Skip to content

Art

Spiritual technologies

Three manifestations of sacred geometry – a page from the 9th century Book of Kells, a Tibetan Buddhist mandala, and a Shipibo ayahuasca-inspired weaving

Our psyches are deeply connected to the material and symbolic worlds we weave around us. The habitat of our daily lives re-inforces our habits, for good and ill. All our stuff – our apartments, our clothes, our books, our TV, our online activity, our food, our relationships – helps make us who we are, in a powerful feedback loop.

We saw the dark side of that last week, when Robert Bowers killed eleven people in a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Bowers was an avid user of a right-wing social media site called Gab, which fed him toxic conspiracy theories like the idea Jewish oligarchs finance mass migration to try and destroy white America. He sought belonging, identity and meaning through the online church of Gab, just as many young British men and women are radicalized into extremism and terrorism through a daily diet of xenophobic videos, blogs and tweets.

We can say ‘how could this monster commit such evil?’ But let’s look at ourselves. We know social media worsens people’s moods, and brings out anti-social behaviour. And yet we’re all still addicts.

Six months ago, I deleted my Twitter account, because I realized it was feeding my inner jerk. Twitter is a hellish party in which everyone is a bad version of themselves. It fosters narcissism, polarization, virtue-signalling, competitive outrage and mindless reactivity. I wanted to leave, but was addicted to its dopamine-fuelled distraction and ego-amplification. After I deleted my own account, I started tweeting from my university centre’s account instead. When I found myself, one morning, swearing at a complete stranger for giving away the ending of Murder on the Orient Express, on my centre’s Twitter account, I realized I had to take desperate measures. I told my centre administrator to change the password for the Twitter account and not tell me.

But there’s a silver lining to the dark narrative of how the internet poisons our psyches.  It shows the extent to which our behaviour is modifiable. It shows how malleable our psyches are. If we can be conditioned to hate, we can also be conditioned to love.

Over the last two years, the practice that has changed me the most is loving-kindness meditation. Every morning, I practice mindfulness of breathing for 30 minutes, because I have a very scattered and over-busy mind. Then I end with five minutes of loving-kindness.

I wish myself happiness, freedom from suffering, great joy, and great equanimity. I bring to mind someone I love, and wish them the same. Then I bring to mind someone I feel neutral about, and wish them the same, then someone I have difficulties with. Then I imagine us all sitting together – this can be a very strange group of people, like, my mother, my neighbour, and Donald Trump, all holding hands. I imagine us wishing each other happiness, freedom from suffering, great joy and great equanimity. Then I imagine us spreading this loving-kindness to all beings in all dimensions.

That regular imaginative practice has changed my habitual mood, I’m sure of it. I notice myself smiling at strangers more often in the street or on the Tube. I am also kinder to myself, less likely to take a dump on myself for being single, or not earning much money.

The loving-kindness script is a very old and successful technology for behaviour modification. I also use external technologies – props for the construction of my better self. I’ve made a little shrine where I meditate, and put up pictures of my favourite teachers – Pema Chodron, Epictetus, Thomas Traherne, Ram Dass, Tenzin Palmo and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. I like sitting down in the morning and bowing to them, and then opening my eyes to see them smiling down on me. I also light candles and a joss stick while meditating – another technology for the alteration of consciousness.

Around my apartment, I have various other props to remind me of the wisdom I am trying to embody. I have a Buddhist thangka that I bought in Sarnath, where the Buddha first taught. It’s the last thing I see when I leave the apartment, and the first thing I see when I come home. I have a string of Tibetan prayer flags hanging on my balcony – I love to see them flapping in the wind, releasing blessings.

I also use some apps on my phone for my spiritual practice. I use Insight Timer, a free meditation app which I recommend. I use the Shambhala app to watch videos of Pema Chodron’s lectures. And I use an app she recommended – WeCroak – which sends me a message five times a day saying ‘Remember you’re going to die.’ According to a Bhutanese Buddhist tradition, the way to happiness is to remember you’re going to die five times a day. And then there’s old-school technologies like my books, my journal, my writing. I have written intentions stuck to my wall. And I have this blog. This is also a spiritual technology, for me and hopefully for you.

