Animals That Talk – a conversation with Rupert Sheldrake

Why do matters as seemingly unconnected as children’s stories and shamanic encounters feature talking animals?

This episode of the Sheldrake-Vernon Dialogues, with Rupert Sheldrake and Mark Vernon, is prompted the book, Roland In Moonlight by David Bentley Hart. It relates long conversations between the Eastern Orthodox philosopher and his pet dog, generating fascinating thoughts on all sorts of liminal experiences, from telepathy to panpsychism.

How might a re-enchanted world appear to us in the future? What does that have to do with ancient perceptions and modern science? Rupert and Mark discuss matters from pets to symbiosis, and the way that the living world participates in divine life.

For more dialogues between Rupert and Mark see:
https://www.sheldrake.org/audios/sheldrake-vernon-dialogues
https://www.markvernon.com/talks​

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The Experience of Life and the Nature of the Afterlife

Modern Christianity, at least as expressed by the church, has become very confused about the afterlife.

So can our experience of life now, illuminated by wisdom traditions and modern science, offer a way into this perennial question?

I’ve written more fully about these things in my book, A Secret History of Christianity. See here – https://www.markvernon.com/consciousness​

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The Death of Princes and the Evolution of Consciousness

Death always brings subterranean assumptions and stresses to the surface, and the pass of Prince Philip is no exception.

The moment carries the weight of millennia, which is why it’s hard to navigate, though it can be better understood as part of the evolution of human consciousness, as Owen Barfield and others understood it.

The key test is the vision held about the future humanity.

I talk in particular about these two images:

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Billionaires, Brains and Beliefs – A conversation with Rupert Sheldrake

Could bliss be transmitted by a Happy Helmet? Are the fantasies of the super-wealthy secretly shaping our lives?

In this episode of the Sheldrake-Vernon Dialogues, Rupert Sheldrake and Mark Vernon discuss a new novel, Double Blind, by Edward St Aubyn. It is a story of ideas, including issues previously explored in these dialogues, from the nature of consciousness and the revelations of psychedelics, to the missing heritability problem and the replication crisis.

St Aubyn has richly addressed our moment with its environmental and existential concerns. His characters explore matters of paramount important as they effect real lives. His book invites us to ask ourselves about the worldviews we hold and the ways in which our imaginations reach out for tomorrow.

For more dialogues between Rupert and Mark see:
https://www.sheldrake.org/audios/sheldrake-vernon-dialogues

Talks

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How Dante discovered the Power of Now – recording

For more on Dante do see.

Details of my book, Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Guide for the Spiritual Journey, are here.

Also, use this code, “dantemv”, to get £10 off my Divine Comedy course at The Idler via this link.

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Easter Sermon: How Dante teaches us the power of now

“Beatrice Addressing Dante From the Car” by William Blake, 1824

This piece is published by The Idler. (Use code, “dantemv”, to get £10 off my Divine Comedy course at The Idler and click here.)

If there were one big lesson that Dante learns as he struggles through hell and up Mount Purgatory it would be this. The present moment, right now, is the only moment that matters.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “I’ve heard that one before, in a hundred self-help books and the podcasts I accidentally stumble upon before quickly flicking off. And anyway,” you might be adding: “Doesn’t meaning come with imagining a better tomorrow, and suffering cease with a healed past?”

So let me see if Dante can persuade you otherwise.

As he walks the darkening circles of hell to the frozen floor at the bottom, he meets souls who are gripped by the past and the future. They are preoccupied with what went wrong for them, who they might at some point avenge, how they can vent their rage, when they will curse life and God. It sounds extreme. It is.

Only, you then look out at the world and what makes it go round is antagonism, manipulation and a desperate need to secure tomorrow.

Dante lived during the early Renaissance, when Europeans were first sensing they might control life materially. His father was a wealthy merchant, an average guy made good. The mercantilism that was to become capitalism was taking off. The old taboos against usury were dissolving and his home town, Florence, had become a banking capital, as making money from money fostered the belief in potentially unlimited growth.

His poem is an extended comment on the tendencies taking root, which have now grown so as to almost wholly determine our lives.

Such a vision, and its associated obsessions, keep souls trapped in hells of their own making. Escape yesterday! Invest in tomorrow! The modern creed was written, and it rejects the present by forgetting life isn’t just more of the same, but better, stronger, faster.

Dante learns otherwise when he reaches the top of Mount Purgatory. Here, he discovers the Garden of Eden and, astonished by its beauty, reconnects with Beatrice, the woman who first stirred his love. It’s the week of Easter, 1300, and she appears in a glorious pageant. No artist has better caught the magic than Dante’s great illustrator, William Blake.

The encounter, in which angels sing and earth touches heaven, is also the moment in which Beatrice teaches Dante the power of now. And she does so with surprising, spectacular ferocity.

It turns out that he didn’t know about it before. “Why did you become fixated on me?” she cries! “Why did you discount your life before we met? Why did you bet on a happiness I could never deliver?” She points out that she died young, aged 24. Plague, violence and suffering were also a part of the everyday.

She continues her reproaches over two painful cantos. Dante looks down. He weeps. Eventually he faints. But there is meaning in her message.

She longs for him to see that the present moment is the only moment in which life truly transforms. Nothing changes in the past, because it is past. Nothing changes in the future, because the future is a dream of the present, until it disappears. But if you can attend to what’s happening now, and focus on its fluid dynamics, you can opt for new awareness.

This is the significance of free will. It is not a fantasy of unlimited choice. It is not an escape from what has shaped you, be that your genes, your upbringing or the stars. Rather, it is the ability to craft such constraints into fresh manifestations of your being, much as a composer works with a scale to create endlessly delightful music.

Further, this type of freedom is available in every instant of the waking day. If you tend to be hard-hearted, try softening. If you feel closed off, reach out. If you habitually go left, turn right.

The present then reveals itself to be boundless. It becomes the Eden in which earth channels heaven. “Time is the moving image of eternity,” was Plato’s way of putting it. “Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand. And Eternity in an hour,” was Blake’s.

Or as Jesus is reported to have said to Mary Magdalene, when she sees him resurrected on Easter Sunday, with a ferocity that somewhat echoes Beatrice: “Do not cling to me!” Do not try to pin me down, for fear of the future or the past. Instead, know transcendent life and step into the divine day, which Blake wonderfully called “Eternity’s sunrise”. It can be known here and now.

Oddly enough, I don’t think you have explicitly to believe in God or Christianity to know what Dante was driving at. Figures like James Joyce, whose imagination was shaped by the Florentine poet, and Clive James, who translated the Divine Comedy, have been great readers, too. What matters is a conviction that the present holds vitality.

It is easy to say and not always easy to know. But maybe Dante can help. He has, after all, been to hell as well as heaven. My course at The Idler is, I hope, a way into its tremendous verse. And also an exploration of its lessons, not least the potential of today, now, the present.

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Descent is Ascent – How the road up is the road down in Dante

Making sense of why Dante had to travel through hell, what was going on in purgatory, and how that’s all linked to the destination of heaven, comes with appreciating how, in the spiritual life, descent and ascent are profoundly linked.

Dante explores the links between virtues and vices, moving beyond the literal, high places are risky places, desiring not more but it all, the cross and failures as digressions, the emptiness that opens to fullness, and how hell is the way human beings discover the reality of heaven.

For more on Dante do see – https://www.markvernon.com/dantes-divine-comedy.

Details of my book, Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Guide for the Spiritual Journey, are here – https://www.markvernon.com/books/dantes-divine-comedy-book.

Use this code, “dantemv”, to get £10 off my Divine Comedy course at The Idler via this link.

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Dante in love

Dante and Beatrice from a 14th century manuscript.

Use this code, “dantemv”, to get £10 off my Divine Comedy course at The Idler via this link.

The year was 1274, May Day to be precise. The young lady Beatrice was walking the lovely streets of Florence and she approached a youth called Dante. She smiled. Instantly, he was besotted. Little did he know that this youthful infatuation was to shape the rest of his life. It literally took him to hell and back.

We can be glad it did. The flowering of his love was the masterpiece by which he is now best known: The Divine Comedy. His journey through hell, purgatory and paradise is many things: a critique and celebration of human qualities, a warning that this life matters, a path of awakening, an odyssey, a diatribe against the church and deadly political foes. But at the end of it all, Beatrice brings him to the spiritual climax called the Beatific Vision. He sees God.

That can happen because he had learnt to deal with the despair into which he had plummeted after their first meeting. They had already been promised to others, as was the way with medieval marriage, and so they were never going to be able to consummate any affection. And anyway, she died young, aged 24, in 1290.

The moment of their meeting became the moment love started to bring him torment and dejection. But one of things he describes in his epic is how erotic love can be transformed.

