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Spiritual technologies

Three manifestations of sacred geometry – a page from the 9th century Book of Kells, a Tibetan Buddhist mandala, and a Shipibo ayahuasca-inspired weaving

Our psyches are deeply connected to the material and symbolic worlds we weave around us. The habitat of our daily lives re-inforces our habits, for good and ill. All our stuff – our apartments, our clothes, our books, our TV, our online activity, our food, our relationships – helps make us who we are, in a powerful feedback loop.

We saw the dark side of that last week, when Robert Bowers killed eleven people in a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Bowers was an avid user of a right-wing social media site called Gab, which fed him toxic conspiracy theories like the idea Jewish oligarchs finance mass migration to try and destroy white America. He sought belonging, identity and meaning through the online church of Gab, just as many young British men and women are radicalized into extremism and terrorism through a daily diet of xenophobic videos, blogs and tweets.

We can say ‘how could this monster commit such evil?’ But let’s look at ourselves. We know social media worsens people’s moods, and brings out anti-social behaviour. And yet we’re all still addicts.

Six months ago, I deleted my Twitter account, because I realized it was feeding my inner jerk. Twitter is a hellish party in which everyone is a bad version of themselves. It fosters narcissism, polarization, virtue-signalling, competitive outrage and mindless reactivity. I wanted to leave, but was addicted to its dopamine-fuelled distraction and ego-amplification. After I deleted my own account, I started tweeting from my university centre’s account instead. When I found myself, one morning, swearing at a complete stranger for giving away the ending of Murder on the Orient Express, on my centre’s Twitter account, I realized I had to take desperate measures. I told my centre administrator to change the password for the Twitter account and not tell me.

But there’s a silver lining to the dark narrative of how the internet poisons our psyches.  It shows the extent to which our behaviour is modifiable. It shows how malleable our psyches are. If we can be conditioned to hate, we can also be conditioned to love.

Over the last two years, the practice that has changed me the most is loving-kindness meditation. Every morning, I practice mindfulness of breathing for 30 minutes, because I have a very scattered and over-busy mind. Then I end with five minutes of loving-kindness.

I wish myself happiness, freedom from suffering, great joy, and great equanimity. I bring to mind someone I love, and wish them the same. Then I bring to mind someone I feel neutral about, and wish them the same, then someone I have difficulties with. Then I imagine us all sitting together – this can be a very strange group of people, like, my mother, my neighbour, and Donald Trump, all holding hands. I imagine us wishing each other happiness, freedom from suffering, great joy and great equanimity. Then I imagine us spreading this loving-kindness to all beings in all dimensions.

That regular imaginative practice has changed my habitual mood, I’m sure of it. I notice myself smiling at strangers more often in the street or on the Tube. I am also kinder to myself, less likely to take a dump on myself for being single, or not earning much money.

The loving-kindness script is a very old and successful technology for behaviour modification. I also use external technologies – props for the construction of my better self. I’ve made a little shrine where I meditate, and put up pictures of my favourite teachers – Pema Chodron, Epictetus, Thomas Traherne, Ram Dass, Tenzin Palmo and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. I like sitting down in the morning and bowing to them, and then opening my eyes to see them smiling down on me. I also light candles and a joss stick while meditating – another technology for the alteration of consciousness.

Around my apartment, I have various other props to remind me of the wisdom I am trying to embody. I have a Buddhist thangka that I bought in Sarnath, where the Buddha first taught. It’s the last thing I see when I leave the apartment, and the first thing I see when I come home. I have a string of Tibetan prayer flags hanging on my balcony – I love to see them flapping in the wind, releasing blessings.

I also use some apps on my phone for my spiritual practice. I use Insight Timer, a free meditation app which I recommend. I use the Shambhala app to watch videos of Pema Chodron’s lectures. And I use an app she recommended – WeCroak – which sends me a message five times a day saying ‘Remember you’re going to die.’ According to a Bhutanese Buddhist tradition, the way to happiness is to remember you’re going to die five times a day. And then there’s old-school technologies like my books, my journal, my writing. I have written intentions stuck to my wall. And I have this blog. This is also a spiritual technology, for me and hopefully for you.

There is some excitement around ‘spirit-tech’ at the moment. Yuval Harari thinks the next religion might use virtual reality to immerse us in alternate worlds and fill us with a sense of presence. Virtual reality is already used as a form of distraction therapy, to reduce pain in burn victims, and it’s being developed as a technology for calming meditation. ‘Take a holiday, wherever you are’ is the slogan for a company called Guided Meditation VR.

