Museo_del_Prado_-_Goya_-_Caprichos_-_No._43_-_El_sueño_de_la_razon_produce_monstruosLast week, I went to an exhibition on Goya, in Boston. It was filled with his bizarre and fantastic dream-drawings, exploring the strange manias and nightmares that fill humans’ minds when their reason is switched off – as in the classic engraving, the Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.

The museum bookstore had an excellent selection of books exploring this theme, including Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun, which I picked up on a whim. It’s a non-fiction book about a famous case of mass demonic possession among a group of nuns in 16th century France (the book was the inspiration for Ken Russell’s 1971 film, The Devils.)

Huxley uses the incident to explore our urge for self-transcendence, and how this can lead us not upwards but downwards, into the irrational and unhealthy parts of the subconscious. Humans, he says, have a ‘deep-seated urge for self-transcendence’. They ‘long to get out of themselves, to pass beyond the limits of that tiny island universe, within which every individual finds himself confined.’

This urge comes from our sense of boredom, claustrophobia, loneliness and cosmic smallness when we’re stuck in the closed and repetitive loop of the ego. But also, more positively, ‘if we experience an urge to self-transcendence, it is because, in some obscure way, we know who we really are. We know (or to be more accurate something within us knows) that the ground of our individual knowing is identical with the Ground of all knowing and all being…When the phenomenal ego transcends itself, the essential Self is free to realize the fact of its own eternity…This is liberation, this is enlightenment, this is the beatific vision.”

That’s putting it in quite Christian / Hindu terms. An atheist like Sam Harris would put it slightly differently – the urge to self-transcendence is the urge to go beyond our painful self-absorption, self-pity and ceaseless craving, so we realize the blissful non-existence of self and interdependence of all things.

Devils-of-Loudun-06However, here’s the risk, according to Huxley: ‘Self-transcendence is by no means invariably upwards. Indeed, in most cases, it is an escape either downward into a state below that of personality, or else horizontally into something wider than the ego, but not higher, not essentially other [like art, science, politics, a hobby or job]. Needless to say, these substitutes for upward self-transcendence, these escapes into subhuman or merely human surrogates for Grace, are unsatisfactory at the best, and at the worst, disastrous.’

In the epilogue to The Devils, Huxley lists some of these ‘Grace-substitutes’ or varieties of downward self-transcendence.

First, narcotics and alcohol: ‘millions upon millions of civilized men and women continue to pay their devotions, not to the liberating and transfiguring Spirit, but to alcohol, to hashish, to opium and its derivatives, to the barbituates, and other synthetic additions to the age-old catalogue of poisons capable of causing self-transcendence. In every case, of course, what seems a god is actually a devil, what seems a liberation is in fact an enslavement.’

Then there is self-transcendence through sex, ‘the perennial attraction of debauchery’, the delicious sense of surrender to an other, a la 50 Shades of Grey. Worst of all, in Huxley’s opinion, is self-transcendence through ‘crowd-delirium’.

He writes:

The fact of being one of a multitude delivers a man from his consciousness of being an insulated self and carries him down into a less than personal realm, where there are no responsibilities, no right or wrong – only a strong vague sense of togetherness, only a shared excitement…Drugged by the mysterious poison which every excited herd secretes [eh?], they fall into a state of heightened suggestibility.

Authority figures in politics often recognize the danger of drugs and debauchery, but are dangerously seduced by the lure of controlling crowds through forms of mass hypnosis: ‘Pilgrimages and political rallies, corybantic revivals and patriotic parades – these things are ethically right so long as they are our pilgrimages, our revivals and our parades.’


The Devils of Woodstock

Related to these downward self-transcendences through sex, drugs and crowd-intoxication is the downward self-transcendence through ‘rhythmic movement’ and ‘rhythmic sound’, ‘for the purpose of inducing a state of infra-personal and sub-human ecstasy’. History ‘records many sporadic outbreaks of involuntary and uncontrollable jigging, swaying and head-wagging’, which are involuntary means of escaping from ‘insulated selfhood into a state in which there are no responsibilities, no guilt-laden past or haunting future, only the present, blissful consciousness of being someone else’. Huxley was writing in 1951, just before rock and roll would burst onto the scene.

