Jane Davis says that literature saved her life. She grew up in a broken home, with a single mum who died of alcoholism. She left home and lived in squats, with a husband who also eventually died of substance abuse. She was helped by a Women’s Liberation group and then went to study English Literature at Liverpool University. But she was turned off by the entitled middle-class students around her, and the pervading miasma of critical theory.

That’s when she had her epiphany. She told Ashoka magazine:

At the end of my first year, I read Doris Lessing’s Shikasta. Literally overnight, it changed my whole world-view. It’s a brilliant sci-fi novel, and it made me realise there is a religious or spiritual dimension to life and I needed to understand what it was. It brought on something like a nervous breakdown. I was very scared, because I realised I would have to totally change my life. I didn’t know how to behave in this new universe where everything matters. The book made me see that you have a life for a purpose and you’ve got to find out what that purpose is and then you’ve got to do it.

Jane Davis (right), the founder of the Reader Organization, with Sophie Howarth, co-founder of the School of Life

Jane Davis (right), the founder of the Reader Organization, with Sophie Howarth, co-founder of the School of Life

She graduated with a first, and started to teach in a continuing education college. She got to pick what she taught and she used the course to teach herself about great literature – she did a 20-week course on Dante’s Divine Comedy, another 20-week course on Piers Ploughman. She also did a PhD, but she knew that, deep down, she wanted to help get non-readers into reading, to show them that literature can save and transform lives, and that it belongs to all of us.

In 1997 she started the Reader Magazine, and in 2002 she launched the Reader Organization, which runs ‘shared reading’ groups. The group – anything between 2 and 12 people – read a poem or novel out-loud, and then discuss it in detail, bringing in their own experience and stories when they want to. The discussion is guided by a facilitator trained by the Reader Organization.

There are now almost 100 people working full-time for the Reader, which is an extraordinary achievement. Davis is not just a lady with a mission, she is apparently a brilliant people-manager. There are now over 300 shared reading groups around the country, including over 100 around Merseyside (also the home of Philosophy in Pubs, by the by – clearly something in the water up there). There are shared reading groups in many prisons. The Reader has also teamed up with NHS health and well-being boards to help people recovering from mental illness. And it’s working in care homes to run reading groups for the elderly and for those with dementia.

The testimonies from these groups are amazing. And the Reader has worked with The Centre for Research into Reading at Liverpool (run by Josie Billington and Jane’s husband Phillip Davis) to research if shared reading is good for us – a 2011 study found significant benefits for people recovering from depression. This helped to inspire the NHS’  ‘books for health’ programme – although Jane points out there are big differences. The NHS’ programme only ‘prescribes’ narrow CBT books, which people read on their own. There is not the beauty of great literature, nor the community of a reading group.

So why is reading fiction or poetry good for us? Reading in general gives us cognitive benefits, according to a new study by Alice Sullivan – it improves our vocabulary and even our maths ability. Another study last year found reading novels increases our empathic ability to take others’ perspective. It is also very heartening, if one is going through an intense experience or emotion, to find that someone else has gone through something similar and put it into words ‘often thought but ne’er so well expressed’.

I love what Holden Caulfield’s teacher says to him in Catcher in the Rye:

You’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.

I would say it’s wisdom. Poetry and fiction is an accumulation of wisdom about consciousness and experience. And so much of the challenge of our culture, today, involves remembering the wisdom of the past and communicating it. The Reader Organization does that – it tends the flame, it passes it on.

Also, the communal aspect of the shared reading group is part of its magic. The art work is a stimulus to discussion, to sharing about your lives. You listen, and you feel heard. I think that’s a lot what people get from the philosophy groups I run – in some ways, me talking about the philosophy at the beginning is just an excuse to get people together to talk to each other about what really matters to them (this is part of the appeal of the Alpha Course too).

The Saracens philosophy group this week

The Saracens philosophy group this week

This week, for example, the philosophy club at Saracens prepared for their Premiership semi-final by reading and discussing Wordsworth’s Happy Warrior. It was surreal, but also brilliant. And it got the players talking to each other about what really matters – it was beautiful to hear them talk about playing for the camaraderie and joy of it (and they won, by the way).

What I think poetry and literature particularly do is reach a part of the psyche that rational philosophy doesn’t necessarily reach. The symbols, the rhythm, the metaphors and paradoxes, these go deep into the soul, beyond the pre-frontal cortex. Jane Davis says that a good sign of poetry is it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Emily Dickinson said ‘if I feel physically that the top of my head has come off, that’s poetry’. It’s a sort of liturgy or spell – and sharing that reverie or even ecstatic state together is very good for us, I believe. It opens a window to the spiritual, and stops us getting too claustrophobic in the narrow cell of our selves.

Poetry can give us epiphanies – a sudden insight into our lives and the human condition – a seeing from another angle, from above, from within, a revealing of the beauty and pathos not just of our lives but of life. Jane Davis’ favourite writer is the novelist Marilynne Robinson, and she has a special genius for capturing these epiphanies  – it might be seeing a couple walking down the street hand-in-hand, and the poignancy and eternity of that moment takes your breath away.

Lectio Divina - the art of spiritual reading

Lectio Divina – the art of spiritual reading

It is a spiritual thing. For centuries, Christian monks and lay-people practiced something called lectio divina, or spiritual reading, where you read, considered and digested a passage of scripture, savouring in a deep and physical way the explicit and implicit meanings, the symbols, the parallels with other texts, and the resonance with your own life and where you are now. Spiritual reading helped to grow your inner world, as St Augustine put it – to expand your soul into a many-roomed mansion. Around the 16th and 17th century, that practice passed into the world of poetry, through writers like George Herbert and John Donne, who used many of the spiritual practices of contemplative Christianity in their poetry. Today, poets and writers may not be orthodox Christians, but many of them still keep those contemplative practices alive in the belief that art is good for our souls.

TE Hulme once said that Romantic poetry is ‘spilt religion’. A more positive way to put it is that the Reader Organization offers a form of spirituality for an undogmatic and multicultural age. It uses the language of religion – epiphanies, mission, revelations, converts, testimonies – and some of the practices of religion – shared reading, spiritual reading, liturgy – and offers them to people who might not be sure what they believe, but who instinctively seek for that spiritual dimension to life.

It also keeps alive a tradition of adult education that has almost disappeared. In the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, faith groups, socialist groups and universities all worked to spread education, to teach people how to read and discuss ideas and art. In the second half of the 20th century, however, many universities closed their extension courses, further education colleges became focused on teaching ‘skills’, and the left-wing intelligentsia lost interest in adult education and fell in love with obscure continental theorists. Thank God, then, that people like Jane are keeping the flame burning.


In other news:

The Huffington Post is turning into a hot-bed for Stoic philosophy, thanks to its managing editor, Jimmy Soni, who is a Stoic, and its CEO Arianna Huffington, who is also a big fan of it. Two pieces on Stoicism from the site – one’s an interview with a Stoic former Green Beret. And the other is a general piece on why we need more Stoic philosophy in our lives. Maybe this new wave of Stoic enthusiasm will help my book sell more copies in the US! Lots of nice reviews for it on Amazon at least.

Here’s a great programme on helping Muslim populations in the UK with mental health issues – including finding an indigenous way to talk about things like depression. Great idea – and a great way to fight extremist Islam, which feeds off despair and alienation.

And here’s a good article on why social activists can avoid ‘burnout’ through contemplative practice.

Tanya Luhrmann, a great anthropologist, writes for the NYT on dreaming in different cultures.

Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci gave a talk this week on Scientism. Here are the slides.

Prince is touring the UK! Here’s a brilliant vid of a James Brown gig in the 80s, where Brown invites Michael Jackson on stage to dance, and then Jacko invites Prince on stage from the audience too. Prince is wasted and gets his bodyguard to carry him to the stage! Hence the Kanye West line ‘ride around on my bodyguard’s back like Prince in the club’. Hooray for Prince.

Finally, might as well end with a poem. Being in a religious community is hard. Being in any community is hard. It confines your freedom and that chafes. But maybe we discover a greater freedom in service. George Herbert, vicar and poet, thought about this a lot in the 17th century. His poem ‘The Collar’ is a great exploration of this experience. Have a read.

See you next week,


1  Comment

57024_480x360Professor Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi is one of the world’s best-known psychologists, famous for developing the concept of ‘flow’. Inspired by the creative process of artists and musicians, Csikszentmihalyi spent decades researching the ‘flow’ states of consciousness that people can achieve when they’re totally absorbed in doing what they’re best at. They lose self-consciousness and a sense of time, and ‘zone in’ to their activity, sometimes achieving things that are ‘almost impossible’. I interviewed Csikszentmihalyi over the phone about his latest essay, ‘The Politics of Consciousness’, published in a new collection of essays called Well-Being and Beyond.

JE: You say in your essay that psychology does not yet have an adequate idea of consciousness. What do you mean?

MC: The theory that most psychologists would ascribe to does not take account of the autonomy of consciousness and people’s ability to come up with plans, purpose and motivation that are not inherent. The usual definition of consciousness is that it’s awareness of what is already in the mind. Consciousness is simply a repository or collection of impulses and stimuli that have been experienced by the person. I think the question of what consciousness actually does as an agent, as a director or controller of the mind – that hasn’t been well formulated.

JE: You talk about the politics of consciousness – the social, economic and cultural conditions that allow consciousness to flourish, and you name three essential conditions for that flourishing – freedom, hope and flow.

MC: Yes. For example, if the freedom of consciousness is restricted by political dictatorship or lack of opportunity, then consciousness is itself restricted and has no opportunities to go beyond the direction in which external forces push it.

The collapse of the Soviet Union as a revolution in consciousness

The collapse of the Soviet Union as a revolution in consciousness

That’s why I was saying that the Soviet system corrupts, because eventually people can’t suffer any more the fact they weren’t free to use their energy in ways that are more truth-orientated than people allow them to be. Behavioural psychologists might have predicted that the Soviet system would have successfully re-programmed people into subservient robots. That’s because psychologists were not able to come to terms with the existence of consciousness, which allows people to imagine and choose alternatives to existing reality.

JE: In terms of hope – I suppose for centuries the basis of people’s hope was hope in the afterlife, while for the last 200 years it’s been more hope in humanist progress. Do you think we’re becoming less hopeful about the future because of economic stagnation and the looming prospect of dramatic climate change?

MC: That’s certainly a danger, that as progress falters, that will undermine hope not just for progress but for life itself. I think that is a real problem, and that’s why I hope psychology could begin to help to find reasons for existence and for going on with life that are more reliable than progress.

JE: And your third essential constituent for flourishing consciousness is flow. You say in your essay that if we don’t have outlets for flow, people will look for excitement through things like violence and military adventurism. You mention the Hitler Youth as an example of this. Do you think something similar is happening in Middle Eastern countries, where there’s high youth unemployment and alienation, and the boredom leads to a sort of ‘heroic Jihadism’?

Young British muslims on a Jihadi boys tour in Syria

Young British muslims on a Jihadi boys tour in Syria

MC: Yes definitely. Look also at Africa, which has by now several hundreds of thousands of teenage boys who are given weapons by diamond smugglers and so forth, and for them it’s a great adventure. They remember how in the village they were frightened by attacks from neighbouring gangs, but give them a machine gun and they feel in control and able to ‘live large’, so to speak. That is a danger even under the surface of the supposedly more developed countries. For young men especially, a certain amount of purposeful effort is needed – something that they can work on and try to improve at. At the moment, all the focus is on academic performance in high school, and if you’re not successful in that one domain of cognitive skill, there’s so little to do. That’s why young people become easily seduced into drugs and violence.

JE: In your TED talk, 10 years ago, on flow, you made a link between flow and altered states of consciousness like ecstasy. You quoted a leading American composer, who said that sometimes he finds himself ‘in an ecstatic state where almost you feel like you don’t exist…I have nothing to do with what’s happening. I just sit there and watch in a state of awe and wonderment. And [the music] just flows out of itself.’ I’m researching ecstatic experiences at the moment. Could you talk about about how ecstasy relates to your concept of flow?

MC: When I started studying these altered states in artists and musicians and so forth, the literature on ecstasy was one that resonated very much with what I was learning. But flow is kind of a toned-down ecstasy, something that does have some of the characteristics of ecstasy – feeling that you’re losing yourself in something larger, the sense of time disappears – but flow happens in conditions that are usually rather mundane. Of course they happen also in arts or sports or extreme physical situations, but they can happen washing the dishes or reading a good book or having a conversation. It’s a kind of experience which culminates in ecstasy.

What are the similarities and differences between flow and ecstasy?

What are the similarities and differences between flow and ecstasy?

But the problem with ecstasy is that you can’t programme it, you have to be lucky to be a situation where all conditions are so distinctly awesome that you feel ecstasy. Or you can learn to achieve it through very long periods of training like in Hindu mystical practices. Or you can get a similar sensation by taking drugs, but the thing with the chemical path to ecstasy is that you haven’t done it yourself – it’s an external manipulation of your nervous system. And that doesn’t leave much residue in your consciousness. You don’t feel that you have achieved it, as you do when you get it through yogic techniques or true flow. If you achieve the ecstatic experience through meditation, you feel ‘I can do it’ – you are actively connected to a larger experience.

JE: An interesting difference between the traditional idea of ecstasy and your notion of flow is that, in ecstasy, there’s the idea that your consciousness goes outside of its ordinary parameters, but also that something else comes in – a god, genius, daemon or spirit. This is what Plato called enthusiasm, which means ‘having a god within’. Likewise, in creative inspiration, there’s the idea that some creativity is inspired – it’s a opening up to something, and a spirit going in or communicating through you. Many artists or poets or musicians feel like they are channelling something beyond them. But in flow, the autonomy of the self remains inviolate, self-contained, separate. So it’s a disenchanted definition of ecstasy, in which you never really go beyond the self.

MC: Well, all psychologists can report is what we learn from human behaviour or statements from people who we talk to. There may be all kind of miraculous things in the world that we have no idea about. We’re psychologists, we talk to what happens to people. If you’re talking about people who get flow, you occasionally have that sort of account, but not necessarily – many others don’t say that. For instance, chess players might say that in a really good game, they have the experience where they feel their mind has become part of the Supreme Rationality that exists outside of them in a sort of Platonic way. You feel that pure logic is coming in to your mind. But mostly the people are talking metaphorically or allegorically. They don’t actually believe it. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who actually believes.

JE: You’ve never interviewed an artist or musician who thinks their inspiration is supernatural?

MC: Not that what came into them is a supernatural force, no. But they experience it as ‘wow, I felt I had complete control’ – they explain it as a feeling or experience they had. They didn’t literally believe it was a spirit, not the ones I’ve talked to.

JE: The other big difference with the older idea of ecstasy is that your description of flow very much emphasizes training and mastery and a feeling of competence and control. In ecstatic states, by contrast, there’s traditionally been this idea that the inspired person almost doesn’t know what they’re doing, they’re out of control. It’s not an experience of mastery so much as surrender. But you also talk about the paradox of control – that in flow states there’s both a mastery and  a letting go. Can you explain that paradox a bit?

MC: The sense of control is never complete, because otherwise you wouldn’t be in flow. The feeling people have is that, at the moment, they have the possibility of doing things that are really difficult or almost impossible. But they have that feeling only in a conditional sense – they know they could make a mistake. On the other hand, they feel that if they do everything as it should be done, it will work out. In everyday life, you feel even if you do your best something may happen or undo what you are trying to do. When you are in flow, you feel that really you are in control but you also have a responsibility to do what you need to do. You are not worried about anything else, you’re focused and doing your best.

JE: How does your concept of flow feed into the idea in behavioural economics that we have two systems in the brain – a deliberative-conscious system and a more automatic system? Is flow in some ways a side-stepping of the more conscious-deliberative system and an allowing of the automatic system to take over?

MC:  So far, the studies that have been done on flow and the brain are few, but they suggest that’s what is happening is ‘transient hypo-frontality‘ – the frontal part of the brain is not interfering with the rest of the brain. The frontal part is usually the one you use to make choices, evaluate options, think about consequences and so forth. That’s the executive part of the brain. What you are using instead are the older parts of the brain, which store patterns of behaviour, for instance if you’re a skiier, the whole set of notions involved in going down the slope, the movements and sequences, they’re all stored in the lower part of the brain. Usually, the lower part of the brain is being controlled or directed by the frontal part of the brain, but in flow, you get to be so good at practicing that if you have this information well practiced, then you can let it go freely.

Here’s my favourite example of transient hypo-frontality – Ayrton Senna’s mystic lap in the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix.

JE: What is the relationship between Positive Psychology and religion? They seem to cover similar areas – virtues, self-control, resilience, gratitude, flow, friendship, awe – but at the same time, Positive Psychology is resolutely naturalistic. Is it a naturalistic alternative to religion?

MC: One distinction we have to make is between religiosity and spirituality. The latter is a non-denominational way of speaking about what religions sometimes do. So for instance, meditation, mindfulness, gratitude, respect and love of nature – all of these things are very much part of Positive Psychology. Spirituality is the basis of religions, the problem with religions is they become institutionalized and the form becomes more important than the substance, and you begin to have to differentiate yourself from other religions which have different forms, even though the substances are the same. Instead of being a spiritual religion, you end up with a religion that’s very much material. That happens to almost all religions, even Buddhism, which has lost a lot of its spirituality through institutionalization.

JE: Is there a risk that, as Positive Psychology becomes adopted by governments, it also becomes institutionalized?

MC: So far it’s been more of a critique of politics. As a critical corrective to politics, it may survive. If it becomes institutionalized in political forms, that would be really bad. I make it clear that I don’t think Positive Psychologists should work for the Army or even good political institutions, because then the spirit gets removed in favour of the structure.

As a last thought, I think one of the reasons for the success of the ‘flow’ concept in wider culture is that it given us a way to talk about altered states of consciousness, and their value, without relying on religious or animistic terminology like ‘ecstatic’ or ‘inspired’.  His way of talking about ecstasy also appeals more to the autonomous self of capitalist society – hard-working, self-controlled, diligent, competent. Indeed, flow states are described as moments of supreme control and competence, rather than as a surrender of your ego to something Other. He said in his TED talk that it’s something CEOs can feel when they’re having a great meeting – a sort of executive ecstasy.

By exorcising ecstasy of any spirits, ‘flow’ is in keeping with the great project of modern science, which Barbara Ehrenreich describes as the attempt ‘to crush any notion of powerful nonhuman Others, to establish there are not conscious, subjective beings other than ourselves – no spirits, demons, or gods…Human freedom, knowledge and – let’s be honest – mastery, all depend on shooing out the ghosts and spirits.’  Flow is not just a ‘toned-down form of ecstasy’, it is a completely disenchanted idea of ecstasy, in which the human agent is in fact triumphantly masterful, rather than surrendering to some Other more powerful than it.

