coaching-commons-books-001I’ve been reading a very unusual book about sport, a classic really, called The Inner Game of Tennis, written by Tim Gallwey and published in 1974. I picked it up at a free bookstore in Holland. Two tennis players had recommended it to me as one of the few good books on tennis out there. What I didn’t expect was it would be such a wise book about spirituality.

Gallwey was a very competitive tennis player, who found that his nerves would often interfere with his playing. In a big tournament match, he choked on a very easy volley in front of thousands of spectators, and he writes that he still goes over the shame of that point in his mind.

He somehow managed to win the game, and sat waiting for the next match, trying to gather his thoughts. He thought, ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ He could lose 6-0 6-0. He’d be ashamed for a while, and then life would go back to normal. So ‘what’s the best that could happen?’ He could win 6-0 6-0, then he’d go on to another match, which he’d either win or lose, then life would go back to normal.

Then he asked, ‘what do you really want?’ ‘The answer was quite unexpected. What I really wanted, I realized, was to overcome the nervousness that was preventing me from playing my best. I wanted to overcome the inner obstacle that had plagued me for so much of my life. I wanted to win the inner game.’ He set up himself a new intrinsic goal. He eventually set up a school dedicated to this new approach, called the Inner Game Institute of Tennis.

Tim Gallwey

Tim Gallwey

Gallwey put forward a dual process theory of mind, at least a decade before cognitive psychologists like Daniel Kahnemann did. He suggested there are two selves: Self 1, which is analytical and ego-driven, prone to worrying and ruminating, and Self 2, which is more unconscious, intuitive and physical.

The secret to the Inner Game is to get Self 1 out of the way, to stop being so self-critical and anxious, and simply let your body play the game, without being too outcome-oriented. You can get Self 1 out of the way by training your attention on each point, for example, or on the sound of the ball – giving your Self 1 some activity to keep it busy so it can let Self 2 do the work.

It’s an approach partly inspired by eastern philosophy, and the idea of wu wei, or doing by not trying too hard. Gallwey quotes DT Suzuki’s forward to Zen and the Art of Archery:

As soon as we reflect, deliberate and conceptualize, the original unconsciousness is lost and a thought interferes….Man is a thinking reed but his great works are done when he is not calculating and thinking. ‘Childlikeness’ has to be restored after long years of training in self-forgetfulness.

What, then, is the goal of the Inner Game, if not winning trophies? It is a sort of inner treasure. I’ll quote the entire last page, as it’s unusually beautiful for a sports book!

Out of all the human experiences possible, which does the player of the inner pursue? What do we really want to tune into? What do we really want to see and hear, and what do we really want to do? These are the questions that the player of the inner game finally arrives at, and continues to ask until he has found his answer.

Found what? That which he can love and which gives him complete satisfaction. For only when man is paying attention to something he really loves can he concentrate his mind and find true satisfaction. So the search is on, the search for the goal of the inner game. Players of the game have given many names to this goal. Some call it self-knowledge, some call it soul, others reality. It has been called Peace, Truth, Love, Joy, Beauty, Super-Consciousness, and God, as well as many other names in other cultures. But the name is not important because no one has ever found satisfaction by repeating the name; nor have labels helped people learn where to look or how to find that which the names refer to. Those who have experienced the reality behind the label say that it is beyond names which can be spoken and beyond a beauty which can be described.

When one undertakes the quest for this priceless treasure, when one searches for the secret which is capable of meeting the deepest longing within his heart, then he has truly embarked on the Inner game. At that point, all the inner skills described in this book will be of help, but the player’s most valuable assets will be his sincerity and determination.

My own experience is that the true goal of the Inner Game is to be found within. Nothing outside of ourselves is ever permanent enough or sufficient to satisfy completely, but there is something within every human being that is not mentioned in psychology books. It is not a concept, a belief, or something that can be written in words. It is something real and changeless; its beauty and its value have no limits. It is the very source of all our potential; it is the seed from which our lives grow. It is the origin of every experience we have ever had of love, truth or beauty. Its presence within can be intuited, deducted and read about, and it can be experienced directly.

When one finds one’s way to the direct experience of it, when one can actually meet face to face with the essence of life, then he has achieved the first – but not the final – goal of the Inner Game. When the lighthouse of the home port is in sight, the ship’s radar can be turned off and the navigation aids set aside. What remains is to keep the lighthouse in sight and simply sail toward it.

Gallwey calls this final goal the discovery of Self 3. What a remarkable tennis coach. It sounds like a wonderful technique to create better human beings, though I wonder if it necessarily works for the elite sportsperson, who is of ncessesity very much focused on winning tournaments and climbing the rankings. Think how victory-oriented great sportsmen like Michael Jordan or Rafael Nadal are, how much they hate losing.

When I’ve been teaching philosophy to Saracens, I’ve sometimes raised the idea that the true goal is not just to win trophies but to have a great and rounded life. But then…I’m not a professional sportsperson! And neither was Gallwey. So is this method really appropriate to help train the greyhound of professional sportspeople to chase the mechanical rabbit of victory?

