In his magnum opus, The Secular Age, the philosopher Charles Taylor charts western society’s unprecedented shift from a consensus belief in transcendent reality to a worldview that is much more immanent or ‘this-world’.

Taylor argues, rightly, that we can over-emphasize the extent to which we have left behind a belief in transcendent reality as we became modern. Instead, he argues that in the last two centuries there has been a ‘nova effect’ – a sudden explosion out of the hegemony of traditional Christianity of a variety of different interpretations of the transcendent, all of which jostle around in the contested space of modernity.

Even among leading atheists, one sees a variety of these positions, from those like Richard Dawkins who dismiss all talk of transcendence as so much woo-woo, to those like Christopher Hitchens, who asserted that “there is something beyond the material, or not entirely consistent with it, what you could call the Numinous, the Transcendent, or at its best the Ecstatic…Without this we really would merely be primates.”

There seems to be a common human yearning for the transcendent, even if people follow that yearning to different destinations. The lines between ‘believer’ and ‘non-believer’ are more blurred than the clashes of the last decade suggest. As Adam Gopnik argued in the New Yorker,  most supernaturalists have moments of profound doubt, while most naturalists still ‘search for transcendence and epiphany’.

Of course there’s a great deal of argument, sometimes bloody, about which of the positions I outline below is more coherent. But it’s worth remembering that we don’t know which, if any, of these accounts is correct, because we don’t really understand consciousness, and its relationship to the ego, other beings, death, and the universe. So, in some ways, none of these explanations make rational sense. Not yet anyway.

Here are some of the varieties of transcendent experience, very briefly sketched. Which one do you identify with at the moment?

Religious transcendence

A Pentecostal service in Kentucky, 1946

A Pentecostal service in Kentucky, 1946

Humans, whether as individuals or groups, sometimes have religious experiences – in Christian terms described as ‘encounters with the Holy Spirit’. These experiences connect you to a personal God of a particular religion, who can be prayed to for intercession. They give you a taste of the bliss that awaits you after death. They also bind you to your fellow believers, and provide experiential evidence for the truth of your religion and its sacred texts. If your experience doesn’t point to that God and is not in agreement with the sacred text (as interpreted by contemporary priests) then it is either delusional or demonic.

Examples: St Teresa, or the collective experience of 18th century Methodists or the Toronto Blessing in the 1990s.

Perennialist transcendence

lrYoDsSHumans sometimes have spiritual experiences, either within or outside of a religious context. These experiences point to a divine reality beyond all parochial religious dogmas, to a God beyond all names. After having had such an experience, you may choose to join a particular religious group, while still believing in people’s ability to find God in other religious traditions; or you may be hostile to religions for their claims to exclusive truth. Your spiritual life may be quite eclectic, for example combining Christian worship with Buddhist meditation. You may shift from a more Christian, personal idea of God, to a more apophatic or transcendent idea of God. You’re more likely to believe in reincarnation than an Abrahamic heaven / hell.

Examples: Ken Wilber, Aldous Huxley, Bede Griffiths

Pantheist / animist transcendence

Miyazaki and some of his creations

Miyazaki and some of his animist creations

Transcendent or spiritual experiences point to a spirit or greater consciousness beyond the human, but not beyond nature. Rather, nature is in some sense spirit. God is ‘all that there is’. Transcendent experience might connect you to a particular spirit within nature, or to the spirit or energy of nature itself. You may be a panpsychist, believing all matter is animate. When we die, our energy returns to nature rather than surviving in any sort of personal immortality.

Examples: Philip Pullman, Hayao Miyazaki

Romantic transcendence

You are not quite sure what is out there, but you have a sense or intimation that there is some spiritual dimension or transcendental or noumenal reality beyond phenomenal appearances. This transcendent reality may be transcendent to nature, or in some sense it may be nature itself. Humans cannot really know this transcendent reality directly or logically, but can have intimations of the Noumenal through emotional experiences in the arts (both creating art or encountering it) or in nature. However, it may be a false intimation – it is not entirely clear. We must resist the impatient grasping after rational certainty.

Examples: Wordsworth (who arguably shifted between this position, pantheist transcendence, and then finally religious transcendence), Keats

Platonic or rational transcendence

newton110There is transcendental realm of divine reality beyond transient appearances, and the best way to access it is through the pure reason of maths and logic. The cosmos obeys the mathematical laws of this divine realm, and we can discover it by discovering the laws of the cosmos. Emotions and desires cloud our reason and our ability to access this reality. However, we might sometimes have intuitions or ecstatic experiences which give us sudden access to divine truths.

Examples: Plato, Newton

Transcendent humanism

Humans have a unique capacity to create the transcendent, through artistic effort, but more broadly simply through noticing and appreciating life. This doesn’t point to anything supernatural, it is a simple appreciation of the luminous beauty of moments. The transcendent or numinous is not ‘out there’ – rather, we make it. The fact that we die, and all these moments disappear ‘like tears in rain’ (as Roy puts it in Bladerunner), only makes these experiences more poignant and moving.

Examples: Kenan Malik, Sanderson Jones of the Sunday Assembly, Jeanette Winterson (possibly)

Ego-transcendence

samharris_wakingupWhen humans have transcendent experiences, they are transcending their usual ego structures and achieving altered states where ordinary ego-consciousness is disrupted. You may interpret these altered states either as ‘peak experiences’ or ‘flow states’ or even as a glimpse into the non-existence of self. Such states or experiences may happen spontaneously or through practices like meditation or drugs or sex or sports. Glimpsing the non-existence of self can be either liberating or terrifying. At its best, we get liberated from the ego and filled with love for other beings – either a particular being (like our child) or even all beings. You are skeptical of any claims about the survival of consciousness after death.

Examples:  Sam Harris, Abraham Maslow, most western secular Buddhists

Downward ego-transcendence

You want to go beyond boring ego-consciousness, but take the route of what Aldous Huxley called ‘downward transcendence’ – through violence, or booze, or drug-addiction. Anything to get out of your head and escape the claustrophobic boredom of ordinary life.

Examples: Alex from Clockwork Orange

Techno-transcendence

transcendence.29748Humans transcend their individual selves through technology, which connects them to other beings and to a higher dimension of information. Through technology, we may eventually be able to create a SuperMind, or to download our identity onto the cloud of information.

Examples: Sergey Brin, HG Wells, movies like Transcendence or Lucy

Tribal transcendence

Transcendent experiences lift us beyond our individual minds into a ‘hive mind’ where we feel magically connected to the other members of our tribe – that tribe could be our football club, our favourite band and their fans, or our nation. One observer of a 1934 Nazi rally described it thus: ‘There in the floodlit night …in one massive formation, the little men of Germany, who have made Nazism possible, achieved the highest state of being …the shedding of their individual souls and minds — with the personal responsibilities and doubts and problems — until under the mystic lights and at the sound of the magic words of the Austrian, they were merged completely.’  There may be vestiges of the mystical or magical in this tribal fusion, but there is nothing really beyond the tribe.

Examples: Rousseau, Hitler and (as social theorists of ecstatic experience) Emile Durkheim and Jonathan Haidt

Historical materialist transcendence

Humans sometimes have ecstatic or transcendent experiences where they can see beyond the present historical circumstances and perceive future circumstances – the ‘not yet’ within the ‘now’, the utopian within the actual. This does not involve God or the supernatural, rather it is part of a historical materialist process as humans engineer a more just and equitable future for their species. These prophetic visionary experiences may happen to an individual (Lenin, Martin Luther King) or may involve revolutionary populist movements, like the Paris Commune.

Examples: Karl Marx, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch

It’s interesting to think where someone like, say, Russell Brand fits in this chart – he’s moved during his life from the downward ego-transcendence of drug addiction, to the false transcendence of celebrity, to the perennialist transcendence of Transcendental Meditation, and now to a sort of spiritual version of historical materialist transcendence. A young Jihadist, by contrast, may move from traditional religious transcendence towards the downward transcendence of extreme violence, mixed with the millenarial utopianism of historical materialist transcendence.

It would be nice if all these varieties of transcendence got along better with each other but that may be asking a lot.

Did I miss out any? I probably haven’t talked about love nearly enough.

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FullSizeRenderIt’s that time of year again, when people all over Britain go off for the traditional New Year’s Vipassana retreat. But not me – this year, I decided to keep it old school. I went on a Benedictine retreat.

Last Sunday, I traveled down to the Isle of Wight, to stay at Quarr Abbey (it’s pronounced Kor). It was set up as a Carthusian monastery in 1132, before being dissolved by Henry VIII. Then, in the late 19th century, the aggressively secular French government started attacking religious orders, so the abbot of the Benedictine monastery at Solesmes sent a small group of monks to set up a religious house on the Isle of Wight.

They established a house at what remained of Quarr Abbey, and built a beautiful abbey there, designed by one of the monks and finished in 1912. It’s still a working Benedictine monastery, and any man or woman can go and stay there, and eat there, for free (or for a voluntary donation). This hospitality is inspired by Jesus’ command in the Gospel of Matthew, to see God in the stranger: ‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.’

I arrived after two weeks of over-eating, over-drinking, over-smoking, over-everything. It was a sharp change of gear. When I got to the Abbey, it was locked, so I waited in the cold chapel for a while, where a small mechanical Joseph and Mary bent eerily over a plastic crib. Finally one of the guests appeared, let me in, and introduced me to the guestmaster, Father Nicholas, who I’d emailed to arrange my stay the previous week.

He showed me to my room, where a laminated handout explained the set-up. The monastery follows the Rule of St Benedict, the father of western monasticism. Benedict (480 – 543) was a young Roman ascetic who wanted to emulate the spiritual exercises and communal living of the Egyptian Desert Fathers and Mothers of the third century. To that end, he created a ‘little rule’ – a handbook for monks to follow, with 73 brief chapters outlining the basics of the monastic life.

With that little book, he laid the foundation for one of the oldest and most successful organizations in human history, which inspired later monastic orders such as the Carthusians, Dominicans, Carmelites and Franciscans, as well as lay orders like the Brethren of the Common Life.

Monks take a vow of obedience, stability and communal living to a particular abbey, where they spend the rest of their life. The monks make a vow to obey their abbott, yet they also elect the abbott from among themselves, who then serves for eight years. The abbott reports to a ‘general chapter’ of the Order every four years, and the Order itself is under the authority of the Vatican.

St BenedictThe rhythm of the day is marked out by the ‘Liturgy of the Hours’ – Matins (at midnight), Lauds or Dawn Prayer at 3am, Prime at 6am, Terce at 9am, Sext at 12, None at 3pm, Vespers at 6 and Compline at 9. All the services are voluntary for guests. The main activity in the services is Gregorian chanting of the Psalms – the monks sing all 150 psalms every week.

The rest of the day is taken up by two hours work in the morning, two hours work in the afternoon, one hour communal conversation (the day is mainly spent in silence), and meals, eaten in silence with someone reading a text. At Quarr, where the meals were delicious by the way, dinner was eaten in silence, while at lunch a monk read a chapter of the Rule of St Benedict and then turned on an audio-book – while I was there it was a novel about Octavius Caesar. Apparently the week before it was a history of MI6.

How can you transcend without 3G?

And that’s it. No mantras. No yoga postures. No diamond sutras. You’re pretty much left to your own devices. You can chat to other guests in the common room. There were only three other guests when I arrived: a French teenager sent there to learn English (who sends their son to a monastery to learn English?), and two middle-aged Northern men, who got into a long conversation about which bus company was better, National Express or Megabus. So I went to my room.

The room itself was bare and a bit draughty. I sat in bed, reading the Bible, disliking it. I felt my mind craving some stimulation or sedation, missing the distraction of the internet. I tried desperately to get 3G but it wouldn’t work. The old man in the room next to me could get it, though. Every time he got an email his computer would ping really annoyingly. Eventually I said loudly ‘would you please switch your computer onto silent?’ in my most peevish voice. That showed him.

I lay in bed, fuming. I imagined the guests at Alain de Botton’s Hotel for the Soul. They were all well-dressed, successful, amusing. It was probably cocktail hour. I wished I was there.

I woke up at 7am, hearing the bell for the morning service, and stayed in bed. We ate breakfast in silence. I retreated back to my room, and tried to write some of my book on transcendence. But there was no 3G, just the purgatorial GPRS. How can you transcend without 3G? I went to the morning service. I didn’t like the reading from the Letter of St John – if a spirit doesn’t lead you to Jesus, it’s a demonic spirit…what paranoid nonsense! Afterwards, I went back to my room. What else was there to do?

The main meditative practice in Benedict’s Rule is reading, or lectio divina. Whenever Benedict talks of ‘meditation’, it’s in connection with reading. It’s a spiritual activity, a slow absorption of the words, a reflection on the various levels of meaning and connection to your life, and ultimately a move into wordless contemplation of God. In theory. But I spend my whole life reading already. I sat in bed, speed-reading St Teresa’s Interior Castle. Each page she got higher and higher, more and more lost in ‘divine favours’. Bully for her.

I decided to leave, packed my bag, and began to walk downstairs. Then I thought, this is pathetic, I must be able to stay at least a few nights. So I went back to my room. I decided to interview Father Nicholas, to at least get some good material for a blog post. ‘Can I interview you?’ I asked bluntly. ‘Er…we can talk’, he said.

side-image_3He’d become a monk at the Abbey 22 years ago. Back then, there were 21 monks and 10 novices. Now there are 6 monks, no novices and a prior leant from another monastery. If they didn’t find some new novices, the monastery would eventually close. It’s not easy attracting new novices: ‘No one in our society is into lifelong commitments these days’, said Father Nicholas. ‘And no one wants to stay in one place.’ Monasteries all over Europe are facing closure, while yoga and mindfulness drop-in centres proliferate, like grey squirrels or Canada geese. This is spiritual Darwinism.

My fourth day, I decided, would be my last.  The evening before, I told Father Nicholas. He seemed rather surprised (I’d arranged to stay a week), but I explained there was something in London I just had to get back to (Wi-Fi).

A new guest arrived on the third day, called Matthew. I got into conversation with him. It turned out he had escaped from the local high-security prison, Parkhurst, exactly 20 years ago, and gone on the run for five days with two other prisoners. They’d made a key and a 30 foot ladder in the prison metal-work room (‘why are you making a 30ft ladder, Williams?’ ‘It’s…er…conceptual art, sir’. They escaped, took a taxi to a nearby airport and tried to steal a plane, but they couldn’t start it, so they hid in someone’s shed for five nights. It sounded far-fetched, but it turned out to be true.

He was wearing the very clothes he’d escaped in, and was following in his own footsteps – a sort of personal pilgrimage. It was clearly the high-point of his life. ‘I felt such a rush of freedom and power’, he said, ‘like my life had opened up again.‘ The prison service didn’t forgive him for escaping, and made sure he served 22 years of his sentence. ‘You’re at their mercy – and they don’t have any’, he says. ‘It’s been really hard since I got out, like being let out into a different planet.’

It was an unusual coincidence to meet Matthew, as I’m hoping, this year, to get funding to make a guidebook for prison inmates, to help them cope with life inside. So it was fascinating and serendipitous to talk to him. Then Father Nicholas said the prior, Father Xavier, would like to have a chat before I left.

A Rule to live by

After dinner, I followed Father Xavier into his quarters. He’s maybe 40, and has been a monk since he was 22. What wisdom, I asked him, could a busy skeptic like me take from the Benedictine Order? He thought for a bit. ‘Well…the importance of a daily rhythm of practice, of a rule of life, of habits.’

Yes, I thought. My life has become irregular. I need to make a Rule of Jules, to follow every day for the rest of the year. Just like Gerhard Groote, the founder of the Brethren of the Common Life. He’d make a list of resolutions, and spend a moment each day going over them. Yes! What else? What, I asked, were the most difficult things about being a monk?

‘Of course, the vow of obedience can be hard. The vow of chastity. And faith. One can have moments where one thinks, ‘what am I doing in this church every day?’ And getting on with your brothers can be very hard. We can have enemies. I remember there was one novice who I really detested. I really hoped he would not join the order, but he did. And we get on fine. There was another novice, and I thought we would become great friends, and in fact we had a lot of trouble. We need enemies, because they remind us we are not perfect and lovable saints.’

I imagined the enmities that could fester in a monastery, and briefly imagined one monk murdering another because he always sang flat in church (such things are not unheard of). I also thought of the old man in the room next to me, his noisy internet, his burps and farts. I realized I actually detested this man. And that the reason I was rushing away was not silence or God or anything like that. It was the inescapable proximity of other people. I find community really, really difficult. I dislike all my neighbours, but at least in London I can ignore them.

‘St Bernard called monasteries ‘schools of love’’, said Father Xavier. We learn that we are loved by God, and we learn to love one another. We learn mercy for each other’s weaknesses. Humans are so very weak, and needy. Me too. When I joined the monastery, I thought I was being very good. And then eventually, I realized it was untrue, I am just as needy and weak as everyone else. We have to show mercy to one another.’

The Rule is soaked in this attitude of mercy for human weakness. The first psalm of the day, Benedict writes, should be sung slowly, to give late-rising monks time to get to the chapel. ‘If a brother falls asleep during prayer’, writes one desert father, ‘ I cradle his head in my lap’. Another desert father left his monastery when it harshly reprimanded an errant monk, with the words ‘I too am a sinner’.

‘This can be the problem with Stoicism’, said Father Xavier. ‘You try to construct a castle of strength and power. But it will fall down, because your neediness and weakness will come out. We need to build bridges and doorways to other people.’  The Latin word for priest – pontifex – actually means ‘bridge-builder’. For some reason I remember hearing Alain de Botton once pejoratively describe someone as ‘needy’. But that’s not a put-down, that’s a fact of human existence. The fear of neediness is a greater error than neediness itself.

The next morning, I sat in the common room, and for the first time in four days, I felt at peace. I felt my consciousness begin to settle and expand. I am 38 this year. I wondered if this was the middle-point of my life, and what I should do with the rest of it. I remembered Xavier’s words: ‘I hope people will come away from the monastery with a sense of God’s love. It takes time to grow into an awareness of that love.’

He said: ‘Of course there are similarities between Buddhist and Christian contemplation. But also big differences. Christianity believes in revelation – in a God who loves you and wants to be known by you.’ Ultimately, I believe in that, even if I have major issues with 90% of the rest of Christianity. I believe the foundation of human existence is God’s love, and that we can discover that love.

I left my voluntary donation on my bedside table – £25 per night. Not bad for board, food and free spiritual guidance. Compare that to, say, the $1300 you have to spend for a week at Esalen, the New Age retreat in California.

My enduring memory will be my conversations with Father Nicholas and Father Xavier, how human, unsaintly, unrigid they are, like a sonnet where the formal rules actually enable the lyric to come alive. I will remember also the psalm-chanting, the slow absorption and emanation of these beautiful poems, round the clock, every day, for the last 1500 years:

‘You have searched me, Lord and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
You perceive my thoughts from afar
You discern my going out and my lying down…
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
If I settle on the far side of the sea,
Even there your hand will guide me,
Your right hand will hold me fast…’

I wish I had stayed longer, but I’d already said I was leaving. The night before I left, I read St Benedict warning of ‘gyrovagues’, ‘who spend their entire lives drifting from region to region,  staying as guests for three or four days in different monasteries.’ Yes, I am definitely a gryovague. I find it difficult to be close to others. I find it difficult to love and be loved. I find it difficult to stay in one place, one community, one relationship. But maybe I can learn it.

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10881517_10152445224901286_9127784824635687208_nEarlier this week, my girlfriend and I toured around Yorkshire and Northumberland, once the stronghold of English medieval monasticism. We visited the beautiful ruins of Rievaulx Abbey, which once boasted the biggest church in England. As we wandered around the ruins, I wondered what we lost, when Henry VIII dissolved more than 1000 monasteries in five years.

We lost our indigenous contemplative tradition. If you mention meditation to westerners, they assume you are talking about something from Asia. Last year, I went to an ‘International Symposium on Contemplative Studies’ in Boston, attended by over 1600 people. Of the 200 or so presentations, there was just one on Christian contemplation, by a sociologist who had not actually tried it.

