7-Peter-Vardy-Dec12-2Peter Vardy is a theologian and perhaps the leading Religious Studies teacher in the country. After teaching theology at Heythrop College and writing several best-selling books on ethics and religious philosophy, he and his wife Charlotte – also a theologian – set up Candle Conferences, which runs huge events for RS students around the country.

For the last month, I’ve been touring with the Vardys, speaking to halls full of 300-400 RS students, in Oxford, Cambridge, Canterbury, York, London and beyond. It’s been a blast. It strikes me that RS – studied by 300,000 at GCSE level and 23,000 at A-level – is one of the very few places in the curriculum where teenagers get taught to think about ethics and philosophy. Which is why proposed reforms to RS, to reduce the amount of ethics in the subject,  worry me and surprise me, particularly when all the main parties say they want more of an emphasis on ‘character education’.  Here’s an interview with Peter:

Jules Evans: Why is RS so popular, in a country that’s increasingly non-religious?

Peter Vardy: Mainly because of the ethics component. Schools can choose how much they focus on three components – philosophy of religion, religious texts and ethics. Many schools choose to focus almost entirely on ethics, because it’s the most popular component [and most of the students are not part of a religion]. Some of the ethics is theoretical – the study of leading ethical theories like utilitarianism, natural law, emotivism, relativism and so on. And there’s also an applied ethics component at A-level – medical ethics, environmental ethics and so on.

Where else is ethics taught in schools?

Almost nowhere. There’s citizenship, which has a bit of ethics in it. There’s Personal and Social Health Education, which tends to revolve around how to put a condom on a banana – it has a basic utilitarian approach and is very badly done indeed. There’s philosophy A-level, but it’s very small, it’s miniscule [about 6000 study philosophy at A-S Level, and around half of that at A-level. For an article about the problems that have beleaguered philosophy A-level, read this.]

So what reforms are being proposed for RS A-level?

At A-Level, the Department of Education want to strip back the philosophy of religion and ethics components to 25%. They want to make the subject more single-track, with a greater focus on textual criticism and on religious sociology, what festivals different religions have and so on.

Charlotte and Peter Vardy with some students

Charlotte and Peter Vardy with some students

Why is that a mistake?

Well, textual rigour is important but it can’t be the sole focus. In fact, if you do enough Biblical criticism you realize it’s impossible to know anything about the historical Jesus, apart from he existed. Students are not particularly interested in historical Christianity – it’s just one story among others in our post-modern, relativist age. And if you did textual criticism of Islam you’d get a fatwa declared on you. The main reason students want to study RS A-level is for the philosophy and ethics. They take it because they enjoy it. If you take that out, we expect a 50% decline in numbers in the next few years. We’ve already seen some RS departments close.

Why did the government introduce such misguided reforms?

Their consultation process was mishandled – they didn’t consult RS teachers, but instead consulted religious studies academics at some minor universities, to ask them what would prepare students for RS degrees. But most RS students don’t go on to study RS at university – they do PPE, or medicine, or law. And the ethics component of the existing RS is a great preparation for all these different degrees and careers.

I think the government may also secretly want to close the subject down. Michael Gove already left it off the baccalaureate curriculum. The hope is perhaps it can be ditched to save money and concentrate on ‘core subjects’.

I suppose people in philosophy might feel it’s more appropriate if ethics are studied in philosophy A-level – secularists might be worried that RS teachers would teach ethics in dogmatic or superstitious ways.

The ethics component tends not to be Biblically based. For example, natural law has its roots in Aristotelian virtue ethics. You can’t teach RS in a dogmatic way. Even in GCSE we teach that you can’t say ‘this is the Christian position’, because so many Christians have different positions on key issues. You have to give reasons and arguments.


Some fans in Australia, where Peter has helped to create the RS curriculum

I wonder if both RS and philosophy could have more of a practical bent – give students a sense of the practical usefulness of virtue ethics like Stoicism, or of spiritual practices like Christian or Buddhist contemplation, so they have a sense of the spiritual life as a practice rather than just a set of ontological or ethical theories.

I agree. I introduced an RS curriculum in Australia that was a five-strand approach, one of which was stillness and silence. But that approach is not really accepted today. Teachers, senior managers and headmasters are judged purely on educational results. There’s been a narrowing of education based on metrical measurements, and you can’t measure stillness and silence.

