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The politics of transcendence and the war on drugs

Aldous Huxley thought western societies needed to become more open to ego-transcendence. We need to find ways to be less stuck in our egos, less stuck in consumerism and materialism, and more conscious, loving and open to other beings. We need to wake up to our potential and our power.

I am on board with that. I think that’s a good goal for individuals and for society. To discover the incredible resources within ourselves, and to find joy in that rather than restlessly mining and exhausting the Earth’s resources.

One of the main challenges, according to Huxley, was we have lost tools, maps and guides for the exploration of our inner lives. The birth of the modern era, from the 16th to the 18th century, saw the dissolution of the monasteries and their replacement by academies. The western gaze turned from the exploration of the inner world to the exploitation of the natural world. As we shifted from an enchanted to a materialist worldview, we marginalized and pathologized the idea of mystical transcendence. It was just seen as bonkers.

But we still need ways to get out of our heads. As Huxley insisted so brilliantly, humans have a basic urge to self-transcendence. It is boring, depressing and claustrophobic to be stuck in ordinary ego-consciousness. So we seek occasional holidays from the self, and western culture must offer those holidays, or we would all rapidly go mad and kill ourselves.

Modern western culture junked mysticism but offers alternative forms of ego-transcendence. Often, Huxley warned, they are toxic. He warned particularly of nationalism, which he called the great religion of the 19th and 20th centuries. It gives the crowd a form of intoxication in which they forget their separate egos in their worship of the Leader and their hatred of ‘enemies of the people’ (as Trump called the New York Times this week). Today, we see that ugly nationalism and tribalism on the rise again, particularly thanks to Twitter.

Huxley also warned of the false worship of gadgets and technology. And of course, the main way we get out of our heads is booze. We spend $1.3 trillion on booze each year. Our societies and collective sanity depend on it. But it comes at a cost – according to the World Health Organisation, about four million deaths a year are a direct result of alcohol, not to mention the crimes, violent incidents and accidents related to it.

Huxley wanted to help us find healthier forms of transcendence, healthier ways beyond the ego. He was an early adopter of meditation and yoga, he encouraged re-finding a sense of our spiritual place in the ecosystem of nature, he thought various forms of therapy could help us beyond our ego-shell, he championed the idea of the careful use of psychedelics as a spiritual technology, and he thought universities could help young people find healthier forms of transcendence (as opposed to the soulless wasteland of the modern university).

All forms of transcendence, he warned, are in danger of becoming false idols, ends in themselves rather than means to ultimate mystical transcendence. Aesthetic ecstasy could be a false god, for example, so could psychedelics. And all the supposedly toxic forms of transcendence could actually be helpful – technology, properly used, could help us to healthy transcendence. So could collective politics.

I have been wondering: how practical is Huxley’s politics of transcendence? What policy changes would follow from it? I will consider other policy areas in coming weeks, but this week I want to look at drugs policy, and how central it is to modern society.

Huxley was writing just at the beginning of America’s war on drugs, which started around 1920 and which has shaped the last century of drug policy around the world. There’s a hypocrisy at the centre of this policy. Some forms of chemical transcendence are to be allowed and even celebrated. Others are to be condemned as utterly evil and demonic.

I read a book this week about the 100-year-old war on drugs, and why it may finally be ending. It’s called Chasing the Scream, by Johann Hari. The British among you may remember that Hari was caught making up quotes as a journalist. But nonetheless, he is a brilliant writer, and this is a brilliant book.

He charts how the war on drugs was hatched by Harry Anslinger, the first head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Drugs like marijuana and heroin, Anslinger said, made people addicted, crazy, and prone to crime – especially Mexicans and African-Americans. The way to fight drugs was to criminalize them and lock up the dealers and users. That would eradicate the plague of drug use, he said. The US then forced this policy onto other countries all over the world.