Anyway, here is a video of him at work:

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cirque-du-soleilI attended a seminar on wonder at the Centre for Medical Humanities in Durham last week. This post comes from our discussions there. Thanks to all the participants and to Martyn Evans for a great day.

Although religion is no longer a major force in most people’s lives, with only 15% of British people going to church regularly, we still long for transcendent experiences, for experiences of wonder, awe and ecstasy.

We simply want the emotional experience without any ethical, doctrinal or metaphysical commitments demanded of us. Above all, we insist that such experiences leave our autonomy intact – we don’t want to be sucked in to any ‘cult’, we don’t want to obey any ‘leader’, and we certainly don’t want to kneel to any God.

We desire what Ian Kidd called ‘shallow’ experiences of wonder, which don’t demand that we change our selves, as opposed to ‘deep’ experiences of wonder, which do.

This is a paradox of modern rationalist liberalism – we exist in societies in which self-control is a core virtue, in which we are terrified of appearing out-of-control to other people. Ecstatic experiences, once a central part of human existence, have come to seem embarrassing and even psychotic.

And yet we also long for such experiences. We simply want them on our own terms. We want to be in control of how we lose control, like a sophisticated consumer at an S&M convention.

The Last Tuesday Society: we want to be out of control, but on our own terms

The Last Tuesday Society: we want to be out of control, but on our own terms

There is now a growing ‘experience economy’. As James Wallman writes in his book Stuffocation, consumers are becoming less ‘stuff-focused’, less obsessed with buying things, and more interested in buying experiences.

You can see this emerge in the 1990s, for example in Alex Garland’s The Beach (1996), in which the hero declares:

For mine is a generation that circles the globe and searches for something we haven’t tried before. So never refuse an invitation, never resist the unfamiliar, never fail to be polite and never outstay the welcome. Just keep your mind open and suck in the experience. And if it hurts, you know what? It’s probably worth it.

Like Alex Garland’s hero, we travel the world hungry for new experiences, from ghost-hunting to ayahuasca tourism. We can go to Peru to hire the shaman, or stay in Hackney and the shaman comes to us. 0800 S-H-A-M-A-N. Press 3 for ecstasy.

There is also experience journalism. Its father is Hunter S. Thompson and its flag-bearer is Vice Magazine. Everything comes down to the experience of the journalist. They don’t just interview a celebrity. They interview a celebrity while on acid. They don’t just report on Lebanon. They go paint-balling with Hezbollah.

Techniques of ecstasy

Because of the growing experience economy, there is a desperate search to discover the formulas for ecstasy and wonder. You see that most obviously in drugs, in the search for new chemical formulas to achieve altered states of consciousness.

But you also see it in the arts, with artists searching for new ways to create powerful emotional reactions in their bored and wearied audiences. Hence theatre becomes ‘immersive theatre’, cinema becomes ‘secret cinema’, restaurants become ‘experience restaurants’.

Artists are constantly searching for what Mircea Eliade called the ‘techniques of ecstasy’ – we could also call it the ‘mechanics of wonder’.

Take the evolution of rhythm and blues, rock & roll, and soul in the 50s and 60s. Artists like Ray Charles and Elvis Presley took the ecstatic tropes and techniques of Pentecostal worship – the screams, the hollers, the shaking, the call-and-response, the build-up, the drop – and secularized them. They brought them to a mass audience, including many white middle-class kids who did not go to church – certainly not that kind of church.

Other artists soon followed in their footsteps, eagerly studying each other’s songs for clues as to how to get the audience going. We hear how the musicians at Stax Records, for example, would sit in the studio’s record store, ‘figuring out what was the hit part of a song, pulling that hit part out and developing a whole new sound from it’.

56745233CC109_Sprint_Super_They’d also imitate their performance styles – the Rolling Stones go on tour with Ike and Tina Turner, and Mick Jagger intently studies Tina’s dancing. Soon he’s copying her whirling dervish dance, which she in turn took from Pentecostal church preachers. He also steals moves from Little Richard, James Brown and others. He studies how to create the maximum emotional effect through gesture.

Playing with promises and expectations

Soul music searches for the ‘hook’, the technique of ecstasy. Likewise, rave music searches for the ‘drop’, the way to build up a crowd to a crescendo and then release them into a frenzy. There is a mechanical skill to this, like working out how far to stretch a rubber band before letting it go.

This is the mechanics of transcendence. You set up expectations, and then fulfill the promise. Neuroscientists have found our most intense moment of pleasure in a song is often just before the hook or the drop – it’s our anticipation or expectation of release. As a team of neuroscientists in Montreal put it in a paper in Nature Neuroscience:

The anticipatory phase, set off by temporal cues signaling that a potentially pleasurable auditory sequence is coming, can trigger expectations of euphoric emotional states and create a sense of wanting and reward prediction. This reward is entirely abstract and may involve such factors as suspended expectations and a sense of resolution. Indeed, composers and performers frequently take advantage of such phenomena, and manipulate emotional arousal by violating expectations in certain ways or by delaying the predicted outcome (for example, by inserting unexpected notes or slowing tempo) before the resolution to heighten the motivation for completion.

Sometimes, the longer you delay the fulfillment, the greater the pay-off. The musicologist Leonard Meyer explored this in his book Emotion and Meaning in Music, where he showed how Beethoven flirted with the audience’s expectation of order and resolution, sometimes leaving chord sequences unresolved until the end of pieces. Wagner delays the fulfillment of ecstasy in Tristan and Isolde until the fifth act, leaving the audience weak with delayed gratification.

Or you mess with the audience’s expectations, which creates an emotional shock, even a rage, until the new formula becomes predictable and expected. Think of the discordant chord at the end of Strauss’ Salome, for example, and the outrage it created (it’s 8 minutes 54 seconds in on this clip):

Lou Reed, David Bowie and the Pixies gave pop music new life in the 60s, 70s and 90s by creating songs that both confirmed and defied our expectations of pop – they jar us with the discordant, and then reassure us with the melodic. The Pixies’ ‘Dead’ is the great example of this – harsh, discordant and then suddenly breaking into conventional melody at 1 minute 17 seconds in.

Wonder fatigue

New technology creates new avenues for experiences of ecstasy and wonder – the knowledge of 12th century masons enabled the architectural wonder of Gothic churches, the development of the electric guitar in the 50s enables rock and roll, the development of the synth enables disco and rave, the development of 3D technology enables a renaissance in ‘wonderful’ films like Gravity and Avatar.

But what is new and intense rapidly becomes hackneyed and cliched through repetition. The consumer audience become wearied and unresponsive, like a rubber band that has been stretched and released too often, like a mattress that has been bounced on until the springs break.

There is an inherent capitalist tendency to exhaust any successful formula for wonder: Cirque du Soleil finds a successful approach, so it is rolled out until its eventually running shows at almost every major casino in Las Vegas. Vegas is the ultimate experience economy. It wearies the palette, finally benumbing it.

Contemporary religion can also become part of the experience economy. A priest once said: ‘What happens when the Holy Spirit doesn’t turn up? There is a temptation to fake it.’  Churches come to rely on well-oiled techniques of ecstasy to give their congregation the experiences they desire and pay for, while the faithful start to ‘shop around’ for the best church experience.

Likewise, humanist alternatives can end up providing experiences for the bored metropolitan consumer. They ‘curate’ exquisitely tailored experiences for the discerning metropolitan – with talks, poetry, music, perhaps a bit of philanthropy, food and cocktails for an ‘exclusive crowd of bright and beautiful people’.

Can we go beyond this? If so we’d need to allow ourselves to be changed by these experiences. We’d also need to be willing to sacrifice some of our autonomy, and to make commitments to something beyond the self – whether that be God, a cause, or other people. It also means being prepared to show up when we’re not in the mood, when we’re not feeling bright and beautiful, when we’re feeling weak and ugly.

Our own emotional experiences can’t be the focus – that is the emotivist solution to the loss of religious faith, the solution of GE Moore, Walter Pater and others, and it doesn’t work. If you make your emotional reactions the goal or meaning of life, you end up forcing them, squeezing them, over-monitoring them, and rapidly feel wearied and numb.

The experiences of wonder and ecstasy shouldn’t be the end, but rather an occasional and often unreliable guide towards an end beyond the self. That’s what Rumi is getting at when he writes:

Tear down this house
A hundred new houses can be built
from the transparent yellow carnelian buried beneath
and the only way to get to that
is to do the work of demolishing and then
digging under the foundation…
You have a lease, and you’ve set up a little shop,
where you barely make a living sewing patches
on torn clothing. Yet only a few feet underneath
are two veins pure red and bright gold carnelian.
Take the pickaxe and pry the foundation.
You’ve got to quit this seamstress work.
What does the patch-sewing mean you ask? Eating
and drinking. The heavy cloak of the body
is always getting torn. You patch it with food
and other restless ego satisfactions. Rip up
One board from the shop floor and look deep into
the basement. You’ll see two glints in the dirt.


article-new_ehow_images_a07_lr_kg_learn-prison-800x800Apologies for the lack of newsletters recently – I’ve been in the depths of a project to design and teach a course based on Philosophy for Life. This month, I started teaching it in three organizations – a mental health charity in London called Manor Gardens; Saracens rugby club; and Low Moss prison in Glasgow (via New College Lanarkshire, which runs learning courses there).

Why try the same philosophy course in three such different organizations? Why these three in particular? Why indeed. I have no idea, other than a sense (a faith, really) that ancient philosophies have something to say to all of us, and could usefully be taught in all kinds of contexts – schools, universities, adult education, prisons, armies, hospitals and mental health trusts, armies, companies and online. Might as well start somewhere!

It’s been full-on. Low Moss has been the most intense and time-consuming, partly because I’m teaching two sessions there back-to-back every Friday, which takes a lot of preparation and energy; partly because it’s all the way up in Glasgow; and partly because….well…it’s in a prison, teaching to a group of long-term prisoners inside for serious crimes, so that brings its own challenges. It’s never been scary or threatening, thank God, but there’s just the challenge of ‘is this actually making any difference?’

There isn’t much philosophy happening within British prisons at the moment. I recently met Kirstine Szfiris, who’s doing a PhD on philosophy in prisons at Cambridge, and she tells me the only place it’s happening regularly is at Low Moss – although other prisons have occasional philosophy events or have run courses in the past. There is interest in expanding it to other prisons, and I went to a seminar on that last month.

Three approaches to philosophy in prisons

It became clear there are different ways to try and teach philosophy in prisons. Firstly, you use an idea or a stimulus as a springboard for Socratic discussion, which you allow to go where it wants. This is the Socratic approach of Philosophy for Children (P4C), as used by organizations like Sapere and The Philosophy Foundation. Nikki Cameron more or less uses this approach with her Philosophy Club at Low Moss. The participants seem to really enjoy it.

The other approach is to try and teach particular ideas from ancient philosophies, and then open them up for Socratic discussion. This is what I try and do. For example, I teach some ideas from Stoicism – such as Epictetus’ idea of focusing on what you can control while accepting what you can’t – and tell a real-life story or two of people using that idea today. Then, in the second half of the session, the group discusses this idea as well as what they think of Stoic philosophy in general.

The first approach aims to teach ‘critical thinking skills’. The second approach tries to teach ‘wisdom’. The wisdom approach has been particularly developed by Tim LeBon, author of Wise Therapy, and one of my colleagues on the Stoicism Today project.

Then there is a third approach, which tries to teach ‘wellbeing’ or ‘flourishing’ using purely Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or Positive Psychology. This approach is very popular within prisons – indeed, the Scottish Prison Service spends a lot of money on CBT courses like Constructs and Good Lives.

So three different approaches:

Critical Thinking – leave it entirely open to the prisoners to come to their own conclusions.
Well-being / Flourishing – teach psychological techniques from CBT, without any room for the discussion of values.
Wisdom – teach ideas from ancient philosophy and CBT, and incorporate discussion of values. Allow participants to discuss and disagree.

My approach tries to take a middle-ground between the complete freedom of Socratic enquiry, and the more doctrinaire approach of CBT. It has a more specific normative goal in mind – it believes ancient philosophies have useful things to tell us, things we might not simply discover for ourselves, things it’s worth learning – wisdom, in other words.

However, it doesn’t teach just one particular wisdom tradition, but several of them (Stoicism, Epicureanism, Platonism, Buddhism, Christianity, Daoism). It explores the connections and similarities within these approaches – the core of wisdom that they share – while also exploring their value differences, and allowing participants to disagree and perhaps to reject them all.

The course I’m teaching also explores some of the similarities between ancient philosophies and modern psychology, particularly Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). I believe inmates are far more open to these ideas when they’re presented in the context of ancient philosophy – and when it’s permissible to discuss and reject them. Perhaps they start to feel less like a clockwork orange, and more like a free thinker being encouraged to be the ‘doctor to themselves’, as Cicero put it.

In general, I think this is an advantage that the wisdom approach has over the more strictly psychological ‘well-being’ approach – it treats people as free minds and moral agents who can think for themselves and who may reject your ideas, rather than as thinking machines who simply need to download a better running script. If you let someone criticize and reject your ideas, they are more likely to accept them.

The difference between the ‘critical thinking’ and the ‘wisdom’ approach, then, is that I have less faith in wisdom simply emerging when you put a group of people into a room and get them to talk. From my own experience, when I was very unhappy, I didn’t figure a way out for myself, I benefitted from the wisdom of previous generations – although I didn’t simply swallow that wisdom whole, but chose which bits of it made sense to me.

Which of these three approaches works best? It’s too early to say. The CBT approach is the most scientistic, with more narrowly emotional goals – it’s easier to measure depression than wisdom. However, Sfrizis’ early research suggests that the participants of Nikki’s club at Low Moss say they also learn ‘coping skills’ from studying philosophy. They learn how their perspective can cause their emotions. They become more tolerant of different opinions. All of this is encouraging.

My experience so far, after seven sessions at Low Moss, suggests the following points to me:

1) The idea that participants seem to find most useful is the Stoic idea of focusing on what you can control and not freaking out over the things you can’t control. I think this is also the idea that participants at Saracens and at the mental health charity find most useful. There’s a reason Epictetus repeated this idea over and over, in lecture after lecture – it’s a very simple idea, yet one we constantly forget.

2) It’s also useful to repeat the idea of philosophy as training – we can’t just have a good idea once, we need to repeat it over and over until it becomes a cognitive habit, and then practice it until it becomes a behavioural habit. This emphasis on habits is very important in all the wisdom traditions we study – but it’s not part of the ‘Critical Thinking’ approach (indeed, habit is anathema to free open Socratic enquiry).  I would try and reinforce certain ideas using postcards and art-work around the classroom. The idea of reinforcing good habits would seem like indoctrination to the Critical Thinking approach – I think there is an optimal balance between wisdom / dogma and criticism, and that the Critical Thinking approach leaves people too adrift.

3) There’s a challenge of how to get the course to spill out into the rest of a person’s life, outside of the classroom. For paid participants, you can set them homework or fieldwork to try out each week. In Low Moss prison, they’re not that into ‘homework’! But you can at least try and make sure the prison library stocks books from the wisdom traditions that you’re teaching.

4) Both the ‘wisdom’ approach and the ‘critical thinking’ approach seem to reach the moral goal of helping people see things from others’ perspectives. Yesterday, one participant – a member of the BNP – got really into the Islamic mysticism of Rumi, for example. Racism and religious sectarianism presents quite a challenge to Socratic philosophy within prisons – and there may be times when the discussion can get quite heated – but it seems to be able to meet that challenge over the long-term (with proper classroom management). Getting inmates to think constructively about politics, however, is very hard – they are deeply disenfranchised and conspiracy-theorist. That may be a bridge too far.

5) There is another approach to philosophy in prisons, which is basically ‘faith’. You teach inmates one particular religious path to salvation. This is what the Alpha course does, for example, which runs in prisons around the world. This approach has various advantages (besides any supernatural assistance it might have). Firstly, when inmates leave, they can join a church – that’s a massive advantage over any philosophy or psychology course. Secondly, it teaches one particular ethical approach, which it can reinforce over and over. Thirdly, it involves inmates as mentors, helping each other keep the faith. Fourth, it understands the power of story – both the stories of Moses, Joseph, Christ etc – and the story of the inmate and how they came to be saved.

And finally, it involves transformation at a deep level – it tackles the prisoner’s belief ‘I am a worthless, bad and unlovable criminal and will always be that’. It meets that low status belief with an incredibly high status response – you are the child of God, who loves you, who particularly loves sinners like you. You are an heir to the Kingdom.

Both the ‘Critical Thinking’ and the ‘Wisdom’ approaches have to ask how they can achieve those ends, or whether that’s impossible. In a session I taught yesterday, I discussed Plato’s idea that we have forgotten who we are and need to remember we’re royalty (as it were) and how that idea influenced Christian and Muslim mysticism. But obviously a pluralist wisdom approach can’t be hung solely on such a supernatural hook. Still, I think of St Paul’s idea that knowledge without love is ‘a noisy cymbal’. It really is love that transforms. How do you teach that? How do you pass it on?

All these four approaches are at play in various social institutions and structures today. This is what I and others have called ‘the politics of well-being’, and it really is political. Whose approach will be taken up? Who has a powerful coalition and political backers to get their approach ‘rolled out’?  It’s also economic – who has the funding, who gets the profit? It’s scientific – who has the evidence base? And it’s a lot about egos - whose trade-marked approach gets all the respect and credit?

I feel like an infant in such political matters. I don’t really have grand political plans. At the moment I’m just trying to refine the wisdom approach and perhaps the best way to ‘roll it out’ (in that awful political parlance) is through an online course. In fact, I think the best way to roll it out is just to put it out there and let other practitioners take what they see fit. After all, these are not ‘my’ ideas or ‘my’ approach – these are very old wisdom traditions which belong to everyone. There’s a wise quote that the best way to exert influence is not to seek the credit. As Epictetus put it, do what is in your control and accept the rest as God’s will.


true-detective-S01-about-16x9-1True Detective has an unusual amount of theology for a cop show. The hero, Rustin Cohle, is a fervent atheist, who delivers soliloquies on the meaninglessness of existence as he and his partner drive to the next crime scene. Human consciousness is an ‘evolutionary misstep’, humans are ‘biological puppets’, religion is a consoling ‘fairy tale’ for morons.

Cohle has his own atheist fairy tales, however. He is drawn to Nietzsche’s theory of Eternal Return, according to which time circles round and repeats itself. The baddies he is chasing happen to share this quirky cosmic theory. What are the chances! You can’t move for all the Nietzscheans in Louisiana.

Although it’s unusual for a TV cop show to be so overtly theological (or atheological), True Detective in fact comes from a long tradition of thinking theologically through detective fiction, which stretches back through PD James, Dorothy L. Sayers and Father Roland Knox all the way to GK Chesterton (or, if you want to go back further, to Daniel, the first sleuth in literature).

tumblr_m8hhehHdkY1royoaao1_1280As crime writer Jason Webster recently argued, the detective is a sort of priest-figure for secular modernity. Crucially – and in accordance with the second of Father Knox’ ‘Ten Commandments for Detective Fiction’ – the detective does not rely on divine assistance to solve crimes. Instead, they try to solve the problem of evil and suffering using only their natural attributes of intelligence, empathy and scientific method.

They may also be assisted by the technocratic bureaucracy of the police force – the detective novel arose in the 19th century, side-by-side with the establishment of state police systems. However, detective fiction often shows a sort of Weberian ambivalence towards bureaucracy – it is corrupt or simply an annoying obstacle to the Nietzschean genius of the detective (think Dirty Harry).

Although the detective is a secular priest-substitute, they exhibit many of the features of their predecessor. The detective is often a ‘man of sorrows’, a solitary figure, isolated and driven to the brink of destruction by his passion for truth and justice. He or she has a burning sense that the universe must be intelligible, it must make sense. This transcendental longing is a religious impulse – why should we care so passionately about truth and justice, if the universe is a farrago of atoms?

The detective-priest follows the clues, uncover the crimes, and free the kidnapped victims like Jesus harrowing Hell. They reveal the hidden machinations of the Enemy. They can do this because, like a priest, they know the dark depths of the human heart. GK Chesterton’s Father Brown says a good detective must know the capacity for evil within themselves, within all of us. The detective’s ability to get a confession is also priest-like – although Cohle in True Detective tends to listen sympathetically before leaning over and whispering ‘you should probably kill yourself’.

Rustin Cohle as messianic Man of Sorrows

Rustin Cohle as messianic Man of Sorrows

Above all, as Chesterton wrote, the detective story gives us a religious sense that the landscape of modernity is filled with signs, clues, glimpses of a higher pattern. It becomes a landscape infused with meaning, redeemed from banality and meaninglessness. And yet the code we are deciphering is not God’s, but the murderer’s.

The murderer has taken the place of God. They have – particularly in recent crime dramas – become a sort of Nietzschean myth-maker, creating the legend of themselves, and using their victims as materials.

The pioneer of this idea of the serial killer as myth-maker is Thomas Harris – in Silence of the Lambs, the serial killer literally uses other people as material for his Nietzschean self-construction. Red Dragon has a similar idea of the serial killer authoring themselves, transforming themselves into something new through their acts of violence.

The serial killer as Nietzschean myth-maker in Thomas Harris' Red Dragon

The serial killer as Nietzschean myth-maker in Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon

We also meet the serial killer as myth-maker in David Fincher’s films – John Doe in Se7en uses his victims as materials for his ‘masterpiece’. We see it in David Peace’s Red Riding books, where the murdering paedophiles give themselves mythical identities – the Wolf, the Swan, the King. True Detective clearly owes a lot to Red Riding – it has a similarly layered time structure and sense of the sediment of evil building up over time. And it also involves a paedophile ring with mythical pretensions, who wear animal masks and call themselves things like the Yellow King.

In all of these, the murderer is the artist, the detective a mere literary critic. To solve the crime, they go not to forensics or ballistics, but to the library to read Dante. The author of True Detective used to teach English in academia, and his hero even looks like an academic, with a corduroy jacket and a leather-bound journal.

This is the strange conclusion then – we are so starved of myths and of meaning in secular modernity, that we turn with something like relief to the work of serial killers, to pore over their mythical patterns, like the obsessive amateur sleuth played by Jake Gyllenhall in David Fincher’s Zodiac.

The detective as literary critic

The detective as literary critic

The murderer redeems our world from ennui and triviality. Violence redeems it. Mortality redeems it – think how, in the 24-hour frenzy of narcissism and triviality that is Twitter, each celebrity death, no matter how minor the celebrity, is greeted with awed and mawkish reverence.

Our continued fondness for detective fiction shows we have a nostalgia for evil. There is no such thing as evil in a strictly materialist world-view. There are only various medical pathologies – autism, personality disorder, psychopathology. TS Eliot said ‘all psychology ends either in glands or theology’. In psychiatry it ends in glands. As Nietszche foresaw, once God has died, one can quickly feel a terrible flatness and boredom. That ancient cosmic battle between Good and Evil is revealed to be a neurological puppet-show, nothing more.

We have lost the dignity of sin. Some morbid souls still long for that dignity. One of them was Baudelaire. As TS Eliot perceived, Baudelaire’s attraction to evil is a rejection of naturalism ‘in favour of Heaven and Hell’. Eliot wrote: ‘In…an age of bustle, programmes, platforms, scientific progress, humanitarianism and revolutions which proved nothing, Baudelaire perceived that what really matters is Sin and Redemption…and the possibility of damnation’. Damnation becomes ‘a relief…a form of salvation from the ennui of modern life, because it at last gives some significance to living’.

Lars Von Trier is another morbid soul. The heroine of his new film, Nymphomaniac, insists that her nature is evil, even though she is not religious. Her interviewer asks her: ‘why would you hold onto the least sympathetic concept in religion – the idea of sin – while rejecting the rest of it’?  The answer is because there is a pride and dignity in sin, which medical materialism takes away.

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I’m doing a very brief talk this evening exploring the relationship between Christianity, Stoicism and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. This essay ‘unpacks’ the ideas I’ll speed through this evening. 

As regular readers will know (and might be getting bored of me repeating)  I suffered from a period of depression, social anxiety and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in my late teens and early 20s. These were brought on by a couple of bad LSD trips, which shook the foundations of my identity. I was terrified my emotional problems were chemical-neurological in origin, and therefore there was nothing I could do about it – I’d be permanently damaged for the rest of my life. I was also very ashamed at having messed myself up, so I tried to hide my wounds, and became more and more socially avoidant and distrustful of others. It felt like a personal version of the Fall, except I was hiding from other people rather than God!

