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Merlin Sheldrake on the importance of ‘making the familiar unfamiliar again’.

In recent years, biologist Merlin Sheldrake has quickly become someone that I’ve enjoyed listening to on both his pet area (fungi), as well as on broader topics related to science, philosophy and modes of thinking. Sheldrake – son of Rupert Sheldrake, who many readers of this site would be familiar with – released an acclaimed book in 2020 titled Entangled Life: How fungi make our worlds, change our minds and shape our futures that I recommend everyone check out.

Last year Merlin Sheldrake spoke at the psychedelics conference Breaking Convention, and his talk (embedded below) is one of a large number that have recently been released on the Breaking Convention YouTube channel (including talks from the most recent 2023 gathering).

It is reasonably short, but packed full of insights into how we can be trapped in modes of thinking that have artificial boundaries and methodologies that we can free ourselves from if we wish (see my notes below the video).

Sheldrake tells how when he was a child, ecologist David Abram – a friend of his father Rupert – would do coin tricks for him…”they’d vanish and reappear where they shouldn’t be and just be totally bewildering.” And regarding this bewildering effect, Abrams told him a story about how, in one of his past lives as house magician in Alice’s Restaurant in Massachusetts, he noticed something about the way people were transformed by it:

After a while on the job he started to notice a pattern where people who he’d been doing these tricks for would go outside, having paid the bill, and then come back in looking puzzled and say ‘what did you do to us, did you put anything in our drink?’ And he said ‘no, of course not, I’m not that guy, I was just doing tricks’. And they said, ‘Well because when we met outside the sky was bluer than it was when we came in, the rain was colder on our skin, the pavement was more vivid, and we started to notice the cracks in the sidewalk, and we realized these trees were there and they were so big’ – all this kind of thing. And he realized after a while that what was going on was it was these tricks.

Our perceptions work by expectations, so much of the time it’s easier for our cognitive systems to make sense of the world by updating our understanding with small new pieces of sensory information, rather than reforming perceptions every time from scratch. And these coin tricks are loosening the grip of our expectations about how we expect the world to happen, so when the coin is not there, and not there, and not there yet again, your expectations which govern so much of your sense of experience start to get rendered a little bit useless and they peel off.

And when you go outside everything’s more vivid because you see what’s actually there rather than what you expected to be there. The familiar becomes unfamiliar again, and I think this is very, very important for lots and lots of things that humans do…things that can render ‘The Familiar’ unfamiliar again are some of the most important and valuable experiences, and psychedelics can do this and so can many other things.

Sheldrake goes on to discuss how we might apply this process to something like the division in the modern world between science and spirituality/the arts, “this bifurcation of the primary quantities of the measurable and the secondary qualities…the very foundational dualism in modern scientific thinking [that has] left us with all sorts of problems and created all sorts of boundaries that we stumble over, mistaking them for natural features of our minds.”

“These boundary-dissolving experiences at least can remind us that the boundaries that we use to organize our lives are those that have been put in place most of the time by humans,” Sheldrake points out, “and that we don’t have to always be structured by them.”

He goes on to say that one of these boundary-dissolving experiences for him, personally, is the study of the living world – in particular the study of symbiosis, the ways that different organisms are constantly inventing new ways to live alongside one another. Because the more you study it, the more you realize “that this is what life is: it’s relationship all the way down.”

All organisms arise out of these relationships, these relationships are very generative, and something is formed which was not there in the previous parts. Those two players stopped being just those layers and become something different that can do new things and that opens up creative possibilities for these organisms – and this happens again and again and again in the history of life.

…It’s a bit like the elements in water: hydrogen and oxygen are two flammable gases that come together to make water, a compound with properties quite unlike those of its constituent elements.

…A sort of reigning assumption within scientific worlds is, you might call it a ‘substance ontology’: that the world’s made up of stuff, when you boil it all down it’s things, and the relationships between things. But a process view, which is more in line with what modern physics says would say that no when you boil it down it’s matter and it’s energy bound within fields…it’s a process in time unfolding. There’s no sort of hard stuff about it, these processes can come together to form stable structures, as we are ourselves. If you think about yourself, the matter that makes you up is constantly flowing through you. You’re a field of stability through which matter is passing – the you of five years ago is made up of different stuff than the you of today. And this is the case with the whole living world, and indeed the whole universe.

The entire talk is a wonderful exploration of thinking in different ways and trying to expand our views beyond the artificial boundaries that we have placed on knowledge gathering.

Sheldrake concludes his short talk by exhorting people to try and put these thoughts into action:

I wonder in general whether we can keep our focus broad so that we are always paying attention to context.

Whether we can pay attention to the relationships between entities as much as the entities doing the relating.

I wonder whether we can lean into ambiguity without trying to force a resolution one way or another.

I wonder whether we can maintain a healthy suspicion of ideologies that fetishize reduction at all costs.

I wonder whether we can continue to find excitement in that which we don’t know.

I believe all these things are possible and can help us move forward.

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