295816This week, I read Abraham Maslow’s 1964 little book, Religions, Values and Peak-Experiences. It’s only 100 pages long, but something of a classic, and anticipates the contemporary interest in the science of spiritual experience that’s apparent in, for example, Sam Harris’ new book (which I will review shortly).

In the 1950s and 60s, Maslow tried to move psychology beyond the reductionism of behaviourism and psychoanalysis, and make it more concerned with how people flourish and ‘self-actualize’. In that sense Maslow’s work anticipates Positive Psychology – indeed, he came up with the phrase.

In the last decade of his life, Maslow recognized that any psychology of flourishing needed to include the ‘data’ of transcendent or ‘peak’ experiences, also sometimes called ‘altered states of consciousness’.

Psychology had, until that point, not paid much attention to transcendent experiences, with the golden exception of William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). Instead, it went down a naturalistic and mechanistic path, along with every other academic discipline. Behaviourism ignored transcendence ( it ignored all cognition), while Freudianism nodded towards ‘oceanic feelings’ but tended to define such experiences as pathological regressions to infantile mother-love.

tumblr_lh5f56q7321qzdiqvo1_500However, in the 1960s, there was a sudden resurgence of interest in altered states, no doubt in part because of the proliferation of psychedelic drugs, the Dionysiac ecstasy of rock and roll, and the growing popularity of eastern contemplative practices like yoga, zen, Transcendental Meditation and Hari Krishna chanting. There’s been a more sustained focus since then, as academia (and particularly neuroscience) tries to explore the various states of consciousness. I’m off to a big conference next month on ‘contemplative studies‘ – an example of this growing interest.

Still, there are not many serious studies of ecstatic experience (I’ve listed some below, please add more in the comments), perhaps because such experiences are hard to describe and pin down, perhaps because they’re right at the disputed boundary between naturalism and supernaturalism. There is some reputational risk when you go near the edge of the paradigm. You might fall off.

Those psychologists brave enough to cover the topic – Maslow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi or Sam Harris – are keen to give a naturalistic account of ecstasy, to bring such experiences ‘within the jurisdiction of science’ as Maslow puts it (sounding like he has an arrest warrant for Dionysus).

But this attempt raises problems – is it really ecstasy (ekstasis – to stand outside of yourself) if you’re not going beyond the self? Is is really ‘transpersonal’ if you’re not going beyond the person? If you define ecstasy naturalistically as ‘ego dissolution’, then what is the ego dissolving into? And why should that dissolution feel so good and so cosmically significant?

I’ll return to these questions but first I’ll briefly summarize Maslow’s thesis.

Facts and values

Maslow suggests our society is suffering from a disastrous crisis of ‘valuelessness’, which has arisen from the split between science and religion. Facts and values have been sundered, leading to an instrumental, technocratic and amoral science on the one hand, and a dogmatic and irrational religion on the other.

Multicultural, liberal society rejected organized religion as a moral guide – we don’t like the idea of priests indoctrinating our children with superstitious dogma. However, we don’t know quite how to discover or teach ‘spiritual’ values, beyond bland liberal ideas like tolerance, diversity and well-being.

The challenge, then, is how to bring facts and values closer together, to build a science-philosophy of human flourishing, one that ‘fits’ our biological nature while still being sensitive to the cultural varieties of flourishing. A similar challenge has been highlighted by thinkers including Max Weber, Sam Harris, Martha Nussbaum and Alasdair MacIntyre. In some ways this involves a recovery of virtue ethics, which was an ethical philosophy based on a biological account of humans.

Reintegrating the transcendent

So far, however, humanist alternatives to religion have tended to be rather dry, rationalist and Apollonian. Look at John Dewey’s humanism, for example, or the Skeptic-humanist movement of the last 30 years, or modern Stoicism, or Positive Psychology. Where the emotions are included, they tend to be low-arousal emotions like happiness or gratitude, rather than more heightened and wild emotions like ecstasy.

Maslow insists that humanism needs to speak to the Dionysiac side of man as well as the Apollonian. Any humanistic psychology or philosophy of flourishing needs to include transcendent / ecstatic experience – it can’t leave such experiences to the old religions.  In this, he anticipates the work of Positive Psychologists like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi,  Jonathan Haidt and Sam Harris, as well as organizations like Sunday Assembly, which are trying to create a more ecstatic humanism.

Ecstatic humanism at Sunday Assembly

Ecstatic humanism at Sunday Assembly

Have we marginalized or pathologized ecstatic experience?

Why are transcendent or ecstatic experiences so often left out of psychology and humanism? Maslow suggests some people are uncomfortable with such experiences because they seem to ‘conflict with the materialist-mechanistic philosophy of life’. Ecstatic experiences can feel like ‘a kind of insanity, a complete loss of control, a sense of being overwhelmed by irrational emotions’. They can feel like you’re connected to a spirit, which is normal in other cultures, pathological in ours. So we ignore them, repress them, don’t talk about them.

It’s interesting to wonder if westerners have such experiences less often today than 500 years ago. Has the rise of secular modernity closed us off from such experiences, making us put a higher value on being self-controlled, rational and autonomous? Some thinkers have argued along those lines, such as Charles Taylor, Martin Heidegger, Iain McGilchrist or Ted Hughes.

But we can’t prove that thesis – there’s no way of measuring the frequency of ecstasy in the past and present. Certainly, such experiences are not in the cultural mainstream today – we don’t talk about them much. But ecstatic experiences have always been seen as a bit strange, a bit frightening, not something you necessarily shout about – people might think you were possessed by demons.

Speculatively, I’d suggest such experiences still spontaneously occur to people, but we are less likely to attribute such experiences to God, and less likely to re-order our lives around them. We are also less good at engineering such experiences today, because of the decline of monasteries and their collective wisdom, although perhaps this is changing because of the diffusion of eastern religious practices.

Naturalizing ecstasy

Maslow insists ecstatic experiences can easily be fit within a naturalistic framework. He writes: ‘It is very likely that the older reports [of ecstasy], phrased in terms of supernatural revelation, were in fact perfectly natural, human peak-experiences of the kind than can easily be examined today’.

maslow-hierarchy-needsMaslow does not try to reduce ecstatic experiences to various types of pathology – epilepsy, catalepsy, dissociation, hysteria or schizophrenia -  as many early psychologists did. Instead, he sees them as ‘peak experiences’ – more likely to occur to highly self-actualized people. They’re right at the top of his pyramid of self-actualization.

The characteristics of peak-experiences

What, then, are peak-experiences like? What is the view from the top of the mountain? Maslow insists that peak-experiences typically have very similar features, no matter what religion or culture the ‘peaker’ happens to be in. The routes up the mountain may be different, but the view from the top is the same. The view is this:

  • Unitive consciousness: there’s a sense of the reconciliation of opposites, of the particular and the universal, the temporary and the eternal, the self and the cosmos.
  • The cosmos is one: a sense of the universe having ‘some kind of unity, integration’ and even direction and meaning.
  • A sense of absorption, focus, concentration (what Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’)
  • A widening of one’s sense of self beyond the little ‘me’, towards identification with the cosmos
  • A transcendence of ego-striving / desire towards a more serene sense of ends / ultimate purpose. This reminds me of Kant’s writing on aesthetic experience as a transcendence into the ‘kingdom of ends’.
  • A sense of rightness – the cosmos is ordered, just and beautiful. ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’, as Julian of Norwich put it.
  • A decrease of anxiety and fear, and especially a lessening of the fear of death.
  • A playfulness, joy, wonder, perhaps a sense of being more alive and more ‘you’ – this is one of the paradoxes of ecstatic experience, you both feel you have transcended ‘me’ and yet also reached a deeper self.

