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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.


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).


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:

Where next for well-being policy?

783472895I went to the book-launch of a new book on well-being policy yesterday, which brought together some leading figures in this nascent movement – including David Halpern of the government’s ‘nudge unit’, Canadian economist John Helliwell, psychologist Maurren O’Hara, and Juliet Michaelson of the new economics foundation. The book – Well-being and Beyond – is edited by Michaelson and Timo Hamalainen, and has some great essays in it, including a particularly interesting one by Mihayli Csikszentmihalyi on ‘the politics of consciousness’.

With the news that the government is set to establish a What Works research centre for evidence-based well-being policy, and that David Cameron may be resuscitating his well-being agenda, it seems like a good time to take a panoramic view of the politics of well-being in the UK, some of the areas into which it’s developing, and some of the areas where more research is needed. It will obviously be a partial and incomplete view, but here goes:


The ministry of education under Michael Gove pulled back on some of New Labour’s well-being initiatives, such as Every Child Matters and the promotion of Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL). However, there seems renewed political interest in the idea of teaching character skills like resilience, with all three parties recently offering broad support for such a move. The work of James Heckman, focused on early interventions, is particularly popular with policy-makers at the moment.

The area is likely to progress through local and regional evidence-based initiatives, rather than top-down national initiatives like SEAL. Key players include the Jubilee Centre for Character and Values, Jen Lexmond’s work at Character Counts and elsewhere, James O’Shaughnessy’s Positive Education network, the Education Endowment Fund’s research, and the National Citizen Service, which apparently is building up a great evidence base for its intervention. The challenge is how to teach not just skills but also values within a pluralistic and multicultural society – more on this below.


There’s growing interest in the importance of well-being at work, partly driven by the high economic cost of sick days due to stress and mental illness. Some of the more enlightened companies have bespoke well-being courses for their staff – like Google, Zappos, M&S, British Telecom or Saracens rugby club – in a manner reminiscent of 19th century Quaker companies like Rowntree’s. A key player in this area is the firm Robertson Cooper, which established the Good Day at Work network.

Nils Mordt of Saracens brushing up on some philosophy

As in schools, the new focus on work well-being ties in – or should tie in – with an ethical focus on values, character strengths and social responsibility. Saracens’ personal development course is a good example of how to teach well-being + values but in a flexible and peer-led way, compared to Zappo’s which, from the outside, seems quite inflexible and even authoritarian in its collective happiness ethos. Well-being at work ties in to another policy area, adult education (of which more below) – see, for example, Google’s emphasis on adult education for its workers, again reminiscent of Quaker companies like Rowntree’s. I also love the Escape the City network (by the by!).


One of the main recommendations in Sir Gus O’Donnell’s Legatum Institute report on well-being, released last month, was that the NHS should focus more on prevention of ill-health, and also treat mental illness as equally important as physical illness.

That means greater support for the burgeoning Improving Access for Psychological Therapies programme across the UK, particularly in Wales, where there are high levels of depression and long waiting lists for talking therapy. It also means public health organizations like Public Health England taking more of a lead in promoting mental well-being. It means more support for peer-led well-being networks (one of the themes of Michaelson’s chapter in her book), which can draw inspiration from historical models like 19th century Friendly Societies. And it also means trying to work out a better way to treat psychosis, as the government is now trying to do.

Well-being health policy ties into well-being policy in other areas, particularly schools, work, and adult / online education. Empowering people to take care of their own physical and mental health means treating them as reasoning agents rather than as malfunctioning machines.

Prisons and probation services

At the book launch yesterday, John Helliwell mentioned a paper he’d written on well-being in prisons, championing the Singapore Prison Services’ reforms. Singapore pioneered a mutual model of well-being, in which staff, inmates, former inmates and the wider community worked together to help inmates flourish.

We’re a long way from that here, but there is some interest in the ‘desistance’ model of rehabilitation, whereby inmates make a reasoned choice to leave their former criminal life and to pursue a new narrative. This fits with the coherence model of well-being, in which well-being is connected to our ability to find meaning and value in ourselves and the world. Some charities and probation organizations are also looking to extend the desistance / mutuality model beyond the prison walls – I’m meeting with one such organization, Co:Here, next week.

In England, the probation system is on the verge of a massive privatization, which is likely to cause stress to the system and to the people in it. However, the chaos will also create opportunities for new and innovative approaches. I’m interested to learn more about the RSA’s research on prison learning.

The economy / housing / urban planning

The O’Donnell report suggests the best economic policies to promote well-being would be to reduce unemployment, which has a particularly negative impact on well-being. Fine – but which government says it’s in favour of high unemployment? Other well-being economists suggest there is a correlation between income equality and national happiness – but so far this has failed to lead to major tax distribution policies, and inequality continues to rise.

The UK housing bubble also continues to grow, with the average property price in London now approaching half a million pounds. This is likely to have a significant impact on people’s well-being, and their ability to feel in control of their destinies. As more and more humans live in ‘mega-cities’, will we know and trust our neighbours, will we have access to green spaces, will we have any real connection to nature?

More research needs to be done on the rise of solo living, which is particularly popular in Scandinavian countries (typically championed as happiness templates). What is the trade-off between autonomy and loneliness? Is solo living sustainable or equitable? Are new forms of conviviality emerging? The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has done good work in this area.

Adult education / online learning

So far there is little policy focus on the importance of adult education to well-being. Adult education is, in general, ‘off the radar for policy-makers’, as David Halpern put it. This makes no sense to me, considering all the research into the importance of coherence, meaning, reasoning and collective engagement to well-being – all of which points to adult education as a booster to well-being. There’s been some work showing that engaging in adult education predicts higher well-being, but that has not fed into policy discussions at all, sadly. The national budget for community education shrinks every year.

schooloflife-3However, informal learning continues to grow, with various organizations appearing dedicated to raising well-being, including Action for Happiness and the School of Life. There have also been some encouraging developments in online well-being courses. Stanford’s Greater Good centre is launching an online happiness course in September, Berkeley has also launched a Positive Psychology MOOC, Action for Happiness recently launched an online course, while TED’s Understanding Happiness course has been in the top ten of iTunesU for a few years. Online learning connects to health policy in well-being, particularly with the rise of health apps.

It’s also worth mentioning the boom in mindfulness courses – including for example the phenomenal success of the book / CD ‘Mindfulness’, by Mark Williams and Danny Penman, which has been in the top 30 of Amazon for two years. Mindfulness is a policy intervention that can be deployed in health, work, education and prisons – similar in that respect to ‘mental resilience’ interventions.


British higher education seems so beleaguered that the well-being of staff and pupils is off the official agenda for the time being. If change comes, it is likely to be driven by students and staff rather than top-down, though perhaps some enlightened VC or chancellor will take the lead (eg Floella Benjamin at Exeter!) But this is a sector which potentially could play a very important role in the development and implementation of well-being interventions.

For example, universities could – and should – offer free courses in well-being to undergraduates. Such courses should (in my opinion) teach some of the techniques of well-being, such as meditation, gratitude, self-determination, resilience, while also providing a space for philosophical discussions about what it means to flourish. If done pluralistically, such courses would be an important space for inter-faith discussions, preventing campuses from becoming divided on religious lines.

I also think universities should do more to support the well-being of their staff, particularly PhDs, where burn-out and drop-out rates are high. Some PhDs, such as the LSE’s Inez von Weitershausen, are beginning to work on this, and I think funders like Wellcome are keen to support more work in this area.

Academia could also play an important role in promoting adult education, as it used to do in the university extension movement. Unfortunately, humanities academics seem to have little time for adult education work and little faith in well-being politics – which is typically dismissed as ‘neoliberal’. A few humanities academics, however, understand that well-being policy is an important way to champion the impact of the arts and humanities in national policy. The work of the Reader Organisation, based at Liverpool Uni, is a good example of this more enlightened and engaged approach (they have their national conference in London next month, by the by).

Sports / arts / the festive

Burning Man festival

Well-being research tells us how important sport and exercise is to our well-being. It’s also beginning to tell us about the importance of the arts to our flourishing, particularly arts that engage us collectively, such as singing in a choir or reading in a book club.

I’d like to see more research on the importance of ‘the festive’ to well-being – think of the work of Durkheim, Barbara Ehrenreich, Jonathan Haidt, Martha Nussbaum and Charles Taylor in this area – or Dan Ariely’s writing on Burning Man festival.

Why do the residents of the Orkneys have such high well-being? Ian Ritchie, former co-director of the St Magnus festival there, tells me that that one reason is the islands are so rich in festivals – a folk festival, a blues festival, a well-being festival. Parties, clearly, are good for us, particularly when we help to organize them. It would be good to study the well-being impact of starting a festival in a town. For example, Wigmore, a small town in Scotland with high unemployment, launched its own book festival two years ago and it seems to have revitalized that community.

More generally, well-being economists and psychologists need to connect with arts and humanities practitioners to explore the role of beauty, awe and wonder in well-being, and the higher states of consciousness which arts and ‘the festive’ can create. That means going beyond a aridly Benthamite notion of happiness towards a more Millsian appreciation of the transformative power of the arts.

The media

Alain de Botton has been generally mocked by humanities academics for his latest book, The News, but as is often the case there is wisdom beneath his gimmickry. Our well-being is deeply connected to our culture, and therefore to the media – in the broadest sense of TV, online media and advertizing. How, in a free market economy, can we try and make sure the messages we soak in are not entirely shallow?

This morning, it was announced that Richard Hoggart, the great public intellectual and critic of commercial television, has died. He thought commercial TV pushed viewers towards a way of life ‘whose texture is as little that of the good life as processed bread is like home-baked bread’. His involvement in the Pilkington Report led to the establishment of BBC 2. But the vision of Hoggart, Reith and others – that broadcasting could be a force for the raising of public consciousness – seems to be in abeyance.

Perhaps this area of policy links up with health and adult education – the BBC is looking to launch MOOCs on FutureLearn, and to develop its online learning platforms. I know people in BBC Arts have been interested in promoting things like meditation or ancient philosophy, but it hasn’t happened yet. Indeed, there is a weird absence of ethical / spiritual discussion on TV. Radio 2’s Sunday morning show, once a province of spiritual discussion, is now presented by a sports presenter, which sums up the BBC’s (understandable) unease with promoting any particular ethics in a multicultural society.

The environment

Clearly the big question for well-being policy is: is it at odds with the coming environmental catastrophe? Are we meditating while Rome burns?

In Well-Being and Beyond, Csikszentmihayli outlines three constituents needed for consciousness to flourish: first, the freedom to think what you want and decide what is true (rather than being coerced and lied to by our government); second, to find flow in meaningful and purposeful activity (he understands the importance of higher or altered states of consciousness like awe, wonder, transcendence and ecstasy). And finally, we need hope.

We need the hope, or faith, that tomorrow will be as good as if not better than today. That drives all of our activity, all our plans, our investment in our work and family. Without that, ‘consciousness becomes idle and atrophied’, or it shrivels up in despair or short-term hedonism.

What is weird and unnerving about this historical moment is the loss of hope. Living standards are declining, the young are poorer than the old, but above all, there is a collective sense that the future will be worse – perhaps much worse – than the present, that nature will be severely depleted, the world will be more crowded, politics will be more unstable, the weather will be more violent, and we may see mass migrations and perhaps mass extinctions of animals and humans. Indeed, the animal mass extinction has already begun.

Religion and Wisdom

This brings me to my final point, the final area of research which I think would be fruitful. I don’t think secular humanism is going to be sufficient to sustain us through the coming crisis, because its hope in progress and a better tomorrow will not last in the face of mass extinctions. You need something more transcendent to believe in and give you the strength to do the right thing and to take care of the weak, even in the face of mass extinction and social collapse. Techno-humanism – in which the rich get to detach or upgrade from the rest of humanity – seems to me a much, much worse option than a return to the wisdom of older religious traditions.

Religion seems to me the massive elephant in the room of well-being policy. Well-being policy practitioners sometimes seem to me like people who have had their cultural memories wiped, so that they need to re-discover the basics of human flourishing from scratch. ‘We’ve discovered volunteering is good for well-being! So is collective singing. So is a sense of meaning and purpose. So is gratitude. So are higher states of consciousness. So is neighbourliness, reciprocity and mutuality. So is self-control coupled with an acceptance of the limit of one’s control over the universe. So is faith in the future.’

Well…yeah. All of which we used to get from religion, before we trashed it and turned to psychologists for guidance.

How do we spread the wisdom of religious traditions in a multicultural and increasingly secular society? To me, the key word is wisdom. Wisdom gives us the ability to appreciate the insights and practices of multiple religious faiths, to have respect for those faiths and to learn from them, while also finding our home in a particular tradition.

We need to learn not just the techniques of ancient wisdom traditions (meditation, gratitude, self-control etc) but also to create the space to discuss the different moral ends or goals which those traditions promote – nirvana, union with God, happiness, inner peace, Aristotelian flourishing etc. These different ends should be discussed rather than forced upon people. Socratic discussion is a way to include these moral ends / values without imposing them on people.

At the heart of most of the ancient wisdom traditions is an optimism that humans can use our reason to take care of our souls and our societies, combined with an acceptance that our reason is bounded, and that flourishing emerges best through habits and shared practices. These wisdom traditions are therefore opposed to a more biomechanical model of humanity, which sees negative emotions as chemical imbalances to be corrected with medication.

We need universities to take wisdom seriously, but I actually think we need a new sort of research institute – closer to the Esalen model – which combines intellectual and experimental research with practice. Sort of a think-tank / monastery. As Alasdair MacIntyre says at the end of After Virtue: ‘We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”

Well, those are some areas of possible research. A lot to be getting on with! But this is an important movement, and the UK is blessed with some pioneering thinkers and practitioners in this field, not just in economics and psychology, but also in the arts, technology, philosophy and faith.

PS I forgot to mention mental health in the military services. But that’s obviously another potential area for interventions to promote resilience.