Miyazaki and some of his creations

Miyazaki and some of his creations

As an account of what artists think about creative inspiration, it seems to me too narrow and naturalistic. In all his research on creativity, Csikszentmihalyi has really never come across any artist who thinks their inspiration is supernatural? Well, here are some: Ted Hughes, David Lynch, Hayao Miyazaki, TS Eliot, Walt Whitman, Rilke, Goethe, Seamus Heaney, WB Yeats, DH Lawrence, Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Wordsworth, ST Coleridge, John Keats, William Blake, John Milton, George Herbert, John Donne, Homer, Sophocles, Pindar, Aeschylus, Schiller, Dante, William Shakespeare, Garcia Lorca…

They all thought their creative inspiration was at least partly supernatural, a gift from the spirit world. I’m sure there are many, many more examples. This is not to say creativity is entirely some unconscious ecstatic process – not at all, it involves a lot of conscious craft and struggle. But for these artists at least, it is also partly a gift from the spirit world.

For many artists, as for mystics, ecstasy is a relationship – it’s a going out, a meeting, a melting, a mingling, a giving and receiving. Positive Psychology wants spirituality without Spirit, it wants awe without leaving the confines of the self – but I’m not sure you can have gratitude without a Giver, or ecstasy without a venturing forth. Peeking out of the window of the self is not the same an opening the door and walking out into the night.

There’s a sort of institutionalized blindness to the supernatural in psychology – it doesn’t see it, because it can’t see it. Previous generations of psychologists  – Carl Jung and William James particularly – had the courage to see beyond the naturalistic fence of their discipline, and this enabled them to talk about how people actually experience and interpret altered states of consciousness. ‘Flow’ manages to cover some aspects of those experiences – but it’s a very toned-down, buttoned-up, lights-on, staying-safe-inside version of ecstasy. Have we become so afraid of the dark?

1  Comment

KCUK1As you know, I’ve been researching altered states of consciousness for the last year and a half, for my next book. As part of that, I started going to various churches around London, including a big charismatic-Anglican church in South Kensington called HTB.

This week, I went to something called the Leadership Conference, which HTB organizes in the Royal Albert Hall every year. It brings together 6000 Christians from all over the world, and another 30,000 or so watch it online. There’s some stadium-rock-style worship, and talks by the likes of Rick Warren and Justin Welby. Not to everyone’s taste, certainly, but interesting for students / seekers of what the Bishop of London called ‘corybantic ecstasy’.

On the first evening, the speaker was Mike Pilivachi, who runs something called Soul Survivor, the biggest teen Christian festival in the UK. Mike walked on the stage, in front of 4000 people, and didn’t say anything. He just looked round at us. Two minutes went by, three, four. Not a word. This immediately built up the tension and focused our attention. Something weird was happening.

Mike Pilivachi

Mike Pilivachi

He looked down at his hand, felt it as if his palm was sticky. I’ll come back to that. Then he looked round at us some more. At this point, it got too much for one guy up in the balcony, who cried out ‘Lord, we stand on the shoulder of giants and we…’ but Mike interrupted with a ‘Shhh! Just wait. Wait for the Lord to come. I have a talk prepared but Jesus told me to wait for a bit, to let something happen. Jesus wants to do something now, he wants to anoint some of you. For some of you, it began this morning, for others it’s just starting now. You’re beginning to feel it. Stand up if you feel it happening.’

At this, a few people stood up, maybe 10 around the hall. ‘OK. Don’t be afraid of what’s happening. Jesus wants to do something, let it happen. Come Holy Spirit. We want more, Lord, more, a deeper anointing, a fresh wave of you, Lord.’  Charismatics are very importunate of the Lord. More, Lord, more! Like yuppies in Starbucks: make it a double dose, Lord, I’ve had a tough week.

Some of the people standing up started to rock, to groan, to shake their heads and hands. A lady up in aisle 4 started to scream. A young man right behind us let out loud groans, his pelvis thrusting forward, much to the annoyance of my friend sitting in front of him. I looked around in amusement, and wondered if the Shakers on the top balcony were safe. It was a strange scene. I’ve been to some fairly charismatic services before, in Wales. I’ve even felt the Holy Spirit myself on occasion. But that was in Pembrokeshire, where anything goes. This was the Royal Albert Hall. This was Kensington. Was nothing sacred?

The next day, the entire audience stood up to pray, and a lady called Ellie Mumford led the prayer. She’s the mother of the singer Marcus Mumford, and quite a charismatic lady. While she importuned God for yet another fresh anointing (‘more, God, we want more!’), I felt my mind settling into a sort of deep state, and I thought something like ‘I surrender to you, Lord’. This wasn’t some big conversion moment (that happened last year) just the latest in a series of surrenders!

Ellie Mumford

Ellie Mumford

Mumford’s voice rang out: ‘If you see the Holy Spirit working on someone near you, put your hand on their shoulder’. To my surprise, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I was surprised because I certainly wasn’t shaking or groaning or any of that nonsense. Yet somehow whoever it was knew something was going on inside me. Their hand felt really warm on my shoulder. I felt my mind going deeper, and I found myself in an enormous room (I’m speaking metaphorically).

And it felt like the room was at the centre of our minds and at the centre of the cosmos, and it is filled with light and love for us all. I felt a sort of painful joy in my stomach, and I was crying (quietly, I assure you, I’m not one to make a scene), which was really a sort of over-brimming. I noticed my legs were trembling, so I put out my hand to steady myself on a rail, and whoever had put his hand on my shoulder took it off, and I gathered myself together. I looked round, and the guy who prayed for me was on the next aisle. Afterwards I said thanks and asked his name – he was an American called the Reverend H. Miller. I’ll come back to him.

So what was going on? Here are four possibilities.

1) Pathology / personality

Some personality types may be more prone to ecstasy

Some personality types may be more prone to ecstasy

Perhaps the people freaking out were unhinged personalities, suffering from hysteria or dissociation, because of trauma or stresses in their life, or because of inherited neurological infirmity. And perhaps, because I did a lot of LSD when I was a teenager, I am something of a cracked pot myself, hence my occasional dissociative moments. I’ve always been a bit prone to dissociative states long before I was a Christian, so it might be my personality-type:  Intuitive-Thinking-Oddball. It does seem that certain personality-types are more prone to religious experiences – some people are more suggestible, more dissociative, less critical, more capable of absorption or flow, and more manic and generally excitable. Doesn’t mean they’re necessarily holier or better humans.

But if this is so, what is the harm in creating safe places for odd-balls to have their occasional schizoid episodes? It might mean they can express an aspect of their personality and not feel ashamed or afraid of it, indeed, to feel proud of it, and to find love and support from others. This might be better than telling them they’re sick, putting them through the NHS psychiatric system, and giving them a lifetime prescription of Prozac or Thorazine.