I was saved via a near-death experience when I was 21. I fell off a mountain when I was skiing, broke my leg and knocked myself out, and when I came to, I saw a bright white light and felt filled with love and insight. I took four things from this unusual experience;

  • We are deeply loved by God.
  • There is something in us which cannot be harmed or die.
  • My own thoughts were the cause of my suffering. In particular, I was overly-dependent on others’ approval.
  • We should trust in the eternal Kingdom within us rather than desperately needing others’ fleeting approval

This experience radically transformed and healed me. For several weeks, I felt restored to myself, like a child welcomed home after being lost in the darkness. However, the old bad habits of thinking and feeling came back. So I went and did a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), because I thought it would help me habituate these insights, and to some extent it did.

CBT and the importance of beliefs

CBT is a very successful therapy for emotional problems, which you can now get free on the NHS in IAPT centres. It’s based on the idea that what makes us suffer is often our own thoughts and beliefs. The founders of CBT took this idea from Stoic philosophy, although it’s also at the centre of Christianity (and Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and other wisdom traditions).

the-power-of-wordsBoth Stoicism and Christianity tell us that words, beliefs and ideas are extremely powerful – they can either kill us or heal us. We are not simply neuro-chemical machines. We have been given free will and the capacity for reason and wisdom. We construct our experience of the world through our beliefs. Our emotions are connected to our beliefs, and the importance and value we assign to things.

Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher of the first century AD, said: ‘Men are disturbed not by events but by their opinion about events.’ Martin Luther likewise said: ‘a thing has only such meaning and value for a man as he assigns to it in his thought’.

Mind-forged manacles

Thinking unwisely can make us suffer and even kill us. We often cause ourselves suffering by misreading the world, and putting too much emphasis on the wrong things. As the poet William Blake put it, we construct ‘mind-forged manacles’ for ourselves. Luckily we can also de-construct these manacles using God’s wisdom and love.

CBT has identified certain ways that people with depression or anxiety typically misread reality. There’s a longer list here, but some of these ‘cognitive biases’ include:

- The Mind-Reader’s Bias: ‘I just know that person hates me’

- The Fortune-Teller Bias: ‘I’m never going to get married’

- Catastrophizing / generalizing: ‘This party has been a complete disaster’

- Maximizing the blessings in others’ life / minimizing the blessings in yours: ‘Everyone else at church have such successful and organized lives, it’s only me who is really struggling’

- Labeling: ‘I’m terrible at relating to others’

What these biases have in common is they are examples of over-confident, over-dogmatic thinking. Our minds are jumping to conclusions, and insisting that these negative automatic thoughts are definitely and absolutely true. We need to accept the limit of our wisdom – is it possible we don’t know everything, that we can’t read minds or predict the future?

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!

(Job 38, 4: 11)

Focus on what we can control and leave the rest to God / the Logos / the Cosmos

We should focus on what we can control, and trust in God regarding what is beyond our control. Our emotional problems often come from obsessing over external things – health, beauty, money, popularity, love – which are to some extent beyond our control. We also sometimes fail to take responsibility for what is in our control – our own thoughts and beliefs.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

(Serenity Prayer, from the theologian Roland Niebuhr)

This idea is very strong in both Christianity and Stoic philosophy. Epictetus said the key to resilience is knowing the difference between what you control and what you don’t. ‘Focus on what you control and leave the rest to God’, says Epicteus. We can’t expect to control the universe, to ‘give orders to the morning’, as God says to Job.

Only God / Wisdom is eternal. Everything else passes away.

Therefore, we shouldn’t tie our self-worth too strongly to anything external (approval, fame, money, beauty, power), and make a false idol of it, because everything external is subject to change.

A medieval image of the Wheel of Fortune – everything changes except God

‘Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal’(Matthew 6: 19). Wisdom ‘is a treasure unto men that never faileth’ (Book of Solomon 7:14). We should ‘seek her as silver and search for her as hidden treasure’ (Proverbs 2: 4).

Our problems often come about because we feel empty or broken within, so we look to externals for good feelings or for approval. We have forgotten who we are – we’re like kings and queens in exile, begging for money when we have a fortune within us.


We built this house on rock (and roll)

It’s unwise to rely too much on the conditional approval of other people (particularly strangers) compared to the unconditional love of God. Public approval is fickle and often wrong (look how many saints and prophets ended up sentenced to death). Fame is fleeting: ‘our name shall be forgotten in time, and no man shall have our works in remembrance’ (Book of Solomon 2: 4). We should be careful we’re not doing good just to look good to others (Matthew 6:2).

Build your house on rock, not on sand. Trust in the kingdom of heaven, within, rather than building your house on the ever-changing approval of other people.

Wisdom gets stronger through practice

We’re forgetful beings who tend to fall asleep, like the disciples in Gethsemane. That’s why we need to be watchful (gregorios in Greek). There’s a whole tradition of exercises to train ourselves in watchfulness in Orthodox Christianity.

