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Monthly Archives: October 2014

Technologies for unselfing our Selfie culture

A lot of modern technology, particularly social media, is a technology for selfing. This is why we’re so addicted to Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest etc (well, I am anyway). They’re technologies for Selfing. Every post and tweet, we’re making another little carving in the epic construction of our Public Self, then we wait to see how many likes we get.

Great global crises are merely means to the mini-rush of a Like or a Retweet. Hey, that tweet I did about the NHS got five retweets. That carefully-constructed In Memoriam tweet for Robin Williams was a smash. The petition I shared about the Yazidis or whatever got 18 Shares. That video of me pouring ice over myself for Ebola-sufferers got 87 Likes!

All of us, staring at our phones on the Tube, we’re really staring at little pocket mirrors. Does the Public like me? Does it like me when I do this?  How about this? We’re slaves to the Public, just as Plato predicted we would become in liberal democracy. We twist, turn and contort ourselves to win the approval of the thousand-eyed God.

Is there another way? Plato thought that perhaps that we can go beyond the sucking black-hole of the ego, beyond the endless shadow-play of our ego-projections, and turn towards the shining reality of Truth, Beauty & Goodness. Iris Murdoch, the Platonist philosopher and novelist, wrote about this. She called it ‘techniques of unselfing’. The opposite of Selfies, in other words.

Murdoch writes in The Sovereignty of the Good:

The psyche is a historically determined individual relentlessly looking after itself. In some ways it resembles a machine – in order to operate it needs sources of energy, and is predisposed to certain patterns of activity. One of its main pastimes is daydreaming. It is reluctant to face unpleasant realities. Its consciousness is not normally a transparent glass through which it views the world, but a cloud of more or less fantastic reverie designed to protect the psyche from pain….

We are anxiety-ridden animals. Our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, usually self-preoccupied, often falsifying veil which partially conceals our world. Our states of consciousness differ in quality, our fantasies and reveries are not trivial and unimportant, they are profoundly connected with our energies and our ability to choose and act. And if quality of consciousness matters, then anything which alters our consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity and realism is to be connected with virtue.

The most obvious thing in our surroundings which is an occasion for ‘unselfing’ is what is popularly called beauty…I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel.

In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important. And of course this is something which we may do deliberately: give attention to nature in order to clear our minds of selfish care.

When we move from beauty in nature to beauty in art we are already i a more difficult region. A great deal of art, perhaps most art, is actually self-consoling fantasy, and even great art cannot guarantee the quality of its consumer’s consciousness. However, great art exists and is sometimes properly experienced and even a shallow experience of great art can have its effect. Art…affords us a pure delight in the independent existence of what is excellent.

As this excellent essay by two Iranian scholars informs me, we see this process of unselfing taking place at key moments in Murdoch’s novels. In The Bell, for example, Dora is suddenly unselfed in front of a painting in the National Gallery:

220px-TheBellShe marvelled, with a kind of gratitude, that they [the pictures] were all still here, and her heart was filled with love for the pictures, their authority, their marvellous generosity, their splendour. It occurred to her that here at last was something real and something perfect…Here was something which her consciousness could not wretchedly devour, and by making it part of her fantasy make it worthless…the pictures were something real outside herself, which spoke to her kindly yet in sovereign tones, something superior and good whose presence destroyed the dreary, trance-like solipsism of her earlier mood. when the world had seemed to be subjective, it had seemed to be without interest or value. But now there was something else in it after all….

Another great technology for unselfing is listening to other people. Actually listening to them. Attending to them. Not turning them into extras in your ego-fantasy. Becoming alive to their independent reality. Their themness. Novels, I guess, are trying to teach us how to do this, how to be empathetic listeners, how to wake up. Part of becoming an adult, for example, involves waking up to the independent reality of your parents, not just as sources of love, approval and money, but as beings, with feelings, frailties, needs.

Contemplation and prayer is another great technology for unselfing. Check out the Bishop of London talking about it, in very Platonic terms (this is from his brilliant collection of sermons and talks, tree of knowledge, tree of life):

DSC_6273All human beings emerge from an experience of oneness with the source of life, but very early on we set to work subconsciously building a shell for protection and a surface self so that we can negotiate with the world around us. Gradually the experience of oneness with the well-spring of life is lost, a crust forms over our deepest self (a crust of unawareness often described in terms of blindness) and we come to operate more and more from what we have constructed, from the shell, the false self…The effect of this is, in the end, exhaustion and a sense of absence, which we try to full with hectic over-activity.

