Root Menu

Neville Hodgkinson

In conversation with James Powell

Neville has covered issues of health, medicine and science for a variety of newspapers over the last three decades. In the early 1980s he took three years out from his profession to work as a freelance and write a book about mind-body links in health and illness, Will To Be Well: The Real Alternative Medicine (Hutchinson, 1984). He also began training with the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University with whom he has now been a student for twenty-three years. He has lived and worked at their Global Retreat Centre in Nuneham Park, six miles south of Oxford, for the last eleven years. On every hour they play a piece of calming music for a minute, called a traffic control, designed to give you pause to reflect. (Listen here.)

As a child I was a bit dreamy, otherworldly. At 13, I went with my family to a two-week Christian summer camp at Lee Abbey, in North Devon. Until then, religion had not meant much more to me than Sunday School, and some wise stories. Our local parish church seemed more focused on the social side of religion than on providing real depth of understanding. My experience at Lee Abbey changed my attitude: it was there that I realised that for some people searching for spiritual truth was really important. I would hang around the discussions at the end of the day and hear people witnessing about their love for Christ or the revelations they had about themselves and their spiritual journey. However, I was really upset that I never had any special experience myself! In the wake of that I more or less decided, at some deep level, that it wasn’t going to work for me. I must have mentioned my sadness because on the last night at Lee Abbey a priest came to my bedroom and I remember him telling me, “Don’t worry…when the time is right you’ll understand; if you really have a love for God and you want to know truth in its deepest sense, it will come to you.”

For years afterwards it was as if I had resolved that the best I could do was to make myself worldlier, more practical. I developed a distaste for religiosity and for human frailty, in the religious and spiritual sense; I came to regard religion as a kind of comfort for weak minds. I only saw the negative sides of it and failed to recognise the deeper, transcendental aspects of the spiritual search and the power that can come from that. I think that this rejection may also explain why I went into journalism: with its deadlines and rules, it was an activity that really stimulated and engaged me, gave me boundaries. I also embraced science and its materialism as my hope for the future.

I didn’t take an interest in science during my school years. I went to Durham University and did a BA Econ, which included politics and constitutional history, quite good for becoming a journalist although that wasn’t my aim then. In fact, I intended to become an accountant, but at the end of the first term I told my tutor that I wasn’t really enjoying the more mathematical, statistical, accounting side of the degree. He told me not to worry as there was a range of options available and plenty of other things to do at university, which is obviously one of the great things about it. He asked me whether I had ever thought of writing – I hadn’t! He planted one simple idea and it totally changed the trajectory of my life. Isn’t it amazing how that can happen?

I went along to the student newspaper the next day and took to journalism like a duck to water, spending most of the rest of my university time working on student publications. That enabled me to get a training job at the Evening Chronicle in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, after graduation. Then I took a job at The Times as a sub-editor, mostly clerical work. Eventually I transferred to reporting and soon the opportunity came up for general reporters like myself to understudy for one of the specialist positions. So I started doing some medical and health articles; was soon appointed social policy correspondent; and in the process gained some knowledge of medical science.

That led on to working as full-time medical correspondent at the Daily Mail, a job I held for the four years (1977-80). I became very interested both in the potential medical science had, and in its shortcomings: I realised quite quickly as I gained more knowledge that medicine was in a state of crisis. It had embraced such a narrowly materialistic, scientifically oriented approach to our problems. This was partly because of the success of drugs like penicillin. I remember doctors telling me, when I started the job, how proud they were that they now had drugs that actually did something, whereas previously they had little more to offer patients than a good bedside manner, and hope. I came to the job as something of a scientific and technological optimist, but as I got closer to the field I realised that the materialistic approach to medicine had severe shortcomings.