The common view, expressed recently by Sam Harris, is that Christianity does not have a contemplative tradition. It has a few rare mystics, like Meister Eckhart and St Teresa of Avila, who operated as lone beacons of wisdom within a religion that was quick to suppress them. The very word ‘mystic’ makes contemplation seem something hidden and occult. Even contemporary Christians tend to view contemplation as something either Buddhist or New Age, and therefore deeply suspect.

This is a huge historical error. My research in this area is very raw, but from my initial reading it seems clear that from the 10th century until the Reformation, medieval culture was centred around contemplation. It was a visionary culture, ‘an age of the imagination’ as Michelle Karnes puts it. And contemplation was not an activity confined to the 2% of the population in monastic orders. Similar to today, the affluent laity were hungry for contemplative practices which they could carry out within their busy secular lives.

This contemplative culture gave rise to a rich treasury of contemplative practices. There was the contemplative lyric – visionary or dream poems like The Pearl or Piers Ploughman, designed to teach the reader virtues and guide them to transcendent experiences. There were contemplative miracle plays, which were a sort of mass visualization exercise for the laity. There was contemplative architecture – the abbey and cathedral, vivified with candles, incense, stained glass windows, statues and relics, were walk-through contemplative exercises in awe and piety. There were contemplative maps and travel accounts, designed to take the reader on mental journeys to wondrous lands. There were actual pilgrimages as walking contemplative exercises. There were contemplative objects – relics, prayer-beads, even contemplative needlework.

Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen, having an episode

Above all, there were contemplative books. ‘The prosperous literate laity wanted guidebooks to the mount of contemplation (or at least usable maps to its foothills)’, writes Oxford’s Vincent Gillespie. The monasteries helped to translate, copy and distribute contemplative classics by visionaries like Julian of Norwich, St Bonaventure, St Richard of Victor, the Cloud of Unknowing author, and Richard Rolle. The laity could also access these writings through ‘contemplative compilations’.

These books offered people meditative and devotional programmes. Like self-help books today, they were not always shy about trumpeting their miraculous benefits. The author of the 14th century Meditations on the Life of Christ declares that Christ Himself could appear to the reader ‘on any day…if you would prepare yourself for it with an uncompromised mind with meditations on the Lord’s passion every Friday and Saturday.’

The imagination as a bridge to God

At the heart of medieval contemplative culture was a belief in the power of the imagination to connect us to God. The exalted role of the imagination was built on the philosophy of Aristotle, for whom imagination was a key cognitive capacity that connects the sensory data of the material world to the emotions and the spiritual world of the intellect. For St Augustine, St Bernard, St Richard of Victor, St Bonaventure and others, the affective imagination takes us places where reason alone cannot go, lifting us from the material to the spiritual.

Reading was the main way the aspiring contemplative trained their imagination and guided their emotions to God. The key contemplative technique was called lectio divina, or ‘divine reading’. Guigo II, a 12th century Carthusian monk, outlines the four stages of the practice in his Scala Claustralium: first comes lectio, or a reading of a holy text; then meditatio, thinking about it and perhaps imagining oneself into its scenes; then oratio, or prayer to God; and finally contemplatio, when the mind is no longer striving, no longer imagining, but is rather taken up in rapture by God into the apex mentis, the throne-room, the Holy of Holies within one’s own mind.

Richard of the Abbey of St Victor (a school and contemplative centre in Paris), writes: “If the mind after a long time of searching finally finds the truth, then it usually happens that it receives the new insight with appetite, gazes at it with wonder and jubilation and stays in this amazement for a longer time.’

Fra Angelico's Annunciation, from a prayer-room in San Marco, Florence - each room has a different scene from Christ's life, to aid imaginative meditation

Fra Angelico’s Annunciation, from a prayer-room in San Marco, Florence – each room has a different scene from Christ’s life, to aid imaginative meditation

Many popular medieval contemplative works were guided imaginative meditations, particularly on the life and sufferings of Christ (a technique later adapted by St Ignatius for his Spiritual Exercises). By imagining oneself into Christ’s life, one actually went there, and could connect to Christ, and receive healing, wisdom and grace from him. Christ is God drawn close and made imaginable, palpable, embraceable. From the 11th century on, contemplative practices try to make him more and more real and present, to connect to him in love and sensual imagery.

The more vivid your imagining of Christ, the better – the author of Meditations on the Life of Christ has no worries about meditators basically inventing their own details to add to the Gospels. Christ’s life becomes a sort of fan-fiction universe – you don’t just passively consume the scenes, you enter them, see them, touch them, embellish them. Christ comes to life through such exercises and speaks to you, perhaps literally – it’s fairly common in medieval culture for Christ to appear to people and speak to them, in dreams, visions, trances.

Meditations on Christ, or Mary, or God, or a particular saint, were exercises in ‘affective meditation’ – they took the contemplative beyond mere reason, and connected them to God through love. Medieval contemplative texts are far from the cold rationality of Plato or the Stoics. They burn with love and sensuality. They often use the Song of Songs as inspiration, and the soul’s ecstatic union with Christ or God is described in startlingly sensual terms – the contemplative kisses Christ, enters his wounds, feels Christ within her, feels penetrated by the darts of his love. The word rapture comes from the Latin raptus, which also meant rape – God’s union with the soul is a ravishing, a quasi-sexual union, and the sweetness one feels is comparable to orgasm (and perhaps actually was, on occasion, an orgasm).

That kind of meditation might seem a bit weird to a modern secular audience (it does to me). But there were other imaginative exercises – meditating on the tree of life, for example, on the ‘mystical ark’, or Jacob’s ladder, or a visionary poem like The Pearl. A particularly popular technique, similar to the ancient ‘memory palace’ technique, guided the contemplative through an imaginary palace or cathedral, with each room representing a deeper level of consciousness (this is the technique used by St Teresa of Avila in her Interior Citadel, after a crystal castle appeared to her in a vision).

I think there was a profound connection between the inner architecture of contemplative practice, and the outer architecture of cathedrals and abbeys – in this sense it doesn’t surprise me that freemasonry was considered a sacred and occult culture. The visionary has an idea of a perfect building, which expresses the grandeur of God and the mansion of our soul. They then turn that idea into a reality, with the help of masons. Then others come to worship there, and the idea is impressed onto their souls too. And some of them go elsewhere and pass the idea on.

Nave2-Nov11-L60012sAR1000

Durham Cathedral

And it wasn’t just buildings filled with murals and stained glass windows that were contemplative and imaginative aids. Contemplative books likewise combined words and images – the bestsellers of medieval literature were the Books of Hours, which were beautifully illuminated compendiums of prayers and meditations.