You travel around the country holding conferences for halls full of RS students. What’s your sense of the spiritual temperature of this generation?

There’s a huge hunger and need for something on the spiritual side. They’re open to that, they’re open to God, they’re open to life after death. But they’re not interested in Christianity, it’s simply irrelevant to them. They’re postmodernist and relativist.

I think the big problem is not atheism, it’s indifference. A lot of people are no longer interested in the big questions which the ancient Greeks asked – why are we here, how should we live, what happens after death. Indifference is the big problem, and I don’t see churches addressing that. There’s a need for some way to help young people and adults to engage with those great questions.

F5A16384C66C08E1C53EDA8217A61ED4Do you think there could be an evangelical revival?

Is the evangelical church the only place where there’s much sign of life? Yes. Particularly in African churches, or in charismatic churches like Holy Trinity Brompton. But the evangelical wing is not perfect. The intellectual element of Christianity tends to be marginalized, in favour of emotional experience, which is often transient and can be manipulated – think of all the billionaires who run African mega-churches. I worry about the US, where evangelical churches dominate, and there is no concern with social justice, only about homosexuality. I have great hope in Pope Francis, who is calling Christianity back to what it was originally about – social care and compassion. But I think the real contest is between Islam and Christianity, particularly in Africa. Islam gives certainty – this is the truth, it says, this is the law. People like certainty. Ambiguity is less popular.

Do you think mindfulness, some kind of secular version of Buddhism, could become the unofficial religion of the West?

Well, mindfulness taps into people’s spiritual need, and it leaves out the dogma.

Is that a problem – the lack of dogma?

Maybe not.

Another hope, it seems to me, for some sort of spiritual revival, is through the idea of aesthetic and creative experience as something transcendent and divine.

Yes, absolutely. Beauty makes a demand of us. You see that very much in the teaching of St Francis and the Franciscans, the idea of beauty as love overflowing. The trouble is, people today deny the idea of beauty. Thanks to the secularizing or rationalizing trend, people might have an experience of the natural beauty of the world, and say, well, that’s just natural selection.

Still, it seems to me that even New Atheists want to retain the idea of beauty, of the transcendent and the numinous. That gives me some hope.

Yes, well, I think a good atheist is a lot closer to God than most people. As I said, the real problem is not atheism, it’s indifference. I’m not anti-atheist. I’m pro-atheist. At least they’re engaged. Fewer and fewer people are. That’s why RS is so important and why it would be a devastating blow to this country if the ability to ask questions disappears. The education system will simply create robots to work on production lines.

If you’re an RS teacher worried by the proposed changes, there is a meeting to discuss them and plan a response, on December 6, at Trinity College Croydon. Details here. And anyone can send in online comments to the Department of Education on the proposed reforms here.


At the beginning of Philosophy for Life, I talk about Raphael’s famous mural of the School of Athens, and imagine getting a free ticket to study there. Well, this week, I got to join the school! The Idler Academy arranged a photo shoot on the steps of St Paul’s, with various British thinkers and philosophers.


There are Martin Robinson as Heraclitus at the front, then behind him Tom Hodgkinson of the Idler as Epicurus, next to Peter Worley of Philosophy Foundation as Socrates, then me (as Zeno the Stoic) talking to John Mitchinson of QI as Democritus, behind which is Mark Vernon talking to someone I don’t know. Next to them is Angie Hobbs as Plato and John Lloyd of QI as Aristotle. In front of them is Jock White as Diogenes. And next to him is Patrick Ussher of Stoicism Today as Cicero, and Nick Spencer of Theos as St Paul. I haven’t met the guy playing the ukelele. Pythagoras in the front is Alex Bellos. Thanks for arranging it Idler!

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seebohmIt is quite easy to make noise in our culture. The internet and online media are like a giant echo chamber, and within a few days one angry tweet can turn into an ear-splitting feedback scream of indignation. Because of that, we can become entirely focused on making noise in our culture – getting retweeted, getting on the news, getting publicity somehow or other. Anything to get the public’s attention for a moment. But making noise is not necessarily the same as making change.

Let me compare two revolutionaries: Seebohm Rowntree, and Russell Brand.

Seebohm Rowntree was Joseph Rowntree’s son, and eventually succeeded him as chairman of Rowntree’s chocolate company. Like his father, he was also a passionate campaigner for social justice. He wanted to improve the lives of British workers. He did this by quietly and pain-stakingly building an evidence base for higher wages.