When I was eighteen I remember feeling I was drifting with no sense of purpose, and being convinced I would be dead by the age of thirty. Journalism gave me a framework for getting on with life, and I feel grateful to it in that regard. I was married at 21 and started a family at 23, so that also earthed me and the years went by quite happily. But as I reached my mid to late thirties there was in me a growing sense of malaise, approaching crisis, rather similar to what I saw reflected in medicine. I realised that the earthy, mechanistic approach to life, where you just get on with earning money, having children, those kinds of things, living with the belief that materialistic science was our best way forward, were leaving a hollow inside me, which I perceived in medicine too. Despite external successes I think internally I was becoming more and more bereft of a sense of purpose or real fulfilment. I became an incarnation of exactly what I felt was wrong with the field I was writing about.

After my first few months at the Daily Mail I gravitated towards doctors who were the pioneers of more holistic approaches to medical care: those teaching reflective practices and trying to understand the role of our aspirations, feelings, frustrations and thoughts in making us ill or keeping us well. I remember the people at the Daily Mail saying, “Why have we never heard about these things before?” I was one of the first people in this country to write journalistically about these holistic approaches and the mind/body effect; although of course individuals like Edward Bach and others had already written about health and medicine in deeper ways, it is a very old tradition. But at that time, in the mass media, very little had appeared.

It is easy for rational minds to dismiss the softer arts of medicine. But the placebo effect, in which the patient becomes better because of being “pleased” by the doctor’s acceptance of them through the “gift” of a prescription, is extremely powerful. It seems odd that medical science is often so dismissive about the placebo effect, although its presence has to be taken into account when new drugs are tested. Medicine got gripped by what some have called “scientism” – an ideology, a way of life, such that you would be dismissed as a heretic if you didn’t fully subscribe to the materialistic paradigm.

Soon after this retreat centre opened we held two professional retreats for psychologists. I remember that, at the first, a professor of psychology from Wales told us that he had looked up the 100-year index of Annals of Psychology, the leading publication in the world in this field, to find out how many references there were to love. The answer was none – not a single one!

But I feel there has been quite a revolution in the last decade in popular literature, in the mass media and within the medical profession. Now externally, at least, there is much more recognition that although the materialistic, mechanistic approach can and has been useful, that it is not the whole story. In 1981 Prince Charles, in a presidential address to the British Medical Association, referred to medicine being a bit out of balance through the neglect of alternative and complementary approaches. His speech was very controversial. Doctors complained that he wanted to return to the Dark Ages before scientific medicine, and more or less rejected his call for change. But a few years ago, after another enquiry caused by the growing popular demand for complementary medical practices, the BMA was forced to recognise that these approaches do have a part to play.

So who or what do you think is responsible for the beliefs and values that the scientific disciplines hold?

A hard question, and one that I cannot answer! It is certainly connected to movements of thought at a deeper level than the individual mind …

A friend was telling me yesterday about the outbreak in 1962 of mass hysteria/laughter in Tanganyika. Apparently, this epidemic was so virulent that it spread through adjacent communities and lasted six months, requiring schools to be closed down!


The real turning-point in my own personal and professional change process came in late September 1980. A doctor-friend who had helped me a lot with understanding the medical field in a deeper way, and who practised and taught meditation, invited me to a press conference in the Jerusalem Room at Westminster Abbey. The Dean of Westminster, at that time the Right Reverend Edward Carpenter, was hosting a swami from an Indian meditation school. This was the first time in years that I had heard anyone speak of the soul, which both the dean and the swami did from different perspectives. At the end of the press conference there was a meditative chant for five minutes, followed by a silent period. In that silence a really peculiar thing happened to me: a golden red light came from the centre of my forehead, opening out like a flower, accompanied by a feeling of absolute bliss. It was absolutely extraordinary – I had never experienced anything like it.

It was such a shock for this mechanistic-minded science correspondent, even though I had been writing about the limits of medical science, that I just paced the streets for a couple of hours. Eventually I went back to the office and consulted Gray’s Anatomy to try to find out what could have been going on in my brain to produce this light. I thought perhaps it was a discharge across the corpus callosum: that I had been too left-brained! But nothing could go far enough to explain it, and the next day I put in my notice. I had had in mind to write a book on the mind-body links I had been learning about, so it wasn’t a complete step into the unknown. It did involve giving up a well-paid job and a lot of security, although by this time I was also finding the job very stressful.

