Richard G. Petty, MD

The Vagal Path to Compassion

Students of biology or medicine will likely be familiar with one of the largest single nerves in the body, called the vagus or “wandering” nerve. The nerve emerges from the brainstem and is one of the most important contributors to the parasympathetic nervous system, having important effects on the heart, lungs and intestines. The vagus causes the heart to slow, the intestines and kidneys to become more active and the bronchi to constrict. The vagus also has profound effects on metabolism: it has been known for more than a century that stimulating the base of the brain with opiates can cause the release of glucose from the liver, an effect mediated by the vagus. The nerve is also involved in the interaction of the immune system and the brain.

In recent years a technique called vagus nerve stimulation has been found to help some people with intractable epilepsy or treatment resistant depression. Many of the techniques of yogic or Taoist breathing as well as some techniques for inducing altered states of consciousness by eye movements or stimulating specific points on the ears all revolve around vagal stimulation. Some of these techniques have been shown to produce a sustained reduction in blood pressure.

I would like to focus upon the effects of the vagus on the heart. The heart is a physical location of an aspect of our emotional functioning. In Chinese Medicine it is known as the repository of Shen or Spirit. The heart is more than just a pump. It is also an important endocrine gland, and there is some evidence that it is also a sensory organ, with a sophisticated system for receiving and processing information. The neural network within the heart enables it to learn and remember. The heart constantly communicates with the brain, influencing key areas involved in perception, cognition and emotional processing.

You or someone you know may have had a baby. In which case you or they will have had intrauterine cardiac monitoring. Normally the baby’s heart rate varies from minute to minute. Some forty years ago it was discovered that if that variation stopped, it could be a harbinger of doom. Obstetricians knew this, but the rest of medicine forgot about the observation until 1991. Since then there has been enormous interest in the phenomenon of heart rate variability (HRV), because if it is lost, it can be a potent predictor of health problems. HRV reflects the tone in the autonomic nervous system. If this system becomes unbalanced, it can have effects on most of the major organs.

In the Ageless Wisdom the vagus is called our psychic antenna. We all have one, but not all of us have relearned how to use it. Many psychic stressors can produce physical effects via the vagus nerve. When doing acupuncture or energy healing it is very common for the patient to get a slowing of their heart rate and abdominal rumblings, which are sure signs of vagal activity. Psychics often get problems with their intestines while working with people, not from upset, but because they are exercising their skills.

There has been some interesting speculations about the role of the vagus in social behavior. Researchers have found
that children with high levels of vagal activity are more resilient,
can better handle stress, and get along better with peers than children
with lower vagal tone.

There is a project underway at the University of California at Berkeley to see whether the vagus nerve might be the seat of compassion. Dacher Keltner is a professor of psychology and coeditor of Greater Good, a magazine about prosocial behaviors such as compassion and forgiveness. He has been examining the novel hypothesis that the vagus nerve is related to prosocial behavior such as caring for others and connecting with other people.

In his laboratory, Keltner has found that the level of activity in people’s vagus nerve correlates with how warm and friendly they are to other people. Interestingly, it also correlates with how likely they are to report having had a spiritual experience during a six-month follow-up period. Vagal tone is correlated with how much compassion people feel when they are presented with slides showing people in distress, such as starving children or people who are wincing or have a look of suffering on their faces.

Perhaps a key to compassion is to be found in the heart and the face.

Compassion is crucial to our survival. But compassion leavened with wisdom.

“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.”
–The 14th Dalai Llama (a.k.a. Tenzin Gyatso, Tibetan Religious and Political Leader, 1935-)

“Out of compassion I destroy the darkness of their ignorance. From within them I light the lamp of wisdom and dispel all darkness from their lives."
–Bhagavad Gita

Mystical Experience

I recently wrote a little bit about mystical experiences and mentioned the most widely used “definition,” the Stace Criteria:

  1. Deeply positive mood
  2. Experience of Union
  3. Ineffable sense
  4. Enhanced sense of meaning, authenticity and reality
  5. Altered space and time perception/transcendence
  6. Acceptance of normally contradictory propositions

There are many ways of inducing the mystical state: –

  • Meditation
  • Prayer
  • Control of breathing: e.g. Pranayama
  • Chanting: e.g. Zoroastrian priests
  • Dance and movement: for example the whirling Dervishes or Morihei Ueshiba who reportedly achieved a state of mystical union after performing kata
  • Light, as happened with the mystic Jacob Boehme
  • Biofeedback
  • Mantra
  • Drugs

Although many people deliberately seek mystical experiences, some come out of a clear blue sky: the French writer, philosopher and Marxist materialist, Simone Weil, reported how reciting a devotional-metaphysical poem by the English religious poet George Herbert (1593-1633) while highly concentrated and emotional, turned her from an agnostic into a mystic. She was not looking for it to happen: it was unsought as it was unexpected. What was interesting was that after that first time, particularly in the last year of her life, she had mystical insights several times a week. Despite – or perhaps because – she was suffering from tuberculosis and was first in a hospital and then in a sanatorium during most of that time.

