chrétien de Troyes shows a man surviving indefinitely on a single communion wafer (symbolic of spiritual sustenance) taken from the grail daily. Cauldrons in the West always have similarly to do with rebirth and regeneration.

A great deal of Taoist-inflected Chi Kung requires you to see the body in a new light. Your organs are spirits, your bones magical items. So here’s another — you have to accept that your belly may just be a major source of power, an Omphalos, a Grail, a Cauldron, a centre of nourishment which can resurrect you from a dead state. All the Chi Kung which has produced so many cures of illness (see Palmer, Takahashi & Brown, etc.) will focus on the ‘tan tien’, the ‘elixir field’, the belly, as a major factor. Meanwhile, Google ‘Omphalos’ and you’ll find it’s still a symbol that fires the imagination of many.


A bird flies past the window. The bird has its life, and I, here, have my life. Self takes one form within the bird and another within me. As the bird flies past I sense a kinship that can only come from knowing one’s own limited place in the system. I got to know birds when young, and I got to know me. Their way of living, my way of living. For some reason, sharing the very fact of ‘having a way of living’ with the bird, with the tree, with the dog, with the squirrel, and that all those ways are different, caused a deep delight in me, a delight I later spread even to rocks and named ‘worldness’.

This may have been influenced by the number of fictions I happened to read when young that featured ‘worldbuilding’. Building a believable world has become an important literary skill. Larry Niven says the more astrophysics you know, the more fun the worldbuilding gets; Tolkien would have said the same of philology. Literary worldbuilding is the ability to produce something having the quality of reality necessary to sustain the sense of worldness, the sense of many things with different agendas, some of them human and some of them decidedly not, sharing a space/place.

In spiritual terms the human systems throw up various forms of shamanism first, and the settled life produces polytheisms of direct experience directly from the shamanisms. A shaman is one to whom spirits will come, but longer traditions begin to pass spirits between generations of shamans. If the ordinary person can access the spirits via shrines, and these become fixed in a settled agrarian situation, you then begin to have polytheistic ‘paganism’. Again, the life is shared: life in Athena and life in Hermes, each a different life and a different agenda. All is woven into the fabric of the human living situation.

When Christianity came, this appreciation of difference ended. The bishops ordered the crucifixion of those who would not convert, and whipped up mobs against them. (See my review of Ramsay MacMullen’s “Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries”.) Concurrent with monotheism, utopia entered the fray — the promised land, here on earth. All subsequent revolutions that promise heaven on earth (French, Cultural…), and are prepared to kill to get it to happen, owe their thinking to the Christian revolution.

With the advent of systems thinking and ecology in our culture, we have finally a way of beginning to understand worldness that makes sense also to the intellectual mind. The culture, set on its over-linear course, is not noticing it much, although if you analyse systems-wise many of the reasons for world events become far clearer. John Michael Greer is doing a systems-based translation of Tao Te Ching.

Mediation between multiplicity and unity (which is also mediation between time-process and eternity) is central to most of the spiritual psychologies that interest me. Assumptions of unity tend to be bound up with monotheistic utopianism. Jung and Assagioli both saw the subconscious as multiple, but by far the best system to have arisen on those lines, for me, is the Internal Family Systems model of Schwartz. At last an end to the monotheistic demand for one single mind each. Here is a man who designed his therapy with Bateson’s ‘Steps towards an Ecology of Mind” at his elbow and laboriously perfected it with increasingly successful work on people whose systems were out of wack. Now you can see yourself as an internal ecology on the psychological level, and effectively harmonize your unfolding process within and without. We have many different subpersonalities inside us, with many different agendas, and normally these do not concert; the magic of Self, with its connectedness the Infinite, is the key to harmony.

The relation of this to the spiritual is long and noble. Spiritual systems and psychologies that see only one-ness have a problem understanding why the Egyptians so carefully laid the internal organs of a mummified Pharaoh into Canopic Jars, arranged in a four-directions pattern. They browbeat Hinduism into not being polytheistic. They don’t see why the internal organs need to be addressed in Taoism, each operating as a part of the system with its own psychology, nor how the recycling of energy can be important throughout the energy body. They don’t always see that the process of mind turning into matter and back is forever ongoing. They don’t understand why the Stoics needed to talk about harmonizing the senses and faculties. If only one thing really exists and is interesting (even if it happens not to be a ‘thing’), there is never a need to understand asymmetric multiplicity forming patterns in time. To know both the joy of being small in a big system, and the underlying creativity that exists and feeds each thing, at the centre, the big thing in the small thing… this becomes impossible.

Lao Tzu says one of his major treasures is ‘daring not to be first in the world’.

I have been a blue salmon,
I have been a dog, a stag, a roebuck on the mountain,
A stock, a spade, an axe in the hand,
A stallion, a bull, a buck…

— Taliesin

Sorry Unity

Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries
Ramsay MacMullen.

Imagine walking through the main thoroughfare of your local town, past the severed limbs of some of your erstwhile fellow-townspeople, watching them gently swing and twist as they hang. They won’t give up paganism, and their dismemberment has been ordered by the bishop himself. You are in 7th century Harran, a city later famous for remaining openly pagan probably longer than any other, and what you are witnessing is far from atypical of your time, in what remains of the Roman Empire, east or west. Welcome to the world of Professor Ramsay MacMullen, a world where the newfound elite status of 4th-8th century Christianity is the platform for forced conversion, atrocity, and assmilation by any means. MacMullen says previous histories were written or influenced by the winners or their advocates; an imbalance he sharply corrects.

The excellence of this book lies in its encompassing scholarship, combined with a compete and unwavering impartiality. MacMullen really does see things as they were, and despite clearly not being a believer of any kind himself (as fellow reviewer Curtis Steinmetz has mentioned) shows a near-perfect understanding of paganism and the reasons for the loyalty consistently shown to it, both in the period and beyond.

In describing the Christian reaction to that loyalty he is absolutely unflinching. He has no time for Church spin which sees Christianity as the faith which welcomed slaves and women, both of whom were far better off under paganism as he shows. The vast majority of sermons in this period address the rich male faithful, the ‘brethren’. And their faith, as he reveals, is often one of extreme aggression, of most of whose acts I had no inkling. (Funny, how quiet the persecution has been kept.) There was no talk of tolerating the pagan, not once political power had been gained. Church leadership was on the contrary happy to incite mob violence with florid denunciations of the ‘lethal infection’ represented by the ‘mad, loathsome, disgusting’ heathens, with their ‘natural insanity’.

Early in the period considered there was of course the murder of Hypatia, but mobs of Christian heavies caused trouble in numerous other occasions according to the orator Libanius, as Shaw has also noted in l his excellent book on Iamblichus. Christian monks would break up pagan feasts or temples at order. Later emperors, particularly Justinian and Tiberius, were perhaps the most impressively violent — the latter had one persistently pagan governor tortured, torn up by wild beasts, and then crucified. (Crucifixion was often the ironic execution of choice.)

MacMullen’s book is about more than that though; he covers much which carried less surprise for me but was equally thorough and fascinating. In a wide-ranging chapter ostensibly on ‘superstition’, he describes the power of miracles (which have always been and probably will always be the major reason for anyone’s conversion to any religion, I suspect) and shows the world of healers and weatherworkers with each side, pagan and Christian, competing for the best magic. This is a familiar sight to me (see Saint Patrick v. the Druids in Ireland of the period, for example). Clearly it’s a long time since Christian magic was considered the best in any official sense, but unofficially the formulae being used then are still being taught today, and you can easily find Christian magic of the exact same kind on Amazon, for example in A Century of Spells. Nothing much has changed.

It’s important to note that in contests of magic, the winner is always the one sharing a faith with the person writing up the contest. :) Thus we have scores upon scores of Christian miracles, and few pagan ones. However, that pagan workers still did the business is clear from the fact that loyalty to them was so hard to eradicate. And indeed they have survived until today also, not just in Biddy Early and her ilk, but unremarked in many places — see for example John Cuthbert Lawson’s Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion, page 49, for absolutely pagan weatherworking in Greece around 1910.

Survivals of pagan practices, in general, also play a big role in MacMullen’s account. I knew of many already but he has many more, especially with regard to grave-feasts for example. Equally interesting is the number of pagan rites that were simply purloined into the Faith, over the protests of the upper orders of the hierarchy, because the people wanted and needed them. Christianity didn’t have much practice of its own, and the people were not accustomed to addressing ‘God directly’. The faith in saints and angels and martyrs, as everyone knows who has looked into the matter, simply replaced the older nature-based and deity practices, as it has done regularly in modern Christianizations of paganism such as Santeria.

This produces some amusing moments: great shrines appear to the Archangel Michael, who is promptly denounced by the authorities as a demon! Numerous other practices involving relics and saint-magic are very well described, and the picture on the cover of the book is particularly interesting — a saint statue of gold that was still producing miracles and drawing worship in 1000 CE, apparently. Yes, an idol by any standard.

Paganism *never* disappeared, even if its public rites often either died or were assimilated. That much is clear, and there are very good reasons why it shouldn’t in my opinion, to do with the way human spirituality naturally works. But in trying to eradicate it, Christianity found itself in a pretty pass. I’m afraid I had always assumed that the Roman paganism of the time must have lost its vigour for Christianity to have taken over ‘so easily’, and now I’m thoroughly disabused. Among the elite it had gone, but not among the people. And the takeover wasn’t done ‘easily’, to the extent it was even done at all. The importance of this book goes to the nature of religion itself, as well, because MacMullen delivers the beliefs of the period without comment. You see what produced faith, or otherwise, much more clearly than in many books of religious theory! And the irony is that, after all the febrile denunciations, paganism could still in the end be said to have assimilated Christianity, just as much as or more than the other way around.

A note on his writing. Some people don’t like it, but I disagree. Most academic language still seems to be by Le Corbusier, and I think it’s nice to find some done still by Wren and Brunelleschi. Sure, he could be seen as florid, why not? “I have indicated at various junctures, above, my hopes of staying within those areas where the texture of the evidence is fairly close… and one need not rappel across great gulfs of ignorance on gossamer threads of conjecture.” It’s not every day an academic produces prose I’d like to hear read by Michael Hordern! And actually the style makes for a density of meaning, and a corresponding shortness of the overall text, considering how much it packs in.

This is just an excellent book. Obviously Christians and pagans will be interested, but I particularly recommend it also to those with an interest in ‘folklore’ and ‘superstition’, and to those interested in the nature of religious belief in general. On a wider culturological level I also recommend it — if you are studying phenomena like the cultural revolution, which is only an updating of the same mindset, read this. It is, finally, also a marvellous testament, not only to the nature of its chosen period, but to the worth of a wide-ranging and scholarly mind surveying that period with immense discrimination, determined to tell it like it was.