Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
How did you get into psychedelic research?
It all started when I was studying psychoanalysis at Brunel University. I was in a seminar where the seminar leader raised the different methods for accessing the unconscious mind. It seemed as though the methods used by psychoanalysis were very limited – free association, dreaming, hypnosis, bungled actions, slips of the tongue. They never really convinced everyone.
So I thought if the unconscious is real, could drugs reveal it? I must have had psychedelics in mind. Then I found that there was a book by Stanislav Grof called Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from LSD Research, it was a light-bulb moment really. I realized there is all this literature from the 1950s and the 1960s, and the rationale was the drug lowered ego defences such that you could gain privileged access to the unconscious mind. Especially in the early days, that was the idea – that people on LSD might get spontaneous insights into memories or relationships that are causal of whatever symptoms they have. So that’s how my interest started.
What did that first phase of psychedelic research establish?
Unfortunately, I’d say it established nothing. To establish something, you need a robustly designed study, with outcomes that are valid and replicable. A lot of those ingredients were missing. It was certainly highlighting the unique potential of psychedelics.
How long did that phase of research last for, and why did it stop?
The first English language paper on LSD was in 1950, that was by a couple of Americans. Then the 50s was a busy time, by 54, 55, there were a significant number of papers in the UK, Europe and elsewhere. It peaks around the late 50s. By the time we hit the 1960s, the drug has crossed over and is being used recreationally. So that’s the period of controversy, with negative media reports on LSD, and individuals like Timothy Leary becoming a kind of figurehead, and saying arguably irresponsible things.
I suppose it did have a huge cultural impact.
Yes. One way to look at it is that Timothy Leary’s loud mouth turned a lot of people on to LSD. However, it also turned off the legitimate scientific research.
Can you blame Leary alone?
It would be easy and unfair to blame one individual. People do. But it’s probably unfair. He was stoking the flames. People were saying ‘tread carefully, don’t spoil the party’. And his vision became something other than scientific research, it was about a social and psychological revolution. People were taking LSD without sufficient knowledge of its effects or sufficient caution. So LSD became illegal in 1967, and the illegality made it so much harder to do research.
But there was still some research in the 70s and 80s?
Not really. It’s just barren, in terms of high-end research. In the US and UK it entirely dried up.
When did it restart?
The first modern human study was I think in the mid 1990s, by an American researcher, Rick Strassman. He had a simple study where he gave people DMT (from ayahuasca) intravenously, and he reported on the effects. He had a larger grand theory, that DMT occurs spontaneously in the brain and is responsible for religious experiences. But the study was quite simple. What was odd was he didn’t really do many more studies after this.
But then Franz Vollenweider, who is a Swiss psychiatrist and pharmacologist, started doing research with psilocybin (magic mushrooms), and he did some interesting brain-imaging studies of the effects. People started to consider the potential therapeutic benefits of psychedelics again – there was an early study looking at the impact of psilocybin in OCD. And since then there’s been a psilocybin study for reducing anxiety in terminally ill patients.
Was that Roland Griffiths’ team at Johns Hopkins?
No that was Charles Grob at UCLA, although Roland is doing this too now. However, Roland Griffiths’ big papercame out in 2006, and he reported on giving high doses of psilocybin to healthy, psychedelically naive people, who’d never tripped before, and lo-and-behold, they had the experience of their lives. It was a very clever study, because it communicated to the man in the street, who doesn’t know anything about psychedelics, that these are drugs that can produce experiences that are among the most meaningful in your life, comparable to things like childbirth for example.
Has there been research on using psychedelics to treat alcoholism?
Yes, there is American research on using psilocybin to treat alcoholism. Some people have argued that perhaps the strongest evidence base for psychedelics is for LSD to treat alcohol dependence. There were a number of studies in the 60s, and some of their design wasn’t that bad. Outcome measures were improving. And with alcoholism, you have a more concrete measurement. A meta-analysis of the old research was carried out quite recently, and they looked at those studies which had the most rigorous methodology, and they found that the better-designed studies were showing good efficacy, comparable to the leading treatments today.
When did research start again in the UK?
I went to see David Nutt [former UK government drugs advisor] in 2004 / 2005 [when he would have been 24]. I was finishing my masters in psychoanalysis at Brunel, and wanted to do a PhD. I found a flyer on consciousness research, and contacted somebody who told me about David Nutt and Amanda Fielding at the Beckley Foundation. So I went to see both, and told them that my dream was to do a brain imaging study of LSD, and my hypothesis was that the psychedelic experience is like a REM experience, so you’re dreaming while awake. David said you have to walk before you can run – I didn’t have any experience in neuroscience at that stage – and I ended up doing a PhD on something vaguely related: MDMA, sleep and serotonin.
I still had these ambitions to do a brain imaging study about LSD. Amanda Fielding shared them – she runs a charity that does drug policy work and consciousness research, and after I’d finished my PhD, David said she had money to pay for a brain imaging study of psychedelics. At that point I designed the study of the effects of psilocybin.
Was that the first psychedelic research in the UK for a long time?
Yes it was. I don’t think there had ever been a published study on psilocybin in the UK.
How strange that no one else did a study in all that time.
Yes, it’s tricky to do.
Why were you able to do it?
Because a number of critical ingredients came together, like David Nutt, an established pharmacologist at the top of the tree; and an independent philanthropist funder, because mainstream funders wouldn’t fund it; and then I guess a young researcher who had the energy.
Tell me about the study.
We gave psilocybin intravenously to people, so the effects are almost instantaneous and will last 45 minutes, rather than five hours. Rick Strassman referred to such trips as a ‘businessman’s trip’. Then we did an fMRI scan of their brains. And that’s when we saw a decrease in blood flow to certain parts of the brain. That was a bit of a revelation, as no one had ever shown that before. Some people had shown the opposite. So it was a bit of a head scratcher. We spent a good duration of time checking our results. But then we replicated what we found using a different modality – again an fMRI measure – and we again found drops in the fMRI signal after we infused the drug, in a particular area.
The decreases were in regions of the brain that have very dense connections – they’re like hubs in the network, centres of high interconnectivity. It was these regions that were showing the largest decreases. That got us thinking, when you have decreases in centres of information-integration, what happens to the system. The natural inference was, you’d have a more chaotic system that operates in a less organized and constrained way.
Do you see similar kind of activity during REM sleep?
You see decreased blood-flow in association cortices at least posteriorly, so yes, you seem some correlation. So it’s possible that if these association regions have a constraining influence on other regions in the brain, that you may take the lid off the system and cause some dis-inhibition in other areas. In fact, that’s one of our most recent findings – there are regions that show elevated or at least more erratic activity after psilocybin. And the regions that show the increase in signal amplitude are particular subcortical regions like the hippocampus. And in REM sleep, brain imaging has also found increased activity in the hippocampus and the limbic region.
Which are more associated with memory and emotion?
What’s your hypothesis of what’s happening?
It brings me back full circle to the Freudian model. It’s no coincidence that one of the most common descriptions you associate with psychedelic experience is ego disintegration. When people talk about ego disintegration, it isn’t cliquey Freudians smoking their cigars, it’s psychonaut kids.
So what does that mean at a physical and biological level? The networks that are the strongest candidates for the sense of self and the personality are precisely those that are ‘knocked out’, for want of a better word, under psychedelics. The puzzle is starting to fit quite neatly in my mind. If you’re decreasing the function in this particular network, then I offer the explanation that it’s a correlate of ego disintegration. In a further study using MEG – which measures brain waves – when we looked in one of the regions that showed the marked decrease in oscillatory power, its magnitude correlated positively with a subjective rating scale of ego disintegration (people were asked ‘Did you experience ego disintegration?’ and people answered on a scale from ‘not at all’ to ‘very much’.) Those who rated that very highly also had the biggest decreases in oscillatory power in this region which is part of the self network – the posterior cingulate cortex.