Some children have had a mystical glimpse before the age of ten, more during adolescence and still more during their thirties or forties. Richard Maurice Bucke in his classic book, Cosmic Consciousness, thought that the peak time was in the early thirties, but it can still happen in people in their seventies.

Many people need a dramatic shock – some form of enforced awakening – that subjugates the ego. Only then do they come alive spiritually. This enforced awakening is effective only if it breaks down old habits, trends, and beliefs. It may come about through working with or reading a teacher like Krishnamurti or Gurdjieff, or through major life events like a life threatening illness or unexpected bereavement. There is also little doubt that people become more interested in spiritual matters and more receptive to them at key points in their lives. Sometimes the experiences may occur as part of the process of individuation described by Carl Jung.

Some years ago I wrote a speculative piece suggesting that some mystical experiences may be triggered by a neurological mechanism involving the reticular activating system of the brain. The popular idea that mysticism is somehow related to the right hemisphere of the brain is probably not accurate. With the passage of time, it begins to look as if those speculations were accurate. Though one of the points that I made at the time, is that although we might be able to find a neurological substrate for mystical experiences that provide the form of the experience, that still left us with the problem of the content of the experience and therefore of its meaning for the individual.

At the beginning, the content of the mystical experience is culture bound and tends to be a product of a person’s belief system, which is why some mystics contradict each other. The Indian spiritual teacher Swami Ramdas (1884-1963) said that joy was both evidence of spiritual fulfillment and an ingredient of spiritual practice, while Simone Weil took an exactly opposite view and substituted unhappiness and suffering for joy: each proposed that a personal experience reflected a broadly universal truth. This is has been a common error for many spiritual teachers and their followers.

Saint Teresa of Ávila, a.k.a. St. Teresa de Jesus, the Spanish nun, mystic and author (1515-1582) was brought up in the Roman Catholic Church, and her mystical revelations fit into classical Catholic dogma. In contrast a modern Christian mystic – Holden Edward Sampson – who was brought up in the Protestant Evangelical Church, thought that his personal experiences proved that Saint Teresa’s writings were false.

These differences of opinion, even amongst the most advanced mystics, are striking but not often discussed. As an example, it amused me to see Ramana Maharshi make gentle fun of Sri Aurobindo’s doctrine of spiritual planes. I love and rever the workds of both of these sages. Simone Weil staunchly promoted the spirituality of Greek culture while the French-born writer René Guénon a.k.a. Sheikh ‘Abd al-Wahid Yahya thought that there was nothing much
to it. As people progress, there is usually more of a confluence:
mystics tend to report similar experiences, but they are often still
colored by their past lives.

Many people have mystical and spiritual experiences without knowing what is happening to them: they have never studied or been taught anything about them. I have seen quite a number of people who were supposed to be suffering from a psychotic episode, but who were actually having a profound spiritual experience. I have seen many thousands of psychotic people in almost fifty countries, and it is normally not that difficult to differentiate a breakdown from a breakthrough. Though even the most experienced of people sometimes find it difficult to be 100% certain what is going on.

It is essential for health care providers and for anyone who comes into contact with an individual who is having strange experiences, not simple to label them as mentally ill, but to remain alert to the possibility that there may be something yet more profound and meaningful going on in their lives.

Though for some people medicines, psychotherapy and the rest may be very helpful, others need spiritual support and guidance as they grow through a process of spiritual growth.

Blue Light at Night Morning Delight

Do you ever see that episode of the original Star Trek in which Spock is accidentally – and temporarily – blinded when he is exposed to ultra-bright light to drive out a parasite? For people who like to know such things, it was episode 29, entitled Operation: Annihilate!

In the end it turns out that he only needed to have been exposed to one invisible wavelength of light. Naturally enough, being Star Trek it all comes out all right in the end.

I was reminded of this as I examined some extraordinarily important recent research from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. We have known for a long time that light is an effective treatment for seasonal affective disorder (SAD). However, until now, nobody has been able to determine the best wavelength to use. This new research found that the most effective wavelength was blue. It is thought that blue light therapy may help a great many more things than SAD.

SAD is one of a group of disorders involving our circadian rhythms. Many experts are currently trying to establish the relationship between SAD and another major disturbance of circadian rhythms: bipolar disorder. They are certainly not the same thing, but they are closely related to each other. Some other circadian rhythm disturbances that may respond to blue light are sleep disturbances, jet lag, sleepiness during shift work and spaceflight.

It has always been assumed that the brain’s major pacemaker – the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) – only responded to bright light at a certain time of day. The SCN regulates the production of melatonin by the pineal gland. The fact that lower-intensity blue light is more effective than the most visible kinds of light is part of a body of evidence that there is a separate photoreceptor system within the human eye. The system that resets the body clock to the 24-hour day is different from the rods and cones used in regular vision.

In linked research by the same investigators, as well as a team from and Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, blue light was shown to directly reduce sleepiness. People exposed to blue light were able to sustain a high level of alertness during the night when people usually feel most sleepy. The results suggest that light may be a powerful countermeasure for the negative effects of fatigue for people who work at night.

There is more to this research: breast cancer is linked to fluctuations in human circadian rhythms, with higher rates in industrialized countries where there is a great deal of exposure to artificial light at night. It has been suggested that melatonin may be a link between artificial light and breast cancer. Blue light may perhaps mitigate some of the effects of light on suppressing melatonin.

