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The Transpersonal Revolution: meditation, psychedelics, psychosis

One of the main insights of last year, for me, was that meditation and psychedelics are two useful spiritual practices that work well together. Meditation sharpens certain cognitive and emotional tools (concentration, acceptance, compassion) which help one ride the waves of psychedelic consciousness. It also helps you to integrate the insights you get from your psychedelic experiences, in the weeks and months afterwards, so as to turn altered states into altered traits.

At the ayahuasca retreat I went on in October, at a place called the Temple of the Way of Light near Iquitos, in Peru, we were encouraged to develop our meditation practice in the months leading up to the retreat, and if possible to do a Vipassana retreat. I went on a 10-day Vipassana retreat in 2016, and then a week-long Zen retreat in 2017, and they both really helped me to navigate the stormy seas of ayahuasca.

Even when I was buen mareado (which can be loosely translated as ‘properly mullahd’), I found I could still remember and practice certain spiritual attitudes: sit up straight, focus on your breath, practice self-compassion and acceptance.

At one particularly intense moment, I forgot who I was or where I was, and felt myself adrift in another dimension totally beyond my comprehension (this is quite common on ayahuasca). I had a deep sense of dread, a sense that I was way out of my head and would never come back. But even there, I could still remember to practice my tools. I had two cards I could play: firstly, accept what’s arising, and secondly, remind myself that everything passes. And it did. I came back into my body, remembered my name, remembered where I was and why I was there. 

Psychedelics and meditation are two of the most exciting fields in psychology and psychiatry. Mindfulness, as you know, has become a huge field of research and has transformed western mental health in the last decade. Psychedelic therapy has been tipped as the most promising new development in psychiatry by Tom Insell, the former head of the US National Institute of Mental Health.

Both psychedelics and meditation are rapidly spreading in our culture. Around 15% of Westerners practice some form of meditation, like yoga, mindfulness, Vipassana or Transcendental Meditation. The use of psychedelics is also on the rise – LSD use among young people grew by 175% among young people in England and Wales between 2013 and 2015.

We’re in the middle of not just a ‘mindfulness revolution’ or a ‘psychedelic renaissance’, but rather a transpersonal revolution. The ideas of transpersonal psychology, once considered marginal and kooky, are becoming mainstream, and transforming our ideas of the self, society and reality.

Transpersonal psychology can be roughly defined as the study of human development beyond the everyday ego (hence ‘transpersonal’), including a positive understanding of spiritual experiences (also called peak experiences, transcendent experiences, altered states of consciousness, flow states, self-transcendent experiences and so on). The field is more open to the possibilities of what one encounters beyond the self – the collective mind, spirits, God – and more open to the possibility of life after death.

It began with William James and Frederic Myers in the 1890s, developed with Carl Jung and Aldous Huxley in the 1930s-1950s, and flourished in the 1960s through figures like Abraham Maslow, Stanislaf Grof, Timothy Leary and Ram Dass.

It’s become much more mainstream in academic psychology today partly because neuroscience has given a new credibility to the study of consciousness and to fields like contemplative science and psychedelic science, and partly because baby-boomer hippies and 90s ex-ravers are now in positions of power in academia, and they’re much more open to a transpersonal perspective through their own spiritual practice. 

The transpersonal revolution is transforming our idea of the self. We’re discovering that the self is malleable, as Epictetus put it – we can rewire our habitual beliefs and behaviour through practices.   We’re discovering the importance of focus, attention and acceptance in dealing with thoughts and emotions moment to moment, and the possibility of training attention through meditation. We’re realizing William James was right – rational analytical consciousness is just one type of consciousness among many, and other types of consciousness also have their role and can be helpful in healing and bonding.

We’re recognizing the stable conscious ego is a construction, and that there is much bigger self – largely subconscious – which one discovers through dreams, contemplation and psychedelics. We’re realizing the importance of belief, faith and ritual in unlocking the placebo or ‘healing response’ in the subconscious. We’re realizing the importance of the body in processing, storing and releasing emotions and trauma – mainstream psychology ignored the body for a long time. Yes, the early psychoanalysts talked about hysterical symptoms in the body, but their cure was always talking, not yoga, healing touch, dancing or psychedelic puking. 

Beyond that, we’re moving towards the idea that beneath our transient ego-beliefs there is a luminous open awareness, which we can move into and stay within. And this awareness can be a space of acceptance, equanimity, and love. People seem to reach this space through contemplation, through psychedelics, through near-death experiences. And this space – call it the heart-mind – seems connected to other beings or energies, in ways we don’t yet understand and that don’t fit into materialist psychology.

We’re also realizing that Jung was right – there’s a big Jung revival happening as a consequence of the transpersonal revolution. Jung (and other early pioneers, like Myers and Flournoy) understood how the subconscious speaks through myths, symbols and fairy-tales, which are sometimes shared. He (and others) also understood that not everything in the subconscious is flowers and bunny rabbits. Our constructed egos have a shadow – all the things we think we must hide or repress, all the things we push away and run from in fear and aversion. That shadow comes up in spiritual practices.

In contemplative science, for example, Brown University’s Varieties of Contemplative Experience project has explored the difficult experiences people often encounter in meditation, particularly the return of repressed thoughts and emotions. Psychedelic therapists also routinely draw on Jung’s idea of the return of the shadow.

In both contemplative science and psychedelic science, researchers are finding that Jung was right – the best way to deal with the shadow is through patience, acceptance and compassionate investigation. Rather than running away in terror, we can say: ‘welcome, come in, sit down, let me get to know you’. We remind ourselves of an acronym like RAIN: Recognize, Accept, Investigate, Nourish. Then, after a few minutes, years or decades, the unwanted, frightening and daemonic part of us becomes transformed into an ally and helper, just as the Buddha transformed the terrifying snake nagas into his allies and protectors (as in the statue above from Sala Keoku in Thailand). 

But the journey from awakening to integration and realization is no picnic. It’s no walk in the park. Well…it is, but only if we’re talking Central Park at night, filled with zombies and anacondas. The spiritual journey is a journey beyond the ego, a journey through the ego’s death. The shadow is a very good fence holding the ego up – on it is a big sign saying ‘do NOT go beyond here’, and scary monsters jump out at you if you do. Go beyond that fence and your ego screams ‘I’m going to die!’ Which it is, eventually.

The transpersonal revolution is leading to a rise in ‘spiritual crises’

Now here is the key point I want to emphasise. As more and more people meditate and take psychedelics, more and more people are also reporting spiritual or mystical experiences (see the results from Gallup on the right). And some of those experiences will be quasi-psychotic spiritual crises.

We think ‘oh, peak experiences, flow experiences, sure, great, I’ll upgrade myself and become a super-person. Bring it on.’ That’s how our culture thinks of flow states, because we’re so hung up on performance and productivity. And sometimes they’re lovely. But sometimes they’re deeply disorientating, and mess with our normal ego-functioning. And they should!

This much was noted by Ram Dass (or Richard Alpert as he was known at Harvard), who has been so helpful to me and our culture in navigating these waters. He noted, back in the mid-70s, that while more and more Americans responded in a survey that they’d had a mystical experience, the majority added they never wanted another one! ‘They upset the apple-cart of our ordered reality’, he says, in this excellent talk.

The area of spiritual crises was brilliantly explored in a collection of essays edited by Stanslaf and Christina Grof, called Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis, which they published in 1989. The Grofs write in the introduction: ‘As various Oriental and Western spiritual disciplines are rapidly gaining popularity, more and more people seem to be having transpersonal crises – yet another reason that the correct understanding and treatment of spiritual emergencies is an issue of ever-increasing importance.’

Spiritual awakenings can involve temporary psychotic phenomena like mania, ego-inflation, Messiah complexes, seeing patterns and significance in everything, intense energy and sleeplessness, physical anomalies like shaking or twitching, loss of critical thinking and a tendency to embrace one’s intuitions as the absolute truth, a flooding of dream-material from the subconscious, the return of repressed trauma, a merging of dream and reality, paranoia and persecutory complexes, and a general disordering of one’s usual reality and sense of the boundaries of the self.

The personal ego is a fiction, but it’s a fiction we’ve clung to all our lives, perhaps for thousands and thousands of lives. Waking up to the emptiness of the ego, the power of the Higher Self, and the interconnectedness of all things can be wildly euphoric, or utterly terrifying.

Contemplative science, which is about 20 years ahead of psychedelic science, is already grappling with this fact. Having gone through a decade of unremitting positivity and hype around meditation (it heals depression, it heals anxiety, it improves productivity etc etc etc), there is now more research pointing out that sometimes, people on retreats have very scary, difficult experiences, which can last weeks, months or years. Psychedelic research is still in the era of unremitting hype (psychedelics can cure depression, anxiety, addiction, improve productivity etc etc etc), and is still somewhat in denial about the dark side of psychedelics. But it’s there.