He and a small team of researchers focused on working conditions in York. They investigated how many calories a person needed to eat to avoid malnutrition, and how much it cost to get those calories, as well as the basic fuel, clothing and household items necessary for survival. Anyone who could not afford these basics lived below the Poverty Line.

18.htm99His team then visited every working class family in York – 11,560 families, or 46, 754 individuals in all -  and interviewed them about their living conditions and income. His team discovered that 27.84% of the working class lived below the Poverty Line – they were not paid enough to avoid malnutrition. He also showed how many working-class people fell below the Poverty Line at the beginning and end of their lives – the so-called Poverty Cycle.

Rowntree published his results in a 1901 book, Poverty, in which he argued that employers should raise their wages and give sick pay and health insurance, while the state should provide unemployment insurance – otherwise, as soon as adversity struck, a family was plunged below the poverty line (if it wasn’t there already).

Andrew Marr, in his History of Modern Britain, writes:

Rowntree’s book arrived like a bomb in British politics. It showed that at the heart of the Empire, with all its pomp, wealth, and self-satisfaction, around a third of people were so poor they often did not have enough to eat, and many were sunk in utter poverty as bad as that of the Czar’s empire against which the communists raged. It did this clinically and statistically, in a way that was impossible to refute.

Rowntree’s work changed things. He worked closely with the Liberal government of David Lloyd George (1906-1914), which introduced many of the welfare provisions which Rowntree advocated. It also inspired (or shamed) many companies around the world to follow the example of Rowntree’s and introduce higher wages, sick pay, health insurance, free medical and dental consultations, employee pension schemes, and councils for consulting employees on management decisions.

Russell Brand has just as good intentions as Seebohm Rowntree, although I suspect he is more of a narcissist than the shy Seebohm was. Brand doesn’t just want social change, he also likes revolution as a pose, a look. He was calling for revolution on his radio show a decade ago, long before he had any idea what it would involve. It just sounded good, it felt cool, it felt naughty. Calling for revolution on Radio 2, fancy that!

517EhMdH-SLThen, last year, he published a manifesto in the New Statesman calling for ‘total revolution of consciousness’, for a ‘spiritual revolution’. This year, he expanded it into a book. Sounding like Thomas Traherne in Doc Martens, he declared that greed, power, capitalism, time itself were just ideas in the mind, and as ideas, they could be changed in an instant. We should ‘meditate, direct our love indiscriminately and our condemnation exclusively at those with power. Revolt in whatever way we want, with the spontaneity of the London rioters, with the certainty and willingness to die of religious fundamentalists or with the twinkling mischief of the trickster.’

Well, OK. But why ‘focus our condemnation exclusively at those with power’, as if all the evils of the world come from the Illuminati? Isn’t that letting us, the public, massively off the hook? Who is perpetuating a culture of shallow narcissism? We are! Who is perpetuating a female-denigrating patriarchy? We are! Who is putting our short-term consumer demands above the long-term survival of us and every other species? We are! But it feels so good to demonize ‘those with power’ and project our guilt onto them – it makes us into the heroic warriors of light, truth, justice and righteousness, just like those righteous ISIS dudes.

And saying ‘money is just an idea’ is not necessarily going to free us from that idea. Consciousness-change can happen in an instant, but usually it takes a lot longer. It takes strong evidence to make your argument the consensus rather than just a passing gesture. But when Brand went on Newsnight, he angrily waved away any contrary evidence or data: ‘I ain’t got time for a bloody graph!’

Brand doesn’t know the difference between making noise and making change. Imagine Seebohm Rowntree saying ‘I ain’t got time for a bloody graph’. Without evidence, you merely have rhetoric, gesture, charisma, warm sentiment and good intentions. And that can help you make noise, but not real worthwhile change.

I’m thinking about this because I’m wondering how those of us working to revive Greco-Roman philosophy (and ancient wisdom in general)  can not just make noise, but make change.

It’s relatively easy to make noise, as a practical philosopher. Sometimes if you’re lucky you can get on the media for a few minutes, write some articles, visit some schools, sell some books, do some cool stuff, make an OK living. But how do you really make a long-term difference rather than short-term noise?