I got the chance to try out meditation VR earlier this week, when I took part in a one-day retreat designed by Jose Montemayor, founder of the Cyberdelic Society, together with mindfulness teacher Tamara Russell. A group of ten of us meditated together, then listened to a lady talk about her near-death experience. Then we took turns to plug into a VR near-death experience Jose designed, in which your avatar is hit by a car, and its soul leaves the body, flies into space, and goes into various heavenly realms, before returning to Earth. I sat next to the lady who’d had a near-death experience, and she had tears in her eyes when she removed the headset. ‘How did you know what I had gone through?’ she asked.

VR has wonderful potential as an aesthetic and spiritual technology, but this is not new. Humans have always used spiritual technologies to alter consciousness. The cave paintings at Lascaux, which are around 20,000 years old, conjured up a virtual reality in which our ancestors immersed themselves to alter their consciousness. The 72-foot-long Egyptian Book of the Dead in the Metropolitan Museum in New York is an extraordinary textual and visual technology designed to guide the soul on its final journey. Plato’s Phaedo described a near-death experience, and was sometimes read to Greeks and Romans in their final moments. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is another spiritual technology, designed to train the mind and the imaginative memory, so we’re not too confused in the afterlife.

One of the scrolls of the Met Museum’s Egyptian Book of the Dead

While the written text is an incredibly powerful technology for self-modification, pictures are even more powerful, because, as Aristotle said, ‘we think in images’.  Medieval illuminated manuscripts are technologies for altering consciousness and transforming the self. So are illuminated books of hours. So are rosaries, icons, statues, shrine rooms, stained glass windows, zen gardens, cathedrals. So are psalms, hymns, oratorios, symphonies. The song is perhaps the greatest technology humans have discovered for altering consciousness.

And then there’s plant medicines like ayahuasca. Imagine an intelligent virtual reality machine, which manages to penetrate deep into your subconscious and detect your most toxic beliefs and painful memories – not over years of therapy, but instantly. Imagine it somehow intuits what you need to learn in order to grow, then conjures the idea or experience in front of you with all the skill of a genius theatre director, and helps you confront it, feel it intensely, learn from it and then purge it. Imagine the intelligent machine somehow responds in real-time to your mind, so that a terrifying monster instantly transforms into an ally if you can bring to mind the appropriate intention. Imagine, all around you, members of your group are plugged into the same intelligent machine, and sometimes your virtual realities overlap, so you appear in each other’s visions, help each other and purge for each other. The intelligent machine gives you a glimpse of a reality beyond the individual self, beyond the body, even beyond death. Now imagine that this incredible technology grows wild, can be picked for free, and connects you to the ancient and awesome intelligence of nature.

The habitual use of any of these technologies alters the self. Habitual exposure to a beautiful garden or a sublime landscape soaks into the memory, and gives one an inner reservoir of peace and joy that one can draw on in difficult times – this is Wordsworth’s great creed. One of the advantages the rich have over the rest of us is they can frame their habitat to reinforce serenity, confidence and joy. They have access to better spiritual technologies – gardens, chapels, libraries, works of art, retreats, gurus, drugs – although every technology can become an escape from reality, which leaves the self weaker, less resilient, more proud. Anyway, with a bit of ingenuity, we can cobble together our own technologies, like a spiritual MacGyver. The quality of the intention matters more than the sophistication of the technology – a devoted peasant with a wooden crucifix may go deeper than a distracted billionaire with his own chapel.

What technologies and props are you plugging your self into? What is the quality of the content in your mind-stream? What filters have you set up to protect you from toxic ideas and habits? Does your habitat reinforce habits of kindness, open-heartedness, peace and courage? What prop could you install, this weekend, to strengthen your better self?

How alt-right is Nietzsche really?

Hitler considers a bust of Nietzsche

I wasn’t a big reader as a youth. I was more of a jock and a class clown. It was only around the age of 17 that I suddenly became a moody adolescent book-worm – it was both a quickening and a sickening. In one term, I read Hamlet, King Lear, Heart of Darkness and Freud’s Five Cases of Hysteria, and also watched Blue Velvet. Strong medicine! I had a sudden horrifying and fascinating sense of the dark subconscious bubbling beneath civilized appearances.