Spiritual growth at a certain point in life demands a reversal and a progressive diminution of the egotistical false self so that our true selves may be liberated and flourish…The surface self is a barrier between our selves and God: a barrier which in the end prevents growth and interrupts the healthy and energizing exchange of love which is intended to pass between the heart of our being and the heart of God.

Certainly the pain involved in breaking through the crust, which has been so many years in the making, and the peril of journeying to the centre through the zone of the hidden drives and complexes which lies beneath the crust, this pain and peril is inescapable: but beyond lies the promise.

Contemplation, he says, is a guide and a resource on this journey:

I have found that the simple way of prayer taught by John Main, one of the spiritual explorers of our own generation, very helpful in widening the breach [in the crust of the false self]. A period morning and evening in simple contemplation. I was tired of continually instructing God in his duties. Gradually I can see more light which does not come from my own generator but is the uncreated light…Truly, this is a door into a new way of being in the world.

Isn’t that awesome? I’ve also been practicing Main’s prayer-technique for the last three months or so. It’s very similar to Transcendental Meditation – you say a mantra in your mind, and use that to settle your restless consciousness, until it descends to a deeper consciousness, in which you can sometimes rest for a while. It feels great, so it’s not a hassle to do it, you want to do it – your soul is drawn to it, like metal towards a magnet. And maybe it slowly transforms us by taking us beyond the restless grasping ego (too soon to say in my case!)

Main learned the technique from a Hindu guru, Swami Satyananda, though similar techniques have existed in Christianity for centuries (though the Church has often been suspicious of them, alas). You can learn the technique for free, and practice it with others, in any of the many Christian contemplation centres around the UK.

ISIS don’t dance

a8aec92a8c05011c8586c08097879003It’s Monday evening, I’m tired after a boozy weekend, it’s dark, cold, and pouring with rain. I do not feel like dancing ecstatically. And yet that is precisely where I am headed: to an ecstatic dance session in a town hall in Islington (where else).

It’s called A Call To Dance, which is a version of something called Five Rhythms. My friend Olly told me about it, he’s a fan of Ecstatic Dance, and hooked into the network. When I told him about my research into ecstatic experiences, he suggested I try it. ‘It’s better than any pill’, he said.

I am somewhat unsure if I’ll fit in. I love dancing, but can’t remember the last time I danced without the aid of alcohol or drugs. I need them to get me out of my head, into ‘the zone’. My usual Clark Kent self is a rather rational, uptight, non-intimate, non-touchy-feely academic. Very ‘heady’, as they say in Brighton. Will I be able to get into the tribal groove, or will I stick out, a fifth wheel, a sixth rhythm, like Mark from Peep Show when he visits Rainbow Rhythms?

There are numerous options for ecstatic dance in north London – I could go to the Saturday night wig-out in a church in Tufnell Park, or this more intimate affair near Angel. I go for the latter.

It’s a big, rather empty hall, ringed by statues of goddesses holding branches. Regulars are arriving, and giving each other loooooooooong hugs. They emerge from the rain wrapped up like antarctic explorers, and strip off to yoga pants and tiny man-shorts. There’s some stretching, some more hugging. One bony old man is already leaping around the floor, like a geriatric jester. Hey nonny no. I stand at the side of the hall, trying to look groovy.

The master of ceremonies is Sue, an American lady who is petite and full of nimble energy. She puts on some music – a slow jazz version of Billie Jean – and the 40 or so ecstatic dancers converge on the floor and start doing their thing. As you can imagine, they are all very expressive, individualist dancers. I have no idea how to dance to a slow jazz version of Billie Jean, so I stand at the back and do the old ‘step to the left, step to the right’.

Expressive individualism, I think to myself. Another ruling philosophy of our time. To hell with structures, dogma, hierarchies. Do your own thing. Get out of your head. Get in touch with your sacral chakra. There’s DH Lawrence, doing some sort of aboriginal dance. There’s Emerson, deep into the Orphic boogaloo.

I’m reminded of Claire Denis’ brilliant film Beau Travail, about the French Foreign Legion. The film explores rigid male power structures, symbolized in the tightly choreographed drills the soldiers do together in the desert. The hero loves the clear boundaries and structures of the Legion. But then he’s chucked out. The last scene is him alone, in a disco. And he suddenly launches into this incredible freeform dance. That’s expressive individualism.

But why am I thinking? Stop being so heady, Jules. Get into it. Am I doing it right? Does anyone ever pick up girls here? What the hell is going on?

