Last week, a reader called Tom wrote in with this story:

I am finally coming out the other side of a pretty deep existential crisis (possibly a result of drug use) and I am seeing the colour flood back into my life. I have just turned 29. The last 5 years have been pretty bleak and filled with crippling anxiety. Everything I once believed and valued seemed to be lies and the world felt hollow. I then began looking for the truth.

The deeper I looked into philosophy, Buddhism, meditation, health and fitness etc the more questions and uncertainty I created for myself. This ramped up my motivation to find the answers.  The more I looked, the more uncertainty I created, and the more I needed to look. During this period my anxiety became crippling.

how_the_frisbee_took_flightFortunately I was able to realize what was going on and pull myself out of this cycle. I decided for a period that I would cut everything out of my life that caused uncertainty. This included reading or listening to any self help, philosophical, health and fitness etc article or podcast. I focused on filling my days with play, eg frisbee, non-fiction books, comedy, eventually friends. Within two weeks to a month, I felt like a completely different person.

I think there is a tendency for thinkers/sensitive types, whatever you want to call us, to over-think and intellectualise depression. I think in hindsight, if I had just ridden out the depression, I would have fallen back into life fairly quickly. However, my need to find answers lead me down a rabbit hole of depression and anxiety.

I will still have questions because that is my nature. However, I now understand the importance of diverting my attention and hope I am now better able to ask whether a particular line of intrigue is helpful or unhelpful to my quality of life.

I like Tom’s advice. Sometimes, in the darkness, we need to give our minds a rest, and find a distraction. Games are good for that. It reminds me of Billy Wilder’s film, The Apartment. Shirley Maclaine’s character has tried to kill herself with an overdose. Jack Lemmon’s character finds her, resuscitates her, and then tries to keep her awake and busy by playing cards with her. When she asks him what’s the point in life, he replies: ‘shut up and deal’ – a line she repeats to him at the end of the film, when she has recovered and they’re in love.

ApartmentMac58598257

One of the few philosophers who understood our need for distractions amid the existential confusion was Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French philosopher and mathematician. He’s a fascinating figure – he was one of the leading mathematicians of his age, he almost died in a riding accident, and then had a sort of near-death experience (known as his ‘nuit de feu’ or ‘night of fire’), after which he became a religious philosopher. But he’s fascinating even if you’re not theist -  he’s really the first existentialist philosopher, in that he has an acute sense of the mystery of existence and the absurdity of human endeavour.

His Pensees, or ‘thoughts’, are a collection of brief meditations on existence. Here’s one of them:

449407The only good thing for men is to be diverted from thinking of what they are, either by some occupation which takes their mind off it, or by some novel and agreeable passion which keeps them busy, like gambling, hunting, some absorbing show, in short what is called diversion.

That is why gaming and feminine society, war and high office are so popular. It is not that they really bring happiness…What people want is not the easy peaceful life that allows us to think about our condition, but the agitation that takes our mind off it and diverts us.

That is why this man, who lost his only son a few months ago and was so troubled and oppressed this morning by lawsuits and quarrels, is not thinking about it any more. Do not be surprised: he is concengrating all his attention on which way the boar will go that his dogs have been so hotly pursuing for the past six hours. That is all he needs. However sad a man may be, if you can persuade him to take up some diversion he will be happy while it lasts….Without diversion there is no joy, with diversion there is no sadness.

Now, Pascal is being somewhat hyperbolic here. His ultimate hope is that we will make a leap of faith beyond boredom and diversion and put our trust in the Christian God. Personally, I believe in the Socratic approach – I think we can learn to discover and challenge the core negative beliefs underlying our suffering. But we can’t do that all the time. Sometimes we just need a break from our ruminations.

There is even a type of therapy built around just this insight, called ‘Distraction Therapy’. Therapists have experimented with using different forms of distraction to take patients’ mind off their physical pain, such as games, videos and music. One experiment projected nature sounds and images into hospital rooms when patients were receiving a painful bronchoscopy. The ‘significantly reduced pain’ in the patients, apparently.

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You won’t feel a thing

Many hospitals now use distraction therapy, like Chelsea and Westminster, which is teaming up with the musician Brian Eno to design ambient light and sound installations to take patients’ minds off the pain. Imagine Brian Eno jumping into the operating theatre, in full glam regalia. That would be distracting.

So the next time you have the blues, you could go to a psychodynamic therapist, lie down, and really pick that scab. Or you could try the Billy Wilder approach: shut up and deal.

4 Comments

iStock_000007789001LargeDear Jules,

I have been going through a really rough time lately and it is quite similar to your experience. I was quite a happy go lucky person through life until I had a bad terrifying trip on weed (my first time trying) I took way too much and freaked out and that traumatised me – having very anxious scary thoughts like what if I harm my self, what if I harm others – what is the meaning of life and whats the point of it all.

Like you I thought I ruined my brain chemistry forever. I still have the strange belief that everything in life is so insignificant and now I’m applying this to my daily routine – why bother getting dressed, why bother looking well in-front of people…strange thoughts like that and even when I give myself a sensible answer to this I boil down to WHAT’S THE POINT IN LIFE?

It’s like being told Santa isn’t real again.. Only I’m an adult and I want to be the happy-go-lucky one who got joy out of things instead of having this thought that puts a dampener on them (it is probably the worst thought I have, it makes my heart sink). Anyway I just want to know if you think I can be happy and live a life where I don’t feel like someone is poking me telling me life isn’t worthwhile.