The unconscious that people seem to discover through psychedelic experience – is it closer to the Jungian unconscious than the Freudian model? People don’t seem to go into a savage Freudian jungle where they have sex with their mother and kill their father. It seems more like the Jungian wonderland – a more positive model of the unconscious, where people encounter not just dissolution and monsters, but some bigger cosmic Self.
I agree. Freud’s great merit was his mechanistic approach, he talks about systems – the ego system and the unconscious or id system. However, when he came to describe the quality of what the unconscious is, what you see under psychedelics isn’t really that, as you say it’s more consistent with Jung’s description of the unconscious. It’s tricky, because potentially at low doses, it may be more subtle, interpersonal insights and one’s self and relationships, whereas when the dose is higher, things might start becoming more archetypal, and be more about the history of the human animal.
What are the effects of psychedelics on memory? Freud suggested (like Wordsworth or De Quincey) that we never fully forget anything, experiences are always there in the unconscious. Do psychedelics unlock those memories?
You’ll find this in the literature – there are reports of vivid recollection. You sometimes see age regressions, people go back to being a child. Or they go back to what Stanislav Grof called ‘systems of condensed experience’ – experiences of particular salience and personal importance that the mind will go back to, and which you can sometimes re-live. This tends to happen spontaneously. It may happen when the drug is given orally rather than intravenously. A tricky issue is that when you give psychedelics, people seem to become hyper-suggestible. So there’s the question of whether this spontaneously occurs or if it’s being suggested to them.
Can psychedelic experiences be healing for people, and if so how?
Yes. There are a couple of different models. There is an idea that psychedelics can allow personal insights – if one has a disorder or some symptoms of depression or anxiety, you might experience facilitated insight into the causes of these symptoms. That’s the classic idea of psychedelics to assist psychoanalytic therapy. Other models are more pragmatic – if, under the drugs, you induce a plastic state where people are hyper-suggestible, you might have a window of opportunity where you can address fixed behaviours which probably rest on fixed connections in the brain. For instance, with depression you might have a patient who is stubbornly pessimistic. What if you give them a psychedelic drug where all of a sudden you allow them to think differently and more fluidly. You might be able to start working with their cognitive biases and to get them to question their fixed schema about who they are.
Can you do that sort of CBT approach while someone is tripping?
I don’t think you could do it while someone is in the throes of a profound hallucinogenic experience. But it does loosen people up. What Roland Griffiths says is that often the most important work happens after the experience – it increases openness to new associations.
To what extent do people have spiritual experiences on psychedelics?
The literature is rich in reports of spiritual experiences. In our own work with psilocybin, we haven’t seen it to an impressive extent, maybe because the experience is short-lived, maybe because it’s not our participants’ first time tripping, so it perhaps is less new and revelatory.
You get people like Terrence McKenna who suggest you’re not encountering something within, but also something ‘out there’ – spirits, God etc. I’m interested if people are encountering similar things out there.
Well, there is the collective unconscious, so if they experience similar entities, it might be appealing to a collective aspect of the unconscious which is about entity. Maybe it has a maternal presence. Also the wide eyes that people report around extra-terrestrials – Jung wrote about this, and suggested it might be related to memories of the mother looking down with big eyes. I find that appealing. For a materialist scientist, I don’t believe the theory that people gain access to a metaphysical or spiritual realm, I think what they have access to is the vastness of the human mind, which includes their entire history – which isn’t just human. It’s very easy to become less than objective, to believe that things are really happening, that the walls are breathing…but they’re not.
Still, I wonder if the beauty and healing of those experiences change one’s view of the unconscious – if you open up and let go of control, it can be a positive experience.
That’s probably true. My view of human nature has been changed not just through my limited research but through reading the psychedelic literature. But one thing I would say – when Freud wrote about the unconscious, one thing he emphasized is there’s no right and wrong in the unconscious. That’s why people get the ability to experience contradictory things simultaneously, like heaven and hell.
Have there been any studies of people tripping together?
Yes, I think so, in the fifties. I’d be skeptical of that sort of work, way too many confounds.
Usually people do it collectively – I’m just thinking of the setting of studies now, people on their own in hospitals.
It’s an interesting thought, it’s difficult to know what you’d infer. I recall a study where people are not talking, they’re looking each other, trying to communicate telepathically. And post-experience, they compared notes, and found they weren’t thinking about the same thing at all.
Yes, exactly, it would be interesting to test out whether people’s feeling that their minds somehow get entangled or extended is really true. But I guess mixing psychedelic research with paranormal research might be a step too far for most funders!
There are a lot of people interested in psychedelics within the research realm who are interested in that. They’ll tell you they’re skeptics, but I know they’d be very happy to find evidence of that. Of course, it would be a momentous discovery. My concern is that there’s a very strong potential for a bias around the fact that we get excited by the prospect of a complete paradigm shift. It’s a very seductive possibility, and it can cloud reason.
So it’s still difficult to get government approval for psychedelic research. What would you like to see changed?
It would be nice if they based their policy decisions on scientific evidence, and if they gave that primary consideration rather than secondary. Now they try and fit scientific data into their policies. Also it seems as though it’s relatively unproblematic to have these drugs as Schedule 1 – the idea is that shouldn’t affect research. You need a Home Office license to store and administer these drugs. The reality is these licenses are very expensive. Funders aren’t willing to pay for it. And they take a long time to set up – over a year. And there are more and more controls on the license. Things that should be relatively easy, like transferring a drug from one centre that has a license to another centre that has a license, are incredibly difficult. It’s harming the research. If this is a particularly exciting area of research, with huge potential, then these bureaucratic burdens will hold us back and handicap us.
And what, in a nutshell, is the potential?
To discover exciting things about consciousness and the brain, and to explore a truly novel therapeutic approach.
So do you think there could be psychedelic treatments of things like depression and alcoholism?
If the evidence supports it, it would be unethical not to pursue them.
There was a recent meta-study suggesting there are no harmful impacts from psychedelics. Do you really think that’s true? It doesn’t seem to be in my experience and among my friends.
I’d have to read the paper. I think it’s the same team that did the meta-analysis on LSD and alcoholism. Other meta-analysis which have looked at the potential for harm, and also surveys we’ve run, and also meta-analysis of modern research, suggests that these drugs are certainly not without potential risks. However, the risks of adverse effects are relatively small, especially compared with other drugs. It’s a tricky one, which is difficult to summarise. There are certainly potential harms.
If we think they are dissolving the ego…
You have to ask why the ego is there at all.
And if people resist that dissolution, that might freak people out.
Exactly. That may be what ‘freaking out’ is – if people hold on to their ego while it’s dissolving, that could feel like dying.
In other news:
I did a TED talk yesterday! In Breda, in southern Holland. Look, photographic proof. It will be online in a few weeks, I hope. While there I picked up a copy of this fantastic book, The Inner Game of Tennis. Published in 1972, it seems ahead of its time in its discussion of being ‘in the zone’ and of the two systems of thinking (a la Kahnemann). Great book.
Tomorrow I’m doing another talk at the Heffers classics festival in Cambridge, at 10am.
And this evening you can hear me talk about ecstatic experiences on Radio 3, at 10.45 pm. It’ll be online after that.
Here is a good review of Ronald Dworkin’s new book, about Religion Without God.
Have higher rates in anti-depressant prescriptions led to lower rates of suicide?