The book that made the biggest impression on me, by far, was Friedrich Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. I was transfixed by his description of the play of two opposing forces in ancient Greek culture – the Apollonian, which seeks limits and moderation, and the Dionysian, which seeks excess and ecstasy. I started to see these forces everywhere. Every essay I wrote weaved its way inevitably back to the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The obsession continued at university. Fifteen years later, I wrote my first book on the Socratic path to flourishing, and my second on the Dionysian path. How long a shadow that book has cast!

Strangely enough, I never read other books by Nietzsche. I got my Nietzschean philosophy second-hand, from the novels of DH Lawrence. But recently I was sent a new biography of Nietzsche by Sue Prideaux, called I Am Dynamite. I devoured it – it’s a beautiful, moving, and very absorbing account of a heroic and pathetic life. And it inspired me to read more Nietzsche, and consider his influence on our time a little more deeply.

Nietzsche grew up in a fairly well-to-do German family in Prussia, but the family fortunes took a turn for the worse when his father – a Lutheran pastor – died of a degenerative brain illness in his 30s. The family became hard-up, but Nietzsche lifted them up through his academic brilliance. He was appointed a professor of philology at the age of 25, but he dreamt of being a composer. He managed to befriend Richard Wagner – already a European celebrity – and spent the happiest days of his life at the Wagner castle, where he was embraced as one of the family. For a few years, he moved in the exalted atmosphere of Chateaux Wagner – all high ideals and swooning ecstasies.

But his 30s were not as glorious as his 20s. He wrote The Birth of Tragedy at 28, but it was greeted with ominous silence by the press and academic peers. It was so over-the-top in its ecstatic style, compared to the average plodding academic work. Then he fell out with Wagner, and fell in love with a 20-year-old Russian, named Lou Salome, who ultimately rejected his advances and humiliated him. He was prone to terrible migraines and digestive troubles, and was often confined to bed for days. He found himself tramping across Europe, from city to city, self-publishing his own books, and almost always alone.

Nietzsche in a humorous photo with his friend Paul Ree and 20-year-old Russian tearaway Lou Salome. The three lived in a sort of Platonic menage a trois for a while, before Lou and Paul abandoned the besotted Nietzsche. He became markedly more misogynistic afterwards. ‘You go to women?’ he wrote. ‘Do not forget the whip.’

Yet somehow, out of these inauspicious circumstances, his ideas burst forth, more and more confident and radical. He was certain that he had an entirely new vision of existence, which would destroy the last 2500 years of morality, and pave the way for a bold new adventure for mankind.

When one reads the great prophets of moral philosophy – the Buddha, Plato, the Stoics, Christ, the author of the Upanishads – one notices that they all preach self-knowledge, self-examination, self-control, sobriety, chastity and asceticism of the body. Only through this self-denial, we are told, can the virtuous person go beyond desires and appetites, beyond appearances, beyond impermanence, and arrive at some transcendental resting place – the One, God, the Logos, Buddha-nature, Brahman.

Nietzsche, through his great ‘transvaluation of values’, turns all these systems on their head. Their morality is not virtue and health. It is sickness, weakness, pessimism, nihilism, a symptom of decadence and decline. It is the consolation of the weak, the broken and the disappointed, those who turn wearily from life and ‘put their last trust in a sure nothing rather than an uncertain something’.

He writes, perhaps with the Buddha in mind: ‘They encounter an invalid or an old man or a corpse, and straightaway they say ‘Life is refuted!’ But only they are refuted, they and their eye that sees only one aspect of existence.

These famous moral systems are really an outgrowth of ‘slave morality’. The slave-philosopher Epictetus is a perfect example. He has no power over external things, so he says that true power, true freedom, is power over one’s thoughts and desires. How convenient. Then, like Socrates, he preaches this acceptance-of-weakness to strong aristocratic youth, and ruins them.

The ‘slave-morality’ was first invented by the Jews, Nietzsche says, out of their weakness and domination by various more powerful races. Judeo-Christianity pretends to be a morality of meekness and forgiveness, but underneath that mask lurks resentment and passive-aggression. ‘I forgive you’, they say to their conquerors, but what they really mean is ‘I’m better than you’. And the Romans, alas, fell for it.

Against the slave-morality, Nietzsche champions the masters, the ‘blond beasts’, those strong, carefree warriors who maraud across the world from time to time, like the Vikings, the Teutonic knights, the Mongols, the Indian Kshatriyas, the Greek aristocrats. They were young, healthy, vigorous, laughing, cruel and violent. They basically did what they liked, and called it ‘noble’, and had a gay old time of it until Socrates, Jesus, Lao Tse and the Buddha came along and ruined everything.