A century on, we see the results. The war on drugs has empowered and enriched criminal gangs to the extent that they can take over whole countries. In western countries, the war on drugs has been a sort of holocaust for black people. While drug use is slightly more common among white people, imprisonment for drug use is far more common for black people in the US and the UK:

The 1993 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse found that 19 percent of drug dealers were African American, but they made up 64 percent of the arrests for it. Largely as a result of this disparity, there was an outcome that was more startling still. In 1993, in the death throes of apartheid, South Africa imprisoned 853 black men per hundred thousand in the population. The United States imprisons 4,919 black men per hundred thousand (versus only 943 white men).

The criminalization of drugs fosters gang violence – the economist Milton Friedman estimated it causes 10,000 homicides a year in the US; it increases the chances of overdoses and poisoning from impurities; it increases the likelihood addicts will resort to crime to feed their addiction; and it makes it more likely that teenagers have access to dangerous drugs. And it doesn’t stop people buying and taking drugs, as we’ve seen.

As Huxley said, humans have always sought holidays from themselves, and humans have always used psycho-active drugs for that purpose. Ronald Siegel, a psychopharmacologist at the University of California, has suggested the urge to intoxication is a basic urge, found in humans and many other animals.

And the vast majority of humans don’t get addicted, and manage their use of intoxicants relatively well. That’s true even of dangerous drugs like heroin and crack – during the Vietnam War, a huge number of American soldiers used heroin to cope with the war. Almost all of them quit when they returned to their normal lives in America.

There is, according to Hari, around 10% of users of heroin, crack, meth etc who do get addicted. But their addiction is less a result of the chemical, and more a consequence of trauma and isolation in their own lives. They cannot face their own pain, and they need something to help them avoid it, if only briefly. Criminalizing drugs won’t stop them seeking that holiday from their suffering. It just makes their incarceration and eventual death much more likely. That’s one of the problems with the pain-killer crisis in the US, by the way – as soon as a physician thinks you may be addicted to Oxycontin or other opiate pain-killers, they are obliged to cut you off, forcing people to turn to illegal heroin and making it likely they overdose.

Hari explores how drugs policies around the world are changing, and how the war on drugs may finally be ending. He looks at the de-criminalization of drugs and the provision of state support for addicts in Portugal, where this apparently radical policy is now supported by all political parties and has led to steep drops in problematic drug use and drug-related deaths. He examines how a group called VANDU – Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users – helped to transform the public perception of addicts from criminal deviants who deserved to die to human beings who deserved to be listened to, and included in the formulation of drugs policies. He looks at the legalization of marijuana in Uruguay, and in Colorado and Washington State. It’s now legal or decriminalized in the majority of US states.

Mexico decriminalized drugs in 1940, leading to a sharp drop in drugs-related crime. But the Mexican government was forced to drop the reform within six months, because of pressure from Harry Anslinger. Eighty years later, Mexico’s cartels have destroyed the country. Now, finally, Mexico is considering changing its drugs policy. It’s finally allowed to, now American states have changed their laws.

Hari’s book is not arguing that we should all pop pills for a better life. Drugs are often a way of avoiding pain, avoiding intimacy, hiding in a fake sense of security and community. But humans have always used them and always will. Criminalizing them empowers violent gangs, weakens regulation and treatment, and destroys lives, neighbourhoods and whole countries. Legalizing them improves treatment, reduces incarceration, and increases the public budget. It also, by the by, enables the use of psychedelic drugs for therapeutic and spiritual purposes. Drugs aren’t all bad. Properly used, they can help us to relax, celebrate, flourish and heal. But only when properly and very sparingly used.

Mindfulness, therapy and the Church

2012124132breath_1I sent out a tweet last week asking to interview someone who’d found mindfulness useful for coping with depression. Mary got in touch and told me her story, which was fascinating. I thought I’d share it for this week’s newsletter.

Mary is a 25-year-old ordinand-vicar, who uses mindfulness to cope with the Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder that developed after a car crash last year.

She tells me she had a sense of a vocation to be a vicar from the age of 19. ‘But I really didn’t want to do it. It wasn’t on my agenda.’ Instead, she studied physics at St Andrews and then trained to be a teacher at Cambridge. The priest of her college insisted she think about her vocation, and gave her a book by Michael Ramsey, The Christian Priest Today. ‘There wasn’t any mention of women priests in it.’

Finally, after three years of wrestling with her soul, she decided to give her life to God. ‘I was scared of doing it. I was giving up a good job and decent salary. My parents are still getting used to it. They think I’m a bit mad. It’s making a big statement. It’s not what most people do. It’s hard these days to be and do what you believe in – there’s always someone to knock you and mock you. Is it acceptable to be a Christian these days, to give your life to God?’

She went through the ‘discernment process’ by which the Church of England decides if you’re suitable to be a priest. This involved a 48-hour ‘residential interview’ (‘a bit like the Big Brother house’) in which you are interviewed by three different people, observed as you interact with your fellow wannabe-priests, and asked to fill in a ‘personal inventory’ with questions like ‘what would you have on your headstone?’

She passed the process, and won a place at a seminary college at Oxford for her priest-training. One week before she was due to begin the training, the car crash happened.

Angry at God

She was driving down an A-road into Harrowgate, when she had a head-on collision with another car. Her car was then hit again, and spent spinning across the A-road. She was rushed to hospital for surgery.

She says: ‘I thought I was going to die. And I wasn’t scared, I was annoyed. I was annoyed at all I had been through to commit myself to God, and now it was all going to be over before I had even begun.’

She was operated on for a perforated bowel and intestine. She spent the first two weeks of her ordination course recovering in hospital. ‘I wanted to be dead for quite a long time, in a way I felt rejected by God because He clearly didn’t want me in Heaven with Him!  It felt like I was being tested, in fact the whole year feels a bit like a test, a bit like Job.’

She says: ‘When I was in hospital I went to chapel, which was empty, and I shouted at Him and questioned what on earth was going on.  I then broke down in tears and could feel His presence and I knew I had to stay close, because He was all I had to get through the next phase. Initially, and I suppose for a few months I could not really engage with worship services, which was awful, because they and the Eucharist were what had sustained me through previous difficulties.  God felt rather far away, so I had to stay close and wait, regardless of how I felt.’

Then, in her first term, the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder emerged, like a bruise swelling. ‘I’d get flashbacks of the impact. I was very anxious, nervous a lot of the time. Any loud noise, I got palpitations. It led to me having very low self-esteem. I couldn’t really see beyond each day. My short-term memory was damaged – people would tell me their name and I’d forget it straight away. I felt hugely guilty, but couldn’t talk to anyone about it. I thought it would take less time to get better. My self-talk was like ‘come on, pull yourself together, you shouldn’t feel like this.’ It was like I had a noisy devil on one shoulder and a very quiet angel on the other. It seemed like an on-going torture.’

Mindfulness for depression

In January this year, she went to see a university counsellor, Dr Ruth Collins, who prescribed her anti-depressants, and also suggested she try mindfulness-CBT. She gave her a copy of The Mindful Way Through Depression, co-written by Mark Williams, the founder of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre.

0Williams, a psychiatrist and Anglican priest, is one of the developers of mindfulness-CBT, and has done more than anyone to bring mindfulness into the mainstream of British society – another of his books, Mindfulness, has been in the top 20 of Amazon for the last three years, selling thousands of copies a week.

His Oxford Mindfulness Centre has brought mindfulness into the heart of psychotherapy and healthcare, and also into public policy (there’s now an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness), business, schools and higher education – in fact, Ruth Collins spoke at a conference on mindfulness in HE this week, arguing that university students should be offered free introductory courses.

Oxford already provides such free courses, and Mary went along to one earlier this year. ‘I was the only person there who said they had depression, so I wondered if it would work. But I found it interesting. We started with a counting exercise – you sit and count to ten breaths. Some could only get to 2 or 3 and they’d get distracted, but I could go further.’

She developed a daily practice, meditating for 10-30 minutes each day, sometimes counting the breath, sometimes doing a ‘body-scan’. She says: ‘It’s been very helpful with the depression. For one thing, I realized how important the body is to the mind. I realized how much tenseness was inside me, and I try to breathe through it. I’m now more aware of the signals from the body to the head. When things get stressful and I feel like I’m teetering on the edge of feeling bad, I try to go back into myself and keep saying ‘breathe, here and now’, and accept what I’m feeling, and try to deal with it or just support myself.’

She thinks this will ultimately make her a better priest: ‘I’m very good at looking after others, not so good at looking after myself. I now try to be kind to myself and say that it’s OK to be where I am. Mindfulness is something in the tool-box to support myself when I stop taking the anti-depressants in a few weeks.’

Mindfulness and the Christian way

How does she reconcile a Buddhist practice with her Christian vocation? ‘I’m quite flexible, I believe in using and learning from other traditions. I enjoy reading the Tao Te Ching, for example. I don’t see any conflict between mindfulness and Christianity – it also has the idea of the connection between the soul and breath [they’re the same word in Greek – pneuma].’

‘And of course there is a long contemplative tradition in Christianity – Jesus did go off to the mountains on his own, then the Desert Fathers developed forms of meditation, and St Ignatius and the Jesuits created a strong contemplative practice.’

19 DORE JESUS VISITS MARTHA AND MARY DETAILThere’s also the story of the two sisters, Mary and Martha, in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus visits their house, and Martha busies herself with the preparations, while complaining that her sister sits at Jesus’ feet, absorbed in adoration. Jesus replies: ‘You are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.’ This verse has been taken by Christian contemplatives as a justification for the contemplative life versus the active life of ‘good works’. Still, it’s only one verse – not much of a foundation for a contemplative tradition.

Jesus has many more mystical sayings in the Gospel of St Thomas but, alas, that was excluded from the New Testament canon. Since then, the idea of bringing your mind and heart into union with God was often seen as heretically Gnostic or Platonic – and still is by some Christians.

I put it to Mary that contemplatives, monks and mystics always seem on the periphery of Christianity, suspected, cast out, and sometimes killed – much like the Sufis in Islam. There’s more of a mainstream contemplative tradition in the Orthodox Church, but even there it’s been controversial – witness the bitter fight in the 14th-century Byzantine church over whether the ‘hesychast prayer’ technique was heretical or not.  And the Protestant church seems particularly lacking in contemplative traditions and practices, beyond poets like George Herbert, William Blake and Emily Dickinson, forging their lonely furrow.

‘Yes, perhaps it’s not mainstream. The Church of Scotland is more Protestant than the C of E, and I’ve never witnessed any sort of meditation there. But perhaps it’s becoming more mainstream. Lucy Winkett [vicar of St James Piccadilly] is a big one for contemplative prayer, for example – she did a month-long Jesuit silent retreat. Even the Queen spoke of contemplative prayer in her Christmas message this year.’

Would Mary go on a mindfulness retreat? ‘I’d love to – there’s one in Snowdonia I want to go to.’ Would she say a prayer to the Buddha? ‘Well, no, I’d say a prayer to God. Like St Paul said, it’s what’s in your heart that counts, not the outer rituals.’

In two years, she finishes the ordination and becomes a curate in a church in her diocese. She says: ‘What am I most looking forward to about being a priest? Being able to try and reach out to people, to live the Gospel through my actions and allow God to work through me in ways I won’t understand. Also, being there for people at some of their most difficult times, and the most joyous.  I would hope to promote a greater sense of the need for spirituality of some sort (preferably Christian…!) What am I dreading?  Paper work, red tape and bureaucracy!  They will be the things that will prevent me from my ministry I fear…so I will just have to work hard to limit the impact.’

Good luck Mary! We think you will be a brilliant priest.