Here’s a study suggesting growing up in poverty affects our minds’ ability to regulate emotions (which is obviously a challenge to Stoic philosophy).
DARPA, the US Army’s research centre, has an interesting new project called SUBNETS, to research PTSD through brain-implants that can do ‘deep brain stimulation’. Bet they’re secretly making telepathic super-soldiers!
Here’s a good NYT blog on medicine’s search for meaning, and the role of emotions in healing.
As you know there’s a great event on Stoicism for Everyday Life coming up on November 30. You can see the programme and register here.
Finally, check out this mad account of the violent feud in the heart of the Karimov ruling family in Uzbekistan. It’s like an episode of the Sopranos.
See you next week,
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Well, a post-religious society is not the same as a secular materialist society. The festival I went to was run by Happinez magazine, which caters to the ‘spiritual but not religious / wellness / Mind Body Spirit’ market. That demographic is apparently booming in Holland – Happinez magazine is doing very well, and the festival attracted thousands.
It was held in a disused armoury in the fields outside of Utrecht. You crossed a bridge, passed the barbed wire and cannons, and suddenly you’re in a New Age Disneyland. Initially, the festival seems very Buddhist – you walk through a tunnel lined with Buddha statues, and there’s a Buddha on every stage behind me when I speak. Yet I don’t think many people there would call themselves Buddhist (only 1% of the Dutch population does).
Instead, alongside the forest of Buddhas, you can find many different spiritual philosophies- there is a yoga stage above a lake, there are talks on guardian angels, there is crystal healing, Reiki, astrology, NLP, vegetarianism, aura photography, gong healing. The thinking here is not ‘either / or’ but ‘both / and’. Everything is thrown in together.
It’s easy to criticize the New Age from a Christian perspective, and many Christians do. It’s just a spiritual pick n’ mix buffet, some might say. Maybe so. But if there is a free market in spirituality, that, surely, is a consequence of the Protestant Reformation. It was Luther who challenged the central authority of the Church and turned instead to his own inner conscience. Luther invented the New Age, and no sooner had he done so than a bewildering forest of different churches sprouted (there are now 30,000 Christian denominations).
Another Christian criticism of the New Age is that it’s selfish. It’s obsessed with wellness, happiness, personal flourishing. It ends up in one long pampering session, with scented candles and healing oils. A far cry from St Simeon the Stylite and the other ascetics of Christianity, who understood that this life is a vale of tears and happiness is only possible in the after-life.
And yet…modern Christianity is not so far from the New Age in its focus on health and wellness. Today the fastest-growing denomination in global Christianity is Pentecostalism and neo-Pentecostalism, which arose in the early 20th century in the US, out of a culture that was generally obsessed with wellness and the healing power of the mind. This obsession led to late-19th-century Christian healing movements like Christian Science and the Seventh-Day Adventists (including John Harvey Kellogg, wonderfully depicted in The Road to Wellville), and also to more New Age movements like Mind Cure and New Thought. Pentecostalism, with its belief in hands-on healing, arose around the same time as a similar wellness movement, and has a similarly positive attitude to the body. For all these movements, closeness to God is expected to lead to success, happiness and wellness here on Earth, as well as in the afterlife.
Another Christian criticism of the New Age is that it’s self-absorbed. It’s an expression of Romantic individualism, which began as the philosophy of a few Bohemian intellectuals in the 19th and early 20th centuries before becoming the ruling philosophy of an entire generation in the 1960s. According to this philosophy, life is a search for the ‘real me’, for personal authenticity and creativity, which comes before anything else – family, community, tradition, God.
Yet, again, modern Christianity is not so separate from this wider culture of expressive individualism. It’s also often a search for self-acceptance (through the acceptance of God), an attempt to free oneself from the baggage of the past, to free your creative spirit. Notice to what extent young Christians are into the ‘authentic folk’ of bands like Mumford & Sons, or the Lumineers. It’s a sort of hipster Christianity, all about finding the real, true, creative, fulfilled you. There’s a similar sense that personal experience always trumps rules and written authorities. It’s all about what ‘resonates’.
But there are obvious differences between Christianity and the New Age too. The New Age is much more Romantic about sex, much less uptight about sexual experimentation, sex before marriage, same-sex relationships. It’s also more Romantic about drugs, more hip to the idea that some drugs can induce spiritual or at least creative experiences. It’s more Romantic in its veneration for nature, for environmental justice, for the welfare of other animals. There’s not much concern for animal welfare in the Bible. And it’s more Romantic – more Rousseau-esque – in its rejection of western traditions and veneration of developing-world cultures, whether that be Native American chiefs or Amazonian shamans.
Perhaps the defining characteristic of the New Age is its hatred of authority. This may be a product of the Reformation, but the New Age has taken it to an extreme. Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials is a perfect expression of the New Age spirit – the central Authority of the church is evil, and is opposed by a loose alliance of witches and shamans. Shamanism is particularly popular with New Agers, because it has no organization, no hierarchy, no authorities or even scriptures, nothing to which you must submit your will.
Yet sometimes the naive rejection of western power structures (ie churches) can lead to people becoming even more subjected under new religious movements. Nothing a white European male tells you could possibly be true, yet somehow, if an Indian guru like Osho tells you not to think but to obey his commands unquestioningly, that’s perfectly acceptable.
And the flipside of this Baby-Boomer horror of authority, this refusal to submit your will to any power structures, is loneliness. You are out there on your own, trying to figure everything out for yourself, with no comrades committed to the same path to encourage you on. And this lack of organizational structure perhaps explains the New Age movement’s lack of philanthropy and charitable activity. Any philanthropic activity – like opposing slavery, for example – takes organization. But organization means power structures, and power structures are corrupt.
Perhaps the old Christian criticism that the New Age is a spiritual marketplace is not so far from the truth. The most striking thing about the Happinez festival is the sea of stands selling endless trinkets, candles, crystals, water-purifiers, icons, statues, birth-charts, yoga mats, prayer-beads, weekend retreats. And what are the ‘heroes’ of the New Age – Deepak Chopra, Eckhart Tolle, Anthony Robbins, Rhonda Byrne – if not multi-million-dollar corporations? You can hear the cash-tills ring with each new spiritual insight. The 11 truths of the Celestine Prophecy. Ka-ching! The 12th insight of the Celestine Prophecy. Ka-Ching again! Conversations with God. Ka-ching! Further Conversations with God. Ka-ching again! Keep talking, God, this is a profitable conversation.
One big thing, perhaps, the New Age got right. And that is the sense that there is beauty and wisdom in other spiritual traditions, Christianity does not have a monopoly on God and (shock horror) not all non-Christians are necessarily going to Hell. I know that saying this means I’m not a proper Christian, and yet I find hope in the words of Pope Francis, in his letter to atheists published this week, where he says ‘each of us finds the truth and expresses it from our own history and culture , from the situation in which we live…The truth being ultimately one with love, it requires humility and openness to be sought, welcomed and expressed’. I believe Christ embodied that love, and to follow Christ is to try to love God and one another. That, to me, means some Muslims, Jews, Hindus and atheists might be better followers of Christ than a particularly fulminating Christian.
Nonetheless, the risk of seeing the wisdom in every spiritual tradition is that you end up committing to none of them. The New Age can become like a swingers’ orgy, where you have a fling with everyone but never commit to anyone. As a result, you never reach the intimacy and love that comes from long-term commitment.