Nietzsche thought that liberal democracy was really an extension of Christianity, with its sympathy for the weak and the rights of man. He looked across late 19th century Europe, with its campaigns for universal suffrage, gender equality and the welfare state, and saw the triumph of slave morality, the triumph of the herd, the masses, the little people. It made him sick. He railed against the plebs, and especially against female suffrage – ‘the struggle for equal rights is a symptom of sickness’, he wrote. Healthy women loved to obey men. Only barren women fought for equality.

Democratic, plebeian, mediocre Europeans had lost any sense of greatness. They’d lost even the memory of God and of their predecessors’ heroic struggle for transcendence. They just wanted comfort and ‘well-being’. Nietzsche was no fan of well-being:

You want, if possible—and there is not a more foolish “if possible”—TO DO AWAY WITH SUFFERING; and we?—it really seems that WE would rather have it increased and made worse than it has ever been! Well-being, as you understand it—is certainly not a goal; it seems to us an END; a condition which at once renders man ludicrous and contemptible—and makes his destruction DESIRABLE! The discipline of suffering, of GREAT suffering—know ye not that it is only THIS discipline that has produced all the elevations of humanity hitherto?

Instead, he lays out a new vision for humans, a new project: the Ubermensch, or Superman. He writes in Thus Spake Zarathustra: ‘I teach you the Superman. Man is something that should be overcome.’ We should seek to transcend ourselves not in the service of ‘super-terrestrial hopes’ like God or Nirvana, but rather in the service of self-actualization. This self-actualization – becoming what we are – does not involve the disciplining of the body, the emotions and the desires, but rather letting the desires, emotions and body sing and dance. It does not mean a weary obedience to rules and precepts handed down by priests, but rather the bold creation of new values. Man creates meaning, he does not receive it from God. And this self-actualization will be here and now, in this body, on this Earth, or it will be nowhere. We must resist the urge to find consolation and security in fake metaphysical dreams like God or Nirvana, and instead learn to dance with uncertainty and chaos.

By 1888, Nietzsche felt he had blown his way clear of the old morality, and was euphoric with the new prospects he saw for mankind. He wrote four books in nine months, they poured out of him. He was filled with joy, and even lost control of his face and his emotions – he couldn’t stop grinning. He saw coincidences in everything. ‘He only had to think of a person for a letter from them to arrive politely through the door.’ His letters to his friends became increasingly manic. He started to allude to himself as Dionysus, or ‘The Crucified’. ‘I shall rule the world from now on.’ ‘In two months time I shall be the foremost name on the earth’.

In January 1889 he had some sort of breakdown in the streets of Turin. It is said he saw a man whipping a horse, and he clung to the horse’s neck and wept. How poignant if this is true – the man who condemned pity breaks down in pity! He retreated to his apartment, where he screamed and danced naked. His friend Franz Overbeck was contacted, and found Nietzsche cowering in a corner, trying to read his writings but obviously unable to comprehend them. He never recovered his mind – never seemed to know who he was or what was happening.

He was 44, but lived for another 11 years. His sister Elizabeth, who sounds an evil and selfish anti-Semite, took care of him, and cashed in on his growing success. She ran salons celebrating his work in the living-room, while Nietzsche howled in his bedroom upstairs. She controlled his estate, and turned him into a prophet of Nazism. Hitler came to visit, and emerged from their conversation bearing Nietzsche’s walking stick.

Was Nietzsche’s collapse a divine punishment for his hubris and over-reaching? Some kind of psychosis or spiritual emergency? Or a neurological illness, perhaps inherited from his father? We don’t know. But, just as he prophesized, in the years after his collapse his influence grew and grew. His dynamite philosophy blew a hole in Victorian complacency, and created a space for the fierce experimentation of modernism.

For some years after World War 2, Nietzsche was understandably out of fashion. But he’s been rehabilitated since the 1970s, and is now one of the most popular subjects for philosophy PhDs. Scholars have clarified that, unlike his sister, he wasn’t anti-Semitic – he admired Jewish culture. Nor was he a nationalist – he thought nationalism was a cheap intoxicant, despised German militarism, and called himself a ‘good European’. He was a key influence on Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, and helped to create what Paul Ricoeur called the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ which is so popular in left-wing humanities and social sciences: what secret interest lurks under an ideal? Aren’t all claims to ‘truth’ or ‘beauty’ really disguised power-grabs by particular interest groups?