There is another point to be made here. Many people teach techniques of being able to see the human aura. Many of the techniques of the “See the aura in 30 seconds” type, are no more than visual illusions. But there is another group of techniques that involves the use of peripheral vision to gradually become aware of the fields around people, animals and plants. By a strange “conincidence” the ancients identified the pineal gland with the “third eye.” Have the researchers inadvertently found a biological mechanism for seeing auras?

“Sleeplessness is a desert without vegetation or inhabitants.”

–Jessamyn West (American Writer, 1902-1984)

Hypnagogia: The Waking Dream

Most of us have experienced the brief transition between wakefulness and sleep as we fall asleep. This is the hypnagogic state, though it has been known by many names: “the borderland state," the “half-dream state,” the “pre-dream condition.” The name for these strange hallucinations is “hypnagogia.”

Although there are innumerable books about dreams, there is to my knowledge only one book in English that is dedicated to hypnagogia, by the psychologist Andreas Mavromatis. There are also not that many good websites dealing with the phenomenon, though I’ve found one or two really good ones. This is a little surprising, for the hypnagogic state is one of the most fascinating altered states of consciousness that we can experience without the use of drugs, and there are dozens of spiritual schools that encourage their students to work with these hypnagogic hallucinations. They are different form the hallucinations that may occur in neurological problems: those tend to occupy only one sense at a time, while the hypnagogic hallucinations, though sometimes no more that flashes of light or odd shapes, can be highly complex and involve multiple sensory modalities: what we call multi-modal hallucinations. Some people may feel as if they are floating, and it is not uncommon for people to kick out or grasp as they feel as if they are falling from a great height.

The term “hypnagogic” was coined by the 19th-century French psychologist Louis Ferdinand Alfred Maury, and is derived from two Greek words, Hypnos (Sleep) and agogeus (A guide, or leader). Some years later, the English poet, essayist and psychical researcher Frederic William Henry Myers coined the term, “hypnapompic,” to describe similar phenomena that may occur as we wake from sleep.

Long before Maury, many writers commented on these odd experiences. Here are just a few that I’ve heard about:

  1. Aristotle spoke of the “affections we experience when sinking into slumber, and the images which present themselves to us in sleep.”
  2. Iamblichus of Chalcis, the third century Neo-Platonic philosopher, wrote of the “voices” and “bright and tranquil lights” that came to him in the condition between sleeping and waking, that he believed were a form experience sent by God.
  3. There is some evidence that the alchemists of the Middle Ages made use of a form of hypnagogia during their meditations, preparations and distillations. I’ve seen it suggested that the weird characters and eerie landscapes that seem to fill alchemical illustrations might have been the fruits of focusing on hypnagogic hallucinations, though they could just as easily have come from dreams or drugs.
  4. In 1600, the Elizabethan astrologer and occultist Simon Forman wrote of his apocalyptic visions. He saw mountains and hills that came rolling against him on the point of sleep and beyond which he could see vast boiling waters.
  5. Thomas Hobbes spoke of images of lines and angles seen on the edge of sleep accompanied by an “odd kind of fancy” to which he could give no particular name.
  6. Emmanuel Swedenborg the 18th century philosopher, scientist and visionary developed a method of inducing and exploring hypnagogic states, during which he claimed to have traveled to Heaven, Hell and other planets. He recorded several other techniques that he used to gain his insights, including a particular type of hyperventilation.
  7. The theosophical writer Oliver Fox used the hypnagogic hallucinations as a “doorway” through which he was able to go astral traveling.
  8. Rudolf Steiner, advised that the best time for communicating with the dead was in the period between waking and sleep. He claimed that if you asked the dead a question as you fell asleep, they would answer you the next morning His records look very much like hypnagogic hallucinations.
  9. The Russian writer and philosopher P.D. Ouspensky is someone else who made a detailed study of hypnagogia. Like many of the others that I’ve mentioned, he made a number of interesting discoveries about the Universe while in this state. It is these insights, and their similarities across cultures that suggest that there’s more to hypnagogia than random neuronal firing.

It is interesting that although hypnagogia can produce millions of different experiences. When people start using them for exploration, they seem to generate many similar insights. This is rather different from the mystical experience. In which peoples’ experiences have similar form, but different content.

The most widely used criteria of the mystical experience were assembled by the English philosopher W.T. Stace, who taught at Princeton for many years:

  1. Deeply positive mood
  2. Experience of Union
  3. Ineffable sense
  4. Enhanced sense of meaning, authenticity and reality
  5. Altered space and time perception/transcendence
  6. Acceptance of normally contradictory propositions

I shall have more to say about mystical experiences in another posting.

For now, if you are interested in doing some self-exploration, and you are not using either medications or alcohol, the hypnagogic state is a great place to start. Occasionally people find the exploration scary, so only do this if you are up to it, and don’t if you are given to nervous or psychological problems. When I’m working with people I always ensure that they are in tip top condition before trying ANY kind of psychological exploration.

Try becoming aware of the transition between wakefulness and sleep. At first you will fall asleep, but with a small amount of practice, most people can quickly begin to keep themselves in the state, and then start exploring. Many people find that they get some profound intuitions while in the hypnagogic state, and unlike the kinds of “insights” that people get while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they make sense in the morning. Relax, keep a diary, take it in easy stages, and see what you can discover for yourself. If you come across anything unpleasant, stop, and we can try some different exercises.

Quantum Flapdoodle

Regular readers will know that I talk about a large amount of contemporary research relating to our central themes of Integrated Medicine and Personal Integration and Growth. And unless someone is making a dangerous recommendation, most of the time I let mistakes and misunderstandings go. But I’ve just seen some articles that really do need a response.

The authors are misleading us.

And even if you do not see the main article that I’m going to be focusing on today, you may see other similar articles or websites, and I do not want you to be deceived.

I am not a physicist by training, but I’ve spent years getting myself educated in fields like quantum mechanics and relativity theory by some of the foremost authorities in the world. I’ve read their books and papers; I’ve had meetings with them, visited their labs and had them answer a lot of questions, some of which probably tried their patience!

It took a great deal of time and effort. The reason for doing it was not idle curiosity, but because I need to be better able to understand the world, so that I can give sensible advice and we can all survive the critical next few years.

So it is a shame to see books and articles claiming that quantum mechanics or some other field of science “proves” what some writer is saying, when they clearly don’t understand anything about the field.

There have been some notable exceptions: Ken Wilber, Gary Zukav, Fritjof Capra and Deepak Chopra all talk about things quantum and have done their homework. Sadly the majority of people who write books and articles using quantum mechanics to buttress their arguments have not. They constantly show a complete misunderstanding of entire subject. It would not matter in the slightest if folk just wanted to entertain themselves. But when they use false information to try and influence other people to believe something, it gets to be a problem. Particularly if it has to do with your health and your personal destiny.

In some cases it is a matter of people “not knowing that they don’t know.” In others it’s been frank intellectual dishonesty.

I’ve just been sent an article for my comments. It’s one of the worst of its type that I’ve seen in months. And that’s saying something! I don’t want to take the paper and do a line-by-line critique: it’s not necessary.

Instead, I would like you to get some ideas about how to interpret an article that uses quantum mechanics, relativity or molecular biology to support what it says. You wouldn’t spend money on an infomercial with outrageous claims, so don’t get taken in by a pseudoscientist. So let me show you the first steps toward being a savvy reader.

Nobody expects a popular article to be a scientific treatise. But you, as a reader, have every right to expect honesty from the writer.

The author says that the “Law of Attraction” – an old alchemical and Theosophical concept – has been proven by modern science. He says that “Science calls it the Law of Quantum Physics. Metaphysics calls it the Law of Spiritual Attraction.” “Like energy attracts like energy.”

I honestly don’t like being critical, but this is bovine excreta.

The author must have forgotten about the North and South poles of a magnet. Or gravity, quark, strangeness and charm?

There is indeed a Law of Attraction: it is important and provable. But what the author writes about is not it.

He then uses some patently absurd interpretations of physics to buttress his arguments. We don’t need to go through the details of what he’s written. But why it all matters is this: what he has to say has no basis, either in logic, in intuition, or in an appeal to the Traditions. It holds serious work up to ridicule.

The writer then goes on to cite some interesting observations by a Russian scientist named Vladimir Poponin, who’s written some very interesting papers about coherent light: what has become known as the DNA Phantom effect. The writer of this article doesn’t seem to have read any of Poponin’s papers or bothered to analyze the debate that has followed his reports. Are the experiments any good? The writer doesn’t tell us, because he doesn’t seem to know.

Yet he writes about this work as if it is all cut and dried. Poponin’s work is extremely interesting, he’s a careful scientist with a good track record, but like the Emoto experiments on ice crystals that appear to respond to emotions, it needs to be replicated under controlled conditions. And so far nobody’s been able to do that.

Then we are told that photons are “particles of light.” I can only assume that the writer got that from some primary school text.

And here’s more: “Quantum physics is discovering that all physical matter is made of electromagnetic photon energy-light.” If anyone can explain that sentence, I’d love them to tell all of us.

Whenever someone is trying to dazzle us into believing what he or she has to say, there are some dead giveaways:

  1. Always cite quantum mechanics: chances are that none of the readers knows much about it.
  2. Then talk about the way in which quantum theory tells us about the way that everything in the universe is interconnected. It doesn’t. That is a separate field of inquiry. Though it a specialty that is generating many very interesting leads.
  3. Mention the work of some “independent scientists,” whose work is about to revolutionize the world. I’ve been keeping files on these “revolutionary ideas,” since the late 1960s. Looking back over the files I see that this same group of people was predicting permanent colonies on Mars by 1980; limitless power available to everyone before 1990, and scientific proof of the existence of Atlantis, God and the Grays by 2000.
  4. Talk about secret government research. Yes, there’s been lots of it. But it’s unlikely that someone who thinks that in the quantum realm “like attracts like,” is going to be on the inside track of that work.
  5. Drop a few names of people who might vaguely support what you are saying. Throwing in Einstein’s name is common. I’m not alone in getting loads of papers from people who believe that they have found the secret of the universe. These papers usually come from independent scholars, and are usually light on facts or proofs. People that I’ve known, including the late David Bohm, Norman Geschwind, Karl Pribram, Colin Wilson and Rupert Sheldrake have all lamented the way in which they get inundated with papers from people wanting endorsements of their work. Professor Sir Peter Medawar once told me that Albert Einstein had – during his years at Princeton – a secretary whose main job was to provide polite responses to fans and people who would send him their papers about how he’d got things wrong, and how they could help. I have not met Ken Wilber, but I gather that he also gets his fair share of papers from people wanting his endorsements about their work, however “unorthodox” it may be. I’ve received more than one paper and then immediately found my name on a website claiming that I endorse work that I’ve not even read!
  6. Use your own unique terminology. Another writer tells us that there are differences between emotions and feelings, but without telling us what they were. A whole new theory of moods and motivations followed. But it was based on quicksand.

