The Blissful Brain: Neuroscience and Proof of the Power of Meditation
Dr Shanida Nataraja has a PhD in Neurophysiology from University College London and in her talk, explained what goes on in the brain when we meditate as well as the physical, mental and psychological effects of meditation. Up until recently, meditation was associated mainly with spiritual traditions and Shanida showed through research evidence, that meditation is in fact a beneficial activity which has very practical implications for our health and well being, and contributes to our effectiveness in what for most of us is a stressful daily life. We saw slides from a study by Andrew Neuberg showing the physical effects of meditation on the brain, particularly changes in the frontal and the parietal lobes, associated with attention and orientation in space and time respectively. Shanida explained how what is felt during meditation manifests physically in the brain and gave us her view that being ‘hard wired’ for it, the brain acts as receiver for mystical experiences. She did not however go into the field of neuro-theology, which she felt was not part of her remit. Shifting the activity from left to right hand side, meditation gives access to modes of thinking and perceiving offered by this more creative side of the brain and allows us to use the full potential of both sides of the brain. We then heard about the physical changes in the body mediated by the parasympathetic system, and also about the electrical activity in the brain, with the 4 types of brain waves (delta, theta, alpha and beta) associated with different levels of consciousness. And finally about the health benefits. In the UK recently, NICE has approved the use of mindfulness based Cognitive Behavioural therapies for management of depression along the lines of MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction), developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the US based on Buddhist mindfulness meditation. Research has shown this to be effective with cancer and other patients. We also heard that there are moves to introduce meditation in some progressive schools, which is wonderful news. Shanida succeeded in her efforts to show us the evidence and we were left with no doubts about the benefits of meditation in all areas of life.
Members can listen to the presentation by accessing this page through the Members Circle and clicking the link below.
God, Science and the Koran
This month the speaker was Dr. Usama Hassan, who is Senior Lecturer in Computing Science at Middlesex University, Planetarium Lecturer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich and is a certified transmitter of the sacred texts of Islam, the Koran and Hadith. He is an imam at Tawhid Mosque in London. In his talk Usama gave us an overview of how the mystical perspective deals with some fundamental arguments which pervade the discourse in Islam. He acknowledged that his views may be perceived as heretical by some traditionalist Muslims, and also that there are many paradoxes which the rational mind finds difficult to accommodate. He started by looking at the question of who created the Creator, posed by many skeptics. This question arose in Christianity at the time of the Enlightenment but in Islam this is a non-question for God is a given and the point of departure for all understanding and exploration. God can be apprehended by his 99 names which are also his attributes and it could be said that people who believe in concepts like Justice, Beauty, Truth, etc, believe in God as these are some of his attributes. Everything in the natural world living and non-living are signs and point towards God, who is transcendent and also immanent. Usama also addressed controversial questions between traditional and mystical approaches. As a physicist with a mystical perspective Usama feels quite uncomfortable with some of the Islamic traditionalist views for instance on creationism or the denial of causality, which he sees specifically as responsible in the past for the downfall of Islam’s influence on scientific development, which for centuries it has led. On the question of consciousness, we heard that like in other mystical approaches the whole of the material world is seen as being conscious. The more complex the individual, the more complex its consciousness or cosmic spirit, but even the lowest in the complexity scale, a pebble or a plant has a degree of consciousness. There is a correspondence between the hierarchy in complexity and in will, i.e, even a pebble has a rudimentary degree of will. During question time we discussed revelation, free will versus determinism, the divine principles of anger and love, what might be not God etc.
Members can listen to the presentation by accessing this page through the Members Circle and clicking the link below.
Humanity and Divinity in John’s Gospel: an exploration of Ways of Knowing, Being and Healing in the Logos Theology
September brought us Dr. David Bell, a long standing and committed SMN member, who is a minister and the Director of Ministry Development Programme for the Methodist Church of New Zealand. The talk was based on the thoughts of the French mystic Simone Weil who understood Christ to be the Mediator linking the Creator with Creation. David explored the hidden message of this particular gospel, where this perspective is to be found and which for this reason, stands apart from the other three (Mark, Luke and Mathew). On the humanity side of the equation we heard about the role of the people who figure in this gospel, the named and the unnamed ones and who often represent archetypes of humanity, understood as symbolic representations of human development towards divinity. David developed this idea with examples as in John 9 for instance, the man born blind to whom Jesus gives vision, representing our own inner spiritual vision emerging from our spiritual blindness. On the divinity aspect David drew on the introduction of the Gospel ‘ In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Greek word Logos translated as Word, we were told, can equally be translated by the term mediator ‘the Mediator among us, made Flesh. David went on to point out some interesting literary structures used in the text which covertly parallel mathematical patterns which he explicated using algebra and geometric shapes, to support the theory of the author of this gospel showing Christ as mediator between the divine and the human. Humanity is constantly trying to locate Jesus as God and God is constantly trying to locate him as human. From this follows the ultimate message of the gospel of John, that like Jesus the potential to be mediator is in all of us!
Members can listen to this talk and see the pictures used by accessing this page via the Members Circle and clicking on the link below.
What is Red in the Science of Goethe?
Philip Frances was formerly a mathematician and computer project initiator and calls himself now a holistic scientist. He researches into the benefits of herbs at Bristol University and teaches at Schumacher College. This evening he offered an understanding of the concepts behind Goethe’s Theory of Colours, published in 1810. As colour is an attribute of light, we were given a brief overview of theory of light in traditional science, understood within a model which describes light in static terms, as packets of particles or waves. Gothean science however is different. The approach is holistic and seeks to include the observer as well as the phenomenon. As an example, we were shown a picture of Notre Dame in Paris at dawn, with part of its faΓ§ade in the warm, reddish light of the rising sun and were asked to evaluate the mood elicited, considering both the lighter and darker parts of the picture. A good discussion followed. We were then shown a picture painted in hues of blue which the group saw as calming, peaceful, serene etc, followed by another picture painted in shades of red, which we described as passion, fire, rage, hot etc. As Philip pointed out, if colour were nothing but a property of the physics of light, there would be no difference in the way we feel towards those pictures. But colour can and does elicit emotions and are used by artists in their paintings to this effect. This quality of colour is also used to promote particular responses as a picture of the warming planet with warm hues of yellow, orange and red showed. Light therefore has qualities beyond those described in physics and Goethe’s holistic methodology includes the observer as part of the unity of which the object under investigation is a part. In other words as well as analysis, there is synthesis which leads to understanding. So to answer the question of what is red in the science of Goethe, we need to look not only at the qualities of the light itself, but also at how it affects us in the way we apprehend and perceive the colour.
Members can see the pictures by going through the Members Circle and clicking the link below. Unfortunately, due to a technical problem the recording of this talk did not succeed. Apologies.
Beethoven and the A-Lonely Triumph over Spiritual Suffering
The presentation in July was entitled Beethoven and the A-Lonely Triumph over Spiritual Suffering and was given by Edi Bilimoria, who is a Consultant Engineer for the transport, petrochemical, construction and oil and gas industries, an international lecturer, a keen musician and pianist and the author of The Snake and the Rope – Problems in Western Science Resolved by Occult Science, the book which recently received the SMN book prize for 2008. In explaining the person behind the music which moves the world, Edi took us through Beethoven’s life, personality, health, sufferings in love, religion and philosophy. By understanding his nature, we were moved to appreciate how a man with such tempestuous character, who knew his worth and used it unabashedly, had to learn through suffering, to deal with the tragedy of loss of hearing at the young age of 28, in a profession where hearing is almost everything. He felt suicidal, but recognizing his mission as inspired by a higher force, set his strong character to work for his music, his art. Edi made an interesting comparison between Napoleon and Beethoven, both born within months of each other, in which he showed how both were revolutionary, loved power, but developed in opposite direction, Napoleon expanding his strong ego, and Beethoven submitting his to what he called, the Divine Will. Beethoven was widely read and from his prolific writings we can see that he was deeply influenced by the Vedas, as well as other spiritual scriptures. Edi stressed that we can only understand the greatness of him through the greater (rather than the lesser), seeing him as an advanced student of the spiritual path. We heard interesting comparisons between Beethoven’s philosophy and that of Newton and Blavatsky. Pain and suffering pursued him also in love, his passion aiming always at the unobtainable, and his financial circumstances did not escape either for having been reasonably well off for most of his life, he ended up virtually destitute and died penniless at the age of 56 in 1827. Edi allowed us to look through a chink and see into the inner life of this larger than life master, whose music became the vehicle by which his suffering of the heart and spirit touches our own and move us ourselves, closer to the divine.
Members can listen to the talk by accessing this page via the Members Circle and clicking on the link below.
Sri Aurobindo – A prophet for the 21st Century?
Max Payne, our speaker this month, is a founder member of the SMN Council – a precursor of the SMN Board of Directors – and was until last year, the Chair of the SMN Trustees. He is also retired Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Sheffield Hallam University. Max gave us an overview of Aurobindo’s life. He came from a privileged high ranking Indian family who sent him to be educated in England. He was a brilliant scholar but his fierce nationalistic feelings made him turn to fight British rule in India and he saw himself in prison as a result of a terrorist act which he helped organise. In prison he had a profound spiritual experience and decided to dedicate his life to the spiritual path. When he was released from jail ‘ a minor miracle in itself – he fled to the French enclave of Pondicherry where he founded his Ashram and developed the system of Integral Yoga in which the principles of yoga are applied to all areas of human experience. Aurobindo’s cosmic model describes the eternal Divine unfolding him/her/itself in Creation or Existence down to the smallest particle and then embarking on a journey of return to Source by means of an ever increasing refinement of consciousness. All existence is therefore a manifestation of the Divine but is ignorant of the fact up to human level, where self-reflection makes this knowledge possible. This is the beginning of the journey of return to Source which will progress as higher levels of awareness are developed towards Superconscious awareness. Integral Yoga is a means towards this development. We also heard about an interesting and pertinent historical detail, in which one of the SMN’s founders George Blaker, a civil servant in India at the time, was given the task in 1943 of informing Aurobindo that the British were willing to grant India independence on condition that India would fight for the Allies. Whereas Aurobindo was willing to agree, the plan was thwarted by Gandhi who refused to go along with it and independence was not achieved until 1947.
Members can listen to the talk by accessing this page via the Members Circle and clicking the link below.
Reason and Heart in the Islamic Mystical Tradition
Jane Clark is a researcher and student of Islam, in particular of Ibn Arabi, and she started her talk by charting the development of Islamic thought which like European thought, is rooted in Greek philosophy, especially Aristotle. However, whereas the West became committed to reason as highest faculty, in Islamic mystical tradition, the faculty of the heart (which is not the physical heart but more akin to the heart chakra in Indian tradition) is higher. This faculty has the ability to see God directly. Jane went into detailed historical background to explain the transmission in the Middle Ages of the Greek thought via translation and cultural contact especially in Spain. Whilst this was taking place, home grown Arabic philosophical work was working towards the philosophical integration of Aristotelian thought with the words of the Prophet Mohammed. Jane spent quite some time on Al-Farabi who proposed that philosophy and religion are the same truths expressed in a different way. This idea permeated Sufi thought encouraging the development of a theoretical basis to their mystical experiences. Al-Ghazali in the 12th C gave the first coherent description of the faculty of the heart which, like Descartes, he developed by starting from the principle of assuming nothing. He diverged from Descartes however by declaring the heart, not the intellect, as the highest faculty, as through the heart man can know God and the world as his revelation. Jane explained however that a lot of what the Sufis put in the camp of the heart, Aristotle had in the camp of reason ‘ which shows the categories actually merge and are not completely different things. Later, Ibn Arabi demonstrated that the heart has the ability to accept and understand paradoxes which reason cannot. The heart is the place where all the complementary opposites come together and become essentially one. He developed the idea of the unity of Being or the unity of Existence. Summing up the evening, we learned that whereas for the philosophers the final fulfilment of human potentiality is achieved through the intellectual faculty, Sufis maintain that it is through the development of the heart that this potentiality is achieved as the heart has the capacity to see God as he really is.
