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Amidst the rain and cold this Memorial Day weekend, I attended a service in Cambridge, Mass., to honor the life of my friend, Eugene Taylor Ph.D. His work is not well known outside of academic circles, but in the history of mental healing and its crossover with religion and spirituality there is not comparison.
I first met Eugene in 1990 while researching the spiritual life of Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Few know that Bill Wilson was married in a Swedenborgian Church and that when he had his spiritual awakening in Towns Hospital, Bill Wilson read “The Varieties of Religious Experience” by William James. As Eugene Taylor told me, he read it for confirmation of what he had just experienced, and it changed his life.
Eugene spent his working life studying the work of William James. Taylor was also a member of the Swedenborg Church in Cambridge, a Christian sect based on the teachings of Emmanuel Swendenborg. Fittingly, the church is directly across from the William James building at Harvard. William James’ family members were well versed in Swedenborg, and according to Eugene Taylor, “James, however, was generally ignored by the discipline he helped to found, on the grounds that psychology was just then aligning itself with the basic sciences and had only just recently ejected all the philosophers, whom they encouraged to go and found their own national associations.”
Eugene Taylor taught me time and again that just like people read Sigmund Freud in the early part of the 20th century, people read Swedenborg in the 19th century. Why then is the work of William James so relevant on Memorial Day?
Swedenborg is most famous for his book on heaven and hell and his “law of correspondences.” He wrote about hell being a mental place. He also wrote that that there is correspondence in the afterlife (the spiritual world) to our life on Earth. Based on the work of William James and Swedenborg, Eugene Taylor had some ideas about the nature of life and death and what our work is on this earth as well as how to heal. He believed that everyone had the capacity to be a healer and that much of this healing process comes not just from the spiritual connection but with an inner dialog that goes along with and corresponds to a spiritual experience. Without that inner dialog that corresponds to spiritual experiences, it is difficult to understand our experiences let alone become healers, he believed.
Eugene said we are conduits for higher power and that some of the experiences people have from intense meditation and prayer are “signposts” along the way. He was interested in the spiritual healing of trauma, and he held a special place for the survivors of Chinese incursion in Tibet. The work of Swedenborg and James held a special place in Eugene Taylor’s notion of healing and his belief that once there is healing that people’s lives undergo a transformation. This transformation, like the life work of AA founder Bill Wilson, allows other people to be healed.
On this Memorial Day, it is useful for us to give some thought to what it means to undergo spiritual transformation and to honor the lives of those who not only paid the ultimate sacrifice for our country but also to honor those such as Eugene Taylor who tried to put sacrifice and death in context. Eugene not thought about what loved ones of the dead experience but how an understanding of the healing process can help so many others. Finally, he believed “that we can always do more than we think we can.” It’s something for us all to remember this Memorial Day.