Sue the instructress gathers us round in a circle. She walks around the circle quickly, talking in a hypnotic sort of incantation. ‘We will go through five rhythms, which together form a wave. Each rhythm is associated with one part of the body. First we start with ‘flowing’, which is connected to the feet. The feet are the physical key to the conscious state. Then ‘staccato’, connected to the hips. The hips are the physical key to the conscious state. Then ‘chaos’, connected to the spine. Then ‘lyrical’, connected to the hands. Then ‘stillness’, connected to the breath. Sometimes you will dance on your own, sometimes I will invite you to connect with someone else. Go with it’, she smiles, ‘there are no ‘right moves’.’

And we’re off! ‘Connect to your feet, explore with your feet, stay grounded in your feet’. The music gets a bit more lively – a trance beat, building up. It’s fun to dance in my bare feet, feeling the wooden floor beneath me. I feel myself getting into it, though I do wonder about the risks of athlete’s foot. But it’s pleasant. No one cares what I’m doing. Go with it. Let yourself go.

The beat picks up, it’s a good tune. I look around, everyone is into it. I remember how much I enjoyed clubbing, that moment when a good tune comes on and you look around at a dance floor filled with beaming, happy people really loving it, sharing it, enacting it together. How much fun was that?

‘Now move your awareness into your hips. Find someone to connect with and dance together’. Crikey. I am suddenly a sixteen-year-old at a disco, with no idea how to ask someone to dance. Plus you’re not meant to use words here. It’s all non-verbal. My hip-based small-talk is fairly rudimentary. Luckily a Japanese lady is in front of me and we dance for bit. She is a very good dancer and it’s fun, dialoguing through dance. I explain to her that I’m a philosopher, focused particularly on ancient Greek philosophy. I say this with my hips. ‘Now find a way to say goodbye and thank them’. We nod hips and spin off into the mass.

I find myself trancing. It’s like my awareness moves down, spreads out, diffuses, my eyes glaze, the pupils dilate, the mind opens, the critical fire-wall comes down, the autonomic nervous system connects to the music, you can feel it on your skin, in your stomach, in your groin. You are being carried by the music. Your consciousness extends into the tribe, dancing together, coral flowing as the wave goes over it. Expressive collectivism.

Then the dance carries up into the spine. The chaos stage. Kundalini. The music becomes loud, aggressive drumming. Everyone starts to freak out, their spines gyrating and whirling. The elderly geriatric is leaping around like a goat on crack. He keeps whisking past me, making me flinch. It brings me out of the trance. I start thinking again. I feel self-conscious. For some reason, I start to think about ISIS. Is this prancing around a town hall in Islington totally decadent, while ISIS enslaves and beheads its victims? Have we lost our masculine warrior spirit, our grit, our ability to stand up to evil? What would my grandfather make of this?

But, later, I think this: ISIS don’t dance. Radical Islam is Puritan, and Puritans hate dancing, particularly women dancing. Sayid Qutb, one of the founding fathers of radical Islamist thinking, went to America, went to a ‘bop’, and watched in disgust as the men and women slow-danced. When puritanical Islamist groups come to power, one of their first moves is usually to ban dancing, as the Taliban did. They often ban Sufi lodges, like Saudi Arabia did – no ecstatic dancing. Dance is an offence in their puritan regime, too wild, too sensual, too much fun. The only kind of ecstasy ISIS allows is the ecstasy of killing.

Dance is good for us. It lets us trance, in a healthy way. The music, rhythm, and movement interacts with our Autonomic Nervous System, and helps us shake off anxiety and depression, get out of our heads, transcend our little egos, and feel connected to others. Dance lets us do this in a positive, pro-social, loving way – rather than the toxic transcendence of ISIS. And ecstatic dance sessions let us do this without drugs, without booze, without predatory men.

The music slows. The wave subsides into its final phase. A man and woman, who I guess are a couple, dance together, holding each other, but that’s the only physical touch there’s been. We’re all on our own again. It’s a bit melancholy.

We gather in a circle to de-brief. One lady says she loves coming, she goes to a session every day, sometimes even two a day! This is their church, I guess. The church didn’t really allow for ecstatic dance. It banned it, quite early on. St Paul: women should cover their heads and keep quiet. Then the Puritans banned carnival. Then the rationalists did away with church all together.

But the spirit comes back, like a wave. The Pentecostalists reconnected with the body, with dance, they let it shake. And the shaking spread, like molecules vibrating. It spread out of the church through rock and roll, and it also spread through the other denominations, even to stuffy old Anglicanism. I remember a woman I saw at this church in Wales, dancing to the music like a complete hippy. She said she’d had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for several years, and then the Lord had delivered her. Now she danced in worship of him. I am the Lord of the Dance said he.

ISIS will never last, just like Cromwell’s Commonwealth didn’t last, because people’s urge to dance is far stronger than the Puritans’ ability to control it.