Members can (via Members Circle) listen to or download the talk by clicking on the link below
Circling the White Stone: The Russian Magical World
In April Cherry Gilchrist made a presentation about her new book The Soul of Russia: Magical Traditions in an Enchanted Landscape which was the result of more than 50 trips to Russia. Cherry is a prolific author and has written more than 20 books on a wide variety of subjects. She has always been interested in mythology, magic and folklore and this book explores ancient Russian myths and folklore ingrained in the culture and which shine through still today in many of the everyday habits and traditions of the people in the villages. The Russians, we were told, have a very different mindset from the Western world, and for them there is no sharp division between the material and the spiritual world, or between science and spirituality. It is for instance, quite common to find a spiritual healer working in a hospital. The connection with nature is very strong in Russia and is represented primarily by the Mother Earth goddess, who is the primordial divine element and is characterised everywhere in embroidery, carvings etc. Mother Earth is all understanding and all forgiving and will see that everything is put right in the end. In a perverse way, this may explain the lack of care in Russian attitude towards their landscape and nature in general. As well as Mother Earth, there are also nature spirits who demand respect and reverence and people in the villages ensure good fortune by having symbolic representations in their homes. The connection with animas is also very strong and bears play a particularly important role embodying by their hibernation, the connection with the underworld. The use and abuse of bears in entertainment is a corruption of this connection. We also heard about Cherry’s interesting contact with a Siberian shaman from whom she learned about even older living traditions than those in central Russia. It was a very interesting talk full of examples of how deeply embedded the ancient folklore is, showing us a fascinating and different side to Russian culture from that we are used to seeing.
Members can (via Members Circle) listen to or download the talk by clicking on the link below
The Sounds of Sacred Places
Paul Devereux is working in ‘archeo-acoustics’, a relatively new area of what is called ‘sensory archeology’ researching the sounds of the distant past. Sounds were magical for the people living in what was a much quieter world hundreds, thousands of years ago. Paul’s presentation was based on the many pictures he took of the areas in which he works, as well as recordings of sounds of stone tapping stone which were amazing for the surprisingly clear ringing rather than the dull thud one expects. In fact we were told that in a temple in India, there are two columns of stones which can emit all the sounds necessary for making Indian sacred music! Paul did not go into why stones emit these sounds, but why and what this phenomenum may have been used for. Ancient people believed spirits lived inside rocks and the rock membrane was the boundary between the worlds so ringing stones must have had a sacred aspect to them, and probably used in vision quests, which were ubiquitous in shamanic culture. An association might exist between the places where these stones are found and the mind altering mushrooms, which grow in the area. This is the case in Preseli in Wales, where Paul is working at the moment, where there are stones of similar nature as those in Stonehenge. Paul is working on a project for the Royal College of Art entitledLandscape and Perception examining the ‘blue stones’ in Preseli, which are believed to be related to the stones in Stonehenge in Wiltshire. When looking at Stonehenge, the question of how the stones were brought and placed there is often what amazes us, but Paul is exploring the question of why, and he suggests that there may be a connection with the mind altering mushrooms growing around the area, and the desire by local shamans to replicate the experience in Wiltshire. Paul has also done some work in the Hypogeum in Malta and we had the opportunity to see pictures and hear about this amazing structure which is believed to be the oldest and possibly only underground prehistoric (c 2500 BC) temple in the world. We saw other wonderful pictures documenting how our ancestors have tried to emulate the sounds of rain and wind on rocks, how they have emulated and used natural sounds in sacred ceremonies as well as ways of moving between the worlds of perception. It was a most fascinating presentation and we look forward to seeing some more of Paul’s work in the future. Paul is the founding co-editor of the new peer-review journal Time & Mind ‘ The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture. This talk was not audio recorded due to the visual nature of the lecture.