What I noticed in other participants and in myself, on the ayahuasca retreat, was a loss of the ability to critique or reflect on what the medicine / subconscious was telling us. People became much more prone to unusual beliefs and magical thinking. Our whole model of reality – based around the everyday ego – was dissolved. This was hugely healing, and opened up a joyful vision of interconnectedness, play and even immortality. But people could also believe some crazy stuff.

One of the shaman said to us at the beginning of the retreat: ‘The medicine is a poet, it speaks in metaphors’. But, like fundamentalists, we would sometimes seize on the metaphors presented to us as the actual literal truth. ‘I saw the future, I am the pilot of an interstellar spaceship’. ‘I realized my father isn’t actually my father’. ‘I need to build a giant pyramid in the jungle to communicate with aliens’ (this last one was a vision by an IT engineer called Julian Haynes – he built the pyramid, then it fell down. Classic Werner Herzog stuff. But still, quite a vision!)

These insights might be spiritual metaphors rather than the literal truth.

People often think they are about to die on ayahuasca. This is mistaking temporary ego dissolution for permanent actual death. Or we might even think the world is about to end – again, the psychic and spiritual death-and-rebirth is misinterpreted as a literal apocalypse.

As Chris Kilham, author of The Ayahuasa Test Pilot Handbook, puts it:

Ayahuasca and other psychedelics can deliver positive, transformative benefits. But they can also set the mind afire with lavish, nonsensical ideas. Most common is the notion of discovering that you, yes YOU! will save the planet. You wont. This is just the same old messy messianic thinking that has never worked and never will. For if there is to be a new, more free and conscious world, we will need not one, but several billon messiahs, each selflessly pulling together for the whole of humanity and planetary welfare.

In the meantime, we have only begun to see the Age Of The Kooks. As more people drink ayahuasca, there will be more visionary fallout. People will decide to undergo rapid and regrettable sex changes. They will ink themselves from head to toe, like Rod Steiger in The Illustrated Man. They will bellow revelations from building tops and get whisked away to secure cells. It is all going to happen. In the great and fabulous circus that is the explosion of ayahuasca into the public mind, every freaky, awkward, bizarre and outright nutso scenario that can play out, will.

In my own case, for three or four days after the retreat, when I was travelling on my own in Ecuador, I had the overwhelming sense that I was in a dream. I began to think the external world was being generated by my memory-imagination – the streets, the cars, the other people, the hotel, the sky, it was all my dream. My subconscious was constructing the people, the traffic, the planes, the sky. I didn’t know how to wake up, and how to return to the dimension where my loved ones were. So I travelled back from South America to the UK – a very strange few days in planes and airports. I was amazed at the ability of my subconscious to construct such a vivid reality – the 747 was so big, the KLM air-stewards were so Dutch!

Finally I got home, where my friends gave me a lot of hugs, and within a few days I decided this reality was real. I would still get moments of panic and ontological uncertainty, but I could practice my tools – slow breathing, acceptance, reminding myself that everything passes – and I would calm down and ride the waves. I realized the same spiritual tools worked – focus, acceptance, compassion – no matter how altered my mind or the reality I was in.

What I think happened was I took a spiritual insight – this reality is a dream constructed by our egos – and interpreted it literally – this is all my dream, and no one else is real. I managed to walk through that experience and keep calm. But if I’d panicked, and not had any spiritual training or a community of loving friends to take care of me for a few days, there’s a chance I’d have been sectioned, and even diagnosed as suffering from a life-long biological condition requiring a life-time of medication.

This sort of weird experience provokes so much fear in ourselves and other people. We’ve managed to overcome some of the stigma around depression and anxiety. But psychosis? We still find it terrifying. It is the nightmare Other of our rationalist society. In other cultures, there is still a sense that psychosis can have a meaning and a message for mainstream society, and that it’s a temporary place one may sometimes go to beyond the ordinary ego, rather than a lifetime exile to the rubbish heap of society. In our culture, psychiatry usually denies it any meaning or message, beyond a permanent brain disorder.

We need to have compassion for ourselves and each other, and compassion for those having transpersonal experiences where the boundaries of their ego are temporarily disordered. Such people are unlikely to fit into civilized conventions for a while, and we may need to be patient with them – in my case, for a few days, I literally needed help crossing the road, because I wasn’t sure if the cars were real. Experienced guides can help to steer people through their experiences so that they’re positive. And the rest of us can see these experiences as potentially pointing to something incredibly valuable and true – the ego is a fiction, reality is a hallucination, we are God…or something different to what we think, anyway.

Dougie / Agent Cooper from Twin Peaks – people in transpersonal moments may have difficulty navigating ordinary reality

One of the most interesting people I met this year was someone called Anthony Fidler, who helped to run the Zen retreat I went on in India. I watched him occasionally during the silent retreat, and thought, ‘wow, what a calm, collected person, that’s exactly what I want to be like when I practice more diligently’.

After the retreat, I got talking to him, and heard his story. He’d gone to Cambridge, trained to be an accountant, then had a breakdown, leading to psychotic episodes in his 30s. Over the last decade, he has taught himself to manage his occasional moments of psychosis / unusual states of consciousness through spiritual practices, particularly breath-work, touch practices, and self-compassion. He’s also been helped by leaving the UK and travelling to cultures like India and China, where this sort of spiritual awakening is more accepted and less pathologized by the culture at large. 

Part of the transpersonal revolution needs to be an upgrading of our psychiatric healthcare system and our cultural attitudes so that we have better understanding and compassion for those going through temporary quasi-psychotic / spiritual awakenings, so we don’t immediately section them, pump them full of drugs, and label them as sufferers of life-long biological disorders called things like ‘bipolar’, ‘schizophrenia’ and so on.

Clearly there are some people who have mental disorders that require medication, and some people need to be institutionalized for a few weeks, months or even years for their safety and the safety of others. But psychiatrists have been far too quick to impose their own version of reality onto the most vulnerable people in our society, even though that version of reality is spiritually bereft.

Luckily we are already seeing changes in mental healthcare, driven by the transpersonal revolution. I wrote about some of these changes in The Art of Losing Control, in which I applauded the work of David Lukoff to get a new disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual called ‘religious or spiritual problem’ – ie a temporary spiritual stage rather than a lifelong biological condition. I applauded the work of the Hearing Voices Network, which supports people who might hear voices or see visions, including many people who are not hospitalized or on medication. I applauded the Spiritual Crisis Network, and the Spiritual Emergence Network, and I urge you all to read Spiritual Emergency by the Grofs.

Meditation, psychedelics, psychosis – the three are linked, all involving journeys beyond the fiction of the everyday ego. You see worried articles in the Daily Mail: can mindfulness lead to psychosis? Yes it can. Psychedelics can also lead to temporary psychosis, and in some sad cases it seems to trigger life-long psychosis in teenagers. However, with care and compassion and wisdom, the majority of these sorts of psychotic experiences can be temporary, and lead to positive outcomes.

The spiritual journey is not entirely safe. It’s not a linear journey into greater and greater serenity and happiness – this is one of the mistakes the West has made by reinterpreting spiritual practices like meditation in terms of this-world happiness. They weren’t designed to make the ego happy. They were designed to transcend the ego. And the ego does not want to be transcended. There’s an enormous amount of fear, clinging, pride and suffering that arises on the spiritual journey. That doesn’t mean we should be put off. If we don’t go on the journey, we’ll still suffer, but we”ll suffer in a circle, pointlessly, rather than suffering while advancing towards liberation. Go forward with boldness and hope, with kindness and humble curiosity. 

On Metamodernism and The Listening Society

The Listening Society is a new book by a writer called Hanzi Freinacht. He outlines a philosophy called metamodernism, which he says can be defined as an aesthetic movement, a developmental stage, and a political ideology. The political ideology – which has inspired alternative political parties in Sweden and Denmark – espouses a new politics focused on promoting not just happiness but the highest possible states of consciousness.

The book is refreshingly bold, and interesting in the way it brings together politics with transpersonal psychology and spirituality. Some of its ideas may seem outlandish, but they’re already gaining traction in Nordic politics, so who knows?

Firstly, who is Hanzi Freinacht? This question – also the title of an early chapter – reminds me of Ayn Rand’s constant query, who is John Galt? Like John Galt, Freinacht is a fearless outsider in a society yet to recognize his genius. He sits in a jacuzzi overlooking the Alps (in a chalet lent to him, we’re told, by a millionaire friend) and foresees the future of the world. The photos of him on the internet suggest a Nordic hipster, Friedrich Nietzsche meets Tyler Brulé.

In fact, Hanzi Freinacht is a made-up character invented by two people – Emil Ejner Friis, a Danish philosopher and activist in the Danish Alternative Party; and Daniel Gortz, a PhD student in sociology at Lund University in Sweden.

There is something manic and immature about Freinacht’s pronouncements, such as: ‘I hereby challenge you to find one source in the world that says anything resembling the overall message of this book and its sequel. You, the contemporary reader, cannot.’  One can’t tell if the grandiosity is Freinacht’s or the authors’. But the creation of a bombastic alter-ego allows them, as it allowed Soren Kierkegaard, to both rhapsodize with desperate romanticism, and to preserve an ironic distance from that romanticism. That oscillation between irony and deep sincerity is at the heart of meta-modernism, apparently.

Metamodernism as aesthetic movement

What is metamodernism? As I said, it’s an aesthetic movement, a developmental stage, and a political ideology (or ‘political psychology’ in Freinacht’s phrase).

Shia LaBeouf at the Cannes premier for Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac

In aesthetics, various artistic theorists have, since the 1970s, suggested metamodernism is the next movement after post-modernism. Most visibly, the artists Luke Turner and Nastja Säde Rönkkö have teamed up with actor Shia LaBouef to champion a metamodernist manifesto and stage metamodernist art happenings – Shia LaBouef with a paper bag over his head in an LA art gallery, Shia LaBouef in a lift in Oxford, Shia LaBouef in purple spandex running laps round the Stedelijk Museum. All these happenings try to generate moments of genuine intimacy between the artist and audience, while also remaining aware of the difficulties of that (the public mainly want an Instagramm snap with Shia).

Turner has spoken of metamodernism as the oscillation between post-modern irony and pastiche, and the Romantic desire for genuine engagement, authenticity and transcendence. Freinacht agrees that to be metamodernist is ‘to be exquisitely ironic and sincere, both at once’.

Artists defined as metamodern include Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, Marina Abramovich and Wes Anderson. I guess Russell Brand is an example of a metamodern figure – beginning as a post-modern dandy presenting Big Brother, then going off on a spiritual odyssey to find genuine transcendence, while retaining the ability to mock himself and his Messiah complex. I suppose my own writing is metamodern, in a way – in the last book, I genuinely searched for ecstatic experiences while also making fun of myself and the bullshit one encounters along the spiritual path. So yeah, I was metamodern way before you, LeBeouf!

Metamodernism as political ideology

Freinacht correctly points out that western culture is in a political crisis marked by a lack of exciting or transcendent visions for the future.  Politics and economics as usual are obviously failing, and people are looking for alternative utopias. He thinks Nordic countries present humanity’s best hope – he writes, with customary humility, that they are ‘by far the most progressive societies that the world has ever seen’. Nordic politics already have a broad consensus around the welfare state, environmental policies and personal libertarianism.

Now, a new type of party is emerging, like The Alternative in Denmark, the Initiative in Sweden, and the Pirate’s Party in Iceland. These parties are non-hierarchical, co-created, net-savvy but also emotional and vulnerable (the Alternative party signs off all its missives with ‘love’). And they’re committed to a deeper welfare state, which promotes not just well-being but love and higher states of consciousness. They would transform all of society into a Nordic hippy commune. Check out this recent New Yorker article on these new parties, and Freinacht’s influence on them. 

Freinacht writes: ‘Political metamodernism is built around one central insight. The king’s road to a good future society is personal development and psychological growth…. What we are talking about is the deliberate, long-term management of deep, complex, social-psychological issues.’

Metamodernism has also inspired a cultural-political network in the UK called Alter Ego, whose first annual gathering I attended last year – it was an unusual combination of progressive politics, yoga, near-death rituals and fireside singing, and brought together various interesting people like Jonathan Rowson, who wrote the RSA’s spirituality report; Stephen Reid, who left the New Economics Foundation to set up The Psychedelic Society; and Ronan Harrington, who organized the Alter Ego gathering and wrote a piece in Open Democracy calling for a new politics of spirituality (check out this piece as well).

Alter Ego’s manifesto declares: ‘Political problems are never “just” political; they are always also emotional, psychological and (what some call) “spiritual” problems…Politics has neglected the most fundamental questions of human life—those related to meaning, purpose and transcendence…The personal development of individuals must be taken seriously if we want to transform society.’ 

