A recent paper published in The British Journal of Psychiatry looks at surveys of 7,400 people in the United Kingdom for links between mental health and religiousness and spirituality. I could only find the abstract online, but Mark Vernon (a former priest turned agnostic Christian journalist) wrote about the paper for The Guardian here.
Vernon focused on the paper’s finding that spiritual but not religious people are more prone to . But there were two other unusual findings:
-Non-spiritual, non-religious people were no more likely to have mental health disorders, other than heavy drinking (the abstract notes that they also are more likely to have tried drugs, but doesn’t indicate that they are more likely to have developed a habitual drug habit). This conflicts with previous studies that assumed that religion was a key part of happiness.
-According to Vernon’s write-up, non-spiritual, non-religious people tended not to have education beyond secondary school, challenging previous findings that atheists are more intelligent (or perhaps the assumption that intelligent people go to university).
Vernon concludes that churches in Britain should do a better job of reaching spiritual people who don’t have religious affiliations. He’s holding on to the idea that religion can treat mental health issues, but I think he’s reading too much into the study. First of all, it will need to be repeated and compared with other studies with conflicting results. Second, it’s not clear that religiosity is what “healed” anyone — correlation vs. causation and all that. But it does lend some credence to concerns about religious practices being taken out of context.
R.U Sirius interviews Peter Bebergal, author of the memoir and cautionary tale Too Much To Dream: . This interview is a few months old, but I’ve only just seen it:
RU: It strikes me that psychedelics are both an enhancer and distorter of
pattern recognition. It’s like once the mind becomes too conscious and too obsessive about pattern recognition, it becomes delusional.
PB: This is probably the most succinct way of putting it I have heard. It’s essentially what we see happen with Phillip K. Dick. It’s part of the reason why no matter how non-addicting psychedelics might be from a chemical point-of-view, the capacity for the human mind to compulsively search for the same connection/insight over and over again is boundless. This same phenomena can be seen with a certain kind of occultism. Hermeticism can become an exercise in endless connection making and it’s amazing how even the most thoughtful occultists can become conspiracy theorists overnight. Psychedelics, and other forms of non-ordinary consciousness, can readily show that there is more to the human mind, and possibly the universe, than we can perceive normally, but when we lose the ability to critically distance ourselves from these experiences, the danger for delusion is great.
RU: You remain interested in the psychedelic movement even though you feel you can’t risk taking them yourself. What do you hope for people today who take psychedelic drugs in a way that is conscious of set and setting and so forth?
PB: I have come to believe in the absolute necessity of ritual and community, whether it’s the Native American Church or your local OTO lodge. However you can find it, try to access a group of people that share your spiritual/psychological sensibilities and that hopefully have a few seasoned elders and teachers. This is not to say there aren’t those that can handle the solitary journey, but I still think however one can position oneself into a larger context with its own myths and symbols can only be a good thing.
But more importantly I hope that those who use these drugs will see them not as a path but as doorway towards a spiritual/conscious way of life. As Alan Watts is often quoted as saying, “When you get the message, hang up the phone.”
Erik Davis has been covering fringe spiritual movements, underground music and subcultures for magazines like Wired, Arthur and Spin for the past two decades. He’s probably best known for books his books TechGnosis and Visionary State. He’s currently a contributor to several publications, including Reality Sandwich and HiLobrow. His web site is here and you can follow him on Twitter here.
Erik’s latest book, Nomad Codes, is a collection of several of his articles and essays. It can be purchased from its publisher YETI or from Amazon. I talked with Erik about the new book, the changing American spiritual landscape, and why he’s now pursuing academia.
Klint Finley: Over the last few years, while writing the essays that comprise this book, have you seen any significant shift in American spirituality? Has much changed since the publication of TekGnosis?
Erik Davis: Spirituality is always changing, because “spirituality” itself is almost defined by its informality, at least in contrast to those more organized movements we call “religion.” And even religions are always changing. Since the 1990s, there have been some intriguing developments, some cool, some odd.
One has been the extraordinary popularity of yoga, and what makes yoga particularly interesting is that it bridges between spirituality and a purely secular world of exercise and keeping fit. People don’t go to yoga for gurus like they did in the 70s — it’s about the “practice.” That shows some healthy pragmatism in some ways, but it also represents how easily spirituality gets commodified in America. I mean, yoga is pretty cheap when you boil it down–you on a mat on a floor. And yet it has become a whole industry.
Yeah, the brouhaha over Bikram yoga really exemplifies that.
Then there’s the 2012 thing, which has really grown tremendously, right on schedule. I have been tracking that for years, a combination of archaic dreaming and very contemporary apocalypticism. I knew some folks in British Columbia that all decided to adopt the 13 moon calendar for a while, and they lived their lives partly in that alternate calendrical frame. Pretty outside stuff! Then a year ago, my sister, who is not a freak by any stretch of the imagination, started talking about 2012 and what it meant. That represents quite a shift. Even Christian fundamentalists are talking 2012 these days. Everyone on the bandwagon!
Where does the title of the book, Nomad Codes, come from?
For me the phrase Nomad Codes really captures something about the 1990s culture that really influenced me and most of the writing in the book, even the later stuff. In some ways, we never leave our home-base cultural framework. In the early 1990s, there was a tremendous sense of novelty and possibility–the Internet was opening up, electronic music, a revived psychedelic culture, even “Twin Peaks” on the TV seemed to confirm that reality itself was warping. That sense of warp was captured by the figure of the nomad–slipping beyond the established narratives and institutions, not trying to root himself anywhere, flowing between the cracks. But all this stuff was happening in the context of an exploding media and particularly digital culture. So codes were, and are, everywhere. The world we perceive is partly dependent on our codes–not just our ethical codes, but the codes of perception and experience we use to program our engagement with reality.
Do you have a favorite story from the book? One that you’re particularly proud of?
There’s a number of pieces that come out of really amazing trips and explorations I’ve one on. “Sampling Paradise” was about going to Goa in India in 1994 to hunt down the origins of raves; it was just when Psy-Trance was starting to leak into the west, and I went to some amazing parties. But the craziest time was my visit to Burma, which I write about at length. At the end of the piece, I am drunkenly dancing with a cute transvestite spirit-medium whose gaudy outfit was stuffed with currency. My wife was there at the time and she found it all hilarious.
I don’t have a copy of the book yet, so I don’t know if “Technopagans” and/or “Songs in the Key of F12” are included, but I wanted to tell you that those two article were formative for me.
Well thanks. They both nearly made the cut, but not quite. “Technopagans” was too long, and a little dated, and some of the ideas were repeated elsewhere. And not a lot of the music writing made it in, other than a profile of Sun City Girls and a long piece on Lee Scratch Perry. Maybe I should have given more thought to “Songs” though! That was a fun time to write about electronic music. I am curious though: how did they influence you?
I read “Technopagans” in 2000 just as I was starting to learn about chaos magic, and the way the article related it to tech culture kind of gave me the push I needed to jump in and start doing it.
I read “Songs in the Key of F12” around the time it came out, and it planted the seeds that eventually lead me to become a laptop musician myself – though it was years after reading it. I guess, like “Technopagans,” it told me “This is something YOU can do.”
That’s great. That’s why I love writing about subcultures: I get drawn toward things I want or attract me, and then I try to communicate the attraction and the appeal, even if I don’t end up becoming a chaos magician or a laptop musician myself.
Here’s a question someone on Twitter just asked me to ask you: Have you faced any challenges as an independent scholar outside the university system?
Well its funny you should ask. I have faced some challenges, and the unfortunate fact is that, in terms of getting paid, the challenges have only gotten larger the more established in my career I have become. I came of age as a writer at a time when I was lucky enough to be able to live off interesting magazine work–I got paid for the Goa piece by Details magazine, all expense paid trip and a good fee, even though they never ran the story. That world is gone, at least for someone with my interests, which have only gotten farther off the beaten track as far as the “mainstream” goes. Which is why I have decided to cross the great divide and enter the academy. I am at a religious studies program at Rice that specializes in magic, mysticism, and the esoteric tradition. I still like to think of myself as an independent scholar though, cause I am just doing what I want to do!
