Rupert Sheldrake, PhD
January 24th, 2018
Temenos Academy, London


Science and Spiritual Practices

Transformative experiences and their effects on our bodies, brains and health

In this talk Dr Sheldrake summarizes the latest scientific research on what happens when we take part in many common spiritual practices.

Book cover for Science and Spiritual Practices: Transformative experiences and their effects on our bodies, brains and health
  • Meditation
  • Gratitude
  • Connecting with nature
  • Relating to plants
  • Rituals
  • Singing and chanting
  • Pilgrimage and holy places.

The effects of spiritual practices are now being investigated scientifically as never before, and many studies have shown that religious and spiritual practices generally make people happier and healthier.

The Temenos Academy

Each year the Academy runs up to 100 lectures and seminars, and occasional film screenings and readings, offering education in philosophy and the arts in the light of the sacred traditions of east and West.

Transcript

00:17
hmm Thank You Nik it's great to be here again.
00:22
I love the Temenos Academy and I think it's one of the most important although
00:26
one of the smallest educational institutions in our country. I'm talking this evening
00:32
on science and spiritual practices, and this may seem an odd
00:39
combination, but we're in an extreme extremely new situation at the moment
00:46
where this becomes unusually relevant. Recent surveys have shown that more than
00:53
half the population of Britain described themselves as having no religion, and
00:57
until recently there's probably no society where most people would have had
01:02
no religion, no unifying theme to their existence. And yet this doesn't
01:11
mean that most people are atheists. Atheists in recent surveys are about 13%
01:15
of the population. The majority of people who say they have no religion still have
01:21
an interest in spiritual matters and often have spiritual practices. A lot of
01:28
people call themselves spiritual but not religious. There has now been a lot of
01:34
scientific studies of the effect of religious and spiritual practices. In
01:39
2012 the monumental Handbook of Religion and Health came out summarizing lot of
01:48
2,800 papers published on this subject. Since the year 2001 there have been many
01:56
peer-reviewed scientific studies. Now 4% of them showed harmful effects of
02:02
religion. Those were mostly for people who were in states of great religious
02:05
conflict, who felt exceptionally guilty and belonged to religions that made them
02:10
feel even guiltier, but the vast majority of these studies showed very beneficial
02:16
effects. People who had religious and spiritual practices in brief were
02:21
happier healthier and lived longer. And there's now been a lot of studies of
02:28
specific spiritual practices. In my book I discuss seven different practices and
02:35
the scientific research on them. I also summarize simple ways in which anyone
02:40
can try them for themselves. They are meditation, gratitude, connecting with the
02:49
more than human world, relating to plants, singing, chanting and music rituals, and
03:01
pilgrimage. These are all spiritual practices which are part of every
03:08
religion, but they can also be practiced by people who are not part of religion.
03:13
We're in a new situation as I said. I can't talk about all of them this evening but
03:21
I'm going to talk a start first with gratitude which is always a good place
03:25
to begin. There have now been many studies by positive psychologists on
03:33
what makes people happy. In the last 20 or 30 years there's been a rise of a new
03:39
branch of psychology called positive psychology, and why it's called that is
03:44
because it's looking on the positive side of things. Until then almost all
03:49
psychology had been negative psychology, in the sense it was about what makes
03:53
people miserable. And this is of course what psychotherapists deal with all the
03:58
time, so it's not surprising this was the main focus for people like Freud.
04:03
But positive psychologists asked what makes people happy and one of the things they
04:08
found, one of their most convincing results, is that people who are grateful
04:13
are much happier than those who aren't. The opposite of being grateful is to
04:18
take things for granted or feel a sense of entitlement, and complain. People who
04:26
are grateful on the other hand give thanks for what they've got and they're
04:31
measurably happier.
04:34
Critics of this work said, well of course they're happier, you know, of
04:38
course they're grateful, they're happier but they're grateful because they're
04:41
happy and, but they tried to find out whether they're happy because they're
04:46
grateful. So they've done a whole series of experiments which are part of the
04:54
literature of positive psychology. I'll just summarize one of them. There are
04:57
lots of them but in one of them they took groups of people and divided them
05:02
into three groups at random. One group were asked to write down all the things
05:07
that had upset them in the previous week the hassles. A second wrote down a story
05:12
about something that happened in the previous week, and the third group wrote
05:16
down the things for which they were grateful in the previous week. They
05:21
tested them at various periods afterwards. The people who'd done the
05:24
gratefulness exercise were measurably happier than those that had done the
05:28
other exercises. And the gratefulness exercise that had the greatest effect
05:34
was writing a letter of thanks to somebody who had helped you in your life
05:38
that you'd never properly acknowledged and going to that person and reading the
05:43
letter to them. People who did that were measurably happier for two months
05:47
afterwards. So this shows something that in a sense proves the obvious. I mean my
05:53
mother and my grandmother both said to me
05:55
"count your blessings". It turns out they were right, that this is a practice which
06:01
has been part of every culture. All religions have thanks and gratitude as
06:06
part of their regular practice. Many of the Psalms for example in the Jewish and
06:11
Christian tradition, songs of praise and thanks. Many hymns are songs of thanks.