Rachel

Dear Rachel,

Thanks for your email, and I’m sorry you’re having a rough time of it at the moment.

Some basic initial steps. Firstly, if you’re feeling depressed and frightened, it’s worth telling your parents – including telling them about smoking weed. They may react with anger and fear in the short-term, but that’s because they care about you. I didn’t tell my parents – or anyone – for years about my bad trips, and I think this made a difficult situation a lot worse.

Secondly, you might find it helpful to talk to a therapist. I’m not a trained therapist, but these days you can get free therapy on the NHS – find your local IAPT centre (it stands for Improving Access for Psychological Therapies, it’s an NHS talking therapies programme) or ask your GP. I can’t promise the therapist will be helpful, but it’s worth a shot.

The therapist will probably tell you that how you feel isn’t necessarily how things are. Sometimes our emotions become habits – we get habituated to taking a dark view of things, and are sure this view of things is true. So be wary of immediately believing your feelings to be true judgements of reality.

They will also tell you that sometimes we have irrational beliefs that cause us suffering, which we can learn to question and challenge. For example, I used to find it difficult to go to the theatre because I was very worried I would shout something out and everyone in the theatre would look at me. No shit! I honestly was so worried about this I’d put my hand over my mouth throughout the whole play. Then gradually I learned I wasn’t going to shout out, it was an irrational fear and I could call its bluff. Now I can sit through plays without my hand over my mouth. Progress!

Although I’m not a therapist, it doesn’t sound like you have schizophrenia to me, it sounds like you’re having what’s called an existential or spiritual crisis.

This happens when our consciousness sees through some of the constructs and conventions that ordinary life is made up of. We no longer believe in the things we used to believe in, and this makes us unhappy, because we’re not sure there’s anything worth believing in.

There’s a story-line that many of us follow in life. It goes like this.

In the beginning I was a happy-go-lucky innocent, without a care in the world or a distressing thought in my head. I lived in a Happy Valley of childhood. Then something went wrong. Something bad happened to me, and now I’m exiled from Paradise, and I’m stuck in a world where everything seems grey and miserable and somehow lacking in warmth and colour and joy and purpose. And I can’t get back to the Happy Valley. I can’t find my way back home.

Prince Siddhartha (the Buddha) wakes up to death and suffering

Prince Siddhartha (the Buddha) wakes up to death and suffering

This is exactly what I felt like when I was in late adolescence and early adulthood. And I think it’s a classic psychological journey. It’s the Fall of Genesis. It’s also what happened to the Buddha – happy teenager, then a sudden shock to his world-view, then a period of depression and searching. A lot of us go through the Fall when we’re in our late teens or early 20s. It’s a nasty surprise, not something our parents or teachers told us about, although it’s described in many books.

The Fall is really an awakening. It’s our consciousness realizing that some of the things we believed in are actually a bit of a charade.

When I was 17 or so, I went through one of these awakenings – suddenly, the world seemed a rather sordid and selfish place. Everyone else seemed a bit of an egotistical phony, chasing after their shallow and pointless goals. Getting a career, getting a nice house with a nice lawn and a nice wife, getting a thousand followers on Twitter…what’s the point!

People are like greyhounds chasing after a mechanical rabbit, desperately trying to out-run each other, and if one of the greyhounds stops, scratches his arse and says ‘it’s just a mechanical rabbit’, they call him crazy.

And what lies beneath all the ego, all the desire, all the shadow puppetry? Nothing. The abyss. Human life is a game of charades played over a trapdoor of nothingness, and every now and then the trapdoor opens, one of the actors disappears below, and everyone goes on like nothing happened!

So, you’ve rumbled us. You’ve rumbled adults. You grew up thinking we knew what was going on. We don’t know what’s going on. No one knows why we’re here and we’re all basically winging it and passing the time trying to impress each other before we die.

What's the point?

What’s the point?

When I realized this, it made me feel quite melancholy – although maybe there was a certain pride in my melancholy too (I, the Deep One, have seen through the phoniness. I am the Awakened Greyhound).

I didn’t exactly choose to awaken to the emptiness of constructed reality. It was an accidental awakening – maybe through drugs, which can alter our consciousness and make us see things differently. Some people go through similar accidental awakenings through, say, meditation – suddenly everything seems a bit empty and pointless. Or it might happen to them when they first lose someone they love. They notice the trapdoor beneath their feet and think: ‘what’s the point!’

This kind of awakening to the emptiness of our constructs has been called the Dark Night of the Soul. In truth, it happens occasionally through life. It comes with being human, unfortunately, and with being blessed / cursed with consciousness.

So how do we get out of it? How do we discover a sense of purpose or meaning?

People get out of the darkness two ways. Firstly, some people just fall asleep again. Life changes, and they stop thinking such deep thoughts, and get caught up in the game once more.  Actually, this happens to everyone. You fall in love, you get a great job, you go on holiday, and things are fun again, and you shelve your inner Hamlet and enjoy the festivities.

There is nothing wrong with this at all. Sometimes the game of charades is a really fun game, and it’s fun to get involved, though unfortunately we often forget it’s just a game and end up totally believing in it and taking it very seriously.

