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Review: The Wellness Syndrome

How are you feeling? How well are you? Is your weight where you want it to be? Smoking too much? How happy are you on a scale of one to ten? Are you optimising your personal brand? How fast was your last five kilometre run? Would you like to share that via social media? Would you like a life-coach to help you overcome these challenges on a way to a better, happier, more awesome you?

If such questions fill you with dread, don’t worry, you’re not alone. We have become a culture of Bridget Joneses, anxiously pursuing an ever-retreating ideal of wellness. The ruling ideology of our time, argue Carl Cederstrom and Andre Spicer, is ‘the wellness syndrome’, which makes the urge to self-improvement a moral imperative, and our own bodies the battleground.

Cederstrom and Spicer thinks the wellness syndrome is a mistake and a trap, for three reasons. First, it is based on a foolish myth of the individual as ‘neoliberal agent’, able to exert perfect control of their body, their emotions and their life. If you’re poor or fat or unhappy, it’s your fault, and you need some life-coaching or military fitness boot-camp to get into shape. This is a convenient shifting of personal responsibility from the state onto us hapless Bridget Joneses.

Secondly, the constant search for personal authenticity and fulfillment is deeply narcissistic. Aristotle and Rousseau’s eudaimonic society was about fulfillment through civic activity. Rousseau would be ‘apalled’ by our culture’s ‘blind celebration of individual narcissism’ (really? Have you read his Confessions? But let’s press on.)

Thirdly, the dream of autonomy and authenticity we’re chasing is a mirage – in fact, the wellness syndrome is deeply conformist, and the ultimate aim of all this self-improvement is simply to make us more productive and sellable in the capitalist marketplace. We think we’re becoming more ourselves, when in fact we’re becoming more alienated.

The way to rebel against the wellness syndrome, the authors argue, is to embrace illness and impotence. Live like Sartre’s students, who existed on a diet of ‘cigarettes, coffee and hard liquor’. Take sick days. Over-eat. Go ‘barebacking’ – a culture in which ‘bug-chasers’ (people who want to get HIV) have unprotected sex with ‘gift-givers’ (people who have the illness).

Cederstrom and Spicer are professors of organizational theory and organizational behaviour, respectively. However, this book is basically a rant, like an extended Spectator column by Rod Liddle, moving effortlessly from anecdote to rumour, without ever troubling itself with scientific evidence.

We are told the anecdote of the two life-coaches who killed themselves in a suicide pact. Why did they kill themselves? We’re not informed, but it seems damning, and we move on. We’re told David Cameron is a fan of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret. Really? Well, a Guardian columnist said so, let’s move on. We’re told the Wellness Syndrome leads to an obsession with dieting and personal fitness. Then why, if this is the ruling ideology of our time, are 67% of men and 57% of women in the UK overweight or obese? And why is the sex addict in Steve McQueen’s Shame also an example of the Wellness Syndrome? We’re never told – move on to the next anecdote.

Epictetus, lifecoach to the Roman aristocracy

The core claim of the book – that we’re being sold a toxic idea of neoliberal personal autonomy – deserves more careful examination, because it has some validity. The roots of this model of personal autonomy lie not in neoliberalism, in fact, but in Stoicism, and particularly in Epictetus, who was a sort of life-coach for Roman aristocrats, urging them to take responsibility for their thoughts and beliefs in order to heal their emotions and improve their selves. ‘It’s not events which cause humans suffering, but our opinion about events’, he insisted. And our opinions are always in our control. ‘The robber of your free will does not exist’. This Stoic libertarian ethos fed into Enlightenment liberalism, into Victorian self-help, and into the modern wellbeing movement and the idea – at the heart of cognitive therapy and Positive Psychology – that our emotions are our choices, and that ‘there is nothing more tractable than the self’, as Epictetus put it.

Of course, Epictetus’ philosophy can be taken too far. The Stoics focused entirely on the individual, and ignored society. They thought a wise individual could be free and happy even in the midst of a toxic and unequal society (Epictetus himself was a slave). Most of us are not such citadels of serenity. That’s why there’s a strong correlation between poverty and depression. Shit gets us down. So it’s unfair and unwise to make people’s emotional or behavioural problems entirely their responsibility – our personal agency is weak, at best. Most of us are to some extent the creatures – Epictetus would say the slave – of our circumstances.