2) Fakery / performance art

Alternately, one could say all this Holy Spirit nonsense was an elaborate piece of performance art, in which the ring-master stages a bit of drama, and then the more histrionic or exhibitionist members of the audience get up and shake their thing. It’s self-indulgent, a bit childish and vain, and mainly about displaying how inspired and special you are to other people. But it’s basically harmless. In my own case, I wasn’t ‘putting it on’ to look good to others, if anything I was a bit embarrassed, but I suspect some people may have been making the most of whatever they were feeling – they weren’t necessarily faking it, they were just uninhibited and somewhat exhibitionist.

3) Mass hypnosis

Or perhaps such ‘outpourings of the Spirit’ are really mass hypnosis. It often strikes me that charismatic preachers tell the audience what they’re likely to feel. Note how Mike Pilavachi looked at his palm, as if to say to the audience ‘you may be feeling sweaty palms now – a sure sign of the Holy Spirit!’ He said things like ‘Jesus wants to do something, don’t be afraid of what’s happening’.  All of this creates an expectation of an ‘anointing’, thereby putting some of the more suggestible members of the audience into a hypnagogic state.

This would be the magician Derren Brown’s take on the proceedings. Brown was a teenage Pentecostalist, who then decided he didn’t believe in God, and that all that Holy Spirit was merely mass suggestion. He even claims to have manipulated a normal, healthy atheist into a full-on conversion experience in 10 minutes, using NLP-type techniques (I asked him if I could interview the ‘convert’ from his show, but haven’t been put in touch with her yet).

The question is, if mass religious experiences are a form of hypnosis, how bad for people is this? Another of Brown’s shows explored the placebo effect – how suggestion, expectation and faith can unlock healing powers in the unconscious and cure many common psychosomatic physical and mental ailments, from psoriasis to phobias.

Trance+StateIn a post-religious society, we tend to access the placebo effect through our faith in doctors and particularly in pharmaceuticals. But this is very expensive for the state (NHS England spends £270 million a year on anti-depressants), it creates a depressing mindset that we are entirely determined by our chemistry, it doesn’t lead to any ethical or social commitments in the patient, nor any artistic inspiration (no one’s written a hymn to Prozac), and it is entirely individualistic, leaving the patient alone and disconnected from his fellow humans. Isn’t religion a much better, cheaper and more pro-social way of unlocking the placebo effect?

But what about the side-effects? Ecstatic experiences lead to in-group bonding, but also to outsider-exclusion – there weren’t many gay people at the Royal Albert Hall, at least, not openly gay. The person who prayed for me, the Rev H. Miller, turns out to be a leader in a splinter Anglican group in the US which left the Anglican church over female and gay ordination. Evangelical Christians tend to be more intolerant of homosexuality than non-charismatic Christians. Evangelical Christians are more likely to support the death penalty than atheists or liberal Christians. Evangelical Christians are less likely to care about man-made climate change than liberal Christians or atheists (I’ve heard several sermons on porn addiction, never heard one on climate change). And Christians (according to one meta-study) can also be more racist than atheists. So all that experience of God’s love doesn’t necessarily soften people’s hearts. It can lead to the belief ‘we’re OK, you’re demonic’.

At its worst, religious ecstasy leads to anti-outsider violence – this week, a busload of Boko Haram soldiers gunned down over 300 people, while chanting ‘God is great!’  Religion can have some very nasty side-effects – because it taps into the unconscious, and that can be a nasty place. But I don’t think the unconscious is going anywhere just yet, so there is something to be said for preserving millennia-old traditions of wisdom and love as guides for unlocking the unconscious safely (while condemning those who use religions as a vehicle for hate).

I personally think you never get into a hypnagogic state against your will – there’s no such thing as ‘brain-washing’. People choose to surrender to a loving God, or they choose to surrender to a xenophobic Fuhrer, or to money, or sex, or any of the gods we worship. The conscious choice comes first, then the trance state.

4) Personality + Performance + Hypnosis + God

The fourth possibility, the one I tend towards, which was first put forward by the great psychologist William James, is that ecstatic moments may emerge from pathology or personality, they may be pure histrionics or performance, they may be natural states of consciousness triggered by suggestion or chemicals. But they may also be genuinely supernatural.  As James put it, ‘if the grace of God miraculously operates, it probably operates through the subliminal door’.

By ‘supernatural’, I mean that I believe the foundation of both our psyches and the cosmos is an infinite loving-consciousness. This loving-consciousness is both natural and supernatural (which literally means ‘more than nature’). It is within nature, but it’s also beyond nature – it’s both immanent and transcendent. I think we can get occasional glimpses of this deeper level of reality, particularly when we surrender our ego, which veils the infinite within us. When we die to ourselves, we pull down the veil and get a glimpse of the infinite.

Music can give us transcendent experiences - guess which band this is!

Music can give us transcendent experiences – guess which band this is!

Sometimes this revealing happens gratuitously, as when we’re riding along on the bus and are suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of the ineffable (this particularly happens on the Number 19). Sometimes we get visions after years of contemplative practice, or unearned peeks on drugs. Sometimes, music, poetry, film or dance can give us a glimpse through the veil.  And sometimes it happens collectively, through services and festivals.

The risk however, as William James well knew, was that we become obsessed with the experience of God’s love, while not letting it transform us. We become spirit-junkies, chasing the free gifts rather than asking what we can do for God. We can decide we’re special, and anyone who disagrees with us is demonic. The transpersonal psychologist Jorge Ferrer created a good set of tests for spiritual experience:

How much does the cultivation and embodiment of these truths result in a movement away from self-centredness? How much do they lead to the emergence of of selfless awareness and/or action in the world? How much do they promote the maturation of love and wisdom? To what degree do they deliver the promised fruits?

These are valid questions, and it’s for each of us to examine ourselves and answer, whatever our faith or philosophy.  Anyway, I’m grateful to the Rev H Miller for anonymously praying for me, despite our ethical differences. We all have differences – Christians, Muslims, Stoics, atheists. But I honestly believe we are all connected by loving-consciousness, it is our deepest nature and the nature of the universe. It’s far bigger than any words, labels or doctrine, and there’s far more of it within all of us than we realize.