06:19
So this has been known to many people for a very very long time but now
06:26
it's got the scientific imprimatur of showing that it has statistically
06:31
significant effects. Now meditation is probably the most widespread spiritual
06:38
practice that's emerged in the last 30 or 40 years. Meditation has always been
06:44
part of religious traditions. In Hinduism in
06:48
in Christianity in contemplative prayer in monasteries and convents and in
06:55
Sufism and in other religious traditions as well. It became fashionable in the
07:05
1970s and that's when the scientific investigation of meditation began.
07:12
In 1974 Dr. Herbert Benson at Harvard Medical School started looking at the
07:18
effects of meditation because a lot of his students were doing it – mainly
07:21
Transcendental Meditation following the Maharishi – and he wanted to find out what
07:30
was going on. He tried it himself. He found it was really helpful he did a lot
07:35
of physiological tests. People who meditated tended to have lower levels of
07:41
stress. Their blood pressure dropped and it involved what he called the relaxation
07:46
response. We have two sides to our autonomic or unconscious nervous system:
07:53
the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. Now the
07:58
sympathetic nervous system isn't really to do with sympathy, it's to do with
08:02
fight or flight reactions, to do with the heart beating faster so you can run away
08:07
or fight, but many people who suffer from chronic anxiety are in a state of fear
08:13
all the time and have an activation of the sympathetic nervous system.
08:18
And Benson showed that during meditation this was greatly reduced and the
08:24
parasympathetic nervous system became predominant, and that's much more to do
08:28
with relaxation. That's why he called it the relaxation response.
08:33
He studied many other physiological aspects of meditation and looked at the
08:39
effects on it: people who meditate tend to sleep better, have less stress in
08:44
their lives; they're less depressed; there's now many studies that show
08:48
meditation relieves depression or protects against it, which is why you can
08:53
now get prescriptions for meditation on the NHS, because it's been clinically
08:57
proven to help people with mild or moderate depression;
09:02
it's as effective or more effective than a course of Prozac or other
09:07
antidepressants; and more importantly, from the point of view of the NHS, it's
09:11
cheaper. So meditation is now widely available. The other kind that was
09:18
developed in the 1970s by John Kabat-Zinn –
09:21
also in Massachusetts, also a medical man – was mindfulness meditation, based on the
09:27
Buddhist techniques of vipassana. Well
09:32
Bentsen worked with mantra based meditation, Kabat-Zinn with meditation
09:37
based on observing the breathing or feelings in the body, sensations in the
09:42
body, without a mantra. And these are the two kinds which are now so widely
09:46
practiced today. More than eighteen million people in America practice
09:51
meditation now. It's taught all over Britain too. More than a hundred members of
09:56
parliament meditate regularly at Westminster, and so this is a very very
10:03
widespread practice. How many people here as a matter of interest meditate or have
10:08
meditated? Well that's almost everybody: must be at least 95 percent, so I don't
10:15
need to tell you about meditation because you know about it from your own
10:19
experience, but there have now been studies on the brains of people who meditate.
10:26
Regular meditators have different nervous connections from those
10:31
that don't. Certain bits of the brain get bigger or stronger; not surprising really
10:35
if you lift weights biceps get bigger and if you meditate regularly
10:39
connections between different areas of the brain get bigger.
10:43
There are anatomical as well as physiological differences, so here's a
10:49
spiritual practice very widespread, most people do it without really thinking
10:54
about what it means. But in all the traditions from which it came, the reason
11:01
people did meditation was not so they could succeed better in love and
11:06
business the reason or deal with the stresses of
11:09
modern urban life. They were doing it because they believed
11:12
that by contacting or becoming aware of the ground of consciousness, the
11:18
ground of consciousness in their own mind, they were coming into contact with
11:23
the ground of consciousness of the whole universe, of everything. In the
11:28
Hindu formulation Atman is Brahman the ultimate consciousness is reflected in
11:33
the minds of everyone, every conscious being. One common metaphor is it's like
11:38
the the moon reflected in buckets of water. Every bucket of water reflects the
11:43
moon differently. They look as if they've got lots of different moons but they're
11:47
all reflections of the same one and that's how they think of consciousness.
11:52
And so Buddhists and Hindus think that meditation connects you to the ground of
11:58
consciousness itself out; so do Sufis and so to Christians, but many modern
12:04
atheists also meditate. Sam Harris for example one of the new atheists,
12:10
author of The End of Faith. He's a very militant atheist has now
12:16
become an ardent meditator and is now giving online meditation courses. Susan
12:22
Blackmore one of our prominent public atheists is also a keen meditator and
12:27
advocates it as a spiritual practice. The interesting thing is that these both of
12:34
them call themselves secular Buddhists. They reject the religion of Buddhism
12:39
they think the Dalai Lama's not as good as secular Buddhists because he's still
12:44
too superstitious, believes in reincarnation and things like that. They
12:49
think the meditation is just happening inside their head and is like a mental
12:53
gym inside the brain and it's all inside the head. Now you can do meditation and
12:58
believe that but the real reason for it in all these traditions is much
13:03
greater than that and I myself suspect that people who start off as atheist
13:07
meditators through their own experience may find themselves challenging their
13:13
Atheist worldview, they may find that it really doesn't work so well for them
13:17
after a while because their inexperience may lead them beyond it.