For a while I freelanced and dedicated myself to writing this book. In May 1981 I came across the Brahma Kumaris (BKs). Something in me just resonated with the ideas, and the people practising them – a thing very hard to explain. One thing that did appeal to me was how they emphasised that the task ahead for all of us was to meet our responsibilities in life and fulfil our roles, whilst at the same time being able to step back and be in a place of stillness; to be able to move in and out of that stillness at will. That is a major challenge.

If you don’t develop this extra degree of detachment you may start to lose your judgment, and become consumed by your issues. They will interfere with your sleep, and your vision of the future – a whole range of emotions descend, clouding your judgment. So the ability to live in a detached way is necessary not only for our own peace of mind but also for our functioning as social creatures too. I used to just think, “Get out there and get on with it!” but it has gradually dawned on me that that is not enough. I have learned that through the practice of turning inside you can connect to a place of silence that fills you with more of a sense of peace about the way events flow. This is more than just a faith that feels comfortable. You develop a deep sense that there is a reason for everything that happens, and that we can make a difference, but that the best way to make that difference is to move with the flow peacefully. This enables you to be more attuned to signals that come about what is the right thing to do at the right time. If you are distracted by too much noise, internal or external, whilst trying to right wrongs it is as if you cannot pick up the delicate signals that nature or God, however you like to look at it, are trying to give about what is really needed. The ego comes in, and messes things up.


One of the principal ideas of the BKs is that each of us is a unique unit of consciousness, a soul, and that matter is secondary. That is clearly contrary to scientific orthodoxy and the ideas we constantly hear over the airwaves about how we are primarily material beings, who are designed to compete and consume. Orthodoxy sees the mind as an emergent property of the brain, a consequence of millions of years of evolution; the spiritual university inverts that, to say that it is mind which is shaping and giving purpose to the material world. The founder of the BKs, who came to be known as Brahma Baba, believed that making that shift in perspective was the key for people to be able to remove the malaise we feel in our lives, a consequence of the endless addictions, desires, frustrations, illusions, lusts and sorrows we experience; and also to remove the violence and wars that are fought when we feel this material world is all there is, and lose sight of our spiritual nature.

Part of Brahma Baba’s original inspiration was that the movement he was founding should be led by women. He believed they were more geared by their biology and experience towards being inclusive and holistic-minded. Although I didn’t really understand the ideas of the BKs at first, because I was so locked into my materialistic consciousness, when I first heard Dadi (Elder Sister) Janki, one of the administrative heads, speak in the early 1980s, the thought came into my head very strongly that there was no greater service to humanity than to be like this woman was. In the twenty-three years I have known her she has constantly been refining her consciousness, so that today she can handle anything that comes to her without being disturbed. As a result of this continual self-improvement, despite bodily frailty, she is able at the age of ninety to jet around the world and to meet both heads of state and ordinary folk alike. I think the quality and authenticity of the example she has offered is extraordinary; she has completely removed ego from her perceptions and responses, to the extent that she can be a conduit for ideas and feelings to flow from a deeper source than the individual self. Whilst accepting without judgment everything that has happened up to this point, she also offers a vision of how things could and should be better – of the potential that people possess. That is an art in itself, and it is one that the BK women elders teach very well.

It was a woman who introduced me to the BKs. I was at a health conference, and met a delegate who was wearing a small red badge. I asked her what it represented. She told me it was the focus of her meditation – a tiny pinpoint, representing God, as a supreme source of spiritual energy. I was researching an article on meditation, following my experience at Westminster Abbey, and after interviewing her, went with my wife to meet some of the BK sisters. I was hugely struck by their presence, although, in all honesty, the language of soul that they used did not have much meaning for me at that time.

It was valuable to be away from journalism whilst beginning my study with the BKs. It would have been impossible for me to get the ideas and practices established in myself if I had still been working full-time. It was also good to be away from the need to be continually competitive in my work. Whilst this competitiveness had brought me a comfortable existence, ultimately it led to me feeling drained, a result of the ego constantly being either inflated or deflated.

After a few years, in which I wrote Will To Be Well and also edited a health magazine, I took a lowly job at The Times, as a way back into newspapers. In 1986 the position of medical correspondent came up at the Sunday Times, which I applied for and got. I immediately noticed a difference in myself: I was a better colleague, more at peace with myself inside, not so competitive in that negative way, whilst still having the skills to be a good journalist. I became friends with Andrew Neil, then editor at the Sunday Times, during my seven years there – four as medical correspondent and three as science correspondent, with a couple of years in between in a junior executive post at the Sunday Express. Those years back in the newspaper industry were undoubtedly the best of my career, both externally and in the way I felt about myself.


As part of my job as medical correspondent I was writing a lot about AIDS in the late 1980s, taking the conventional line about this great new danger that was facing us. When I came back to the Sunday Times from the Sunday Express in the early 1990s, I was struck by how predictions that had been made about this epidemic – that it would sweep through all sexually active populations – were not coming about, at least in Europe and America. I learned of a critique of the HIV theory mounted by scientists in the United States and wrote a two-page spread on it. It was the first time the critique had been reported in a national newspaper, and it brought fierce responses: everybody attacked the Sunday Times for being irresponsible, because it was thought that for the scientific community to show any differences of opinion on the causes of AIDS would damage the public health efforts. It was as though we were traitors in a war. But how can you fight a war when you don’t know who or what the enemy is?

I’ve come to believe that the medical and science professions lost their heads over this issue. Whilst it is understandable that people will behave differently in the face of a prospective crisis, making and never challenging assumptions about the cause of a new disease simply does not make for good science. I wrote a series of articles that critiqued the mainstream HIV theory. Nature, the bible of science journalism, along with other scientific bodies became more and more upset about these articles. At one point the magazine contemplated picketing the offices of the Sunday Times to try to stop us. It was really a very bitter episode.

There was a feeling amongst journalists writing about AIDS in the late 1980s of really doing something useful; not just entertaining or informing, but really making a difference to the world. In my view, that feeling, which I shared, can be dangerous for a journalist, as well as for scientists. It can cause you to lose your objectivity. You feel so much that you are doing the right thing it becomes very hard to see contradictory evidence.

Broadly, there are two critiques: the first is from the eminent molecular biologist, Peter Duesberg, who argued, from the late 1980s, that HIV was such a conventional retrovirus, with such minimal amounts active in HIV-positive people and even AIDS patients, that it could not possibly be doing the damage ascribed to it. There is also a group in Perth, Australia, who have an even deeper critique. These scientists say that the HIV test was never validated as demonstrating the presence of a new virus, because of the inability to purify the purported virus or locate it in AIDS patients. They argue that the antibodies that are taken to signify HIV are actually non-specific: rather than showing the presence of a deadly new virus, they indicate that the immune system has been activated in a particular way as a result of any one or more of a variety of circumstances and conditions. Their view is that promiscuous, unprotected anal sex with multiple partners, often accompanied by heavy drug use, is a principal cause of “HIV”-positivity and AIDS in the West, whereas the main cause of what has come to be called AIDS in poor countries is diseases linked to malnutrition. In both circumstances, the immune system becomes challenged in ways that lead to raised levels of the antibodies thought to mean HIV is present; but those antibodies can actually relate to a wide variety of conditions, including some that are harmless, such as pregnancy, and others that are often treatable, such as TB. So these are really very radical challenges to the worldwide popular beliefs about the causes and nature of AIDS.

In poor countries within Africa and the Indian subcontinent there are millions of premature deaths, and it is good that world attention is now focused on this tragedy. But the critics argue that AIDS workers, who have the best of intentions, have nevertheless focused on the wrong target. There is irrefutable evidence, for example, that TB, a massive global killer, commonly causes those infected, and their contacts, to have raised blood levels of the antibodies that the HIV test detects. But this has nothing to do with HIV.

You cannot tell simply on the basis of the antibody test whether or not HIV is present. This is acknowledged by the manufacturers of the tests, who put a suitable disclaimer in their product information leaflet. But people who test positive are not told of this non-specificity. Doctors believe they have other tests with which they can confirm a diagnosis of HIV infection, but in fact, none of these other tests is specific either. It is a real tragedy. I still write occasional articles about this:

but many people still think it is irresponsible to question “HIV” science.

So how did you cope with the bitterness that this issue generated?

I wouldn’t have been able to survive the two years of intense criticism whilst I was doing the questioning articles at the Sunday Times if I hadn’t been making progress on trying to take my ego out of the equation, through continual spiritual practice. So it has been a fantastic learning tool! I have had to check my motives constantly. The experience has taught me to be less and less reactive to abuse, in the process of searching for an objective perspective on these issues. If you are trying to prove a particular point of view in a personal way, it hurts when others condemn you. The more you manage to keep your feelings out of it, the more you are able to remain calm, and that enables you to keep going.

The story took me all over the world. I spent a week in a virologist’s laboratory in Germany, learning about molecular biology, so that I could understand how the original mistakes in HIV science came about. I travelled through Africa for several weeks; I went to interview the scientists in Australia. It was actually a great privilege to be with a newspaper like the Sunday Times that could afford to let me investigate and write about the critiques in such depth.

I left full-time journalism in 1994 to write the book, AIDS: The Failure of Contemporary Science (Fourth Estate, 1996), which was, disappointingly, widely ignored except in some fringe publications. I was a bit innocent. I think I expected – because it seemed so clear to me that the evidence was there that this was a huge mistake – that it would only be a matter of months before the truth came out. Surely doctors wouldn’t want to keep condemning people to death on the basis of this unvalidated diagnostic test? Why would people want to continue giving antiviral drugs, of high toxicity, when it wasn’t even clear what the target of the drugs was?

There are stories of hundreds of people, particularly in the United States, who have been diagnosed HIV positive yet who are mostly doing very well after learning of the flaws in the HIV theory and deciding not to take the drug approach. The organisation Alive & Well – AIDS Alternatives has done tremendous work in alerting those with an HIV diagnosis that this needn’t be a death sentence, and that they should make informed choices about the drugs. It is a sad aspect of modern medicine that doctors are often too ready to tell a patient that unless they agree to take drug treatment, they will die. The public have been led to understand cancer as a death sentence, although some of the cancer charities are beginning to try to change that idea. At least cancer is today a disease that can be talked about openly, but imagine the effect on a patient of an “HIV” diagnosis, given the stigma attached to the purported virus. It is said to be sexually-transmitted, and it’s also linked to drugs; and the diagnosis is considered so terrible that you need to be counselled if you test positive. Surely that only adds to the power of the hex, the belief that you are going to die? I wonder how many people have died simply as a result of being told they have HIV…

So has there been any discussion or debate on the mainstream view of HIV/AIDS?

Mainstream AIDS experts have not been willing to enter into discussion with the “dissident” scientists. They won’t appear on the same platform as these scientists, won’t allow them to publish in their journals, and won’t even debate with them. After he mounted his critique, Peter Duesberg was reduced from being a front-runner in his field to chair of his university’s annual picnic committee!

When my book was published an article headlined “Sunday Times Science Editor Awaits Flat Earth” came out in the Observer. It was written by a journalist who was purporting to review the book, but he admitted to me later that he had not read it. It linked my spiritual study with my “crazy” views on HIV/AIDS, but misrepresented both in order to ridicule both me and the rival Sunday Times. Althoughthe newspaper published an apology and correction, it left quite a scar for a while.