My visit to Boston last month, for the Mind & Life Institute’s International Symposium of Contemplative Studies, was a real wake-up call. It seems to me that the people involved with Mind and Life – scientists and philosophers like Jon Kabat-Zinn and Richard Davidson – have over the last 30 years made genuine change. They have established mindfulness as a serious and evidence-based intervention, widely used now in medical schools, in higher education, in schools, in prisons, in mental healthcare, in business.

I’m particularly struck by the success of Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course. Kabat-Zinn established a course that was easy to follow, and easy to replicate. He started to build up an evidence base for its success in lowering stress. He let other people use the course and test it out – he put the promotion of the intervention above the promotion of his personal brand.

600_400453522He leveraged the credibility of his institution – UMass medical school – to help bring his research into the mainstream. He built up alliances with other key change-makers in his field, through the Mind and Life and other organizations and networks. He wrote both journal articles to make his case in academia, and popular books to make his case to the public.

That’s how to do it.

I feel that those of us working in practical philosophy (such as the Stoicism Today team) are at the beginning of that process. Like the mindfulness people 30 years ago, we’re trying to marry ancient wisdom practices with modern evidence-based psychology, and then take that out into different contexts – schools, prisons, mental healthcare, companies. We’re doing well – next week, Stoic Week is happening for the third year, with over 1000 people taking part in the online course (you can read the handbook in preparation for next week here). And we’re just about to sell out all the 300 tickets for the modern Stoicism event in London, so this will be the largest Stoic event…er…ever!

We’ve got Stoicism into the cultural conversation again, which is great. And I think a great deal of Stoicism Today’s success, perhaps all of it, has been because of partnerships – putting the movement before the promotion of our personal brands. That’s how to make change.

But we need to think about how to make more long-term change. Speaking personally, this year has been great fun, but everything has felt quite ad hoc – working with a rugby club one month, then a school the next, then a prison, then an accountancy firm. I personally feel the need for more of a coherent long-term strategy.

We need, I suspect, to establish a centre, within a university or several universities. There are mindfulness centres in many different universities and medical schools, but as far as I know, only one centre dedicated to the revival of ancient Greco-Roman philosophy (at the University of Warsaw). We need more partnerships with clinical psychologists and neuroscientists. We need more simplicity and replicability in our course materials, so it’s not just about our personality. And above all, we need to build up a stronger evidence base, so the case for learning wisdom practices becomes ‘impossible to refute’.


Museo_del_Prado_-_Goya_-_Caprichos_-_No._43_-_El_sueño_de_la_razon_produce_monstruosLast week, I went to an exhibition on Goya, in Boston. It was filled with his bizarre and fantastic dream-drawings, exploring the strange manias and nightmares that fill humans’ minds when their reason is switched off – as in the classic engraving, the Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.

The museum bookstore had an excellent selection of books exploring this theme, including Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun, which I picked up on a whim. It’s a non-fiction book about a famous case of mass demonic possession among a group of nuns in 16th century France (the book was the inspiration for Ken Russell’s 1971 film, The Devils.)

Huxley uses the incident to explore our urge for self-transcendence, and how this can lead us not upwards but downwards, into the irrational and unhealthy parts of the subconscious. Humans, he says, have a ‘deep-seated urge for self-transcendence’. They ‘long to get out of themselves, to pass beyond the limits of that tiny island universe, within which every individual finds himself confined.’

This urge comes from our sense of boredom, claustrophobia, loneliness and cosmic smallness when we’re stuck in the closed and repetitive loop of the ego. But also, more positively, ‘if we experience an urge to self-transcendence, it is because, in some obscure way, we know who we really are. We know (or to be more accurate something within us knows) that the ground of our individual knowing is identical with the Ground of all knowing and all being…When the phenomenal ego transcends itself, the essential Self is free to realize the fact of its own eternity…This is liberation, this is enlightenment, this is the beatific vision.”

That’s putting it in quite Christian / Hindu terms. An atheist like Sam Harris would put it slightly differently – the urge to self-transcendence is the urge to go beyond our painful self-absorption, self-pity and ceaseless craving, so we realize the blissful non-existence of self and interdependence of all things.

Devils-of-Loudun-06However, here’s the risk, according to Huxley: ‘Self-transcendence is by no means invariably upwards. Indeed, in most cases, it is an escape either downward into a state below that of personality, or else horizontally into something wider than the ego, but not higher, not essentially other [like art, science, politics, a hobby or job]. Needless to say, these substitutes for upward self-transcendence, these escapes into subhuman or merely human surrogates for Grace, are unsatisfactory at the best, and at the worst, disastrous.’