Huxley suggests that the demonic possession of the nuns of Loudun was really an outbreak of these forms of downward self-transcendence. The head nun became sexually obsessed with a hot priest, the contents of her unconscious started to spill out and haunt her consciousness, and then the other nuns gave in to a sort of crowd-intoxication, letting all of the contents of their inhibited sexual fantasies out under the guise of being possessed by demons. This collective orgy was actively encouraged by the exorcist priests, keen to put on a show for the glorification of the Church and the destruction of its enemies (the hot priest was accused of being a sorcerer and eventually burnt).

Here’s the trailer for Russell’s film, which seems to suggest that the excesses of the 60s counter-culture was comparable to an outbreak of mass hysteria:

The way up is also the way down?

The book gives you a vivid sense of the irrational and dangerous power of religion. But what of upward self-transcendence?

Huxley speaks much less of upward self-transcendence in this book, but he explores it at length in The Perennial Philosophy, written six years earlier. He appears to believe this path is only open to a handful of mystics and contemplatives, who use meditative techniques to liberate themselves from their many selves (the ego, the subconscious) until they finally reach the Ground of Being. It’s an individualist, intellectualist and elitist vision of spirituality. He sees all crowds as ‘the social equivalent of a cancer’ – an extreme if understandable position in a world recovering from fascism.

Here’s the Big Question: ‘To what extent, and in what circumstances, is it possible for a man to make use of a descending road as a way to spiritual self-transcendence?’

Huxley admits that ‘a downward movement may sometimes be made the beginning of an ascent.’ He writes:

When the shell of the ego has been cracked and there begins to be a consciousness of the subliminal and physiological othernesses underlying personality, it sometimes happens that we catch a glimpse, fleeting but apocalyptic, of that other Otherness, which is the Ground of all being. So long as we are confined within our insulated selfhood, we remain unaware of the various non-selves with which we are associated – the organic non-self, the collective not-self of the psychic medium…and the immanent and transcendent not-self of the Spirit. Any escape, even by a descending road, out of insulated selfhood makes possible at least a momentary awareness of the not-self on every level, including the highest.

So all these downward paths out of the ego may become upward paths to the Spirit – people can become awakened through drug experiences (Huxley would of course write a lot more positively about this later in The Doors of Perception, published three years later), through sex (he is a fan of DH Lawrence’s exploration of sex-mysticism) and through crowd-intoxication: ‘Some good may sometimes come out of even the most corybantic of revival meetings’, he says rather condescendingly.

His idea of upward and downward transcendence reminds me of the transpersonal psychologist Ken Wilber’s concept of the ‘pre-trans fallacy’: we can mistakenly believe that any journey beyond rationality or beyond the ego is spiritual. However, often these journeys are a reversion to earlier, primitive irrationality – speaking in tongues or uncontrollable giggling could be seen as a reversion to infantile baby-talk rather than spiritual transcendence. We’re not going forwards, we’re going backwards.

This is why the spiritual path is so difficult. I wonder if the way up doesn’t inevitably involve the way down too – to reach the ‘heart’, or the ‘ground of Being’, you journey through the mist of the psychic realm, through the swamp of your unconscious with all its fantasies, resentments and longings. And at every step, your ego can reappear and try to assert its fantasies of self-glorification.

In our skeptical era, we tend to write off both upward and downward transcendence as childish flights into irrationality. But that doesn’t work, because the human urge for self-transcendence does not go away. And there are profoundly positive things we can get from self-transcendence – healing, creativity, group-bonding, self-actualization.

