contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: contemplative research

SCIENCE AND SPIRITUAL PRACTICE

As part of my contemplative inquiry, I have been looking at recent work by Rupert Sheldrake (1, 2). He identifies himself as “not a guru but an explorer”. I like that notion of ‘explorer’, with its sense that there is always space for new learning and development.

Sheldrake’s affirms that spiritual practice and research are “entirely consistent with the scientific method, which involves the formation of hypotheses – guesses about the way the world works – and then testing them experimentally. The ultimate arbiter is experience, not theory. In French, the word experience means both ‘experience’ and ‘experiment’. The Greek word for experience is empeiria, the root of our English word ‘empirical’. The exploration of consciousness through consciousness itself is literally empirical, based on experience. Spiritual practices provide ways in which consciousness can be explored empirically.”

In recent years, Sheldrake (1,2) has written two books based on this approach. Each discusses seven different practices that have been investigated empirically, both by the practitioners themselves and by scientists studying the effects of those practices. Every practice gets a chapter. The first book, Science and Spiritual Practices, offers:

  1. Meditation and the Nature of Minds
  2. The Flow of Gratitude
  3. Reconnecting with the More-Than-Human World
  4. Relating to Plants
  5. Rituals and the Presence of the Past
  6. Singing, Chanting and the Power of Music
  7. Pilgrimages and Holy Places

The second Book, Ways To Go Beyond, covers:

  1. The Spiritual Side of Sports
  2. Learning from Animals
  3. Fasting
  4. Cannabis, Psychedelics and Spiritual Openings
  5. Powers of Prayer
  6. Holy Days and Festivals
  7. Cultivating Good Habits, Avoiding Bad Habits, and Being Kind

Sheldrake’s choices are all practices he has taken part in, which have also been studied scientifically. He looks at both the ‘subjective’ experience and the ‘objective’ evidence and discusses the ways in which the practices seem to work. He also offers guidance to readers about engaging with the practices. He is very clear that the two books “do not constitute a comprehensive survey of all spiritual practices, emphasising his point by listing others that have been left out: “yoga, service to others, tai chi, chi gong, devotional worship or bhakti, tantric sex, caring for dying people, dream yoga, and the practices of the arts”. He makes it clear that “some practices are better at some times of life than others, and all religious traditions  have their own combinations”. I have already discussed Sheldrake’s work on gratitude at www.contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/03/14/ and will discuss others in future posts.

Sheldrake’s overall purpose is “to show that there is a wide variety of ways to connect to greater conscious realities, however we conceive of them, and that the effects of these practices can be investigated empirically”. Sheldrake is an optimist about the possibilities of science and spirituality working together in the service of human flourishing. “We are on the threshold of a new era of the exploration of consciousness, both through a revival of spiritual practices and also through the scientific study of them. After several generations in which science and spirituality seemed to be in opposition, they are becoming complementary. Together they are contributing to an unprecedented phase of spiritual evolution, beginning now.”

(1) Rupert Sheldrake Science and Spiritual Practice: Reconnecting Through Direct Experience Coronet, 2017

(2) Rupert Sheldrake Ways to Go Beyond, and Why They Work Coronet, 2019

NOTE: Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist and author of more than eighty technical papers and ten books, including A New Science of Life. He was a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, where he was Director of Studies in cell biology, and was also a Research Fellow of the Royal Society.

Sheldrake resigned his position at Clare and went to work on the physiology of tropical crops in Hyderabad, India, as principal plant physiologist at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) from 1974 to 1978. There he published on crop physiology] and co-authored a book on the anatomy of the pigeonpea. Sheldrake left ICRISAT to focus on writing A New Science of Life, during which time he spent a year and a half in the Saccidananda Ashram of Bede Griffiths, a Benedictine monk.

From 2005-2010 he was the Director of the Perrott-Warwick Project for research on unexplained human abilities, funded from Trinity College, Cambridge. He is currently a Fellow of the Institute of Noetic Sciences in California, and a Visiting Professor at the Graduate Institute in Connecticut.

His website is www.sheldrake.org/

NATURALLY INQUIRING

Recently I reviewed Godless Pagans: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans (1) which I enjoyed very much. There’s a growing community of Pagans clearly identified as ‘humanistic’ and/or ‘naturalistic’ – see https://humanisticpaganism.com – and I am wondering about how I sit with this approach.

I am dedicated to contemplative inquiry. I see it as naturalistic. But I am also aware of the way in which terms like ‘empiricism’, ‘science’ and even ‘humanism’ can be mobilized for a certain type of fighting talk. This says that valid knowledge can be based only on third-person, objectifying inquiry conducted on a hypothesis-experiment-results model. I am engaged in a first person inquiry, which also extends to community and culture, as in my Contemplative Druidry book (2), so for me this is a potential problem.

In response I pick up a book off my shelves, and dust it off. The title says Qualitative Research in Counselling and Therapy (3). A half-remembered store of magic words is laid out before me in the accessible form of chapter headings: qualitative inquiry, hermeneutics, phenomenology, ethnographic approaches, grounded theory, conversation, narrative and discourse analysis, bricolage. I used to work in the field of public health and health research, with sexual health, mental health and ageing as my main focus at different times: all areas where lived experience and issues of culture, meaning and value are of great importance.  So I’ve long had a concern with an extended epistemology, which takes these areas into account.

There have been many attempts to bring different pathways to knowledge together and identify what the togetherness might look like. One of the most recent is Ken Wilber’s Quadrants model (4), which sits as the Q in a larger system called AQAL. The quadrants look like this:

 

INTERIOR/INDIVIDUAL: ‘I SPACE’

 

The subjective life world – thoughts, feelings, meanings, meditative states

Explored in the domains of literature, arts, therapy and spirituality

 

An exemplary text would be: In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust

 

EXTERIOR/INDIVIDUAL: ‘IT SPACE’

 

Atoms, brains, bodies, behaviours, organism

Explored in natural science, scientific medicine, philosophy of science

 

An exemplary text would be: Consciousness Explained, Daniel C. Dennett

 

INTERIOR/COLLECTIVE; ‘WE SPACE’

 

Shared meanings, relationships, mutual understanding, the influence of culture, media, community

Explored in the domains of literature, arts, therapy and spirituality; also philosophy and ‘qualitative’ social science

 

An exemplary text would be: The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault

EXTERIOR/COLLECTIVE; ‘ITS’ SPACE

 

Systems, environments, technology, cosmology

Explored in the domains of natural science, philosophy of science and ‘quantitative’ social science

 

An exemplary text would be: A Universe from Nothing, Lawrence M. Krauss

 

 

The basic outline above is Wilber’s. I have added the bits that suggest subject domains and key texts which I know well enough to put in the boxes – in both of the multi-volume works on the left, the first volume makes to point on its own. I value all the quadrants, whilst having a clear bias towards the left hand. My contemplative inquiry is in the upper left quadrant, though my beliefs in no separate self and interdependence push me out, especially towards the lower left hand but to an extent over to the right as well. In this perilous Anthropocene era, how could they not?

Contemplative inquiry in the narrower sense is about consciousness and conscious being. Here I follow James Hillman in suggesting “suggesting a poetic basis of mind and a psychology that starts neither in the physiology of the brain, the structure of language, the organization of society, nor the analysis of behaviour, but in the processes of imagination” (5). Hillman places himself in a western lineage going back from Jung, “through Freud, Dilthey, Coleridge, Schelling, Vico, Ficino, Plotinus and Plato to Heraclitus”. All I can say is that from a subjective lifeworld perspective this makes complete sense to me, though in my reading I’d emphasize the term ‘starts from’ – the third person perspective also matters and all the other factors mentioned clearly have their role.

In taking this stand I have recently gained comfort from an unexpected source, the neuroscientist and consciousness researcher Sam Harris. A friend and associate of the philosopher Daniel Dennett, Harris is not persuaded that Dennett’s Consciousness Explained (6) albeit a brilliant and fascinating book, has fully lived up to its title, or could be expected to. Harris says (7):

“We know of course that human minds are the product of human brains. There is simply no question that your ability to decode and understand this sentence depends on neurophysiological events taking place inside your head at this moment. But most of this mental work occurs entirely in the dark, and it is a mystery why part of this process should be attended by consciousness. Nothing about a brain, when surveyed as a physical system, suggests that it is a locus of experience. Were we not already brimming with consciousness ourselves, we would find no evidence for it in the universe – nor would we have any notion of the many physical states it gives rise to. The only proof that it is like something to be you at this moment is the fact (obvious only to you) that it is like something to be you.”

Harris is well versed in both contemplative practice and scientific investigation, and so is at ease both with the exterior and interior approaches to consciousness. He has experience of the self-less state and is also clear about describing selflessness as “not a ‘deep’ feature of consciousness, but right on the surface. And yet people can meditate for years without recognizing it”: no need to invoke divinity-as-subject or traditionally mystical views of ‘enlightenment’ as heroic attainment. I for my part experience Headlessness, very available in the Douglas Harding method -see website at headless.org  – as perfectly containing the poetry of mind. It’s ‘only’ natural. How miraculous nature is!

(1) Halstead, J. (ed.) (2016) Godless Paganism: voices of non-theistic Pagans com (Foreword by Mark Green)

(2) Nichol, J. (2014) Contemplative Druidry: people, practice and potential Amazon/KDP (Foreword by Philip Carr-Gomm)

(3) McLeod, J. (2001) Qualitative research in counselling and psychotherapy London: Sage

(4) Wilber, K. (et al) (2008) Integral Life Practice: a 21st century blueprint for physical health, emotional balance, mental clarity, and spiritual awakening Boston & London: Integral Books

(5) Hillman, J. (1990) The essential James Hillman: A blue fire London: Routledge. (Introduced and edited by Thomas Moore)

(6) Dennett, D. (1990) Consciousness explained London: Penguin

(7) Harris, S. (2014) Waking up: searching for spirituality without religion London: Transworld Publishers

 

 

MIND AND LIFE INSTITUTE IN EUROPE

In a previous post on https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2015/1/02 I wrote about the Mind and Life Institute which can be found on http://www.mindandlife.org/. Founded in 1987 it was largely the inspiration of the current Dalai Lama. Its aim is to bring together contemplative practitioners and the academic community to investigate contemplative states and their value. Although it has a largely Buddhist orientation, it is not confined to Buddhists.

This post is to draw attention to a Mind and Life European Summer Research Institute on Contemplative Practice, Science and Society from 28 August to 3 September 2015 at the Abtei Fraueninsel Chiemsee, Germany.

This will explore the influence of contemplative practices on mind, behaviour, brain function and health, but are also fostering the development of new fields of research known as Contemplative Neuroscience, Contemplative Clinical Science, Contemplative Studies, and Contemplative Education (see www.mindandlife-europe.org for more details, or check out www.mindandlife.org if you wish to learn more about previous SRIs in the USA).

 

 

 

 

 

 

MIND AND LIFE INSTITUTE: INQUIRING INTO FEAR AND TRUST IN SELF AND SOCIETY

The Mind and Life Institute can be found on http://www.mindandlife.org/

Founded in 1987 it was largely the inspiration of the current Dalai Lama. Its aim is to bring together contemplative practitioners and the academic community to investigate contemplative states and their value. Although it has a largely Buddhist orientation, it is not confined to Buddhists.

One of their current offerings is the 2015 Mind and Life Summer Research Institute (MLSRI) to be held from 13-19 June 2015 at the Garrison Institute, Garrison NY. The topic is ‘Fear and Trust in Self and Society’. (For anyone interested, the application deadline is 18 February,) The Institute says:

“This is is a week-long program to advance collaborative research among scientists, contemplative scholars, other humanities scholars, and contemplative practitioners, based on a process of inquiry and dialogue. With this unique program, we are not only nurturing a new generation of scientists interested in exploring the influence of contemplative practice and meditation on the mind, but are also fostering the development of new fields of research collectively referred to as the ‘contemplative sciences.’ This year’s institute will be held June 13-19, 2015 and will be located at the Garrison Institute in Garrison, New York, 50 miles north of New York City in the Hudson River Valley.

“The 2015 MLSRI will be devoted to examining fear, trust, and social relationships. Presentations and discussions will draw on research in both the sciences and the humanities, including neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, religion, and contemplative studies. Over the week, we will explore biological and experiential aspects of fear, its influence on our cognition and emotion, and its expression in both healthy states and clinical disorders. Critically, we’ll also be examining the role of trust and interpersonal connection as a counterpoint to fear, so we will also address the protective functions of secure attachment and compassion. Finally, we will ask how contemplative practices might be used to help us work with fear and cultivate social bonds.

“We encourage interested scholars to apply as either a Research Fellow or Senior Investigator:

  • Research Fellow candidates include students in contemplative traditions, as well as undergraduate students, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows in relevant academic fields.
  • Senior Investigator candidates are established researchers, faculty, teachers, scholars, or practitioners in a relevant field.

“We are now accepting applications online. Applications close on February 18, and applicants will be notified of selection by April 3. There is a $45 application fee. The all-inclusive program cost is $525 for Research Fellows and $775 for Senior Investigators. For more information, please visit our event website: MLSRI 2015.”

Although I sometimes worry about topics like this becoming over-academic, I like the way in which contemplative inquiry is being given increasing attention through initiatives such as  the Mind and Life Institute.

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