13:26
In all religions there's a practice of rituals and this is another spiritual
13:33
practice. Every religion and indeed almost all cultures have rituals and one
13:41
category of rituals are about the nature of the social group and the story that
13:47
holds it together and these rituals reenact the stories of origins or the
13:53
myths of origin. One example is the Jewish Passover ritual. When the 10th
14:01
curse was visited on Egypt by God destroying the firstborn of the
14:06
Egyptians and of their cattle the Jewish people were passed over because Moses
14:12
told them to kill a lamb and smear the blood on the doorway of their house and
14:16
said they were passed over and they escaped. The next day they began their
14:21
historic journey through the wilderness to the promised land. And this crucial
14:26
event in Jewish history is reenacted every year in the Passover festival with
14:31
lamb and is a crucial ritual for Jewish people. It identifies them as Jewish, by
14:39
doing it you become Jewish, you become part of that tradition and through doing
14:42
it connect back through all those who've done it over the generations to the
14:46
original Passover. The Christian Holy Communion itself a Passover dinner in
14:53
the same way connects its present participants with each other with all
14:57
who've done it before right back to the first holy communion the Last Supper of
15:03
Jesus with his disciples. The American Thanksgiving dinner a national ritual
15:08
re-enacts the Thanksgiving dinner of the original settlers in New England who
15:14
gave thanks for their surviving their first year in the new world and being
15:19
American it has turkey as a key ingredient, an American bird unknown in
15:23
Europe until people settled in America. By taking part in it people affirm their
15:30
identity as Americans and connect with all those who've gone before
15:34
right back to the first Thanksgiving dinner. Now in many rituals it's believed
15:40
that for the ritual to work or to be effective it must be done in the right
15:44
way, the same way it's been done before or very similar way and for that reason
15:49
many rituals involve liturgical languages, ancient languages that are no
15:54
longer spoken, like Brahminic rituals in India involves Sanskrit. The liturgy of
16:00
the Russian Orthodox Church involves old Slavonic. The liturgy of the Coptic
16:05
Church ancient Egyptian the only form in which it survives today. People think
16:11
that they have to be done the same way in order to work. Why should that be? Well,
16:18
the relevant science here is the idea of morphic resonance. This is my own
16:25
hypothesis and for those who are not familiar with it I'll give a very brief
16:29
morphic resonance in a nutshell summary. Morphic resonance is the idea there's a
16:36
kind of memory in nature. This is an unfamiliar idea in the West but it's
16:40
completely familiar in Hinduism and Buddhism both of which take memory and
16:45
nature for granted. So in that sense it's more in accordance with Oriental
16:50
philosophies than Western philosophy. In its wider sense this hypothesis
16:56
suggests that the so-called laws of nature are more like habits. Things
17:01
happened the way they do because they happened that way before. The universe is
17:05
not governed by eternal laws that were all laid down at the moment of the Big
17:09
Bang and have stayed the same ever since but rather by evolving habits or
17:14
regularities. There's a kind of memory in each kind of thing: each kind of thing
17:18
has a collective memory; each kind of crystal has a collective memory of all
17:23
similar crystals in the past; each rat has a collective memory, tunes into
17:29
a collective memory of all rats in the past; each spider of a particular species
17:34
as it begins spinning its orb web tunes into the experience and the web design
17:41
of all its predecessors. Much of inheritance from this
17:46
point-of-view is not carried in the genes is transmitted by morphic
17:50
resonance on the basis of similarity. Morphic resonance applies to all
17:55
self-organizing systems. It doesn't apply to non self-organizing systems like
18:00
tables, chairs, computers and cars. Those are put together in factories, but
18:06
crystals, cells, molecules, plants and animals, flocks of birds, ecosystems,
18:11
planets, galaxies – all organize themselves and I think all have a kind of
18:15
collective memory. So the key thing here is the similarity.
18:24
I think the most radical aspect of morphic resonance is the implications for our
18:31
own memories. What I'm suggesting is that all memory works on the basis of morphic
18:37
resonance except for mechanical kinds like computers with hard drives and so
18:44
on, and I think our own memory depends on morphic resonance. I think we resonate
18:50
with ourselves in the past when we remember something. In other words, I
18:54
don't think our memories are stored inside our brains – that's the
18:58
conventional materialist view. They must be in the brain; where else could they be?
19:03
For most people it's just common sense, they must be in the brain. But more than
19:07
a century of research trying to find memories in brains has been
19:11
extraordinarily unsuccessful. What people have found is that certain patterns of
19:16
activity occur in brains when memories are laid down, when they're being formed,
19:22
and similar patterns occur when they're being retrieved but in between they
19:27
vanish and I think the reason they vanish is they're not there. I think
19:31
they're not there anymore than the traces of what you watched on television
19:36
last night are inside your television set.
19:39
I think our brains are more like TV sets than video recorders. Now this in
19:45
itself has a lot of implications for spiritual practices because if your
19:50
memories are stored in your brain then when you die they're all wiped out at
19:54
one stroke. That's the end; that's why materialists like this argument:
19:59
it refutes all religious beliefs about a survival of bodily death at one stroke.