In the epilogue to The Devils, Huxley lists some of these ‘Grace-substitutes’ or varieties of downward self-transcendence.

First, narcotics and alcohol: ‘millions upon millions of civilized men and women continue to pay their devotions, not to the liberating and transfiguring Spirit, but to alcohol, to hashish, to opium and its derivatives, to the barbituates, and other synthetic additions to the age-old catalogue of poisons capable of causing self-transcendence. In every case, of course, what seems a god is actually a devil, what seems a liberation is in fact an enslavement.’

Then there is self-transcendence through sex, ‘the perennial attraction of debauchery’, the delicious sense of surrender to an other, a la 50 Shades of Grey. Worst of all, in Huxley’s opinion, is self-transcendence through ‘crowd-delirium’.

He writes:

The fact of being one of a multitude delivers a man from his consciousness of being an insulated self and carries him down into a less than personal realm, where there are no responsibilities, no right or wrong – only a strong vague sense of togetherness, only a shared excitement…Drugged by the mysterious poison which every excited herd secretes [eh?], they fall into a state of heightened suggestibility.

Authority figures in politics often recognize the danger of drugs and debauchery, but are dangerously seduced by the lure of controlling crowds through forms of mass hypnosis: ‘Pilgrimages and political rallies, corybantic revivals and patriotic parades – these things are ethically right so long as they are our pilgrimages, our revivals and our parades.’


The Devils of Woodstock

Related to these downward self-transcendences through sex, drugs and crowd-intoxication is the downward self-transcendence through ‘rhythmic movement’ and ‘rhythmic sound’, ‘for the purpose of inducing a state of infra-personal and sub-human ecstasy’. History ‘records many sporadic outbreaks of involuntary and uncontrollable jigging, swaying and head-wagging’, which are involuntary means of escaping from ‘insulated selfhood into a state in which there are no responsibilities, no guilt-laden past or haunting future, only the present, blissful consciousness of being someone else’. Huxley was writing in 1951, just before rock and roll would burst onto the scene.

Huxley suggests that the demonic possession of the nuns of Loudun was really an outbreak of these forms of downward self-transcendence. The head nun became sexually obsessed with a hot priest, the contents of her unconscious started to spill out and haunt her consciousness, and then the other nuns gave in to a sort of crowd-intoxication, letting all of the contents of their inhibited sexual fantasies out under the guise of being possessed by demons. This collective orgy was actively encouraged by the exorcist priests, keen to put on a show for the glorification of the Church and the destruction of its enemies (the hot priest was accused of being a sorcerer and eventually burnt).

Here’s the trailer for Russell’s film, which seems to suggest that the excesses of the 60s counter-culture was comparable to an outbreak of mass hysteria:

The way up is also the way down?

The book gives you a vivid sense of the irrational and dangerous power of religion. But what of upward self-transcendence?

Huxley speaks much less of upward self-transcendence in this book, but he explores it at length in The Perennial Philosophy, written six years earlier. He appears to believe this path is only open to a handful of mystics and contemplatives, who use meditative techniques to liberate themselves from their many selves (the ego, the subconscious) until they finally reach the Ground of Being. It’s an individualist, intellectualist and elitist vision of spirituality. He sees all crowds as ‘the social equivalent of a cancer’ – an extreme if understandable position in a world recovering from fascism.

Here’s the Big Question: ‘To what extent, and in what circumstances, is it possible for a man to make use of a descending road as a way to spiritual self-transcendence?’

Huxley admits that ‘a downward movement may sometimes be made the beginning of an ascent.’ He writes:

When the shell of the ego has been cracked and there begins to be a consciousness of the subliminal and physiological othernesses underlying personality, it sometimes happens that we catch a glimpse, fleeting but apocalyptic, of that other Otherness, which is the Ground of all being. So long as we are confined within our insulated selfhood, we remain unaware of the various non-selves with which we are associated – the organic non-self, the collective not-self of the psychic medium…and the immanent and transcendent not-self of the Spirit. Any escape, even by a descending road, out of insulated selfhood makes possible at least a momentary awareness of the not-self on every level, including the highest.

So all these downward paths out of the ego may become upward paths to the Spirit – people can become awakened through drug experiences (Huxley would of course write a lot more positively about this later in The Doors of Perception, published three years later), through sex (he is a fan of DH Lawrence’s exploration of sex-mysticism) and through crowd-intoxication: ‘Some good may sometimes come out of even the most corybantic of revival meetings’, he says rather condescendingly.

