On reading the book with the above title by Rupert Sheldrake, I was surprised to discover that Rupert and I had a number of things in common. Rupert was born and grew up in Newark-on-Trent in a Methodist family. As he became fascinated by science, he became aware that most of his science teachers were atheists. Science and atheism went together. Similarly, I grew up in Lincoln, a mere 30 miles away and several years later, and was initially exposed to Methodism until the unrelenting materialism of the science at school led me into a deep scepticism about religion.
Rupert always felt that purely objective science was inimical to the study of biology; it seemed to be based on killing the things it was investigating. Eventually, through the inspiration of Goethe, he came to be an independent scientist with his own theories of what was called morphic resonance. After the then-fashionable experimenting with meditation and eastern religions, Rupert eventually returned to Christianity, which he has practised ever since, alongside an increasingly recognised scientific career.
Our paths crossed briefly in the 1990s, when Rupert came up to Knutsford and stayed at our house, to deliver a fascinating Knutsford Lecture on the subject of ‘Dogs that Know When their Owners are Coming Home’. As a person, he was delightful to be with, unpretentious and yet seemed very wise.
Anyway, on to the book that is the subject of this review. Rupert refers to research that shows that religious and spiritual practices confer benefits in terms of physical and mental health. He has chosen 7 specific practices to concentrate on, that are common to the major religions, and each of which he has personally experienced. As he says, spirituality is about practice, not about belief. For each, he suggests ways of gaining direct experience of these practices.
The seven practices covered are: meditation; the flow of gratitude; reconnecting with the more-than-human world; relating to plants; involvement in rituals such as choral evensong; music, singing and chanting; pilgrimages and holy places. We are encouraged to get involved in each of these as part of our journey. And Rupert is suggestive, not prescriptive – a somewhat homespun approach to spiritual practice, but maybe that’s what we need. As one who has been involved in most of these as part of my own journey, I can say that it all makes sense – practical spirituality.
The concluding chapter suggests that each of these practices is a way of connecting – to our minds, to others, to the more-than-human world, to different life forms, to our social past, to the flow of life, to holy places. This is by no means an exhaustive list of practices, but engaging in them enriches our spiritual life. It also has measurable benefits, which will please the secular/ scientific reader, but come as no surprise to the more spiritually inclined. Rupert is doing great service in potentially spreading spiritual practices to a wider part of the population, without them feeling they are becoming part of ‘woo woo’ spirituality.
Featured image is of Boston Stump, a holy place in Boston, Lincolnshire – not far from Newark and Lincoln.