And, like at any orgy, you need to be careful who you go home with. The Christian warning against spiritual experimentation and dabbling in the occult might seem particularly paranoid and primitive to us. What’s a bit of Ouija between friends! You only had to look at the assorted peddlers of the occult to realise they were not in possession of great demonic power. Yet let us speculate, for a moment, that we’re not alone in the multiverses, that there are many other beings out there, not all of which necessarily wish us well. If that’s the case, there’s something to be said for being a little careful about who we go home with at the orgy.
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
It’s a pivotal book for my own research – I’m trying to make sense of revelatory experiences, those strange moments when one feels communicated to by some Other, through voices, dreams, visions, intuitions etc. I want to know if we can hold such experiences to critical, rational account, because it seems to me that such experiences can sometimes lead to flourishing, while other times they clearly don’t.
At present, psychiatry more or less entirely pathologises such experiences as ‘psychosis-like symptoms’ and fails to see the positive in them. So it seems to me that western psychology and psychiatry need to return to William James to try to rehabilitate such ‘out-of-the-ordinary experiences’. This is already beginning to happen – this study by a team at KCL led by Emmanuelle Peters, for example, found that such ‘out-of-the-ordinary’ experiences are quite common, and that people who are hospitalised for admitting such experiences typically have a worse outcome than people who find a supportive community like the Hearing Voices Network to help them make sense of and integrate such experiences. Eleanor Longden also has a fascinating story to tell about how she recovered from psychosis by learning to talk calmly to her voices.
James’ work is not perfect by any means but it provides a brilliant platform for a new contemporary exploration of spiritual experience. Let me outline five aspects of his definition of religious experience – four problems with it, and one brilliant aspect of it – before seeing if we can find a more comprehensive definition of spiritual experience.
1) James rightly connects religious experience to the unconscious
This is what I think is really wonderful about James’ approach. It’s where he was a huge inspiration to Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and later religious innovators. He declares that the great revolution of psychology is the discovery of various levels of the self, including ‘whole systems of underground life’ beneath ‘consciousness of the ordinary field’. He says: ‘we cannot, I think, avoid the conclusion that in religion we have a department of human nature with unusually close relations to the trans-marginal or subliminal region.’ That is why so many religious leaders were subject to ‘automatisms’ like trances, visions, voices and hallucinations.
James brilliantly analyses conversion experiences with reference to these unconscious levels of the self. New emotions, new beliefs, new attitudes and habits may build up beneath our everyday consciousness, he says, and then suddenly break out into our consciousness in moments of hot excitement. A new self is born, as our personality coalesces around a new centre. What was merely thought before is now known and felt.
Because such apparently sudden transformations come from the unconscious, it may feel to us as if they come from an external power, something separate and bigger than our conscious everyday self, which we call God. James leaves open the question of whether God is in that broader Self or not. He says: ‘IF THERE BE higher spiritual agencies that can directly touch us, the psychological condition of their doing so MIGHT BE our possession of a subconscious region which alone should yield access to them.’ Some pioneering psychologists, like James, Jung, and Frederick Myers, believed in a higher power or spirit which communicates to us through the unconscious, while others, like Charcot and Freud, didn’t.
It’s interesting to think of conversions in charismatic church services as something akin to electro-shock therapy – they heat up the self, softening its rigid habits through intense emotional excitation, and then zapping it into a new configuration, new habits, a new centre in God. Drug experiences likewise involve a sudden dilation of the self and an opening up to new levels, and they can also involve sudden conversions or switches into new configurations (the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, was saved from alcoholism by a religious vision while on psychedelic drugs).
2) James mistakenly defines religious experience purely in terms of emotions, and disregards beliefs, dogma and daily practice
James defines religion as a series of passionate experiences. His book explores the most emotional moments in the religious life – moments of mystic expansion, dark nights of the soul, blissful moments of conversion and reconciliation to the Divine. He dismisses theology as utterly secondary to these hot moments of religious passion.
The problem with this approach is that emotions always contain beliefs – even if the beliefs are as basic as ‘God loves me’ or ‘things will be OK’. After such moments have passed we are faced with the task of making sense of them, and turning them into a coherent daily practice, which probably involves turning to older authorities (including written authorities like scripture) to try to cobble together some sort of philosophy or theology as a trellis around which the young sapling of our spirituality grows.
Defining religion by focusing entirely on peak (or trough) experiences is like defining marriage by focusing on the experience of falling in love. We should remember that James never himself joined a religion and remained a sort of dilettante in such matters – he’s more interested in religious experiences than the daily religious life. His approach is entirely modern, it seems to me: these days, many of us have occasional spiritual experiences (whether we interpret them as supernatural or natural), but we fail to integrate them into a coherent philosophy or daily practice.
3) James bizarrely defines religious experience as solitary
His definition of religion as the experiences of ‘individual men in their solitude’ betrays ‘an almost comical Protestant bias’, as Wayne Proudfoot puts it. Religion comes from religio, meaning ‘to bind together’, and many of people’s religious experiences are collective experiences – praying for each other, healing each other, singing or dancing together, worshipping together, discussing scripture or philosophy together, and so on. James make the opposite mistake to Emile Durkheim, who focuses entirely on the communal aspects of religion and its function as the glue for social cohesion. Durkheim (and, recently, Jonathan Haidt) ignores the solitary, individualistic and socially disruptive aspect of religious experience, while James ignores the communal, cohesive aspects of religious experience. A better approach would take both aspects into account.
4) James tries to evaluate religious experiences pragmatically, in terms of whether they lead to human flourishing and fit with ‘common sense’. This is interesting but raises problems
James tries to reconcile religion to empirical pragmatism, by looking at its impact on people’s lives. He tries to assess it, in other words, by asking if it leads to human flourishing or not. Does a religious revelation make a person happy and healthy, does it lead to socially useful things like charitable activity, loving community or great art?
He decides that, basically, religious experience does lead to a lot of human flourishing. He highlights all the healing that religious experiences can cause, looking in particular at the Mind Cure moment, which was a big thing at the beginning of the 20th century. He looks at instances of conversion helping people to kick bad habits like addiction He looks at asceticism, how it has helped inspire people to endure hardships. And he looks at how revelatory experiences have inspired people to new heights of charity, expanding our sense of love for our fellow beings and helping to create a more humane world.
He also looks at some of the more poisonous fruit that religious experience can lead to: excesses of asceticism and self-mortification, or excesses of other-worldly devotion to God. He decides that we need, in an Aristotelian sense, to be moderate in our religious passions, and to use our practical discernment or ‘common sense’ to make sense of such experiences and to decide if a message from God / the subliminal Self should be followed or not.
I am broadly in agreement with this pragmatic approach to religious experience. Revelations need to be held to rational account and to social account. The pastor Pete Greig spoke recently of a friend of his who was in a terrible relationship, and then one day in the bath he heard a voice saying he should marry his girlfriend. His friends, including Pete Greig, thought this was clearly a terrible idea, but the guy decided this was a message from God and must be obeyed. The marriage lasted about a year. I also have a friend who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, who hears voices that give him commands, including that he must always walk on the outside of parking meters. We need to be able to hold messages from the Other to account, as they may not be from God.
But there are two problems with this pragmatic approach. Firstly, James is too generous in his assessment of the fruits of religious experience. Religious experience leads to much more poisonous fruits than merely excesses of asceticism – it can lead to violence, demonization of people different to us, pogroms, even genocide. James dismisses this by focusing on individual experiences rather than collective or corporate experiences, and saying blithely that evil things like pogroms are really evils of our tribal nature and shouldn’t be lain at the door of religion. But that lets religion off too lightly. Such evils should be lain at the door of our unconscious – there are dragons down there, as well as treasures, and religions have a historical record of releasing the dragons. Atheist philosophies may also tap into such ‘religious emotions’, such as the millenarian hope for a perfect tomorrow, by the way, and may also inspire people to kill others in pursuit of that utopia.