And yet Epictetus was not entirely wrong. Overcoming problems like depression, or alcoholism, or obesity, or injustice, or even poverty does involve personal agency. Humans do have a capacity not just to be determined by our circumstances, but to determine our own attitude to them, and through that self-determination we can get the inner strength to change our external circumstances. We don’t always have to resort to pill-popping to feel better (oddly, despite its cover, the book doesn’t ever look at our growing dependence on mood-altering pills, perhaps because that doesn’t fit with their rant against ‘the myth of neoliberal agency’).

Our powers of self-determination don’t necessarily have to be in the service of neoliberal capitalist conformity. Look at Gandhi, practicing swaraj or ‘self-governance’ in his personal life order to prove to the British Empire that Indians are not irresponsible children. Look at Nelson Mandela, reading the Stoic poem Invictus to himself while practicing ascetic self-government in Robben Island prison, to prove that black South Africans can govern themselves with dignity.

Of course, the strength or weakness of our personal agency, the extent to which it is tied up with determining factors like our environment or genes, is a very difficult question. I recently saw the documentary Amy, and was moved by the story of Amy Winehouse’s rapid self-destruction. Whose fault was it? Whose responsibility? Was it the father, for not being there when Amy was growing up, and then trying to cash in when she was famous? Was it her boyfriend, latching on and encouraging her drug dependence? Was it our celebrity-obsessed media and culture? Yes, perhaps, all of these things. But it was also Amy’s doing.

But can you say an addict ‘chooses’ to destroy themselves? To what extent does a person with mental illness really make choices? To some extent. As that famous sex-addict, St Augustine, explored in his Confessions, we make choices, which then harden into the chains of habit and addiction. Those chains are very difficult to break. It’s even harder today, when the internet remembers our habits and reflects them back to us. But change is possible. And personal choice is an important part of that liberation.

Our degree of personal agency, then, our capacity to determine our course in life, is a very complicated area, but it is one that psychology has spent decades trying to explore, through cognitive behavioural therapy, social psychology, behavioural economics, self-determination theory, and the psychology of self-control. And psychologists have begun to build up evidence that personal autonomy is limited but nonetheless real – Epictetus was, to some extent, right.

Yet Cederstrom and Spicer don’t cite a single piece of scientific evidence in their rant against personal autonomy. The closest we get is an appeal to authority: ‘We know from Freud’, ‘we know from psychoanalysis’. Do we? At one point they write: ‘As pointed out in a Huffington Post article, mindfulness advocates often make unsubstantiated claims.’ Oh the irony.

Because the authors set out to write a polemic, they make broad and usually damning generalizations, and ignore the good aspects of the phenomena they dismiss. For example, one of their favourite targets is the self-tracking movement, in which people use self-tracking devices to measure various aspects of their life, to improve them. This, the authors say, is just neoliberal alienation. Well, it can be, but not always. Self-tracking can be a way for people to empower themselves and become experts in their own health, rather than relying on the authority of external experts. One well-known self-tracking app is MoodScope, which Jon Cousins invented to help himself track his depressive episodes to see what helped him get better. He then made it freely available to other people. This seems to me worth applauding.

Finally, I’m not convinced that the moral ideology of wellness and health is a new thing. Health has always been ideological. Look at Plato’s Republic, with its diagnosis of the sick society and the healthy society. Look at the Middle Ages, with its public performances of the Seven Deadly Sins, including Gluttony. Every ideology involves some positive model of human flourishing, including Neoliberalism and Marxism. If the best model of flourishing you can offer is sick days and barebacking, why should we follow you?

Plotinus, Inception and the levels of the self

I’ve been reading Pierre Hadot’s book on Plotinus. It’s marvellous – only 100 pages long, yet so much wisdom and poetry in it. My favourite passage in it is when Hadot talks about the ‘levels of the self’.

Plotinus’ hierarchy of reality

Plotinus believed in what Hadot calls ‘the hierarchy of realities’: at the top of the hierarchy is the One, God, the source of everything. Then comes the ‘Nous’, the intellect or Mind which rules all things. Then comes the psyche, or soul, which connects the intelligence to the world of matter, and then finally matter. Plotinus believed that the lower stages of the hierarchy flow down or ‘emanate’ from the upper stages, becoming progressively less simple, perfect and real. They owe their existence and their reality to the One, while the One is itself simple, perfect and self-sufficient. He was the opposite of a materialist, then – he thought matter owes its existence to Mind.

I don’t completely understand this either, to be honest. But let’s press on.

Hadot tells us that these ‘levels of reality’ also refer to ‘levels of the self’. The construction of the self mirrors the construction of cosmic reality. Our selves have multiple levels – matter, the psyche (which connects body and mind), the Nous or discriminating intelligence, and finally the One, the spark of God within us. Our consciousness usually exists only at the lower end of this hierarchy – in the realm of matter, and of material desires. But nonetheless, the upper levels of our self are still there, connected to God, even if we’re not conscious of it.

