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Adult education

Spiritual reading and the epiphany of poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In other news:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you next week,

Jules

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: