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Monthly Archives: February 2015

Sketch for the future: the Centre for Practical Wisdom

I gave up booze for Lent. This is long overdue – I have had a drink, usually more than one, pretty much every day for the last 20 years. Stoicism and booze helped me through PTSD and social anxiety. My stiff upper lip was soaked in beer. Twas ever thus – why do you think Edwardians called cocktails ‘stiffeners’?

I used Stoicism to build up a citadel of autonomy, and then used booze to let down the drawbridge occasionally, to try and connect with other people and feel alive.

This is what adverts for booze promise, isn’t it: connect more, live more, be more loved. You don’t feel alive? Get pissed! Rational capitalism puts us in iron cages, and then sells us weekend release passes.

I also used it to switch off my brain and relax in the evenings. And it would work, more or less. The first drink was like getting in a bubble bath. I felt the tension release in my mind and body. But ultimately I think I was using booze as a holding pattern, to hold me together as it were, and this holding pattern is actually inhibiting the evolution of my consciousness.

Heraclitus thought that consciousness was a divine fire, and we make this fire soggy with booze. ‘A man when he is drunken is led by a beardless youth, stumbling, ignorant where he is going, having a wet soul. The dry soul is the wisest and best’. Thus spake the weeping philosopher.

It feels good, not drinking. At first the clarity is a bit harsh – noises are too loud, the sky is too bright, other people are too close. I used booze to turn down the volume of consciousness. But then you get used to it, and you can focus in on and enjoy situations and people more intensely. I don’t need booze! I may even get on better with people without booze! I live more when sober! What a revelation this is.

Hooray for Lent, burning away the Enemy’s lies in the desert of the real.

So now I am slightly more awake, I begin to look around, blinking. I think, where am I, and where am I going? I wrote a couple of weeks ago about my book on transcendence, and many of you sent in brilliant emails of support and advice – thank you so much! This week, I’ll talk a bit about the other side of what I do – the teaching, and sketch out an idea for the future.

And I promise it will be under 1500 words. That is my pledge to you, oh busy reader.

From reactive to proactive

In the last year or so, I have started doing talks and workshops on practical philosophy to companies and organizations, using some of the ideas and materials from Philosophy for Life. This is in the terrain of business coaching, except I call what I do ‘practical philosophy’, and focus on particular areas – resilience, integrity, authenticity, flourishing – where ancient philosophies have good stuff to say.

This happened haphazardly. One of the newsletter readers, a business coach called Winni Schindler, was kind enough to invite me to talk to the Association of Spanish Business Coaches in Madrid. And they were really into the whole ‘ancient philosophy for modern life’ thing. I was also doing the philosophy club at Saracens, which was going surprisingly well. So I realized I could make money running workshops in practical philosophy with businesses and organizations.

Then another lucky break – I met Rob Symington, the co-founder of Escape the City, which is a recruitment firm for people looking to leave the Rat Race and find more meaningful and fulfilling work (as Rob himself did in his early 20s). Escape raised £600K in a week via CrowdCube to fund themselves. Last year, Rob and his partners set up Escape the City School, which now runs two ‘tribes’ – a 3-month ‘Escape Tribe’, to help 50 people get out of ruts and find more fulfilling jobs, and a 3-month ‘Start-Up Tribe’, to help 50 people do start-ups. The next Escape tribe starts in April by the way.

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Rob Symington (left) and Rob Archer, who also teaches on the Escape faculty

I’ve been teaching some workshops at the Escape School, which is fascinating for me. The energy of the place is so different from academia – it’s way more optimistic and can-do. I usually feel the most entrepreneurial and optimistic person in the room in academia – at Escape, I feel the opposite! But that’s good for me, in terms of expanding my sense of the possible. Teaching at the School, and meeting so many people trying to follow their dreams, makes me think: what would I like to build?

My teaching is a bit reactive at the moment. I get invited to do things by companies and organizations – the occasional talk or workshop here and there. But it feels quite ad-hoc and bespoke. It’s fun, it’s challenging, and it gets some money in, which means I can take more risks in my writing. But it’s not a massively thought-through long-term vision of how to do practical philosophy in the workplace.

I realized this when I went to stay with my uncle in Boston. He’s a venture capitalist, and he is incredibly can-do. For example, his son goes to Virginia University, so he helped to set up a mentor scheme for students there. His other son went to a local public school, so he helped to improve their finances. He’s on the board of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and helped to find them a new artistic director. He just…does stuff!

Anyway, I went for dinner with him, and told him a bit about the philosophy work I do with Saracens, Arsenal etc. This usually goes down pretty well. But my uncle didn’t seem that impressed. ‘So how will you take it forward? What’s your evidence base? How can you take it to the next level?’ I love that about him – he thinks big, aims high.

So I ummed and ah’d and said I’d send him a business plan. That was in December.

One issue is that there are many different areas in which one could apply practical philosophy: companies, mental health, prisons, schools, higher education, professional sports, the army, the public sector, and in courses for the general public. Where does one focus one’s energy?

The answer, so far, has been, I don’t really focus, or rather, I focus on the book (writing about transcendence is a piece of piss compared to this!), and just take the ad-hoc work as it comes. It’s passive reacting. I need to be more proactive, think what do I want to do longer-term, and then gradually build it.

So here’s the plan I scrawled last November, in a cafe while talking to Patrick Ussher – a colleague who works with me on Stoicism Today. It’s for something called the Centre for Practical Wisdom, or something like that.

CPW

The CPW would be a social enterprise with links to academia (hopefully Queen Mary, University of London). It would be sort of a public-private partnership. It would seek funding (government, corporate and philanthropic) to do research on practical philosophy, while also applying it in different contexts – providing courses and workshops on different wisdom traditions and how we can apply them in modern life. The research would feed into the practice, and then the practice would be evaluated and would feed back into the research.

Some of the courses would be subsidized, for schools, charities and disadvantaged groups, some would be ‘full-whack’, for corporates. The profitable would subsidize the pro-bono.

The CPW would specialize in ancient Greek wisdom (because that’s my background and there’s a big gap in the ideas market there) but bring in Eastern wisdom too (there’s already a lot of that out there), Christian wisdom (bit more niche but hey, I’m into it!) and Islamic and Jewish wisdom – I think it’s important that the Centre is inter-faith. It would build bridges between ancient wisdom, modern psychology, and adult education.

What needs to be done to make this happen? Looking at the example of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programme – which has inspired so many mindfulness centres across America – I’d suggest what is needed is the creation of a basic course in practical wisdom, which is then road-tested and evaluated. I took a first step towards this last year, with the pilot of my Philosophies for Life course. Perhaps the second step would be to create an online version of this course. Eventually, one would hope to gather a group of people, each of which would be focused on applying the approach in a different area.

That’s the dream. I can see lots of tricky things to negotiate –  what sort of evidence can one get, should the Centre focus on one philosophical approach rather than being eclectic, how do you make sure the Centre has integrity and social value, and isn’t just cashing in; do I have the leadership or business skills to be more than a freelancer and who are the best partners to do this with? I’m sure, as I move forward, the plan will evolve and morph. For all I know, I may end up living in Guatemala making hammocks. But at the moment, that is roughly where I am trying to get to.

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In other news:

Here’s a blog from the World Health Organization, about a project I’m working on to explore the cultural determinants of health and well-being.

Here’s a talk about Lent from Radio 4.

The Economist reviews a new biography of Jean-Paul Sartre.

Here’s an interview with Adam Curtis from the Creative Review.

Teachers need to be freed from paper-work to teach moral values, says the Jubilee Centre for Virtues.

Germany is opposing Islamic extremism by encouraging Islamic education among its Muslim citizens.

