I went to a talk recently by Rupert Sheldrake the English author and biologist, perhaps most well known for his hypothesis of morphic resonance which he expounded in the early eighties. The event I attended was about the topic of his new book ‘Science and Spiritual Practices: Transformative experiences and their effects on our bodies, brains, and health’.
In this book, he examines seven spiritual practices known to be beneficial and then explains the scientific research available to show that from a scientific viewpoint these practices are indeed beneficial. The talk covered four of the seven practices. As I listened, I considered how each of the practices matched with my own practice of Huna kalakupua. I offer some of my own brief reflections here:
There is a growing body of research on the benefits of meditation. This gathered momentum in the 1960’s when Herbert Benson studied the effects of meditation, in particular, mantra-based Transcendental Meditation (TM). Others such as Jon Kabat-Zinn researched the effects of mindfulness style meditation based on Buddhist practices. From a scientific point of view, meditation has been shown to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system (what Benson termed the ‘relaxation response’) with the attendant effects: relaxation, healing, stress reduction, calmness etc.
From a kalakupua perspective, these are indeed excellent benefits and contribute to avoiding ‘iha ‘iha – the build-up of tension which leads to ill health. Beyond this, however, mediation can be much much more and can have many desired outcomes. Whether using a ‘nalu’ (passive) or ‘hua’ (active) form of meditation, it provides me with the opportunity to connect with more than I usually do in waking life and to strengthen mind, body and spiritual connections.
Studies have shown that grateful people feel happier than those who do not, plus there are numerous health effects ranging from increased friendships, increased self- esteem, less self-centeredness, improved goal achievement and increased energy. In addition to the interpersonal benefits, the grateful person is perceived as more popular and is liked by others. For an excellent well-presented summary of some of the effects of gratitude, I would recommend the following blog post http://happierhuman.com/benefits-of-gratitude/ (for which I am extremely grateful!).
The ‘attitude of gratitude’ is a key component of Huna practice and is wonderfully expounded in the magical Aloha Spirit Booklet (http://www.hunahawaii.com/Files/alohaspiritbooklet.pdf). The ‘Little Pink Booklet’ contains so much simple and powerful wisdom which easily belies its tiny size. Not a day passes where I do not use one or more techniques to express gratitude.
There are of course many rituals in secular and religious contexts including birthdays and celebrations marking the passage of time, rites of passage, marriages, funerals, rituals around sporting events and many more. Sheldrake emphasises identification (with a particular group) and remembrance as some of the purposes of ritual. Interestingly he speculated that generally rituals were ‘conservative’ in nature (in terms of language and gestures used) and that this may be because, following the hypothesis of morphic resonance, they allow a deep connection across time with similar rituals that have been performed. So, the ritual when done in a similar way connects with the pattern of the ‘first’ time the ritual was done and all past generations that have performed the ritual as well as all future generations that will perform the ritual.
I think this is an interesting idea although I am not convinced of the necessity of the conservatism of ritual, as I have experienced some very ad hoc less formalised rituals which have worked extremely well. Perhaps it is more about the pattern of intention that carries across time and generations?
Well performed rituals impress participants and observers as well as our own Ku. There are many benefits of ritual ranging from honouring, gratitude, focussing and connecting. Rituals, ranging from formalised group rituals to personal informal daily rituals are an effective aspect of kalakupua practice. In respect of connecting, it is interesting to consider whether a rise in interest in shamanic and other practices which emphasise ritual has come about in an effort to restore an element of connection that has been lost for many people.
Clearly, there can be religious or non-religious motivations for pilgrimage. The Oxford English Dictionary provides a few definitions of pilgrim including ‘a person who journeys to a sacred place for religious reasons’ and ‘a person travelling to a place of particular personal interest’. Pilgrimages take place all over the world.
There are many examples of pilgrimages covering different faiths that are still made including Christian healing trips to Lourdes in France, pilgrimages to Bodh Gaya where the Buddha is said to have obtained enlightenment and pilgrimages to the Golden Temple Amritsar in India. For some, expeditions to scale high mountains and uncharted terrains can have an element of pilgrimage to them. I was interested to find out that in England during the time of the rise of Protestantism, Oliver Cromwell banned acts of pilgrimage, yet before that undertaking, a pilgrimage was a fairly commonplace practice.
The benefits of pilgrimage include a sense of purpose, increased focus and contemplation, and connection. In some traditions, a sacred place was considered to be somewhere where spirit and matter met, for example, where heaven meets the earth. I recall my first trip to Hawaii years back and how it was something out of the ordinary and something that was much more than a tourist trip – it was to experience a calling that I felt within.
As I look back now, I realise that that experience was a form of pilgrimage following my desire to connect physically with the islands and the sense of spirit I perceived to be there. A recent trip to Big Island again had elements of pilgrimage to it. It is fascinating to see and experience the power and sense of awe, for example, at Kilauea Crater in Volcanoes National Park and other sacred sites on the island which goes far beyond admiration for amazing and unique scenery and touches on something deep and spiritual within.
In some cases, the element of a shared experience with others added to the experience, such as sharing sunrise rituals at the crater. In other cases, solitude and deeply contemplative connection with something bigger than myself were most effective. In the kalakupua tradition, we are fortunate to be able to make journeys in both the outer and inner worlds, and, perhaps it is to be expected of an Huna adventurer that some form of pilgrimage takes place from time to time.
The three other practices, that were not discussed in the talk were: connecting with nature; relating to plants, and singing and chanting. In Huna, there are many techniques for working with the elements, including plants. Chanting and singing are also practiced in both ritual and non- ritual contexts. It is interesting to note that vibration such as stimulated by chanting and humming has been found to stimulate the vagus nerve. This is the longest nerve in the parasympathetic system which passes through the neck and thorax down to the abdomen. The vagus nerve is linked to the parasympathetic function of the organs in the body which govern the ‘rest and digest’ aspect of body functioning. It is also considered the system in which healing takes place.
Will scientific evidence encourage more spiritual practices?
The aim of the book was not to justify these practices, as clearly the benefits exist whether or not we can scientifically measure them. In fact, the only way to derive any benefit from these practices is through the application and direct experience regardless of whether there is a significant body of peer-reviewed research papers or not. It is interesting when science corroborates what we already know.
Science has its place but it is only one way of viewing the world. I am mindful of a tweet I saw a while back from the actor John Cleese which got a bit of attention. It read “I would like 2016 to be the year when people remembered that science is a method of investigation and NOT a belief system”. Everything has its place and perhaps scientific evidence and validation will encourage more people to revisit and benefit from such practices which I believe would be a good thing.
This article first appeared on Aloha International.