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Spiritual materialism

Hello. Well, this is awkward. I stopped writing this newsletter two months ago, just before travelling to the Amazon jungle for an ayahuasca ceremony. The good news, back then, was that I’d been handed a philosophy column for the New Statesman magazine – the culmination of a dream I’d had for over a decade. I first pitched a philosophy column to the editor of the Times, back in 2007. Now, finally, out of nowhere, the dream had fallen into my lap. So I bowed a gracious goodbye to my newsletter subscribers, and headed off to Peru.

I emerged from the jungle, still extremely high, and checked my emails. It was amazing how few emails of any interest I’d received while I was away. You expect the world to be as altered as you are, and to be waiting for you to climb onboard like a dragon kneeling before Daenyrys. Instead, the internet was filled with strange news – a hurricane was about to hit the UK, Theresa May had lost her voice during the Tory conference, a fish had jumped down a man’s throat. No emails about exciting new opportunities. And no emails from the editor of the New Statesman. An ominous silence, of the sort freelance journalists know only too well.

Over the next few weeks, it gradually and painfully emerged that the column was not going to happen…Either the editor had changed his mind, or there was some internal obstacle, or I’d done something wrong. I don’t know. He emailed to say he was ‘still interested’ in the idea (which, to be clear, was his idea) and hoped to find a space for it next year.

I felt pretty sad about it, but still hope it might happen. Meanwhile, there were other freelance opportunities to pursue. The New Yorker responded positively to a pitch – another long-term dream of mine. But that also faded away. The Spectator liked an idea which I pitched last Friday, and asked me to write it for this Monday. I spent the weekend writing the piece, sent it off on Monday and….ominous silence. I haven’t heard back since.

This is the freelance life. I’d forgotten how irritating it is to deal with all-powerful commissioning editors, who you want to tell to f*ck off for their cavalier treatment of you, but can’t, because there are about five intelligent magazines in the UK, so you need to keep them sweet. But at least, in this day and age, you can still blog without needing anyone else’s approval. So I’ve decided to start up my newsletter once more. I can’t do it once a week, but will try to do it once a month. Thank you to those who support the costs of the newsletter on Patreon.

This issue I want to talk about spiritual materialism, a phrase coined by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a mad Tibetan monk who came over to the West in the 1970s, and inspired some of the greatest western Buddhist teachers, like Pema Chodron and Tara Brach. By ‘spiritual materialism’ I think he means the way we westerners smuggle our worldly ambitions into our spiritual quest.

Whenever I’ve had dramatic spiritual awakenings, I’ve expected it to convert rapidly into some sort of worldly success. I’ve expected it to shake up my external life and lead to sudden, radical improvements – I would suddenly meet the love of my life, for example, or be offered a new job, or a book deal, or something.

When I did the Alpha course, and had a heart awakening, I expected it to transform my external life for the better. I was told by the Alpha vicar, Nicky Gumbel: ‘Jesus has amazing plans for you’, and I thought, ‘Excellent! Bring it on, Jesus’. It didn’t quite happen like that.

When we begin to pursue the spiritual life, we want all the good things of a conventional life – a rich love life, a successful career, a happy family, a lovely home, a sexy body, delicious cocktails, wonderful holidays, fabulous dinner parties, and so on. We want all of that, plus soulfulness.  Like Rod Tidwell says in Jerry Maguire, we want the kwan: ‘it means love, respect, community… and the dollars too. The package. The kwan.’

You see this a lot in soulful hipsters in London or New York in their 30s and 40s. We pride ourselves on our spirituality and on being counter-cultural, but in some ways we’re just as hung up on conventional success as everyone else – we want the prestige, the prominence, the great love-life, the sexy body, the beautiful home, the glamorous holidays, the Instagram life. Like Bwyneth Paltrow, we want the gratification of our ego desires and soulfulness – what could be more gratifying than that!