Secondly, some people get out of the darkness by discovering a philosophy or an attitude that helps them through it and gives them a sense of meaning. Their old philosophy – ‘be happy-go-lucky’ -  doesn’t quite work anymore, but they discover a new philosophy which works better.

I’ve turned to different philosophies to help me when I’m lost: Buddhism, Stoicism, Sufism, Taoism, Christianity. These are all quite different philosophies, but I think they have a core message to them.

Which is this: We’re here to know ourselves, to discover our nature, and to help other people do the same.

The journey to know ourselves is not an easy one. It involves a lot of wrong turns, a lot of dark forests, steep mountains and sinking swamps. And we meet bad people along the way, fools, liars, egotists, and people who wish us harm. What makes the journey particularly difficult is, when we ask passers-by how to get to our destination, they all give us different directions, and they all seem immensely confident that they’re right.

On this journey, I don’t think you can go backwards. You can’t go back to the Happy Valley of childhood. Frodo and Sam can’t go back to how things were, they’ve got to go forward. You have to go forward. Your consciousness grows – sometimes accidentally, sometimes through education and experience – and then it’s like you don’t fit into the old clothes any more, they feel cramped and ridiculous. That means it’s time to go forward.

Winston Churchill, who suffered from depression, once said: 'If you're going through hell, keep going'

Winston Churchill, who suffered from depression, once said: ‘If you’re going through hell, keep going’

But what is the point? That question hangs over us like a cloud when we’re starting out on the journey, just as we find ourselves outside the Happy Valley. Why bother going on, when everything looks so dark and gloomy?

You won’t find an answer right now. It’s not like there is a Fortune Cookie slogan I can give you, which tells you The Point. First you need to practice taking care of yourself. Epictetus said: ‘practice, for heaven’s sake, in the little things, and then proceed to greater’.

Practice taking care of yourself. Practice taking care in the little things. Practice not letting your negative thoughts beat you up and cause you suffering. Why be so mean to yourself? Would you let someone be that mean to your sister, or your boyfriend, or your dog? So why be so mean to yourself?

Practice taking care of your body. The health of your consciousness is connected to your physical health – when you’re tired or hungover, you’re more susceptible to the automatic negative thoughts. Practice taking exercise, going for walks or jogs or swims or yoga, practice getting out into parks or the countryside. Feed your body with good things, feed your soul with good things.

Practice being appreciative of little things – a cup of tea, a good book, a beautiful song, a funny film. Practice being appreciative of other people – little moments where people are kind to each other, despite all the hurt and confusion in the world. Practice loving other people. See them in all their beauty and vulnerability, and how much they want to love and be loved.  (I am rubbish at this, I’m usually an utter misanthrope – I need to practice being kinder and softer-hearted.)

I think this practice is easier if you find other people to practice with. That might be a self-help group, or a humanist group, or a Buddhist, Jewish, Christian or Muslim group, or it might be a group of friends that you can be genuinely honest and vulnerable with. Some of these groups might be dodgy, and we always have to be wary of ‘gurus’….but in general I think it helps to practice with other people.

All this practice slowly gets you into good habits. It’s like Mr Miyagi teaching the Karate Kid and getting him into good habits. Wax on, wax off!

And then, one day, perhaps months or years after you started the journey, you realize you’re in a different place, and that your world is full of joy, and colour, and meaning.

What is that place? It’s our inner nature, beneath the flaky conventions and constructions we’ve pasted onto it.

To get a bit mystical, I believe our nature is full of light, and when we practice well, when we get into good habits and out of bad habits, we let that light shine out, and we see the light in others too.And that’s the point. It’s not a sentence or a slogan. It’s an experience of consciousness enjoying itself, and helping other people’s consciousness shine out too.

I no longer feel as lost and scared and confused as I did when I was 21. I never became the happy-go-lucky child again. I never regained the innocence of childhood. I pressed on, and after a while I found something else, a kind of happiness regained, occasionally. I still have days of darkness, confusion, fear and ignorance – and I’m sure I have some bigger challenges ahead of me when I will write to someone and say ‘help!’ But I enjoy life, I’m grateful for it.

This is basically me, just so you know.

This is basically me, just so you know.

It’s difficult to talk about spiritual matters without sounding a pompous git spouting cliches. I’m 36, single, fitfully employed, writing this in my dressing gown. I’m a lazy, boozy, self-satisfied, egotistical idiot, caught up in the charade and wondering how many times his article has been re-tweeted. Just so you know who you asked for help.

Here’s a passage from The Catcher in the Rye which I’ve found helpful over the years:

Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many people have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement.

What that means is, when you find a way through the particular forest you’re in at the moment, remember the way, and pass it on.

Jules

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I’m doing a Philosophy for Life workshop for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, which will be interpreted in sign language. It’s happening next Monday, July 14, at 7pm, in the upstairs room of the Wheatsheaf pub on Rathbone Place.

It will explore how ancient Greek philosophy inspired cognitive therapy, and how people can use the practical ideas of Socrates, Marcus Aurelius, Cicero and others to become happier, more resilient and wiser today.

The workshop will last one and a half hours, and will have some practical and fun exercises which people can take part in, if they want. Cost is a fiver to cover room hire.

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I  had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from 1995 until 2001. Seven years of fear, anxiety, depression and paranoia, which I feared would last forever. But I got better, thanks to a near-death experience.

