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Monthly Archives: May 2014

Spiritual reading and the epiphany of poetry

Jane Davis says that literature saved her life. She grew up in a broken home, with a single mum who died of alcoholism. She left home and lived in squats, with a husband who also eventually died of substance abuse. She was helped by a Women’s Liberation group and then went to study English Literature at Liverpool University. But she was turned off by the entitled middle-class students around her, and the pervading miasma of critical theory.

That’s when she had her epiphany. She told Ashoka magazine:

At the end of my first year, I read Doris Lessing’s Shikasta. Literally overnight, it changed my whole world-view. It’s a brilliant sci-fi novel, and it made me realise there is a religious or spiritual dimension to life and I needed to understand what it was. It brought on something like a nervous breakdown. I was very scared, because I realised I would have to totally change my life. I didn’t know how to behave in this new universe where everything matters. The book made me see that you have a life for a purpose and you’ve got to find out what that purpose is and then you’ve got to do it.

Jane Davis (right), the founder of the Reader Organization, with Sophie Howarth, co-founder of the School of Life
Jane Davis (right), the founder of the Reader Organization, with Sophie Howarth, co-founder of the School of Life

She graduated with a first, and started to teach in a continuing education college. She got to pick what she taught and she used the course to teach herself about great literature – she did a 20-week course on Dante’s Divine Comedy, another 20-week course on Piers Ploughman. She also did a PhD, but she knew that, deep down, she wanted to help get non-readers into reading, to show them that literature can save and transform lives, and that it belongs to all of us.

In 1997 she started the Reader Magazine, and in 2002 she launched the Reader Organization, which runs ‘shared reading’ groups. The group – anything between 2 and 12 people – read a poem or novel out-loud, and then discuss it in detail, bringing in their own experience and stories when they want to. The discussion is guided by a facilitator trained by the Reader Organization.

There are now almost 100 people working full-time for the Reader, which is an extraordinary achievement. Davis is not just a lady with a mission, she is apparently a brilliant people-manager. There are now over 300 shared reading groups around the country, including over 100 around Merseyside (also the home of Philosophy in Pubs, by the by – clearly something in the water up there). There are shared reading groups in many prisons. The Reader has also teamed up with NHS health and well-being boards to help people recovering from mental illness. And it’s working in care homes to run reading groups for the elderly and for those with dementia.

The testimonies from these groups are amazing. And the Reader has worked with The Centre for Research into Reading at Liverpool (run by Josie Billington and Jane’s husband Phillip Davis) to research if shared reading is good for us – a 2011 study found significant benefits for people recovering from depression. This helped to inspire the NHS’  ‘books for health’ programme – although Jane points out there are big differences. The NHS’ programme only ‘prescribes’ narrow CBT books, which people read on their own. There is not the beauty of great literature, nor the community of a reading group.

So why is reading fiction or poetry good for us? Reading in general gives us cognitive benefits, according to a new study by Alice Sullivan – it improves our vocabulary and even our maths ability. Another study last year found reading novels increases our empathic ability to take others’ perspective. It is also very heartening, if one is going through an intense experience or emotion, to find that someone else has gone through something similar and put it into words ‘often thought but ne’er so well expressed’.

I love what Holden Caulfield’s teacher says to him in Catcher in the Rye:

You’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.

I would say it’s wisdom. Poetry and fiction is an accumulation of wisdom about consciousness and experience. And so much of the challenge of our culture, today, involves remembering the wisdom of the past and communicating it. The Reader Organization does that – it tends the flame, it passes it on.

Also, the communal aspect of the shared reading group is part of its magic. The art work is a stimulus to discussion, to sharing about your lives. You listen, and you feel heard. I think that’s a lot what people get from the philosophy groups I run – in some ways, me talking about the philosophy at the beginning is just an excuse to get people together to talk to each other about what really matters to them (this is part of the appeal of the Alpha Course too).

The Saracens philosophy group this week
The Saracens philosophy group this week

This week, for example, the philosophy club at Saracens prepared for their Premiership semi-final by reading and discussing Wordsworth’s Happy Warrior. It was surreal, but also brilliant. And it got the players talking to each other about what really matters – it was beautiful to hear them talk about playing for the camaraderie and joy of it (and they won, by the way).

What I think poetry and literature particularly do is reach a part of the psyche that rational philosophy doesn’t necessarily reach. The symbols, the rhythm, the metaphors and paradoxes, these go deep into the soul, beyond the pre-frontal cortex. Jane Davis says that a good sign of poetry is it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Emily Dickinson said ‘if I feel physically that the top of my head has come off, that’s poetry’. It’s a sort of liturgy or spell – and sharing that reverie or even ecstatic state together is very good for us, I believe. It opens a window to the spiritual, and stops us getting too claustrophobic in the narrow cell of our selves.

Poetry can give us epiphanies – a sudden insight into our lives and the human condition – a seeing from another angle, from above, from within, a revealing of the beauty and pathos not just of our lives but of life. Jane Davis’ favourite writer is the novelist Marilynne Robinson, and she has a special genius for capturing these epiphanies  – it might be seeing a couple walking down the street hand-in-hand, and the poignancy and eternity of that moment takes your breath away.

Lectio Divina - the art of spiritual reading
Lectio Divina – the art of spiritual reading

It is a spiritual thing. For centuries, Christian monks and lay-people practiced something called lectio divina, or spiritual reading, where you read, considered and digested a passage of scripture, savouring in a deep and physical way the explicit and implicit meanings, the symbols, the parallels with other texts, and the resonance with your own life and where you are now. Spiritual reading helped to grow your inner world, as St Augustine put it – to expand your soul into a many-roomed mansion. Around the 16th and 17th century, that practice passed into the world of poetry, through writers like George Herbert and John Donne, who used many of the spiritual practices of contemplative Christianity in their poetry. Today, poets and writers may not be orthodox Christians, but many of them still keep those contemplative practices alive in the belief that art is good for our souls.

TE Hulme once said that Romantic poetry is ‘spilt religion’. A more positive way to put it is that the Reader Organization offers a form of spirituality for an undogmatic and multicultural age. It uses the language of religion – epiphanies, mission, revelations, converts, testimonies – and some of the practices of religion – shared reading, spiritual reading, liturgy – and offers them to people who might not be sure what they believe, but who instinctively seek for that spiritual dimension to life.

It also keeps alive a tradition of adult education that has almost disappeared. In the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, faith groups, socialist groups and universities all worked to spread education, to teach people how to read and discuss ideas and art. In the second half of the 20th century, however, many universities closed their extension courses, further education colleges became focused on teaching ‘skills’, and the left-wing intelligentsia lost interest in adult education and fell in love with obscure continental theorists. Thank God, then, that people like Jane are keeping the flame burning.

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In other news:

The Huffington Post is turning into a hot-bed for Stoic philosophy, thanks to its managing editor, Jimmy Soni, who is a Stoic, and its CEO Arianna Huffington, who is also a big fan of it. Two pieces on Stoicism from the site – one’s an interview with a Stoic former Green Beret. And the other is a general piece on why we need more Stoic philosophy in our lives. Maybe this new wave of Stoic enthusiasm will help my book sell more copies in the US! Lots of nice reviews for it on Amazon at least.

Here’s a great programme on helping Muslim populations in the UK with mental health issues – including finding an indigenous way to talk about things like depression. Great idea – and a great way to fight extremist Islam, which feeds off despair and alienation.

And here’s a good article on why social activists can avoid ‘burnout’ through contemplative practice.

Tanya Luhrmann, a great anthropologist, writes for the NYT on dreaming in different cultures.

Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci gave a talk this week on Scientism. Here are the slides.

Prince is touring the UK! Here’s a brilliant vid of a James Brown gig in the 80s, where Brown invites Michael Jackson on stage to dance, and then Jacko invites Prince on stage from the audience too. Prince is wasted and gets his bodyguard to carry him to the stage! Hence the Kanye West line ‘ride around on my bodyguard’s back like Prince in the club’. Hooray for Prince.

Finally, might as well end with a poem. Being in a religious community is hard. Being in any community is hard. It confines your freedom and that chafes. But maybe we discover a greater freedom in service. George Herbert, vicar and poet, thought about this a lot in the 17th century. His poem ‘The Collar’ is a great exploration of this experience. Have a read.

See you next week,

Jules

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on flow, ecstasy and the spirituality of Positive Psychology

57024_480x360Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is one of the world’s best-known psychologists, famous for developing the concept of ‘flow’. Inspired by the creative process of artists and musicians, Csikszentmihalyi spent decades researching the ‘flow’ states of consciousness that people can achieve when they’re totally absorbed in doing what they’re best at. They lose self-consciousness and a sense of time, and ‘zone in’ to their activity, sometimes achieving things that are ‘almost impossible’. I interviewed Csikszentmihalyi over the phone about his latest essay, ‘The Politics of Consciousness’, published in a new collection of essays called Well-Being and Beyond.

JE: You say in your essay that psychology does not yet have an adequate idea of consciousness. What do you mean?

MC: The theory that most psychologists would ascribe to does not take account of the autonomy of consciousness and people’s ability to come up with plans, purpose and motivation that are not inherent. The usual definition of consciousness is that it’s awareness of what is already in the mind. Consciousness is simply a repository or collection of impulses and stimuli that have been experienced by the person. I think the question of what consciousness actually does as an agent, as a director or controller of the mind – that hasn’t been well formulated.

JE: You talk about the politics of consciousness – the social, economic and cultural conditions that allow consciousness to flourish, and you name three essential conditions for that flourishing – freedom, hope and flow.

MC: Yes. For example, if the freedom of consciousness is restricted by political dictatorship or lack of opportunity, then consciousness is itself restricted and has no opportunities to go beyond the direction in which external forces push it.

The collapse of the Soviet Union as a revolution in consciousness
The collapse of the Soviet Union as a revolution in consciousness

That’s why I was saying that the Soviet system corrupts, because eventually people can’t suffer any more the fact they weren’t free to use their energy in ways that are more truth-orientated than people allow them to be. Behavioural psychologists might have predicted that the Soviet system would have successfully re-programmed people into subservient robots. That’s because psychologists were not able to come to terms with the existence of consciousness, which allows people to imagine and choose alternatives to existing reality.

JE: In terms of hope – I suppose for centuries the basis of people’s hope was hope in the afterlife, while for the last 200 years it’s been more hope in humanist progress. Do you think we’re becoming less hopeful about the future because of economic stagnation and the looming prospect of dramatic climate change?

MC: That’s certainly a danger, that as progress falters, that will undermine hope not just for progress but for life itself. I think that is a real problem, and that’s why I hope psychology could begin to help to find reasons for existence and for going on with life that are more reliable than progress.

JE: And your third essential constituent for flourishing consciousness is flow. You say in your essay that if we don’t have outlets for flow, people will look for excitement through things like violence and military adventurism. You mention the Hitler Youth as an example of this. Do you think something similar is happening in Middle Eastern countries, where there’s high youth unemployment and alienation, and the boredom leads to a sort of ‘heroic Jihadism’?

Young British muslims on a Jihadi boys tour in Syria
Young British muslims on a Jihadi boys tour in Syria

MC: Yes definitely. Look also at Africa, which has by now several hundreds of thousands of teenage boys who are given weapons by diamond smugglers and so forth, and for them it’s a great adventure. They remember how in the village they were frightened by attacks from neighbouring gangs, but give them a machine gun and they feel in control and able to ‘live large’, so to speak. That is a danger even under the surface of the supposedly more developed countries. For young men especially, a certain amount of purposeful effort is needed – something that they can work on and try to improve at. At the moment, all the focus is on academic performance in high school, and if you’re not successful in that one domain of cognitive skill, there’s so little to do. That’s why young people become easily seduced into drugs and violence.

JE: In your TED talk, 10 years ago, on flow, you made a link between flow and altered states of consciousness like ecstasy. You quoted a leading American composer, who said that sometimes he finds himself ‘in an ecstatic state where almost you feel like you don’t exist…I have nothing to do with what’s happening. I just sit there and watch in a state of awe and wonderment. And [the music] just flows out of itself.’ I’m researching ecstatic experiences at the moment. Could you talk about about how ecstasy relates to your concept of flow?

MC: When I started studying these altered states in artists and musicians and so forth, the literature on ecstasy was one that resonated very much with what I was learning. But flow is kind of a toned-down ecstasy, something that does have some of the characteristics of ecstasy – feeling that you’re losing yourself in something larger, the sense of time disappears – but flow happens in conditions that are usually rather mundane. Of course they happen also in arts or sports or extreme physical situations, but they can happen washing the dishes or reading a good book or having a conversation. It’s a kind of experience which culminates in ecstasy.

What are the similarities and differences between flow and ecstasy?
What are the similarities and differences between flow and ecstasy?

But the problem with ecstasy is that you can’t programme it, you have to be lucky to be a situation where all conditions are so distinctly awesome that you feel ecstasy. Or you can learn to achieve it through very long periods of training like in Hindu mystical practices. Or you can get a similar sensation by taking drugs, but the thing with the chemical path to ecstasy is that you haven’t done it yourself – it’s an external manipulation of your nervous system. And that doesn’t leave much residue in your consciousness. You don’t feel that you have achieved it, as you do when you get it through yogic techniques or true flow. If you achieve the ecstatic experience through meditation, you feel ‘I can do it’ – you are actively connected to a larger experience.

JE: An interesting difference between the traditional idea of ecstasy and your notion of flow is that, in ecstasy, there’s the idea that your consciousness goes outside of its ordinary parameters, but also that something else comes in – a god, genius, daemon or spirit. This is what Plato called enthusiasm, which means ‘having a god within’. Likewise, in creative inspiration, there’s the idea that some creativity is inspired – it’s a opening up to something, and a spirit going in or communicating through you. Many artists or poets or musicians feel like they are channelling something beyond them. But in flow, the autonomy of the self remains inviolate, self-contained, separate. So it’s a disenchanted definition of ecstasy, in which you never really go beyond the self.

MC: Well, all psychologists can report is what we learn from human behaviour or statements from people who we talk to. There may be all kind of miraculous things in the world that we have no idea about. We’re psychologists, we talk to what happens to people. If you’re talking about people who get flow, you occasionally have that sort of account, but not necessarily – many others don’t say that. For instance, chess players might say that in a really good game, they have the experience where they feel their mind has become part of the Supreme Rationality that exists outside of them in a sort of Platonic way. You feel that pure logic is coming in to your mind. But mostly the people are talking metaphorically or allegorically. They don’t actually believe it. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who actually believes.

JE: You’ve never interviewed an artist or musician who thinks their inspiration is supernatural?

MC: Not that what came into them is a supernatural force, no. But they experience it as ‘wow, I felt I had complete control’ – they explain it as a feeling or experience they had. They didn’t literally believe it was a spirit, not the ones I’ve talked to.

JE: The other big difference with the older idea of ecstasy is that your description of flow very much emphasizes training and mastery and a feeling of competence and control. In ecstatic states, by contrast, there’s traditionally been this idea that the inspired person almost doesn’t know what they’re doing, they’re out of control. It’s not an experience of mastery so much as surrender. But you also talk about the paradox of control – that in flow states there’s both a mastery and  a letting go. Can you explain that paradox a bit?

MC: The sense of control is never complete, because otherwise you wouldn’t be in flow. The feeling people have is that, at the moment, they have the possibility of doing things that are really difficult or almost impossible. But they have that feeling only in a conditional sense – they know they could make a mistake. On the other hand, they feel that if they do everything as it should be done, it will work out. In everyday life, you feel even if you do your best something may happen or undo what you are trying to do. When you are in flow, you feel that really you are in control but you also have a responsibility to do what you need to do. You are not worried about anything else, you’re focused and doing your best.

JE: How does your concept of flow feed into the idea in behavioural economics that we have two systems in the brain – a deliberative-conscious system and a more automatic system? Is flow in some ways a side-stepping of the more conscious-deliberative system and an allowing of the automatic system to take over?

MC:  So far, the studies that have been done on flow and the brain are few, but they suggest that’s what is happening is ‘transient hypo-frontality‘ – the frontal part of the brain is not interfering with the rest of the brain. The frontal part is usually the one you use to make choices, evaluate options, think about consequences and so forth. That’s the executive part of the brain. What you are using instead are the older parts of the brain, which store patterns of behaviour, for instance if you’re a skiier, the whole set of notions involved in going down the slope, the movements and sequences, they’re all stored in the lower part of the brain. Usually, the lower part of the brain is being controlled or directed by the frontal part of the brain, but in flow, you get to be so good at practicing that if you have this information well practiced, then you can let it go freely.

Here’s my favourite example of transient hypo-frontality – Ayrton Senna’s mystic lap in the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix.

JE: What is the relationship between Positive Psychology and religion? They seem to cover similar areas – virtues, self-control, resilience, gratitude, flow, friendship, awe – but at the same time, Positive Psychology is resolutely naturalistic. Is it a naturalistic alternative to religion?

MC: One distinction we have to make is between religiosity and spirituality. The latter is a non-denominational way of speaking about what religions sometimes do. So for instance, meditation, mindfulness, gratitude, respect and love of nature – all of these things are very much part of Positive Psychology. Spirituality is the basis of religions, the problem with religions is they become institutionalized and the form becomes more important than the substance, and you begin to have to differentiate yourself from other religions which have different forms, even though the substances are the same. Instead of being a spiritual religion, you end up with a religion that’s very much material. That happens to almost all religions, even Buddhism, which has lost a lot of its spirituality through institutionalization.

JE: Is there a risk that, as Positive Psychology becomes adopted by governments, it also becomes institutionalized?

MC: So far it’s been more of a critique of politics. As a critical corrective to politics, it may survive. If it becomes institutionalized in political forms, that would be really bad. I make it clear that I don’t think Positive Psychologists should work for the Army or even good political institutions, because then the spirit gets removed in favour of the structure.

As a last thought, I think one of the reasons for the success of the ‘flow’ concept in wider culture is that it given us a way to talk about altered states of consciousness, and their value, without relying on religious or animistic terminology like ‘ecstatic’ or ‘inspired’.  His way of talking about ecstasy also appeals more to the autonomous self of capitalist society – hard-working, self-controlled, diligent, competent. Indeed, flow states are described as moments of supreme control and competence, rather than as a surrender of your ego to something Other. He said in his TED talk that it’s something CEOs can feel when they’re having a great meeting – a sort of executive ecstasy.

By exorcising ecstasy of any spirits, ‘flow’ is in keeping with the great project of modern science, which Barbara Ehrenreich describes as the attempt ‘to crush any notion of powerful nonhuman Others, to establish there are not conscious, subjective beings other than ourselves – no spirits, demons, or gods…Human freedom, knowledge and – let’s be honest – mastery, all depend on shooing out the ghosts and spirits.’  Flow is not just a ‘toned-down form of ecstasy’, it is a completely disenchanted idea of ecstasy, in which the human agent is in fact triumphantly masterful, rather than surrendering to some Other more powerful than it.

Miyazaki and some of his creations
Miyazaki and some of his creations

As an account of what artists think about creative inspiration, it seems to me too narrow and naturalistic. In all his research on creativity, Csikszentmihalyi has really never come across any artist who thinks their inspiration is supernatural? Well, here are some: Ted Hughes, David Lynch, Hayao Miyazaki, TS Eliot, Walt Whitman, Rilke, Goethe, Seamus Heaney, WB Yeats, DH Lawrence, Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Wordsworth, ST Coleridge, John Keats, William Blake, John Milton, George Herbert, John Donne, Homer, Sophocles, Pindar, Aeschylus, Schiller, Dante, William Shakespeare, Garcia Lorca…

They all thought their creative inspiration was at least partly supernatural, a gift from the spirit world. I’m sure there are many, many more examples. This is not to say creativity is entirely some unconscious ecstatic process – not at all, it involves a lot of conscious craft and struggle. But for these artists at least, it is also partly a gift from the spirit world.

For many artists, as for mystics, ecstasy is a relationship – it’s a going out, a meeting, a melting, a mingling, a giving and receiving. Positive Psychology wants spirituality without Spirit, it wants awe without leaving the confines of the self – but I’m not sure you can have gratitude without a Giver, or ecstasy without a venturing forth. Peeking out of the window of the self is not the same an opening the door and walking out into the night.

There’s a sort of institutionalized blindness to the supernatural in psychology – it doesn’t see it, because it can’t see it. Previous generations of psychologists  – Carl Jung and William James particularly – had the courage to see beyond the naturalistic fence of their discipline, and this enabled them to talk about how people actually experience and interpret altered states of consciousness. ‘Flow’ manages to cover some aspects of those experiences – but it’s a very toned-down, buttoned-up, lights-on, staying-safe-inside version of ecstasy. Have we become so afraid of the dark?