There is some excitement around ‘spirit-tech’ at the moment. Yuval Harari thinks the next religion might use virtual reality to immerse us in alternate worlds and fill us with a sense of presence. Virtual reality is already used as a form of distraction therapy, to reduce pain in burn victims, and it’s being developed as a technology for calming meditation. ‘Take a holiday, wherever you are’ is the slogan for a company called Guided Meditation VR.

I got the chance to try out meditation VR earlier this week, when I took part in a one-day retreat designed by Jose Montemayor, founder of the Cyberdelic Society, together with mindfulness teacher Tamara Russell. A group of ten of us meditated together, then listened to a lady talk about her near-death experience. Then we took turns to plug into a VR near-death experience Jose designed, in which your avatar is hit by a car, and its soul leaves the body, flies into space, and goes into various heavenly realms, before returning to Earth. I sat next to the lady who’d had a near-death experience, and she had tears in her eyes when she removed the headset. ‘How did you know what I had gone through?’ she asked.

VR has wonderful potential as an aesthetic and spiritual technology, but this is not new. Humans have always used spiritual technologies to alter consciousness. The cave paintings at Lascaux, which are around 20,000 years old, conjured up a virtual reality in which our ancestors immersed themselves to alter their consciousness. The 72-foot-long Egyptian Book of the Dead in the Metropolitan Museum in New York is an extraordinary textual and visual technology designed to guide the soul on its final journey. Plato’s Phaedo described a near-death experience, and was sometimes read to Greeks and Romans in their final moments. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is another spiritual technology, designed to train the mind and the imaginative memory, so we’re not too confused in the afterlife.

One of the scrolls of the Met Museum’s Egyptian Book of the Dead

While the written text is an incredibly powerful technology for self-modification, pictures are even more powerful, because, as Aristotle said, ‘we think in images’.  Medieval illuminated manuscripts are technologies for altering consciousness and transforming the self. So are illuminated books of hours. So are rosaries, icons, statues, shrine rooms, stained glass windows, zen gardens, cathedrals. So are psalms, hymns, oratorios, symphonies. The song is perhaps the greatest technology humans have discovered for altering consciousness.

And then there’s plant medicines like ayahuasca. Imagine an intelligent virtual reality machine, which manages to penetrate deep into your subconscious and detect your most toxic beliefs and painful memories – not over years of therapy, but instantly. Imagine it somehow intuits what you need to learn in order to grow, then conjures the idea or experience in front of you with all the skill of a genius theatre director, and helps you confront it, feel it intensely, learn from it and then purge it. Imagine the intelligent machine somehow responds in real-time to your mind, so that a terrifying monster instantly transforms into an ally if you can bring to mind the appropriate intention. Imagine, all around you, members of your group are plugged into the same intelligent machine, and sometimes your virtual realities overlap, so you appear in each other’s visions, help each other and purge for each other. The intelligent machine gives you a glimpse of a reality beyond the individual self, beyond the body, even beyond death. Now imagine that this incredible technology grows wild, can be picked for free, and connects you to the ancient and awesome intelligence of nature.

The habitual use of any of these technologies alters the self. Habitual exposure to a beautiful garden or a sublime landscape soaks into the memory, and gives one an inner reservoir of peace and joy that one can draw on in difficult times – this is Wordsworth’s great creed. One of the advantages the rich have over the rest of us is they can frame their habitat to reinforce serenity, confidence and joy. They have access to better spiritual technologies – gardens, chapels, libraries, works of art, retreats, gurus, drugs – although every technology can become an escape from reality, which leaves the self weaker, less resilient, more proud. Anyway, with a bit of ingenuity, we can cobble together our own technologies, like a spiritual MacGyver. The quality of the intention matters more than the sophistication of the technology – a devoted peasant with a wooden crucifix may go deeper than a distracted billionaire with his own chapel.

What technologies and props are you plugging your self into? What is the quality of the content in your mind-stream? What filters have you set up to protect you from toxic ideas and habits? Does your habitat reinforce habits of kindness, open-heartedness, peace and courage? What prop could you install, this weekend, to strengthen your better self?

Twin Peaks, the uncanny, and the re-enchanted West

26 years ago, when Twin Peaks first aired, I was a 13-year old boy, in my first year at an all-male boarding school. I was coming up on testosterone, discovering booze, porn and drugs, yearning for escapism. And I found it in Twin Peaks. I remember racing to the TV room after Sunday lunch, slamming in the VHS cassette with the previous night’s episode, lying on the floor (the seats were reserved for older boys) and slipping blissfully out of boarding school and into another world at the first note of Angelo Badalamenti’s theme tune.