The mystical versus the organizational

Maslow argues that peak-experiences are entirely natural, and happen to most people (although some people are ‘non-peakers’ and have no recognition of such experiences). Most religions begin in such experiences, in the ‘private, lonely, personal illumination, revelation or ecstasy of some acutely sensitive prophet or seer’.

What happens in religious evolution, he suggests, is that the prophet’s peak-experience is seized on by priests, who dogmatize it, systematize it, and use it as a means to control and exploit others. Ironically, the bureaucratic system they build might actually be inimicable to further peak-experiences in adherents – so Maslow argues that non-religious people and non-theists might have such experiences more often.

The denigration of traditional religions

Maslow is right that mystics are often suspected, marginalized and persecuted within their religions (particularly within Abrahamic religions), because they offer the prospect of an unmediated experience of God rather than an experience mediated by priests. As a result, priests often attack mystics – just like the priests of Jerusalem attacked Jesus.

However, Maslow goes too far to suggest the best way to achieve transcendence is outside of any religious culture, in some sort of wordless culture-less symbol-less personal vacuum. Must we all invent our own personal religion? Must we reject all the inherited wisdom and art of previous generations? How exhausting! What a waste of all that wisdom.

As he admitted in a 1970 preface to the book, ritual, liturgy and religious symbolism is not just disposable window-dressing – it’s much deeper than that, as Carl Jung would tell him. It’s a guide through the unconscious. It’s a ladder to transcendence, a trellis around which the flowers of transcendence can grow.

And liturgy, ritual, symbol and myth also binds us together – Maslow ignores the collective aspect of ecstatic experience, as William James also did. Such experiences are not just private and solitary – they are also moments of collective agape, eunoia, love, brotherhood. Think of the collective ecstasy of Pentecostalism, or of festivals like Woodstock and Burning Man.

If we abandon traditional religious wisdom-cultures, and invent our own personal religions as Maslow suggests, how do we make sure that we are not the God of our new religion? There is a risk in the human potential movement that we end up as God. Maslow says that ‘self-actualized people, ie fully evolved and developed people’…are ‘godlike, heroic, great, divine, awe-inspiring, lovable’.

You could call this the ‘superhero fallacy -  it was widespread in the 1960s, and particularly at Esalen. Some affluent and educated westerners discover altered states of consciousness, and they start to believe they are superhumans, X-Men, shamanic magi of incredible powers. The risk is they become puffed up and full of self, rather than surrendering their selves and emptying themselves out to be filled by God.

What about the dark side of ecstasy?

Maslow’s book focuses on the positive aspects of peak experience, and more or less entirely ignores the dark side of ecstasy – how experiences of ego-dissolution can sometimes lead to neurosis and even psychosis; how mystical experiences can sometimes lead to a loss of purpose and meaning, rather than a gain; how collective ecstasy often leads to dogma, fanaticism, cultishness, or the demonization of opponents; how often ecstasy is connected to violence.

The suicide bombers of 9/11 were ecstatic. One reason western society medicalized and pathologized ecstasy in the 17th and 18th centuries – calling it things like ‘enthusiasm’, ‘hysteria’, ‘dissociation’ and so on – was because ecstasy was seen by Enlightenment thinkers as a threat to the social order. And they were right, it is,

Are we sure there is one peak?

Maslow warns about the danger of science being over-confident and positivistic. But I think his analysis is over-confident. How can he be so sure there is only one peak of human experience, and that the view from the top is always the same?

The paths to God / transcendence are much less certain and predictable than he suggests – sometimes you’re not sure if you’re going up or down. Rather than naturally unfolding when we have ticked off all the other boxes of human experience – safety, food, relationships, fulfilling work etc – ecstatic experiences often happen when we are at our lowest ebb, when we’re depleted, depressed, disorientated, perhaps close to death.

Suffering sometimes breaks open the old self and reveals the light – while people who pride themselves on being highly evolved may be too self-satisfied to go beyond the self.

And we can’t easily reduce all the varieties of religious experience to one ‘core experience’ without doing them an injustice. The transpersonal psychologist Jorge Ferrer put it better – rather than ‘many paths and one mountain’, we could say there are many shores looking out onto an ocean. We can’t be entirely sure they’re looking out onto the same ocean.

Are such experiences easy to naturalize?

Finally, and most importantly, I am not convinced by Maslow’s contention that it is easy to fit such experiences into a naturalistic psychology. I think he betrays an institutional bias towards naturalism, which is shared by other psychologists of ecstasy like Mihály Csíkszentmihályi and Jonathan Haidt. This institutional bias damages their account of ecstasy.

Firstly, if you look at people’s accounts of ecstasy in, say, the Alister Hardy Religious Experience database, they often feel like an encounter with a spiritual Other – a spirit, a dead loved-one, a saint, an angel or daemon, a god.  Maslow’s peak-experience, like Csizksentmihalyi’s ‘flow’, cuts the Other out of the photo. In his account of peak-experiences, we never really go beyond the bounds of the self to let in this Other. It’s not really transpersonal.

Instead, Maslow and Csizksentmihalyi’s naturalized versions of ecstasy become not moments of surrender, but moments when we feel we’re really ‘on it’, really in the zone – in control and masterful. This naturalized and super-powered experience appeals a lot to corporates (who lapped up the concepts of flow and peak-experiences) but has very little to do with the self-surrender of traditional ecstatic experience.

Secondly, Maslow notes that a common consequence of such experiences is a reduced fear of death. One also often sees this in the thousands of spiritual experiences in the Alister Hardy Religious Experience database. People come away from such experiences believing death is not the end, that there is something beyond it. That was certainly the main ‘fact’ I took from my near-death experience: there is something in us that does not die.

What that ‘something’ is, is uncertain. It may not be a mansion in heaven, or a Tibetan bardo, or 72 virgins waiting for their Jihadi lover, or even the survival of the personality in any recognizable form.

But this much is clear -  people have, for millennia, come away from transcendent experiences with a sense that our consciousness is part of a bigger consciousness, to which it returns after death. How does that fit into naturalism?

*******

Here are some books I’ve read on ecstatic experiences – do add any other good ones in the comments. Thanks!

Marghanita Laski: Ecstasy: A Study of Some Secular and Religious Experiences (1961)

Ann Taves: Fits, Trances and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James (1999)

Charles Tart: Altered States of Consciousness (1969)

Erika Bourgignon: Altered States of Consciousness and Social Change (1973)

Mircea Eliade: Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1951)

Judith Becker: Deep Listeners: Music, Emotion and Trance (2004)

William James: Varieties of Religious Experience (1901)

Jonathan Haidt: The Righteous Mind (2012)

Mihaly Cziksentmihayli: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990)

Evelyn Underhill: Mysticism (1911)

Emile Durkheim: Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912)

Daniel B. Smith: Muses, Madmen and Prophets: Hearing Voices and the Borders of Sanity (2008)

Brian Inglis: Trance: A Natural History of Altered States of Mind (1990)

Norman Rosenthal: Transcendence (2011)

Any other recommendations?