Because we’re forgetful, it helps to repeat and go over certain ideas again and again, to train our minds to remember. Often, ancient wisdom is compacted into brief and easy to remember insights, proverbs, parables: ‘My son, keep my words…write them upon the tablet of thine heart’. (Proverbs 7: 3)

When we repeat an idea or a practice we turn it into a habit and a rule of life.  This idea is very important to the monastic life (they even wear habits!)

Monasticism is all about getting into good habits

We can arm ourselves against our old bad habits with good ideas, good proverbs, good arguments. ‘arm yourself with the same attitude as Christ’ (1 Peter 4: 1), ‘Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist’ (Ephesians 6: 14), Martin Luther: ‘Let us equip ourselves against the accusations of Satan with this and similar passages of Holy Scripture.’

Wisdom can’t just be theoretical, we need to practice in real-life situations: the Greeks called this askesis, which influenced the early Christian idea of asceticism. Thomas a Kempis: ‘For what would it profit us to know the principles of all the philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God?’

We get stronger through askesis or training – that’s partly why we do things like Lent, to develop our strength at resisting bad habits. The best way to strengthen habits is to practice them together and encourage each other. The emphasis on community and communal practice is one way Christianity is much stronger than Stoicism.

Hopefully, then, we can use wisdom to ‘learn contentment’ (Philippians 4: 11), although bad habits may never entirely go away and everyone has bad days – we always have a ‘thorn in the flesh’ (2 Corinthians 12: 7). Finally,

Some things that CBT / Stoicism misses out, but which Christianity (and to some extent Platonism) gets

- The importance of imagination to our psyches – music, stories, art, ritual – and how these can transform our beliefs and our emotions. Many Christian spiritual exercises use the imagination, eg St Loyola’s visualization exercises. Narrative plays a much stronger role in Christian wisdom and in Christians’ identity – although this can be dangerous too (‘I was lost, now I’m saved…so I mustn’t be depressed’).

In Christianity, God is not an abstract intellectual principle but a loving Father (this painting is The Prodigal Son by Charlie Mackesy)

- CBT, being secular and evidence-based, lacks the transformative faith in a loving God or the Kingdom of Heaven within. Why are we valuable and loveable? We just are, according to CBT. It also lacks the idea of divine forgiveness. Guilt is simply ‘irrational’. In that sense, it can be less powerfully transformative than Christianity.

- Plato and the Stoics did believe in God (or the Logos), but their Logos is a cold and impersonal intellectual energy. In Christianity, God suffers too – Jesus is the Logos made flesh. God is not some distant principle – he is a Father who runs to meet us. There is more emphasis on God helping us rather than us helping ourselves.

- CBT encourages evidence-based rational thinking. But what about revelations, dreams, words of prophecy? Even Socrates had an ‘inner voice’ that he took to be God…When should we trust our intuition and when suspect it?

Wormwood: more of an annoying imp than an all-powerful Lord of Darkness

- Christianity suggests that the origin of many of our negative thoughts is the Devil. I’m not sure if this is always a helpful idea for people suffering from emotional disorders. Sometimes the best way to get a negative intrusive thought to go away is to accept it and recognize that it’s just a thought, with no substance or power to hurt you, if you don’t let it. The ‘Devil’ only has the power you give him – more of an annoying junior devil (let’s call him Wormwood) than an all-powerful evil angel. The less you listen to him, the less power he has.

- A big difference between Stoicism and Christianity, as Timothy Keller has explored (in Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering) is that Stoicism is about conquering hope and fear. Christianity is much more about hope – hope that we can pray to God and he will answer our prayers; hope that in the afterlife we will go to heaven with all our loved ones for eternity. Stoics would say they do the right thing for the sake of it, not in expectation of any eternal reward.

- Finally, a major difference between Judeo-Christianity and Greek philosophy is the former’s emphasis on humility and dying to the self. Although there is a lot in Greek philosophy about not trusting in externals, I don’t think there is nearly as much about this idea of dying to the self to be re-born in God – although that idea was strong in the Greek mystery cult of Eleusis and in Sophocles’ tragedy. There is also much more of a contemplative tradition of emptying the mind of thought in Christianity (and Buddhism).

Those are some brief thoughts – what have I got wrong or left out?  Perhaps there is a risk of turning Christianity into ‘therapeutic deism‘, where it becomes all about me and my personal well-being. At the same time, there is a deep tradition in the Bible of respecting and venerating wisdom, and recognizing that wisdom brings healing. The Logos, the Word, heals and gives life. 

But why did we become mentally ill?  We can’t always know why mental illness happened to us – there is probably a genetic component, it’s something weaved into the story of our family, perhaps for generations. But we can learn from our struggles and others can benefit from our experience. That’s something we can try to leave behind to those who come after us. Archbishop Justin Welby said last week: ‘Dealing with mental illness is a heroic struggle, and that makes one of my eldest daughters one of my heroes’. Carl Jung and Henri Nouwen both talked about the ‘wounded healer’ – sometimes in the darkness we can find the treasure, the gift, which can help to heal others as well.

Suggested further reading (for me!): Henri Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society.