His idea of upward and downward transcendence reminds me of the transpersonal psychologist Ken Wilber’s concept of the ‘pre-trans fallacy’: we can mistakenly believe that any journey beyond rationality or beyond the ego is spiritual. However, often these journeys are a reversion to earlier, primitive irrationality – speaking in tongues or uncontrollable giggling could be seen as a reversion to infantile baby-talk rather than spiritual transcendence. We’re not going forwards, we’re going backwards.

This is why the spiritual path is so difficult. I wonder if the way up doesn’t inevitably involve the way down too – to reach the ‘heart’, or the ‘ground of Being’, you journey through the mist of the psychic realm, through the swamp of your unconscious with all its fantasies, resentments and longings. And at every step, your ego can reappear and try to assert its fantasies of self-glorification.

In our skeptical era, we tend to write off both upward and downward transcendence as childish flights into irrationality. But that doesn’t work, because the human urge for self-transcendence does not go away. And there are profoundly positive things we can get from self-transcendence – healing, creativity, group-bonding, self-actualization.

The negative vision shown in Goya’s Sleep of Reason is not the whole story. In fact, the original for the engraving was called The Vision of the Artist, and is arguably a more positive vision. The full title is ‘Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels’. We shouldn’t simply ignore the subliminal self and its gifts, rather, we should learn how to balance them with our critical rationality.




This weekend, I was at a conference in Boston called the International Symposium on Contemplative Studies. I know  – sounds pretty niche, maybe two monks, a chakra healer and a shaman with maracas?  Well, it was enormous – 1600 people, 300 presentations, including ones by some of the leading psychologists in the world, and the Dalai Lama.

It was epic – fascinating presentations, free yoga and meditation sessions every morning, Sufi poetry, Qi Gong dancing, and a lot of unusually impassioned and warm academics. ‘What journey brought you here?’ one lady asked me as I stood in line for registration. Well, er, Virgin Atlantic if you must know.

The field of contemplative studies is still pretty new in the US (it barely exists in the UK). It first emerged in the 1970s, when a handful of scientists started to study and practice Buddhism and yoga – including the biologist Francisco Varela, the neuroscientist Richard Davidson, and the psychologist Jon Kabat-Zinn. They founded something called the Mind and Life Institute 27 years ago, based on small-group dialogues with the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan monks. Two years ago, it began to hold much bigger public conferences – this is the third.

Daniel Goleman and Jon Kabat-Zinn with the Dalai Lama in the 1980s

Jon Kabat-Zinn (left) and Daniel Goleman with the Dalai Lama in the 1980s

‘It was pretty lonely in the 1970s, there were only around 10 of us’, Davidson remembers. ‘We were the lunatic fringe’, recalls Kabat-Zinn. He invented the Mindfulness-Based Stress-Reduction course (MBSR), an eight-week course in mindfulness and yoga, which he and others then proved was clinically beneficial for a whole host of emotional and physical problems. Davidson, meanwhile, used brain-scans of monks and new practitioners to show that meditation changed the physical structure of the brain. In the UK, Mark Williams and John Teasdale of Oxford developed mindfulness-based CBT.

These pioneers helped to create the contemporary boom in mindfulness, which has spread to schools, universities, hospitals and therapy centres, the military, prisons, companies and beyond. Back in 2007, a survey by the National Institutes of Health found that 10% of Americans had tried meditating – it has grown a lot since then. ‘I get the feeling it really exploded this year’, says Francis McKay, a University of Chicago anthropologist studying the rise of mindfulness.

Among other things, contemplative studies is revolutionizing the 20th century model of academia.

243436Francisco Varela thought that contemplative studies could combine third-person accounts of consciousness from neuroscience with first-person accounts from phenomenology (by interviewing people about their experiences). Finally, a bridge would be built between science and the humanities, between facts and values, between third-person objectivity and first-person subjectivity. It was a new model for the academic, grounded in wisdom practices, which would create a new, secular, evidence-based ethics for the modern world.

This strikes many in academia as heretical. There is a belief in academia, which arose in the late 19th century, that academics should be rigorously objective, which means they should suppress their own views, biases, preferences, and moral and metaphysical beliefs. The sociologist Max Weber summed it up well in his lecture Science as a Vocation: academics should critically investigate, and resist the temptation to preach to their students from the lectern.

