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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three areas where a lot more needs to be done:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The art of trance

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

Ted Hughes - creativity as self-mesmerism

Ted Hughes fishing the unconscious

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

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

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

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

The Dream-Factory

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

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

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

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

The Surrealists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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




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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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


lrYoDsSIn my review of Sam Harris’ Waking Up two weeks ago, I wrote this sentence: “Spiritual experiences tell us something about the cosmos,…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.”

This sentence seemed to surprise some people – one reader asked what it was exactly I believed, while another reader who said reading my blog helped bring him back to Christianity promptly cancelled his subscription!

So what is behind that statement? Well, it’s a classic expression of something called the Perennial Philosophy, which is the belief that at the core of all the great religions and wisdom traditions is the same mystical experience of Ultimate Reality. All the surface disagreements, different names for Ultimate Reality, different myths etc are just window-dressing.

The Perennial Philosophy has its historical roots in the syncretism of Renaissance humanists like Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, who suggested that Plato, Jesus, Hermes Trismegistus and the Kabbalah were all pointing to the same God (they were almost excommunicated as a result). Leibniz also championed the philosophia perennis. You can see it flourishing in the transcendentalism of Emerson, Coleridge and Thoreau.

220px-PerennialPhilsophyThe idea then reached a mass-market through Aldous Huxley’s 1945 book, The Perennial Philosophy, and then in the 1960s it became almost the foundational idea of the New Age, spread through centres like Esalen, the California spiritual community that developed the ‘religion of no religion’.

I’d suggest the Perennial Philosophy is in some ways the ruling spiritual philosophy of our time, including in its ranks everyone from Sam Harris to Abraham Maslow to Ken Wilber to Prince Charles – yes, the future defender of the Anglican faith is a devotee of Perennialism (read this fascinating speech he gave about it).

‘One mountain, many paths.’ It’s the philosophy I grew up in, as did all of my friends. We loved the Upanishads, Rumi, the I-Ching, Walt Whitman, Carlos Castaneda, Chang-Tzu, Marcus Aurelius, the Dhammapada (we tended to give the Bible a wide berth, like an ex at a cocktail party).

The Perennial Philosophy is a much more natural attitude to me than the exclusivism and tribalism of Christianity, which I find strange and incredible. While my adventures in Christianity of the last two years introduced me for the first time to Christian wisdom and grace, I still have a deep sense of the richness of other traditions. And when I meet evangelical Christians who believe any other faith is demonic, I think they’re mental.

What I have been developing, this year, is something called the Wisdom Approach, which teaches ideas, practices and values from various different wisdom traditions. I think the idea of healing wisdom – Sophia – connects all the great wisdom traditions, including atheist ones like Epicureanism and Buddhism. The courses I run try to explore this common ground while also exploring the different destinations they attempt to reach.

What’s wrong with the Perennial Philosophy?

This week, I read a book which made some trenchant criticisms of the Perennial Philosophy. The book’s called Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality, by Jorge Ferrer, a professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies.

Ferrer makes three main criticisms of the Perennial Philosophy approach:

1) All religions are not the same

The Perennial Philosophy, by being so universalist and essentialist, ends up doing violence to the traditions it tries to cohere. The Tao is not the same as the Christian God (the Tao cares nothing for individuals, as Lao Tzu says), nor are either the same as Buddhist sunyata or emptiness. The eternal now of Buddhism or Stoicism is fundamentally different to Christianity’s radical hope for the future. The mystics themselves do not agree that all religions are talking about the same ultimate reality.

2) Perennialists tend to rank religions hierarchically

All religions are equal, but some are more equal than others. Perennialists tend to rank religions, and even sects within religions. Shamanism is the lowest, then monotheisms like Christianity, Judaism and Islam, then mystics within these traditions (Rumi is better than Mohammad, Meister Eckhart is better than Jesus), then Buddhism and Hinduism, and the peak of the mountain is non-dualist philosophies of emptiness like Advaita and Tibetan Buddhism’s Dzogchen.

All religions are equal, but some are more equal than others

All religions are equal, but some are more equal than others

Christianity is usually near or at the bottom – Sam Harris says it has basically nothing useful to say about the human condition, Aldous Huxley said the Bible was an obstacle to evolution – and Tibetan Buddhism is at the top. Look at the Contemplative Studies conference I’m going to in Boston this month – I’d estimate 90% of the speakers are western Buddhists, hardly any are Christians, and the key-note speaker is, obviously, the Dalai Lama.

Perennialists tend to be western and tend to have rejected their Judeo-Christian background, and therefore rank Christianity low in their wisdom rankings. And of course Christianity, like Islam and Judaism, fits uneasily within a Perennial framework, with their tribal eschatologies and their faith in their unique revelation.

3) Perennialism often tends to the tyranny of empiricism and Cartesian reductionism

Perennialists like Huxley, Maslow, Wilber or Sam Harris tend to describe the Perennial Philosophy as a ‘science of consciousness’, providing empirical certainty for some of the claims of the mystics. Your mind is the laboratory, in which you can go and check these facts for yourself. This attitude, while understandable in its attempt to validate spiritual experiences within a hostile scientific materialist environment, tends to reduce such experiences to subjective occurrences in the individual brain.