20:04
Memory is in the brain, they're wiped out at death, therefore there's no memory
20:09
surviving death, no possibility of survival of bodily death either through
20:14
reincarnation, which must involve a transfer of memory or habit, or in
20:19
purgatory which must involve some kind of memory. Or to take an extreme Protestant
20:25
view of the last judgment, where you go to sleep and you wake up again to and
20:31
appear before your maker on the last day. Well if you've forgotten who you are and
20:35
what you've done it would not be a very meaningful experience. All these
20:40
theories presuppose the survival of memory. I'm suggesting that the
20:46
memories are not wiped out by the death of the brain because that's not where
20:49
they're stored. Now the question of whether they can be retrieved in some
20:52
other way is another question, it's an open question, but from the
20:57
materialist point of view it's not an open question, it's a closed question. Now
21:03
coming back to rituals, the point about rituals is that people do them as
21:07
similarly as possible because they think that's the right way to connect across
21:12
time with those who've done them before and from the point of view of morphic
21:17
resonance that's exactly what's happening. The more similarly they're
21:20
done to the way they've done before – the right words, chants, phrases, gestures,
21:25
smells, food etc – the more they'll tune in to those who've done them in the
21:30
past. There'll be literally a presence of the past through the performance of the
21:34
ritual which is exactly what people think is happening when they do these
21:37
rituals. So they make great sense from the point of view of morphic resonance.
21:41
Now this of course is a controversial theory. Most of my scientific colleagues
21:47
still believe in eternal laws of nature but they do so not because they've
21:53
thought long and hard about it, usually because they haven't, and it's just a
21:59
habit of thought. There's another kind of ritual I want to talk about which has to
22:06
do with rites of passage. Many cultures have rites of passage,
22:11
particularly for adolescents as they pass from childhood to adulthood, and
22:16
many rights of passage involve trials by ordeal. People going to the edge of death
22:23
and then coming back again. Many of them involved the imagery of death and
22:27
rebirth. In some cultures these rites of passage, particularly ones for boys, are
22:34
ones that involve extreme physical suffering and challenge. Native Americans
22:41
have vision quests where people fast and go into the wilderness for days in great
22:45
danger and some die. The Mithraic rituals in the Roman period involved rites of
22:55
passage which brought people close to death. The Roman Emperor Commodus was
23:01
a kind of Mithraic priest and he insisted on doing some of these
23:07
initiations himself officiating at them and he went too far he actually killed
23:12
one aspirant, Mithraic person who was being initiated, they went they go to the
23:20
edge. Well we know now a lot more than we did before about near-death experiences.
23:27
As actual experiences these have been widely studied in medicine because
23:32
nowadays so many people who would have died in the past no longer die, thanks to
23:37
coronary resuscitation techniques and modern medicine. So near-death
23:42
experiences are now far more common than they ever were before and they've been
23:46
documented and studied in great scientific detail. When people nearly
23:51
died in a near-death experience they often find themselves floating out of
23:56
their body, often looking down on their body, and see nurses and doctors working
24:01
on their body, and then they often find themselves going through a long dark
24:06
tunnel and emerging into the light where they find themselves in a state
24:12
of love and bliss and often meet loved ones, departed loved ones, or spiritual
24:18
beings, or beings of light. These are very well documented and many
24:23
people have rather similar experiences. It's not just the experience which is so
24:30
important and interesting for those who have them but the effect it has on their
24:34
life thereafter. Most people who've had near-death experiences say that it's
24:39
changed their life, that they've died and they've been reborn and that they've
24:44
lost the fear of death and many of them change the way they live: they start
24:48
doing more to help other people and they take on a more spiritual, their life
24:53
takes on a more spiritual tone. Now in the light of this knowledge we now have
25:00
about near-death experiences, looking back a lot of these initiation rituals
25:05
make much better sense. The one that I think is thrown into sharp relief by
25:12
this is the central initiation ritual in the Christian tradition, namely baptism.
25:19
John the Baptist was extremely popular at the time when in in in Palestine and
25:26
he baptized people in the Jordan on quite a large scale this was a mass
25:30
movement. People showed up at the Jordan, John initiated them through baptism, he
25:38
held them under the water and they then later said they died and they'd been
25:43
born again. Well what was going on? Was this just symbolic of death by drowning
25:50
or was it something rather more. I personally think it was rather more. Why
25:57
have something just symbolic when you can have the real thing, only takes a
26:01
couple of minutes longer, and it's far far more effective. So I think he was
26:09
a drowner and
26:12
and I imagine that people would queue up on the banks of the Jordan and
26:18
he probably had a team of helpers to help the resuscitation process, and one
26:22
after another would be held under and then they'd go off and I suppose he'd
26:26
say next please. He did it on a large scale. Jesus himself
26:30
was baptized by John and it was a moment of spiritual illumination for Jesus,
26:37
the very beginning of his public ministry. Straight after it he went
26:41
into the wilderness for forty days of fasting, a kind of Vision Quest, so this
26:48
was a fundamental right of passage. But by the second or third
26:54
century in the early church people had more or less given up baptism by total
26:59
immersion because people were no longer being converted themselves. It was their
27:04
children who were born into Christian families and they wanted their babies
27:07
protected so infant baptism through the sprinkling of water began. Then it was
27:12
just symbolic. Interestingly in the ferment of the Reformation in the 16th
27:18
century one of the most radical Protestant groups were the anabaptists
27:24
"Ana" means again: the anabaptists were people who reinstated adult baptism by
27:31
total immersion. And these were people who were extremely radical. They were a
27:36
terrible problem for the authorities in both Catholic and Protestant countries.