This new biography will add to his good reputation – what a heroic man we meet, what a stylist, what a humourist! Who else has chapter headings like ‘Why I am so clever’! Who else can tear apart an entire philosophy (like Stoicism) with a few hilarious sentences. What brilliant psychological insights he threw up in his inspired frenzy – on the unconscious, the ego, projection, the wisdom of the body.

It’s awkward, then, that this new, sympathetic, rehabilitated Nietzsche should prove to be so popular with the alt-right. The American neo-Nazi Richard Spencer has said he was ‘Red Pilled by Nietzsche’, and many other angry young white men on alt-right or Red Pill websites have nothing but praise for Nietzsche. They don’t get him, insist liberal or leftist defenders of Nietzsche. They’re misappropriating him. They’re making the same mistakes the Nazis made.

Oh come off it. Foucault is right that there are many Nietzsches, but one of the most consistent notes one hears is contempt for the masses and hatred of liberal democracy, equality, and the rights of women, workers or the weak. As I read his books this week – particularly Beyond Good and Evil and The Genealogy of Morals  – I thought how well it fit with the alt-right worldview: Liberal democracy is a monstrous cacophony that seeks to shame and emasculate strong men. It is a dictatorship of the offended, the resentful, and the easily bruised, who seek power through victimhood and hurt feelings. This conspiracy of the weak will only work if strong men fall for it – if they become cuks or ‘white knights’, in alt-right and Red Pill terms – if they are so credulous as to believe that women or minority groups really are interested in ‘equality’ and ‘fairness’ rather than simply power and domination. But the strong man, the Alpha male, will break the bonds of liberal guilt and roam free, just like Trump, Bo-Jo, Bolsonaro, Orban, Duterte, Erdogan, Berlusconi, and every other blond or not so-blond beast now strutting on the world stage.

How could the alt-right and Red Pillers not thrill to passages like this, where Nietzsche gets nostalgic about the good ol’ days of rape and pillage enjoyed by the ‘blond beasts’:

They enjoy freedom from all social control, they feel that in the wilderness they can give vent with impunity to that tension which is produced by enclosure and imprisonment in the peace of society, they revert to the innocence of the beast-of-prey conscience, like jubilant monsters, who perhaps come from a ghostly bout of murder, arson, rape, and torture, with bravado and a moral equanimity, as though merely some wild student’s prank had been played, perfectly convinced that the poets have now an ample theme to sing and celebrate.

It reminds one of Kavanaugh – it’s all just student pranks…just bants!

There are passages where Nietzsche even sounds like Trump – in his insults against women, and his absurd boasting: ‘At no moment of my life can I be shown to have adopted any kind of arrogant or pathetic posture’, he says, before continuing: ‘Anyone who saw me during the seventy days of this autumn when I was uninterruptedly creating nothing but things of the first rank which no man will be able to do again or has done before, bearing a responsibility for all the coming millennia, will have noticed no trace of tension in me.’ It reminds me of Trump’s immortal line: ‘I’m much more humble than you would understand’.

How could fascists not grin at Nietzsche’s Strangelovian denunciations of the superfluous dwarves of liberal democracy, who don’t deserve any sympathy – in fact, it is just this sympathy which has led to the ‘DETERIORATION OF THE EUROPEAN RACE’? How could they not cheer at his calls for ‘the higher breeding of humanity, together with the remorseless destruction of all degenerate and parasitic elements’, at his yearning for ‘the harshest but most necessary wars’, at his praise of violence and cruelty as the source of all higher culture, at his endless comments like: ‘The weak and the failures shall perish. They ought even to be helped to perish’.

I could give many such quotes. Nietzsche can’t be called a fascist or alt-righter, because he never stayed in one position long, and he rejected any political action as ‘filth’. But the alt-right can find a lot to love in him. I’m sure sometimes he is being provocative – just bants! – but words and ideas easily slip off the page and kill people.

And this champion of strength and virility was a sickly and weak man, a failure in the army, a loser in love, who claimed not to need public attention yet became more and more megalomaniac until he claimed to be a god. He’s right that there can be something morbid and unhealthy in Stoicism and other philosophies of consolation – but there is also, surely, something morbid and resentful in him, the impoverished and humiliated Prussian constantly insisting on his aristocratic rank. One can find him interesting, funny, fascinating, even sympathetic, and still be honest about the toxicity of his ideas and the damage they do.