15 Comments

2012124132breath_1I sent out a tweet last week asking to interview someone who’d found mindfulness useful for coping with depression. Mary got in touch and told me her story, which was fascinating. I thought I’d share it for this week’s newsletter.

Mary is a 25-year-old ordinand-vicar, who uses mindfulness to cope with the Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder that developed after a car crash last year.

She tells me she had a sense of a vocation to be a vicar from the age of 19. ‘But I really didn’t want to do it. It wasn’t on my agenda.’ Instead, she studied physics at St Andrews and then trained to be a teacher at Cambridge. The priest of her college insisted she think about her vocation, and gave her a book by Michael Ramsey, The Christian Priest Today. ‘There wasn’t any mention of women priests in it.’

Finally, after three years of wrestling with her soul, she decided to give her life to God. ‘I was scared of doing it. I was giving up a good job and decent salary. My parents are still getting used to it. They think I’m a bit mad. It’s making a big statement. It’s not what most people do. It’s hard these days to be and do what you believe in – there’s always someone to knock you and mock you. Is it acceptable to be a Christian these days, to give your life to God?’

She went through the ‘discernment process’ by which the Church of England decides if you’re suitable to be a priest. This involved a 48-hour ‘residential interview’ (‘a bit like the Big Brother house’) in which you are interviewed by three different people, observed as you interact with your fellow wannabe-priests, and asked to fill in a ‘personal inventory’ with questions like ‘what would you have on your headstone?’

She passed the process, and won a place at a seminary college at Oxford for her priest-training. One week before she was due to begin the training, the car crash happened.

Angry at God

She was driving down an A-road into Harrowgate, when she had a head-on collision with another car. Her car was then hit again, and spent spinning across the A-road. She was rushed to hospital for surgery.

She says: ‘I thought I was going to die. And I wasn’t scared, I was annoyed. I was annoyed at all I had been through to commit myself to God, and now it was all going to be over before I had even begun.’

She was operated on for a perforated bowel and intestine. She spent the first two weeks of her ordination course recovering in hospital. ‘I wanted to be dead for quite a long time, in a way I felt rejected by God because He clearly didn’t want me in Heaven with Him!  It felt like I was being tested, in fact the whole year feels a bit like a test, a bit like Job.’

She says: ‘When I was in hospital I went to chapel, which was empty, and I shouted at Him and questioned what on earth was going on.  I then broke down in tears and could feel His presence and I knew I had to stay close, because He was all I had to get through the next phase. Initially, and I suppose for a few months I could not really engage with worship services, which was awful, because they and the Eucharist were what had sustained me through previous difficulties.  God felt rather far away, so I had to stay close and wait, regardless of how I felt.’

Then, in her first term, the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder emerged, like a bruise swelling. ‘I’d get flashbacks of the impact. I was very anxious, nervous a lot of the time. Any loud noise, I got palpitations. It led to me having very low self-esteem. I couldn’t really see beyond each day. My short-term memory was damaged – people would tell me their name and I’d forget it straight away. I felt hugely guilty, but couldn’t talk to anyone about it. I thought it would take less time to get better. My self-talk was like ‘come on, pull yourself together, you shouldn’t feel like this.’ It was like I had a noisy devil on one shoulder and a very quiet angel on the other. It seemed like an on-going torture.’

Mindfulness for depression

In January this year, she went to see a university counsellor, Dr Ruth Collins, who prescribed her anti-depressants, and also suggested she try mindfulness-CBT. She gave her a copy of The Mindful Way Through Depression, co-written by Mark Williams, the founder of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre.

0Williams, a psychiatrist and Anglican priest, is one of the developers of mindfulness-CBT, and has done more than anyone to bring mindfulness into the mainstream of British society – another of his books, Mindfulness, has been in the top 20 of Amazon for the last three years, selling thousands of copies a week.

His Oxford Mindfulness Centre has brought mindfulness into the heart of psychotherapy and healthcare, and also into public policy (there’s now an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness), business, schools and higher education – in fact, Ruth Collins spoke at a conference on mindfulness in HE this week, arguing that university students should be offered free introductory courses.

Oxford already provides such free courses, and Mary went along to one earlier this year. ‘I was the only person there who said they had depression, so I wondered if it would work. But I found it interesting. We started with a counting exercise – you sit and count to ten breaths. Some could only get to 2 or 3 and they’d get distracted, but I could go further.’

She developed a daily practice, meditating for 10-30 minutes each day, sometimes counting the breath, sometimes doing a ‘body-scan’. She says: ‘It’s been very helpful with the depression. For one thing, I realized how important the body is to the mind. I realized how much tenseness was inside me, and I try to breathe through it. I’m now more aware of the signals from the body to the head. When things get stressful and I feel like I’m teetering on the edge of feeling bad, I try to go back into myself and keep saying ‘breathe, here and now’, and accept what I’m feeling, and try to deal with it or just support myself.’

She thinks this will ultimately make her a better priest: ‘I’m very good at looking after others, not so good at looking after myself. I now try to be kind to myself and say that it’s OK to be where I am. Mindfulness is something in the tool-box to support myself when I stop taking the anti-depressants in a few weeks.’

Mindfulness and the Christian way

How does she reconcile a Buddhist practice with her Christian vocation? ‘I’m quite flexible, I believe in using and learning from other traditions. I enjoy reading the Tao Te Ching, for example. I don’t see any conflict between mindfulness and Christianity – it also has the idea of the connection between the soul and breath [they’re the same word in Greek - pneuma].’

‘And of course there is a long contemplative tradition in Christianity – Jesus did go off to the mountains on his own, then the Desert Fathers developed forms of meditation, and St Ignatius and the Jesuits created a strong contemplative practice.’

19 DORE JESUS VISITS MARTHA AND MARY DETAILThere’s also the story of the two sisters, Mary and Martha, in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus visits their house, and Martha busies herself with the preparations, while complaining that her sister sits at Jesus’ feet, absorbed in adoration. Jesus replies: ‘You are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.’ This verse has been taken by Christian contemplatives as a justification for the contemplative life versus the active life of ‘good works’. Still, it’s only one verse – not much of a foundation for a contemplative tradition.

Jesus has many more mystical sayings in the Gospel of St Thomas but, alas, that was excluded from the New Testament canon. Since then, the idea of bringing your mind and heart into union with God was often seen as heretically Gnostic or Platonic – and still is by some Christians.

I put it to Mary that contemplatives, monks and mystics always seem on the periphery of Christianity, suspected, cast out, and sometimes killed – much like the Sufis in Islam. There’s more of a mainstream contemplative tradition in the Orthodox Church, but even there it’s been controversial – witness the bitter fight in the 14th-century Byzantine church over whether the ‘hesychast prayer’ technique was heretical or not.  And the Protestant church seems particularly lacking in contemplative traditions and practices, beyond poets like George Herbert, William Blake and Emily Dickinson, forging their lonely furrow.

‘Yes, perhaps it’s not mainstream. The Church of Scotland is more Protestant than the C of E, and I’ve never witnessed any sort of meditation there. But perhaps it’s becoming more mainstream. Lucy Winkett [vicar of St James Piccadilly] is a big one for contemplative prayer, for example – she did a month-long Jesuit silent retreat. Even the Queen spoke of contemplative prayer in her Christmas message this year.’