27:40
They were persecuted, they were dismissed as enthusiasts which was a terrible term
27:46
of abuse – enthusiasm means filled with God – and they went round being
27:52
filled with God saying they died and they'd been born again and they'd seen
27:55
the light and this was an awful nuisance to the Anglican Church and the Roman
27:59
Church and they were persecuted and many of them went to America as a result. Well
28:04
there are a great many of them still. They gave rise to Mennonite and Baptist
28:11
churches which still exist today and which still alone among most, well a few
28:16
other Christian denominations have baptism by total immersion, but they're
28:20
the ones that preserved it. I think that they rediscovered the power of this
28:25
initiation through death and rebirth. And of course both they and John the Baptist
28:31
were doing this before the days of health and safety legislation and
28:37
also before the days of liability litigation and they may have lost a few.
28:42
But it was an incredibly powerful rite of passage, and still today it's the
28:49
Baptist's of all Christian groups who are the ones who go around talking about being
28:53
born again and seeing the light and dying and being born again. I think for
29:00
many in that tradition it's a real experience, for many of the people
29:03
probably today they're much more careful about how long they hold them under and
29:09
but there again is a ritual a rite of passage where I think modern science has
29:15
some light to shed on it through studies of near-death experiences. Now singing
29:23
and chanting are a spiritual practice found in all traditions and they have powerful
29:32
effects on the mind and body. My wife Jill Purce has been teaching
29:38
singing and chanting in group contexts for decades now and has shown I think
29:45
totally convincingly how people from many religious traditions or from none can
29:51
learn and benefit from doing these practices. Chanting together brings
29:57
people into resonance with each other and if they chant mantras then they come
30:03
into resonance with all those who've chanted them before. Mantras are a way of
30:06
tuning in by morphic resonance to all those who chanted their phrase before
30:11
this is something Jill explores in her workshops and and gives a direct
30:17
experience of. When people sing together in choirs they often come into
30:25
physiological synchrony and this is something that Dr. Guy Hayward, who's
30:29
here this evening, who works with me as my postdoctoral research fellow, who
30:36
did for his PhD thesis at Cambridge on the physiological and other effects of
30:42
singing in choirs. Many people find that singing together is extremely beneficial
30:48
and that's why so many people join choirs and there's a resurgence of
30:53
community choirs in Britain at the moment, and again this is something that can
30:59
be done in a religious context as in church choirs or in a secular context as
31:06
in community choirs, but in both cases people are singing and chanting together
31:11
and coming into resonance with each other.
31:18
the practice of pilgrimage is common to all religious traditions Muslims go to
31:25
Mecca or Medina or Jerusalem or to the shrines of Sufi Saints Hindus go to
31:31
Mount Kailash or to the many temples in India or to sacred groves or holy rivers
31:37
like the Ganges the they and Christians in the early Middle Ages when primary to
31:47
Jerusalem but then a great many other places of Christian pilgrimage grew up
31:52
some of them were ancient sacred sites which were Christianized and became part
31:58
of the Christian tradition others were places where saints were buried or who'd
32:04
received visions or where their relics were kept and so by the Middle Ages the
32:09
whole of Europe was criss crossed with pilgrimage routes England was as as were
32:17
all other countries and these were enormous Liem portent they were many
32:23
people didn't have holidays in our present sense but if they wanted to
32:27
travel they went on pilgrimages and this is something that still happens in India
32:32
I lived in India for seven years and one of the things that impressed me very
32:35
much in India was how many pilgrims were and how important as practice was for
32:41
those who went on them and these journeys were in India some went by
32:49
train and bus but many of the traditional pilgrims go
32:52
foot and these journeys are kind of transformative journeys it's not just
32:58
like going for a walk there's a goal a destination to the pilgrimage I went on
33:04
quite a few pilgrimages in India myself and one of the things that I learned is
33:09
that when you arrive at the sacred place like a temple you don't just go straight
33:13
in you walk around it first in India clockwise the direction of the Sun to
33:20
make at the center before you go in well here in England there were pilgrimages
33:27
to Canterbury Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is a series of stories told by pilgrims
33:34
on their way to Canterbury from London around 1380 there was a shrine of our
33:41
lady of Walsingham the Black Madonna in Norfolk Glastonbury Abbey was a major
33:45
place at pilgrimage Hales Abbey in in Gloucestershire and many others but this
33:52
all came to a halt at the Reformation the Reformers disapproved of pilgrimage
34:02
they were scholars and they looked in the Bible to see if there was anything
34:05
about Canterbury or Walsingham and of course there wasn't so they thought
34:09
these must just be pagan accretions at which in a way they were so they
34:15
abolished pilgrimage Thomas Cromwell in 1538 issued an injunction against
34:21
pilgrimage and pilgrims were barred from going to Canterbury the shrines were
34:26
desecrated the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham was desecrated the jewels
34:31
were confiscated by the King and the image of the Black Madonna was dragged
34:35
from it the shrine and burned in a public bonfire this was deeply traumatic
34:40
for many people in England and pilgrimage was also suppressed in other
34:46
process in countries like North Germany and Scandinavia this I think left a
34:53
great void in the minds of the English and because the urge to travel is very
35:01
deep in our nature we're all descended from hunter
35:04
gatherers and hunter-gatherers have to travel around the countryside to follow
35:11
the animals they're hunting and to find the fruits and other things they're
35:14
gathering you don't get all this just arriving all around you if you stay in