The negative vision shown in Goya’s Sleep of Reason is not the whole story. In fact, the original for the engraving was called The Vision of the Artist, and is arguably a more positive vision. The full title is ‘Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels’. We shouldn’t simply ignore the subliminal self and its gifts, rather, we should learn how to balance them with our critical rationality.




This weekend, I was at a conference in Boston called the International Symposium on Contemplative Studies. I know  – sounds pretty niche, maybe two monks, a chakra healer and a shaman with maracas?  Well, it was enormous – 1600 people, 300 presentations, including ones by some of the leading psychologists in the world, and the Dalai Lama.

It was epic – fascinating presentations, free yoga and meditation sessions every morning, Sufi poetry, Qi Gong dancing, and a lot of unusually impassioned and warm academics. ‘What journey brought you here?’ one lady asked me as I stood in line for registration. Well, er, Virgin Atlantic if you must know.

The field of contemplative studies is still pretty new in the US (it barely exists in the UK). It first emerged in the 1970s, when a handful of scientists started to study and practice Buddhism and yoga – including the biologist Francisco Varela, the neuroscientist Richard Davidson, and the psychologist Jon Kabat-Zinn. They founded something called the Mind and Life Institute 27 years ago, based on small-group dialogues with the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan monks. Two years ago, it began to hold much bigger public conferences – this is the third.

Daniel Goleman and Jon Kabat-Zinn with the Dalai Lama in the 1980s

Jon Kabat-Zinn (left) and Daniel Goleman with the Dalai Lama in the 1980s

‘It was pretty lonely in the 1970s, there were only around 10 of us’, Davidson remembers. ‘We were the lunatic fringe’, recalls Kabat-Zinn. He invented the Mindfulness-Based Stress-Reduction course (MBSR), an eight-week course in mindfulness and yoga, which he and others then proved was clinically beneficial for a whole host of emotional and physical problems. Davidson, meanwhile, used brain-scans of monks and new practitioners to show that meditation changed the physical structure of the brain. In the UK, Mark Williams and John Teasdale of Oxford developed mindfulness-based CBT.

These pioneers helped to create the contemporary boom in mindfulness, which has spread to schools, universities, hospitals and therapy centres, the military, prisons, companies and beyond. Back in 2007, a survey by the National Institutes of Health found that 10% of Americans had tried meditating – it has grown a lot since then. ‘I get the feeling it really exploded this year’, says Francis McKay, a University of Chicago anthropologist studying the rise of mindfulness.

Among other things, contemplative studies is revolutionizing the 20th century model of academia.

243436Francisco Varela thought that contemplative studies could combine third-person accounts of consciousness from neuroscience with first-person accounts from phenomenology (by interviewing people about their experiences). Finally, a bridge would be built between science and the humanities, between facts and values, between third-person objectivity and first-person subjectivity. It was a new model for the academic, grounded in wisdom practices, which would create a new, secular, evidence-based ethics for the modern world.

This strikes many in academia as heretical. There is a belief in academia, which arose in the late 19th century, that academics should be rigorously objective, which means they should suppress their own views, biases, preferences, and moral and metaphysical beliefs. The sociologist Max Weber summed it up well in his lecture Science as a Vocation: academics should critically investigate, and resist the temptation to preach to their students from the lectern.

But this means that ancient wisdom practices can be studied, but not practiced. It would have been very strange, 20 years ago, for an academic philosopher to suggest Stoic practices actually work (thankfully this is changing). It’s still anathema in most of academia. I was struck by this when I went to a seminar on Christian mystics earlier this year. Not one of the participants ever discussed if they had tried out contemplative practices for themselves to see if they were true. That would be weird, or ‘unobjective’. The first-person perspective must be ruthlessly suppressed.

The result of this false dichotomy, alas, is a moral vacuum in the humanities, combined with an ever-greater reverence for the hard certainty of the sciences.

Some prominent figures in the humanities have called for a more explicit promotion of virtue ethics in the university, including Nigel Biggar of Oxford and Baroness Onora O’Neil, both of whom I saw speak on this issue last month. But they had no practical idea of how actually to promote virtue ethics in their students, besides lectures and tutorial feedback on essays (this, they claimed, would promote intellectual virtues like respect for the truth).

