A lot of modern technology, particularly social media, is a technology for selfing. This is why we’re so addicted to Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest etc (well, I am anyway). They’re technologies for Selfing. Every post and tweet, we’re making another little carving in the epic construction of our Public Self, then we wait to see how many likes we get.

Great global crises are merely means to the mini-rush of a Like or a Retweet. Hey, that tweet I did about the NHS got five retweets. That carefully-constructed In Memoriam tweet for Robin Williams was a smash. The petition I shared about the Yazidis or whatever got 18 Shares. That video of me pouring ice over myself for Ebola-sufferers got 87 Likes!

All of us, staring at our phones on the Tube, we’re really staring at little pocket mirrors. Does the Public like me? Does it like me when I do this?  How about this? We’re slaves to the Public, just as Plato predicted we would become in liberal democracy. We twist, turn and contort ourselves to win the approval of the thousand-eyed God.

Is there another way? Plato thought that perhaps that we can go beyond the sucking black-hole of the ego, beyond the endless shadow-play of our ego-projections, and turn towards the shining reality of Truth, Beauty & Goodness. Iris Murdoch, the Platonist philosopher and novelist, wrote about this. She called it ‘techniques of unselfing’. The opposite of Selfies, in other words.

Murdoch writes in The Sovereignty of the Good:

The psyche is a historically determined individual relentlessly looking after itself. In some ways it resembles a machine – in order to operate it needs sources of energy, and is predisposed to certain patterns of activity. One of its main pastimes is daydreaming. It is reluctant to face unpleasant realities. Its consciousness is not normally a transparent glass through which it views the world, but a cloud of more or less fantastic reverie designed to protect the psyche from pain….

We are anxiety-ridden animals. Our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, usually self-preoccupied, often falsifying veil which partially conceals our world. Our states of consciousness differ in quality, our fantasies and reveries are not trivial and unimportant, they are profoundly connected with our energies and our ability to choose and act. And if quality of consciousness matters, then anything which alters our consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity and realism is to be connected with virtue.

The most obvious thing in our surroundings which is an occasion for ‘unselfing’ is what is popularly called beauty…I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel.

In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important. And of course this is something which we may do deliberately: give attention to nature in order to clear our minds of selfish care.

When we move from beauty in nature to beauty in art we are already i a more difficult region. A great deal of art, perhaps most art, is actually self-consoling fantasy, and even great art cannot guarantee the quality of its consumer’s consciousness. However, great art exists and is sometimes properly experienced and even a shallow experience of great art can have its effect. Art…affords us a pure delight in the independent existence of what is excellent.

As this excellent essay by two Iranian scholars informs me, we see this process of unselfing taking place at key moments in Murdoch’s novels. In The Bell, for example, Dora is suddenly unselfed in front of a painting in the National Gallery:

220px-TheBellShe marvelled, with a kind of gratitude, that they [the pictures] were all still here, and her heart was filled with love for the pictures, their authority, their marvellous generosity, their splendour. It occurred to her that here at last was something real and something perfect…Here was something which her consciousness could not wretchedly devour, and by making it part of her fantasy make it worthless…the pictures were something real outside herself, which spoke to her kindly yet in sovereign tones, something superior and good whose presence destroyed the dreary, trance-like solipsism of her earlier mood. when the world had seemed to be subjective, it had seemed to be without interest or value. But now there was something else in it after all….

Another great technology for unselfing is listening to other people. Actually listening to them. Attending to them. Not turning them into extras in your ego-fantasy. Becoming alive to their independent reality. Their themness. Novels, I guess, are trying to teach us how to do this, how to be empathetic listeners, how to wake up. Part of becoming an adult, for example, involves waking up to the independent reality of your parents, not just as sources of love, approval and money, but as beings, with feelings, frailties, needs.

Contemplation and prayer is another great technology for unselfing. Check out the Bishop of London talking about it, in very Platonic terms (this is from his brilliant collection of sermons and talks, tree of knowledge, tree of life):

DSC_6273All human beings emerge from an experience of oneness with the source of life, but very early on we set to work subconsciously building a shell for protection and a surface self so that we can negotiate with the world around us. Gradually the experience of oneness with the well-spring of life is lost, a crust forms over our deepest self (a crust of unawareness often described in terms of blindness) and we come to operate more and more from what we have constructed, from the shell, the false self…The effect of this is, in the end, exhaustion and a sense of absence, which we try to full with hectic over-activity.