Would Mary go on a mindfulness retreat? ‘I’d love to – there’s one in Snowdonia I want to go to.’ Would she say a prayer to the Buddha? ‘Well, no, I’d say a prayer to God. Like St Paul said, it’s what’s in your heart that counts, not the outer rituals.’

In two years, she finishes the ordination and becomes a curate in a church in her diocese. She says: ‘What am I most looking forward to about being a priest? Being able to try and reach out to people, to live the Gospel through my actions and allow God to work through me in ways I won’t understand. Also, being there for people at some of their most difficult times, and the most joyous.  I would hope to promote a greater sense of the need for spirituality of some sort (preferably Christian…!) What am I dreading?  Paper work, red tape and bureaucracy!  They will be the things that will prevent me from my ministry I fear…so I will just have to work hard to limit the impact.’

Good luck Mary! We think you will be a brilliant priest.

1  Comment

I broke up with my therapist yesterday. Actually, it was the first time we’d met – a first date, if you will – but it rapidly turned into an argument. This is the latest in a series of failed attempts to find a therapist. I struggle with therapeutic relationships. I should get some therapy for it.

I’ve had the idea of going to see a therapist in the back of my mind for some time. Occasionally, I feel I want more intimacy in my life – better friendships and a long-term relationship with someone. I got through my emotional problems as a 20-year-old by becoming a Stoic citadel of self-reliance. But at a certain point I realized I need to lower the drawbridge somewhat and let other people in.

I thought that Christianity would help: it’s all about being vulnerable and accepting you need God and other people. Jesus would clean all those difficult-to-reach stains on my heart. But, having plunged into the warm bubble bath of Christian community, I still came up against the old issues of distrust and rejection. I do feel it’s deepened my relationship to God, but, in the words of Kim Jong-Il, I was still ‘so roneree’.

Therapy! The great hope of western civilization. Therapy will bind up your wounds and bring abundance to your life. But where to go? Who to see? You can get free CBT on the NHS for clinical emotional disorders like social anxiety or depression, but this was not clinical, this was basic life-grumblings. And I felt I’d gone as far as I could with Stoic therapy (‘you don’t need anybody, just you and the Logos’).

A friend recommended a therapist they had seen, he said she did somatic body-work and was basically a witch. This sounded good to me – I felt like I needed to go beyond or beneath the cognitive. I needed some magic.

So I went along yesterday for a free consultation, to a place that she works from in the City – a massage room with statues of the Buddha everywhere. She greeted me at the top of the stairs and gave me a firm handshake. She didn’t look much like a witch, more like a middle-aged French teacher, with a thin smile and a rather severe haircut.

We sat down and I launched into a 20-minute monologue about my life-history and my continuing issues with intimacy and relationships. Get it all out there, I thought. Leave no stone unturned. I finished and looked at her expectantly. ‘And can you…help with that?’ Eye of newt? Toe of frog?

‘Wow’, she said. She sort of leaned back in her chair, like I’d just given the locations of 15 buried bodies. ‘So what I’m getting from you’ – ah, I thought, she’s picking up my chakra – ‘what I’m getting is massive sensitivity and massive introspection.’ Really? Massive sensitivity, maybe, sure, why not, that sounds good. Massive introspection? I’m not the most introspective person…am I?

‘So let me describe how I work. I do somatic therapy, have you heard of that? I studied under Richard Strozzi-Heckler.’ Ah, the Great Heckler. ‘This method works at the embodied level, with how we carry ourselves. You know how some people walk into a room and they just establish their presence as a strong person. For example…’

I bet she says Bill Clinton, I thought.

‘For example Barach Obama. Or Bill Clinton. And then other people come in and they’re much more turned in on themselves, and nobody pays them any attention. So we work with how people carry themselves…but it’s not body language.’

Definitely not.

‘So let me give you a practical example.’ She stood up. ‘I was quite similar to you. Before I started the training, I used to stand like…it’s quite difficult for me to do it…sort of like this.’ Her head slouched forward, her shoulders hunched in. ‘And now I’m like this.’ She stood up straight, shoulders back, feet apart. ‘And I have the confidence to walk into a room and establish myself, to give public talks and so on. You see?’

I see.

She sat down again. ‘One of the words that came up with your story was ‘shame’. Now I’ve read a lot about shame, I’m actually writing an article on it. Shame is something you feel in the presence of the Other. And it can only be healed in relationship with an other. So that’s what the therapeutic relationship is. A truly non-judgmental relationship.’

‘Yes but it’s not non-judgmental, is it?’

This is where it kicked off a bit. Or rather I did.

‘You’ve just made a judgement of me, very quickly. You said I was massively introspective, and that you used to be like me, all hunched up and turned in on yourself, but now you’re better and you stand with incredible confidence. So you’re setting up a hierarchy – I’m down here, not well, and you’re up there, all better. And, you know, who are you? I do more public speaking than you.’

I genuinely said this. I think the old Stoic drawbridge had come up.

‘And frankly, why would everyone want to be like Bill Clinton, that’s one type of personality. What kind of a therapeutic goal is that?’

I was surprisingly angry. I realized I had shared a lot with her, quickly, and was then disappointed and defensive about her reaction – first of all the snap judgement about me being massively introspective. If Bill Clinton is the goal, massive introspection is probably a bad thing. Why do therapists make snap judgements in the first session? Perhaps they think it will showcase their intuitiveness, like a palm-reader guessing your dog’s name, but it’s dangerous and even rude.

And secondly, I was disappointed by the crapness of her therapy, which just sounded like a body language course for executives. I was hoping for…I don’t know…the magic sponge of therapy, which washeth all sins away.

‘I’m sorry if you feel I’ve judged you’, she said. We got back on track, more or less. She said the therapeutic relationship was all important, I should trust my gut. My gut was telling me to leave. Then she explained ‘the logistics’ – she held sessions in two locations – Mayfair and the City – and her rate was £170 an hour.

Good God, £170 an hour, for a therapy which, as far as I’m aware, has no clinical evidence for it. ‘It’s cutting edge – we’re about ten years behind California’, she said. ‘Ten years behind California’ are words no therapist should ever utter.

So off I went, dragging my baggage behind me down Liverpool Street, feeling very self-conscious about my massively introspective posture. I got on a bus, and nobody paid any attention. Non-judgmental indeed, I muttered to myself. Who was it that said ‘therapy is the sickness for which it promises the cure’?

This was, alas, the latest in a series of attempts to find a therapist I could bond with. I often come up against the same issues – therapists seem more attached to the precious theoretical schema they’ve spent so much on learning, rather than seeing the person sitting in front of them. And I do often feel judged by them and then feel ‘who are you with your mickey-mouse credentials to sit in judgement of me?’  How many really smart therapists are there out there? And what do they cost??

I’m also aware that many therapists are nuts. They often have a huge amount of baggage themselves. A friend of mine went to see a therapist regularly, and decided to end the therapy – the therapist threw a huge hissy fit, shouting ‘you’re just like my husband, you only think about yourself!’

If there’s a tussle about who is right in the analysis, the odds are always stacked against you – if you disagree with their analysis, you’re in denial, or being defensive. This is even more the case if you’re a psychiatric in-patient, by the way. Then you never have a chance. Whatever you say is mad, whatever they say is science.