Meanwhile ‘Jihadi John’ was unmasked as a computer engineering graduate from Westminster University, the campus of which appears to be a hotbed for radicalisation. And three schoolgirls from a school in Bethnal Green traveled to Syria to marry homicidal slave-traders. Ah youth!

So where is the ideological debate with radical Islamists? Beyond just saying ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ or ‘you’re all wankers’? Where is the positive moral vision the West has to offer young Muslims?

Finally, here’s a cartoon about Stoicism Man.

See you next week!

Jules

Mind Palaces: the art of psycho-technics, or soul-craft

42be11b56059d244f573bac445e722aaThis week, I’ve been researching an ancient mnemonic technique called ‘the mind palace’, where people imprint a real or imagined building onto their memory – a palace, a mansion, a church, even a whole street – and then fill it with striking images, to which they attach bits of information they want to remember.

The Greek poet Simonides is supposed to have come upon the technique in around 400 BC and used it to memorize poems. It became popular with Greek and Roman orators including Cicero, who used it to memorize speeches and to remember evidence for cases. It flourished in the Renaissance, when magi like Giordano Bruno and Ramon Lull memorized incredibly complex systems of words, symbols and hieroglyphs in an attempt to become a sort of World Wide Web of occult knowledge. And it survives today: Derren Brown and other memory-prodigies use it, as does Sherlock Holmes in the BBC series. [So does, er, Hannibal Lecter, a reader informs me!]

Daniel Levitin, in his new book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, suggests that the technique works because our memory-system for images and places is older and more reliable than our memory-system for names and words. So if you want to remember something, convert it into an image and store it in a familiar place in your mind.

How does this memory-technique fit into my research into transcendence?

Well, in my research I’ve noticed certain metaphors of the mind re-appearing in the literature on transcendence. And one of the most persistent is the metaphor of the mind as a palace, castle, or ‘many-roomed mansion’. Explorers of transcendence, from St Augustine to St Teresa to Thomas Traherne to Keats, often use this image to suggest the awesome vastness of the soul, and to urge the reader to journey within.

The metaphor isn’t just suggestive, it’s also creative. As Julian Jaynes noted, we construct the soul through the metaphors we use to describe it – so the metaphor of the soul as mansion is a form of soul-craft or psycho-technics, a way of structuring and expanding the psyche.

So here’s the question: how did an ancient memory-technique become a mystical exercise?

The key is Pythagoras, the magician-philosopher of the sixth century BC. His followers believed that Memory was the mother of all the muses, including philosophy. They memorized maxims, incantations, poems and emblems or symbols as a way to fill their souls with wisdom and connect them to the Divine.

A similar idea appears in Plato and in the Stoics (although the Stoics tend to be more verbal than symbolic): the soul is malleable, or plastic, and we can train the memory by repeating certain ideas. In Plato, a more mystical note is introduced – the reincarnated soul already knows everything, if it could but wake up from its slumber, so new insights are really a form of recollection of Who We Really Are. If we wake up, he says in the Phaedo, then our soul will return to the mansion of its divinity.

commandingcosmosorigIt is Aristotle, however, who sees the imagination as key to soul-craft. In some elliptic remarks in De Anima, he says that it’s impossible to think without images. So the imagination, or phantasia, is crucial to all forms of thinking. The imagination is a two-way ladder – it takes sensory information from the material world and spiritualizes it into the ideas of the spiritual or intelligible world. It also takes ideas from the spiritual realm and materializes them into symbols and stories which rouse our emotions. Memory is central to this spiritual alchemy – it is the storehouse from which the imagination constructs its stories or movies. Aristotle’s conception of the imagination would be hugely influential on Christian and Sufi mysticism.

The mystical visualization of the Mind Palace

St Augustine, who’d studied the mind-palace memory technique when he was an orator, develops the mystic metaphor of the soul as mansion in his Confessions . ‘Narrow is the mansion of my soul, oh Lord’, he declares. ‘Enlarge it, that you may enter it.’ He is connecting, of course, the Greek tradition of soul-as-mansion with the beautiful image of Jesus: ‘In my father’s house are many mansions’ (John 14:2).

For Augustine, the interior journey into memory is central to this expansion of the soul-mansion. In Book X of his Confessions, which I think is one of the most beautiful things in all western culture, he writes this – it makes me think of Morpheus and Neo in their white room:

I come to the fields and spacious palaces of my memory, where are the treasures of innumerable images, brought into it from things perceived by the senses…When I enter there, I require what I will to be brought forth, and something instantly comes; others must be longer sought after, which are fetched, as it were, out of some inner receptacle; others rush out in troops, and while one thing is desired and required, they start forth, as if to say, “Is it perchance I?” These I drive away with the hand of my heart, from the face of my remembrance; until what I wish for is unveiled, and appears in sight, out of its secret place.

This is a wonderful description of the mind-palace as used by Greek orators (Augustine was trained as an orator). Man is the curator of his soul-mansion, which he fills with priceless images. But this could lead to pride – we are the lords of our self-made mansions, we are the masters of interior design! But St Augustine warns us not to be proud – we didn’t make the mansion, we’re a guest in our own souls. We need to seek the Lord in our minds and memories, which is not easy, because He is transcendent to our human imagining.

And our soul-mansion is not in great shape, in Augustine’s imagination. It’s ruined, locked up, covered with cobwebs, filled with trash, crawling with vermin. In his memory-journey, Augustine goes back generations to Adam’s original fall, when humans were expelled from the Edenic central courtyard of the mansion. We need to repair the mansion and tidy it up to make it an abode fit for its maker once again. But attempts at DIY are not sufficient, says Augustine. We need Jesus to repair our wonky mansions.

Around this time, Jewish mystics begin to use the metaphor of a journey through mansions as a form of occult visualization. There’s a whole body of Jewish mystical literature from the first century AD (when the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed by the Roman Army), called hekhalot or mansions, in which the mystic imagines an inner temple, and journeys through seven mansions until they come to the throne-room, the deepest part of the soul. This method is passed down into the medieval tradition of Kabbalah – the Zohar, for example, is a visualized journey through the seven palaces of heaven and the seven palaces of hell.

A similar method appears in Sufi visualizations, in the mystical treatises of Ibn Arabi and others, who picture heaven as a garden with seven courtyards. Ibn Arabi, following Averroes and Aristotle, sees the imagination as a spiritualizing faculty which converts the memory of sensory data into ideas and symbols. Sometimes that alchemy happens passively and involuntarily, as in dreams (I don’t know about you, but I often find myself wandering through a dream-city in my sleep). But we can develop an ‘active imagination’, learn how to dream consciously, as it were, using visualization.

This technique and the metaphor of the mansion passes into Christian mysticism, where its most beautiful expression is St Teresa’s Interior Castle, in which the reader moves through seven mansions before meeting the Lord and uniting with Him in ecstasy. For a Renaissance magi like Giordano Bruno or Ramon Lull, meanwhile, the ‘mind palace’ is both a memory-technique and an occult method for connecting the soul to God (Frances Yates’ The Art Of Memory is a useful resource for this).

Soul-craft in the arts

Now, you recall that the ‘mind palace’ technique is first associated with a poet, Simonides. His genius, it was said, united the arts of philosophy, poetry and painting, because he painted the soul with poetic images, in a way that ethical philosophers would find useful as a means of character-building. From the Middle Ages onwards, we find the idea of crafting the soul with imagination and symbolism appearing in poetry, painting and architecture.

As the historian Frances Yates puts it, this idea is the key to so much of the greatest western culture. Dante’s Divine Comedy, for example, could be seen as a form of soul-craft – a visualized journey through the nine circles of Hell, the seven terraces of Purgatory and the nine circles of Heaven, with various striking emblems of vice and virtue to memorize along the way. To read it is to expand and encode one’s soul. The poem is what Ted Hughes called a ‘big dream’ – psycho-technics for the tribe.