Or maybe I should snap out of it, and accept that our deepest nature is selfish, and the universe is an indifferent ball of matter. I’ll keep repeating that to myself until I get better…


I was watching Rev the other day. It’s a sitcom about a beleaguered inner-city priest, played by Tom Hollander. This series, Rev has been facing all kinds of trials. In the Easter episode, things get really bad. Adam’s reputation is rock-bottom, his church is facing closure, and he finds himself on a hill overlooking London, where he meets God in the form of a tramp, played by Liam Neeson. It’s a lovely moment (sorry for the crap picture quality):

As it happens, I’ve always been interested in the idea / symbol / archetype of the tramp as a messenger from the spirit-world. This interest (or, if you prefer, obsession) started when I was 19 and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. I had a series of nightmares about a tramp. In my dreams, the tramp went from being a mortal enemy, to being someone I had to rescue, and someone who in turn could heal me. I’ve never had dreams that have felt so significant before or since.

Jung suggests that the wounded or dissociated parts of our psyche – what he called the Shadow – can appear to us in our dreams in the form of a tramp. They represent the refuse of our psyche – the bits we have refused to acknowledge because they seem shameful, barbaric or uncouth. The Shadow is frightening to us because it’s a threat to our Personae, to the masks of civility we present to others. But if we have the courage to face the Shadow, and to recognize it as a part of us, then it can bring us healing, wholeness, and grace.

This archetype of the Holy Tramp – a marginal figure who somehow redeems individuals or even whole civilizations when they have become caught up in image and status – comes up again and again in myth, religion and culture. Just as the Shadow appears in our dreams when we have become cut off from our deeper self, so it seems to appear to artist-prophets, who then present their society with its Shadow to remind them of the spirit-world they are losing contact with.

Here, in a Buzzfeed sort of way, are my top ten sacred tramps from western literature. This is a fairly idiosyncratic list, and I apologise now for leaving Huckleberry Finn off it!

1) Oedipus

In Oedipus at Colonus, Sophocles presented his Athenian audience with a nightmare figure – Oedipus the tramp, thrown out from the city of Thebes for killing his father and marrying his mother (without realizing they were his parents). He has no home, no possessions, no friends, no citizenship. He is a sort of shadow of his former self. He represents the worst-case scenario for his audience – total ostracism.

And yet Sophocles suggests that Oedipus has something his audience has lost. Oedipus has endured the wrath of the Gods out in the wilderness, and as a result he has gained a sort of inner power, or charisma. This charisma brings blessings to whoever has the strength to see through his loathsome exterior to the divine power within. At the end of the play, Oedipus strips off the rags that he wears, and is transformed into a God. It’s a beautiful moment of quasi-Christian redemption, quite rare in ancient tragedy.

2) Eros / Cupid

In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates describes Eros as ‘a daemon’, intermediate between the gods and men, conveying to the gods the prayers of humans, and conveying to humans the ‘commands and rewards of the gods’. Daemons or messengers appear to humans, Socrates says, through prophecy and dreams. And Eros, contrary to popular art, actually looks like a tramp.

Plato writes: ‘he is always poor, and anything but tender and fair, as the many imagine him; and he is hard-featured and squalid, and has no shoes, nor a house to dwell in; on the bare earth exposed he lies under the open heaven, in the streets or at the doors of houses, taking his rest.’

Eros, then, is the soul in exile, battered and bruised, dressed in rags – to all accounts loathsome. But actually, beneath the unpromising exterior, he is an immortal messenger, for those with the wisdom to recognize it. This relates to Socrates – also ugly on the outside but with amazing spiritual treasures on the inside. It also taps into a tradition in Greek religion that Zeus sometimes appears as a tramp or outsider (Zeus Xenos) to test how kind people are to the marginal or outsiders. To those who welcome the tramp in, great blessings are given. To those who drive the tramp out come curses.

The myth of Cupid and Psyche, by the by, which first appears in Apuleius’ Golden Ass, can be read as a Platonic allegory of the divided psyche’s attempt to unite and heal itself. Psyche is betrothed to a loathsome monster who turns out actually  to be a gorgeous demi-god. It inspired the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, also about a daemonic monster transformed by love and sacrifice, and perhaps inspired many other stories of ‘monsters transformed by love / endurance / atonement’ – such as Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.

3) Diogenes the Cynic

diogenesThe tramp-as-divine-messenger archetype was embraced as a way of life by Diogenes the Cynic, who lived in a barrel in the Athenian marketplace to show to Athenians how little one needed to be happy. ‘Men might be happy, but such is their madness, they choose to be miserable’, he declared.

Civilization just makes us anxious and neurotic, terrified of public shame and desperate for public approval. Diogenes has liberated himself from that – he lives according to nature. Anything he does in private (going to the loo, masturbating) he is happy to do in public. He destroys the wall between his private self and public mask, thereby freeing himself from shame and self-division.

4) St Augustine and the beggar of Milan

In Book VI of his Confessions, Augustine is am ambitious young orator in Milan, on his way to a competition, eaten up with nerves about whether he will win or not. On his way, he walks past a beggar: ‘Already drunk, he was joking and laughing.’ This makes Augustine think of the vanity of worldly ambition as a route to happiness. ‘That beggar was [happy] already, while perhaps we would never achieve it…There was no question that he was happy while I was racked with anxiety.’ The encounter with the tramp is the beginning of Augustine looking beyond fame and ambition to try and find a more inwardly-substantial happiness, centred in God.

5) St Francis and the leper

There is a long tradition of ecstatic beggars in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and probably many other religions. One of the most famous was St Francis, the playboy son of a rich silk merchant. One day, Francis was riding along, and he came across a leper. Francis decided this was ‘Jesus incognitio’, and he leapt off his horse and embraced the leper, which must have been a surprise for the leper. Francis then had a vision of Christ, telling him to embrace poverty in order to renew the church. This he did. His father is furious at him for giving away his inheritance, so he hauls Francis in front of the local bishop, who insists he give back his father’s possessions. Unperturbed, Francis strips off his clothes and hands them to the bishop. He carried on preaching poverty and love to humans and animals, and inspired the Franciscan Order, still going today.

6) Rumi and Shams Al-Tabriz

Another famous mendicant order was the Dervishes, a group of vagabonds founded by the mystic poet Rumi in the 13th century. Rumi was a celebrated Islamic scholar, who one day encountered a vagabond in the marketplace called Shams. They embraced and developed an intense spiritual (and possibly sexual) friendship, before Rumi’s followers killed Shams out of jealousy. Rumi fell into a depression, and then suddenly felt spiritually re-connected to Shams. He started to whirl, rotating slowly to attain a state of ecstasy, and began to recite lines and lines of immensely beautiful poetry.