So the discussion on these issues has mostly been polemics. However, after the publication of my book, a group of AIDS workers at the Chelsea & Westminster hospital allowed me to come and address them. Although it didn’t change anything, they were courteous, and also I think genuinely surprised that I wasn’t some kind of monster, a dreadful hack just out for a sensational story, given the nature of the prior publicity. It was generous of them to take that risk with me, and they saw that I was at least serious about the critique.

In 2000, I attended the second of two hearings called by President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa. He set up an AIDS Advisory Panel after learning of problems and uncertainties in AIDS science. For his trouble, Mbeki suffered intense criticism from the South African and indeed world media; it seemed to them to be sacrilege that he should be questioning the HIV theory, in a country where millions are thought to be infected. It is extraordinary how angry some people were. At the International AIDS Conference in Durban, there were people with placards saying, “One dissident, one bullet”. Yet the high rates of disease and death seen among rural black communities in South Africa are probably a consequence of 60 years of apartheid, in which black families were broken up through policies of forced relocation, and deprived of both education and health care. It is easier for some people to attribute the current high death rates to HIV than to accept that these deaths result from the poverty and violence that were apartheid’s legacies.


So how do you look to the future?

I feel optimistic. I am happy that my outlook has changed; that the materialism, and accompanying emptiness, has shifted. Yet, there is more progress to be made: learning to let go of the more limited ways of responding to adversity; to keep the heart clean; these are lifelong challenges.

When I started studying with the spiritual university I was married with two children, aged twelve and thirteen. I think that because I was such an ignoramus spiritually, but so drawn by the new horizons spirituality was opening up for me, I made quite a lot of mistakes in the beginning. I loved my family life but was quite dependent upon my wife, Liz, who was much more independent-minded. I remember thinking that this love for God that had come into my life was somehow an impossible love, because I couldn’t see how I could reconcile it with my love for my family. Whilst my wife respected what I was doing it didn’t touch her heart in the same way that it had done for me. As a result, when the boys grew up, my wife decided she wanted us to separate.

When I came to live here at the retreat centre I still had an attachment to Liz and to the family life that had now finished, so it was quite hard at first. But the meditation and study enabled me to grow stronger inside, and it gradually became a lot easier. Interestingly, as that happened, Liz became much closer again to the point that a few years ago she came to the BKs headquarters in India for the first time in fifteen years. She did many interviews and wrote a beautiful book about the BKs called Peace & Purity, including a chapter about her experience of what had happened between her and me. Our two sons now have five children of their own. It is lovely watching the two families making their own way in the world, and the grandchildren are a joy.

I want to continue the process of self-change. I would like to become more like the senior yogis, who are so free of the pull of selfish thinking, and whose hearts and minds are so connected to God, that they radiate constantly the qualities of love, peace and happiness that are innate in all of us. You only have to come into their presence and you feel the peace. It is a gift they carry around with them, endlessly serving others. It is because of their constant attention to God, our spiritual Parent or Source, that they are able to bring love not only to the people immediately around them, but to everyone. They feel they are slowly bringing truth and happiness back into the world again.

The Tree of Humanity

The Tree of Humanity is an image that we use in our teaching. The trunk signifies an early phase in history when all human beings live according to their fullest potential – to the highest values implicit in our humanity – without division or conflict. Later, as the tree grows bigger, it becomes very varied, developing many branches. These indicate different religions and other branches of thought, through which people have sought to maintain connection with the divine and express their higher selves. There is also an understanding that once a soul has come on to the world stage, it stays there for the rest of the life of the tree, perhaps taking many births as it moves, indestructibly, through time; this is reflected in the fact that the population keeps growing. Depending on the point at which an individual joins the drama of existence, he or she will find the belief-system and practice that is right for them.

I believe that today there is a coming together of science (especially through quantum physics and neuroscience), spiritual exploration and classical religious understanding. This is a territory that I enjoy very much. In this expanding personal and professional consciousness, I aspire to being a conduit for ideas about science and the spirit, and for the mutual understanding that they can give one another.

March 2005