The Divine Comedy is the greatest example of this sort of soul-craft, but there are many others, like the Pearl poem, where the poet, in a dream, travels to see the New Jerusalem, and connects his tribe to that vision.

Many of the greatest Medieval and Renaissance paintings can also be seen as a form of imaginative soul-craft. Raphael’s School of Athens, for example, is imprinted on my soul (through endless gawping at the poster of it on my wall). It’s a portal between the sensory and the spiritual world, connecting us to Raphael’s ideal city, where the philosophers stay in our memory as emblems of virtue. My favourite paintings of the Renaissance are pictures of ideal cities in which angels descend to communicate with us – this is a symbol of the imagination itself, the daemonic messenger between the sensory and the spiritual realms.

The Seven Virtues, from the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence

Medieval and Renaissance architecture is also a form of psycho-technics. The Venerable Bede speaks of how a saint travelled to Italy, sees a beautiful church filled with images, imprints it on her memory, and then gets masons to build a copy in England, painted with colorful images of the saints and Passion. ‘Thus all who entered the church, even those who could not read, were able to contemplate the dear face of Christ and His saints, even if only in a picture’. It’s not surprising there is an association between masons and magic: churches and cathedrals expand the souls of those who frequent them.

Psycho-technics in the modern era

In the early modern era, I’d suggest, we lost the ancient concept of phantasia as a key cognitive capacity. Fantasy became delusion, the enemy both of Scripture and the scientific method. But the idea of the soul as mansion survived in some poetry, in the Metaphysicals for example, like Thomas Traherne, who describes the soul as ‘a cabinet of infinite value’; or Keats, who compared the soul to a ‘mansion of many rooms’, and who suggested the universe is a ‘vale of soul-making’; or Blake, who spoke of cleansing the ‘doors of perception’, and who devised his own unique graphic poetry to engrave on his audience’s souls.

The idea of the close link between imagination and memory is particularly rich in Wordsworth’s Prelude. Where in the Middle Ages people would imprint the memory of palaces or cathedrals onto their soul, Wordsworth imprints the memory of peaks and vales, and creates an inner Lake District which he can visit.

743913More recently, Ted Hughes strived to preserve the ancient tradition. He wrote, in his essay Poetry in the Making, ‘In our brains there are many mansions, and most of the doors are locked, with the keys inside’. Imagination unlocks these doors, connecting the outer world of sense with the inner world of spirit. Hughes spoke (in an essay on Keats) of poetry as a form of medicine, a ‘healing energy’, which acts on the auto-immune system. He’s quite right – what science calls ‘the placebo response’ is really the imagination, it connects the mental or spiritual world with our nervous and auto-immune system, and it can cure or kill us.

Hughes also understood that myth, metaphor and symbolism are ways of organizing the psyche’s otherwise inchoate energy – psycho-technics, in other words. The Big Dreamers, like Dante and Shakespeare, are psycho-tects who expand human consciousness, creating vast mythical structures to give our souls shape. Yet we are losing the myths, Hughes warns, and our inner lives are becoming impoverished as a result. The doors are closing. We’ve become overly-reliant on empiricism and rationalism, we equate the material with the real, and the invisible with the unreal.

Perhaps, though, one still sees signs of the spiritual conception of phantasia in pop culture (intelligent culture is far too intellectual and contemptuous of the spiritual). I see glimmers of it in fantasy and comic book culture, particularly the work of Allan Moore, whose series Promethea is a comic book exploration of Kabbalah, in which stories, ideas and archetypes exist in a spiritual realm called the Immateria. When we read or imagine a story, Moore suggests, we connect to this realm and channel the archetypes. Art is a form of magic, bringing down ideas and symbols from the Immateria and actualizing them in the material realm.

Promethea

I see the idea of the soul as a memory-mansion or memory-theatre in cinema too, particularly the films of Christopher Nolan like Inception, or Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Birdman, and particularly What Dreams May Come. I see it in some of the incredibly immersive virtual cities found in games like GTA V and Assassin’s Call, and the virtual palaces of Minecraft.  And in general, the internet seems to me an enormous virtual city,  a Psychopolis or Infopolis, in which we construct vast memory-palaces of information and dreams.

The Utopian Imaginary, or Castles in the Sky

Finally (well done for getting this far), let me just talk briefly about phantasia and politics. What we’ve been discussing, this art of mnemo-technics and psycho-technics, has a political dimension too. It’s not just an interior exercise – some magi attempt to bridge the interior and exterior, the spiritual and the political.

You remember how the mind palace technique was originally used by poets and orators to memorize poems and speeches? Well, a similar sort of visualization-technique is at the heart of Utopian rhetoric – the prophet visualizes an image of an ideal city, and then inspires people to build it. In this sense, rhetoric is a sort of mysticism turned outward. This is the Utopian Imaginary, the use of phantasia in politics.

There is a close connection between the mind palace memory technique, and Utopian political philosophy. The poet-philosopher imagines an ideal city, a ‘castle in the air’ as Ernst Bloch put it – Plato imagines the Republic, for example, or Jesus imagines his New Jerusalem, or St Augustine imagines his City of God, or Tomasso Campanella imagines his City of the Sun, or Martin Luther King imagines his multicultural future-city. And then they describe this city in speech, paint a picture of it, plant the seed of it in the febrile imaginations of their followers, so they sacrifice themselves to make it real. ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, as Christians put it.

It can have beautiful results, but it can also be horrific – because people get so entranced by their vision of the future, they lose all reason, and all compassion for those in their way. We only have to look to Syria to see how murderous the Utopian Imaginary can be.

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Here’s my newsletter round-up of interesting links (you can sign up in the box on the top right of the homepage)

Last newsletter I moaned that the BBC never has any programmes about religious ecstasy. Well, the cosmos loves to laugh at us – two days later, radio 4 broadcast this excellent programme on, yes,  ecstatic experiences. It was made by John McCarthy, the journalist who spent several years in captivity in Lebanon, and who had an ecstatic experience while imprisoned. He interviews psychiatrists, ecstatic joggers, and considers the near-death experience of the lead-singer of Spiritualized. Fantastic stuff.
Last week’s guest on Desert Island Discs was the incredibly gifted actor Mark Rylance, who turns out to be a Jungian animist with a fondness for the I-Ching.
John Gray is speaking on freedom at the LSE on Wednesday, if you’re in London.
Poignant article from Oliver Sacks, facing terminal cancer, and still working on ‘several books’. He’s written five since he was diaognosed. What a lovely, lovely human being. Here he is as a wild young biker.
Should first-world humanitarian agencies bring in therapy services for crisis-hit populations in developing countries who might be suffering from PTSD, or is that an inappropriate export of a western medical construct? The Guardian considers.
Alex Ross, the New Yorker’s music critic, considers the avant garde influences on Bjork.
Also on the music tip, here’s a marvellous documentary about Carole King.
Here is a Radio 3 Free Thinking programme about mindfulness and Zen, with Mark Vernon and Chris Harding among the guests.

Has psychiatry silenced God? Here’s a discussion from Edinburgh’s book festival, including members of the ‘Hearing the Voice’ research project at Durham’s Centre for the Medical Humanities.

Adult suicides in the UK in 2013 were their highest level for 10 years.  And a new report looks at hundreds of suicides by mentally ill people confined in prisons or mental health facilities, and concludes most were easily avoidable if staff were better trained in mental health.
And finally, best moment of the Oscars last night – Graham Moore, who won best adapted screenplay for the Imitation Game, used his speech to talk about how he tried to kill himself when he was 16, and to reassure those teenagers watching, if they also feel weird and like they don’t belong, that they do.
See you next time,

Jules