by Ian Stevenson
This year's TAP Conference, which takes place on 18th March, is headlined Cutting Edge Connections between Spirituality and Psychotherapy and features top speakers Melody Cranborne Rosser and Larry Culliford. (Find out more and book HERE) But what do we mean by 'cutting edge'? Here long-time TAP Council member Ian Stevenson puts forward his thoughts....
What is 'cutting edge spirituality'? It’s a good question. Just before the last OFSTED inspection I had to endure, the Head shared a worry. “In the last inspection, the lay assessor said he saw little spirituality in the school. What did he mean and how can we improve on it?’
There were various answers: ‘a sense of awe’ said the Head of Science, who was a churchgoer; a sense of community; having prayers in Assembly (we didn’t do that very often) and encouraging moral behaviour. Personally, I think we have other words for these things. To me, spirituality implies something meta-physical, something beyond the material world. (As it turned out, it was not commented on in the inspection.)
Is Spirituality just a nice idea or do we have reasons for thinking it is more than that?
In my youth, 1960s, spirituality more or less equaled religion. When, as a new teacher, we took information on pupils for registers there was a box marked religion. Many children said, ‘I’ll have to ask.’ I was told, if uncertain, ‘Church of England’ would do!
Religion was something you believed in or not. There were a few who looked for a more empirical approach. The Society for Psychic Research, which goes back to 1882, investigated supernatural, or in more modern terms, para-normal phenomena. Despite a vast amount of data, few educated people gave it much credence. The end of the sixties did see what was dubbed “the New Age’, which was a bottom up exploration of new ideas in psychology and science blended with old teachings from around the world such as Buddhism. It ranged from the ridiculous to high philosophy. Carl Jung, who died in 1961, was the most quoted psychologist but there were others such as Maslow or Grof. However, the ‘New Age’ thinking was largely ignored by the educational and religious establishments even though ‘New Age’ books sold well. It was also ignored by the scientific world although meditation and yoga became popular albeit usually justified by its therapeutic properties.
New ideas often infiltrate themselves into public acceptance as the older generation passes on and a new generation looks for different answers to perennial questions. There were more university educated people looking for meaning and now they could glean information from a wide range of available resources thanks to modern communications. New leaders began to emerge.
For the last thirty years the Dalai Lama (who has endorsed one of our speakers’ -Larry Culliford-books) has held a conference at Dharamsala or elsewhere with Western scientists and they discuss their understandings of such subjects as meditation and neuroscience; the role of emotions, and the interface between modern physics and ancient wisdom. When they started, the Dalai Lama said if they showed something that Buddhism believed to be scientifically wrong, then Buddhism wold have to change. In fact they didn’t find anything.
In 1973 Dr Edgar Mitchell, the Apollo 14 astronaut, founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences. On the way back from the Moon, he had an experience of being part of ‘Universe of Consciousness’. Noetic means using intuitive knowledge. Together with the scientific (left brain?) approach, the Institute addresses the questions raised by the experience. He felt it could bring about a deeper understanding of who we really are and would help to bring people together.
In that same year, 1973, In Britain, George Blaker and several others founded the Scientific and Medical Network. They thought that neither orthodox religion nor conventional science could give adequate answers to ‘the mysteries of he Cosmos’. The materialist explanation of the brain didn’t seem to explain a lot of things. The SMN has numbered such people as -Dr. Mary Midgeley , Sir John Polkinghorn, Sir Crispin Tickell, Sir Roger Penrose and …me (to dilute it a bit )!
In 1999 Dr.Antony Powell at the Royal College of Psychiatrists formed a special interest group on Spirituality. Other groups include working with the elderly or in criminality. Today it is the largest special interest group and one can read their newsletter on the web. Our speaker, Larry Culliford was part of this.
I would also include Dr.Gary Schwatrz’s research in the US. We have probably seen on TV , Darren Browne who describes himself as a ‘mentalist’. He says he can replicate the results achieved by mediums and clairvoyants by using techniques such as cold reading. Schwartz put the mediums and the ‘sitters’ in different rooms where they could see or hear each other, and the mediums continued to get results. I have given a talk on this in Bristol. The work is criticised by some but I thought the criticisms were generalities and did not address the points raised.
So what has emerged to engage these very distinguished people? I could suggest several things but there are two main ones: the ability to investigate the brain in greater depth e.g. with fMRI, and the implications of that such as the near death experiences ; 2) the greater understanding of quantum physics and how that relates to consciousness.
Some quantum physicists see consciousness as a fundamental property of the universe and not something produced by the brain, but rather mediated by it as a radio is not the origin of a program but the medium by which we hear it. This would imply we do indeed swim like fish in an ocean of consciousness.
These are raise exciting and fundamental questions as to who we really are but one may ask; what has this to do with counselling and psychotherapy? We do things like finding out what is of meaning to our clients and helping them to have a better relationship with themselves and live more resourcefully. But what could a study of spirituality add?
This was a question when we first had brain scanning equipment. How would knowing which parts of the brain ‘light up’ when we experience certain emotions, actually influence therapy. But I think many would answer it has been , for many, a useful contribution. We gain a better understanding of who we are.
I suggest there are several areas it could influence.
We can look at evidence for a metaphysical ( beyond or above ) dimension and not just take it on faith. Of course, there are persuasive people who argue the opposite, like Daniel Dennett, but we have evidence we can assess, rather than believe it or not.
Our sense of connection with the wider universe. This is the traditional area of religion and philosophy, where the field of universal consciousness, or whatever you wish to call it, might influence us giving meaning and purpose to our lives. The study could enable one to see the different religions as tributaries flowing into a common stream. Surely of use in the modern world?
Spirituality suggests we are not separate collections of neutrons but individuals as having a part in the universe, and relationships with others and the natural world.
To end on a personal note, when I look at the neurological information and the ethics of spirituality in their several forms, I am reminded of Paul Gilbert’s Compassion Focused Therapy which we heard so ably presented by Dr. Christopher Irons in the 2013 conference . Those concepts have enhanced my practice.
One doesn’t need to accept all the concepts I’ve outlined here in order to derive some benefit from the study. My hope is that the conference won’t just be the delivery of information on the day but an encouragement to find out more.
We would love to know what you think - please do post comment below.