Books of Hours were 'the bestsellers' of the Middle Ages

Books of Hours were ‘the bestsellers’ of the Middle Ages

The aim of all this guided imagination was a sort of inner architecture. ‘To think’, wrote Aristotle, ‘is necessarily to use images’. Imagination is at the heart of much of our cognition. The inner stream of our consciousness and memory is filled with images, usually involuntary and unconscious. An image of a beer comes to our mind, for example, and we are helplessly drawn to the pub. Luckily, we can consciously guide our imagination and impress our memory with images of the good, the beautiful, the divine. We can open the doors of the mansion of our mind (as Augustine put it) and fill it with good images. This will affect what we think, what we do, how we suffer adversity, how we treat others. It will connect us to God, who will shine through our imagination like sun through a stained-glass window. It will help us in the after-life too – contemplation is a preparation for death and purgatory, just as it was for Plato. Indeed, supposedly-true accounts of near-death experiences became popular in the 14th century.

The forgotten city of Atlantis

And then, in five years, Henry VIII and his enforcer, Thomas Cromwell, pulled the plug on that imaginative culture. It dissolved like a rainbow in the mist. Over 1000 monasteries, nunneries and abbeys were closed. Countless contemplative books were lost and destroyed. Abbeys were deserted, statues and relics vandalized. A centuries-old contemplative tradition disappeared, like Atlantis, and western society turned away from the vita contemplativa and embraces the vita activa.

The Reformation and the Counter-Reformation both became deeply suspicious of ‘enthusiasm’, of people ‘who boast that they have the spirit apart from and before contact with the word’, as Martin Luther put it. For Protestants, there is the authority of Scripture, for Catholics, the authority of the church. Women, in particular, should know their place. Many of the greatest medieval visionaries were women – St Brigitte, St Edith, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Margary Kempe. They made huge contributions to medieval culture, but are dismissed as ‘fond women’ by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer.

The Enlightenment continued this attack on the ‘enthusiasm’ of the contemplative life.  The monastic life is a life of idleness, nuttiness, hypocrisy and sexual deviancy. Imagination falls from its exalted position as a bridge between God and man. It becomes ‘phantasy’, something that misleads and deludes.

The English contemplative tradition passes from monasteries to poetry. It’s no accident, perhaps, that the decades and centuries after the Dissolution lead to the great flowering of metaphysical poetry, to the contemplative wonders of Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert, Vaughn, Traherne, Milton, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Blake (no women however). But the English poets are imagining within a culture that is losing its religious faith, that increasingly doubts the value of what cannot be scientifically proven. By the late 20th century, Ted Hughes worries that we are losing our capacity to dream dreams – he suggests we need to train our imagination using imaginative meditations like St Loyola’s exercises.

The medieval marriage of sacred words and imagery also declines after the Reformation, with the exception of William Blake’s illuminated poems, or the engravings of Gustave Dore. The word is sundered from the image. The image becomes ever more colonized by the word – look, today, at conceptual art. The ‘sacred marriage’ of word and image survives in a somewhat bastardized form perhaps in comic book culture – tales of marvels and wonders somewhat comparable to the medieval lives of saints, though not always with much ethical purpose.

Comic book culture, like Allan Moore's Promethea, still marries words and images, and still has an idea of the magical power of the imagination

Comic book culture, like Allan Moore’s Promethea (pictured), still marries words and images, and still has an idea of the magical power of the imagination

Guided imaginative meditation is not really a mainstream practice today. It’s used in a very simple manner by professional sportspeople – imagine the goal-posts, that sort of thing. And it is quite popular in self-help, ever since Napoleon Hill, author of Think and Grow Rich, described how he imagined a counsel of ‘Invisible Counselors’, including Emerson, Darwin and Napoleon, who would appear to him each night and offer him advice on how to grow richer. The New Age, and particularly shamanism, also draws heavily on guided imaginative journeys – although medieval contemplatives would warn that imagination unconnected to reason can easily end up in delusion, and even in demonic possession.

While Buddhist contemplation is hugely popular in the West today, it tends to be a very Protestant ‘imageless meditation’ – concentrate on your breath, or a word – although there is of course also a rich tradition of Buddhist, Hindu and Daoist visualization practices, including meditations in which one imagines walking through a palace or being pierced by the loving rays of a God or spiritual being.

What should we imagine?

I wonder if, slowly, we are returning to a more positive idea of the imagination. Perhaps fantasy literature – the capacity to imagine other cities, other worlds, other beings – is becoming more respectable and mainstream. It’s not just escapism – it’s a profoundly human activity, to imagine something ideal, to bring back one’s imagination repeatedly to that ideal, and to draw energy and power from it. Imagination is prophetic – uniquely among animals, we can imagine reality to be other than it is, and then make our dream real.

Today, however, we no longer have a common imaginative storehouse of images which we can visit. Europeans don’t typically believe Christ was the only son of God, and so that image, that bridge to the Divine, has lost much of its sacred power for us skeptics. After two centuries of imagining, we still haven’t really come up with much to replace Him – not Gandalf or Luke Skywalker or Batman or Aslan or Mickey Mouse, as interesting and rich as these figures are.

DCD_InfinitelyHeroicAlexRossGiclee

Speaking personally, I am not sure that Christ was quite such an exalted figure as the Bible claims he was. I don’t think he was God, though he may have connected to the God we all have within us more than anyone before or since. I think many of the details in the Gospels, particularly the Nativity, were fan-fiction rather than accurate history. Given my skepticism, I wonder if meditating on Christ can still connect me to God? Why would I meditate on his wounds, if I don’t think his death actually redeemed the human race? Then again, perhaps meditating on his suffering and his love is still redemptive, even if you don’t think it was the cosmic lynchpin that Christians say it was?

Well, these are questions for me to work out. Let’s imagine ahead. As the laity’s appetite for contemplation grows, is it possible that we create new contemplative centres in our society, that new contemplative orders start to appear? Over the coming centuries, will contemplation and the imagination once again assume a more central place in our outward-focused culture?

A key part of any potential contemplative revival, it seems to me, involves building a contemplative culture within universities. In the Middle Ages, universities and monastic orders supported each other. But eventually, it became more of a zero-sum tussle for power and money. When Henry dissolved the monasteries, many of their assets ended up being grabbed by universities. The universities gradually put forward an instrumental model of knowledge which was sadly divorced from the ideals of contemplation, virtue and wisdom. That’s partly why universities are in crisis today, in my opinion.

But things are beginning to change – the mindfulness movement in the US is being spear-headed by some contemplative centres, particularly at medical schools but also at places like Brown and Virginia. There are also mindfulness centres here in Oxford, Exeter and Bangor. I wonder if there could be contemplative centres which also explore and research the west’s own contemplative practices, to see what we can recover for our post-religious age. Because personally, I think it would be a great pity if we cast aside so many centuries of indigenous contemplative culture and all became secular Buddhists.

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Wisdom is a watering-hole at which animals of many different species can come and drink – as long as they don’t insist on trying to convert, denounce or attack each other, but instead meet in friendship and good humour.

