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Ways To Go Beyond and Why They Work, by Rupert Sheldrake

07 June 2019

Mark Vernon looks at spiritual disciplines in a contemporary light

THIS is the second volume in which Rupert Sheldrake presents a lively case for a variety of activities and practices to show how they can be spiritually illuminating (Books, 24 August 2018). Drawing on evidence from science, wisdom traditions, and personal experience, he considers the meaning of sports, relationships with animals, fasting, psychedelics, prayer, holy days, and virtues.

For several years, Rupert and I have hosted a conversational podcast in which we’ve discussed similar matters and more. We started it, partly, because I had always been impressed by his highly informed and entirely undefended approach to all sorts of matters from his own Anglicanism to his radical theory of morphic resonance, a kind of memory embedded in the natural world.

The same combination of seriousness and lightness of touch is felt on every page of the book. After the chapter on prayer, for example, I found myself asking, why wouldn’t anyone want to pray? Alternatively, the chapter on animals is replete with the love of the living world informed by the awareness of a biologist. Animals are such good teachers because they fully participate in life, and Sheldrake’s prose invites readers to do so, too.

He is also good on how many people today pursue the spiritual goals of connection and transcendence without reference to religious practices. Take sports. The desire to do better mirrors the desire for more than the humdrum. The desire to go to extremes is a type of ecstasy.

Sheldrake is not afraid to include phenomena that might be called weird or supernatural. He treats such matters judiciously without reactively undermining their spiritual significance. For example, the chapter on fasting includes thoughts on inedia, or living without food for years. He is also interested in the ways that psychedelics might facilitate the imagination and open the mind to intelligences beyond itself.

Alongside this range, Sheldrake affirms what he learnt from his time working in India: namely, that when it comes to sustained spiritual practice, it is often better to follow your native traditions. He is, therefore, a powerful advocate of Christianity.

Dr Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist and writer.

Ways To Go Beyond and Why They Work: Seven spiritual practices in a scientific age
Rupert Sheldrake
Coronet £20
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