The Science of Spiritual Practices

Antti Savinainen – Finland

Theosophy A 2 antti

The author

This essay is largely based on the book Science and Spiritual Practices (2018) by biologist Rupert Sheldrake (b. 1942). Sheldrake is an independent and courageous thinker and seeker with a PhD from the prestigious University of Cambridge. He has published research on plant physiology and parapsychology and developed the idea of the morphic field (more on this later in the article).

In his youth, Sheldrake was an atheist because he felt it was part of the scientific worldview. While studying biology, he found that its methods distanced him from plants and animals because the organisms he was studying had to be killed first. However, the holistic approach of the German philosopher and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe showed that there was another way to study nature. Sheldrake later explored meditation and the spirituality of different religions. He is now an open-minded Christian.

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The title The Science of Spiritual Practices may sound strange. What could science have to do with spiritual practice? It does quite a lot, if spiritual exercises are understood in a broad sense. Although it does not seem to be possible to study spiritual growth scientifically, science can be used to study well-being and methods for promoting it. In my article, I will discuss Sheldrake’s comments on different types of spiritual practices and scientific evidence about their effects. I will complement this review with perspectives from Rosicrucian Theosophy*.

Meditation and the Nature of Consciousness

Meditation is a spiritual practice that has been practiced for thousands of years in various religions. It is particularly important in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, but it has also been practiced in Christian contexts.

The Theosophical movement played its part in popularizing meditation in the West from the late nineteenth century onwards. Many Indian teachers and gurus, such as Paramahansa Yogananda (1893‒1952), have traveled to the West to teach meditation. In the Buddhist tradition, D. T. Suzuki (1870‒1966) and Thich Nhat Hanh (1926‒2022) have taught compassionate meditation. Today meditation is often taught apart from any religious tradition: mindfulness is a common term for various forms of secular meditation.

Meditation often involves sitting in certain positions and keeping your eyes closed, which can also be done when praying. In prayer, however (often done while kneeling or standing), the mind is ostensibly directed outwards—to other people or God. By Sheldrake’s interpretation, in meditation the mind is turned inward, whereas in prayer, it is turned outward. Sheldrake himself practices both, comparing meditation to inhalation and prayer to exhalation.

Many meditation techniques use a mantra or focus attention on following the breath. These keep the mind focused as thoughts and feelings arise, and meditation increases awareness of the self and the workings of the mind. The mind produces thoughts, and the body produces feelings, which the meditator learns to ignore or witness impersonally. The meditator tries to live in the present moment rather than constantly thinking about the past or future.

The practice of meditation can lead to extraordinary levels of awareness. Different traditions have given these states of consciousness different names, such as Buddha consciousness, formless emptiness, cosmic consciousness, God consciousness, and Christ consciousness. Attaining exceptional states in this manner is not the exclusive privilege of any religion or even religion as a whole: it also occurs to nonreligious people, including those who do not practice meditation. William James’ classic work The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) discusses many examples of spontaneous awakening and illumination.

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The scientific study of meditation started relatively late. Herbert Benson’s group at Harvard University did pioneering work in this area in the 1970s. Their research focused on what Benson called the “relaxation response,” which is associated with stress control and sympathetic nervous system function. In acute stress, adrenaline is released into the bloodstream, increasing heart rate and blood pressure and reducing peripheral blood flow. This stress response increases cortisol levels, weakening the body’s immunological system. Once the cause of stress is removed, the body returns to normal. In chronic stress, however, recovery does not take place, which can lead to conditions such as persistent anxiety.

Thousands of studies have been published on the health effects of meditation (see, for example, Keng et al., 2011). It has been reported to reduce anxiety, allergic skin reactions, heart problems, asthma, blood pressure, pain, insomnia, and even moderate depression. Many of these conditions are linked to stress. On the other hand, meditation has also been reported to have some negative side effects: certain psychiatric patients may experience a worsening of their problems. On the whole, however, according to current scientific knowledge, meditation is not dangerous for healthy people.

Meditation has measurable effects at the brain level. Brain activity changes, and the brain waves of experienced meditators can differ markedly from those of beginners. Regular meditation also affects brain structures: one study found that it increases the amount of grey matter in the sensory cortex and in the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with working memory. Brain changes through meditative practice have been found to occur rapidly, in as little as eight weeks. The brain is like a muscle in that it can be strengthened through exercise. As with any exercise, regularity is crucial to achieving beneficial effects.

Rosicrucian Theosophy* brings its own spiritual perspective to meditation. Pekka Ervast (1875–1934) presented a prayer meditation based on the Sermon on the Mount in his work The Divine Seed (2010). This is an ethical self-education path in which one meditates daily on the Sermon on the Mount’s ideals for life (equanimity, purity of thought, truthfulness, overcoming evil with goodness, and love) and tries to put them into practice in everyday life.

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Pekka Ervast

This practice, which to a certain extent combines both prayer and meditation as described above, can be life-changing. It can have important consequences in the afterlife and future incarnations as well. In addition, the deeper degree of prayer meditation that Ervast recommends has a particularly demanding aspect from a personal point of view: one appeals to one’s higher self and asks to complete one’s old karma more quickly. This practice enables an individual to more rapidly enter into the communion of his own spirit—to become a member of the kingdom of heaven—but it also means increased opposition and suffering. Ervast therefore warns that it is only suitable for a person who can truly say, “Thy will be done.”

From a Theosophical perspective, there is another danger in the practice of meditation. A person can learn to concentrate their thoughts and will in a way that increases selfishness. It can also happen that meditation practiced without an ethical basis and the effort of self-education develops psychic abilities that are beyond one’s control. Such people can even become dangerous.

Practicing Gratitude

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In everyday life, many things are based on barter: goods and services are exchanged for money, so it is easy to take things for granted without any sense of gratitude. This becomes more pronounced if we have no human contact at all, for example in an online shop or at an automatic checkout. Yet whether we realize it or not, everyone’s life is strongly intertwined with the lives of other people, nature, the planet, and the universe. If we stop taking things for granted, we will learn to see many things for which we can be grateful. Sheldrake points out that the experience of gratitude is linked to our worldview. If we see nature and life merely from a materialistic perspective, gratitude has no meaning. From a religious or spiritual worldview, it is different: life and earth express a higher reality for which we can be grateful.

The effects of gratitude have been scientifically studied since around 2000. To this end, questionnaires have been developed to reliably assess people’s perceived gratitude or lack of it. Study after study has shown that grateful people are happier, have less depression, are more satisfied with their lives, and perceive their lives as more meaningful than people who are not grateful. (Of course, this may only entail a correlation or reverse causation: it could be that happiness and contentment create a grateful mind.)

It has been possible to scientifically investigate this satisfaction in randomized trials. In one study, during a ten-week period the people in the intervention group wrote down events from the past week for which they were grateful. They felt more positive about their lives and better about their future than people in a second group, who over the same period wrote down unpleasant experiences from the past week. The survey has been replicated in a variety of research settings, indicating that the connection between gratitude and happiness is genuine.

The practice of gratitude connects us to other people, to nature, and to a deep reality that religious people call God, whereas ingratitude separates us. Sheldrake recommends making gratitude a daily practice, for example before going to bed: you can review the day and find events and encounters for which you can be grateful. You can also express your gratitude in writing. Gratitude can be extended to the whole of existence and to Life.

Connection to Nature

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Our connection to nature is intuitively important, and there is scientific evidence of its importance as well. Being in nature improves human mental health. In Japan, the “forest bath” (shinrin yoku) has a calming physiological and psychological effect, reducing cortisol levels in the blood and improving the immune defenses. Even a single walk in nature has been shown to have positive effects, manifested as feelings of well-being and reflected in brain images. However, this connection to nature is becoming threatened, especially among children and young people, whose world is increasingly digital. Sheldrake worries that the artificial world and social media will generate serious tests for the future of humanity.

Research on childhood experiences of nature has been carried out at Oxford University. Here is the experience of one respondent (Sheldrake, 2018, p. 71):

[When I was a child] I seemed to have a more direct relationship with flowers, trees and animals, and there are certain particular occasions which I can still remember in which I was overcome by a great joy as I saw the first irises opening or picked daisies in the dew-covered lawn before breakfast. There seemed to be no barrier between the flowers and myself, and this was a source of unutterable delight.

A few respondents spoke of “experiencing the timeless oneness of life” and “a deep, overwhelming sense of gratitude.” Surveys of young people gave similar results. A person’s worldview affects how she understands nature and her relationship to it. The materialistic worldview sees nature as machine-like, while the panentheistic view, advocated by Sheldrake, sees God in nature and nature in God.

As I understand it, Rosicrucian Theosophical thinking is also panentheistic: divine consciousness is present in nature, especially in human beings. Professor Eino Krohn (1983) described this beautifully: “The immanent, inward-looking divinity of . . . life [functions] as a dynamic force that is realized in all individuals.”

Sheldrake presents the following exercise to deepen our understanding of nature. Find a place in nature where you can sit quietly without disturbing anyone. Visit that place regularly and get to know what it looks like at different times of the day, in different weather, and in different seasons. Notice what kinds of plants grow there and what kinds of animals live there. Listen to the wind and birdsong. Learn to recognize birds by the sounds they make. If there is a tree, you can ask it questions: Sheldrake says the answer can come as a feeling or some similar experience.

