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.

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