Secondly, while I broadly agree that we should hold revelations to rational account, it’s also the case that sometimes revelations fly in the face of common sense. For example, James says that one of the fruits of saintliness is a sort of reckless charity that seems stupid at the time but which is vindicated through its salutary effect on human history and culture. How would Jesus’ message hold up to the ‘common sense’ of the time? Or Socrates? The point about revelations is that they are often the eruption of something radically new and scandalous. They don’t necessarily fit with common sense – they may challenge it. As John Wimber, pioneer of the Vineyard church movement, put it: ‘If there is ever a choice between the smart thing to do and the move of the Holy Spirit, I will always land on the side of the Spirit.’
James’ pragmatic approach to religion needs to grapple with Kierkegaard, who pointed to the story of Abraham and Isaac to illustrate the essential irrationality of religious faith. If God told us to kill someone, should we obey Him? I personally think that James is right and Kierkegaard is wrong: Abraham should not have obeyed God. This is not a purely theological question, by the way – people suffering from paranoid psychosis often hear voices telling them to kill other people. We need to find a way to reason with the commands that come from our unconscious self, and not be fundamentalist in our relationship to them.
5) James wrongly tries to separate religious experiences from similar but non-theistic experiences
James defines religious experiences as experiences of man in relation to ‘whatever they consider divine’, and further defines that as a belief in an unseen metaphysical order with which we can have a relationship. However, people have experiences very similar to those he describes – feelings of expansion, awe, wonder, surrender, ecstasy – without believing in an unseen moral order or Almighty Being.
To take five examples of such ‘non-supernatural spiritual experiences’:
a) Art: Jesse Prinz has discussed how art makes him feel ‘wonder’, how he goes on ‘pilgrimages’ to cathedral-like galleries and feels expanded; likewise, Brian Eno has spoken of how music creates a feeling of surrender similar to religious ecstasy; the music journalist Peter Guralnick has brilliantly described soul music as ‘secular ecstasy’. I’ve written about dance music, and the experience of dancing together, as a spiritual experience. Clearly, as Roger Scruton has discussed, art gives us access to emotional experiences which people used to feel mainly through religion.
b) Sex: James tries to dismiss the Freudian suggestion that religious experiences are really sublimated sexual experiences. He counters that religious experiences ‘have nothing to do with’ sex. But that’s clearly not true – just this Sunday I heard a lady at church having an encounter with Jesus that sounded very much like an orgasm. Religious ecstasy is not the same as sexual ecstasy, but they are similar. Our love-lives likewise involve sudden conversions, sudden expansions into new worlds, and ecstatic surrender to the Other. DH Lawrence beautifully described this sort of sudden unfolding into new selves through sexual experience in books like The Rainbow, which for me was a very important book in my nascent spirituality.
c) Nature: James examines moments where people feel close to God in Nature, like Emerson or Thoreau in their forests feeling connected to the Over-Soul. But people can also have intense experiences of awe and wonder in nature without believing in God. Atheists might argue that watching a David Attenborough documentary, or Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, is a spiritual experience, or they might feel a sense of peace and awe while trekking or sailing. Epicureans would say that star-gazing is a sort of spiritual exercise for them, although they were materialists. A lot of the popularity of walking books like Ross MacFarlane’s The Old Ways come from people’s desire for spiritual experiences in nature – whether they believe in God or not.
d) Sport: In discussing the unconscious, James talks about those moments when a player switches from his conscious everyday self to a more unconscious level and ‘the game is played through him’. Modern psychologists would call that flow. It can feel wonderful and spiritual. A famous instance of such a moment is Liliam Thuram scoring two goals in the World Cup Semi-Final, a game he has no memory of playing. The coach of the French team says he was in ‘some mystical state’. More broadly, playing sport and supporting a team gives us a sense of collective endeavour in which we’re lifted out of the individual self and surrender to a collective identity. Playing together, we feel passionately connected to our team-mates. We also go through dark nights of the soul (i.e English football in the last 40 years) and moments of ecstatic deliverance (ie British tennis in the last year).
e) War: As Chris Hedges has written, war is a force that gives us meaning. It’s dark to admit it, but many people find war a spiritual experience – they’re lifted out of their individual self and surrender to a collective identity, they feel passionately fused to their comrades, even mystically connected to them like hunters in a pack. They get a deep sense of heroism and righteousness from their sacrifice. But, like drug experiences, war can also wound us at profound levels of our consciousness, and reset our personalities in new and darker configurations.
f) Drugs: As James explores in the Varieties, drugs take us beyond ordinary consciousness and open doors to deeper levels of consciousness. He says: ‘I know of more than one person who is persuaded that in the nitrous oxide trance we have a genuine metaphysical revelation’, and if he’d lived longer he’d no doubt have written interestingly on psychedelic experiences, as Aldous Huxley would do. As Sam Harris has recently insisted, we may have very ‘spiritual’ experiences on LSD, MDMA, DMT or other drugs, without believing in a higher power or invisible moral order.
So we need to broaden the investigation of such experiences and recognise that one can have spiritual experiences without believing in ‘the Divine’.
6) Towards a better definition of spiritual experience
Here’s my attempt towards a better and more comprehensive definition of spiritual experience, which can incorporate both materialist and animist conceptions.
a) Spiritual experience involves an expansion beyond the confines of ordinary consciousness, into a broader Self, a dilated Self, in which the walls between deeper levels of consciousness become porous.
b) Spirituality typically involves an optimism that, although there are dragons in the unconscious, there are also treasures. The treasures of the unconscious include healing power, imagination, and moral sentiments like wonder, awe and ecstasy. If you’re materialist, you can understand the healing power as being the power of suggestion and hypnosis.
c) Our encounters with these deeper levels of the Self are mediated and shaped by beliefs and culture. Religious traditions, and religious beliefs, practices, art and institutions, are storehouses for explorations of this broader Self, and they shape our experiences in different ways. There are toxic aspects to just about every religious tradition, moments when the dragons of the unconscious take charge and lead to intolerance and violence. Nonetheless, religious traditions can also lead us to the treasures of the unconscious. These traditions are there to be used, like Virgil in the Divine Comedy, as guides to the underworld. But they have to be used skillfully.
d) Our broader Selves are connected to one another, and in moments of spiritual dilation we have a deeper sense of this interconnection with others. You can interpret this connection naturalistically – as a intuitive sympathy that can arise between people (between musicians when improvising or team-mates playing sport for example) – and put forward an evolutionary explanation for it as an adaptation that improved hunting and social bonding. Or you can interpret it in animist terms, as William James or Rupert Sheldrake do: we are connected to one another through non-material networks of sympathetic consciousness, which is why prayer works, and why a prophetic word for one person can come to another person.
Theists would then go one further and say
e) Our broader Selves are connected to God, and draw their power from God, and within our broader Selves is an immortal soul.
At which point of course materialists and animists part company. But there are still many steps on which I hope materialists and animists can agree.
In the meantime, here is a song I wrote a few years back, exploring some of these same questions of the difficulty of knowing if a message from ‘beyond’ is from God, the Devil, aliens, the Unconscious or what-have-you. It’s called Messengers.