Your heart may sink when people start recounting near-death experiences. As a bishop once said to the Methodist John Wesley: ‘Pretending to special revelations of the Holy Spirit is a horrid thing.’ I don’t think my ‘revelation’ was in any way unique or unusual. A lot of people have these kinds of experiences, including as many as one fifth of people who suffer cardiac arrests. In themselves, they’re not necessarily significant or sanctifying. But sometimes, whatever they are and wherever they come from, they teach us useful things.

In 2001, I fell off a mountain while skiing, broke various bones, and knocked myself unconscious. When I came to, I saw a white light and felt completely filled with an infinite love, for myself and for everyone else. I felt that light was our souls, and they were perfect and immortal.

For some reason we had lost touch with this treasure within us, and allowed ourselves to become imprisoned by false beliefs, false opinions. I, for example, was imprisoned by the belief: ‘I am permanently damaged and therefore unlovable’. This made me very anxious about whether others still liked or loved me. In that moment, I realized I was lovable, we all are, and we just need to trust in the treasure of love within us, rather than anxiously trying to prove ourselves to other people.

For several weeks, I felt completely healed, not just healed, more than healed, I felt in love with the world. Music sounded better, life felt better, everything was illuminated. But then gradually the insight faded, the old mental habits came back, and I found myself becoming imprisoned by depression and anxiety again.

So I went to do a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, knowing that it was based on the same wisdom I had accessed in my accident – that what hurts us is our own beliefs, and we need to learn to free ourselves from them. I practiced and practiced and gradually turned my insight into habits.

Then I wrote a book about how CBT came from Greek philosophy, and spent several years working to communicate the benefits of Greek philosophy to people – particularly non-believers, for whom Stoicism is a very useful resource.

But I started to feel both Stoicism and CBT left something out. I still wondered: what was that experience on the mountain? What was that ecstasy? What is that infinite love that can so transfigure and transform us? How do we access it?

Traherne’s ecstatic wisdom

This brings me to Thomas Traherne. He was a 17th century Anglican parson (his dates are roughly 1636 to 1674), who lived in Hereford. He wrote some poetry and some religious prose. He was never famous or well-connected, like John Donne or George Herbert. He was not some radical outsider, like William Blake. He died young and uncelebrated, and remained almost completely unknown until 1896, when some of his manuscripts were discovered in a wheelbarrow outside a London antiques bookstore, including a book called Centuries of Meditation, which is a contemplative guide made up of 400 brief meditations. It was first published in 1908.

Since then, Centuries has been recognized by a handful of people as a classic. CS Lewis called it ‘almost the most beautiful book in the English language’. Aldous Huxley quoted from it liberally in his Perennial Philosophy. Northrop Frye thought it one of the great works of western literature. Traherne is loved by Thomas Merton, NT Wright,  the Bishop of London. Yet he’s still largely unknown, even among Christians, even among Anglicans.

51lROa35LNL._SY445_There is no major edition of Centuries available, none by a major publisher, none for under £20. Is that not extraordinary, for a spiritual classic of the first order? Thankfully some scholars are working to bring his glory to light, including Denise Inge, the wife of the Bishop of Hereford, who sadly died earlier this year. She published several books on Traherne, including Happiness and Holiness.

Traherne and Greek wisdom

Here’s why I love Traherne. First of all, like all Anglicans of that era, he really knows and loves Greek philosophy. Would that were so today, when Christians are intellectually threatened by anything beyond CS Lewis.

Traherne gets the essence of Stoic wisdom. First, we are imprisoned by our beliefs – he writes: ‘our misery proceedeth ten thousand times more from the outward bondage of opinion and custom, than from any inward corruption or depravation of Nature’. False opinions ‘alienate men from the Life of God’. As Rousseau realized a century later, we are particularly alienated (or enslaved) by our need for others’ approval:

An ambition to please, a desire to gratify, a great desire to delight others being the greatest snare in the world. Hence it is that all hypocrisies and honours arise, I mean esteem of honours…For men being mistaken in the nature of Felicity, and we by a strong inclination prone to please them, follow a multitude to do evil. We naturally desire to approve ourselves to them, and above all things covet to be excellent, to be greatly beloved, to be esteemed, and magnified, and therefore endeavour what they endeavour, prize what they prize, magnify what they desire, desire what they magnify.

This is straight out of Seneca, and also taps into the tradition of Cynic wisdom: humans are ‘grown mad with customary folly’, writes Traherne, echoing Erasmus and before that Diogenes the Cynic.

What can free us from what Blake called our ‘mind-forged manacles’? Wisdom.

Traherne writes: ‘Wisdom is the principal thing, yet all men neglect her.’ True philosophy is a love of wisdom, and this will direct us to happiness, or Felicity. We should strain every sinew to learn ‘the way to perfect happiness’. Yet philosophy and learning has become spiritually dead, pursuing only knowledge:

There never was a tutor that did professly teach Felicity, though that be the mistress of all other sciences…[At university] we studied to inform our knowledge, but knew not for what end we so studied. And for lack of aiming at a certain end we erred in the manner.

Wisdom involves learning to change your ‘frame’, as Traherne puts it. Your perspective, your life-philosophy – what you see, notice and value – is all-important, determining whether you live in Hell or Paradise. We must learn to ‘see aright’, to ‘enjoy aright’, otherwise, the ‘foundation’ of our reality is ‘out of course’ and we will be miserable.