If this were the only wisdom offered by the Divine Comedy, it would be an invaluable resource for us. Christianity does not have a good track record when it comes to erotic love. The faith that has so profoundly shaped the western world finds the love called agape the most to its taste, and that unconditional offering of care and compassion is valuable. Arguably, it’s why we have a welfare state and, in the UK, the NHS. But eros is a different matter.

From the earliest days, it was cast in a dim light, and not without some reason. Christianity emerged during the period of the Roman Empire, in which to be a freeman was largely defined by being able to do what you willed sexually, with your and others’ bodies. The early preachers of the new faith reacted against that liberty. The upshot was that any acts which smacked of sexual freedom were slapped down and condemned.

That said, there was always another tradition in the west that valued eros. It reaches back at least to Plato who argued that passionate love is enchanted. It is actually a go-between god, or daemon, who can upset, widen and transform your vision. Love is so powerful, and so readily goes wrong, because it yearns for nothing less than the good, the beautiful and the true.
Dante clearly felt the tension between the two attitudes towards eros in his life. His early poems describe the torture of sexual impulses. But he reached a turning point when he realised that the struggle could become a celebration. His poetry could describe not only the agony but the ecstasy.

That happened, slowly, as he coupled his instincts to his intellect, his body to his mind. Eros could marry Logos, which at the time meant the insight within us that can discern the presence of the divine. His love for Beatrice then became like a star in the sky: he could use his feelings to guide a broadening of his understanding. So long as he felt the light of love growing in his life, and so long as he felt his soul becoming less fixated and more capable of embracing existence, he knew he was on the right track.

The visionary experiences he describes in the Divine Comedy are a narrative retelling of that remarkable awareness. It is hard won. He had to face what is darkest, and to know his shadows completely, before he could step into the presence of the brilliance that is the completion of everything. But he shows us that erotic love can have it all, if it is prepared to be educated about the nature of the All.

His first gasp on the streets of Florence was not wrong. Though he became, initially, obsessed with Beatrice, he attained an ability to love not only her, and the way in which she mirrored the divine loveliness, but an ability to turn with love itself, which moves the sun and the other stars – to recall the line with which his poem ends.

The course that I’ve launched with The Idler is designed to introduce the Divine Comedy, fully aware that it can be daunting. You’ll see images, as well as learn what happened, and be introduced to its many possible meanings.

It is one of those texts that, once open, never stops bringing insights and treasures. Moreover, Dante was quite clear that he wrote his poem to help others along the same route to enlightenment. This year, 2021, is the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death, when he passed over into the light perpetual. He had used his love well. He urges us to do the same.

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Dante’s Divine Comedy in 100 Images – new online course!

Use this code, “dantemv”, to get £10 off with this link.

What you get:

Video: Nine half-hour richly illustrated video lessons.

Audio: The option to download and listen to the course lessons in podcast form.

Notes: The course is accompanied by downloadable and printable notes. These include an outline of the structure and story of The Divine Comedy plus further reading and information.

Assignments: Optional assignments for each part of the course help you revise and enrich your learning.

Exclusive Course Forum: Here you can post the answers to your assignments and chat to fellow students.

Quiz: Test what you have learnt with our fun multiple choice quiz.

Certificate: When you pass the quiz you will be issued with a beautiful Idler Academy Certificate of Completion.

Live Q&A session with Mark Vernon: Join Mark and your fellow students at a special Meet the Tutor session held on Zoom. This session is open to all students who start the course before April 19th 2021.

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Longing for the Infinite – 7 key features of Dante’s transhumanism

The word transhumanism was coined by Dante to capture his realisation of divine life in paradise.

It has been colonised today by technologists dreaming of utopias.

I explore 7 key differences to recover Dante’s vision from the Divine Comedy, in the 700th anniversary year of the great poet’s death, which is also to explore the richness of true transhumanizing.

1. Purge what stops you wanting not what you don’t want.

2. Understand that death is your friend not your enemy.

3. Know your body as experiencing subjectivity not a flawed object.

4. Resonate with virtue not reduce to bits and bytes.

5. Know your intellect and love not just your cognitive abilities.

6. Aim for the richness of diverse unity not the tyranny of singularity.

7. Work to release true wealth not enable rich winners.

To follow the Divine Comedy, canto by canto, try my podcast/YouTube series – https://www.markvernon.com/dantes-divine-comedy

My book, Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Guide For The Spiritual Journey (Angelico Press) is forthcoming – https://www.markvernon.com/books/dantes-divine-comedy-book

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