It’s an amazing thought – right now, a level of my self is in heaven. But I only become conscious of this divine level in my self in very rare moments of ecstasy. In such moments we don’t actually reach anywhere ‘new’ – our consciousness simply steps out onto the glorious penthouse of our self, as it were. We realize ‘oh, I’m home!’  The upper level is blissfully familiar to us, because we all came from the One, but forgot and got caught up in the lower levels.

Plotinus writes: ‘Not everything in the soul is immediately perceptile, rather it comes through to ‘us’ when it reaches percetion. Yet as long as a part of our soul is active but does not communicate [this fact] to the perceptual apparatus then the activity does not reach the entire soul.’

Hadot explains this passage thus:

Consciousness is a point of view, a centre of perspective. For us, our ‘self’ coincides with that point from which a perspective is opened up for us, be it into the world or onto our souls. In other words, in order for a psychic activity to be ‘ours’, it must be conscious. Consciousness then – and along with it our ‘self’ – is situated, like a median or an intermediate centre, between two zones of darkness, stretching anove and below it: on the one hand, the silent and unconscious life of our ‘self’ in God; on the other, the silent and unconscious life of the body. By means of our reason, we can discover the existence of these upper and lower levels.

This reminds one very much of Ken Wilber and his integral philosophy. Wilber also speaks of a hierarchy of realities, or ‘great chain of being’, which exists both in cosmic reality and in the self (pictured on the left). Wilber’s philosophy is, in fact, quite influenced by Plotinus. However, there’s a big difference between the two. With Plotinus, the ascent of the soul from the lower realms to the higher realms comes by trying to ‘forget’ the lower levels – forget the body, forget the emotions, forget sex, forget memories or the unconscious, forget the things of this world, forget everything except God. Wilber’s integral philosophy instead tries to include and integrate the lower levels in the ascent to the One – include the body, include the emotions, include sex, include the unconscious. Because if you try to forget this stuff or deny it, it will come back and haunt you, and block your ascent.

So the modern neoplatonism of Wilber and others is much more Jungian, one could say. It tries to integrate the lower and the higher levels of the self, including the unconscious.

I thought of Plotinus, Wilber and Jung when I was at a conference on psychedelics earlier this month, and a philosopher called Dave King talked about the spectrum of consciousness. He used this diagram to illustrate his point:

Threshold of consciousness.001

Most of these ‘levels of the self’ happen beyond our conscious awareness, although they’re always ‘running’. Sometimes, our consciousness moves down the spectrum and we can access these lower levels – when we fall asleep and start dreaming, for example, and we are able to access unconscious desires, habits and memories.

King suggests that spiritual techniques like psychedelic drugs or meditation can help us to move the ‘threshold of consciousness’ down, to unlock lower levels of the self, and to intervene. We can learn to consciously access and alter levels that are usually autonomic and unconscious, for healing purposes.

In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, for example, we learn how to consciously access and alter automatic belief patterns. But we may be able to go deeper than that through more contemplative or ecstatic practices – unlocking and altering deep repressed memories, or autonomic processes like our immune system. King gave various examples of people who had managed to change auto-immune illnesses like allergies or even multiple sclerosis using psychedelics. Perhaps we can even go down and alter our processes at the cellular level – becoming conscious of our DNA or the chemical constituents of plants.

Now in Plotinus’ model of the ascent of the soul, we forget the lower levels. They exist only to be disciplined, silenced and ultimately expunged as the soul flies up the One. But compare this to Plotinus’ most famous student, St Augustine. In his Confessions, Augustine plumbs the depths of his memories, his desires, his body, in order to remember who he is, in order to rediscover the deepest level of his self, which is God.

Where Plotinus flies up and tries to forget the lower levels, Augustine goes down, and tries to remember. That is a much more modern approach – the way up is the way down. Take the elevator down, all the way down, even into the limbo level, to try and remind oneself, that this is all a dream, that there is a divine reality which we have forgotten and left behind.

This was meant to be a blog about how these ideas play out in the film Inception, which seems influenced by some of these neoplatonic ideas. In Inception, Cobb rides the elevator of consciousness all the way down, through memories to the unconscious, in order to try and wake up.

The film is about one of the great risks of the Platonic mystical journey – how do you know, in your attempt to leave this world and ‘wake up’ to a higher spiritual reality, that you are not in fact merely leaving one dream for another? How do you know you have actually woken up?