The entire Centuries is really a contemplative manual, a therapeutic course, to try and help us see aright, value aright, and enjoy aright.

True wisdom involves not just theory but practice – this too is very much a Stoic insight. Philosophers ‘are not only those that contemplate happiness, but practice virtue.’ We must take wisdom and turn it into habits through repetitive meditation: ‘Having once studied these principles you are eternally to practice them. You are to warm yourself at these fires and to have recourse to them every day.’

Desire and yearning

So far, so Stoic. But Traherne goes beyond Stoic wisdom, towards more Platonic wisdom. Stoics, like Buddhists, believe desires and passions are basically bad. We should learn not to want. Plato, by contrast, thought that desire, love, wanting, yearning, was a good thing, it just needed to be steered to its proper goal. Desire is actually a yearning for our spiritual home – for God. We just need to follow this yearning and be true to it rather than narcotizing it with worldly comforts.

'I want! by William Blake

‘I want! by William Blake

Wants are good. Wants are ‘the bands and cements between God and us’. ‘Want is the foundation of all His Fulness’. Want is ‘a treasure in heaven’. ‘You must want like a God, that you may be satisfied by God’. We are lifted to God on the wings of desire. ‘The Desire satisfied is a Tree of Life.’

So we must follow the yearning of our soul, rediscover our heritage, rediscover the treasure within, and realize how blessed, how rich we are. We often feel like homeless exiles in this world, lonely, deprived, cut-off, scrabbling for a living, begging for approval, desperate for love.

If we could just learn to ‘see aright’, we could realize we are the heirs of God, we are inheritors of the kingdom, we have God within us – an infinite consciousness filled with infinite love. We have forgotten how rich we are.

Traherne recognizes that the key problem, the key false idea that is poisoning our reality, is a lack of self-esteem. We feel unloved, and unworthy of love, and this poisons our relationship with God and brings us to a depressed atheism. So what he does in Centuries is to try and teach us self-love, that we may learn to love others and to love God. ‘Self-love is the basis of all love…That pool must first be filled that shall me made to overflow.’

The way to self-love is to realize we are special. We are not mere machines in perpetual struggle with one another, as Traherne’s contemporary Thomas Hobbes insisted. We are the heirs of God.

All the World is yours…Though art the sole object of His eye, and the end of all His endeavours…the heavens are the canopy, and the earth is the footstool of your throne.

Enjoying aright

God created ourselves and the world solely that we should enjoy it. That’s the main purpose of life, according to Traherne. That should be at the top of our to-do list every morning: enjoy existence, enjoy creation. That’s the main thing God wants of us, that’s all we really need to do to live well. Everything else is secondary.

There’s a kind of mystical Epicureanism to Traherne – we have perfected the art of making ourselves miserable through our beliefs, now we can choose to give ourselves up to the pleasure of communion with God and nature. We can choose to be happy by seeing the richness of the moment, rather than choosing to be miserable by chasing after false goods:

Your enjoyment of the world is never right, til every morning you awake in Heaven; see yourself in your Father’s Palace; and look upon the skies, the earth, and the air as Celestial Joys: having such a reverend esteem of all, as if you were among the Angels….You never enjoy the world aright, til the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world.

God and the infinity of our souls

The evidence for God’s existence and for His love of us is, firstly, the wonder of nature, including ourselves, our bodies – ‘the greatest treasures of all’. We must learn to prize the things of nature rightly, to give thanks for them, treat them justly. But beyond that, the greatest evidence for God’s bountifulness is our infinite souls.

Traherne is part of a mystic tradition of English metaphysical poets, that stretches from Shakespeare to Donne, Herbert, Vaughan and Blake, all of whom had the ability to use language and metaphor as catapults to propel themselves beyond language,  beyond rationality, beyond the little walls of the self, towards the infinite.

Like these poets, and like Whitman later, Traherne sees God illuminated in nature. ‘The infinity of God…magnifieth all things.’ ‘Every spire of grass is the work of His hand.’ ‘An Ant is a great Miracle’, the ‘sweetness and unusual beauty’ of trees makes his soul ‘almost mad with ecstasy’.

When we’re children, we have a capacity to be ravished by the wonder, beauty and liveliness of the natural world, but then we lose our amazement through custom and familiarity. Poetry and philosophy help us to wonder like children again – here Traherne anticipates Rousseau, Blake, Wordsworth, CS Lewis and the Romantic (and very English) idea that children’s souls are closer to God than those of adults, and that imagination can bring us back to that secret garden we lost.

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Chief among the wonders of nature are our own souls, the infinite dimensions of which are proof to Traherne of God’s existence and our inheritance: ”I will in the light of my soul show you the Universe.’

here the dimensions of innumerable worlds are shut, up in a centre. Where it should lodge such innumerable objects, as it doth by knowing, whence it should derive such infinite streams as flow from it by Loving, how it should be a mirror of all Eternity, being made of nothing, how it should be a fountain or a sun of Eternity out of which such abundant rivers of affection flow, it is impossible to declare. But above all, having no material or bodily existence, its substance, though invisible, should be so rich and precious. The consideration of one Soul is sufficient to convince all the Atheists in the whole world.

Would that it were so. Instead, we have come to deny consciousness as an embarrassing outlier in the mechanistic model. Either it doesn’t exist, or it doesn’t do much. Not so, says Traherne. It shows us our true divine nature: ‘The true exemplar of God’s infinity is that of your understanding, which is a lively pattern and idea of it…The WORLD is but a little centre in comparison with you…Souls are God’s jewels, every one of which is worth many worlds.’