Last month, I took part in a slightly silly stunt for World Philosophy Day. I and some other writer-types dressed up in togas and re-created Raphael’s School of Athens on the steps of St Paul’s. There are Cynics, Stoics, Platonists and various ‘not sures’ among us, all gathered together to celebrate wisdom. Our number included a theologian, Nick Spencer from the Christian think-tank Theos, in the orange-and-red toga on the right. I’ll come back to him.

SchoolofLondonDirkchoice-746x488

I love Raphael’s painting, because it’s a portrait of intellectual friendship. There are philosophers of many different creeds gathered together in the painting, but they’re not denouncing each other or cutting each other’s heads off. They’re enjoying a friendly conversation. The intellectual diversity of the scene is all the more remarkable considering the mural is on Pope Julius II’s library wall in the Vatican Palace.

The painting reminds me of a group I have met up with fairly regularly for the last year or so. It grew out of the RSA’s spirituality project, organized by Jonathan Rowson. Some of the people involved in that group started to meet at each other’s homes for dinner every couple of months.

The group members hold a wide variety of metaphysical positions – for example, they include Toby Flint, who runs the Alpha course at Holy Trinity Brompton, and also Pippa Evans, who founded the Sunday Assembly, the humanist church. Toby and Pippa get on like a church on fire, not least because they have a similar sense of humour, and a similar desire to help people and provide them with community.

I think the fact that the founder of an atheist church and the organizer of the Alpha course can meet in friendship and humour is a triumph of Anglicanism. I define Anglicanism as broader than Christianity – Philip Pullman is a self-declared Anglican atheist, so is Richard Dawkins. It’s an open table, a shared culture of good humour, affability, and love of wisdom. The friendship between George Bernard Shaw and GK Chesterton is an example of Anglicanism. This exchange, on Twitter, between the Reverend Richard Coles and Richard Dawkins is another.

I think Anglican open-mindedness and friendliness is closely related to humanism. Humanism means a love of wisdom, particularly the wisdom of Greek and Roman philosophy. It also means a love of the arts and sciences, and a belief in their power to improve life. But above all, humanism is about people gathering together in friendship to share ideas, enjoying each other’s company even if we don’t share all of the same beliefs. As Terence put it: ‘I am human, nothing human is alien to me.’

Humanism is a social philosophy. It grew up in groups of friends, like the circle of Scipio, which helped bring Greek philosophy to Rome, or the humanist circles that flourished in 14th century Florence, around Boccaccio, Salutati, Bruni, and (some decades later) Marsilio Ficino, or in 15th century England and Holland, around Erasmus and Thomas More. These circles were quite heterogeneous – they might include Christians, Epicureans, Neo-Platonists, Kabbalists and Hermeticists. But they met in friendship and good humour.

Ficino’s Academy in Florence

My humanism is better than yours…

Today, alas, humanism is not quite such a broad or friendly church. One of my fellow toga-wearers from that gathering at St Paul’s, Nick Spencer of Theos, co-authored a report last week which bemoaned the fact that ‘humanism’ is now used to mean people who are non-religious or even anti-religious. The Theos report points out that there’s a long and proud tradition of Christian humanism too. Fair enough.

But the report then insists that Christian humanism is the best form of humanism, while atheist humanism doesn’t actually make sense. Na na na, my humanism is better than your humanism. This naturally riled atheist humanists, who called the report a land-grab, a ‘trolling of a whole world-view’. So, alas, what could have been an essay celebrating the shared foundations of Christian and secular humanism instead turned into a slanging match.

I am all for Christian humanism. I spent several years exploring and celebrating Greek and Roman philosophy and how people use it today. By the end of that journey, I was beginning to explore Christianity, and I’ve gone to church for the last two years. But I still take part in things like Stoic Week, because what I love about Greek philosophy – and wisdom in general – is that it can help free people from suffering no matter what their precise metaphysical beliefs.

At the heart of all humanisms is the belief that wisdom heals. This idea is at the heart of Christian humanism, Islamic humanism, Jewish humanism, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian humanism, and atheist or agnostic humanism. We might have different ideas about where beauty and wisdom come from, or what happens to us after death, but we can still agree on certain ideas and practices which heal us of suffering and help us to flourish.

Wisdom is like a watering-pool at which animals of many different species can come and drink, as long as they don’t insist on trying to convert, denounce or behead each other, but instead meet in friendship and good humour. Humanisms of all stripes need to get along, to withstand the real enemies: on the one hand, narrow and violent fanaticism, on the other, apathy and indifference.

The decline of humanisms

Humanisms are not in great shape at the moment. The centuries-old tradition of Islamic humanism seems to be overwhelmed by fundamentalism. Likewise Jewish humanism. Secular humanism is often shrill, hectoring, hostile to outsiders, and keener to denounce than befriend. And Christian humanism is also in dramatic decline.

The old tradition of humanist Anglicanism – with its poetry, its music and architecture, its wisdom, its open-mindedness and good humour – has been replaced by a narrower evangelicalism imported from America and Africa. This evangelicalism is not all bad – it has energy and ecstasy (and there’s a long tradition of ecstasy in humanism). But the intellectual side of Christianity has been sidelined in favour of a gushing and uncritical emotionalism.

George Herbert. Not a big draw in churches these days

George Herbert. Not a big draw in churches these days

In previous centuries, Anglicans like George Herbert, or Thomas Traherne would have been as familiar with Greco-Roman arts and philosophy as with the Bible. Today, most Christians view philosophy as a threat, and would have no awareness at all of, say, Dante, Milton, Raphael or Bach. Church bookstores are filled with crass American evangelical tracts, and would never dream of stocking works by, say, Donne, Blake, TS Eliot, Launcelot Andrewes, Julian of Norwich, or Erasmus. Anglicanism is losing its humanist roots.

I remember seeing a priest at a mega-church, who told the huge congregation how much he loved Milton, then attributed this quote to him: ‘Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life.’ Anyone who thinks Milton said that has, clearly, never read Milton in their life. I don’t mind him not having read Milton, but don’t pretend you have, and check your facts before passing them on (in the same sermon he claimed the Segrada Familia in Barcelona was built in the 14th century).

The deeper problem with this anti-intellectualism is it encourages an uncritical emotionalism. Any testimony about God’s healing power is uncritically swallowed with whoops of joy and cries of wonder. Christians become utterly credulous, embarrassingly so. That makes it very easy for any ambitious preacher to manipulate them with made-up stories and anecdotes – even well-respected preachers are happy to pass on fabricated internet anecdotes as if they were gospel truth. If we can’t trust them on that, why should we trust them when they tell us the Bible is literally true?