Mistakes and misquotations happen all the time. I’m always grateful if someone finds a hole in something that I’ve written or said. That’s how we make progress. By constantly checking and revising we get ever closer to the truth.

It’s not just amateurs who sometimes misquote or misinterpret. I once heard a Nobel Laureate give a lecture at which he was trying to use neuroscience to confirm his religious beliefs. He was a kind and brilliant man and after his lecture we had a few minutes to talk privately. In one of the key studies that he used to support his views, he’d turned the data upside down. He was shocked to hear that he’d got it wrong. “How do you know the data so well?” he asked. “Because I was an investigator on the study,” I replied. I’m sure that he never used the data again: that’s “checking and revising” in action.

Does any of this matter? Shouldn’t we just let people say anything they want to? In general, of course they should; nobody wants some kind of thought police telling people what they can and cannot write. But the difficulty comes when people move out of their intellectual sandpit and use false information to give advice on how you should run your life or care for your health.

The authors of papers like this are misleading you. Either through their own ignorance, or perhaps even deliberately, the people who write these things are misdirecting you from the real findings about manifesting, consciousness, connection and enlightenment.

We are living at a time when the curtain seems to be coming down on some interpretations of reality such as string theory, and the veil between different compartments of reality is being torn asunder.

Articles like the one I’ve just quoted are futile distractions that lead skeptics to ridicule everything that we are doing to construct a unified model of reality and our place in it.

And any advice that’s based on these kinds of misunderstandings will not have much value for any of us.

What to do?
Nobody can be an expert on everything. But apart from the warning signs that I mentioned, here are some other warning signs that what someone is recommending to you might not be all that it seems:

  1. If people present testimonials as evidence
  2. If they use selective anecdotes to support a theory
  3. If they claim the support of science without using its principles of falsifiability, impartiality, replication, correction and revision
  4. If they misrepresent the basic tenets of science and its practitioners
  5. If they suggest that research is underway to confirm his or her pronouncements
  6. If they claim that a breakthrough is imminent
  7. If they make claims that he or she says are amazing, when to a specialist they are not amazing in the slightest: people do sometimes just get better on their own, and there are hundreds of diets, each of which will likely help someone somewhere
  8. If people use graphs and charts in place of empirical evidence
  9. If the author makes false claims for experience and credentials: somebody claimed to have treated 10,000 people in one year using a new technique based on quantum biology. If he had worked non stop, ten hours a day, five days a week for the whole year without a single break, he would have had to see, evaluate and treat a new person every fifteen minutes. During which he would also have had to make his notes, write letters and make calls to people that he had seen. Does that sound credible to you?
  10. If there are no credible scientific references to back up what the author is saying.
  11. If he or she bases claims on authority rather than verifiable data: remember a moment ago I mentioned a Nobel Laureate who’d made an honest mistake. Yet it wouldn’t surprise me if other people were still quoting that mistake all these twenty years later.
  12. And finally be very careful about people who use one mystery to explain another. People who wave their hands a lot (a sure sign of someone who doesn’t know what he or she is talking about!), and speak airily of the way in which quantum mechanics explains parapsychology have to prove what they say. Some fine people like Gary Schwartz and Dean Radin have peered deeply into the mysteries of physics and found a framework that may indeed be able to explain anomalous phenomena. Their books and papers are highly referenced and they have generated a ton of empirical data.

So the next time that you see someone say something about the Law of Attraction or tell you that “quantum mechanics has shown that…”

Caveat emptor!


The Sanskrit word karma has been part of our vocabulary since the late 1960s. Over thirty years ago I was speaking to one of George Harrison’s lawyers in London, who had followed in the footsteps of the Beatles and flirted with Transcendental Meditation. He told me that karma just meant “fate,” which was not at all what I’d been taught.

I’ve just seen a number of articles that have used the term very loosely. What is even more perplexing is that often the same writer will talk about karma as a causal law, and then immediately start talking about quantum mechanics, in which many actions are not causal at all. Some even start dabbling in synchronicity, forgetting, perhaps, that the subtitle of the original paper by Carl Jung and Wolfgang Pauli was “An Acausal Connecting Principle.”

It’s important to get it right: if we misunderstand a law or principle of life, it’s difficult to stay on track. And we have to realize that although there are plenty of opinions about karma, synchronicity, quantum mechanics and the rest, there are also some real objective facts to guide us.

Let me give you an example of one of these articles: “Karma deals with the law of cause and effect. Everything that happens to us (effect) has had a previous cause. The evolution of karmic law means that we can be master of our own destiny. Your karmic lessons in life reflect the qualities that you either lack, or are weak in, and are those hindering your success…” This is so contradictory. There is no place for chance, yet you can master your destiny, despite the fact that your behavior must have a previous cause. This isn’t just circular reasoning; it’s more like pretzel logic!

So is karma complicated? Is there a simple way to understand it and work with it?

Karma means “action,” and it refers to the intentional acts of conscious beings. These acts may be physical, or they may be thoughts or feelings. Intentions results in acts that cause effects in the mind, the body, the subtle systems, our relationships and our spirituality. This way of looking at karma links inextricably with the evidence being generated by the Global Consciousness Project.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama in his book The Universe in a Single Atom makes a clear distinction between the operation of the natural law of causality, in which some action will have a certain set of effects, and the law of karma, in which an intentional act will reap certain results. He uses a good example: if a campfire gets out of control in a forest, the resulting fire, smoke and charcoal are simple, natural and expected results. By contrast if you light a fire and forget to put it out, which then causes the chain of events: that’s karmic causation.

I this view, the large-scale universe evolves according to causal laws. When it has evolved to the stage of supporting sentient life, now the fate of the universe becomes entangled with the karma of the sentient beings that now inhabit it. But there’s something more to it.

Matter in its most subtle form is Qi or Prana, a vital field energy that is inseparable from consciousness. The Qi or Prana provides dynamic movement and cohesion, while consciousness provides awareness, cognition and self-reflection. This indivisible pair produces our bodies and the universe as a whole. Every particle in the universe possesses conscious awareness, but it is not until sentience arises that the law of karma comes into play.

In Kriya Yoga there has been the development of many complex ideas about karma, subdividing it into multiple types, and with advice on how to attract good karma and dispel the bad. For students who would like to go into these distinctions in more detail, there a very nice short book entitled The Laws of Karma.

Because karma implies that the universe is lawful and moral, it has often been misinterpreted as fatalism. But that s not correct: every decision is a product of free will. To be sure, it is a free will that is tempered by the causal forces of our genetic makeup and environment. One of the major goals of self-development is to free yourself from the restrictions imposed upon you by your genes and your environment, so that you can make decisions that will generate the greatest good for the largest number of people.

What we must not do is to use karma as an excuse. If you are playing a game of cards, you play the hand that you are given. There’s no point in complaining about your bad luck: your learn how to make the best play wit the cards that you have in your hand.

“Knowing that his past actions may try to overwhelm him, the devotee must be prepared to combat them. God will give him the strength: His Name will be an impenetrable armor. It will save him from all the consequences.”
–Swami Brahmananda (Indian Religious Figure, 1854-1922)

“It is horrible to see everything that one detested in the past coming back wearing the colors of the future.”
–Jean Rostand (French Biologist and Historian, 1894-1977)

Emanuel Swedenborg, Epigenetics, Sex and Marriage

Emanuel Swedenborg is without question one of the most remarkable people recorded by history. He was a scientist once described as the “last man to know everything.” Yet he was also a philosopher, mystic spiritual explorer and theologian. He has been called the “Buddha of the North.”

For people who worry that it may be too late in life to start on something new, he began his main work when he was fifty-six years old, and the next 28 years of his life generated an extraordinary number of books. As I am writing this, I can see his collected works that run to some 30 volumes.

Like most genuine spiritual teachers, Swedenborg has been much maligned, and some years ago a famous psychiatrist wrote a paper in which he “diagnosed” Swedenborg with a mental illness. A neat trick to do on someone whom he had never examined. On account of him having been dead for two centuries. Posthumous diagnosis is fraught with difficulty, and there was a glaring problem with the psychiatrist’s theory: very few men develop a psychotic illness in their fifties, and it is almost unheard of for them to remain highly functional.

Oh yes, and there’s also the fact that Swedenborg made some remarkable predictions that have proven to be true.

One of them was this. He said that during sexual intercourse between a married couple there is a soul linkage and a transfer of some soul essence between the couple. That was one of the reasons why he was against casual sex for both men and women. In those days there was little talk about the reality of same-sex unions.

Was he just a child of his puritanical times, or was there something more to it?

Soul linkage may be just that. But if that is uncomfortable, try this: For “soul linkage,” read, first, subtle systems. One of the most convincing pieces of evidence for the existence of these systems is the subjective experience of couples who feel energized after spending intimate moments together. While others feel totally drained, as if a psychic vampire has sucked their essential essence from them.

Second, let’s read epigenetic transfer. We are all used to the transfer of maternal and paternal DNA during sex. We are also uncomfortably aware of the extraordinarily high rates of sexually transmitted diseases. One of the most extraordinary of the new findings if that environment may have effects down through the generations, and that these effects must clearly be transmitted during sexual intercourse. Sex transmits not just DNA, but epigenetic codes and perhaps also passenger genes that may enter each partner.

Perhaps we should consider that before dismissing Swedenborg’s ideas as the fruits of an outdated moral and ethical system. Forget for just one moment about religious, spiritual and moral conventions: perhaps there are also biological reasons and subtle system explanations for restricting the numbers of partners that we have.

Marilyn Monroe is said to have once made the remark that, “I don’t see anything wrong with having lots of sex, after all, it doesn’t give you cancer.” Well, as thousands of young women have found, it can do just that, and what other damage may it do to a person?

Intuition, Flow and the Avoidance of Danger

"Flow with whatever is happening and let your mind be free. Stay centered by accepting whatever you are doing. This is the ultimate.”
–Chuang Tzu (Chinese Philosopher, c.369-286 B.C.E.)

There is some intriguing evidence, summarized in a very interesting article that fewer people ride on trains on the days that there are accidents. Even when you take into consideration things like vacations, there still seem to be fewer travelers on days when an accident is to occur. Some people seem to know when it’s not a good day to be traveling: they exercise a form of unconscious intuition that keeps them out of harm’s way.

In the 1971 novel Recoil, Claude and Rhoda Nunes describe a boy called George who is so in tune with the pulse of a city that he arrives every intersection at the precise moment when he can cross; he reaches his destinations without any of the normal delays. And in any shops that he visits, he immediately attracts the attention of an assistant who just happens to be unoccupied. Though this is a novel, it is also a good illustration of the way things can happen for you when you are attuned to the world around you.

At one time I was doing a lot of work in Chicago, which involved visiting various sites in the city. My hosts used to joke about the way that they would normally struggle to find a place to leave the car, but that when I was their guest, we always get “rock star parking.” A space would open up for us in just the tight place at the right time. However, they were not quite right. We invariably did find a parking spot so long as I remained calm and detached, but the moment that either of us became fretful about being late, as soon as emotion was being stirred up, then the parking spots would vanish.

I once learned this lesson the hard way. I had some prized tickets to see a performance at the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden. And on that day, despite everything that I had been taught about how we choose our emotional states, despite all the things that I had tried to inculcate in my students, I forgot the lessons. My last patient of the day had required more help than I expected, the person accompanying me to the performance was very late, the traffic was awful and I became more and more anxious and then irritable. Not surprisingly, on this particular day, there was to be no special parking anywhere and I missed the whole of the first act of a favorite opera. Though painful, this was a valuable lesson.

The spiritual Master or Mistress is in a constant state of flow: being in the right place at the right time. Anyone can achieve this with a little practice. Step one is to gain some control over your emotions. Attunement with your body and with the world around you is difficult until you have been able to develop a measure of control of your emotional states. The best ways that I know for doing that are not simply trying to talk yourself into emotional control, but also to use three extra things: Flower essences, the Tapping therapies and acupressure.

There’s a very helpful little acupressure trick. If you run your fingers along the top of the trapezius muscle that runs from the back of your skull to your shoulder, in the very middle is an acupuncture point: Gallbladder 21. If you find yourself being overwhelmed by emotion, gentle pressure at that point for just a few moments will usually help you re-establish control of your emotions very quickly.

“When you do things from your soul you feel a river moving in you, a joy. When action come from another section, the feeling disappears.”
Jalal al-Din Rumi (Afghan Sufi Poet, 1207-1273)

“To offer no resistance to life is to be in a state of grace, ease, and lightness. This state is then no longer dependent upon things being in a certain way, good or bad. It seems almost paradoxical, yet when your inner dependency on form is gone, the general conditions of your life, the outer forms, tend to improve greatly. Things, people, or conditions that you thought you needed for your happiness now come to you with no struggle or effort on your part, and you are free to enjoy and appreciate them – while they last. All those things, of course, will still pass away, cycles will come and go, but with dependency gone there is no fear of loss anymore. Life flows with ease.”
–Eckhart Tolle (German-born Author and Spiritual Teacher, 1948-)

Chronic Fatigue, RNase Deficiency and Spiritual Development

I was very sorry to hear that Ken Wilber, whose work I admire enormously, has recently been very unwell. While weakened by an underlying chronic illness, he took a nasty fall that has left him pretty badly bruised, and with some possible neurological problems. Fortunately he is already somewhat better.

According to Ken, his underlying illness is a form of chronic fatigue syndrome called or caused by RNase-L Enzyme Dysfunction. People with the problem develop a number of bizarre symptoms apart from fatigue, including muscle weakness, fevers and immune dysfunction. The RNase enzyme is normally activated when a cell has to deal with viruses, some toxins and some bacteria. There is a good introduction here.

There is a growing literature on the subject: investigators from Brussels have recently shown a link between exercise performance and immune dysfunction in some of these patients. It may be that elevated RNase-L enzyme activity may provide us with a biological marker for some cases of chronic fatigue syndrome. Despite this research, I still have many colleagues who continue to say that chronic fatigue syndrome and a probably related condition, Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome, are purely psychological problems.

I am quite sure that they are wrong.

Not least because there are very few illnesses that can be reduced to just psychological or just physical causes. These artificial distinctions do little to help people suffering with genuine problems. (You may be interested to have a look at a brief piece that I wrote about this artificial distinction.)

I do know that the most difficult problems that I have ever faced in clinical practice have been the chronic fatigue syndromes and a possibly related problem: interstitial cystitis. The only things that have helped have been approaches employing the five dimensional approach: physical, psychological, social, subtle and spiritual.

And now I’m going to go out on a limb and do something that normally I do not. I will normally not make even the broadest comments about someone’s diagnosis and treatment unless I’ve seen them myself: there are few things worse than people trying to diagnose at long range and when they only have half the information. But when I see symptoms like these: fatigue and fever, physical weakness and sometimes profound psychological effects, I have to ask whether the biochemical markers are actually telling us something different: that some people with these problems may actually have what used to be known as “diseases of discipleship.” An old-fashioned term used to describe some of the physical challenges and changes that may accompany spiritual evolution. If I am correct, I would predict that Ken – and many other sufferers – should also have profound disturbances of their normal circadian rhythms, some predictable but subtle endocrine disturbances, and otherwise inexplicable sensations roughly corresponding to the channels identified in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine.

One of the most startling recent discoveries in medicine has been that some of the time-honored laws of healing are changing, because we are ourselves changing very rapidly. In Healing, Meaning and Purpose, I spent a long time talking about some of the reasons for coming to that understanding, and how to use it to improve our health and well-being. I fully expect to spend the remainder of my career showing people how these new laws and principles can help us all, as well as ensuring that appropriate research continues to help us develop these new understandings about health and wellness.

So I’m going to suggest that Ken’s problems might never have happened if he hadn’t been on such a deep spiritual quest, and if he hadn’t been turning up a lot of answers that matter.

Get well Ken!

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Hidden in Plain Sight: The Concentric Key

Physical, psychological and spiritual health are all inextricably linked. We are plagued by ill-defined illnesses whose origin lies not just in our genes, but arise from our spiritual disconnection. And on some level we all know that.

Thirty million Americans describe themselves as spiritual seekers. Why is it that so many are seeking but not finding? The answer to that is more subtle than you may think and also far more satisfying. The information that we need is all lying out there in plain sight. It’s just that most of us has never learned how to access it.

The writer Doris Lessing once observed that we now all have access to thousands of books and other documents that were once hidden or available only to a select few. Some of the most sacred texts are now either available on line or on inexpensive CD-ROMs. Most of these thirty million seekers can probably teach us about prayer, karma, chakras or spirituality. Why do so many people feel spiritually disconnected and why is it that most people are either unwell or not as well as they could be? So very few are able to achieve their full potential because of physical or psychological difficulties? So what’s the problem?

The trouble is that many of the ancient books and manuscripts on which our knowledge is based were written on several levels. Yes, they contain information about our spiritual nature and our subtle anatomy. But that is only level one.

They also contain other levels of knowledge and sophistication: keys and solutions that have until now only been taught to a few.

Textual analysis and interpretation, scriptural exegesis, and numerological research have all been going on for millennia. People were trying to find hidden codes in the ancient manuscripts of India and China two thousand years before the birth of Christ. And for more than four hundred years there have been people poring over the strange quatrains of Nostradamus to find auguries of the future. You may also have heard of modern attempts to find secrets in the Bible using numerical codes. I’m a bit skeptical only because most mathematical analyses have so far failed to confirm the existence of these hidden codes.

But there is another method of penetrating into the mysteries of the Universe, using books and manuscripts handed down over the centuries. It is known as the Concentric Key method and has been in use for centuries. If you do a Google search for those words, you will find no more than a dozen or so entries. The reason is straightforward: the techniques have been handed down in a largely oral tradition. But the time is right for the techniques to be made more widely available.

It has been claimed that some of the works of Shakespeare were written using the code. There is a book – The Secret Doctrine – that is widely regarded as being a bit odd and eccentric. Yet there is a problem with that evaluation. This massive tome, which runs to almost 1500 pages, contains page after page of extraordinary insights. They are not always obvious at first reading, but if you follow a specific set of methods, you can start getting amazing intuitive insights about the nature of reality.

The book was transcribed by a highly controversial person called Helena Blavatsky, who taught a small number of students to use it for enlightenment, and they in turn passed on the secrets. If you just read the book like a textbook or novel, it can look rather silly and disorganized. That is until you realize that there are other levels of meaning that need a lot of brain stretching. But as you understand them you begin gradually to change for the better. It is like the basic proposition of Dan Brown’s novel, the Da Vinci Code: if you know where and how to look there is a treasure trove of information there. But unlike the novel with its rather implausible ideas, studies using the Concentric Key have generated highly reproducible results.

The point of the story is this. There really are diamonds under our feet: insights and revelations hiding in plain sight in books that you may have on your own bookshelf. As a youngster I used to read a great many books, and usually quite quickly. It took time and some very patient teachers to show me that there are some books that repay quiet, slow, contemplative study.

Try and spend a few minutes every day with a spiritual quotation or a paragraph from a favorite spiritual work. If you would like me to post daily quotations, I would be delighted to do so: I have thousands which may be new to you.

And if your intuition draws you toward it, then the next stage is to start working on texts in detail using the Concentric Key technique. I shall post a great deal more about this if you are interested.

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