Freinacht likewise thinks the ultimate goal of The Listening Society should be the encouragement of higher states of consciousness in the population. But what does that mean, practically? Freinacht doesn’t get into that much, but he does talk about everyone being entitled to therapy and everyone learning to meditate – by this reckoning the UK is already on its way to meta-modern utopia. Other initiatives might be the legalization of psychedelics (or all drugs), the introduction of universal basic income, the expansion of lifelong learning and community arts, the establishment of new institutions for spiritual development like neo-monasteries, the revival of existing cultural tools like pilgrimage and evensong, the reform of education to make it more focused on development, well-being and flow, the development of innovative communal homes for the elderly, greater protection for animal rights and a move to vegetarianism or veganism….and so on.

Metamodernism as developmental stage

Finally, what about metamodernism as a developmental stage? Freinacht insists you can’t build an effective politics unless you understand that people – and sometimes whole cultures – are at different developmental stages, and try to work with those stages.

He gives the reader an overview of various different developmental theories – those of Ken Wilber, Robert Kegan, Michael Lamport Commons and others – before suggesting none of them are comprehensive, because they fail to see that development occurs at multiple variables, and one can be advanced in one variable but not very advanced in another. Freinacht’s own developmental theory looks at four different variables – cognitive complexity, symbolic code, psychological state, and depth. I’m going to describe them briefly – hang in there.

1) Cognitive complexity

He takes the variable of cognitive complexity from Daniel Gortz’ mentor Michael Lamport Commons, who classifies all life into different levels of ability to analyse and respond to information, from amoeba up to geniuses. For humans, the most important stages are Stages 10, 11, 12 and 13.

Stage 10 thinkers tend to focus on one abstract variable (justice, equality, Christian faith) and make it all-important, without seeing how multiple variables interact. As a result, they will often have a rather simplified, black-and-white view of the world. ‘Islam is evil’, for example. ‘Racism is bad.’ ‘The Patriachy is destroying the world’. ‘F*ck the Tories’. ‘Jesus saves’. And so on.

Stage 11 thinkers see how variables can interact and tries to use empirical evidence: ‘Racism results from economic and social inequalities’; ‘Some Arab-Islamic cultural norms may be irreconcilable with Western civilization’; ‘Feminism seeks gender equality’…and so on.

Stage 12 thinkers seek to combine multiple variables into a coherent system: ‘Racism is an emergent property of all societies. and interacts with things like inequality. Blaming and pointing the finger is generally unproductive and one should instead try to address the long-term issues.’

And Stage 13 thinkers – metamodernist thinkers – are very rare, and are able to combine multiple systems into meta-systems (like, say, combining Marxist economics with psychoanalysis?) A Stage 13 take on the clash of cultures might be: ‘Liberal values prevalent in Western counties may be more functional in late modern society than the more traditionalist values of many Arab Muslims but for the successful integration of these different cultures one must take the perspectives of all parties seriously.’

I must admit I haven’t encountered Commons’ theory of cognitive complexity before, and don’t readily see the difference between Stages 11, 12 and 13 (this probably means I’m Stage 11!) One can have an all-embracing theory or even meta-theory of the world – feminism, Marxism, Islam – and still be very black-and-white in your thinking (F*ck Men / the Rich / Infidels). Does having an all-embracing theory of the world definitely mean you’re more advanced than if you don’t?

But I get the basic idea. And I share Freinacht’s frustration with a contemporary politics that looks for simplistic narratives of heroes and villains, thereby failing to see how different systems interact and implicate all of us, how any political reform – however well motivated – has unintended consequences, and thus there is no such thing as ‘liberal innocence’, no place of purity from which one can look down on the world. I would love a more joined-up holistic politics that moves beyond Left and Right tribal narratives.

2) Symbolic code

The second of Freinacht’s developmental variables refers to the cultural code in which a person lives. A person might be a Stage 13 thinker in a society with rather basic cultural resources. The seven stages of cultural evolution are more familiar to me.

A) Archaic: the culture of Neanderthal man, before homo sapiens and animism

B) Animist: hunter-gatherer societies, characterized by belief in spirits

C) Faustian / Homeric: city-state societies, run by warrior-groups,  with a value-system celebrating honour and glory in battle (might is right).

D) Post-Faustian / Axial: societies extended over wide geographic area, which follow religions characterized by faith in an all-pervasive God / Logos / Dao / karma with which the individual should live in harmony. Might is not right – the true warrior conquers themselves.

E) Modern: industrial societies, characterized by faith in secular objective materialist reality which can be discovered through science. Faith in God is as ignorant as faith in the Tooth Fairy.

F) Post-modern: post-industrial societies, characterized by suspicion of all grand narratives, including science. Truth is socially and culturally constructed. Ignorant modernists don’t realize how their ‘objective reality’ is the product of their white, male, cis, middle-class power structures. 

G) Metamodern:  You are able to see all the previous stages as necessary shifts in cultural evolution, and ‘give each perspective its due credit’. Post-modernism gets some things right but fails to go beyond its shaming critiques of mainstream power structures (systemic racism, systemic patriarchy), and fails to offer a vision of the future which tackles global inequality, ecological catastrophe, and mental illness. Freinacht writes: ‘you have to offer a path to Utopia…and it has to really include the traditional, modern and post-modern – even while knowing that this path will never be the only one or the ‘right one’.’

3) Subjective states

The third variable is subjective states. Freinacht insists that things like economics and politics ‘are only of value insofar as they translate into or otherwise affect subjective experiences…[These] are what must be of ultimate significance in life and society’. He’s a utilitarian, but of the JS Mill rather than Bentham variety – you can’t just call all positive subjective experiences ‘happiness’, and then rate them on a happiness scale. In fact, it’s a mistake to focus on emotions: ‘Organisms don’t really seek or avoid certain emotions, they seek to raise the level of their subjective state and avoid low states’.  Some subjective experiences are higher and better than others. He gives us this scale:

Lower states:

1. Hellish

2. Horrific

3. Tortured

4. Tormented

Medium states:

5. Very uneasy

6. Uneasy, uncomfortable

7. Somewhat uneasy, OK, full of small faults

8. Satisfied, well

9. Good, lively

10. Joyous, full of light, invigorated

 High states:

11. Vast, grand, open

12. Blissful

13. Enlightened, spiritual unity

Freinacht believes we’re not just stuck in one particular state – they ‘are extremely volatile [and] can shift very dramatically from one instant to another’ (something one discovers on psychedelics or meditation retreat). With the proper inputs into our personality – art, nature, psychedelics, spiritual training – we can develop our state – increase our median state, increase our average state, increase our minimum state, increase our maximum state, and so on.

4) Depth

Proper spiritual / psychological training and experience also develops Freinacht’s fourth variable – depth – which he defines as ‘a person’s intimate, embodied acquaintance with subjective states’. He writes: ‘Great-depth people are the ones who have experienced a wider range of subjective states, who are well acquainted with being in such states and who have learned to handle them.’

One can be advanced in one of these developmental variables, and basic in another. Eckhart Tolle, for example, ‘obviously has high states. But his answers on any social or societal issues, and the theories propounded in his books, are of average complexity. It should be made perfectly clear that this man, while being both kind and wise, is poorly educated and, truth be told, not very clever.’  One could have a high level of cognitive complexity, and be utterly miserable and spiritually bereft (see most PhD students). One could experience far-out altered states, but have no idea how to integrate them into stable altered traits.

Freinacht suggests that Nordic societies are now mainly modernist and post-modernist, but there are the stirrings of a new metamodernist aristocracy – the Triple H of Hipsters, Hackers and Hippies, who have reached meta-modern stages of development in one or more of his four variables. They live outside traditional work structures and reward incentives, tend to work for themselves while being highly networked and rich in creative and social capital, but can easily fall into the precariat (ie they can be broke).

They are aided by the ‘yoga-bourgeoisie’, members of the business class who have ‘found that money is not the answer to a happy life and therefore begin to cultivate self-awareness, authenticity and intimacy—often in and around yoga parlours, tantra group settings, contact improvisation dance, improvisation theatre, self-help courses and coaches, and to some extent Burning Man festival and its wider cultural sphere.’

This new aristocracy is the force driving the development of new political parties. And the future belongs to them, basically. To us! Woohoo! Sound the gong, light the sage, prepare the kambo frog.

Concluding thoughts

I enjoyed The Listening Society, and it helped me join the dots with regards to a new spirit I’ve seen emerging in people I know in London, mainly social entrepreneurs in their early 30s. who are trying to improve society through new forms of work and community, who are more willing than my own generation (40+) to go beyond post-modern irony and search for genuine intimacy and transcendence, and who are interested in spiritual practices that draw from the well of traditional religions without being restricted to any one dogma. It’s not yet the most political generation, but I wonder if it could be.

