Syntagma Digital
Editor, John Evans

Midweek Mysticism: Books of the year

It’s that time of year again to look at the top books published in 2012, rate them, and consider their value as Christmas presents.

This year the field covers Mysticism, Spirituality, Science and Literature. Here are my top five:

1. Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, by Dr Eben Alexander.

Top of the chart must be neurosurgeon, Dr Eben Alexander’s eye-popping account of the meningitis bugs that ate the human part of his brain and what happened after that.

“My near-death experience … took place not while my cortex was malfunctioning, but while it was simply off. … According to current medical understanding of the brain and mind, there is absolutely no way that I could have experienced even a dim and limited consciousness during my time in the coma, much less the hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey I underwent.”

He made a full recovery and wrote a fascinating account of his experiences when, according to science, he should have been dead. A must-read for anyone interested in the field, whether mysticism or neuroscience.

* * * * *
2. QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

This is a fine book, immensely readable and admirably covering the ground. At the end, Susan Cain homes-in on the story of Stephen Wozniak, whom you will not have heard of if you are not a nerd.

He was the true founder of Apple Computers — now with a world-beating market capitalisation of $600bn — only teaming up with Steve Jobs after he had designed and built by hand the first prototype of a modern personal computer with keyboard and screen. It was a seminal moment, and he did it at home in his bedroom. Typical.

* * * * *
3. The Lion’s World by Rowan Williams, outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Lion’s World examines C.S Lewis’s children’s book series about Narnia, a mythical world that only youngsters can see at first, but which develops into a broad metaphor for a field of action, an alternative world, dominated by the Christlike Aslan, a giant lion.

The books have their own slightly dotty charm which must be experienced not read about. As indeed does The Lion’s World, which I won’t labour too much. If you know Narnia and like the sound of this, I heartily recommend it.

* * * * *
4. War of the Worldviews: Science vs Spirituality

Deepak Chopra is a top-notch member of the aristocracy of writers on spirituality. His many insightful books over the years have covered topics as diverse as health, wealth, immortality and spiritual laws for parents. As a medical doctor he is also very much at home writing about science.

War of the Worldviews: Science vs Spirituality is co-authored with cosmologist Leonard Mlodinow, who also co-wrote The Grand Design with Stephen Hawking. Under a series of topics, each author has written a short essay, bouncing ideas off each other. It’s an exhilarating read.

* * * * *
5. The Science Delusion, by Dr Rupert Sheldrake

The biologist, Dr Rupert Sheldrake in his new book, explains the process of memory with the term morphic resonance. He points out that Ivan Pavlov, famous for his experiments on the conditioning of dogs, proved that this conditioning “could survive massive surgical damage to the brain”, showing that it was not brain-dependent.

Clearly, memories are not made of wired circuits within the skull, but have a non-local source more akin to telepathy than is conventionally understood. This extended mind, as Sheldrake terms it, is surrounding us at all times. We have built-in receptors to filter much of it out, but are mostly unaware of how this works. A worthy book and a fine read.

John Evans

… who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.

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DIARY: Phoney war, Sheldrake, Poppycock Watch: Activists, Plankton for tea, Lonely swan, Profundity of the Week

Swans mating

With the British political scene dominated by the Leveson Inquiry into media shenanigans, it sometimes appears as if these islands are insulated from the growing disaster across the water in the Eurozone.

Frau Merkel talks a lot about fiscal union and “more Europe” while doing nothing about it. David Cameron urges the Continent to coalesce into a country called Europe, while half-promising that Britain won’t be involved.

Vetoes are whispered of into incredulous ears, and a referendum dangled in words as cheap as chips.

Let’s face it, no-one will nail their colours to the mast until somebody else makes the first move and our wretched politicos can act without being blamed for the mess.

We have also had much chatter about “real Conservatism”. Frankly, many of us would just like some Conservatism, real or not.

What the Prime Minister seems unable to grasp is that the more he imitates the vacuous Blair, the more a growing chunk of the electorate despises him. Does the man have no self-knowledge?

If he can leave his young daughter in a pub, surely he can leave the ghost of Tony somewhere appropriate?

Europe boils and bubbles, poised to shapeshift dramatically, almost all options for the worst. British politicians distance themselves from the darkening scene, but can’t resist delivering the occasional pin-prick of defiance, utterly powerless to act.

It will remind older folk of the phoney war at the close of the 1930s. They will no doubt reflect that it didn’t end well.

* * * * *

Rupert Sheldrake, whom I wrote about last week, has certainly stirred up some feedback here at Syntagma Towers, mostly positive. Read the article HERE.

Anyone near London interested in following this up might like to know that the controversial scientist will be live in dialogue with American evolutionary mystic Andrew Cohen at EnlightenmentNext Centre, 13 Windsor Street, N1 8QG on 20th June. Tickets £18 if booked early, £22 at the door.

I can’t make it, alas, but it should be a very stimulating evening for those able to get there.

* * * * *

Poppycock Watch
Have you noticed the increasing number of dotty job descriptions that have sprung up in recent years? I met someone last week who said she was an Activist.

You mean a kind of lobbyist, said I. No, not central government, just general, all-inclusive stuff.

So, a multipurpose, multifunctioning busybody, thought I. A little bit of this and a little bit of that.

Social, political, scientific, any area of deprivation or unfairness, quoth she, with a hint of superiority over the rest of us who mind our own business.

But who pays people like that? It can’t be the private sector. A company spokesperson wouldn’t be referred to as an Activist, nor anyone else for that matter.

It must be the infinitely giving public sector, where no waif or stray is knowingly rejected and is provided with an all-inclusive income for doing daft things.

I wondered if I should reclassify myself as a Mystical Activist?

But nobody on earth would pay me for that.

* * * * *

An orange plume of oily gunge has appeared on our river in recent weeks. It has the air of something originating from a sewage outlet upstream.

The alarming thing is that the swans can’t seem to get enough of it, scooping it up in their beaks with relish. What do they think they’re doing? They have ample grazing land and lots of river life to feed on.

Then, our local Met Office man solved the riddle. It is a plume of phyto-plankton, of vegetable origin and, as Holland & Barrett reminds us, super-nutritious.

Animals are not as daft as they look.

* * * * *

Another little vignette of life’s woe is being played out in the swan colony here.

Among the 200 or so white swans has appeared one black swan, an Aussie intruder into a living Tchaikovskyesque tableau. He (if it is a he — hard to tell) sails around on his own, seemingly shunned by the locals.

Yesterday, as if in despair, he plunged in amongst a group of fifty of them and uttered a cry of such anguish, head pointing to the sky as in prayer, that everyone stopped in amazement.

I should add, before Trevor Phillips or Polly Toynbee descend on us with cries of racism, the white ones are so placid it would be difficult to accuse them of anything at all. His only hope of finding a mate, I think, is if he comes across another swan as lonely as himself.

If Danny Kaye was still with us, I’m sure he’d have a song for it.

Profundity of the Week
“Being born in a duck yard does not matter, if only you are hatched from a swan’s egg.” Hans Christian Andersen

John Evans

who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.

Mystics in the Modern World is coming soon.

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Midweek Mysticism: Rupert Sheldrake in the Guardian

Rupert Sheldrake It’s not often I say this, and may never again, but The Guardian has an excellent article in today’s online edition.

Rupert Sheldrake: the ‘heretic’ at odds with scientific dogma is a very good read. Note the quotes around heretic; plus the phrase, scientific dogma. Tim Adams is clearly a journalist with an open mind, unlike the sainted Polly Toynbee of this parish, whose pursed-lipped, lemon sucking performance on Jubilee Sunday’s Marr paper review was jaw dropping in the circumstances.

The article ostensibly reviews the spiritual scientist’s new book, The Science Delusion, with its echoes of revolt against Richard Dawkins’s effort, The God Delusion, but goes much further than that.

Adams lets Sheldrake speak for himself. He would have preferred a different title but his publisher seems to have spotted a good controversy to be had. The work is selling very well.

The title doesn’t matter, the book is a wonderful ride through the territory that is often seen as anti-science, ie mystical, when really it fills in the gaps that scientists can’t grasp with their clunky tools and pretend don’t exist.

But they do matter, for in those gaps is contained a majestic worldview that does justice to the many imponderables of human existence. Sheldrake himself is no pot-smoking weirdo — although he had his moments in India, like many others of his generation.

His scientific CV is starry and far superior to the majority of his critics: a former Cambridge biochemistry don, he was one of the brightest Darwinians of his generation, winner of the university botany prize, researcher at the Royal Society, Harvard scholar and fellow of Clare College. He deserves a hearing at least.

When his first book was published, the journal Nature imperiously pronounced it “a book for burning”. What could they have been afraid of?

Not surprisingly, he now writes about “the limitations and hubris of contemporary scientific thought”. For those of us ploughing a similar field of furrows, the summary of contents on the back cover of Science Delusion is a feast:

* The universe may be alive
* The “laws of nature” may be habits that change and evolve
* Minds may extend far beyond the confines of brains
* The total amount of matter and energy may be increasing
* Children may, after all, inherit characteristics that their parents acquired
* Memories may not be stored … in our brains …
* Nature may have inherent purposes.

In my view, it all comes down to the presence of two types of people in the world. One sees a wall and takes out a tape measure, believing it will reveal all about the wall. The other wonders what lies beyond it and seeks ways to get there.

The first type is fearful that the wall may be a delusion and attempts to solidify it as a list of dimensions. The second is fascinated by the delusionary possibilities of the wall and wants to explore the consquences.

The two are not incompatible, as Sheldrake shows. The difficulty is that a world that is not what it seems raises atavistic terrors in the minds of the measuring type. They defend their territory by any means available, even rage and violence. Sheldrake was once stabbed by a knife-wielding student.

As Rupert Sheldrake puts it: “To describe the overwhelming life of a tropical forest just in terms of inert biochemistry and DNA didn’t seem to give a very full picture of the world.” Or again, “electrical changes in the cortex didn’t seem able to fully explain Bach”.

For me, despite its apparent search for the “new”, science as we know it is desperately defending a physical view of the cosmos that allows its practitioners to sleep at night. They are true defenders of the faith. Like priesthoods, their tenacity can be vicious.

Consequently, their understanding of the world is 3000 years behind the great spiritual masters. You wouldn’t think that early science began with mysticism.

If you’ve got an hour to spare, and don’t mind a little tedium, read some of the 650 comments on the piece online, mostly against the truthsayer.

Well, it is The Guardian.

John Evans

… who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.

Mystics in the Modern World is coming soon.

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