A friend posted something recently on Facebook, an advert for a meditation and yoga retreat at a place called Tres Posh in Ibiza. It says: ‘We’re back at the tres posh, swanky pants yoga villa for five glorious days of Ibiza sun and shine in September. The days will begin with meditation, yoga and nidra folllowed by a magnificent brunch made by Pete’s fair hands. There will be massage, therapies, lounging by the dreamy pool, walking, resting, reading and snoozing before thai massage or a yoga practice in the evenings and an outrageously delicious dinner.’ They are cheap compared to some of the yoga retreats out there. 

A western goddess of wealth and worldly power

I am not being scornful here. I have exactly the same aspirations. I want conventional success and comfort, plus soul. Which is why it hurt when I emerged from an ayahuasca retreat, wondering what wonderful gifts the universe had waiting for me, and I unwrapped the first package to discover – dada! your dream-job of having a column has just vanished!

I had it easy, in fact. One member of our group had to go home early, after the first two ceremonies, when his sister suddenly fell ill and was rushed to hospital. He’d travelled 48 hours to get to the retreat. Now he had to go and be in that family crisis, on an ayahuasca comedown.

The fact is, the rules of the spirit world are not the same as the rules of this world. We think they are, and we want to win at both. But they’re not the same at all. What looks like abject failure in this world might actually be incredible success in the spirit-world. And what looks like total victory in this world might actually be utter failure in the spirit-world.

We want to maintain our status as all-powerful superhero westerners who control our lives and get what we want. But that’s not surrender.

The wind bloweth where it listeth. The medicine does exactly what it wants to do. You have to trust it. It’s not predictable, and it won’t necessarily make it easy on you. But you have to trust that in every experience, however unpleasant (and losing a magazine column is not particularly unpleasant in the grand scheme of things), there is wisdom to be found in it.

We can’t necessarily tell what is good for us and what is bad for us. And perhaps we need to go beyond these instant judgements of good and bad.

One person in our random collection of ayahuasca-pilgrims, Vadim, was there partly because of a bereavement. He had a powerful awakening during the first ceremony. And he’s kept on awakening in the weeks since. Last week, he sent out emails every day to our group, with a YouTube video of him talking over some amazing graphics. He sent out nine of these videos, each around ten minutes long, in a series called Awakening. I’d wake up in the morning to find a new video from him in my inbox, and I’d watch it over breakfast, and listen to his voice.

In the third video, he says:

We constantly are judging, labelling things as good or bad, from the point of view of our personality.  In the present dream generated by our subjective consciousness, we have a tendency not to remember that everything that surrounds us physically, despite being amazingly designed, organically is made up of temporary forms. All and any of those forms at some point will change into a different form. The form will die, and be reborn, and possibly reborn into another form that may be very alien to us when we meet again, if ever. Why, one will ask. Because that is what life is made of. Life is made of constant change….How not to judge the moment of the event? Life-experiences are not given to us by the universe to make us endlessly suffer, nor to make us endlessly happy…Experiences are given to us simply to observe them. Observe the feeling, and that’s it. We should be ready to treat events that change our life-circumstances simply as epic moments of experience.

From the point of view of this world, what happened to Vadim was ‘the worst thing that can happen to someone’. That’s what we say, isn’t it? And yet even bereavement, even the loss of a child, can be a catalyst for a powerful spiritual awakening. Sharon Salzberg talks of her most important teacher (55 minutes in to the interview): ‘She’d had tremendous suffering in her life. She came to practice after losing two children and her husband, and was so struck with grief she couldn’t get out of bed. The doctor said ‘you’re going to die of a broken heart unless you learn how to meditate’. So she got up out of bed and went to learn. When she emerged, she was so compassionate and so loving. She’d found a way to translate that terrible pain into compassion.’

One of the most useful things I heard to prepare me for psychedelics was from Rick Doblin, the head of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). He said: ‘A difficult trip is not a bad trip.’ This is certainly true on ayahuasca – the first ceremonies I had were lovely, fun, confidence-boosting. But they were just preparatory. The third and fourth ceremonies were much harder, darker, scarier. But that’s where all the healing happened – when I got the opportunity to face difficult emotions and experiences, and to react with more courage, wisdom and love than I have in the past. Difficult does not mean bad.