In a round-table on the impact of the Internet on writing, you said “I find the internet-driven pressure to make pieces short, data-dense, and crisply opinionated — as opposed to thoughtful, multi-perspectival, and lyrical — rather oppressive, leading to a certain kind of superficial smugness as well as general submission to the forces of reference over reflection.” Since then, Slate has reportedly found long-form pieces on its site to be the among the most popular. Have you seen any shift back towards a demand for longer form work?
Well that’s wonderful news. I have certainly gotten great reactions from the half-dozen longish-form pieces I have written for HiLobrow this last year or so. They werent super-long, but they were dense and careful and reflective. I think the interest for this kind of stuff probably never went away but the editors and the people designing magazine and online templates went for the short stuff. I will be a happy camper if the pendulum swings back.
What are your favorite publications, print or otherwise?
Online I rove; I rarely return to the same place as if it were a magazine. Print is more conducive to a regular relationship, in my experience. I love Fortean Times, I can’t understand why everyone doesn’t have a subscription. Marvels and Wonders every issue. Coming to school I kind of went on a magazine diet though, so I am not reading the journals I normally do, from the annoying/enjoyable New Yorker to the occasional issues of Plazm. My parents just got me a subscription to The Economist, which is great because I don’t usually read that much news online, so it keeps me more “current”–whatever that means. But I like it because they write intelligently about this insane, totally fucked up world and somehow manage to seem chipper about it all.
And what’s next for you? Are you working on another full-length popular audience book, or are you completely focused on academia now?
I have always written some stuff that had an academic twist–I’ve hard articles in almost half a dozen university press books. So I will be emphasizing that side of the equation while still doing as much online and magazine work as possible. I’ve also been doing the Expanding Mind net radio show on the Progressive Radio Network for a year and a half, and will continue to do that. It’s great because I have to push myself to discover new and interesting people–or to remember all the interesting people who have crossed my path, and bring ’em on and find out what they’re doing now. I love that conversational style. I am also working on an collection of Philip K. Dick’s writings from the Exegesis which is really fun.
“The heyoka were different in three primary ways from the other sorts of clowns. They were truly unpredictable, and could do the unexpected or tasteless even during the most solemn of occasions. More so than other clowns, they really seemed to be insane. Also, they were thought to be more inspired by trans-human supernatural forces (as individuals driven by spirits rather than group conventions), and to have a closer link to wakan or power than other clowns. And lastly, they kept their role for life – it was a sacred calling which could not be given up without performing an agonizing ritual of expiation. Not surprisingly, these unique differences were seen as the result of their having visions of Thunderbird, a unique and transforming experience.
Testimony of Black Elk: the heyoka and lightning:
The Oglala Indian Black Elk had some interesting things to say about the heyoka ceremony, which he himself participated in. Black Elk describes the “dog in boiling water” ceremony in some detail. He also describes the bizarre items he had to carry as a heyoka, and the crazy antics he had to perform with his companions. He also attempts to explain the link between the contrary trickster nature of heyokas with that of Thunderbird.
“When a vision comes from the thunder beings of the West, it comes with terror like a thunder storm; but when the storm of vision has passed, the world is greener and happier; for wherever the truth of vision comes upon the world, it is like a rain. The world, you see, is happier after the terror of the storm… you have noticed that truth comes into this world with two faces. One is sad with suffering, and the other laughs; but it is the same face, laughing or weeping. When people are already in despair, maybe the laughing is better for them; and when they feel too good and are too sure of being safe, maybe the weeping face is better. And so I think this is what the heyoka ceremony is for … the dog had to be killed quickly and without making any scar, as lightning kills, for it is the power of lightning that heyokas have.” (quoted in Neihardt 1959: 160)
Today, of course, Western physicists describe the dual nature of electricity. An object can carry a positive or negative electric charge. The electron is simultaneously a wave and a particle. Electricity and magnetism are thought to be aspects of the same force, and as is well know with magnetism, it comes in polarities, with opposite poles (north and south) attracting. Though the Indians did not have access to our modern scientific instruments, they are likely to have observed some of the same properties in lightning. Thus it would have been intuitive to link the dual spiritual nature of the heyoka (tragicomedy – solemn joking – joy united with pain) with the dual nature of electricity.”
I think that that a “moment of silence” would work as an option, but not if it’s “mandatory” (i.e. a law). If you called it “a moment of reflection” and not a “moment of prayer”, then I think this could be beneficial. Isn’t this what “recess” is all about?
Also, I’ve found that those who don’t take the opportunity to reflect are often the ones who need it the most.
“A federal judge has ruled unconstitutional a law passed by the Illinois legislature requiring the state’s schools to require a moment of prayer or reflection on the day’s activities.
U.S. District Judge Robert W. Gettleman ruled Wednesday the law crosses the line separating church and state under the Constitution. He says in his ruling that the statute is a “subtle effort” to force students at “impressionable ages” to think about religion.”
“Two University of Missouri psychologists are proposing “a neurophysiological model of spiritual experience” that explains what is happening inside the brain when people experience feelings of selflessness and transcendence. The model “suggests that all individuals, regardless of cultural background or religion, experience the same neurophysiological/neuropsychological functions during spiritual experiences,” according to co-authors Brick Johnstone and Bret A. Glass. It also attempts to explain why these brain activities are interpreted in such different ways by people from different religious traditions and cultures.
Their work, which is detailed in a newly published paper in the journal Zygon, builds on that of researchers such as Dr. Andrew Newberg, who conducted MRI scans of meditating Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns engaging in contemplative prayer. As Miller-McCune reported in October, such activity is associated with increased activity in the frontal lobe, combined with decreased activity in another part of the brain, the parietal lobe.
The Missouri researchers approached the issue from another angle altogether, studying the spiritual experiences of people who suffered traumatic brain injuries. They asked 26 adults who had suffered such injuries about their personal spiritual experiences, the amount of time they devote to spiritual or religious practices and the degree to which they feel close to God or some other spiritual entity.”
“Tantra is the original ‘holistic’ way of life, yoking body, mind and spirit into living life as a whole. Polarities of good and evil, pure and impure, matter and spirit are done away with as unnecessary barriers to a direct experience of cosmic consciousness. With great finesse, tantra uses material reality for spiritual unfoldment. Lets play an associative game. What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘Tantra’? If you aren’t a practitioner or scholar or one who has delved into Tantra, chances are you will think ‘black magic’, ‘human sacrifice’, ‘skulls and bones’. You will also probably experience an adrenaline rush that screams, “Danger ahead. Run!”
This ‘fight or flight’ response to Tantra among most of us in urban India is not surprising. Ghastly news reports of criminal activities like murder and rape by so-called ‘tantriks’ are frequent, as are old wives’ tales of black magic where the villain is invariably an evil ‘tantrik’. Bollywood films and TV serials that portray tantriks as bizarre, crazy and villainous have reinforced this negative image. So that to a lot of us, Tantra feels like a cross between voodoo, the occult, and sorcery—bad stuff done by evil people.
For our counterparts in the West, the association is slightly different. Westerners who are ‘into’ eastern forms of spirituality have at some point or another heard of Tantra, and nine times out of ten, it has been in the context of sex. If one Google searches for ‘tantra’ on the internet, an overwhelming majority of websites that turn up on the computer screen promise ‘sacred sex’ and offer steamy pictures of acrobatic sexual positions. So what is Tantra, really? What best describes its practices—sex or sorcery? Since reality is never black or white but most often a synthesis of the two, there are several layers and shades to Tantra that belie a narrow either/or view.”
Once again it’s Thanksgiving in America. After enduring long lines at the liquor and grocery stores, and before deciding to slam a relative’s head in the cranberry sauce, here’s a thoughtful article on forgiveness. Have a safe and happy Thanksgiving, and to all our friends outside the U.S., have a great November 27th!
“Forgiveness can be a very beautiful and healing act. We can learn to forgive ourselves for some perceived inadequacy, or set aside rancor as we come to terms with the harm someone has done. Nonetheless, forgiveness is not something we should either universally or casually hand out. The word “forgive” comes from an early Germanic word meaning “to give whole-heartedly,” and was first derived from the Latin perdonare, meaning to pardon. A pardon is a release from penalty and obligation, something that may be highly inappropriate in the cases of repeated spousal abuse or the continued logging and burning of the world’s vital rainforests.If anything, surely those who cause harm out of self-interest or greed should be held accountable. Perhaps criminals should do acts of service for the people they have robbed, or vainglorious Wall Street managers should pay restitution to the public that they’ve wronged.
It’s important to remember that the opposite of forgiveness is neither hate nor holding a grudge, but holding someone responsible for their words, acts and omissions. And we need to hold each other as well as ourselves accountable for those things unworthy of being excused or condoned, not by punishing wrongdoers or submitting to punishment ourselves, but by insisting that they, like us, are honest about their actions, doing everything possible to rectify, heal and thereby be redeemed.
Redemption through caring and courageous acts is one of the most ennobling and compelling of human accomplishments, which is why it has been a core theme of much of our finest literature and film. This is not to say that it can nullify what we’ve thought and said before. Though I might wish otherwise, doing something right or even noble can’t erase the reality or the results of prior harmful actions. Redeeming ourselves does not “wipe the slate clean” or allow us to “start over,” the acts of which may not necessarily be desirable to us, since we distinguish ourselves through willful shift and conscious transition. We gain inner power not only from what we do, but from how far we have come.”
“The teachings of the Buddha have been variously understood by scholars, monks, and laypeople over the centuries. But what was it that the Buddha actually taught? While this remains an open and oft-debated question, scholar John Peacocke”‘in his work as both an academic and a dharma teacher”‘asserts that by looking to the history, language, and rich philosophical environment of the Buddha’s day we can uncover what is most distinctive and revolutionary about his teachings. Peacocke, who does not shy away from controversy, argues that in some very important ways, later Buddhist schools depart from early core teachings.
Peacocke has been practicing Buddhism since 1970. He was first exposed to Buddhism at monasteries in South India, where he ordained as a monk in the Tibetan tradition. He later studied in Sri Lanka, where Theravada Buddhism has flourished for centuries. Returning to lay life and his native England, Peacocke went on to receive his Ph.D. in Buddhist studies at the University of Warwick. He currently lectures on Buddhist and Hindu thought at the University of Bristol and next year will begin teaching at the Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy Master of Studies program at Oxford University. A former director of the Sharpham Centre for Buddhist Studies in Devon, England, Peacocke also serves on the teaching council at nearby Gaia House, a retreat center offering instruction in a variety of Buddhist traditions. He now teaches and practices in the Vipassana tradition. Tricycle editor James Shaheen visited with Peacocke near Bristol University in April to discuss what the language of the early Pali and Sanskrit texts tells us about Buddhism today.”
“Today I want to talk about lucid nightmares using the metaphor of frightening Near Death Experiences (fNDEs). Both of these states of consciousness are under-reported, most likely due to the taboos I explored in Part I of this series.
In general, Near Death Experiences have been compared to lucid dreams for decades. In both of these ‘altered states,’ the dreamer/visionary undergoes a conscious journey into unknown territory. The journeyer often sees white light, goes through a tunnel or vortex, and meets with ancestors or recently deceased family members. Seeing images of the divine, and having conversations with unseen ‘entities’ is also a strong pattern in both NDEs and lucid dreams.
REM Intrusion or Otherworldly Journey?
The difference, of course, is that NDEs occur after a serious brush with death. And, also, lucid dreamers interpret this class of experience as ‘a dream’ while people who have a NDE interpret their experience as ‘real.’ Interestingly, some neurologists have suggested that NDEs may be due to REM intrusion into waking consciousness. In my mind, this neurological perspective does not reduce a NDE to a biomechanical glitch.
Instead, this material layer complements the imaginal experiences. NDEs are psychologically real, and have been shown in many studies to change people’s views of reality and positively mark their lives forever, REM intrusion or not. But not everyone has a good time in their NDE. The white light, the life review, feelings of love and acceptance…. these are the most common reports, but others have decidedly frightening NDEs. Bruce Greyson and Nancy Evans Bush first collected anecdotes and established a typology back in the 1980s.”