Much of this ecstatic poetry is about encountering the Stranger – a marginal, sometimes frightening figure who calls us back to our immortality. We must, Rumi suggests, let go of the things of this world, of our desire for fame and respectability, in order to recognize the Stranger and remember who we are. Our troubles and even the figures in our nightmares are sometimes messengers sent from the Stranger, from the God within us. Rumi writes:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

7) The Blind Beggar in Wordsworth’s Prelude

Beggars and vagabonds are a big feature of Romantic poetry, where they often represent the dignity, freedom and even divinity of rustic poverty, as opposed to the superficiality and imprisonment of the industrial city. Wordsworth, in particular, seemed to see beggars as holy figures, partly because they touch the hearts of other people with sympathy, and partly because they seem – as for Sophocles, Plato and Rumi – to be messengers from beyond. One instance of this is in Book Seven of the Prelude, when Wordsworth is in London, and is momentarily dazzled by the glamour of London affluence. Then he catches sight of the beggar, and it returns him to himself:

Amid the moving pageant, ‘twas my chance
Abruptly to be smitten with the view
Of a blind Beggar, who, with upright face,
Stood propp’d against a Wall, upon his Chest
Wearing a written paper, to explain
The story of the Man, and who he was.
My mind did at this spectacle turn round
As with the might of waters, and it seem’d
To me that in this Label was a type
Or emblem, of the utmost that we know,
Both of ourselves and of the universe;
And, on the shape of the unmoving man,
His fixed face and sightless eyes,I look’d
As if admonish’d from another world.

I love that phrase: ‘a type / Or emblem, of the utmost that we know / Both of ourselves and of the universe’.

8) Magwitch from Great Expectations

1Dickens also had a deep sympathy for the Outsider, the Stranger, the marginalized and forgotten figures of Victorian society. In Great Expectations, Pip has gone from country bumpkin to London gentleman thanks to a fortune bequeathed to him by a mysterious benefactor. Living surrounded by wealth and status, he has become embarrassed by his bumpkin origins.

Then, one day, he realizes he owes his wealth to an escaped convict called Magwitch, who he helped when he was a boy. Pip is faced with the choice between abandoning Magwitch or standing by him – and losing his reputation as a gentleman. Pip takes pity on the old tramp, and stands by him. He puts authenticity and compassion before the approval of other people.

9) The Little Tramp

During the Great Depression, tramps loomed large in western culture, whether in George Orwell’s Down and Out In Paris and London, or John Steinbeck’s stories of vagrants, bohos and itinerant workers. But the most magical tramp from that era is surely Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp – a ridiculous figure, but also plucky, kind, and with his own dignity. How many millions of people were helped through their troubles in the Depression by learning to laugh at and have compassion for the Little Tramp? What consolation and healing he brought!

10) The Fisher King

Coming in to our own era, the tramp has a particularly magical / alchemical role in the films of Terry Gilliam. Gilliam’s films are filled with broken and divided heroes longing for healing, and the tramp is sometimes a messenger of healing. In The Fisher King, Jeff Bridges’ character is a once-powerful media star who has fallen on hard times. He meets a tramp, played by Robin Williams, who is a bit mad but also quite sweet. The tramp is obsessed with Arthurian myths, and with trying to find the Holy Grail. Eventually, the two find it, sort of, and both find healing and grace. Robin Williams comes back from his exile in the wilderness, while Jeff Bridges, by taking pity on the tramp, finds a more authentic and ethical way to live.

11) Mulholland Drive

And finally, as a free bonus, and just to remind ourselves that the Shadow / Stranger / Outsider / Tramp is often a terrifying and nightmarish archetype, here’s the freaky beggar from David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, a film all about what happens when we get lost in our personae, and the figures from our nightmares start to impinge on our waking reality.

So that’s it for the top ten tramps. I know I’ve missed some out – Jean Renoir’s Boudou Saved From Drowning, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Eddie Murphy from Trading Places, and all the holy tramps who appear in Oscar Wilde’s short stories. Who are your favourite tramps?

The point I want to make is that I think the tramp figure may be some sort of daemonic messenger from the collective unconscious / God, sent to us when we have become lost in the masque of status, to bring us back to wholeness and spiritual equilibrium. The question is, do we have the courage to face it?

PS Since publishing this, people have reminded me of Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot – definitely tramps, not so definitely holy. Poor Tom in King Lear is a better candidate – Lear is redeemed, perhaps, by taking pity on the outcast. And apparently God appears as a tramp in Irvine Welsh’ Acid House. Quote: “That c*nt Nietzsche wis wide ay the mark whin he said I wis deid”


PChPT_MedievalMystic_rtI write this from York, where yesterday I went to the ‘Story of Chocolate’ museum, and was shown around by a delightful and learned historian, Alex Hutchinson, who is the world expert on the Rowntree family and thus able to tell me some fascinating family gossip. I learned, for example, that my great-grandfather, George Harris, who invented what is today the world’s best-selling chocolate bar (Kit-Kat) was fired as chairman of Rowntree’s for his refusal to pay a parking ticket! He died two years later, poor chap.

Before York, I was in the equally beautiful medieval town of Durham, for a workshop on medieval visionaries, organized by the Centre for Medical Humanities’ Hearing the Voice project.

I gave a rather half-baked presentation exploring the idea of the poet as shaman. I am interested in how poets like Ted Hughes developed ‘techniques of ecstasy’ (to use a phrase from the anthropologist Mircea Eliade) to get themselves into states of trance or reverie which they found conducive to creativity. As Robert Graves put it, ‘No poem is worth anything unless it starts from a poetic trance.’

Poets developed various ways of achieving this reverie – focused attention or absorption, meditation, drugs (De Quincey and Coleridge were both keen on opium as a means to poetic reverie), strenuous exercise (Rousseau, Wordsworth, Carlyle and others all used walking as a trance-inducer), visualisation, rhythm and chanting, mantras (Tennyson could put himself into ‘a waking trance‘ by repeating his own name!) and so on.

And the fruits of these techniques of ecstasy were an unfolding of the self beyond ordinary consciousness, an uncovering of the sensitive deeper parts of the psyche to the spirit world, like a flower opening up its stamen. This can happen and then unhappen suddenly – our minds unfold, and then fold just as quickly, depending on, say, the way the dust plays in a sun-ray. Suddenly, the mind vibrates, the pupils dilate, and we are receiving visitations from the bees of the invisible.


Poets often believe this unfolding connects them to the spirit-world – they were and are far more likely to attribute their poetic inspiration to supernatural spirits rather than natural psychological processes. And who are we to disagree?