35:20
one place so all hunter-gatherers are no magic as the Sami people are today who
35:25
follow the herds of reindeer in in in the Arctic and as the few remaining
35:33
hunter-gatherer societies still are the Australian Aborigines as they went on
35:38
their annual rounds sang the songs of the places they
35:43
visited the song lines and this was just the way they lived so it's very deep in
35:49
human nature when settled agriculture began ten thousand years ago or so and
35:58
in Britain only about five thousand years ago people settled and with
36:03
cultivating animals and plants but these urges to go to holy places remained and
36:09
our great megalithic sites in Britain like Stonehenge and at Avebury were
36:17
places were not temples at the centre of cities they were places where people
36:21
would have gone for festivals at the summer solstice and at other times so
36:26
they weren't vast settlements like they were in Sumeria and so on whether the
36:31
Templar was at the center of the city they were ceremonial centers to which
36:35
people went for festivals and those migrations the festivals were a kind of
36:40
pilgrimage the same happened in Athens where there was a pilgrimage every seven
36:44
years for the pan Athena Festival on the Acropolis where colonists from all the
36:49
Athenian colonists came back to Athens and the procession at the end was a kind
36:55
of formalized migration up to the Acropolis so these these go very very
37:05
deep these patterns in our nature and when the English were deprived of
37:10
pilgrimages it left a void which was replaced or partially replaced a few
37:16
generations later when the invented tourism and I think tourism is
37:22
best seen as a form of secularized pilgrimage tourists still go to the
37:28
great temples and cathedrals and sacred places of the world when they go to
37:34
Egypt they visit the temples and they go to Paris they go to Natura Dom when they
37:38
come to London they go to Westminster Abbey tourists are still going to the
37:43
great sacred places but when they get there they can't kneel down and say a
37:47
prayer or light a candle because they're supposed to be modern educated people
37:51
who have risen above all that kind of superstition so they have to pretend
37:56
they're interested in art history so guides spring up to tell them facts
38:02
which go in one ear and come out the other and which isn't really why they're
38:07
there at all so I think actually even better than secular pilgrimage I like
38:13
the phrase of will Parsons who with guy Hayward is a co-founder of the British
38:18
pilgrimage trust he calls it frustrated pilgrimage and I think one of the big
38:24
paradigm shifts in the modern world is back from tourism to pilgrimage there
38:29
are already various groups leading pilgrimages rather than tours and I
38:37
think all of us can can do something in this way when we visit ancient sacred
38:44
places and try and make it a pilgrimage so you at least give thanks for being
38:49
there and pray when you're there it's easier in cathedrals now because they
38:54
will have candles that you can light and candle racks where you can light them so
38:59
it's particularly easy here in Europe to do that so I think this is a very big
39:08
shift that any one of us can make we can also make our journeys into pilgrimages
39:14
I myself when I visit a new city or town or wherever I am in India in Britain
39:21
wherever I try to go at first as soon after I arrived as I can to the sacred
39:27
place at the in India to the main temple in an
39:32
English city to the Cathedral or European city in a village to the parish
39:36
church and then light a candle or say a prayer connect with the sacred place
39:43
first making even ordinary journeys into pilgrimages it makes a huge difference I
39:49
find if by connecting with the sacred heart of a place and it makes a
39:55
completely different feeling of the relationship to being there here in
40:00
London many people are not aware of the great power spot at the very center of
40:05
City at the very center of the English state which is in Westminster Abbey the
40:13
shrine of st. Edward the Confessor who was for a while the patron saint of
40:18
England before st. George took over st. Edward the Confessor died in 1066 he was
40:25
succeeded by Harold and then was the Norman Conquest the Westminster Abbey
40:30
was built around his shrine by King Henry the 3rd and the shrine is the
40:34
centre of the Abbey it's behind the high altar where the monarchs are crowned
40:39
it's the doors from how to enter into the shrine the central focus of the
40:45
whole Abbey where the tomb of Edward the Confessor is still there it was the one
40:52
tomb which survived the Reformation the bones are still in it and you can pray
40:57
about that those niches you can big enough to get into an eel you sort of
41:01
burrow into this medieval tomb and the place we burrow in has hollowed out
41:06
we're knees have gone for centuries it's extraordinarily powerful place and every
41:11
year the there is a pilgrimage to Westminster Abbey the Saints Day $0.04
41:16
Edwards around October the 14th on the nearest Saturday there's a National
41:21
pilgrimage the Abbey's closed to tourists and at groups of pilgrims gave
41:26
from all over this year our vicar in Hampstead a new vicar
41:32
announced that he was going to go on this pilgrimage on Saturday October the
41:37
13th last year and just asked if any would like
41:40
with him and about 30 of us did I hadn't heard of this pilgrimage before that and
41:47
it was an amazing experience arriving there were groups of people on foot
41:51
converging from all over London some had come from further afield than just walk
41:56
the last bit must have been about 2,000 people in the Abbey that morning and it
42:00
went on all day and there was a son Eucharist with astonishing music and a
42:05
really powerful occasion and then anyone could file past the tomb and pray at the
42:11
tomb have had with the Confessor there's an amazing experience and just getting
42:18
to Westminster Abbey is an amazing experience another of the projects I do
42:22
with dr. guy Hayward is we have a website called choral evensong org where
42:29
you can find the time of this wonderful service that happens every day in our
42:33
cathedrals throughout the land in most Cambridge colleges where every day
42:40
there's 45 minutes of exquisitely beautiful singing and chanting different
42:44
music every day absolutely free 5:00 p.m.