I can’t expect, therefore, any spiritual awakening (however small) to translate naturally into worldly success. It doesn’t work like that. The spirit-world has different rules to this world. It’s not like western yoga – you do this many sessions, you’ll definitely get a sexy bum, and probably a better sex life. 

We confuse the two worlds. We think there is a correlation between how prominent a person is in this world, and how wise and gifted they are in the spirit-world. The Pope must be the most spiritually advanced person, right? Osho must be the most spiritually gifted person – look at his spiritual empire! Sadhguru must be the incarnation of Shiva – look how many Facebook followers he has!

We mistake prominence for spiritual power. But they’re not the same. I’ve met a handful of people in my life who struck me as people of genuine spiritual power. And they were pretty much all obscure and uncelebrated. The shamans I met in the jungle, for example, have never written any books, they don’t have Facebook pages or ITunes podcasts. No one knows their names. I barely know their names. But they have huge amounts of spiritual power.

Maybe this is all an elaborate rationalization of my disappointment at not getting my magazine column. It does piss me off, and it’s OK that it pisses me off. I guess what I’m trying to say is this: when we embark on the spiritual life we think it will be more or less like the worldly life, just with a bit more soul. We’re like Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin when they’ve just left the Shire, thinking they’re on a fun little adventure. They have no idea what they’re getting in to, or what it will cost them…not less than everything.

The unpredictability of the spiritual life can scare us. We don’t want to lose what we have in this world – the success, the comfort, the status, the security. We may read articles about the risks of meditation, the dangers of psychedelics, the damage from gurus or religious communities, and think, screw that, I’ll just stay in the worldly life. But is it any safer here? Are we on solid ground? We’re still going to suffer and die, over and over and over. Why not gather up our courage, and get going?

You think 2017 is politically polarised? Try 1968

Protests outside the Democratic National Convention in 1968


This week I finished watching the new PBS documentary series, The Vietnam War, made by Ken Burns and Lynne Novick. It’s a massive piece of work – 18 hours of footage from the last war when American journalists were allowed to roam pretty much wherever they wanted on the battlefield, and when presidents recorded their private conversations. You’ve never seen a war so close.

And it’s a shock. I knew a bit about the Vietnam War, mainly from movies like Platoon and Apocalypse Now. But I was still shocked by the atrocities committed by the American army, by the futility of so many of the battles – hills taken at huge cost and then immediately abandoned – and by the awful suffering of the Vietnamese people, who were at war continuously, from the war with France in 1945 to 1954, to the civil war (also involving the US) from 1955 to 1975, to the war with Cambodia from 1975 to 1989.

The US involvement in Vietnam’s civil war looks, from the perspective of history, like a monumental error. It arose from a fundamental misreading of the conflict. Successive US presidents, from Eisenhower to Kennedy to Johnson, thought that if the communist North Vietnamese succeeded in their war with South Vietnam, South Asia would turn communist, and eventually Europe would topple too. 

The domino theory turned out to be wrong. In fact, it was a domestic civil war, and the US picked the wrong side – the South Vietnamese government, nominally democratic, was deeply corrupt, authoritarian, and unpopular. The US thought, when it intervened, that the Vietnamese would see them as liberating heroes. In fact, many saw them as racist imperialist invaders, just like the French before them. 

The US initially sent in ground troops to Vietnam when it thought its ships had been attacked by North Vietnamese forces, in the Gulf of Tonkin incident. This too was an error – the supposed torpedo was a blip on the radar. But, as defence secretary Robert McNamara said years later: ‘We saw what we wanted to believe’.

What’s truly shocking is that as early as 1963 the American government knew the war was going badly and was unlikely to end in victory. Yet the war lasted another decade, costing the US around 60,000 lives, several million Vietnamese lives, and poisoning the political culture of both countries for decades. 

You think American politics is polarised now? Look at 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive, when it became horribly obvious to Americans watching the TV news that they were losing the war; a year of race riots, of the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, a year of police brutality and domestic terrorism by radical leftist groups, a year when protests outside the Democratic National Convention were so violent, the convention had to be carried out in an improvised security bunker.