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
So you live in a church, your DJ name is Sister Bliss, your first DJ gig was at Heaven, your band is called Faithless, and your hits include ‘God is a DJ’, ‘Reverence’, and ‘Salva Mea’. Clearly Faithless were riffing off the spiritual vibe of dance music in the early 1990s, as were other bands then like the Happy Mondays, Primal Scream, even The Shamen. Dance music back back then seems more spiritual and idealistic than it does now…
I guess people had experiences while out on the nascent club scene and brought them back into the studio with them. All the people I know who were involved in dance music were punters as well, they weren’t divorced from the scene. They’d obviously experienced something special on the dance-floor and were moved by it, emotionally and spiritually. They probably felt more connected to other people than they had before. A lot of people in dance music aren’t so comfortable in the social world or in their own skins. House music was a really embracing place - as one of our lyrics says ‘it’s one house, there’s room for all’. It broke down barriers of class, race, gender. And it came out of a tough political era. Very disillusioned people were seeking some kind of community.
And obviously it coincided with the price of Es coming down. Pills were really the preserve of the New York gay community in the late 80s, and finally found their way over to the UK. Very few people had that experience, then suddenly, Britain was awash with Ecstasy. It became something that everyone could partake in. So the drugs together with the lights, the music and the sense of the illicit turned raves into communal ecstatic experiences where one could forget the self. There was a palpable energy, like I imagine you would get in the middle of a really powerful religious service with the laying on of hands and the talking in tongues. People lost themselves in the music in a really primal, tribal way.
There was also something very pagan about it. I remember going round an anthropology museum in Mexico, and it had all these colourful and densely patterned artifacts from Mayan civilisation, showing dances and human sacrifices, and there were labels under them saying ‘this was made under the influence of mind-altering psychedelics like peyote or mescal’. I thought, they were off it too!
And there was also a more aggressive energy to dance music in the early days. It wasn’t all ‘Peace, Love and Happiness’, it was also about being anti-establishment as well.
Which you get a lot of in, for example, The Prodigy.
Exactly. Dance music was literally outlawed [by the Criminal Justice Bill], so it made people feel like outlaws. There’s nothing more buzzy than feeling a bit subversive.
And for uptight British people of course, it’s important to get out of their heads and their inhibitions.
Yeah, breaking out of the Puritan Reformation.
When you first went clubbing what was it like?
I was addicted to it. It was like something had clicked in my DNA, with the music, with the experience, and the fact it was quite sensory. You know, when you go to see a band, you’re looking at the stage. But at a rave, even in some shitty old warehouse, you’d be immersed in smoke and strobes.
So it’s not just a passive spectator thing.
Exactly. It’s less of a spectator sport. You can lose yourself in the rhythm of the music. This was before electronic music was on the radio, on adverts, before it became the background soundtrack to our lives. Back then it was really alien: drum machines, squelchy synths. It wasn’t a familiar landscape. Another friend of mine discovered electronic music at the same time. This was 1987, I was 17 and had just passed my driving test. I’d drive and she’s read the maps and get us to these warehouse parties. We’d wait around and then get a number, meet at a petrol station. Or you’d pick up a flyer at a record club, or your friends would tell you about parties.
Did you do E?
Of course. I remember the first time - it was extremely exciting and an incredible experience. Jane Bussman and Matthew Collins have written very well on it – almost every page of their books I was like ‘yes, that’s how it was’.
And you were also a vinyl junkie…
Yes. I had this innate belief that I could become a good DJ. I practiced my tits off and drove everyone I lived with mad, but paid them back by getting them on guest lists. I went without food and fags to buy records because I was so passionate about being up on this music. It was about finding the new sound. I’ve always described it as the weekly pilgrimage to the record shop. The record shop was a community. It was a little church where we came to worship the latest shrink-wrapped import from the New York house scene. I’d go to four or five different ones around London – Black Market, Choccy’s Tunes, TRAX, Groove Records and Pure Groove. When I was at college, they used to send me boxes of records up to Birmingham, because there was no decent record store up there. That’s how I first heard of Rollo – they sent me Felix’s Don’t You Want Me, which he’d produced. I didn’t like it at first!
So Faithless grew out of your meeting with Ben Langmaid [now one half of La Roux] in a record store in Archway. He introduced you to Rollo and Maxi.
Yes. You just meet people and talk about music you love. That’s how I started making music. Ben didn’t play an instrument, but the sampler revolution meant it didn’t matter, as long as you had a sampler or an Atari. It undermined the monopoly of the studios, which were wildly expensive, and opened the floodgates. It was a very DIY scene, very egalitarian. I’ve worked with lots of people who can’t play a bloody note. And it wasn’t image-based like so much of pop music. It didn’t matter what you looked like. The punter and the DJ were one. It was much more about the connection with the ordinariness of life. Faithless was a lot about that.
Were you consciously exploring the idea of dance as a secular religion in Faithless? I mean, with songs like Reverence, Salva Mea, God is a DJ and so on. Even your DJ name was quasi-religious – Sister Bliss.
Well, that bit was kind of coincidental. Sister Bliss was the least rude DJ name I could come up with, for my first gig. Rollo had studied philosophy at university, although he only got a 2.2, cos he was busy chasing girls and partying. Then, after Ben brought me down to Rollo’s studio, and we had made a few dance records together, he and I met Maxi through Ben. Maxi was a Buddhist rapper – we’d never met one of them before. So we sat talking in the studio, long into the night, asking him what his philosophy meant to him, and what it meant in everyday life.
Maxi’s a Nichiren Daishonin Buddhist. Nichiren was a 12th-century Japanese monk who came up with his own interpretation of the Buddha Gautama’s ideas. He said the Buddha is present in every one, and we ourselves are the Buddha. All you need to do is call out the Buddha name to raise the Buddhahood inherent within you. The idea that anyone could be a Buddha was a radical idea in Japanese society, where there was a huge hierarchical priesthood. Maxi put a lot of his philosophy into his lyrics. For example, the song Reverence is Maxi’s blueprint for philosophy:
I ain’t a Christian, sometimes I feel like dissin’ ‘em
But listen, I’m just tryin’ to tell you, what I know
If you could, once relax
Chill to the max, these words on wax
Would cause sweet bells to ring in your soul
If I say God is alive I know you wanna know why
Babies die, food don’t grow, why trains smash, planes crash
Situation mash and slam bam your fellow man
Money’s in fashion, huh, it ain’t rational,
Because damn it, he didn’t just give us the planet
And its wealth, deep inside your soul he left a piece of himself
The lord is in here.
Faithless was not purely escapist or mindless hedonism. It was about being fallible and human, and that’s why it’s touched people’s lives. It’s not just about Las Vegas pool parties. Though of course, then there came the era of people worshipping the DJ. There was a cover of Mixmag, it said ‘Sasha: son of God?’. Our song ‘God is a DJ’ was kind of a provocative nod to that, although really, God is a DJ is a metaphor for the beauty inherent in life itself: ‘it’s in minor keys, solutions and remedies, enemies becoming friends, when bitterness ends…. this is my church’.
Faithless quickly evolved into an eight-piece live band, which would play some of the biggest rock festivals in the world – for example, you twice played the main stage at Glastonbury. Did it give you an incredible sense of power to see that enormous Glastonbury crowd bouncing up and down to your songs?
I wouldn’t say it gives you a big sense of power. I think Maxi would say the same: it’s humbling. We’d come off stage and say, I can’t believe it. Ten years ago we couldn’t get arrested, and now we’re playing the main stage and Stevie Wonder’s on after us. We never got over the feeling that we’re fairly ordinary people that love what we do, and believe in what we do…but to feel that you’re among luminaries, and a huge crowd that’s just giving you love…It’s like a tantric energy – they give it to you, and you give it to them. I’ve never had a religious experience, but I imagine that’s as close to religion as it bloody gets. Because you’re seeing the most beautiful and the best part of people. You’re seeing people who have pain, and troubles in everyday life, and they’re feeling unadulterated joy. They’re being the best they can be, and you’re being the best you can be. That’s God-like. It’s beyond ego.
You and Maxi are obviously humble people with good relationships, so you didn’t get lost in that. Do you know musicians who did?
Yes, very much so. We worked a bit with Robbie Williams, who was obviously idolized by millions. He did a load of festivals with us, and used to come and sit in our dressing room. And he’d say ‘God, you guys talk to each other’. It’s like he was so famous that his band couldn’t really connect to him, maybe the management had told them what they could and couldn’t say to Robbie. He was a young man, hugely egotistical in one sense yet utterly crushed by it. And he was so anxious about performing live, despite being brilliant at it. He couldn’t really believe in himself and felt fraudulent. He was just battling with it at all times. Playing live is hugely energising and exhausting simultaneously – you take all that adrenalin off the stage after the show. But then you crash, and need something to keep you going. That’s why some people get mired in drink and drugs, because you’re so fucking high when you come off stage you want that feeling to never end.
But is it dangerous if the crowd is your main source of love?
Yes. You don’t want to depend too much on that adoration. Music fans can be fickle and every band has its day. I had a friend who got into music for different reasons to me. He always dreamt of the love of the crowd. And it’s hollow. I mean, it’s real in the moment, but you need other stuff to sustain you – a philosophy, or faith, or a belief in yourself. If you’re going out there to fill a hole in your soul with love…the hole isn’t going to go away. You can act the big star, then just be a mess the moment you walk off stage. It becomes a rather schizophrenic existence.
What are the imperfections of dance music as a religion?
I’ve never said that dance music is perfect. But there can be a perfection in it, in the moment, when the DJ drops that tune, and the crowd all feel it at the same time, and you get that connection. It’s very special.
But there is a dark side to it too isn’t there? I had quite a few raver friends who messed themselves up on drugs.
Yeah of course. I got really depressed in the late 90s and laid off everything, because I started feeling really paranoid. But I was also working in a scene where there were some quite envious people, and when you start to do well, there’s envy. But of course there’s a dark side – sometimes people make friends, but they’re just disco friendships. They’re not there to support you, they’re there for the good times. I feel blessed that the friends I made in those formative times are still my friends. We made deep loving connections, partly because we had profound shared experiences. There were some epic times that we had carousing, that we all remember very fondly. We share collective memories. I imagine religion feeds on that as well.
Yes, peak moments. Tell me about a favourite peak moment.
Well, I don’t want to talk about them too much. One was The Eclipse in Coventry. My God, what a mess that was. It had the latest licence in the Midlands. You could stay there til 8 or 9 in the morning. I remember they built a replica of Stonehenge on the stage for the summer solstice. We used to make a regular pilgrimage to The Eclipse in a convoy…rave disciples!
Do you think music’s power over us is spiritual and transcendent, or mechanistic? What I mean is, you could see music’s power as mechanical, in that you just work out the mechanical formula to manipulate people’s emotions.
There is some music that is manipulative, for sure. I feel Faithless discovered a structure or arrangement, which we spent ages honing that has become much aped and contrived.
For example, there’s a particular sort of suspense and build-up in Faithless songs.
Yes,that was very much Rollo’s ethos with dance music – that the best records had a real sense of tension and drama, and then a subsequent release. We experimented for ages with our arrangements, and we really listened to the structure of the best records. Then after we had huge global success with ‘Insomnia’, it became a standard blueprint which was copied a lot in a derivative way by lots of producers. There are some very commercial dance records now that are so manipulative. They attempt to do what Faithless did but in a really crass way, without taking you on a journey along the way, and without any lyrical integrity. Rollo said to me ‘You can hear them buying a private jet with these records’. On the surface, it’s very attractive – who wouldn’t want to go to Vegas and get $300,000 for just standing there playing your own music. But the other side of that is, you’re making it lowest common denominator, which we always wanted to avoid.
But your songs had an amazing power over people’s emotions, so there were manipulative in a way…
You’re right, maybe we were just more artful. I like to thing it was less crass. We avoided doing the less obvious and cheesy. I like to think our music was never made with an eye to the charts. It was made for the dance music community, for ourselves and without compromise.
What do you think of contemporary electronic music?
What’s happening now is America has recently got into it. It’s very interesting – one of the most religious societies, and they’re now falling for dance music – which previously they probably would have seen as a black, gay, Satanic music – as passionately as we did in the 1990s. It’s become a massive industry. Contemporaries of mine are making huge sums, like Tiesto, who’s a year older than me, and who’s now making $40 million a year.
Me and Rollo have long discussions about dance music becoming this insane industry. What’s it standing for? Something really vacuous and absolutely not spiritual. It’s about table-service and pool parties in Vegas. It’s become less subversive and counter-cultural, and is now organised into these mega-rave productions, like fun-fairs for children. That’s when the real underground grows stronger, because some people don’t want the Guetta-isation of dance, they want to go to some really mad, unregulated place, some dirty jackin’ warehouse with quality music.
Has dance music lost its soul?
There’s always been the flossy side of dance music. But then if you dig deeper, there are people making more interesting stuff, expressing their actual lives. Like grime, that’s a real counterculture, people expressing and finding a way out of a pretty shit life-situation. But even that changes over time as it becomes more successful, like Dizzee Rascal, who started out as the most antagonistic rapper, then eventually he goes to Calvin Harris and makes the biggest record of his career. Who’s going to knock it?
Do you think, after 25 years of dance music, that we’ve become so familiar to the ‘build up / drop’ dynamic that we’ve become numb to it, so it has to be done in ever larger and more ridiculous proportions, like on a Skrillex song? Music can become worn out, can’t it?
Well, this is where music and technology meet. Suddenly there’s a new plug-in, or a new keyboard will come out. Or someone will make a mistake, which is Brian Eno’s big thing, like someone will play a bassline and it gets put through a keyboard amp. Weird things happen. From those mistakes come a whole new set of techniques. What I love about electronic music is there are no rules. Some people are making really complex busy-sounding music, the whole Complextro scene, while others are going so back to basics that it’s skeletal, like The XX. There are people still seeking, still on a journey. The best dance music is a journey – through technology, through consciousness. There must be something in it – you’ve gone somewhere and arrived somewhere new. At its best takes you on a journey as a person, into love and blissfulness.
Though it could just be you’re getting your thrills from the music rather than from genuine relationships.
Well, Maxi would say it’s about the people you’re with. Your experience will be better if it’s collective than if you’re on your own…unless you’re sitting there with a bucket of pills and your favourite Grooverider tape.
Sister Bliss and Rollo are now working on a new project with the award-winning performance poet, Kate Tempest.
If you enjoyed this, check out this interview I did with James Kennaway, a historian who has explored the history of moral-medical panics around music, from Wagner to heavy metal.
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Anyway, abandoning my usual dour demeanour, I admit that both events were great fun, and encouraging. My sense is that the Positive Psychology / happiness movement is becoming less positivistic (in other words, less dogmatic in its claims to objectivity and scientific truth) and more responsive to the role of philosophy and ethical reasoning in the search for the good life. (On that point, it’s sad that Christopher Peterson, one of the more philosophical voices within Positive Psychology, died this week. Here’s his beautiful last blog post).
I organised a philosophy discussion circle at Dartington – the first time I’ve facilitated one – and I think everyone involved really felt the benefit of that sort of open Socratic inquiry into what the good life means for us. As the Quakers well knew, there’s something very egalitarian and democratic about a discussion circle – there’s no expert or priest or higher authority ‘up there’ while the masses kneel beneath them. Everyone is equally at the front or at the centre. And facilitating a circle discussion seemed to involve letting go of control and letting silences happen – both quite difficult for me!
I also came away from the events hopeful that the Positive Psychology / happiness movement is aware of the risk that, in deifying certain emotional states or personality types as ideal, you pathologise their opposites. If you say that happiness is ideal, there’s a risk that sadness becomes an unacceptable failure. If extroversion is absolutely good, then introversion could be deemed absolutely bad. If optimism is always healthy, then pessimism becomes toxic. That sort of thinking is far too black-and-white, and I believe it actually causes suffering rather than mitigating it, by making introverts or pessimists feel worse about themselves. After all, introverts and pessimists have important social roles to play too, particularly in chronically optimistic short-term societies like ours.
We have many different moods and dispositions, and sometimes the best way to transform the difficult ones is to accept them rather than demonise them. In the words of Rumi, in what I think might be my favourite poem:
Learn the alchemy true human beings know: the moment you accept what troubles you’ve been given, the door opens.
Welcome difficulty as a familiar comrade.
Joke with torment brought by a Friend.
Sorrows are the rags of old clothes and jackets that serve to cover, and then are taken off.
That undressing, and the beautiful naked body underneath, is the sweetness that comes after grief.
I’ve given a lot of talks in the last month or so on the relationship between ancient philosophy and CBT, and often someone in the audience criticises CBT for being shallow, simplistic, mechanistic, capitalist and ‘not dealing with root causes’. Usually such critics are therapists or counsellors in other traditions, annoyed that they didn’t get any public money. My answer is typically that I expect other forms of therapy to get public funding in the future – it’s already happening for approaches like mindfulness therapy – but you can’t expect to get any government funding without a convincing evidence base. Anecdotal case studies by psychologists simply won’t cut it anymore. As Freud proved, they’re too easy to fake.
It is also clear to me, however, that CBT is not for everyone and the research still has a long way to go to work out how to help more people. But what saddens me is that some therapists fail to find anything to celebrate in the government’s new support for talking therapies. Nor do many lay-people see the young national mental health service as something to fight for. The Improved Access for Psychotherapies (IAPT) policy is still very young, and vulnerable (as Paul Burstow MP, former minister for care services, recently emphasised). We shouldn’t assume it will stay in existence without our protection.
Richard Layard, the economist who more than anyone helped get IAPT funding, warned at Dartington that not all allocated funding is coming through and that as much as half of all children’s therapy services are being closed (I’ve asked him for stats to back up that claim). It is a very recent phenomenon for government to take mental illnesses like depression and anxiety seriously. If you believe in talking therapies, not just CBT but any talking therapies, then please support IAPT. I am all for expanding the range of therapies available on the NHS, as long as they are evidence-based.
Meanwhile, one thing that struck me as we discussed various ‘happiness policies’ at Dartington, was how little anyone spoke of adult education. Likewise, not one political party mentioned adult education at their conference. Schools, academies, universities – they’re all in the news constantly. But adult education is completely off the political radar at the moment. Adult education was a central part of the socialist vision for thinkers like RH Tawney. But no one in parliament cares about it now, none think it worth fighting for. At least Action for Happiness is trying to do something for adult education, albeit in a rather informal and unstructured way. It is a noble attempt to spread ideas about the good life and the good society – inspired, I believe, by Richard Layard’s experience of attending a Quaker reading group for many years.
Talking of reviving adult education, we had a seminar at Queen Mary, University of London yesterday evening, in the beautiful Octagon Room, which was once a library for East End workers back in the 19th century when Queen Mary was known as the People’s Palace. We had a great group of participants come and talk about their work – including Philosophy Now, Philosophy In the Pub, Skeptics In the Pub, Pub Psychology, Sapere (a charity that does a lot of work with Philosophy 4 Children), Niki Barbery Bleyleben (good name!) who runs discussion groups for mums, and many others. We videoed the presentations and will put them up soon, along with the report I’m writing on philosophy clubs, and the website, thephilosophyhub.com, which will finally launch next week, I promise!
One of the things I suggest in the report is that the contemporary grassroots philosophy movement is in part a product of the 1960s, and that decade’s radical reformation of academia and demand that it ‘look beyond the campus’ (in the words of the Port Huron Statement). In that spirit, here is a 2008 BBC Radio 4 documentary by Nick Fraser on ‘1968: Philosophy in the streets’, with contributions from philosophers including Simon Critchley and Alain Badiou.
One of the participants at our seminar was Paul Hains, who together with his wife Brigid recently launched the excellent online magazine Aeon. I’m not just saying that because he occasionally sponsors our philosophy club events – the essays it publishes are really very good. Check out this one by Ross Andersen (whose Atlantic articles on philosophy are typically excellent) on dendrochronology and the threats facing the oldest trees in the world
Here, from the Futility Closet blog, is some advice from 1820 on how to fight ‘low spirits’, in a letter from Sidney Smith to Lady Georgiana Morpeth:
Dear Lady Georgiana,
Nobody has suffered more from low spirits than I have done — so I feel for you. 1st. Live as well as you dare. 2nd. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75° or 80°. 3rd. Amusing books. 4th. Short views of human life — not further than dinner or tea. 5th. Be as busy as you can. 6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you. 7th. And of those acquaintances who amuse you. 8th. Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely — they are always worse for dignified concealment. 9th. Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you. 10th. Compare your lot with that of other people. 11th. Don’t expect too much from human life — a sorry business at the best. 12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy, sentimental people, and everything likely to excite feeling or emotion, not ending in active benevolence. 13th. Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree. 14th. Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue. 15th. Make the room where you commonly sit, gay and pleasant. 16th. Struggle by little and little against idleness. 17th. Don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice. 18th. Keep good blazing fires. 19th. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion. 20th. Believe me, dear Lady Georgiana,
Very truly yours,
Did you see the BBC 2 series on the history of the stiff upper lip? It was excellent, and managed to get the history of emotions onto mainstream TV. Well done to my supervisor, Thomas Dixon, for contributing to the programme (he’s now a leading historian of public crying, or a ‘sobbing guru’ as someone put it on Twitter). Check out the blog posts he wrote about the research behind the show.
Talking of stiff upper lips, a fortnight ago I participated in an excellent seminar on Stoicism and CBT at Exeter University. Here’s a blog on Stoicism and its uses today that came out of it – expect some very good posts in the future from some of the seminar participants.
I admire Jenny Hartley and Sarah Turvey of the University of Roehampton for their pioneering work over the last decade on reading groups and book clubs. Their latest project is taking reading groups into prisons. They have expanded the number of such groups from 4 to 30. Great work.
Here’s a BBC radio programme about the fast-developing science of hallucinations.
From 3 Quarks Daily, here’s communitarian philosopher Charles Taylor in an hour-long discussion with Confucian philosopher Tu Weiming, asking if we’re leaving the secular age.
And here’s an essay with Tu Weiming explains why he thinks we’re moving beyond the Enlightenment and philosophy is taking a ‘spiritual turn’.
I’ve had some wonderful emails from people who have read the book over the last fortnight – thank you very much. It means a huge amount to me and makes me feel the hard work is worth it. You can help me in my work by buying the book for yourself or others, spreading the word, or writing a review on Amazon or Good Reads. We finally got an offer from the US (hooray! thanks for your support on that). There’s still a lot of work to be done, so your help in promoting the book is hugely appreciated.
In the meantime, here is a photo of the nominees for this year’s Booker Prize, with Will Self at the back showing how to do book promotion.
See you next week,
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>