I guess I don’t particularly trust the wisdom of most therapists. But I do see the point in therapy, and do think a good therapeutic relationship would be an amazing thing to have in one’s life. So…can anyone recommend a good therapist for me to fall out with next?

28 Comments

turnoff_yourmindA couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog-post analysing the video for Blondie’s Rapture, and pointing out the voodoo, occult and mystic symbolism in it. I wondered if Blondie were into that sort of thing, or perhaps I was seeing things. It turned out they were, and one of them – the bassist Gary Lachman – had even become a historian of the occult. He was kind enough to give me his time for an interview.

I met up with Gary in the British Library, to ask him about the influence of occult ideas on rock and roll – and particularly the ideas of Aleister Crowley. I’m interested in this because I’m interested in ecstatic states and how we reach them in modernity. Sex, drugs, rock n’ roll, and magic are part of that story.  It’s not always a very nice story, as Gary’s book ably chronicles.

He first encountered the occult in 1975, when he was playing bass in Blondie, and sharing an apartment with fellow band-members Debbie Harry and Chris Stein. ‘They had a fun, kitschy aesthetic appreciation of the occult, little voodoo dolls, pentagrams, a model of a nun with an upside-down cross painted onto her forehead.’

He was introduced to the writings of Aleister Crowley through Tommy Ramone, who leant him a couple of books. After he’d left the band, Gary became more and more interested in Crowley’s ideas and rituals. One day in LA, he signed up to join the Ordo Templi Orientis, a secret cult dedicated to following Crowley’s religion of ‘Thelema’. For a while he got very into Crowleian magic – he got himself a robe, did every ritual in Crowley’s Magick in Theory and Practice, tried out sex magick with his girlfriend, even consumed a wafer containing menstrual blood as part of a ‘gnostic mass’.

Gary made the transition from punk-rocker to secret magus and writer on all things occult. But eventually his love-affair with Crowley waned as he decided his ‘religion’ was one long ego-trip. His new book, Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and the Wickedest Man in the World, explores Crowley’s flawed personality and its influence on pop culture.

His influence is huge. It turns out all those nutty Christian evangelists who warned that rock and roll is demonic were right. The wafer of pop music is soaked in the occult, particularly in Aleister Crowley’s highly egotistical version of it.

So, a quick magickal mystery tour:

Crowley appears on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. John Lennon once said ‘The whole Beatles thing was do what you want, you know?’

sgt-pepper-crowley

A statue of him also appears on the cover of the Doors’ album, Doors 13. The Doors admired Crowley as someone who’d ‘broken through to the other side’, and who was a master of anarchic showmanship. Jim Morrison once said, in very Crowley-ite words: ‘I’m interested in anything about revolt, disorder, chaos, especially activity that appears to have no meaning.’

doors_aleister

Jimmy Page was a huge Crowley fan, and bought his house next to Loch Ness. Crowley’s famous motto, ‘Do What Thou Wilt’, was embossed on the vinyl of Led Zeppelin III.

The Rolling Stones and Marianne Faithfull were into Crowleian magic through the film-maker Kenneth Anger – hence their album His Satanic Majesties and their song Sympathy for the Devil. Jagger also made the soundtrack to Anger’s film, Invocation to my Demon Brother, while Marianne Faithful appeared in Anger’s Lucifer Rising, which starred a future member of the Manson Family.

CIS:S.468-1984
David Bowie was also a big fan of Crowley – he mentions him in the song ‘Quicksand’, and was very influenced by Crowley’s magic techniques, symbolism, and superman philosophy. Bowie was deep into the occult in the 1970s, particularly during the making of ‘Station to Station’ when he feared he’d invoked an evil demon, and that witches were trying to steal his semen to make a Satanic love-child (no, really).

AleisterCrowleyDavidBowieSphinx

Both Crowley (left) and Bowie liked the fancy dress of magic

In the 1980s, of course, various metal bands were explicitly into Crowley, from Black Sabbath to Iron Maiden. More recently, and perhaps more surprisingly, Crowley’s ideas are apparently an influence on rap stars like Jay-Z, Kanye West, and that ardent practitioner of sex magick, Ciara.

Jay-Z-Do-What-Thou-Wilt2

Jay-Z wearing a Crowley top. Like Bowie, he seems to buy into the idea of being among a tiny superhuman elite who…er…’run this town’.

Kanye West in full demi-god mode for the video of 'Power'. He used to be such a nice boy....

Kanye West in full demi-god mode for the video of ‘Power’, including wearing an occult Horus necklace. And he used to be such a nice boy….

Crowley has got Ciara's back

Crowley has got Ciara’s back

More broadly, as we’ll examine, pop culture helped to make Crowley’s philosophy of unfettered egotism – do what thou wilt – the ruling philosophy of western society. We are all Crowley’s children.

Who was Crowley?

Crowley’s parents were Plymouth Brethren – a rigidly puritanical Christian sect. They were also quite well-off, and Crowley inherited a decent fortune. This combination of a sense of entitlement with a need to rebel against the puritanism of his parents seems to have been fatal for Crowley. He never grew out of the need to shock, to rebel, to provoke, and to get others to notice him.

As a teenager, he got into ‘Satanizing’, which initially meant being deliberately bad in the decadent style of Baudelaire or Huysmans. By his 20s, he was dabbling in the Occult, and fascinated by the idea of a ‘Hidden Church’ made up of magicians with secret powers.

He eagerly joined the Golden Dawn in London, a magical order whose members included the poet WB Yeats. However, he quickly fell out with them all, despising Yeats when he failed to appreciate Crowley’s attempts at poetry, and annoying the Golden Dawn elders with his desire to ascend rapidly up the ‘magical scale’ to become a top-level magus, even using black magic to do so.

Aleister_Crowley,_MagusHe claimed to have achieved top-level magus status by 1904, when he says he made contact with a demi-god called Aiwass in Egypt (in the Great Pyramid of Giza, to be precise), who dictated a book to him called the Book of the Law. Aiwass was an emissary of the Egyptian bird-god Horus, and he came to Crowley to declare a new age, the aeon of the ‘Crowned and Conquering Child’.

This new aeon would be, writes Lachman, ‘a time of unconstrained personal freedom’, in which a handful of supermen (led by Crowley) would perfect their wills and become gods. ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’ for the supermen. They will delight in ‘wines and strange drugs’ which ‘shall not harm ye at all’, as well as every kind of sexual excess. Meanwhile, the rest of humanity, ‘the slaves’, shall be made to serve the supermen. ‘Compassion is the vice of kings’, Aiwass told Crowley. ‘Stamp down the wretched and the weak.’

Crowley was excited, though perhaps not surprised, to discover he was the Messiah of the New Age. He tried to usher in the New Age with magic rituals, both private ones (long orgies of sex, drugs and magic) and public ones – most famously, a ‘Rite of Eleusis’ which he organized in London in 1910, where participants took peyote, danced to bongoes and listened to Crowley declaiming his magickal poetry. This was, I think, the first hallucinogenic rave of the modern age.

Other people were disposable ingredients for his operational magic. A succession of mentally unstable women were cast in his magickal S&M orgies as ‘the Scarlet Woman’. The women usually ended badly, in alcoholism, drug addiction, madness or suicide. The debris included his first wife, Rose, who he abandoned along with his daughter, the unfortunately named ‘Nuit Ma Ahathoor Hecate Sappho Jezebel Lilith’ , who died of typhus in Rangoon. He didn’t much care. ‘‘Morally and mentally, women were for me beneath contempt’, he wrote. ‘Intellectually of course, they did not exist.’

He was equally cruel to any man foolish enough to follow him. This included an acolyte called Neuberg, who signed up to be his student. Crowley subjected him to years of sadistic humiliation at his hut in Scotland, including making him cut his arms and sleep naked on a gorse bush for ten days. Crowley also tortured cats, crucified a frog, and was an enthusiastic big-game hunter.

A keen mountaineer, he fell out with a team he was leading in the Himalayas, after they complained about his fondness for beating the sherpas to assert his racial superiority. He flounced off, and then failed to come to the team’s aid when it was hit by an avalanche, despite their cries for help. Several of them died.

His desire for ‘blasphemy, murder, rape, revolution, anything good or bad, but strong’ led him to consider the idea of human ritual sacrifices as the ultimate magickal taboo. Lachman tells me he ‘would tease his readers with remarks about human sacrifice in his book, Magick in Theory and Practice’. There’s no evidence he actually did kill anyone, though he gleefully claimed his spells had driven one lady to suicide, and his ideas about human sacrifices inspired later psychopaths like Charles Manson.

Was Crowley a black magician? He certainly wanted to be, recklessly invoking evil demons, and trying to harm his many enemies with spells. But if he did sell his soul to a devil, he didn’t get much in return. His poetry and writing are rubbish, he never made much money, he never had much power, although he did apparently have a great deal of sex. He died poor, friendless, unread, addicted to heroin, the same gargantuan egotist he’d been as a teenager. His last words were ‘I am perplexed.’ He used many pseudonyms -  Master Therion, Baphomet, the Great Beast, Nemo, Perdurabo – but the most accurate word for him is probably a ****

The age of the crowned and conquering child

So how did this idiot become such a huge influence on 1960s culture? Partly, because his ideas were embraced as part of the 60s counter-cultural philosophy of what Robert Bellah called ‘expressive individualism’, or what Gary Lachman calls ‘liberationism’.

Timothy Leary, who at one point thought he was chanelling or reincarnating Crowley

Timothy Leary, who at one point thought he was chanelling or reincarnating Crowley

Lachman says: ‘It’s the idea of breaking the rules, getting rid of repression and going beyond all convention. Liberationism goes back through George Bataille, Nietzsche and his idea of the Dionysiac, all the way to the Marquis de Sade. And Crowley was a poster-boy for liberationist philosophy. It makes perfect sense that he would be picked up by rock and roll and later forms of pop music, because in many ways it’s tailor-made to the adolescent sensibility. Think of Jim Morrison’s ‘we want the world and we want it now’, or Iggy Pop: ‘I need more than I’ve ever done before.’ When you’re young you want to throw away all constraints on you. Crowley did that his whole life. His whole thing was excess in all directions.’

Liberationists want to liberate themselves from any social hang-ups, which means liberating themselves from traditional morality and even from reason itself. ‘Turn off your mind and float downstream’, as Timothy Leary said and John Lennon later quoted. Leary and other key figures in the 60s saw in Crowley a genius explorer of altered states of consciousness accessed through drugs, music, poetry and sex – just as they were trying to do. His Rite of Eleusis was a blueprint for the acid tests of the 1960s, and the raves of today – which also aim to bypass rational thought and get the audience into trances.

60s adolescents had also fallen rapidly in love with the occult, via books like Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier’s The Morning of the Magicians, and through superhero comics like The X-Men, which popularized the idea of the evolution of a new mutation of superhumans with paranormal powers. Baby-boomer flower children liked to imagine they were this new mutation, evolving through the magic potion of LSD.

Crowley particularly appealed to musicians like Jimmy Page or David Bowie because he promised them power. Musicians are like magicians – insecure, impoverished, desperately searching for the magic formula which will bring them sex, money and power.  Many pop-stars shared Crowley’s taste for alter-egos as a way of exploring different aspects of their psyche, and also for using costume, light, sound, symbols and transgressive actions to ‘get the people going’.

Lachman says: ‘Magic and the music industry make use of much of the same materials – imagery, special effects (light shows), illusion, trance – and both reach down below the conscious mind to the deeper, older, more visceral levels of ourselves. Both also cater to that adolescent appetite to be someone ‘special’, to stand out, to be noticed, to belong to the elite and to have an effect on the people around you.’

Above all, Crowley appealed to the pop-star’s desire to become a star, a god, an Illuminatus, one of the superhuman elite – while weak humanity bows down and worships them. You see this Crowley-ite idea in Bowie (see the lyrics for Oh You Pretty Things for example), and also in Jay-Z and Kanye West. Check out the slavish humans worshipping the god:

Lachman says: ‘The idea they’re selling is ‘we’re the special ones, and we’re going to be in charge of this new world order. And when you join the elite, you’re beyond good and evil, you get a lot of power, a lot of sex and fun.’  That’s the philosophy Kanye West and Jay-Z are selling – it’s Berlusconi with a drum beat.

Alas, Crowley’s ‘Do What You Wilt’ philosophy has become one of the ruling philosophies of our time – our culture is now one of ‘occult consumerism’, as Lachman puts it, in which adverts use symbols and incantations to urge us to ‘Just Do It’ – to follow every impulse, to feed every alter-ego, to yield to every temptation, and above all, to spend. Lachman writes: ‘Crowley was a kind of pre-echo of our own moral and spiritual vacuum. For better or worse, we do find ourselves in an antinomian world, beyond good and evil, in which practically anything goes.’

Be afraid of that trapdoor!

I have a very simple model of the human mind, similar to the one described by Coleridge in Kubla Khan. I’ve spared no expense with the graphics here:

Model of the mind.001At the top you have conscious processes, like a weak and flickering flame. Then you have less conscious or unconscious processes, like a mine of coal beneath that flame. Connecting the two is the Imagination, which runs like a mineshaft between the conscious and unconscious levels. Within the mine of the unconscious are treasures – insight, healing, wisdom, knowledge and power. However there are some monsters down there too.

You remember the cartoon show The Trap Door, from the 1980s? Well, the unconscious is a bit like that. As William James suggested, it may be a door not just to our archaic impulses, but also to the spirit world, to both good and bad spirits. So you need to be careful what you let through the trapdoor.

The arts, sex, drugs, magic and religion are all ways of ‘turning off the mind’, going beyond rational consciousness, opening the trapdoor and following the Imagination down into the dark, to try and find the treasure. But I think, in that perilous descent, it’s absolutely crucial what motive you have, and your moral ability to handle what you encounter without losing your shit.

Many artists and magicians make that descent for selfish motives – for money, sex and power. That’s very risky – it’s like the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark trying to use the Ark for selfish reasons. You end up with a melted face.

mt-doom-2-frodo-2525951-400-300I’d say Tolkien had the best idea about how to mine the Imagination without awakening too many Balrogs. You need to go in with a small ego, like a hobbit, with a fellowship of people around you to guide you when you feel lost. And you need to be prepared to give away whatever treasure you find, rather than trying to hang on to it for your own power.

That’s the way to create great art, and it’s the way to live a meaningful life. Crowley’s ‘Do What Thou Wilt’ doesn’t end in happiness or power. It ends in emptiness, addiction, madness and self-destruction. It’s a lie – perhaps the oldest lie of all.

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BOL WebLast week I got the chance to interview the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, for my research on spiritual ecstasy. It was an informal conversation, and it was very kind of the Bishop to give me the benefit of his time and wisdom. I thought he’d be a good interviewee because of his interest in contemplative practices and in Christian mystics like Thomas Traherne. And he was!

Do you think spiritual ecstasy is dangerous?

It certainly can be. We have forgotten how dangerous religion can be. We think of it as a minority leisure pursuit – another cup of tea, Vicar. To remember how dangerous it can be, you have to go back to before religion became obstinately metaphysical, to the Civil War, when the streets around here were filled with Levellers and Fifth Monarchists and other fanatics, who had caused a social revolution.

St Paul’s cathedral is, in some ways, Christopher Wren’s answer to religious enthusiasm – God as a mathematician rather than the terrifying arbitrary God of the Civil War.

The great Bishop Butler says to John Wesley: ‘pretending to special revelations of the Holy Ghost Mr Wesley is a very horrid thing. It’s a very horrid thing indeed.’ And it is indeed a very horrid thing. Unless it’s held firmly within a community of interpretation, with a shared communal experience of discerning between evil spirits and good spirits, then it’s very dangerous.

A depiction of medieval dancing mania

A depiction of medieval dancing mania

It’s happened again and again in the Church. Montanism was a clear example of an ungovernable Dionysian spirit in the early Church. It perhaps was there in the dance crazes of the Middle Ages, and in some of the Millenarian movements of the 14th and 15th centuries, as chronicled by the historian Norman Cohn.

By the 16th and 17th centuries, there was a fear of the irrational, a fear of the ungovernable spirit, in the Church.  As a result, the Holy Spirit was occluded, was edited out. If you look at the consecration of prayer in Cranmer’s prayer book [in the 1540s], it does not contain what all the primitive liturgies contain, which is an invocation of the Holy Spirit.

The sixteenth century, which was the century where western churches received their present shape, saw an over-definition of mystery in the interest of polemics, an over-bureaucratization of the church and a cosying up to the nation state.

One of the most feared things as far as the reformed Roman church was concerned was the whole realm of mystical experience – why else did the Church put St John of the Cross in jail? The great spiritual mind of 16th century Spain was persecuted because his kind of mystical exploration is a threat to rigid control, bureaucratic church authority, and the over-definition of mystery in the interest of polemics.

So you’re saying that, in reaction to the unbridled and violent Dionysian ecstasy of the late medieval and early modern era, the Church went too far, and occluded the Holy Spirit entirely?

Yes.  The truth expresses itself as an economy in which the various elements of the truth aspect and balance one another. The truth is not to be encapsulated in a neat formula. It exists as a massive symphony, where the truth is given by the interplay of the various parts. If you omit any part of it, then there is a reaction and exaggeration of the missing element.

This is exactly what happened with the occlusion of the Holy Spirit in the West, and the editing out of the Eplicesis [the drawing down of the Holy Spirit] from western liturgies, and the demeaning of the Christian faith into a list of propositions, which turns God into an idea in the mind.

A Pentecostal service in Kentucky, 1946

A Pentecostal service in Kentucky, 1946

The reaction came in the Romantic revival and finally the Azusa Street Pentecostal movement, which has reshaped the sociology of the world. The Azusa Street explosion of Pentecostalism came because, in the economy of Christianity, the charismatic element is essential to Orthodoxy. In any one life, we see only a very small part of the curve of these great historical movements. It’s our duty to try and see more of the curve, and to knit together fragments of knowledge and relate them to the whole.

The charismatic stream is part of the grand symphony of the Christian faith. And one of the wonderful things about the Church of England in London is that, for various reasons, the charismatic stream has not absolutized itself, has not decided to lead a sectarian apart life, and to leave the church. In fact it is revivifying the church within, and is being saved from folly and rigidity, which always happens when you become sectarian. If you become sectarian in your mentality, and focus on one bit of the Christian economy, what happens is rigidity and eventually disappearance and decline.

The occlusion of the Holy Spirit never really happened to the same extent in the Eastern Church, by the way. The Treatise of St Basil on the Holy Spirit is absolutely central to the Eastern understanding of the Holy Spirit as the Perfector, as the Go-Between.

I rather incline to GK Chesterton’s view – you can’t really be an orthodox Christian without having a charismatic life. That doesn’t necessarily mean special gifts of the Holy Spirit. Such gifts are given to people at various stages of people in their pilgrimage, for good reason, often to break up the crust of convention which is keeping them imprisoned. Once a real fluency in spiritual matters has been achieved, they’re no longer necessary. It’s very dangerous to hold on to some of these psychic phenomena which often attend growing in the Holy Spirit.

So how much importance should we give to Holy Spirit encounters or charismatic gifts in our spiritual life?

I have a simple map of spiritual reality. We spend most of our time at the mental ego level, on the surface, with the self negotiating the world around – a self which we have largely manufactured and confected. It is very difficult to get modern people to understand prayer is not just a form of thinking at that level. That’s one of the fundamental errors and difficulties people encounter at the beginning of learning to pray.

'This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine'

‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine’

At that mental ego level, there are often things of darkness which are unacknowledged. At the end of The Tempest, Prospero says of Caliban, ‘this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine’, but often those dark things are left unacknowledged within us. And much religion is really dangerous and I would say lethal, because it is in effect the surreptitious re-ascent of the bruised ego.

We project parts of ourselves – our anger, all kinds of personal psychic material – into the middle distance, deifying it and conducting a solipsist conversation. God is very often a projection of some of this unacknowledged material.

You can see it very clearly: the God which causes people to smite and slay. Sane religious cultures which have lasted for a very long time have discerned that the real fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace and various other things. They certainly aren’t homicidal impulses.

So you have the mental ego level – and the adventure of prayer is to go beyond and beneath that – into the psychic zone, in which very often there are gifts of the spirit, charismatic gifts of various kinds – glossolalia, gifts of prophecy, and ecstatic utterance.

There is a great danger in falling in love with yourself once again as a spiritual person, in becoming too intrigued by these things, and to think ‘because I have these things I am a really serious Christian’. There has to be a continued Copernican revolution, and that revolution always turns us outwards in generosity to our fellows and in adoration to God. St Anthony the Great says we must see the Spirit in our neighbour, and love them.

But instead, what can happen when you have notable charismatic gifts, is once again a turning inwards, an admiration of the self. Lucifer the light-bringer fell, because he fell so in love with his own reflection.

Open-Heart-Open-Mind-The-Contemplative-Dimension-of-the-GospelAnd then after the psychic zone, there is what is called the heart, which for the Hebrews was not the blood pump, the heart for the Hebrews was the vitals, where the spiritual centre was actually located. And once you were quiet enough and had been educated by silence and stillness, and had gone through this journey, from time to time, you tasted from the eternal well-spring that there is at the heart of every life and all life, where the spirit is already there and praying in ways we can’t understand.

So that is the map. Part of being a follower of the spirit of truth in Christ is to make a passage through this dangerous territory, drain the shadows, and acknowledge that this thing of darkness is mine.

And it is a very dangerous thing to enterprise the exploration of the spirit alone and isolated. Unless you do it in community, you are open to delusion and have little way of checking the face of the god that is visiting you.

Our spiritual culture at the moment is so impoverished and primitive. People find it extraordinarily difficult to be serious about angels or discarnate energies. There is a very dangerous and dark realm, which the Christian practice navigates through, by practicing in a community, by modeling oneself on Jesus Christ, by digesting His words not just as ideas in the mind but also as sacramental practice.

Even Luther and Calvin say the Church is a community in which the Gospel is truly preached and the sacraments are duly administered.  It’s a very modern tragedy that religion has become ideas in the mind. That’s why western religion is so feeble.

Where can we look to learn contemplative practices?

Pete Greig, one of the pioneers of the 24/7 prayer movement

Pete Greig, one of the pioneers of the 24/7 prayer movement

You’re asking for other people to engage with. Of course, there is the tradition of John Main and Laurence Freeman. I’m a member of the Eckhart Society – there is a huge renewed interest in Meister Eckhart. Then there is the Eastern tradition on the Holy Mountain, where you will find monks who have gone through the psychic phase and started to live an authentic spiritual life. In the UK, the 24 / 7 prayer movement is one place one could look – Pete Greig is the real thing. He’s a good man. And there are some books one could read, such as Olivier Clemont’s The Roots of Christian Mysticism, or Thomas Keating’s Open Heart, Open Mind; or Mark McIntosh’s Mystical Theology.

But alas we do not have many places where one can go today to learn and practice contemplation – we are very needy.

What about academic centres where contemplative practices could be studied and practiced?

The difficulty is that academia has sold out to a methodology which really depends on something all modern people must use – the experimental method, the metrics – and in this realm, that’s not applicable. The only thing you can do is be clear about the fruits of various practices.

The tree of knowledge was so fatal because it was knowledge wrenched from its source, and lying in atomized bits and pieces. We don’t seek illumination from the whole but from bits and pieces. This is one of the reasons why this civilization is in grave peril. Its arrogance is enormous. It still thinks it can preach to the whole world in the name of some very limited and abstract notions. It is indeed a civilization that is deeply needy.

So now we’re looking for an authentic wisdom which is inhabiting the whole Christian economy, with the right kind of balance and poise. Being sane and poised enough to love without distortion or hidden agendas. To be able to relate all knowledge to the whole, to the Pleroma, to the purposes of God. These are some of the aspects of wisdom, as opposed to knowing a hell of a lot.

Do you think there needs to be a contemplative revival in the Church?

The church needs huge reform in this respect, but certainly not the kind of fidgeting we’ve had in the last 50 years – fidgeting about structures and regulations, about the ministry, about this that and the other, and being a dull echo of the secular consensus, which of course says that the supreme value of life is individual choice whether in goods or morals.

The real trouble with the Church is not that it has retrograde social attitudes, or hasn’t embraced the emancipation of women – it’s that it’s spiritual incredible. It’s just as shallow as the rest of us. That’s the real truth, and that’s why people are fascinated by other ways which have remained less disturbed by the gospel that really grips this society, which is that there should be no constraint on individual consumer choice in goods or morals. That’s the very opposite of the truth. Autonomy is the story of the fall, not redemption. The church has accommodated itself so much, and is so lacking in distinction.

A lot of people (including me) believe it’s possible to have spiritual experiences in various different traditions and beyond any tradition.

Spiritual But Not Religious is a new upper middle class religion. You take a bonne bouche of Sufism, season it with Californian Buddhism. It’s delightful. And your deity of course is your taste. There is no genuine spiritual progress without committing yourself to a way.

I don’t deny there are other ways that help people to make spiritual progress. If you start honestly on a way, you find yourself in a place where there is plenty of commerce and conversation with followers of other ways, but you can do it authentically. But you have to commit yourself to a way, because otherwise the Copernican revolution never occurs – you , your ego and your taste, are still in control, and the profound bouleversement does not occur.

So you can get to God via, say, Buddhism or Islam or even humanism?

You can’t to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s not to say there are other ways to different destinations. There is only one Way to God as Jesus Christ has revealed Him, and that way is by feeding on His word and as part of His community and His sacraments. There is no other way to that destination.

But it would be very strange if this was a world created by God and marked by the Noachian covenant with all human flesh, in which God had left no vestige of Himself and His healing and ennobling spirit except within one strand or stream.

Mindfulness - a bestseller written by Danny Penman and Mark Williams, the latter of whom is head of the Oxford Centre for Mindfulness and also an Anglican priest

Mindfulness – a bestseller written by Danny Penman and Mark Williams, the latter of whom is head of the Oxford Centre for Mindfulness and also an Anglican priest

So I don’t find the denigration of other ways essential. It is the fact that there is no other way to the Father except through Jesus Christ, that does not mean that all other ways have no element of truth within them. But I am clear that unless you commit yourself to a way, rather than being idly neutral or taking a bit from here and there, there’s no spiritual progress whatsoever.

It’s the balance of practice, conviction, generosity, compassion, community and creativity, properly related to the ultimate pole – God who no man has seen at any time, only Jesus Christ who has revealed the Father. When you come into the presence of God, by this portal – there are other portals which may take you to different places – you come through a passage of self-sacrifice and giving oneself away, which paradoxically does not result in obliteration, but in the most extreme ecstasy and joy at the discovery which lies at the end of all this – that one is fearfully and wonderfully made, one is a unique and beloved child of God.

If I’m a Christian, do I have to agree with everything St Paul says?

Well…I wouldn’t say that, because the Holy Scriptures are, again, symphonic. You’ve got to immerse yourself in the Biblical worldview, which begins to bring into the foreground the grand themes. Of course, bits of the Scriptures are things of their own time. But it isn’t an either / or. You don’t sit in judgement on the Scriptures.

This is the crucial thing: how do you go through the desert of criticism, with spiritual and intellectual integrity, granted that the primordial gift of innocence before the Scriptures is not possible for modern people. You arrive at a point where you develop the critical approach, because doubt is not the opposite of faith. Faith is going beyond, beneath, embracing, saying ‘yes!’ Grasping a vision. The opposite of faith is sin, a turning in on oneself.

Paul Ricouer

Paul Ricouer, theologian and philosopher

That’s the opposite of faith, not doubt. Doubt is extraordinarily creative, as long as it doesn’t turn into corrosive scepticism, stopping us from any kind of commitment. You can be committed as far as you can be.

This largely comes from the astonishing work of Paul Ricouer. His work on Biblical criticism is all about how you can enter with spiritual and intellectual integrity into second innocence. And it’s possible. Indeed, the ‘nubbly bits’ are extraordinary fuel, as long as you continue to live with it.

If you believe you live on a pinnacle of enlightenment and eminence from which you can judge all times and places, there’s very little hope for you. If you’re prepared to read the scriptures with people from other ages and cultures, and prepared to say ‘I can’t take that’ while continuing with engagement, you may find some of those difficult passages yield as our musical taste changes, as our understanding of life and the great pattern changes, you may find they have a different valency.

But I don’t think you have to say, at this particular point, that because St Paul wanted, in the Philemon, to return a slave to his master, that you’re committed to upholding the institution of slavery, as Cardinal Newman thought. That shows the limitation of Cardinal Newman.

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