Having opened up to the Others (as Yeats called the spirits who spoke to him through his wife), the poet receives messages or, more typically, metaphors and symbols. ‘We have come to give you metaphors for your poems’, the Others told Yeats obligingly. The poet then takes these symbols back to their society or tribe, who can use them as vehicles to these threshold states themselves. They are ladders to the spirit-world, like Jack’s beanstalk.

Poets connect the visible, material, political, external world to the invisible and interior spirit world. The poet, like the shaman, is socially important as a mediator or reconciler between these two worlds – in Joseph Campbell’s phrase they are the Master (or Mistress) of Both Worlds.

Ted Hughes, poet and anthropology student, put it best: “The character of great works is this: that in them, the full presence of the inner world combines with and is reconciled to the full presence of the outer world…these works seem to heal us…The faculty that makes the human being out of these two worlds is called divine.”

Ted Hughes with TS Eliot

Ted Hughes with TS Eliot, both of whom were fascinated by contemplative practices

But Hughes and other modern shamans have been muttering for some time now that western men and women are losing our ‘susceptibility to the trance condition’ as Hughes put it. We’re also losing (perhaps have lost) our belief in the invisible spirit world. Some of us are still interested in altered states of consciousness, but have little idea how to get to them other than through chemical short-cuts or a very long jog. Others insist such states are pathological.

We are becoming denizens of Flat-land, and so many rooms in the mansions of our soul are hardly ever visited. In fact, we’ve pretty much forgotten the mansion and are squatting in the gate-keeper’s lodge.

Hughes thought perhaps we needed education or training in imaginative, contemplative practices to unlock the mansion’s great halls- and interestingly (considering he was an out-and-out shamanic animist) he suggested St Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises is one example of this sort of training manual for the mind, the imagination, and the emotions.

This reminds me of that other modern shaman, David Lynch, who also suggests that contemplative practices are the best route to the magic and healing symbols of the unconscious. Hughes used fishing as a meditative practice. Lynch uses it as a metaphor: “Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper. ” And Lynch has tried to reintroduce contemplative practices into schools, to give children the capacity for interiority rather than leaving them in Flat-land.

Spiritual exercises in ancient and medieval Christianity

This brings us back to the seminar in Durham. After my tray of half-baked idea-cookies, I had the pleasure of listening to some world experts on medieval mysticism – Vincent Gillespie and Sarah Salih on Julian of Norwich, Barry Windeatt on Margary Kempe, and others on Bonaventura, Gregory of Nyssa, Marguerite Porete, the Cloud of Unknowing….none of which I’ve read. This is one of the benefits of ignorance – you’re constantly dazzled by unexpected riches.

Talking briefly to Vincent Gillespie of Oxford University, I was fascinated to learn how rich the tradition of contemplative practices is in medieval Christianity. When I think of Christian meditation, I think of people like Father Lawrence Freeman, who as far as I’m aware is mainly inspired by Eastern practices. But there’s an incredibly rich tradition right here in the west – millennia-old practices of reading, contemplation, visualization, memory, fasting and chanting.

Contemplative practices are a sort of architecture for the soul (this is the inside of York minster)

The later contemplative manuals like St Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, are (Gillespie told me) actually rather over-systematic and military compared to earlier contemplative handbooks by the likes of Bonaventura or Richard of St Victor, which are more open to the unpredictability of God – the sudden ‘showings’, or the patient waiting through the dry patches.

As most of you know, I am very interested in the work of Pierre Hadot on ‘spiritual exercises’ in ancient Greek philosophy. Philosophy for Life is about how people use these exercises today, which is what I and colleagues like Donald Robertson are working on at the Stoicism Today project.

What was so fascinating about this Durham seminar was finding out more about the spiritual exercises of medieval Christianity – things like ‘painting the heart’, lectio divina (spiritual reading), art of memory techniques, and the ‘affective meditation‘  techniques they used to cultivate emotional identification with Christ and others. These methods would expand and enrich practitioners’ inner lives. ‘Narrow is the mansion of my soul’, St Augustine wrote. ‘Enlarge it, that Thou may enter.’

Reading about, say, the contemplative practices of Richard of St Victor, and then reading this neuroscience paper on altered states of consciousness, it strikes me that we know far less than our medieval ancestors about ASC and how to access them. Could we not draw on their wisdom?

It would be amazing if there was a centre in the UK, perhaps at somewhere like Durham, York or Canterbury, to research and practice some of these ancient, medieval and modern contemplative techniques – and to study them using the ideas and tools of psychology and neuroscience. I wonder if virtual reality technology could be used – imagine building a virtual reality version of Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle! >

A number of these sorts of contemplative research-and-practice institutes exist in the US for Eastern meditation, such as the Mind and Life Institute and the Mindfulness Awareness and Research Centre at UCLA. In the UK, there is the Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice at Bangor and a mindfulness network at Exeter. But I am not sure what exists to research and practice ancient Christian contemplative practices – do any of you know of such centres?

Such a centre could also research and compare contemplative practices from other traditions – Sufi, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Platonic, shamanic -how these traditions fed into each other, and how they feed into non-theological fields like poetic or scientific inspiration. The Christian contemplative tradition also drew heavily on virtue ethics, and so it links up with the contemporary revival of Aristotelian and Stoic ideas and practices.

Universities were born from just this sort of wisdom centre – the school at the Abbey of St Victor, near Paris. In the early 12th century, the school developed its own ‘liberal arts’ programme, teaching students liberal arts, mechanical arts like hunting and farming, and also contemplative practices – the school was home to Hugo of St Victor and Richard of St Victor, two pioneering mystics whose work helped to inspire many later medieval contemplatives. Hugo of St Victor’s mandala-esque painting, The Mystic Ark, hung above the school-room to inspire meditation (here’s a modern reproduction of it).


Hugo of St Victor insisted that the purpose of the school should be wisdom. It should feed not just the intellect but the whole person. Somewhere, universities lost sight of that, so that the poet and mystic Thomas Traherne could complain about Oxford in the 17th century: ‘there was never a tutor that did professly teach Felicity….We studied to inform our knowledge, but knew not for what end we so studied.’

The end should be wisdom. ‘Wisdom is the principal thing, yet all neglect her’, Traherne wrote. Wisdom is the heart of the sciences, the arts and the humanities. The wisdom of contemplative practices opens up our minds to inspiration for all these fields. How great it would be if every university had a centre, a mini-school of St Victor, to bring together researchers and practitioners in wisdom, and to provide courses and workshops for staff, students and the wider community.

By the way, the closest existing thing to virtual reality mysticism (VRM) is the Oculus Rift game, Xing, soon-to-be-released, which explores the afterlife: