20091102+Nancy+Sherman_0018Professor Nancy Sherman has worked with the US military for over 20 years, and has written several books on military ethics, including Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind; and The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds and Souls of Our Soldiers.

How did you come to teach philosophy in the military?

Through a crisis on their part. The US Naval Academy had a cheating scandal. Back, in the 1990s, 130 electrical engineering midshipmen were implicated in cheating on a major exam. They seemed to have got it in advance. These individuals were all brought before various kinds of honour boards, and as part of the ‘moral remediation’ they wanted an ethicist onboard. That was me. After two weeks they asked me to set up an ethics course. One thing led to another, and eventually I was selected as the inaugural distinguished chair of ethics at the Naval Academy.

How did you find teaching in the military?

My dad was a WWII vet, didn’t talk about it much. I was a child of the 60s, many of my friends were conscientious objectors. Now, I was in a place where there were marines and officers who had fought on the Mekong Delta. It was an eye-opener, to see the other side of a conflict that was very formative for me. I hadn’t really met my peers who had served. I learned a lot from them.

1897893_762289500447958_1645314971_nThe Naval Academy is a different sort of university. It’s uniformed. Everyone is Ma’aming and Sir-ing. They’re trying to figure out what rank you are. They were used to a very hierarchical universe. And a lot of Navy people are engineer-focused. They want bottom lines. Discussions without clear endings, or deliberative questions without easy right and wrongs, shades of grey, all of that was not something they were comfortable with.

But you discovered they have a natural interest in Stoic philosophy.

Yes. The course took them through deliberative models and major ethical theories – Aristotle, emotions, deliberation and habits; Kant and universalizability; Mill and Bentham, and notions of maximizing utility. When we got to Stoicism – Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius – they felt ‘this is the stuff I know: suck it up, truck on, externals mean nothing to me. I can’t get back for my wedding because I’m on a ship, well, it’s beyond my control.’

One of the greatest officers in their midst was Admiral James Bond Stockdale. He’d endured seven years in the Hanoi Hilton [the north Vietnamese prison], two of them in leg-irons. He’d been given a little copy of Epictetus when studying at Stanford. He committed it to memory and it became his salvation. That’s a well-known story in the military.

You met and interviewed Stockdale several times. What was he like?

He had a kind of James Cagney voice. And you couldn’t tell when it was him talking or when he was quoting Epictetus. It was seamless. You sometimes thought you’re in front of an impersonator. He had a noticeable limp in his left leg, from when his plane crashed in Vietnam, and Epictetus also had a limp in his left leg. So there was a physical kinship and perhaps a spiritual kinship too.

Are the Stoics widely read in the US military? I came across quite a few Stoic soldiers when researching my book, particularly in the Green Berets – I didn’t come across any in the British military.

The Roman Stoics are read by officers and commanders, not so much by enlisted men. How they come to it is an interesting question. I think in the Marines and Navy, probably through Stockdale’s influence on the curriculum – he was head of the Naval War College on Rhode Island. Also these are popular writers, easy to read. Everyone understands stoic with a little s.

How useful or appropriate is Stoicism for soldiers?

51h1oiS7REL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_It has curses and blessings. It fits an idealized model of invincibility, of external goods not mattering. I can expand the perimeter of my agency so that the only thing that matters is what I can control – namely my virtue. It meshes with what we know to be pretty natural responses to constant threat. As Stockdale once put it, you’re ‘as cagey a Stoic as you can be’. He was a cagey sage with his captors – this won’t touch me, this won’t affect me.

With that goes the notion that your emotions can be fully controlled and you can turn them off, essentially. Anything your emotions attach to in sticky and graspy ways is dangerous, because they can destabilize you, they can make you mourn and grieve. So there’s the idea of not missing something – a cigarette, your child, your spouse, or your buddy who gets blown up next to you. It’s useful armour. That’s the blessing.

The curse is it can be a way of not feeling, or as a lot of soldiers tell me, you feel ‘dead to the world’ – they can’t feel anymore. And that’s awful. You come home and you have this gorgeous child, and a family you want to adore, and you can’t even feel joy because you’ve turned off your emotions in certain ways. That is an absolute curse.

The Stoics were giving salvation for tough times. It’s a great philosophy for tough times, I’m not sure it’s a great philosophy for everyday living. It’s always good to feel more in control, but it’s not good to think that luck and the vicissitudes of the world can’t touch you or that you can’t show moral outrage, love, grief, and so on.

Do some soldiers manage to put on and take off that Stoic armour?

No, that’s really hard. This is a question about ‘resilience’ – the million-dollar-word in the military right now. The idea of resilience is you can bounce back. We have 2.4 million soldiers coming home from war. They can’t bounce back on their own. They can’t bounce back just with their families. They need a community that gets it. They need to know that we’re not just saying ‘thank you for your service’. They need enormous amounts of trust, hope, medical attention. Above all they need emotional connection.

There’s an idea in Stoicism that your loyalty to the Logos, to the ‘City of God’, comes before your loyalty to the state. The Stoics were quite individualistic, probably not great team-players. How does that fit in with the very strong collective or conformist ethos of the military? What if you’re asked to do something that doesn’t fit with your virtue?

The best service-member will never check their conscience at the door. It will be with them all the time. That’s not just Stoic. That’s any moral philosophy – you do the right thing. Your virtue is your guide. If you have an officer, a commander, who is giving you unlawful, immoral, bad advice, and it’s even part of a system – of torture for example – the moral individual will question that, whatever philosophy they have.

Major Ian Fishback

Major Ian Fishback

One of my friends is Ian Fishback, he now teaches at Westpoint and is going to do a Phd in philosophy at Michigan. He’s a special forces major. He served eight years or so in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was at Abu Ghraib and didn’t like what he saw there. He wrote at least 50 letters to command about what was going on. He got no answers. He finally wrote to Senator John McCain, who’d been a POW with Jim Stockdale, and said ‘this is what I’m seeing’. He went public. He blew the whistle. And from that came a referendum that was put before congress. To know Ian is to know that he is thoughtful. He is conscientious.

To be in the military is hard for the thinking soldier. All the people I work closely with, all my PhD students from the military – they have to accept some of the absurd of a career in the military, but you can’t accept some of the missions. You pick your battles. And it may be a career-ender. You face the possibility that you’re not going to be a yes-man.

How well is the military coping with PTSD at the moment? How big a problem is it?

the-untold-war-inside-the-hearts-minds-and-souls-of-our-soldiersWe don’t really know the numbers, but some say there’s maybe 30% incidence of PTSD in soldiers coming home. It’s a central issue which the Americans are taking on in various ways. The Pentagon, and in particular General Peter Chiarelli, wants to drop the D from PTSD. They argue it’s not a disorder, it’s an injury with an external cause. They want to destigmatize it.

Secondly, there’s vast efforts to deal with the suicide peak – for the first time in record-keeping, the rate of suicide in the military exceeds the comparable rate for young male civilians. It’s not always after multiple deployments. Often the precipitating factors have to do with coming home, with difficult family relationships at home. It’s very complex. Some would like to find a ‘biomarker’ for suicidal tendencies.

There aren’t enough mental health workers, that’s pretty clear. And there’s still stigma, still a sense that it’s weak not to be able to handle losing your buddy.

Also, traumatic stress has a moral dimension, often. It’s not just a fear symptom. It’s also that you keep going back to the situation and thinking ‘I should have done that, I wasn’t good enough, I let someone down’. It’s complicated what morality is in the complex of war. You’re in a lethality and violence-soaked environment, increasingly in population-centric environments. There’s a lot of grey area – who’s the enemy, are they a voluntary or involuntary human-shield, and so on.

I read the military isn’t doing a great job at keeping track of what treatments for PTSD actually work.

Well, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy seems to be the leader. But you’re talking about populations that are heavily medicated, on sleeping pills, on anxiety pills, on pain-killers. And that affects their ability to change their thinking.

What do you think of Martin Seligman’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness programme [ a $180 million programme introduced in 2010 to teach resilient-thinking skills to all service-members, to try and prevent PTSD occurrence]?

This was introduced in 2009 / 2010 when the suicide rate was going up. They needed something fast. As one army psychiatrist said to me, they expected broken bodies, they didn’t expect broken minds. I think Seligman’s work has been shown to be effective in populations of children in tough neighbourhoods. He had not done previous work with combat lethality-saturated environments.

Emotional intelligence is a great thing, being able to talk about things soldiers don’t typically talk about is great. You need forums, you need lots of time. My understanding is you get two hours training twice a year when you’re not deployed. That’s not a lot.

Some military psychiatrists worry that the programme could further stigmatize those who still develop PTSD. If you’ve gone through the preventative programme and you still can’t sleep at night, you’re still racked by guilt, you may feel even worse. Prevention is one thing, but you can’t further stigmatize those who are traumatized. Still, I applaud the armed forces for realizing that mental health is critical for soldiers’ health.

You still work with soldiers now?

I have a lot of veterans enrolled in my classes in Georgetown. I’ve been working with soldiers for 20 years now. They’re my buddies. Next year I have a book coming out about soldiers coming home, called Making Peace with War: Healing the Moral Wounds of our Soldiers, which involved a lot of long interviews with soldiers. My heart goes out to folks who are trying to morally process really complicated issues.

To go back to the beginning, you initially started work with the military because of an ethical crisis, which they thought could be solved with an ethics course. Do you think ethics courses really do improve people’s ethical behaviour?

I think these courses have enormous value. Not when they have sets of right or wrong answers, but when you have small enough groups where you can have discussions. Finding time to think, when you’re not on the spot, is really powerful. It goes into the unconscious and is part of your reserves for hard times.

If you’re interested in the application of Stoicism in modern life, including the military, come to the Stoicism Today event on November 29 at Queen Mary, University of London.


18870514Sam Harris, the second-most-famous atheist in the world, is an unusual sort of atheist. On the one hand, he’s a neuroscientist who reveres the scientific method and despises the superstitious dogma of religion – so far, so normal. On the other hand, he’s spent many years meditating in spiritual retreats in Asia, and taken a lot of mind-expanding drugs, all of which has convinced him that at the core of spiritual experiences are important truths about human consciousness.

His new book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, insists that spirituality ‘remains the great hole in secularism, humanism, rationalism and atheism’. Scientific accounts of spiritual experiences tend either to reduce them to pathologies or to compare them to the mild awe we might feel looking at a sunset. As a result, people who have ego-shattering spiritual experiences can only find a positive explanation in the dogma of organized religions or in New Age quackery. Therefore rationalists – and the world at large – needs a better science of spiritual experiences.

Spiritual experiences, he says, tell us ‘empirical facts’ about human consciousness. Harris thinks he has come across two such facts. Firstly, an experience on MDMA in his twenties gave him a sense of ‘boundless love’ for all beings – something many mystics and contemplatives have felt. Secondly, he has had glimpses of the non-existence of self, particularly through the Tibetan teaching of Dzogchen. If the illusion of self is the cause of all our suffering and restlessness, then the blissful experience of non-self is the solution to our problems. And we can get this experience without signing up to any supernatural dogma.

The best insight in Harris’ enjoyable book is this: everything we do is for conscious states, particularly for the conscious state of happiness, joy and bliss. Yet we go about seeking these conscious states in foolish and roundabout ways – striving for money, power, endless sensual gratification. These bring us little hits of pleasure and comfort, but they always have to be topped up, and often bring suffering in their wake (not to mention environmental devastation).

What the great contemplatives have discovered is that bliss is available right here, right now, in our minds, for free. There is an incredible renewable source of happiness in our minds, which we ignore in favour of toxic external substitutes. This is what the mystics mean when they talk in parables about forgotten inheritances, buried treasure, secret gardens, kingdoms within and so forth.

Harris thinks Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta most clearly express this core experience of the non-existence of self. Yes, there is still some supernatural woowoo in these traditions, but the empirical insights can easily be detached from any silly stories, unlike in Christianity, Judaism or Islam.

He admits that some contemplatives in the Abrahamic faiths also discovered inner bliss and the non-existence of self, like Meister Eckhart, Jalal ad-Din Rumi or Thomas Traherne. But such mystics tended to be on the fringes of their religion, and were often imprisoned, excommunicated or murdered for their insights.

In fact, the Abrahamic faiths are a positive ‘impediment’ to spiritual insight, because they insist on the existence of a separate self which will be judged by a terrifying God for eternity. Western culture in general is embarrassingly ignorant of the interior world. We must humbly turn east, and find a Buddhist or Advaita guru to teach us. Harris warns, however, of the danger of seeing gurus as perfect, and is amusing about the grotesque moral failings of teachers like Osho, who owned 95 Rolls Royces, drugged prospective funders with Ecstasy, and ‘demanded fellatio at forty-five minute intervals’.

His denigration of western contemplative wisdom is somewhat harsh. There is no mention of Greek philosophy as an guide to transforming consciousness, although modern cognitive behavioural therapy was inspired by it. There is no mention of Plato’s sublime guides to waking up from the trance of unconsciousness, or his influence on later mystics like Augustine, Rumi and Ficino. There is no mention of the rich contemplative tradition in Orthodox Christianity. There is no sense that Christian compassion was an influence on the evolution of democracy, which flourished in the West and not in the East. There is no sense that the Christian path is all about dying to the self and opening to a deeper spiritual reality.

There is no hint that we might be so incredibly ignorant of the interior world in the west partly because of the one thing Harris most celebrates: the rise of western science and industrialism, and the decline of Christianity. Did not this turn our gaze from the ‘kingdom within’ described by Christ, and instead make us look for our gratification in the material world, at enormous emotional and environmental cost?

There is no mention of the arts as a means to spiritual experience. We get several pages exploring the bicameral theory of the brain, and not a word about three millennia of the arts. That’s a fairly stark omission in a guide to spirituality. But Harris, the son of a Quaker, is an ultra-Puritan – he just wants ‘facts’, shorn of any ‘stories’. There is no interest in how stories, symbols, poetry, music, dance, architecture and ritual help us move beyond ordinary consciousness to reach a more expanded consciousness.

Harris’ spirituality seems to me quite individualistic, like other scientific accounts of spirituality in the works of Carl Jung, Abraham Maslow or William James. In Harris’ spirituality, you jet off to Nepal for various retreats, and then eventually arrive at the insight that there is no such thing as a permanent you. This hopefully feels blissful. But the insight doesn’t connect you to other people, as it does in, say, Stoicism, Christianity or Hinduism. We are not One. Nor does it connect you to the cosmos or God. It simply means you have no permanent self. Well, so what?

Harris has a more relational experience of boundless love for all beings, while on MDMA. But is this state of boundless love an ‘empirical fact’? Why should it be? Why should we scientifically and rationally feel boundless love for all beings?

Harris insists that such experiences tell us nothing about the cosmos or matter, they only tell us things about human consciousness: that it exists, that ordinary consciousness is just one type of consciousness, that we can reach an experience of boundless consciousness which may involve a sense of infinite love for all beings.

But even that tells us something about the cosmos – it’s a cosmos in which such experiences occur, where the mind can alter the physical structure of the brain, where experiences of bliss are freely available, right here, right now. Why should Darwinian evolution in a material cosmos have left us with this foundational state of inner bliss? Just good luck?

Surely it’s at least possible that the great virtuosos of contemplation are right when they insist spiritual experiences do tell us something about the cosmos, and that the experience of infinite loving-consciousness is a glimpse of the very ground of being, also sometimes called God, Brahman, Allah, the Logos, the Tao, the Buddha-realm.

Harris says he is open-minded about the many reports from people who’ve taken the psychedelic drug DMT, who say they visited another dimension where elves passed on futuristic technology. Well and good. I don’t see why he is not also agnostic about the much more credible possibility that infinite loving-consciousness is the ground of being.

Still, this was an enjoyable and insightful book, particularly his accounts of his own spiritual explorations via psychedelics and meditation. You come away with a respect for his willingness to undergo retreats involving 18-hour meditations, and a sense of his refreshing humility about his own spiritual progress. I think he is ignoring what his spiritual experiences point to, but then as a theist, I would say that.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Facts and values

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

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

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

Reintegrating the transcendent

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

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

Ecstatic humanism at Sunday Assembly

Ecstatic humanism at Sunday Assembly

Have we marginalized or pathologized ecstatic experience?

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

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

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

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

Naturalizing ecstasy

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

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

The characteristics of peak-experiences

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

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

The mystical versus the organizational

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

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

The denigration of traditional religions

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about the dark side of ecstasy?

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

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

Are we sure there is one peak?

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

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

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

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

Are such experiences easy to naturalize?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Charles Tart: Altered States of Consciousness (1969)

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

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

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

William James: Varieties of Religious Experience (1901)

Jonathan Haidt: The Righteous Mind (2012)

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

Evelyn Underhill: Mysticism (1911)

Emile Durkheim: Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912)

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

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

Norman Rosenthal: Transcendence (2011)

Any other recommendations?


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

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

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

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

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

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

Angry at God

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

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

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

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

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

Mindfulness for depression

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mindfulness and the Christian way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1  Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I bet she says Bill Clinton, I thought.

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

Definitely not.

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

I see.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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