Spiritual growth at a certain point in life demands a reversal and a progressive diminution of the egotistical false self so that our true selves may be liberated and flourish…The surface self is a barrier between our selves and God: a barrier which in the end prevents growth and interrupts the healthy and energizing exchange of love which is intended to pass between the heart of our being and the heart of God.

Certainly the pain involved in breaking through the crust, which has been so many years in the making, and the peril of journeying to the centre through the zone of the hidden drives and complexes which lies beneath the crust, this pain and peril is inescapable: but beyond lies the promise.

Contemplation, he says, is a guide and a resource on this journey:

I have found that the simple way of prayer taught by John Main, one of the spiritual explorers of our own generation, very helpful in widening the breach [in the crust of the false self]. A period morning and evening in simple contemplation. I was tired of continually instructing God in his duties. Gradually I can see more light which does not come from my own generator but is the uncreated light…Truly, this is a door into a new way of being in the world.

Isn’t that awesome? I’ve also been practicing Main’s prayer-technique for the last three months or so. It’s very similar to Transcendental Meditation – you say a mantra in your mind, and use that to settle your restless consciousness, until it descends to a deeper consciousness, in which you can sometimes rest for a while. It feels great, so it’s not a hassle to do it, you want to do it – your soul is drawn to it, like metal towards a magnet. And maybe it slowly transforms us by taking us beyond the restless grasping ego (too soon to say in my case!)

Main learned the technique from a Hindu guru, Swami Satyananda, though similar techniques have existed in Christianity for centuries (though the Church has often been suspicious of them, alas). You can learn the technique for free, and practice it with others, in any of the many Christian contemplation centres around the UK.


a8aec92a8c05011c8586c08097879003It’s Monday evening, I’m tired after a boozy weekend, it’s dark, cold, and pouring with rain. I do not feel like dancing ecstatically. And yet that is precisely where I am headed: to an ecstatic dance session in a town hall in Islington (where else).

It’s called A Call To Dance, which is a version of something called Five Rhythms. My friend Olly told me about it, he’s a fan of Ecstatic Dance, and hooked into the network. When I told him about my research into ecstatic experiences, he suggested I try it. ‘It’s better than any pill’, he said.

I am somewhat unsure if I’ll fit in. I love dancing, but can’t remember the last time I danced without the aid of alcohol or drugs. I need them to get me out of my head, into ‘the zone’. My usual Clark Kent self is a rather rational, uptight, non-intimate, non-touchy-feely academic. Very ‘heady’, as they say in Brighton. Will I be able to get into the tribal groove, or will I stick out, a fifth wheel, a sixth rhythm, like Mark from Peep Show when he visits Rainbow Rhythms?

There are numerous options for ecstatic dance in north London – I could go to the Saturday night wig-out in a church in Tufnell Park, or this more intimate affair near Angel. I go for the latter.

It’s a big, rather empty hall, ringed by statues of goddesses holding branches. Regulars are arriving, and giving each other loooooooooong hugs. They emerge from the rain wrapped up like antarctic explorers, and strip off to yoga pants and tiny man-shorts. There’s some stretching, some more hugging. One bony old man is already leaping around the floor, like a geriatric jester. Hey nonny no. I stand at the side of the hall, trying to look groovy.

The master of ceremonies is Sue, an American lady who is petite and full of nimble energy. She puts on some music – a slow jazz version of Billie Jean – and the 40 or so ecstatic dancers converge on the floor and start doing their thing. As you can imagine, they are all very expressive, individualist dancers. I have no idea how to dance to a slow jazz version of Billie Jean, so I stand at the back and do the old ‘step to the left, step to the right’.

Expressive individualism, I think to myself. Another ruling philosophy of our time. To hell with structures, dogma, hierarchies. Do your own thing. Get out of your head. Get in touch with your sacral chakra. There’s DH Lawrence, doing some sort of aboriginal dance. There’s Emerson, deep into the Orphic boogaloo.

I’m reminded of Claire Denis’ brilliant film Beau Travail, about the French Foreign Legion. The film explores rigid male power structures, symbolized in the tightly choreographed drills the soldiers do together in the desert. The hero loves the clear boundaries and structures of the Legion. But then he’s chucked out. The last scene is him alone, in a disco. And he suddenly launches into this incredible freeform dance. That’s expressive individualism.

But why am I thinking? Stop being so heady, Jules. Get into it. Am I doing it right? Does anyone ever pick up girls here? What the hell is going on?

Sue the instructress gathers us round in a circle. She walks around the circle quickly, talking in a hypnotic sort of incantation. ‘We will go through five rhythms, which together form a wave. Each rhythm is associated with one part of the body. First we start with ‘flowing’, which is connected to the feet. The feet are the physical key to the conscious state. Then ‘staccato’, connected to the hips. The hips are the physical key to the conscious state. Then ‘chaos’, connected to the spine. Then ‘lyrical’, connected to the hands. Then ‘stillness’, connected to the breath. Sometimes you will dance on your own, sometimes I will invite you to connect with someone else. Go with it’, she smiles, ‘there are no ‘right moves’.’

And we’re off! ‘Connect to your feet, explore with your feet, stay grounded in your feet’. The music gets a bit more lively – a trance beat, building up. It’s fun to dance in my bare feet, feeling the wooden floor beneath me. I feel myself getting into it, though I do wonder about the risks of athlete’s foot. But it’s pleasant. No one cares what I’m doing. Go with it. Let yourself go.

The beat picks up, it’s a good tune. I look around, everyone is into it. I remember how much I enjoyed clubbing, that moment when a good tune comes on and you look around at a dance floor filled with beaming, happy people really loving it, sharing it, enacting it together. How much fun was that?

‘Now move your awareness into your hips. Find someone to connect with and dance together’. Crikey. I am suddenly a sixteen-year-old at a disco, with no idea how to ask someone to dance. Plus you’re not meant to use words here. It’s all non-verbal. My hip-based small-talk is fairly rudimentary. Luckily a Japanese lady is in front of me and we dance for bit. She is a very good dancer and it’s fun, dialoguing through dance. I explain to her that I’m a philosopher, focused particularly on ancient Greek philosophy. I say this with my hips. ‘Now find a way to say goodbye and thank them’. We nod hips and spin off into the mass.

I find myself trancing. It’s like my awareness moves down, spreads out, diffuses, my eyes glaze, the pupils dilate, the mind opens, the critical fire-wall comes down, the autonomic nervous system connects to the music, you can feel it on your skin, in your stomach, in your groin. You are being carried by the music. Your consciousness extends into the tribe, dancing together, coral flowing as the wave goes over it. Expressive collectivism.

Then the dance carries up into the spine. The chaos stage. Kundalini. The music becomes loud, aggressive drumming. Everyone starts to freak out, their spines gyrating and whirling. The elderly geriatric is leaping around like a goat on crack. He keeps whisking past me, making me flinch. It brings me out of the trance. I start thinking again. I feel self-conscious. For some reason, I start to think about ISIS. Is this prancing around a town hall in Islington totally decadent, while ISIS enslaves and beheads its victims? Have we lost our masculine warrior spirit, our grit, our ability to stand up to evil? What would my grandfather make of this?

But, later, I think this: ISIS don’t dance. Radical Islam is Puritan, and Puritans hate dancing, particularly women dancing. Sayid Qutb, one of the founding fathers of radical Islamist thinking, went to America, went to a ‘bop’, and watched in disgust as the men and women slow-danced. When puritanical Islamist groups come to power, one of their first moves is usually to ban dancing, as the Taliban did. They often ban Sufi lodges, like Saudi Arabia did – no ecstatic dancing. Dance is an offence in their puritan regime, too wild, too sensual, too much fun. The only kind of ecstasy ISIS allows is the ecstasy of killing.

Dance is good for us. It lets us trance, in a healthy way. The music, rhythm, and movement interacts with our Autonomic Nervous System, and helps us shake off anxiety and depression, get out of our heads, transcend our little egos, and feel connected to others. Dance lets us do this in a positive, pro-social, loving way – rather than the toxic transcendence of ISIS. And ecstatic dance sessions let us do this without drugs, without booze, without predatory men.

The music slows. The wave subsides into its final phase. A man and woman, who I guess are a couple, dance together, holding each other, but that’s the only physical touch there’s been. We’re all on our own again. It’s a bit melancholy.

We gather in a circle to de-brief. One lady says she loves coming, she goes to a session every day, sometimes even two a day! This is their church, I guess. The church didn’t really allow for ecstatic dance. It banned it, quite early on. St Paul: women should cover their heads and keep quiet. Then the Puritans banned carnival. Then the rationalists did away with church all together.

But the spirit comes back, like a wave. The Pentecostalists reconnected with the body, with dance, they let it shake. And the shaking spread, like molecules vibrating. It spread out of the church through rock and roll, and it also spread through the other denominations, even to stuffy old Anglicanism. I remember a woman I saw at this church in Wales, dancing to the music like a complete hippy. She said she’d had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for several years, and then the Lord had delivered her. Now she danced in worship of him. I am the Lord of the Dance said he.

ISIS will never last, just like Cromwell’s Commonwealth didn’t last, because people’s urge to dance is far stronger than the Puritans’ ability to control it.


***Click on the headline to buy tickets***

This is the second annual Stoicism Today event, and the biggest global event on Stoic philosophy in 2014. It brings together leading experts on Stoicism and its modern relevance. It is part of Stoic Week 2014. The event will explore practical advice for Stoic resilience and flourishing, ancient techniques for transforming the self, and how modern psychotherapy draws on Stoic wisdom.

The event also sees the launch of a new book, ‘Stoicism Today: Selected Writings’, which includes contributions by many of the event’s speakers.


Registration: 10 – 10.30 (Arts Two theatre, Queen Mary, University of London)

Start: 10.30 – 10.45: The Stoic revival (Jules Evans, author of Philosophy for Life, and Patrick Ussher, author of Stoicism Today)

First session: Discovering Stoic wisdom

10.45 – 11.05:  Stoic ethics: how to relate wisely to others (Professor Christopher Gill, Exeter University)

11.05 – 11.25: Stoicism and emotions (Dr John Sellars, KCL, author of Stoicism)

11.25 – 11.35: audience Q&A with Chris and John

11.35 – 11.45 – How Stoicism helped me: two personal accounts

11.45 – 12.00 – break / discussion among audience members: how has Stoicism helped you?

Second session: Putting Stoicism into practice today

12 – 12.20: Stoicism in schools, prisons, the army and business (Jules Evans; Nikki Cameron, HMP Low Moss; Mark Hardie, former Marine, resilience coach; Gill Garrett, author Stoicism for work)

12.20 – 12.30: Stoicism courses online (Donald Robertson, author of Teach Yourself Stoicism)

12.30 – 12.40: The evidence base for Stoic therapy (Tim LeBon, author of Wise Therapy)

12.40 – 1pm Q&A / panel with Jules, Nikki, Mark, Gill, Donald and Tim

Lunch break (1-2): Lunch will be included in the ticket price and provided at the event

Workshops will be repeated, so delegates can choose two.

First workshop session 2-3pm:

Christopher Gill: Stoicism, nature and the environment

Patrick Ussher and Gabriele Galluzzio: Cultivating a wise relationship with technology

Gill Garrett: Stoicism at work

Jules Evans: Lives transformed: personal accounts of Stoic healing

Tim LeBon: Guided Stoic meditation

Donald Robertson: Stoicism and love

John Sellars: Value judgements and how to avoid them

Tea/coffee break: 3-3.30 pm

Second workshop session: 3.30-4.30 pm

The workshops from the first session will be repeated so delegates can visit another workshop

Concluding plenary discussion: 4.30-5.30:

4.30-4.45: Why we need Greek wisdom today (Professor Angie Hobbs)

4-4.45 – 5.30: Concluding panel discussion (Angie Hobbs and the Stoicism Today team)

The pre-event fee is £15, which includes coffee, tea and lunch. The event will cost £20 on the door. We’re not making a profit from this event and none of the speakers are being paid – the ticket price is entirely to cover the overhead costs of the event. 

This is a great event for any fans of Stoicism, or anyone interested in learning about this highly practical and therapeutic ancient philosophy, whose modern devotees include Arianna Huffington, Tom Wolfe, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Elle MacPherson and Adrian Edmondson.

There are lots of reasons to be anxious at the moment: the recession, ISIS, ebola, the rise of far right parties across Europe. But there’s one big reason to be cheerful, and to be proud of UK public policy: mental health.

The UK is leading the way globally in recognizing mental health as a major policy priority. It led the way back in 2007 in making talking therapies available on a mass scale through the NHS, for free. The Improving Access for Psychological Therapies programme is not perfect at all – waiting times are too long, the types of therapy on offer are too narrow – but it’s still so much more than any other country is doing.

And gradually, UK politicians are waking up to the fact that mental illness should be taken just as seriously as physical illness, and that just as much money should be put into it. Mental illness accounts for 28% of the disease burden in this country, but only receives 11% of the NHS budget. That needs to change.

If you look at mental health through the prism of well-being economics, the moral imperative to do more for the mentally ill becomes even more powerful. The impact of mental illness on personal well-being is actually more profound than for many physical illnesses – yet we do far less to tackle problems like depression or anxiety than we do for physical illnesses. We suffer in silence, and hide our mental pain in a way that would be considered perverse if it was physical illness.

I’d highlight three areas where mental health policy is improving at the moment, and three areas where improvement is desperately needed.

Firstly, companies are beginning to take mental well-being seriously – but it’s only just beginning. Human resources departments tend to do one half-day session on ‘resilience’ once a year for their staff, and these sessions could be on anything – they’re not always evidence-based. A lot more could be done, but the momentum is in the right direction.

Secondly, I think British male culture is beginning to change in its attitude to mental illness. Men are slightly less likely to get mental illness than women, but they’re worse at dealing with it, less likely to seek help, and more likely to kill themselves. The reason to be cheerful here is the way male sports are beginning to lead the way in taking mental health seriously – in rugby, football, cycling, tennis, cricket, boxing and other bastions of macho culture, things are changing and sportsmen are becoming ambassadors for a more emotionally intelligent male culture.

Thirdly, community education about mental health is improving – although again, only very gradually. Public Health England recently emphasized how important adult education is to preventing mental illness, but I don’t get a sense that Clinical Commissioning Groups in local authorities really know how to do community education in this area. However, I’m optimistic we will work this out – informal adult education is, in some ways, flourishing in this country, despite the austerity assault on libraries, through groups like the Reader Organization. We need to work out how to link this up better with the NHS.

Three areas where a lot more needs to be done:

Firstly, the understanding and treatment of psychosis, and particularly schizophrenia, still seems woeful to me. This isn’t anyone’s fault necessarily – it’s a very hard condition to treat. All we can do is try and put more money into research, both of new drugs and particularly of talking therapy approaches. We need to be better at treating people when they first have a psychotic episode, because the trauma of being sectioned can really impact their long-term chances. And we need to work out how to help people with psychosis get back into work and community life – at the moment, they are often very marginalized and isolated. They’re the forgotten people of our society, the unpeople.

Secondly, child psychotherapy services could be a lot better. Again, more investment here could save a lot of money further down the road. Teenagers are too often sectioned in adult facilities a long way from their families. And, at the less extreme end of the spectrum, this government still doesn’t know how to teach emotional intelligence in schools. The last ten years have seen education policy in this area go backwards, not forwards. We’ve become more obsessed with winning the ‘global race’ in exams rather than taking care of our young people.

Third, mental health in prisons seems to me an area that could be radically improved. The example of Wormwood Scrubs, where prisoners are locked up in cells on their own for most of the day because of staff shortages, is a particularly dire example. Again, the prison population are unpeople, invisible, off the policy radar.

Finally, I’d suggest the historic neglect of mental health policy is a consequence of materialism. Our ruling philosophy for the last 200 years has, to some extent, ignored the mind, ignored consciousness. The physical is what is real, therefore physical illnesses are given much more attention and money. That’s beginning to change. We’re waking up to the mind, to consciousness, and how it can make life a heaven or a hell.

And as we wake up to consciousness again, we’re also returning to spiritual traditions where there is much wisdom about consciousness and how to heal and transform it. I’m not being hippy here. The two best and most evidence-based approaches for emotional disorders are CBT and mindfulness-CBT, which emerged directly from the ancient philosophies of Stoicism and Buddhism, respectively. We’re also discovering that spiritual experiences through psychedelics can be profoundly healing for mental illness. There’s a paradigm shift happening. This is a reason to be cheerful.

I think the next stage of this paradigm shift could be to connect  taking care of our selves with taking care of our planet. Rediscovering a good relationship with our inner nature is profoundly connected, I suggest, to rediscovering a good relationship with nature as a whole.

