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.