42:47
Westminster Abbey or st. Paul's or southern Cathedral well there's been a
42:57
remarkable revival of pilgrimage in Europe in the last few decades I think
43:02
it one reason for this is because so many people feel a kind of spiritual
43:07
void and they're on a spiritual quest and pilgrimage is an extraordinary way
43:11
extraordinary direct way of expressing a spiritual quest you're literally on a
43:16
journey with a sacred destination and when you go with the intention when you
43:22
reach the holy place of giving thanks or asking for some benefit or a blessing go
43:29
with an intention it makes it different from just going for a walk the most
43:36
famous pilgrimage in Europe is Santiago de Compostela in Spain and that was the
43:43
biggest pilgrimage in Europe in the Middle Ages but it more or less fizzled
43:47
out in the 17th 18th 19th trees partly because the number of
43:54
pilgrims from Northern Europe dried up as a result of the Protestant
43:58
Reformation then at the French Revolution pilgrimage was banned in
44:02
France the in 1793 during the reign of terror they proclaimed reason the state
44:09
religion and abolished Christianity not Redang became a temple of Reason and
44:15
monasteries was suppressed and se was pilgrimage as in the Russian Revolution
44:20
following the Bolshevik Revolution there was an attempt to abolish Christianity
44:25
entirely and execute priests or send them to Siberia and suppress all
44:31
pilgrimage well although there were all these attacks on pilgrimage in the
44:39
1980's a number of activists in Spain tried to restore the pilgrimage and they
44:45
started by building up the infrastructure in the Middle Ages the
44:49
monasteries provided the infrastructure where people could sleep and have meals
44:53
on their on their journey so they established a series of places where
44:58
pilgrim could sleep and eat on the way to Santiago in 1987 when these wendice
45:06
infrastructure was in place and they had already been talking about it for
45:09
several years about a thousand people walked to Santiago last year it was
45:15
about 300 thousand lots of people go from all over Europe all over the world
45:21
many of them are atheists or agnostics it's not just devout Catholics who do
45:26
that do that pilgrimage and it's helped to trigger off this revival of
45:32
pilgrimage which is going on all over Europe ten years ago the great
45:37
pilgrimage in Norway from Oslo to Trondheim Cathedral whereas the shrine
45:41
of st. Olaf the patron saint in Norway that great route over the mountains was
45:48
reopened by the Crown Prince of Norway and it's now become a major focus of
45:52
pilgrimage for all Scandinavia there's a revival of pilgrimage going on in many
45:59
different countries in Europe and here in Britain the British pilgrimage trust
46:05
is is the main body which is organizing this revival one of the things that's
46:11
happening is to re-establish a flagship root and iconic route from Winchester or
46:18
Southampton to Canterbury about 18 days much we're going over the South Downs
46:24
through extraordinary beautiful countryside and establishing places
46:30
where people can stay and and get food and so on so that it's possible for us
46:34
to have a kind of Camino here in England right now anyone who wants to do a long
46:39
pilgrimage usually says oh I'm ascared to Spain but there's no need to go to
46:42
Spain you can do it here and on the British pilgrimage Trust website there
46:49
is now a directory of more than 30 different pilgrimage routes throughout
46:53
Britain which anyone can do it's surprising how many of there are last
46:59
year somebody told me about one that I actually went on myself which was too
47:06
little getting in Huntingdon shareware TS Eliot is the title of one of the Four
47:11
Quartets named after a community they are founded
47:15
in the 17th century by Nicholas Ferrara and this was a local pilgrimage led by a
47:20
priest from Peterborough Cathedral about 70 or 80 people on it went started at
47:25
the village church where George Herbert used to be vicar the great 17th century
47:29
poet through the through the lanes and villagers to little getting itself as a
47:37
wonderful pilgrimage and wonderful to be able to go on it and I myself have
47:44
recently been doing a series of pilgrimages with my godson I have a
47:49
godson who's now aged 17 when he was 14 I tried to think what can I do with this
47:55
young man for his birthday and his birthday's in June and I didn't want to
48:02
give him stuff because everyone's got too much stuff and I try to avoid giving
48:07
stuff now I give experiences and so at that stage guy and girl were just
48:12
starting up this new pilgrimage the exploring the routes to Canterbury
48:16
so I said to him well what I offer you for your birthday is a pilgrimage to
48:22
Canterbury I said we walk the last eight miles or so we take a train to a small
48:26
village called Chatham and we walk through the fields and meadows and
48:30
orchards and woods to Canterbury Cathedral I said then we walk round the
48:37
Cathedral circumambulated we go in and like candles and say our prayers for our
48:44
intentions then we have a cream tea then we go to choral evensong and then we
48:49
come home on the high speed train would you like to do it and I didn't know what
48:54
he'd say but without hesitation he said yes and we had a most blissful day and
48:59
then it worked so well that the next year we went to Ely Cathedral we went to
49:05
water beach on the train and walked the last eight or nine miles along the
49:08