But this means that ancient wisdom practices can be studied, but not practiced. It would have been very strange, 20 years ago, for an academic philosopher to suggest Stoic practices actually work (thankfully this is changing). It’s still anathema in most of academia. I was struck by this when I went to a seminar on Christian mystics earlier this year. Not one of the participants ever discussed if they had tried out contemplative practices for themselves to see if they were true. That would be weird, or ‘unobjective’. The first-person perspective must be ruthlessly suppressed.

The result of this false dichotomy, alas, is a moral vacuum in the humanities, combined with an ever-greater reverence for the hard certainty of the sciences.

Some prominent figures in the humanities have called for a more explicit promotion of virtue ethics in the university, including Nigel Biggar of Oxford and Baroness Onora O’Neil, both of whom I saw speak on this issue last month. But they had no practical idea of how actually to promote virtue ethics in their students, besides lectures and tutorial feedback on essays (this, they claimed, would promote intellectual virtues like respect for the truth).

This is in the right direction, but not nearly enough. Virtue ethics is based on a deep transformation of one’s core beliefs, emotions and habits. Ten minutes of essay feedback once a week, or more likely once a term, simply won’t do it. It won’t scratch the surface.

I was acutely aware of this while at Oxford, where I got a first in English despite suffering from PTSD and social anxiety. It is perfectly possible to be a successful humanities scholar while also being a complete moral and emotional mess – this is as true of academics as undergrads.

Plato_and_Aristotle_in_The_School_of_Athens,_by_italian_RafaelWhen Plato founded the Academy, 2400 years ago, it was designed both to create reliable knowledge about the world, and also to promote wisdom about the self. That involved not just teacher-feedback, although there was a lot of that, but also contemplation and ‘care of the soul’  – this was at the core of the Academy. Likewise in Aristotle’s Lyceum – Aristotle thought theoria, which originally meant contemplation, was the highest good for man, and was necessary for all the disciplines, from ethics to politics to metaphysics.

Likewise in the Stoic school: ‘We may be fluent in the lecture-room’, warned Epictetus, ‘but take us to practice and we’re miserably shipwrecked.’ The early proto-universities of the Middle Ages were also places where third-person objective research was combined with first-person contemplative practice – a good example is the Abbey of St Victor’s in Paris, where a broad liberal arts curriculum included contemplative practices at their core.

Now, thankfully, there is a revival of the study and practice of wisdom in academia – and it was championed not by the poor, cowed humanities scholars, but by psychologists, who rediscovered the therapeutic wisdom of ancient Greece and Asia, and thought, let’s try it out, test it, and then disseminate it to the general public. Thank God for their pragmatism.

This revival of ancient wisdom is transforming medical education. Jon Kabat-Zinn started researching mindfulness at U-Mass medical school in the 70s. Today, 33 US medical schools have mindfulness research centres, and many more provide mindfulness courses for students, staff and patients.

The more doctors practice meditation, the more they understand the connection between the mind and the body. That’s transforming medicine, and will helpfully lead to a shift from a narrow biomedical model, in which any physical or emotional problem are treated with drugs, to a more holistic model that incorporates wisdom practices.

It’s also transforming life for the average undergrad. I suffered in silence throughout my time at Oxford. Today, students can get free mindfulness courses, thanks to the Oxford Mindfulness Centre run by Mark Williams, which pioneered mindfulness-CBT. Earlier this year I interviewed Mary, a seminary student at Oxford, who learned to heal herself through PTSD thanks to free mindfulness training.

At some US universities, ‘contemplative studies’ is not merely a wellbeing add-on, but part of the main curriculum. Brown University launched a ‘contemplative studies’ curriculum course this year, in the face of strong institutional opposition. ‘The most hostility came from the Religious Studies department’ remembers one academic from the programme. ‘They thought it would undermine objectivity, it would lead to Sunday school sermonising.’

safe_imagePotentially, contemplative studies could transform many disciplines, not just medicine. Both Brown and Virginia’s new contemplative studies centres, for example, are interdisciplinary and bring in the arts and humanities. At the conference, there were presentations by physicists on using contemplation of nature in their work; architects on how buildings can trigger contemplative states; literary critics on the poetry of Blake and Emily Dickinson as an exploration of consciousness; economists on contemplation as a part of well-being economics; musicologists on drumming and trance states, and so on.

The big hope, at the conference, was that ‘contemplative studies’ could actually provide a new ‘secular ethics’ for the world, and help us through the enormous political challenges we face. ‘There are one billion non-believers in the world’, the Dalai Lama said. ‘They won’t listen to a monk talking about inner values, but they might listen to scientists, if they prove a connection to well-being.’ He’s right – mindfulness has become sort of a secular ethics for a happiness-obsessed modernity.

Challenges for the field

But there are big challenges for contemplative studies. I’ll outline five:

Firstly, there is a limit to what can be measured empirically. Contemplative studies, like Positive Psychology, hopes that science can measure how to make someone more virtuous, more humble, more compassionate and so on. But this is not that easy. As the Dalai Lama put it: ‘To know what’s in a person’s heart you need clairvoyance. Or you need to spy on them closely for, say, a year, to see how they behave.’ ‘That’s easy in a monastery, less so in a psychology lab.

A second challenge for this new ‘secular ethics’ is whether ancient wisdom practices can be simply ripped out of their original context and brought into secular modernity, without important stuff being lost. This is as true for Stoicism as it is for Buddhism. ‘Whatever works’, said the Dalai Lama, and there’s something in that, but ethical practices can easily become instrumentalized, demoralized and hijacked by capitalist culture.

Maharishi-University-of-Management-FE7DC0E8A third risk for contemplative studies is that academics lose their objectivity. They get high on their own supply. Academia becomes what it often was in the Middle Ages – dogmatic, culty. It over-hypes its product. I wonder if this has been the case at the Maharishi University, which produces reams of research on the benefits of Transcendental Meditation (it lowers blood pressure, it reduces crime, it stops wars), but hardly any research that’s critical of TM or its founder Maharishi Yogi (peace be upon him).

It was a little weird when the entire hall stood up in reverent silence for the arrival of ‘His Holiness’, and how senior psychologists like Paul Ekman told us how ‘His Holiness instructed us to explore’ this or that research area.

Brown’s contemplative studies centre looks more hopeful in this respect. It is working on a controversial project originally called the Dark Night project, now renamed the Varieties of Contemplative Experience, which explores the difficult experiences people can have in meditation – the return of repressed feelings or memories, insomnia, involuntary physical twitches, depersonalization, loss of self (this can be very scary) and even psychosis and hospitalization. Sometimes these negative experiences lasted for several years.

‘The western media promotes a narrative that mindfulness is a miraculous panacea for health and well-being, while ignoring what contemplative texts say about the very difficult experiences that are often part of the journey’, says Willoughby Britton, a psychiatrist who runs the project.

Fourth, the field of contemplative studies needs to widen beyond its narrow focus on Tibetan Buddhism. The biggest elephant in the room at the conference was that it almost entirely ignored western contemplative practices, besides a couple of fringe sessions by junior academics.

Tom Coburn, former president at Naropa University and a key figure at Brown’s contemplative studies centre, says: ‘Sooner or later, contemplative studies needs to deal with the fact that most contemplatives are theists. Most contemplative studies academics are probably agnostics, who rejected their Judeo-Christian background.’

It has been relatively easy to fit Tibetan Buddhist or Stoic practices into a secular, materialist context – you just leave out a lot. ‘In twenty years we have never spoken about reincarnation or the survival of consciousness after death’, the Dalai Lama said of his dialogues with the Mind and Life Institute.

That’s not a bad thing – it’s enabled meditation to help a lot of agnostics and atheists who were suffering. But it’s much harder to secularize and naturalize when it comes to theistic contemplative practices. I wonder if the field will eventually move towards a multiverse theory of spiritual realities – this is where William James, one of its founding fathers, ended up.

Finally, how do you make sure that contemplative studies does not become too inward-looking, that it does not become a bunch of ‘navel-gazers’ – the traditional insult for contemplatives.

In fact, it was obvious that the western academics of contemplative studies bring a very Judaeo-Christian emphasis on ‘saving the world’ to Buddhism. Contemplation, we heard, can save humanity from capitalism, from climate change, from extinction. In this sense, it is genuinely something new. In Buddhism, as in Stoicism, the world does not need to be saved.

For a western perspective on integrating ancient wisdom into modern life, come to the Stoicism Today conference at Queen Mary, University of London on November 29. Tickets here - much cheaper than the ISCS!