The book also chimed with my own long-term interest in the ‘politics of well-being’. The book could have said a lot more on specifics – what specific policies would help to build the Listening Society? How can you master-mind the emotional and spiritual development of a whole population? OK, free therapy, free meditation, free magic mushrooms…then what? How will we find meaning in a post-work society, other than in opiate addiction or virtual reality gaming?

I think Freinacht is right: the answer lies in spiritual development. But there are all kinds of risks to a politics of spirituality. An ecstatic politics, where everyone is in an altered state and thinks they’re on a divine / historical mission, easily turns into a bloodbath. That’s what happened in the Crusades, the English Civil War and the French Revolution, three ecstatic political moments. The in-group feels ecstatically bonded, but sees outsiders as demonic enemies who must be purged for the new age of love to dawn. Ecstatic politics isn’t necessarily violent – I think of, say, the relatively benign influence of Methodism on British politics. But that’s usually because there’s a separation between the church and the state. What Freinacht and others suggest is a marriage of the spiritual and political. I don’t think they’ve fully considered the risks.  

One sees a tension between different values in Freinacht’s metamodernism. For example, what would the metamodern party position be on mass immigration? Does a metamodern society require a critical mass of metamodern people? Won’t the declining demographics among post-modernist and metamodernist populations mean they will be increasingly outnumbered by traditionalists? 

Another tension is between technology and the development of high subjective states. We are no longer 90s tech-utopians who think the internet naturally leads to what Timothy Leary called a ‘neo-ecstatic society’. Now, we are more likely to think that the internet, and particularly social media, are inimical to the development of a caring, empathetic society, and to the development of attention, compassion and equanimity in individuals. Hackers and hippies may not be such natural allies after all.

Likewise, Freinacht has a rather bland assumption that the metamodern political parties of the future will naturally be both libertarian and green – does he mean socially libertarian, rather than economic? Is the globe-trotting metamodern lifestyle bad for the planet?

What is lacking from his description of the metamodern cultural stage is a satisfying description of consciousness. We may be dissatisfied with the modernist-materialist description of consciousness (or lack of one). We may also be dissatisfied with the post-modernist idea that animist / monotheist / secular ontologies are also somehow ‘true’ – culturally true, true for the person experiencing them. We wonder if humanity is going to advance its understanding of consciousness further – into something like pan-psychism, or the extended mind, or Mind-at-Large, or plant consciousness / Gaia-soul, or some idea of an extended, immortal consciousness such as people seem to experience on psychedelics. Freinacht plays at the edges of such ideas, but is wary of going there, because he’s a secularist, and doesn’t want to fall into what he calls ‘the astrology precariat’. But surely, if metamodernism is really a bold new phase of cultural development on a par with the Axial Age, it will need a bold new theory of consciousness. We haven’t got there yet.

Finally, I have an ingrained wariness of developmental theories. I’m wary of the idea that science can accurately define and measure stages of spiritual development, and then classify the population into these levels. You can measure the extent to which a person feels ego-dissolution on a basic one to ten scale…but we can’t tell if they’re telling the truth, or if their 6 is comparable to someone else’s 6. Science can’t accurately measure a person’s depth or level of spiritual wisdom – how could it do that? I don’t deny there are different levels of spiritual wisdom, just that science can define and measure them.

A risk of developmental theories, as Freinacht well knows, is they lead to a sense of arrogance and entitlement in the people who hold such theories, who invariably see themselves as the highest level, and their opponents as retards. I remember going to Alter Ego, and one panellist asking us to raise our hands if we’d been to Burning Man. I went to a similar panel on contemporary spirituality at an event called ‘joy-tech’, and a panellist asked the same question. I think it’s unattractive and unwise, this preening of ourselves as highly advanced beings because we take regular gong baths and drink ayahuasca lattes.

Still, that’s a risk Freinacht himself warns of. I applaud the boldness of his vision and his integration of spirituality and politics. He has described something that I see arising in my society, in the generation after me. I don’t yet know to what extent it will become a powerful political force. The idea of co-created political parties like The Alternative sounds a bit like being trapped in a Swedish commune arguing about the washing-up. Still, the UK’s existing political parties seem utterly broken to me. Perhaps it’s time to roll up our sleeves and have a go ourselves.

P.S. The Listening Society is the first of a two-parter – the sequel, The Nordic Ideology, may have more practical policy recommendations when it comes out, I believe next year. Keep an eye on Freinacht’s website, Metamoderna.org