At the moment, mental health policy is still quite atomized, individualized and Cartesian. But people are slowly beginning to understand how healthy it is for us to spend time in nature, to rediscover a sense of connection and relationship to nature and to other animals. Stoicism, the source of CBT, made this connection between taking care of one’s inner nature and discovering a connection to Nature as a whole.  We’re beginning to make that connection once again.

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I was obsessed with Twin Peaks when it was first shown in 1990. We all were. Every Sunday after lunch at boarding school, we piled in to the TV room, pushed in the VHS cassette of that week’s episode, waited for the first note of Angelo Badalamenti’s tremolo guitar to sound next to the opening shot of the wren, and that was it, we were in heaven.

We were in love with the actresses, of course, particularly Sherilyn Fenn, but it was more than that. Twin Peaks stretched our teenage sense of reality, introducing us to the idea that there was something beyond ordinary consciousness – a spirit realm, populated by strange and terrifying beings. It was all far weirder, cooler, sexier and scarier than the stiff Victorian religion presented by the school chaplains.

If I had to say, now, why David Lynch’s creations mean so much to me, I’d say it’s because he is a master of trance. He creates out of trance, using Transcendental Meditation to ‘catch the big fish’ from his unconscious. He is peculiarly open and receptive to whatever strange creature comes out of the darkness, be it a giant, a cowboy, a lady in a radiator, even a frozen chicken.  And he is a master at taking the audience into trance states. That’s why we love him. He makes our pupils dilate.

What do I mean by trance states? A good brief definition comes from Dennis Wier, the founder of the Trance Research Foundation and the author of a weird book called The Way of Trance.

51tfjK2nfbL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Wier defines the trance state as an altered state of consciousness in which one’s critical faculties are disabled, one surrenders free will and becomes highly suggestible, one’s mind makes strange associations, and one can feel like one has gone beyond the ordinary self and ordinary reality. He says trance states are usually created by some sort of cognitive loop which works to disable ordinary reasoning, and that the trance is more powerful if it involves some sort of secret or taboo (thus mystic or occult practices are often secret, as one’s mantra is in Transcendental Meditation).

What’s the point of trance states? They feel good, they relax us, they bond us to others and – like dreams – they help us re-connect to aspects of our unconscious that might have become alienated, repressed or cut off. Traditionally, there’s been the idea that trance states connect us to the spirit world and we can draw power and healing from it – the placebo effect is basically healing through trance-suggestion. But trance states are also dangerous, because one’s critical faculties are disabled, one’s free will is surrendered, and violent or repressed parts of one’s unconscious are sometimes let loose.

The art of trance

Our primitive ancestors used to access trance states through magic and psychedelics, then in the West trance states become monopolized by monotheistic religions and priests (‘Thou shalt only trance in church’). Then, around the 17th century, the Enlightenment attempted to wake us up from the trance, to dispel the taboo, to empower our critical faculties. But those of a dreamy disposition – like David Lynch – resented this disenchantment, this loss of trance rituals, and tried to keep them alive in new forms.

Ted Hughes - creativity as self-mesmerism

Ted Hughes fishing the unconscious

Romanticism was one such rearguard action. The Romantic poet portrayed himself or herself as a sort of modern shaman, skillful at controlled dissociation, through meditation, reverie, absorption, drugs and magic. As Robert Graves put it, ‘all true poetry comes from the trance state’. Ted Hughes, like David Lynch, uses the metaphor of fishing for creating from trance: ‘the slightly mesmerized and quite involuntary concentration with which you make out the stirrings of a new poem in your mind’.

And poets were (or are) skilled at creating trance states in the audience, through rhythm, paradox, metaphor, symbolism, incantation, and the magical power of the word. Emily Dickinson said: ‘If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.’

But these days most of us don’t go to poetry to access trance states. Perhaps that’s a symptom of cultural decline – Ted Hughes thought we are losing the capacity for trance, for the intense concentration and absorption it requires.

Maybe. But a more positive way of looking at things is that we have found other, more intense ways of accessing trance states. One way of looking at the 1960s counter-culture , for example, is as a mass exploration of trance states through meditation, psychedelic drugs, and rock & roll. And I think movies in particular have been an important new path to deep trance states. And Twin Peaks also opened the door for mature dream-explorations on TV like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and True Detective.

The Dream-Factory

Now you might say that if Hollywood is the ‘dream-factory’, most of the time the dreams it gives us are pretty shallow. There are big dreams and little dreams. Little dreams are just wish-fulfillment: you win the race, defeat the terrorists, get laid. Little dreams reflect back your ego-fantasies and never really take you beyond them. That’s what most movies do too, and most computer games too for that matter.

Big dreams, by contrast, take you beyond the domination and control fantasies of the ego, and confront you with what is weak, wounded, dark, destructive, shameful and threatening in your self, and help you to confront it rather than run from it or project it onto others. Big dreams are much more disconcerting, destabilizing. But they can also be healing and transformative, because they create a safe place in which we can see this darkness, not be overwhelmed by it, and perhaps re-integrate it into a more mature and realized whole.

under-the-skin.27563The great directors, I would argue, give us big dreams. They are masters of trance, masters at exploring the dream-world. There is a tradition of them, who have learned from each other about how to access the dream-world: Chaplin, the Surrealists, Fellini, Hitchcock, Herzog, Tarkovsky, Kubrick, Spielberg, the Coen Brothers, Miyazaki, and contemporary directors like Darren Aronofsky, Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Glazer.

Lynch is very much in this tradition. I want to look at four directors who particularly influenced his dream-language: the Surrealists (we’ll cover them as a group), Fellini, Hitchcock and Kubrick.

The Surrealists

Back in 1987, the BBC managed to get Lynch to make a mini-history of surrealist film, in which he talked about how cinema “allows the subconscious to speak”, and looked at some of the ways surrealist directors like Man Ray, Cocteau and Hans Richter (Bunuel was noticeably absent) create trance-states in the audience.

The Surrealists were obviously very influenced by Freud’s theory of the unconscious, and their explorations in film are perhaps particularly influenced by his 1919 essay, ‘The Uncanny’, where Freud discusses how Gothic literature creates a dream-like state of unease in the reader, partly through particular devices – phrases that don’t quite make sense, dopplegangers, time-slips, mirrors, inanimate objects like mannequins that seem to become animate, numbers and patterns that seem to have a hidden or occult significance which we can’t quite work out rationally.

These techniques disable our rationality and take us into a waking dream. And Freud thought they have a religious function too – they re-connect us to our animist past, before the spirit-world was disenchanted and expelled to the margins by rationalist modernity.

peaks2Lynch loves how the Surrealists made inanimate objects come eerily to life. Ordinary objects like a mannequin, a curtain, a statue, a telephone, suddenly seem magically animate and capable of transporting us. We see that very much in Lynch’s work too – think of the magical radiators in Eraserhead, or the telephone as occult object in Mulholland Drive, or the curtains and statue of the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks. Even very ordinary objects – coffee, cherry pie – become imbued with a magical significance through the repetition of ritual.

The Surrealists used the grotesque, and sexual violence, as a sort of transgression of the ordinary order, to increase the trance – the famous example is the sliced eyeball at the start of Bunuel and Dali’s Chien Andalou. Lynch is also a master of the grotesque – think of the severed ear in Blue Velvet, or the severed hand in Wild At Heart (this is a pretty full on clip…)

But the Surrealists balance the grotesque violence with humour, often within the same scene, just as Lynch does so skillfully. He says in the BBC documentary: ‘when you work with humour, it’s very tricky because the humour could rip you out of the dream, so this kind of humour is very tender…it really gets in to the subconscious. And because it’s so abstract, it starts triggering things in the unconscious.’

Twin Peaks is full of this type of weird humour – the Log Lady, the decrepit room-service valet, the moment Leland Palmer throws himself on his daughter’s coffin, or the moment when Andy brains himself with a loose plank – and it’s so skillfully done, it usually doesn’t break the spell, it deepens it.


Lynch has said Fellini is one of his favourite directors, he particularly rates 8 1/2 and Roma. In some ways, their worlds are very different – you never feel particularly threatened or uneasy in Fellini’s films – but they are both very skillful at blending the interior / dream-world with the exterior / real-world. There’s never a clunky change of gear. The viewer never feels ‘oh, now we’re in a dream sequence’ – rather, everything is dreamy.

There’s a sort of boyish innocence that both Lynch and Fellini have, an absolute openness to the contents of their unconscious, particularly the sexual contents. Both are, in a way, dirty old men – the same is true of Hitchcock – going over their fantasies, fetishizing certain actresses.

