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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

On altered states and medieval contemplative practices

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

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

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

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

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

giphy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spiritual exercises in ancient and medieval Christianity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mystic-ark-hires

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

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

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