Towards a participatory spirituality

So what is Ferrer’s alternative? He suggests that Perennialism often succumbs to an outdated ‘mental representation’ model of cognition: Divine Reality exists out there, and we experience it in our minds, like a camera taking a photo. Instead, he suggests a more participatory form of knowing. Our consciousness and imagination helps to create the reality we experience.

solaris-movie-poster-1020293406This is a somewhat trippy idea, but I’ve come across it in the last year through the writings of two interesting religious scholars – Tanya Luhrmann and Jeffrey Kripal. Both suggest that our relationship with Being is reciprocal, it responds to how we relate to it, manifesting in the attitudes or stories we project, playing with them, making them real. This reminds me a bit of Andrei Tarkovsky’s idea of Solaris or The Zone – the magical force that projects our dreams back to us.

Kripal calls the intermediary between us and Being  ‘the Imaginal’ – an idea with its roots in Plato, in Sufism, in the creative transcendentalism of Coleridge and the Inklings (CS Lewis, Tolkien, Barfield), and more explicitly in the psychology of Frederick Myers. Being responds to the stories we project onto it – this is why Kripal believes the humanities are fundamental to the study of consciousness (here’s a video of him talking about the Imaginal at Queen Mary, University of London earlier this year).

Ferrer’s ‘participatory knowing’ can be both individual or collective – we bring forth a special manifestation of Being collectively. We open a portal together, as the apostles did at the Pentecost. It’s not an individual experience so much as an event in which we participate.

Rather than the ‘one mountain many paths’ metaphor, Ferrer suggests ‘one ocean many shores’. The ocean is the starting point, which most great wisdom traditions share – the belief that we can liberate ourselves from our ego and connect to a more expanded consciousness and reality. However, from that ocean, we can reach many different shores. These will involve different spiritual experiences, and even (Ferrer suggests) different metaphysical realities.

Jodi Foster exploring the Multiverse in Contact

Jodi Foster exploring the Multiverse in Contact

That metaphor doesn’t quite work for me, because we tend to think of the ocean as the end-point, not the starting-point. Let me suggest this – one rocket launch-pad, many different destinations. The rocket launch-pad of spiritual traditions tend to be similar ethical practices to go beyond the ego. However, spiritual astronauts then reach different planets, different space stations, different universes, where perhaps they encounter different beings (or manifestations of Being).

This seems to be more or less the position that William James reached – he coined the term ‘multiverse’ and suggested a ‘pluralist mysticism’ in an essay on the 19th-century psychonaut Benjamin Blood, who wrote: “Variety, not uniformity, is more likely to be the key to progress. The genius of being is whimsical rather than consistent.” Through spiritual practice we reach ‘new worlds’, new manifestations of Being – and they may be places that humans have not yet reached. The Spirit is dynamic, ever-changing, playful.

portalI wonder if this idea of the multiverse is there in the multiple worlds of science fiction writers like CS Lewis or Philip Pullman, both of whom describe portals through which one can reach other worlds or universes, in which the Spirit will take different forms.

I wonder even if this is what the Bishop of London meant, when I asked him if one could get to God through other faiths. He replied:

You can’t to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s not to say there are other ways to different destinations. There is only one Way to God as Jesus Christ has revealed Him, and that way is by feeding on His word and as part of His community and His sacraments. When you come into the presence of God, by this portal – there are other portals which may take you to different places – you come through a passage of self-sacrifice and giving oneself away, which paradoxically does not result in obliteration, but in the most extreme ecstasy and joy at the discovery which lies at the end of all this – that one is fearfully and wonderfully made, one is a unique and beloved child of God.

There are other portals which may take you to different places…

But here are my questions for Ferrer’s spiritual pluralism, which perhaps Professor Ferrer can respond to, if he has the time.

If he believes there are different metaphysical realities, does that mean there are different destinies after death? That a Buddhist experiences reincarnation, while the Christian gets physical resurrection? Does he believe there are multiple eschatologies – in some realities Christ comes back, in others Valhalla burns, and so on? Are there multiple Gods, or is it rather that Spirit / Being is One but responds differently according to our different approaches? Is there one sort of ethical law or Logos for all the metaphysical realities, or might they have radically different ethical laws??

While Ferrer hopes spiritual pluralism will allow a more fruitful and respectful dialogue between faiths (and he may well be right), I wonder if Tanya Luhrmann has a point, when she suggests the real conclusion of this view is rather melancholy – we’re not just living in different belief-systems, we’re actually living in different universes.

But – more optimistically – these realities, these universes, aren’t discrete. They’re not hermetically sealed off from each other. They interconnect. They overlap. Perhaps in some way they connect together into a grand symphony. This is one reason not everyone in the west should become a Buddhist – it would be like everyone singing the same part in the symphony. We need some singing bass, some singing alto, and Richard Dawkins on kazoo.


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.