And a second big problem with this anti-intellectualism is there is no sense in the modern church that wisdom heals. If you have emotional problems, the only solution is to pray to Jesus and hope He exorcises your pain. This anti-intellectualism would seem bizarre and primitive to humanist Anglicans like Thomas More or Thomas Traherne, who understood that wisdom empowers us to change our minds and heal ourselves. As that founding father of humanism, Cicero, put it, ‘there is a medical art for the soul, and its name is philosophy’.

I wish more Christians knew this – it would help them suffer less from things like depression or ME. The celebration of wisdom is not anti-Christian, it’s completely Biblical. But when I offered to do a workshop on healing wisdom at my local church, the young evangelical vicar brushed it warily aside. So I did it at the Sunday Assembly instead.

Even the theology schools that are supposed to be making Anglicanism more culturally sophisticated are often anti-intellectual. I did a theology course at St Paul’s Theology School, run by Graham Tomlin – a wise Christian humanist who’s written books on Justin Martyr and others. The school’s ‘ethics course’ involves a session on euthanasia, in which a man with cystic fibrosis gives an impassioned testimony about why every life is sacred. This invariably reduces everyone to tears. The other side of the argument – that some terminally ill people might want to end their lives – is not even considered. This anti-intellectual emotionalism is typical of the modern church but astounding in a theology school.

As Christian humanism declines and the church grows narrower, it loses its connection to wider society, and turns in on itself. A Christian friend told me recently they didn’t have any secular friends. How many contemporary apologists have any sort of voice in the wider cultural conversation? They are not converting anyone, they’re just reassuring existing Christians. The cross-cultural friendships are absent. The bridges are closed.

911EtzXkUDLMeanwhile, a quiet tradition of Christian humanism carries on, and actually connects far more people to God, precisely because it does not insist people show their metaphysical credentials before inviting them to sit and eat. I think, for example, of the novels of Marilynne Robinson, or the poetry of George Herbert – brought to a wider audience recently by the biography of John Drury. These humanists are outside the church bubble, meeting their society in friendship, generously sharing the nourishment of Christian transcendence, without insisting people ‘surrender their yes to Jesus’.

Reading this again, I wonder if I sound like an intellectual snob. If I do, it’s probably because I am an intellectual snob. And obviously one of the good things about Christianity – compared to atheist humanism – is that it’s not intellectually snobbish, that it is a broad church which welcomes all, in which an illiterate fisherman might very well be closer to God than an academic. Still, what is also good about Christianity is that it’s a broad church with room for the humanist or intellectual side too. It’s a pity if that aspect of Christian culture disappears – more than a pity, in fact, a tragedy.

 

 

 

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socrates dionysusAt the end of Philosophy for Life, I asked what the Socratic-Stoic tradition of philosophy misses out, and suggested there is an alternate approach to life and to emotional healing, which I called the Dionysiac tradition:

The virtues of the Socratic tradition are self-control, rationality, self-consciousness and measure. The Socratic tradition typically puts forward a hierarchy of the psyche, in whcih the conscious, reasoning parts of the psyche are highest, and the intuitive, emotional and appetitive parts of the psyche are lowest. The Dionysiac tradition celebrates a very different way of life. Where Socrates preaches self-control, Dionysus urges us to lose ourselves in sex, music, dancing and ecstasy.

The Socratic approach uses conscious reasoning as the means to emotional healing and virtue. Our emotions are caused by – or in some sense are – our beliefs and judgements. Sometimes our beliefs are unwise or wrong, which causes us suffering. But we can use our reason to re-appraise, to think differently, believe and behave differently, and this will bring us healing and wisdom.

This is the idea at the heart of Socratic philosophy, and the Neo-Stoic or cognitive theory of the emotions which is found in cognitive psychology, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and in the philosophy of Martha Nussbaum and many other virtue ethicists.

It’s true to an extent, and it can bring people a lot of healing. But it’s not the whole story. It is a partial account of the truth. It misses stuff out. If that’s all you know about the psyche, your philosophy of life will be over-rationalistic, and less effective than it could be in helping people heal and flourish.

Emotions and the Autonomic Nervous System

What I call the Dionysiac approach has a different theory of the emotions. It suggests that some forms of emotion – we might prefer to call them moods or feelings – are not primarily forms of cognitive appraisal. Instead, they are non-cognitive and physiological.

The Autonomic Nervous System

The Autonomic Nervous System

Our body, our Autonomic Nervous System, our limbic system, reacts automatically to a stimulus with powerful physical reactions (gut feelings, skin tingling, heart palpitations, heavy or shallow breathing, involuntary limb movements and so on), which our neo-cortex may then appraise and turn into an emotion.

William James, the most famous defender of this theory, described it thus. We see a bear. Our heart starts pounding, our hair stands on end, our body is flooded with adrenaline, we jump out of our skin and start running away, and as we’re running, we think to ourselves ‘this is fear, I’m afraid of that bear’. The bodily reaction comes first, and then the mind recognizes the body’s reaction and categorizes it as an emotion. The emotion, James suggests, is the physiological response.

This more non-cognitive account of the emotions focuses particularly on the Autonomic Nervous System, also known as the visceral or involuntary nervous system, regulated by the hypothalamus and running through the ganglia to our pupils, hair, skin, heart, lungs, stomach, groin and limbs.

The ANS also seems to be involved in trance states or altered states of consciousness. Music, poetry or cinema, for example, appears to have the power to send us into trance states by operating directly on our ANS rather than through our conscious rational reasoning – we feel it in our gut, it makes our skin tingle, our pupils dilate, our heart pound, and before we know it we are crying or euphorically dancing, almost involuntarily (see particularly Judith Becker’s Deep Listeners: Music, Emotion and Trancing). Our cognitive rationality is suspended, we go into a trance state, and are absorbed in the moment and the feeling.

The Stoics were aware of involuntary physiological reactions to shocks – they called them ‘first movements’. For example, a Stoic philosopher might be on a ship in a storm, and might turn pale and start shivering from fear. However, the Stoics insist it’s only an emotion if the philosopher gives their conscious assent to their physical reactions and thinks ‘this really is a scary and terrible situation’.

Seneca writes:

Emotion does not consist in being moved by the impressions that are presented to the mind, but in surrendering to these and following up such a chance movement. For if anyone supposes that pallor, falling tears, sexual excitement or a deep sigh, a sudden brightening of the eyes, and the like, are evidence of an emotion and a manifestation of the mind, he is mistaken, and fails to understand that these are just disturbances of the body.

So according to the Stoics, our ANS system may react powerfully to things – our toe may start tapping, our teeth may chatter, our heart may pound, our skin may tingle, we may even go into some kind of trance state or dissociative fit. The Stoic may feel all these things, but as long as the neo-cortex does not give its assent to these physical disturbances, it’s not an emotion, it’s ‘just disturbances of the body’. It’s a strange dualist separation of mind and body for a supposedly materialist philosophy.

On the one side, then, are the Stoics and Neo-Stoics like Martha Nussbaum, who defend a rationalist and cognitive theory of the emotions, in which any emotion must involve an evaluation or judgement of value. On the other side – the side which Nussbaum calls ‘the Adversary’ – are James, Damasio, Joseph LeDoux, Jonathan Haidt, Pascal and other ‘intuitionists’, who challenge the cognitive theory of the emotions and insist that sometimes our moods, feelings and emotions don’t involve conscious rationality primarily or indeed at all. The ANS has its reasons of which the neo-cortex knows nothing, as Pascal almost put it.

Primary and secondary emotions

It’s a fault line that runs right through modern thinking about the emotions and the best way to heal them. Which is true?

It seems to me that both accounts are true, both capture something important about the emotions. Perhaps, as Antonio Damasio argues, there are two different ways we can feel emotions – primary and secondary. Primary emotions are mainly autonomic and physiological. These occur in all animals, and perhaps to some extent in plants too. Secondary emotions, by contrast, involve some cognitive evaluations or re-evaluations, both of our physical response and of the stimulus that prompted it. Secondary emotions involve the neo-cortex, the most recently evolved part of our brain.

The Stoic or Neo-Stoic account tends to focus entirely on secondary emotions. As a result, Stoic therapy, or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, tends to focus mainly on cognitive re-appraisal and re-thinking as the best method for emotional regulation and healing.

But that is not enough. It does not give an adequate account of our powerful emotional and visceral responses to, say, the arts, or sex, or nature, or drugs, or some forms of meditation or ecstatic religious experience. It gives an account of rational consciousness (probably involving the neo-cortex), but not of other states of consciousness which are more hypnagogic or trance.

Stoics and Neo-Stoics are suspicious of these sorts of visceral emotional states because they are so powerful, and because they seem to by-pass or over-throw our rationality (which they insist is the sovereign or divine part of us). That’s why Plato is so suspicious of poetry – it creates a form of ecstasy in which we are no longer master of our self, and Plato’s philosophy is all about becoming master of your self.

Dilated pupils: one of the classic somatic responses of the ANS

But here’s the key point. Our Autonomic Nervous System is not entirely Autonomic. We can consciously engage in practices which operate through the route of ‘primary emotions’, that’s to say, directly into our ANS. This can be very healing, helping us to alter the ‘milieu’ or baseline of our daily moods in a way that the cognitive appraisal of CBT does not always do.

And such ANS-targeted practices transform our consciousness, giving us different ways of being and knowing beyond rationality. These different ways of being and knowing can sometimes give us the sense of connecting with the sacred or the divine. So they’re not necessarily ‘lower’ or more ‘bestial’ than conscious rationality, as philosophers have sometimes insisted. They are important parts of our psyche, which philosophy often leaves out.

ANS-targeted practices

What sorts of practices work directly on our ANS system?

Certain forms of meditation, like Transcendental Meditation or mindfulness, work not with our conscious rationality or logic, but instead work on our ANS to alter our consciousness and our emotions. That can be tremendously healing, as the evidence from 40 years of research into meditation shows. The repeated practice of meditation alters our baseline emotional state and our automatic reaction to potentially stressful stimuli. It alters our heart rate, our immune system, our breathing – and that all feeds into our thinking style, making us less likely to make anxious or depressed appraisals of events.

Likewise, we can consciously engage with the arts as a form of healing and emotional release. That’s precisely why dance is so important to human beings – it gives us a form of emotional catharsis that is more direct, more primary and non-cognitive than conscious rational deliberation. Philosophers (not traditionally the greatest dancers) have singularly failed to appreciate the power of dance to heal us, beyond a few brief statements in Plato or Rousseau.

J.M.W. Turner

We don’t calmly process Turner’s Snow-Storm, we’re astonished by it

The emotional impact of the beauty of nature and art cannot be adequately explained by the Stoic or Socratic account of the emotions – this is why Nussbaum’s attempts at aesthetics are so tepid. As Burke understood, the sublime and the beautiful operate not on our reason, but on our nerves, our stomach, our guts. Burke wrote: ‘In every one of its modifications the sense of the sublime has its nervous basis, due to changes which are in some degree painful, and an analogous nervous basis may be discovered for the sense of the beautiful.’We don’t calmly and rationally process sublime scenes. On the contrary, we’re astonished by them – they overwhelm us, defy our ability to process them.

DH Lawrence and other Dionysiacs would also say, quite rightly, that sex is a powerful form of emotional catharsis, one unfairly denigrated by Stoics as ‘a rubbing together of bellies’ in Marcus Aurelius’ unhappy phrase. Erotic love gives us a form of knowing deeper and more visceral than conscious rationality. Our bodies, our ANS systems, intertwine. That can also be very healing.

And collective religious experiences are also a way of consciously manipulating and altering the Autonomic Nervous System. The music, the incense, the dancing, the singing, the prayer, the wine, the invocation of a Higher Power – all this by-passes our rationality and works directly on our primary emotions. And that can be tremendously healing and transformative. Of all philosophers, William James understood best how healing the altered states of consciousness attained through stimulation of the ANS could be. His classic book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, challenges the Stoic idea that healing only comes about through conscious reasoning. Sometimes people are healed and released from their old emotional habits through profound visceral or trance experiences.

Of course, we may get a temporary healing or release through a night of passion, or dancing, or religious ecstasy, or ayahuasca. Still, I think the Stoics were right that if this temporary release is going to become permanent transformation, it also needs to involve our conscious rationality. A spiritual life that is all about feelings and not at all about rational beliefs will not have very deep roots. Nor would a spiritual life that is entirely based on rational beliefs and not at all on bodily feelings. There needs to be a connection between the mind and the heart, in popular parlance.

It would be unfair to say Stoic therapy is entirely rational and that it misses out completely the non-cognitive and the non-rational aspects of emotions. A defender of Stoicism would point to the role of visualization meditations in their therapy, and their sense of awe in nature – both of which are rational but also non-rational / visceral. Certainly, Pythagoras and his follower Plato understood the power of music, dance, poetry and incantation to transform and heal our emotions.

sacred_heart_byzantineBut in general, Greek philosophy is rather suspicious of non-rational or Dionysiac approaches to the emotions. I think Christianity has a greater sense of the healing and transformative power of music, architecture, poetry, liturgy, dance and trance states (although of course it steered well clear of any drugs besides incense and wine). Judeo-Christianity speaks not just of reason or logic, but of knowing God through the heart or even the bowels – we are often told in the New Testament that Jesus reacts to suffering in his splagchnon, his bowels. How different to a Stoic, who would dismiss such visceral reactions as ‘just disturbances of the body’.

At its best, I think, Christianity can sometimes combine the rational ethical wisdom of Stoicism with the more non-rational, sublime or Numinous emotional experiences we have discussed. Though, I’m sure like a lot of you, I find my reason and my heart aren’t always in agreement.

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