Next time you’re on a bus, look at the people round you. Each one is a miracle of consciousness. Each one is a universe. Yet we have forgotten this, and feel small and worthless, and God feels like an old and fanciful idea. We Measure GOD by our selves’, when we should measure our selves by God. ‘Every man is alone the centre and circumference of it. It is all his own, and so glorious, that it is the eternal and incomprehensible essence of the Deity. A cabinet of infinite value, equal in beauty, lustre and perfection to all its treasures.’

supramental

Infinite Love

When we think of something, our minds stretch towards it, and transform it into apprehension. But even more so when we Love something. Love is a reaching, an attending, a stretching of the boundaries of the self. In love we discover the infinite nature of the soul, which can reach towards and take into itself even the infinity of God.  ‘By Loving a Soul does propagate and beget itself. By Loving it does dilate and magnify itself. By Loving it does enlarge and delight itself…But above all by Loving it does attain itself.’

‘Love is deeper than at first it can be thought. It never ceaseth but in endless things. It ever multiplies.’ ‘God is Love, and my Soul is lovely!’ ‘By Love alone is God enjoyed, by Love alone delighted in, by Love alone approached or admired. His Nature requires Love, thy nature requires Love.’

God’s Love is infinity multiplying itself in the souls of all beings. This Love spreads not just through all the beings in this world, but perhaps through infinite worlds: ‘The Earth is too poor a cottage, too small a centre, to be the Single and Solitary object of his care and love’, Traherne writes in Kingdom of God. ‘What if beyond the Heavens there were Infinite Numbers of Worlds at vast unspeakable distances. And all Those worlds full of Glorious Kingdoms? and all those Kingdoms full of the most Noble and Glorious Creatures…Would this Abolish Heavens? Verily in my Conceit, it Enricheth it.’

Occasionally, Traherne attains a vision of God’s plan completed, when all beings are realized and filled with love for God and for each other, and the universes have become a network of conscious souls blazing with light. All are connected to God, and become God: ‘All are happy in each other. All are like Deities. Every one the end of all things, everyone supreme, every one a treasure, and the joy of all, and every one most infinitely delighted in being so.’

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Grace and Jesus’ Love

This sounds great. How lovely for Traherne to have such an ecstatic nature. But the rest of us find it a little harder to tune our souls into Love FM. We are a little more insecure, a little more distracted by worldly cares, more besieged by adversity, more trapped in ugliness and cruelty, more imprisoned in our need for material consolations.

And yet sometimes we have experiences where something helps us, beyond our own efforts. Love picks us up. That was my experience – I had messed up my own life, I had become lost in a labyrinth of false beliefs. And Love lifted me out of it. Strange but true. The Stoics say nothing of such experiences. Nor does CBT. Yet they happen. So what are they?

Perhaps they are our souls revealing themselves to us. Perhaps in moments of heightened consciousness – including life-threatening accidents – we get glimpses of the Atman within us.

For Traherne, such moments are gifts from God, and the ultimate gift was his own Son, giving himself for Love of us. Jesus’ love and sacrifice, Traherne believes, opened up a new connection between God and humans, that can break through our prisons. The Cross is a ‘Jacob’s Ladder by which we ascend to the highest Heavens’. It is a spear piercing time and space: ‘Had the Cross been twenty millions of ages further, it had still been equally near.’

road_to_the_cross_jekelThe Cross is ‘the abyss of wonders, the centre of desires, the school of virtues, the house of wisdom, the throne of love, the theatre of joys, and the place of sorrows; It is the root of happiness and the gate of Heaven’. It teaches us the way to the kingdom within us, by giving ourselves up to Love: ‘Teach me, O Lord, these mysterious ascensions. By descending into Hell for the sake of others, let me ascend into the glory of the Highest Heavens.’

Non-Christians may struggle with the Christology of this. Is Traherne saying the only way to God is through Christ, because Christ paid the debt of Original Sin? Anglicans would argue that he does say this – certainly in other books he is more dogmatic, less ecstatic. But I’m not sure Centuries argues this. It makes no mention of the Devil, nor much mention of Adam and Original Sin.

For Traherne, our fall comes after childhood, when we take on the opinions of the world. And we are freed from that fall when we become as children again and learn how much we are loved by God, and reciprocate that love. But Christ’s sacrifice made that liberation much easier. I don’t think I would necessarily have got better if Love had not lifted me out of the pit.

Does that mean The Only Way to God is through the worship of Christ? Traherne writes, intriguingly: ‘There are exceeding few such Heavenly Lovers as Jesus was, who imparted His own soul unto us. Yet some may doubtlessly be found.’ So perhaps there are, in other cultures and other worlds, such Heavenly Lovers as Jesus was, who beat a path through our folly back to God.

Giving praise

When we see aright, when we enjoy aright, when we discover the fountain of infinite love in our souls, and see it in others too, then we give praise and thanks, and sing like King David: ‘Are not praises the very end for which the world was created?’

‘Praises are the breathings of interior love, the marks and symptoms of a happy life, overflowing gratitude, returning benefits, an oblation of the soul, and the heart ascending upon the wings of divine affection to the Throne of God.’

Traherne was an extraordinary writer. He uses prose as a sort of poetic incantation, spilling clause after clause, image after image, until we are astonished. He repeats certain words like ‘frame’, ‘foundation’, ‘magnified’, ‘prized’, and certain images – the eye cleansed, the throne of God – until by frequent repetition they become fixed in the reader’s mind.

And Traherne was an extraordinary soul. The rest of us have our ups and downs, our good days and bad days. Traherne seemed peculiarly in touch with the Divine, and saw our ‘customary folly’ peculiary clearly. He is a prime example of what William James called ‘the once-born soul’, brimming with an almost bumptious optimism and certainty that he is loved by God, and through his certainty making us wonder if (could it really be?) we are also loved by God too.

I can barely remember what it was like to see that light on the mountainside and to feel connected to an infinite love. Fifteen years on, I remain the same lazy, petulant, misanthropic and egotistical person as ever. But when I read Traherne, very briefly, I seem to remember what I felt. This unknown country parson was, you could say, the richest man in the world, and he left his inheritance to all of us.

Here are some beautiful Traherne quotes I gathered together. And here is a very good speech by the Bishop of London about why Traherne is so vital for our own times.

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F1.large100 years ago this year, James Joyce published Dubliners, his first book, in which he explored the lives of characters through what he called ‘epiphanies’. He’d been experimenting with epiphanies for some years, and even started to write a ‘book of epiphanies’, which he intended – with customary modesty – to send to every library in the world. You can read some of them here.

Epiphanies were, for Joyce the lapsed Catholic, a way to retain a sense of the sacerdotal in everyday life, while still throwing off the ponderous moralisms and barbarous superstitions of the Catholic Church. And many other writers and readers have found in the epiphany a way to retain a sense of spirituality beyond any institution or dogma. In that sense, the literary epiphany is a precursor of the ‘Spiritual but not Religious’ movement of today. And I think it reveals some of the limits of that movement.

The word epiphany comes from the Greek epi-phanein, meaning ‘to show forth, or manifest’. In Christian theology it usually means a revelation of God – in western churches, the Feast of Epiphany celebrates the recognition of Jesus by the Three Magi, while in the orthodox church, Epiphany refers to the moment St John baptises Jesus and the Holy Spirit comes down and anoints him.

Joyce was particularly influenced by the ideas of Thomas Aquinas, the 12th century philosopher, who described epiphanies as moments of realization, where you see a thing’s claritas (radiance), and its quidditas (whatness). The artist, like the mystic, sees something, hears something, tastes something, and is suddenly struck by its incredible luminous quidditas.

This can happen sometimes when you’re on magic mushrooms or LSD – you become completely transfixed by a packet of crisps, by their incredible crispiness. Or you may suddenly see a mate of yours, Jimmy, and be almost overwhelmed by their extraordinary Jimminess.

However, because we’re not being artists, we would struggle to communicate this sudden epiphany to other people. It would just sound weird. The artist, by contrast, has the ability to describe the thing in all its quidditas and to help us achieve a mini-epiphany too. They can capture the epiphany in language, like a lepidopterist capturing a butterfly.

A famous example is Gerard Manly Hopkins’ vision of a windhover:

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king
-dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

An epiphany is not necessarily positive or spiritual – especially not in Joyce. It might be a moment where a person suddenly has an insight into the fatuity and wretchedness of their condition, like a flash of lightening suddenly illuminating how lost you are. This is the negative epiphany, in the sense meant by William Burroughs when he described the phrase ‘naked lunch’ as ‘a frozen moment when everyone sees what’s at the end of their fork’.

Or an epiphany might be a moment where a poor unsuspecting stooge in the street accidentally reveals their true character to the piercing, pitiless eye of the artist. The author and theatre critic Henry Hitchings occasionally posts these sorts of epiphanies on his Facebook page. For example:

Overheard, Shoreditch: “Do I look contained? Man’s gotta look contained if he wants to find sweet connections.” Somehow I’d take this more seriously if the speaker wasn’t carrying a golf umbrella.

or

Brick Lane. The first thing I hear is ‘Yo, Django, is the Moog at your place or Fabrice’s?’

Wordsworth and the Romantic epiphany

But literature of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries is also replete with more positive epiphanies, in which the artist is struck by something, and seems to see in it a ‘point of intersection of the timeless with time’ (as TS Eliot put it). A thing catches the light, and suddenly seems a window to eternity.

That thing might be a wild flower, as it was for Blake, or a cat, as it was for Christopher Smart, or a couple walking down the street laughing, as it was for Marilynne Robinson.

Yesterday I read some of a book called The Poetics of Epiphany: nineteenth century origins of modern literary moment, by Ashton Nichols, which suggests the key influence on the literary epiphanies of modernism was Wordsworth. He tried in his poetry to capture what he called ‘spots of time’:

There are in our existence spots of time
Which with distinct preeminence retain
A fructifying virtue, whence, depressed
By trivial occupations and the round
Of ordinary intercourse, our minds -
Especially the imaginative power -
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
Such moments chiefly seem to have their date
In our first childhood

WWordsworthThe revolution of Wordsworth’s poetry was to find epiphanies and spiritual revelations not in the typical epic subject matter of Greek myths or the Bible, but in the everyday objects and encounters of his neighbourhood. The most ordinary and common thing – a cliff, a tree, a leech-gatherer – becomes illuminated and holy when it strikes against his consciousness.

Wordsworth then tried, in The Prelude, to make an epic poem of his spiritual autobiography, by weaving together these epiphanies, like a rosary stringing together prayer beads.

Lev Tolstoy's War and Peace juxtaposes the grand history of the Napoeonic Wars with the spiritual history of his characters' consciousness.

Lev Tolstoy’s War and Peace juxtaposes the grand history of the Napoeonic Wars with the spiritual history of his characters’ consciousness.

This would inspire 19th and 20th century novelists to try and use the novel as a way of exploring the spiritual history of their characters, and how the kairos of their consciousness intersected with the chronos of history. Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for example, explores both the grand sweep of the Napoleonic Wars, and also the spiritual history of Prince Bolkonsky – his moments of epiphany when wounded on the battlefields of Austerlitz and Borodino, when he looks on the infinite sky or feels the flower of ecstatic pity unfolding within him (Bolkonsky is constantly having epiphanies when wounded – he sounds a most impractical soldier).

Both DH Lawrence and Virginia Woolf also tried to make the novel an exploration of the foldings and unfoldings of consciousness.  This is what DH Lawrence explores so beautifully in The Rainbow – the struggles of the souls of Tom, Lydia, Will, Anna and Ursula to come into being, to unfold into fullness, and their struggles with each other, how friendships and sexual relationships can either help our unfolding or prevent it.

Sometimes the novelistic epiphany involves a sudden sense of a hidden pattern behind the characters’ history – they run into an old love (as in Dr Zhivago) or an old enemy (as Bolkonsky does in War and Peace) and think – why them? Why now? Is this a coincidence or evidence that our lives are somehow weaved together, like works of art, if we could but glimpse the hidden pattern?

The epiphany as narcissistic self-glorification

Now here’s the key point. The literary epiphany was in some senses an evolution of a religious idea or experience in a post-religious age. But the epiphany in Wordsworth and his descendants is quite different to religious experiences in, say, Augustine, John Bunyan or John Wesley.

As Ashton Nichols explores, in religious epiphanies, the experience is very much tied to an theological explanation – it is a revealing of God and the nature of God. The theology is the trellis for the flower of the experience.

Keats suggested the poet needs a negative capability in which they can experience the Sublime without 'an irritable reaching after fact and reason'

Keats suggested the poet needs a negative capability in which they can experience the Sublime without ‘an irritable reaching after fact and reason’

In the Romantic and modernist epiphany, by contrast, ‘the powerful perceptual experience becomes primary and self-sustaining. Interpretation of the event may be important but it is always subject to an indefiniteness that does not characterize the powerful moment itself’, in the words of Ashton Nichols. He goes on: ‘the visible reveals something invisible but the status of the invisible component is left unstated. Its mystery becomes part of the value of the experience.’

So theology is abandoned and there is the raw experience, the raw emotion, and the encounter with…something, we can’t be sure what. Call it God, or the World-Soul, or perhaps some private deity of one’s own imagining (Blake’s Albion, Graves’ White Goddess, Allan Moore’s Glycon, Philip K. Dick’s Valis).

In fact, one could say that what is revealed in the moment is not God, but rather the God-like mind of the artist. Wordsworth wrote: ‘To my soul I say / I recognize thy glory.’  Shelley said of Wordsworth: ‘Yet his was individual Mind / And new created all he saw.’  There’s a kind of grand narcissism to the Romantic epiphany – it reveals not the greatness of God but the greatness of the poetic imagination. The poet becomes the Creator, the Animator, and all they see in nature is their own beautiful reflection. Where Milton tells the epic narrative of the human race, Wordsworth sings only the Infinite Me.

This narcissism, this pride, goes back perhaps to Petrarch, and beyond that to Gnosticism. Petrarch wrote that he had learnt from the ancient philosophers that ‘nothing is great but the soul, which, when great itself, finds nothing great outside itself.’ Well…how nice for you Petrarch.

This, I think, is the risk of the modern epiphany. Firstly, there is little sense of how to achieve them through practice, prayer and discipline – the Romantic poet scorns all such discipline as deadening routine. Instead they wander around, perhaps on drugs, hoping for the moment to strike.

Secondly, there is little sense that such experiences are only valuable if they genuinely transform you and make you a better and more loving person. They become an end in itself, which culminates in Walter Pater’s dandyish aestheticism. The poet may be a complete bastard, as long as they have the occasional exquisite epiphany.

Thirdly, there is no sense of beliefs and theology as the trellis around which religious experiences become structured. The experience becomes paramount – and the poet may well hang any old theoretical nonsense around that experience. It leads ultimately to the incoherence and banality of much modern spirituality (one thinks of Paulo Coelho and The Celestine Prophecy, and their deification of coincidences as revelations).

Metamorphosis_of_NarcissusFinally, such moments become excuses not to glorify God, but to glorify one’s Self, one’s own incredible Mind. This is the Gnostic tendency – I am God, I am the Over-Soul, I am the Creator of Heaven and Earth – which one finds in Romanticism, in Wordsworth, Coleridge, Whitman, Emerson and Nietzsche, and which blossoms in the New Age movement of today. This is a dangerous error, because it can become a puffed-up egotism which actually cuts us off from God.

We have forgotten how to pray, how to create routines, habits and practices to carry us through the dry spells and to integrate the epiphanies. And we have forgotten how to kneel.

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