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Monthly Archives: April 2014

On altered states and medieval contemplative practices

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

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

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

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

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

giphy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spiritual exercises in ancient and medieval Christianity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mystic-ark-hires

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

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

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

What Quaker companies can teach us about well-being-at-work

Henry-RowntreeMy great-great-great grandfather, a York Quaker called Henry Isaac Rowntree (that’s him on the left), set up Rowntree’s chocolate company in York in 1862. He was an amiable young man, ‘perhaps the only Rowntree with a sense of humour’ according to one historian. He had a parrot who liked to shout obscenities from under the table, much to the consternation of the Quaker elders when they visited. Henry loved adult education and journalism, but family members feared he knew ‘next to nothing about business’.

This led to him not being invited to be a partner at the family grocery business, so instead he bought a cocoa company in York.  A few years later, the young cocoa company was in financial difficulties. Bankruptcy was the height of shame in the Quakers – indeed, you were ejected from the church for it – so Henry’s older brother, Joseph, came to help him run it. Joseph was much more sensible and meticulous, and public demand for cocoa powder and chocolate was beginning to take off.

By the 1940s, Rowntree’s had become one of the biggest confectioners in the world, making well-known brands like Aero, Rolos, Kit-Kat, Polo, Black Magic, and Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles. Alas it was sold to Nestle in 1988, and Joseph had already given away all the money he made to his charitable trusts, so distant descendants inherited not so much as a packet of Smarties.

Peter Cheese of the CIPD talking about Rowntree's
Peter Cheese of the CIPD talking about Rowntree’s

Nonetheless, Rowntree’s are still relevant to my interests because the company was a pioneer in adult education, and well-being-at-work. In fact, when I went to a conference on well-being-at-work, organised by Robertson Cooper last year, the first speaker began his keynote with a slide of the Rowntree’s factory. So what can the example of Rowntree’s tell us about well-being-at-work?

1) Rowntree’s made worker well-being a priority 

Rowntree’s, like its Quaker rival Cadbury’s, was run in a spirit of industrial paternalism. The workers were treated not as mere cogs in a machine, but as characters to be developed (and souls to be saved). Rowntree’s was one of the first companies to have dedicated ‘welfare officers’ – what today we’d call human resources managers – whose job was to look after the well-being and moral character of the young and typically-unmarried male and female workers. There was also a medical officer, regular medical and dental examinations, and company public health campaigns against the evils of tobacco and booze.

The women's canteen at Rowntree
The women’s canteen at Rowntree

As the company grew to a staff of 4,000 or so, Joseph Rowntree was keen to make sure it was still ‘united by a common purpose’. To that end he introduced one of the first in-house company magazines, as well as group-bonding concerts, theatricals, meals together and field trips. One trip involved sending the workers on a walk across the Yorkshire dales. Unfortunately it rained, the workers repaired to a nearby pub, and after an afternoon’s intensive drinking, the police had to be called to eject them.

Historical accounts, like this history of Rowntree female employees, suggest workers enjoyed working at the firm

The Rowntree’s also supported workers’ education through libraries, discussion groups, the Yorkshire philosophical society, and through a network of adult schools. Quakers played the leading role in the establishment of adult education at the end of the 19th century – by 1900 there were 350 adult schools around the UK, with 45,000 pupils, of which two-thirds were at schools run by Quakers. Many Rowntree family members were actively involved in setting up and teaching in adult schools.

Some of the Rowntree staff lived in a ‘model village’ launched by Joseph Rowntree, called New Earswick. It was inspired by the ‘garden city’ designs of Ebenezer Howard, with worker cottages, a village green, and a veritable Quaker porridge of village committees – a library committee, a women’s guild, an orchestral society, a village council, a men’s social club, a musical society etc etc etc. It’s still going.

Historical records suggest that, to a large extent, Rowntree employees enjoyed working there, forged good relationships, and were happy – indeed, Rowntree women were famous for singing at work, as this short film from 1932 shows.

2) This sort of Quaker industrial paternalism was potentially patronising and illiberal

However, the strong emphasis on worker welfare could potentially be creepy – the company poking its nose in your inner life. Fry’s Chocolates, for example (another Quaker company), held an annual workers prayer service, which Joseph Fry said  was ‘often a means of observing their conduct and checking any tendency to impropriety’. The Rowntree’s welfare officers, known as ‘overseers’, were also sometimes resented (‘she sits up there like the Queen of Sheba’, one worker complained).

Workers might well feel that what they did in their own time was their own business, and that the imposition of Quaker ethics on them was an infringement of their own religious liberties. So what if they drank in their own time? Should that be a cause for sacking, as it was at Fry’s? When did religious non-conformism become so conformist?

The Quaker emphasis on character and do-gooding could be annoying and patronising, as one poem showed:

Take a dozen Quakers, be sure they’re sweet and pink
Add one discussion programme, to make the people think
…Garnish with compassion – just a touch will do
Serve with deep humility your philanthropic stew

A modern equivalent of Rowntree’s focus on worker-welfare might be something like the American shoe company Zappo’s, which also is something of a personality cult of its CEO, Tony Hsieh, and also has a strong emphasis on employee well-being. Reading Hsieh’s smug and self-congratulatory comic book, Delivering Happiness, makes me feel queasy – Zappo’s sounds like a bit of a happiness police state.

It’s important, then, for companies to think about how to balance a strong collective ethos with autonomy, how to create a culture that encourages people to be individuals rather than clones, how to create room for dissent and satire, and how to make sure their well-being programme doesn’t feel forced, patronising, conformist. or a form of illiberal surveillance.

Saracens rugby club is an interesting example here – its ethos was also inspired by a strong Christian emphasis on the well-being and personal development of its staff and players, but manages to find a way to promote this without being too patronising, and with room for dissent. Staff and players are co-creators of the culture, rather than merely automatons to be programmed.

3) Ethical capitalism always has its internal tensions

The Quakers helped to set up some of the best British companies – Rowntree’s, Cadbury’s, Barclays, Lloyds, Clarks, Friends Provident – most of which strived to be not just profitable but ethical. They were family-owned, meaning they could pursue their own values rather than trying to please distant shareholders. They were often run as quasi-mutuals, ‘as a kind of partnership between masters and men, uniting their labour for a common end’, as Joseph Rowntree put it.

In all of this, perhaps there are lessons for our own time, when corporations have come to be seen as psychopathic, and when Barclays and Lloyds have become by-words for dodgy dealing (indeed, Barclays’ CEO, Anthony Jenkins, recently suggested the firm needed to remember its Quaker history).

However, Quaker capitalism always had its internal contradictions and tensions.

Quakers blossomed in business partly because their religious non-conformism meant that historically they were unable to go into other careers like politics, partly because they had amazing networks of trust between themselves, and partly because their austere Puritanism made them very good at meticulous book-keeping and rational management. But, as Max Weber explored in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, there was a paradox in directing this Puritan zeal towards the accumulation of capital.

An advert for Aero’s Bubbles. Not entirely Quaker.

Quaker businessmen had a constant struggle to try and balance their service both to God and to mammon. For example, Rowntree’s initially rejected advertising as insincere and duplicitous, but quickly realised they had to embrace it to compete. Both Rowntree’s and Cadbury’s used their ethical principles as a form of advertising, which works from a marketing point of view but is not really in accord with the Gospels. They also spied on each other to try and get each other’s recipes – this was the inspiration for Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. They colluded and set prices when it suited them. Both families made their fortunes by profiting on our growing addiction to sugar – which was originally intended to wean the nation off alcohol but has become its own public health menace.

And the family-ownership model depended on having family members with the genius for business. The Rowntree heirs became increasingly interested in different things, so the company appointed its first non-Rowntree chairman in the 1930s – George Harris, my great-grandfather, who married into the family. He wasn’t a Quaker and had little time for their Puritan do-goodiness. He was more inspired by the American Forrest Mars, who once told his employees: ‘I am a religious man…I pray for Milky Way, I pray for Snickers…Profit is our sole objective.’ Harris used marketing research to launch the very un-Quaker ‘Black Magic’, advertised as a tool for seduction!

Black Magic, a tool for seduction
Black Magic, a tool for seduction

4) So what we can take from Quakernomics today? 

– Try to run companies as mutual enterprises, by facilitating discussions, suggestions and group activities with all levels of the company. Strive for fair pay for all levels of the company, and make sure your suppliers’ values are aligned with your own.

– Provide opportunities for employees to broaden their minds, like Rowntree’s adult schools, the Google Campus, or the Saracens personal development programme.

– Support employees’ well-being through online and one-to-one advice, which should be entirely confidential rather than a means to spy on staff. Connect well-being services both to broader adult education (like Google’s Search Inside Yourself course) and to wider philanthropy and CSR.

– Provide opportunities for employees to pursue philanthropic activities and to feel they are working for a company with a moral mission.

– Provide opportunities for dissent, for disagreement, for satire and internal criticism – to make sure a strong collective ethos doesn’t turn into a cult!

– Explore new models of ownership which don’t make the company a slave to short-term shareholders.

–  Combine moral mission with empirical rigour – what works, both for the company and for employee well-being? What sort of philanthropy or social reforms genuinely work, rather than simply making the giver feel good? Joseph and Seebohm Rowntree were both more than mere do-gooders. They were scientific in their do-gooding.

– Finally, a commitment to employee well-being is entirely in line with a commitment to business excellence, although companies can expect some dilemmas and tough decisions along the way. The moral mission needs to be led  by CEOs at the top, rather than Corporate Social Responsibility reps in the middle.