The Baltimore riot of 1968

It was a clash of ethics, as much as anything else. Thousands of young Americans were going through hell to honour the ethic of serving their country. Back in America, other young Americans were choosing a different ethic of personal development and authenticity. Or they were deciding that the best way to serve their country was to protest against an immoral and futile war. 

The ideological clash between liberals and conservatives became ever more bitter. The liberals, in many ways, were right. The war was futile. But the tactics of anti-war protestors were often misguided and self-defeating.

Hippies screamed abuse at returning vets as they arrived home at airports, calling them baby-killers; they burned American flags, and waved the flag of North Vietnam; they called the police ‘pigs’, and America a Nazi police-state. Liberal Hollywood icon Jane Fonda travelled to North Vietnam and denounced American prisoners of war as criminals who deserved to be executed, then let herself be photographed laughing on a North Vietnam anti-war gun used to shoot them down. And groups like the Weathermen and the Black Panthers declared that best form of resistance was violence. No wonder Robert Kennedy said, a few weeks before his assassination, ‘the centre cannot hold, and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world’.

Jane Fonda larking around on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun

The consequence of these radical tactics was to hand Republican candidate Richard Nixon a landslide victory in the 1968 election, in which he won every state except two. He won by appealing to the ‘silent moral majority’ who didn’t want to see America over-run by hippy terrorists – even though, by that point, most Americans actually opposed the war. It took the left over a decade to recover, and Nixon only lost power when his own paranoia led to Watergate.

There are lessons here for the left today, and how it opposes President Trump and other nationalist parties across the west.

This decade is a time of comparable polarisation in western politics. There are protests, riots and police shootings on the streets, and angry clashes on campuses. There is fear and loathing on both sides. The left labels the right as Nazi, while the right labels the left as totalitarian. Violence and hate speech are gradually normalized as political tactics. The intense complexity of global politics is reduced to simple black-and-white narratives of noble heroes and evil sick villains. The centre-ground of politics diminishes. Which side are you on?

As in the Gulf of Tonkin incident, people see what they want to believe. This is true of both sides.

I’ve been following a psychology professor called Jordan Peterson on Twitter. He’s a well-known evolutionary psychologist, but more famous as an outspoken critic of political correctness on campuses, which he sees as a totalitarian threat to western civilization. He’s so terrified of this existential threat, he sees it everywhere.

This week, for example, Nassim Nicholas Taleb tweeted about how political correctness was destroying western education. The British right-wing commentator Katie Hopkins tweeted him a flyer in which she offers free classes to schools, where she offers her unique take on subjects like Black Lives Matter or transgender rights. Jordan Peterson seized on this, and retweeted it as an example of ‘radical leftist indoctrination’. When one bemused follower asked him what his problem was with Katie Hopkins’ classes, he said ‘If you can’t see the difference, then you’ve already been indoctrinated.’

That’s political culture in the West in the early 21st century  – people scanning the net, looking for things to be outraged about, torpedoes to be repelled and revenged, without taking the time to investigate. People seeing their own side as heroes and the other side as evil. Complexity and nuance are the first casualties of this toxic climate.

Ken Burns says he hopes his documentary can act like a vaccination against the virus of the Vietnam War, and the distrust, alienation and polarisation it engendered. You see the suffering of all sides in the war, you see their honourable intentions, and their moral doubts. You see a protestor who fled to Canada, deeply regretting renouncing his American citizenship; you see a soldier who accepted the draft, who feels his acceptance was a defining moment of moral cowardice; you see a former protestor tearfully apologising for the insults they hurled at traumatized veterans as they came home. You see the wounds people have carried for decades.

Both the left and the right today need to try and understand each other’s reasons – the noble intentions and basic emotions driving their calls for social justice or economic freedom or controlled borders or human rights. They need to make the effort to see the other side as humans, rather than Nazis, hippies, SJWs, snowflakes, Remoaners, gooks, cuks etc.

There’s a pragmatic reason for being able to take the other side’s perspective – it makes it more likely you win over public opinion, more likely you achieve your political goals, and less likely that your campaigns backfire and empower your opponents, as they did in 1968. And there’s a moral reason too –  being able to see the other side’s perspective makes it more likely that democracy will survive.