The Importance of Rituals

Theosophy A 8 Rituals

Rituals can be religious or secular. All human communities have had and still have their own rituals. They represent a continuity that transcends generations, acting as a communal memory.

One form of ritual—initiation—entails a transition to a new phase. In present-day contexts, we observe that rites of passage may be associated with the completion of a degree or joining a religious or spiritual community.

Anthropological research has shown that there are three stages in a classic rite of passage. In the first stage, the original state is removed; the aspirant is separated from her former state. She then enters a state of transition, which is the second stage. Here the aspirant has to pass tests which can be dangerous, either symbolically or in actuality (as in some cultures). In the third stage, the aspirant attains initiation and is accepted as a new member of the community.

Rituals are an indispensable part of our lives. We can choose the rituals in which we participate; we can choose the mindset in which we participate as well. Rituals can be seen as a boring routine obligation or as uplifting, inspiring, and spiritually awakening.

Why can rituals be so powerful? Sheldrake explains their power with his morphic field theory. The morphic field is strengthened by repetitive action; it is thus a kind of natural memory (in Theosophy, we speak of akasha, the spiritual essence pervading all space). According to Sheldrake, this is also reflected in the natural sciences: perhaps the laws of nature are not genuinely eternal, but habits established over billions of years (a view which the scientific community has not found appealing).

From a Theosophical point of view, the morphic field theory would explain the communal memory transmitted by rituals: they generate energies on an invisible level that strengthen the participants. This can be sensed when visiting a temple or a sacred place where ritual activities and prayers have been practiced for a long time.

Religious and spiritual rituals often involve music, communal singing, and recitation of sacred words. These practices strengthen the shared experience and attune participants’ consciousnesses to the same rhythm or vibration. There is a wealth of scientific evidence of the beneficial effects of choral singing: it increases happiness, reduces depression and anxiety, prevents cognitive decline, and strengthens the experience of friendship.

Sheldrake suggests that we could make our everyday rituals more conscious. When we meet a person and shake their hand or hug them, we can do so more consciously and see the blessing in that. Every encounter is an opportunity to give and receive love. If we participate in religious or spiritual rituals with a prepared mind, we can share in the experience of holiness.

Life as a Pilgrimage

Theosophy A 7 Pilgrimage

Pilgrimage has been practiced by religions for thousands of years. For Christians, Jews, and Muslims, Jerusalem is still a central place of pilgrimage. Christians and many others pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain or visit the fountain of Lourdes in southwestern France, often for healing. In India, pilgrimages are made to places such as the Ganges River, temples, and Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment.

There is little scientific research on the effects of pilgrimage, although it could have a measurable impact. In any event, many people report a wealth of positive personal experiences from this kind of experience. (A downside is excessive tourism, which places a burden on nature and local people.)

Sheldrake recommends starting the pilgrimage from one’s home, preferably walking at least part of the way. The place does not have to be an official pilgrimage site; it can be a natural site or some other place of significance. The important thing is to travel to the holy place with a spirit of devotion. In Sheldrake’s view, it is not advisable to enter a holy place directly but to walk around it first in a clockwise direction. If it is a church or a cathedral, one can light a candle and send blessing thoughts. Sheldrake recommends making a little pilgrimage, for example, on a business or holiday trip. When he visits a foreign country, he visits a temple of the local religion to pay his respects.

Pilgrimage is a state of mind in which we encounter a sacred place. From this point of view, all of life is a pilgrimage and enables the individual to experience its holy inner nature. My friend Jouko Ikonen (1985/2015) has written a wonderful poem about a state of mind filled with holiness:

The holy streams came, and everyone fell silent to listen,

my mind became a sanctuary to me and with me to the whole world,

I and the world were one in holiness resting everywhere,

the deep embrace of space opened,

and the mother knew her son. 


Theosophy A 6 Forgiving


Sheldrake does not discuss forgiveness in his book, although it is a very important spiritual practice. One reason for this may be that he has planned to write another volume on spiritual exercises; perhaps forgiveness will be included. Nevertheless, the spiritual and psychological implications of forgiveness are worth discussing briefly.

The psychological definitions of forgiveness may vary from one source to another (Worthington, 2004). It can mean letting go of negative feelings or showing goodwill towards the person who is forgiven. The latter characterization is more consistent with the spiritual meaning of forgiveness.

Remembering old wrongs is the reverse of forgiveness. Unforgiveness is associated with resentment, anger, and a desire for revenge and can affect a person’s physical and mental health. In one study, participants were asked to recall a person who had mistreated them. The subjects’ physiological reactions were measured at that moment. Recalling a negative event was found to increase blood pressure, heart rate, and sweating. The subjects became angry, sad, and anxious, and they felt stressed. Another study found a link between blood cortisol levels and a lack of forgiveness. Unforgiveness also has negative effects on the immune system, predisposing the individual to disease.

Forgiveness has been shown to have a positive impact on relationships, both in the family and at work. There is a particularly strong link between marital well-being and forgiveness (which is highly plausible in the light of everyday experience). Forgiveness strengthens self-esteem and makes room for happier relationships.

Research indicates that forgiveness can be learned even in very difficult life situations. It may be a slow process, but persistence and effort are rewarded. Moreover, forgiveness does not merely improve the lives of individuals: the examples of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu in the post-apartheid era of South Africa show that it can help integrate society as a whole.

Let us now look at forgiveness from a spiritual point of view. Forgiveness is a central Christian idea. Although the church emphasizes God’s forgiveness of human beings, the message of the Lord’s Prayer is clear: an exact translation from the original Greek says, “And forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors” (Smoley, 2015; emphasis added). By this view, forgiveness from God or Life requires that we forgive our debtors in advance.

From a Theosophical perspective, forgiveness and debts are related to karma. Ervast (1997) explains the relationship between forgiveness and karma as follows:

Then we come to the world of actions . . . the karma that comes into the account is due to the actions we have on other people . . . What is the simplest way to untie the knots of karma? It is the way described by Jesus Christ, which he made a condition for his followers, and that is forgiveness. If we can relate to each other in such a way that we forgive, then karma will stop. . .. For example, if I do something bad to someone and cannot make it right with the other party, they will appeal to the Lords of Karma, who will measure the consequences of my harmful deeds.

According to Ervast, an apology followed by genuine forgiveness can neutralize karma. I interpret this to indicate a joint participation of the perpetrator and the object of the karmic act in forgiveness. If the offended party forgives without an apology from the offender, there will be a future karmic consequence for the offender. In this case, forgiveness breaks the karmic circle only for the forgiver. Forgiveness is closely linked to the mystery of the non-resistance of evil, which Ervast has characterized as the cornerstone of Christianity.

Final Thoughts

Spiritual practices have many positive effects on practitioners’ lives, some (though not all) of which can be verified through scientific research. From a spiritual perspective, however, this impact is not limited to the practitioner; at their best, the effects of spiritual practices radiate to the immediate environment and perhaps beyond. The Russian Orthodox saint Seraphim of Sarov (1754–1833) put it this way: “Find such peace, and thousands around you will be saved.”

*A brief explanation of Ervast’s Rosicrucian Theosophy:

Pekka Ervast founded the Theosophical Society in Finland (Adyar) in 1907. He lectured regularly on various theosophical topics, acted as an editor of the Finnish theosophical magazine, and published books on Theosophy. Ervast left the TS in 1920 and founded a new society, The Finnish Rosy Cross (Ruusu-Risti). The society has its roots both in Theosophy and Esoteric Christianity, in which the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount are essential in the spiritual path. Ervast lectured on the special status of Jesus Christ in humanity's spiritual evolution. The Finnish Rosy Cross has a good relationship with the TS and other societies in the theosophical movement in Finland today. For more detailed information click HERE


Ervast, Pekka (2010). The Divine Seed: The Esoteric School of Jesus. Wheaton, Ill.: Quest Books.

Ervast, Pekka (1997). Pekka Ervast vastaa kysymyksiin. (Pekka Ervast Answers Questions). Mänttä: Ihmisyyden tunnustajien julkaisuja No. 38. Not available in English.

Ikonen, Jouko (1985/2015). Veljeni toisesta piiristä (My Brother from Another Sphere. Hämeenlinna: Karisto. Not available in English.

James, William (1902/2009). The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. Available online at

Keng, Shian-Ling, Smoski, Morya, J., & Robins, Clive J. (2011). Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: a review of empirical studies. Clinical Psychology Review, 31(6): 1041–56.

Krohn, Eino (1983). Ruusu-Risti (The Finnish Rosy Cross). Hämeenlinna: Karisto. Not available in English.

Sheldrake, Rupert (2018). Science and Spiritual Practices. Reconnecting through Direct Experience. London: Coronet Books.

Smoley, Richard (2015). The Deal: A Guide to Radical and Complete Forgiveness. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Perigee.

Worthington, Everett, Jr. (2004). The new science of forgiveness. Greater Good Magazine: Science-Based Insights for a Meaningful Life 

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