Both Fellini and Lynch are drawn to circuses and burlesques as dream-zones -  they feature in Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet (indeed, Lynch recently launched his own burlesque club in Paris). And at the centre of these burlesque shows is often a slightly grotesque woman dancing in a weird way.  In just about every Fellini film you get a curvaceous dream-woman dancing and writhing -  these figures remind me of the girl in Frank’s crew (in Blue Velvet) who dances on the car bonnet while Jeffrey is being beaten up.

Are these big dancing women just a weird fetish of Fellini’s? Maybe. But I think it also relates to what Freud said about the Uncanny as a reactivation of ancient animist myths. What you get in his films is an archeology, an exploration of layers – he strips off the surface Catholicism of Rome and discovers all these weird cults beneath it. And the big archetypal women are like earth-goddesses from this past – the same is true perhaps of Isabella Rosselini’s character in Blue Velvet.




Hitchcock is another of Lynch’s favourite directors – he particularly likes Rear Window, how it creates a whole world from the little tenement-block. Like Lynch, Hitchcock managed to take the Surrealists’ exploration of the unconscious into the mainstream of mass cinema. He’s much more interested in narrative and suspense that Lynch, who sees narrative really as just a way to keep the conscious mind distracted while the director pulls weird stunts with his other hand.

tumblr_mz2h66y1pU1s5tjego1_1280Hitchcock’s Vertigo (about which I wrote at length here) is particularly skilled at creating a sense of the Uncanny – with its use of dopplegangers, and the way it messes with time to create a sense of repetition, of things ‘happening again’, of ancient curses being repeated over and over ad infinitum. We remember what Wier said – trance is created by loops. Vertigo creates a sense of an infinite loop, as The Shining does, as Twin Peaks does (Laura tells Dale ‘I’ll see you again in 25 years’ – and now, 25 years later, we will have a new series of the show. It is happening again).

And both Hitchcock and Lynch have a sense that, while the outdoors can be scary and threatening, the real darkness, the real evil, exists in the family-home. Hitchcock managed to make the familiar – the 1950s home – utterly unfamiliar, strange and threatening, particularly in Psycho and Shadow of a Doubt, both of which used dream-like shots of the stairs in a family home to unsettle the viewer and give a sense of hidden and incestuous family dynamics – a shot Lynch would repeat in Twin Peaks.




Finally, Lynch has a huge respect for Stanley Kubrick (“most of his films would be in my top ten”), and the respect was mutual – Kubrick showed his crew Eraserhead before making The Shining, to give a sense of the sort of mood he wanted to create. Both of them talked of cinema as a way of going beyond the audience’s rationality and connecting with their pre-rational imagination. Both of them were fascinated by trance states, both their potential for destruction and self-transcendence. Both of them understood the power of music working in combination with moving images to create trance – Kubrick used experimental 20th century classical music (as did Hitchcock, via Bernard Hermann), while Lynch prefers the dreaminess of early 1960s Americana.

mirrors+xThe Shining in particular is a skillful exploration of the Uncanny – it has the weird patterned carpets one finds in Lynch-land (what do the patterns mean?), the mirrors revealing hidden worlds (as mirrors reveal BOB in Twin Peaks), and a father possessed by demons at its centre. It creates a self-contained dream-world, like Twin Peaks or Mulholland Drive, which draws the audience in and, as it were, possesses them. These works possess the audience because they hint at hidden and secret meanings but never explain them. To explain them would dispel the trance. Instead, they create semantic uncertainty which keeps people coming back, over and over, to the Overlook Hotel and the Black Lodge.

Finally, both Kubrick and Lynch have ambivalent imaginations – they are ambivalent about the project of art, and its power to exorcise demons and release us from our destructive trances.

Today, Lynch is a total cheerleader for Transcendental Meditation – it works the first time, it changes everything, all you have to do is say the mantra and you’ll be free of all your demons. But his imagination is much more interesting, ambivalent and pessimistic. Love and goodness do not always win. Dale – the meditating, yoga-practicing bodhisattva – ends up possessed by the demons he tracks down.

Blue Velvet ends with a bird eating an insect -  a symbol of art conquering evil. It’s a symbol referenced at the start of every Twin Peaks episode. But in Blue Velvet, the bird is mechanical, artificial, fake. Is that the only sort of resolution art can offer?