towpath of the cam similar formula shrine of st. Harold reader cream tea
49:14
choral evensong last the next year we did Lincoln walking along the Lincoln
49:21
Ridge and the most recent one last June was Wells Cathedral walking through the
49:26
fields to that wonderful Cathedral of Wells since there's at least 50
49:31
cathedrals in britainís could run and run as a as a project and I mentioned
49:38
this I did a talk with the comedian Russell Brand recently for his podcast
49:45
which is on YouTube and on his podcast site he asked me to do this because
49:51
Russell Brand is now on a kind of spiritual mission he recovered from
49:56
heroin addiction and alcohol addiction and sex addiction and several other
50:01
addictions with the help of the 12-step program and he's recently written a book
50:06
called recovery freedom from our addictions and is now going around
50:11
saying with the whole of our society has got stuck in and in this kind of
50:15
materialist way and there has to be a way out from rediscovering the spirit so
50:20
he's become a kind of evangelist for a spiritual path at the end of our
50:26
one-hour discussion I mentioned the pilgrimage and going to
50:31
Canterbury and he was loved the idea going to country and having a cream tea
50:35
and said engaged choral evensong it said ended up with me and choral work Russell
50:39
Brand decided to go to choral evensong together at Canterbury following a
50:44
pilgrimage since then emails pour into my inbox I
50:49
get several a week from people say just heard your thing with Russell Brand can
50:55
I come too so if we do do it it could turn into quite a big event anyway this
51:05
is a spiritual practice again which is open to everybody and in fact that's one
51:13
of the key things of the British pilgrimage trusted open to all as one of
51:17
their slogans and there are other big slogan is bring your own beliefs because
51:23
the key thing here is that these spiritual practices are about
51:27
experienced they're not about doctrines or about dogmas I myself think doctrines
51:33
and a theology are both interesting and important but they're not where you want
51:40
to start I think that all religions start from experience
51:44
Buddhism started from the enlightenment of the Buddha sitting under a tree it
51:47
didn't start from people studying texts in a library Christianity started from
51:52
the the the great sense of spiritual opening at his baptism by Jesus and his
51:58
subsequent life death and resurrection Islam started with Muhammad hearing the
52:06
voice of God in dictating the Quran he was illiterate and the Hindu Rishi's the
52:12
great seers arrived at their insights through meditating in caves in the
52:17
Himalayas and elsewhere not through studying books so I think all the great
52:23
religious traditions start from direct experience and for all of us the things
52:28
that are most important really are direct experiences and that's why these
52:33
practices are so important because they enable us to connect or reconnect
52:37
through direct experience for those who don't have a religious
52:42
path then I think they provide a way into the spiritual dimension for those
52:47
who do regular churchgoers who regularly worship synagogues or mosques or
52:53
wherever then I think looking at them these practices in a new way in the
52:59
light of what science has to share about them can enable us to appreciate them
53:03
more and they can become more effective in our lives so as I said at the
53:11
beginning I think we're in an unprecedented situation we have access
53:17
now to all the spiritual practices of the entire world has never before been
53:23
that that situation we also have the situation where probably more people
53:29
than ever before are on spiritual quests before people who had a spiritual
53:34
dimension to their life could easily fit it into the established religion in
53:38
which they were brought up and in which they participated but so many people
53:42
have now have lost their ancestral religious roots they have to search
53:47
afresh and these practices provide a way of doing that this is only a selection
53:54
of seven spiritual practices there are many more so I wouldn't like to pretend
54:01
this as all there is I'm writing a sequel to this book at the moment which
54:05
deals with another seven spiritual practice and even then there's more in
54:09
the next volume I'm talking about prayer psychedelics because for many people
54:16
they're a kind of rite of passage today for many young people and can play a
54:20
spiritual role in their lives sports which i think is the most common way in
54:25
which most people today reach spiritual states though it's not normally seen as
54:31
a spiritual practice at all but as a friend of mine who was a rock climber
54:37
said to me said when I was really busy I couldn't get any peace in my life I
54:41
tried meditating my mind was just too busy but by the time I was 50 feet of a
54:46
rock face I was completely in the present
54:50
so and prayer fasting and then I'm planning to end the book with you know
55:02
lead just leading better life because it's one thing to have spiritual
55:07
practices or unless it actually shines forth in your life is leading a better
55:11
life then it's really a kind of self-indulgence anyway that's all I have
55:17
time to summarize this evening and I as I say I think that we live in an
55:23
extremely exciting time there's never been a time like this in which we can
55:28
look at spiritual practices in this kind of way and I think this is going to play
55:32
an increasing role in our society in the years to come thank you