Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality
In November we heard Gary Lachman, who has spoken to the group before. Gary is a prolific author who writes on the meeting ground between consciousness, culture and the Western Esoteric traditions and this evening he spoke about his new book. Blavatski was born in the Ukraine in 1831 and was a powerful character. From early on she had psychic experiences which had a strong impact in the way she experienced the world. As an adult she travelled extensively going to places where men feared to go, in search of people who might teach her something about the big questions. She was a controversial figure, well but not accurately known. She is associated with alternatives to mainstream religions, was responsible for the spread of Mahayanna Buddhism in the West and is ultimately the figure behind the New Age movement. Her reputation was ambivalent in her days, but she nevertheless influenced many people through her writings amongst others T.S. Elliot, Kandinsky, Yates, Ghandi, Gurdjieff and Ouspensky (who became a leading Theosophist) etc. Blavatsky travelled the world in search of an understanding of the spiritual teachings of the various traditions and found there was a need for a centralized place where all religions and spiritual teachings could come together. This motivated her to found the Theosophical Society in 1875 as a Centre for Universal Brotherhood where people would be seen as equal irrespective of gender, race or any other differentiating trait, and would study Spiritual Laws. She was a great synthesizer and aimed to develop an all encompassing worldview in an easily understandable way. Her interest and knowledge of the Occult was wide and deep and she incorporated those teaching in Theosophy. Helena Blavatsky never looked after her physical self though and she died early, aged 60 in 1891 in the UK. The presentation was an interesting insight into the life of this complex, influential and controversial figure. For further information on Gary’s writings go to his website,
The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry
Rupert Sheldrake was our October speaker and he talked about his latest book. Rupert is a biologist and a committed scientist who has developed innovative perspectives within the rigour of scientific enquiry. Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry, the qualifying statement of the title seeks to encourage a posture aligned to the true spirit of science i.e, openness to ideas and possibilities rather than unquestioned adherence to conventional belief. Science is powerful and impressive and technology is the evidence. The Science delusion is the belief that science already knows the answers to the big questions and is dedicated to filling in the details. This is a delusion under which many scientists work, that much of what scientists consider as true beyond question are actually assumptions. This mindset which pervades science has the effect of closing the door to exploration beyond mainstream thinking giving science the dogmatic tinge of preconceived ideas. Rupert listed the 10 assumptions in his book:
1. Nature is mechanical
2. Matter is unconscious
3. The laws of Nature are fixed
4. Total amount of matter and energy is always the same
5. Nature is purposeless
6. Inheritance is material
7. Memories are material (in the brain or nervous system)
8. Mind is inside the head
9. Psychical phenomena are illusory
10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.
These assumptions Rupert investigates as questions and concludes that they are in fact unquestioned habitual beliefs. Rupert led us through the history of ideas which led to the current state of play and mentioned those ideas and philosophers who held on to a different perspective such Leibniz, Spinoza and Whitehead etc. He then expanded on an interesting idea developed from Whitehead’s proposal that every system has a mental and a body pole – could big self organizing systems such as the Sun be conscious? Could the Sun be conscious in some way we don’t particularly understand? An assumption of course, but not less valid than the assumption that matter is unconscious!
His website is
Insights from the battle of archetypes in the Genesis creation stories
This month we hosted a talk by Dr. David Bell, Principal of Trinity Methodist Theological College in Auckland, New Zealand. David has written, preached and taught on the faith-science interface for many years. This evening we explored the two creation stories in Genesis, Gen 1 and Gen 2. In both versions we find the creation of Man, but they differ. Gen 1 describes the creation of the world in categories which include Man and Woman. Here they were created at the same time and were told they have ‘dominion’ over creation. Adam 1 therefore has the ability to name and to order. Dominion in this context is probably meant to denote stewardship rather than control. In Gen 2 we heard that Man was made alone and needs a companion. Eve was created as ‘helper’ to Adam. Exploring the archetypes of these stories, David suggests that Adam 1 is the archetype of the scientist, or humanity as understanding and exploring the environment for our benefit. Adam 2 is a different character. He knows he is alone and experiences the existential angst, familiar to everyone. These stories help us find meaning. These myths tell us that the ancient world looked for meaning as a means of finding a way to truth and in this context St Paul sees the risen Christ as Adam 3, the man who became divine. Jung endorsed this view in the idea that Christ is the archetype of the deepest expression of our psyche as it reaches towards an understanding of who we are. It is the ultimate search for meaning. We had a small group this evening, which allowed us to have an interesting discussion exploring these ideas.
Different Sights or Different Eyes: Perception in Physics and in Yoga
Our August meeting slipped quietly into the beginning of September as Ravi Ravindra kindly fitted us into his whistle stop tour of the UK. Ravi talked on a subject on which he is eminently qualified to talk having been for many years a professor in three Departments: Comparative Religion, Philosophy and Physics. Ravi is Professor Emeritus at the Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Ravi started by quoting Christ ‘ ‘you have eyes but you do not see, you have ears but you do not hear’ (Mark 8:18) a contention echoed by all spiritual traditions. The message is to assist those who undertake spiritual practice to change their perception. This is specifically the programme of yoga. To quieten the mind from a mind mill to a mill pond. When the mind is quiet the seer sees through the mind, not with the mind. The program of science on the other hand is different. All science, Ravi pointed out, can be said to want to imitate physics, which has at its fundamental aim to study matter (dead matter) in motion. Here, the mind is used as the instrument of knowledge, the mind is the knower. The aim is to establish theories and functionality.
So what Ravi is pointing out is the difference in the ‘eyes’ with which science and spirituality view the world which determines the person’s engagement with the world. Ravi covered only a few of the differences and he pointed also to some of the implications of this difference. He mentioned for instance that whereas the quality of consciousness of the person who seeks knowledge through science is not directly relevant to the task, it is fundamental in spiritual development. The Buddha, Christ and other enlightened beings are respected not only for their knowledge but also for their being. Science is a public enterprise, the spiritual path is a personal journey towards the mystery which can never be known, but which can be embodied. We know that our senses are not reliable, so science seeks to eliminate them and their influence, whereas spiritual development is an attempt to enhance them so they can become more reliable.
It was a most interesting evening, provocative at times followed by a lively and interesting discussion
Science’s First Mistake
In July we welcomed the authors of the book Science’s First Mistake: Delusions in Pursuit of Theory. Both authors are academics in the LSA, Prof Ian Angell is Emeritus Professor with a background in mathematics and Dr Dionysios Demetis has also been a staff member of the LSE with a background in physics. They both see themselves as ex’scientists, having had their scientific premise – that with science they could seek out Reality – challenged by looking at the world from a different perspective.
The basis of their argument is that science comes out of a self-referential system, it can only consider the observable (leaving out the unobservable which however may influence the observable) and abounds with paradoxes. In this book they set out to show ways in which the Emperor Science although useful, is naked.
This evening they made their point using mathematics and physics. They started by pointing out that mathematics, as observed by Nobel prize winner Richard Feynman, is not a natural science because the test of its validity is not experiment. This leads to the epistemological paradox of having hard sciences such as physics, chemistry and biology constructed upon non-science. Furthermore the field of maths is itself awash with paradoxes. From the concept of Zero (non existent for the ancient Greeks) which can be something that is not as well as nothing that is, to the unique number Two which in the abstract field of arithmetic is the paradoxical sum of two Ones ‘ when One in fact can be only One – to Infinity, a concept invented to deal with endless counting, yet it is a qualitative jump which logic cannot follow. The speakers pointed out that it is not surprising that many children cannot understand the logic of maths since it is often absurd!
In Physics we visited the puzzle of gravity, a classic example of a theory that has a utility but no real explanation. From Newton’s time when it was understood as a ‘force’ to Einstein’s explanation of gravity as a ‘field’, there is still no real understanding of this phenomenon. We also heard about dark matter and dark energy, elements about which we know nothing, but were invented in order to allow mathematical equations to make sense. Even financial markets have been using mathematic modelling although there is always some luminary to see through it, such as Prof Partnoy who said about these complex models ‘ ‘quite clearly they were wrong. You cannot model human behaviour with math’.
The upshot of their argument is that Reality is an emergent phenomenon ‘ an emergent system coming out of the interaction of an observer with his environment. We attempt to describe reality through mathematics, through physics, through everything else that we have at our disposal, but all these descriptions are ultimately artificial.
The paperback version of the book will be available in the Autumn and a free PDF file of the book can be had at the site
Enlightenment Ain’t What It’s Cracked Up to Be
In June we welcomed Dr. Robert Forman, author of 10 books on Consciousness and Mysticism, Professor of Comparative Religions at City University of New York, co-founder of the Journal of Consciousness Studies, founder and director of the Forge Institute for Spirituality and Social Change. Robert came to talk about his latest book, which carries the title of this evening’s presentation and is a candid account of his own journey as meditator of many years. He told us about the acute anxiety he suffered from as an adolescent and young adult, which took him to try all sorts of things, from psychotherapy to yoga. Nothing worked until he came across TM (Transcendental Meditation) at the age of 22. We learned that he started meditating and soon became hooked, going to retreat after retreat, finding meditation itself interesting and the idea of enlightenment an attraction. The description in the Upanishads, that Enlightenment enables the soul to become free from all suffering was appealing and he made this his aim.
At the age of 24 he experienced an intriguing shift in consciousness by which silence replaced some of the chatter of the monkey mind. This silence slowly spread until all of the monkey mind fell silent. First he did not know what to make of it but slowly he realised that something fundamental had changed. The frenetic business of life disappeared and was replaced by a sense of largesse, openness, pleasant vastness. Life continued as normal but now against the backdrop of that vastness. Everything felt interconnected. This new experience led him to study comparative religions and he realised the similarities between his own shift of consciousness with the descriptions of Enlightenment he read in texts of the various religions. The expectation however that Enlightenment would resolve his anxiety problems and the problems of life and living did not come to pass. His book describes how he dealt with it and this evening he gave us a brief insight into the frustration which finally led him to psychotherapy. This helped him uncover and work through some deep seated emotional trauma and he slowly found himself being able to manage his anxiety. Robert feels that this aspect, which is not often discussed within the spiritual and meditative traditions, needs to be addressed and understood to complete what can be a partial picture of what Enlightenment actually is and brings about.
Further information on the book and be found at the link below and members can listen to the talk by accessing this page via the Members Area and clicking on the other link.
Hypnagogia and Related Processes
Our May speaker was Dr. Andreas Mavromatis who has a background in psychology and a wide interest in consciousness. Andreas entitled his talk Hypnagogia and Related Processes, the title of his book. His interest in consciousness processes go back many decades and he led meditation classes when popular interest in meditation was beginning to emerge a few decades ago. His book, first published in 1987 and re-published in 2010 was the first to analyse and pull the different strands of these types of altered states of consciousness together such as sleepdreams, meditation, psi, creativity, hallucinogenic drug-induced states etc. In his talk this evening he showed us pictures of representations of experiences various people, including artists, scientists and others have during hypnagogic moments. Andreas includes in the term hypnagogia both hypnagogic experiences, those we have when falling asleep, and hypnopompic experiences, those we have whilst wakening. Hypnagogia is a state between wakefulness and sleep. It is a creative state in which solutions to problems can emerge, a well known example is that of the Dutch chemist Kekule, who in this state had an image of a snake biting its tail, which led him to realise the composition of the molecule of benzene, which he was struggling with. These states of consciousness have been understood as special throughout the ages and Iamblicus in the first century CE expressed his belief that images and messages received in these states are divine. Ouspensky in the early 20th C made a study of it. Hypnagogic states are a universal experience and although much of it is meaningful, sometimes however such as in dreams, the content can be a recent event or something happening in objective reality, such as an unfamiliar sound, an organismic need or even something as mundane as entangled sheets. When they are meaningful however as with dreams, they can be very significant and we were told that the best way of interpreting them is from within a similar state of consciousness, rather than from the rational mind of an awaken state. There is however the possibility that this mental space is indeed another level of reality, which points to an intriguing angle which alas we did not explore this evening! In reply to a question of how to induce such a state, Andreas replied that relaxation is fundamental to allow the mind to drift and be taken by the images, remaining however sufficiently awake to follow the process.
Members can listen to the talk by accessing this page via the Members’ Area and clicking on the link below.
Ways in which we Create our own Reality
In April we welcomed Elizabeth West, who has wide experience of the spiritual life. For 35 years she has had a deep interest in the contemplative traditions of all the major faiths and has been personally involved with many of them. More recently she ran the Buddhist Christian Vedanta Network and is now running the Contemplative Consciousness Networkwhere she is promoting a dialogue between Buddhism and Science through the study of consciousness using Buddhist meditation practices.
She started by stating that she is neither a scholar nor a scientist, but a practitioner and would share with us some of the insights of her experience of Buddhist spiritual practice. The first insight addressed was the idea that the reality which we accept as true in our daily routine, is anything but. For instance, we experience the world as flat, yet we know the Earth is round. We experience the sun as rising and setting, yet we know the sun continues to shine in different parts of the globe as it becomes dark where we are. And so on. The reality which we perceive through our senses is deceptive, what the Buddhists mean when they say that the world in which we live is illusory. We sense ourselves as separate from the world, and that is also an illusion. We look for happiness ‘out there’ ‘ another illusion. These beliefs are the core of Ducca, which Elizabeth explained has been mistranslated as ‘suffering’ whereas it is more akin to discomfort, unsatisfactory or imperfect. Another fundamental teaching is about the nature of the self. The self that I think I am ‘ is not who I am. Buddhism points out the discontinuous nature of the self which when examined deeply and from within, takes us to the insight that what we are is presence, the screen against which the ‘film’ of our lives plays itself out. Thoughts are not the self either. Thoughts arise spontaneously and we are not responsible for them, our responsibility lies in engaging with them. We heard about other aspects of Buddhist approach, the importance of acceptance of what is, compassion as a source of health and happiness, the importance of training attention (in fact Mindfulness has become recognised as an important resource in Western medicine and other areas), and so on. According to these principles we do indeed create our own reality, and being conscious of that, will help us in the choice of reality we create for ourselves.
Members can listen to the talk by accessing this page via the Members’ Area and clicking on the link below.
The Self-Creating Universe: the Emergence of a New Worldview
For this presentation we welcomed Prof John Clarke, the previous Chair of the SMN and Professor Emeritus in the History of Ideas at Kingston University, London, where he taught before his recent retirement. John has a particular interest in the links between science, religion and the humanities, and in the development of a post-religious spirituality which is the context in which his ideas of about Emergentism originate. The title of the talk is the title of the book he is just completing.
This short summary will not do justice to the rich content of the presentation in which he developed his ideas about Emergentism, a term he does not like but which has to do since Creationism ‘ his preferred option has been hijacked and acquired a particular unfortunate meaning. Emergentism is the idea that the Universe is essentially creative and everything in it is governed by this principle. Throughout Nature including in human nature, we see creativity at work in constructive as well as destructive patterns. Creation and creativity as underlying principles emerge in everything we turn our attention to. These ideas reflect the current zeitgeist which indicates that its time has come. John tracked the development of this concept back to Plotinus on the one hand and Daoism on the other, although the more recent meaningful origins are to be found in Darwin. The term Emergentism was coined by a contemporary of Darwin, G.H Lewis whose views were aimed at including a spiritual perspective in the Theory of Evolution.
We heard about contributions from many thinkers including the German Romantics, Bergson, Carl Popper etc but the person who most influenced John was Stuart Kauffman and his two interesting books Being at Home in the Universe and Reinventing the Sacred. Kauffman proposes that ‘we live in an emergent universe of ceaseless creativity whose unfoldings we cannot prevision or predict ‘ they emerge’. This is not just true for the material universe but also of our own human condition. This new paradigm is emerging across the sciences and is comprehensive in its scope permeating physics, biology, psychology, cosmology, chemistry philosophy etc.
John works from a naturalistic presumption, which means an assumption relevant to the natural world, the world in which we live. There are other thinkers who have a supernaturalist presumption, but for John the conventional concept of God does not have to be part of Emergentism. He maintains that these ideas enable one to describe something which has a spiritual philosophy from a purely naturalistic perspective and it conforms with ideas which are becoming paradigmatic in science. It was a fascinating evening, the ideas were put forward with great clarity and we had a very stimulating discussion after. I am certainly looking forward to the publication of what will prove a most interesting book.