The Mysticism of the Abrahamic Story – the hidden teaching
In February we had Rev Peter Dewey who is an Anglican priest, involved in interfaith dialogue and a long standing student of the mystical path. In his presentation Peter used some biblical stories, to show us the hidden meaning of the esoteric language, written for seekers of spiritual enlightenment, which offers a completely different interpretation from the traditional understanding. We started by looking at the origin of the stories around Abraham which were actually result of myths from different tribes weaved together by Levite priests who added in spiritual teaching with a view to creating a nation. The mystical, or esoteric meaning of these stories is made up of symbolic language as for instance wells – where many of the encounters take place – indicate the presence of God, mountains, indicate spirituality, and turning water into wine, indicate the stepping up of spirituality to a higher level. The use of numbers can also have a covert meaning and when Abraham is said to be 100 years old, the meaning follows the sequence where number 1 is God, number 10, sainthood and 100 righteousness, and God declared Abraham to be a righteous man, and for this reason chosen to enter into the covenant with Him ‘ so nothing really to do with chronological age. Another interesting story, this one of Babylonian origin, is that of Cain and Abel in which Cain represents the ego, streetwise side of us the one that survives in the world, and Abel our raw spiritual self. The teaching is that we are both, Cain and Abel – when our material side is dominant, we are Cain and when in spiritual mode, Abel. Cain can survive in the world and does not need or want the interference from Abel who pushes for change. So when Cain, having been accused by God of murdering Abel, asks ‘am I my brother’s keeper?’ he is really stating his unwillingness to recognise his own spiritual side. A different way of looking at this well known story, which gives us an insight into our own personal spiritual struggle. We further looked at the hidden meaning of other stories amongst which that of Adam and Eve, Jacob and Esau and the deceit of the inheritance and Hagar and the birth of Isaac and the demand by God of his sacrifice, which for many is seen as unforgivable infanticide, but when looked at from an esoteric point of view, is seen as the willingness to sacrifice one’s Self for God. It was a fascinating evening in which we were offered an insight into the world of occult, esoteric language and communication.
Members can (via Members Circle) listen to or download the talk by clicking on the link below.
Securalism – the Hidden Origins of Disbelief
The year started with Dr. Mike King talking about his new book Secularism ‘ the Hidden Origins of Disbelief. Mike is Reader at Metropolitan University and sits on the Board of Directors of the SMN. He is keenly interested in spirituality, and started the talk by telling us about his personal journey from what he called a ‘Monty Python’ secularism in his younger years, which became transformed as a result of a serious spiritual and psychological crisis. Having engaged in his own spiritual path, he became interested in the origins of the disbelief which pervades Western society. He identifies three major thinkers as fundamentally influencing the triumph of the secular mind: Darwin, Freud and Marx. Freud was openly anti God and turned interiority into the workings of a hydraulic machine and Marx focused on social forces to discredit religion but Darwin interestingly, did not intend to destroy religion and was not what we would today call a ‘darwinian’, however, for various reasons this was his legacy. But how did these three thinkers come to be in a position to influence the Western mind so dramatically towards disbelief? Mike looks towards the Enlightenment and argues that the big thinkers of the time had no intention to destroy religion, but were reacting to religious intolerance and cruelty. The problem in his view, lies in the principles of monotheism with a God who becomes anthropomorphised and who is uncompromising and a source of power and control. Those thinkers, Mike mentioned 39 not all of them philosophers, were anti-clerical, and from their writings, clearly not anti religion. Mike sees himself as an Eastern mind in a Western body, so unconventionally resorts to the Indian concept of bhakti (devotional) and jnani (non devotional) to explain what he sees is the change of mood of the times from a heart based devotion, to a mind based one, a return to the Greek model. He suggests that by shifting to a non devotional (jnani) form of relationship with the divine, the thinkers who powered the Enlightenment unintentionally facilitated a move away from religion evolving into the current secular society in which religion is sidelined and rejected. Mike is himself an original thinker and what he proposes is unorthodox and insightful and whether you agree with his perspective or not, it is definitely food for thought.
Members can (via Members Circle) listen to or download the talk by clicking the link below.