This is in the right direction, but not nearly enough. Virtue ethics is based on a deep transformation of one’s core beliefs, emotions and habits. Ten minutes of essay feedback once a week, or more likely once a term, simply won’t do it. It won’t scratch the surface.

I was acutely aware of this while at Oxford, where I got a first in English despite suffering from PTSD and social anxiety. It is perfectly possible to be a successful humanities scholar while also being a complete moral and emotional mess – this is as true of academics as undergrads.

Plato_and_Aristotle_in_The_School_of_Athens,_by_italian_RafaelWhen Plato founded the Academy, 2400 years ago, it was designed both to create reliable knowledge about the world, and also to promote wisdom about the self. That involved not just teacher-feedback, although there was a lot of that, but also contemplation and ‘care of the soul’  – this was at the core of the Academy. Likewise in Aristotle’s Lyceum – Aristotle thought theoria, which originally meant contemplation, was the highest good for man, and was necessary for all the disciplines, from ethics to politics to metaphysics.

Likewise in the Stoic school: ‘We may be fluent in the lecture-room’, warned Epictetus, ‘but take us to practice and we’re miserably shipwrecked.’ The early proto-universities of the Middle Ages were also places where third-person objective research was combined with first-person contemplative practice – a good example is the Abbey of St Victor’s in Paris, where a broad liberal arts curriculum included contemplative practices at their core.

Now, thankfully, there is a revival of the study and practice of wisdom in academia – and it was championed not by the poor, cowed humanities scholars, but by psychologists, who rediscovered the therapeutic wisdom of ancient Greece and Asia, and thought, let’s try it out, test it, and then disseminate it to the general public. Thank God for their pragmatism.

This revival of ancient wisdom is transforming medical education. Jon Kabat-Zinn started researching mindfulness at U-Mass medical school in the 70s. Today, 33 US medical schools have mindfulness research centres, and many more provide mindfulness courses for students, staff and patients.

The more doctors practice meditation, the more they understand the connection between the mind and the body. That’s transforming medicine, and will helpfully lead to a shift from a narrow biomedical model, in which any physical or emotional problem are treated with drugs, to a more holistic model that incorporates wisdom practices.

It’s also transforming life for the average undergrad. I suffered in silence throughout my time at Oxford. Today, students can get free mindfulness courses, thanks to the Oxford Mindfulness Centre run by Mark Williams, which pioneered mindfulness-CBT. Earlier this year I interviewed Mary, a seminary student at Oxford, who learned to heal herself through PTSD thanks to free mindfulness training.

At some US universities, ‘contemplative studies’ is not merely a wellbeing add-on, but part of the main curriculum. Brown University launched a ‘contemplative studies’ curriculum course this year, in the face of strong institutional opposition. ‘The most hostility came from the Religious Studies department’ remembers one academic from the programme. ‘They thought it would undermine objectivity, it would lead to Sunday school sermonising.’

safe_imagePotentially, contemplative studies could transform many disciplines, not just medicine. Both Brown and Virginia’s new contemplative studies centres, for example, are interdisciplinary and bring in the arts and humanities. At the conference, there were presentations by physicists on using contemplation of nature in their work; architects on how buildings can trigger contemplative states; literary critics on the poetry of Blake and Emily Dickinson as an exploration of consciousness; economists on contemplation as a part of well-being economics; musicologists on drumming and trance states, and so on.

The big hope, at the conference, was that ‘contemplative studies’ could actually provide a new ‘secular ethics’ for the world, and help us through the enormous political challenges we face. ‘There are one billion non-believers in the world’, the Dalai Lama said. ‘They won’t listen to a monk talking about inner values, but they might listen to scientists, if they prove a connection to well-being.’ He’s right – mindfulness has become sort of a secular ethics for a happiness-obsessed modernity.

Challenges for the field

But there are big challenges for contemplative studies. I’ll outline five:

Firstly, there is a limit to what can be measured empirically. Contemplative studies, like Positive Psychology, hopes that science can measure how to make someone more virtuous, more humble, more compassionate and so on. But this is not that easy. As the Dalai Lama put it: ‘To know what’s in a person’s heart you need clairvoyance. Or you need to spy on them closely for, say, a year, to see how they behave.’ ‘That’s easy in a monastery, less so in a psychology lab.

A second challenge for this new ‘secular ethics’ is whether ancient wisdom practices can be simply ripped out of their original context and brought into secular modernity, without important stuff being lost. This is as true for Stoicism as it is for Buddhism. ‘Whatever works’, said the Dalai Lama, and there’s something in that, but ethical practices can easily become instrumentalized, demoralized and hijacked by capitalist culture.

Maharishi-University-of-Management-FE7DC0E8A third risk for contemplative studies is that academics lose their objectivity. They get high on their own supply. Academia becomes what it often was in the Middle Ages – dogmatic, culty. It over-hypes its product. I wonder if this has been the case at the Maharishi University, which produces reams of research on the benefits of Transcendental Meditation (it lowers blood pressure, it reduces crime, it stops wars), but hardly any research that’s critical of TM or its founder Maharishi Yogi (peace be upon him).

It was a little weird when the entire hall stood up in reverent silence for the arrival of ‘His Holiness’, and how senior psychologists like Paul Ekman told us how ‘His Holiness instructed us to explore’ this or that research area.

Brown’s contemplative studies centre looks more hopeful in this respect. It is working on a controversial project originally called the Dark Night project, now renamed the Varieties of Contemplative Experience, which explores the difficult experiences people can have in meditation – the return of repressed feelings or memories, insomnia, involuntary physical twitches, depersonalization, loss of self (this can be very scary) and even psychosis and hospitalization. Sometimes these negative experiences lasted for several years.

‘The western media promotes a narrative that mindfulness is a miraculous panacea for health and well-being, while ignoring what contemplative texts say about the very difficult experiences that are often part of the journey’, says Willoughby Britton, a psychiatrist who runs the project.

Fourth, the field of contemplative studies needs to widen beyond its narrow focus on Tibetan Buddhism. The biggest elephant in the room at the conference was that it almost entirely ignored western contemplative practices, besides a couple of fringe sessions by junior academics.

Tom Coburn, former president at Naropa University and a key figure at Brown’s contemplative studies centre, says: ‘Sooner or later, contemplative studies needs to deal with the fact that most contemplatives are theists. Most contemplative studies academics are probably agnostics, who rejected their Judeo-Christian background.’

It has been relatively easy to fit Tibetan Buddhist or Stoic practices into a secular, materialist context – you just leave out a lot. ‘In twenty years we have never spoken about reincarnation or the survival of consciousness after death’, the Dalai Lama said of his dialogues with the Mind and Life Institute.

That’s not a bad thing – it’s enabled meditation to help a lot of agnostics and atheists who were suffering. But it’s much harder to secularize and naturalize when it comes to theistic contemplative practices. I wonder if the field will eventually move towards a multiverse theory of spiritual realities – this is where William James, one of its founding fathers, ended up.

Finally, how do you make sure that contemplative studies does not become too inward-looking, that it does not become a bunch of ‘navel-gazers’ – the traditional insult for contemplatives.

In fact, it was obvious that the western academics of contemplative studies bring a very Judaeo-Christian emphasis on ‘saving the world’ to Buddhism. Contemplation, we heard, can save humanity from capitalism, from climate change, from extinction. In this sense, it is genuinely something new. In Buddhism, as in Stoicism, the world does not need to be saved.

For a western perspective on integrating ancient wisdom into modern life, come to the Stoicism Today conference at Queen Mary, University of London on November 29. Tickets here - much cheaper than the ISCS!


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.