Members can listen to the talk by accessing this page via the Members’ Area and clicking on the link below.
The Protein Crunch ‘ Civilisation on the Brink
At this meeting David Lorimer talked about the book he co-wrote with Jason Drew. David is Programme Director of the SMN as well as author and editor of a number of books. This book is a result of his ongoing concern about the Earth and sustainability. He started the evening by telling us a joke first told by Gorbachev ‘ two planets met in space and one didn’t look so well. I have homo sapiens he said, and the other answered, I had that too but don’t worry, it goes away from its own accord! This set the scene!
This book was written with the general reader in mind, the person who has not read an environmental book, which can be very long and detailed. It is a book designed to raise awareness and is divided into 5 main sections: Water, Land, Seas, Population and Agri-Industry (meat production). Up to recently the thinking has been linear but because these factors are systemically related it is clear that the thinking must be systemic. As an example we heard that until 1980 Pollock was not fished very much and was the food of sea lions. Since we started to fish Pollock for human consumption the Sea Lion population has declined. On the other hand the Jelly Fish has increased dramatically in population in the northern hemisphere due to the increase in water temperature as well as the elimination of their predators. Many other examples of compartmentalised thinking exist. David examined the use of water and we were told that our water footprint should take into account not only the amount of water used in the household, but also the amount of water used in everything we use and consume. For instance 1000lts is used to grow 1kg of grain and 15-24kgs of grain is used to produce 1kg of meat. This is clearly unsustainable ever more so with the expansion of the middle classes in India and China who are demanding meat on the table. Fresh water is a limited commodity and it is distressing to know that we are depleting what is our capital ‘underground aquifers – to feed our needs. Underground water takes an inordinate number of years to be replaced yet it is being used as a renewable commodity to irrigate fields. This is a major problem in the US, India and the Middle East. A knock-on effect is that some of those states with depleted aquifers are buying land in other continents such as Africa to grow food to be imported back. Water is seriously expected to become a geo-political problem in the future. As a powerful reminder, David pointed out that the historian A. J. Toynbee examined the rise and decline of 18 major civilizations and identified factors of coherence and found that no society which overreached its natural resources has ever survived!
End of Life Experiences ‘ a Spiritual Perspective
We started the year on a high note with our first speaker, Emeritus Consultant Neuropsychiatrist Dr Peter Fenwick – who is also the President of the Scientific and Medical Network – and were treated to a host of stories which emerged from studies he and colleagues conducted in various countries. For ethical reasons, the research on the process of dying was conducted with a palliative team and carers of the dying rather than with the dying themselves. From the study it became clear that dying is not switching off, but is a process with a lot happening at that time.
The study asked questions about premonition, death bed visions, different reality, terminal lucidity and unexplained incidents in the physical world, such as clock stopping at the time of a death. We heard very interesting reports of these various phenomena. Premonition of death were common as were death bed visions. This relates to dead visitors who come and are seen by the dying and sometimes by others too. They seem to come to take the dying on a journey, and a narrative of journey starts to occur. The experience of a different reality, not unlike what happens in Near Death Experiences is also widely reported, indicating perhaps that the tunnel and light elements of an NDE may indeed be the first stage of the death process. We also heard about the interesting phenomena of terminal lucidity, about which there seems to be more written recently in the literature. This describes the lucidity some people experience just before dying, even when they have been in a coma, affected by Alzheimers or schizophrenia or any other condition which impairs the mind. And finally we heard about unexplained physical phenomena around the dying, such as clocks stopping, something being seen to leave the body etc, which seems to indicate the loosening of consciousness and the non locality of mind.
Peter ended by identifying what is needed for a peaceful death: proper care on a one to one basis, an understanding of the phenomena, trained midwives for dying. Ideally we should die where we want and as conscious as possible, with sedation kept to a minimum. We need to talk more about death not only of others, but also of our own, perhaps start learning about it in school. Life and death are not two different things! Peter and Elizabeth Fenwick wrote a book – Art of Dying – which addresses these issues.