I became a fully paid-up Peak Freak. I bought the soundtrack, I bought Laura Palmer’s diary, I watched the movie, I watched all his movies. In 2003, I bought the DVD and watched and re-watched the show. In the last few years, I went to Twin Peaks-themed cabaret nights and won second place in a Twin Peaks fancy dress competition.

That’s me as Dr Jacobi and my friend Maria as Audrey. OK, the log-lady deserved to win.

What was it that so possessed me about Twin Peaks? Well, it was at least in part the hotness of the actresses. The town of Twin Peaks was peopled by a lot of incredibly hot 20-something women, many of them playing high-school girls. This was a frank celebration of high-school sexuality – teenage busts under 50s jumpers. Like Hitchock and Fellini, there’s something a bit pervy and creepy about David Lynch, and his propensity to use his camera to explore his sexual kicks (hot women, velvet curtains). In the original script for Twin Peaks, Agent Cooper hooks up with schoolgirl Audrey (this was deemed too Humbert Humbert by Kyle Machachlan).

Yet plenty of shows in the 1990s had a parade of hot women – Baywatch, above all. Twin Peaks really gripped me because it was my first taste of independent or arthouse cinema. 80s cinema was often a neo-1950s celebration of teenage suburbia – The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller, Adventures in Baby-Sitting, Back to the Future. David Lynch both celebrated that small-town high-school America, and explored the darkness that lay beneath it – drugs, incest, murder, demons.

Twin Peaks, like Blue Velvet, was all about the teenage journey beyond childhood innocence to a terrible knowledge of the evil and suffering in the world. In Blue Velvet, the hero Jeffrey is a teenage Hamlet figure, driven by the death of his father to play the amateur detective, only to be confronted by terrifying daemonic forces both outside him and within himself. In Twin Peaks, we see the photo of Laura Palmer, the smiling high-school prom queen, then gradually uncover the darkness behind that smile.

We discover the sex and violence lurking within the American nuclear family. That’s something Alfred Hitchcock explored in films like Psycho and Shadow of a Doubt – both he and Lynch loved the shot of the staircase in the suburban household, suddenly loaded with dread. The homely is made un-homely and threatening.

Upward short of the stairs from Psycho
Upwards shot of the stairs in Shadow of a Doubt, leading to scary killer-uncle

 

Upstairs shot of Laura Palmer’s house in Twin Peaks, leading to scary killer

We’re taken into a dreamworld beneath everyday reality. I think David Lynch is unrivalled in its ability to summon up the world of dreams. He’s a master at creating the Uncanny, the un-homely.

The aesthetics of the Uncanny were first laid out by Sigmund Freud in his 1919 essay, Das Unheimliche – an essay that deeply inspired Stanley Kubrick while he was making The Shining. Freud begins by exploring the etymology of the German word unheimliche, the opposite of heimliche which means ‘homely’ or ‘familiar’. He suggests that the uncanny is the fear we feel when the homely is made strange and frightening to us. Freud then explores some of the plot-devices by which 19th-century Gothic writers produced uncanny feelings in us  – ghosts, dopplegangers, telepathy, curses, apparitions in mirrors, inanimate objects coming to life, events from the past repeated, numbers repeated, symbols and patterns repeated, all of which produce the over-riding sense of “something fateful and unescapable”, as in a dream.

You can see how important these techniques are in both Kubrick and Lynch’s work, at summoning up dreamworlds which hint at hidden meanings or correspondences, without ever fully explaining them 

Mirrors, for example (from left, Twin Peaks, Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive and The Shining)

Weird patterns (from left, Eraserhead, The Shining and Twin Peaks)

Numbers (from The Shining and Twin Peaks…There are loads of portentous number references in the new Twin Peaks, by the way – the giant tells Dale to remember 340, we see an addict intoning 199, we see a magic phone-box with the number 3 on it…what does it all amount to? Almost certainly nothing). 

Weird symbols, like the dancing lady wearing the blue rose in Twin Peaks: Fire Walks With Me (the blue rose apparently symbolizes an FBI case involving the supernatural)

Events from the past happening again.

Dopplegangers (or, in the new series of Twin Peaks, Tripplegangers – yes there are three versions of Dale Cooper running around).

There are also inanimate machines that seem oddly animate – electric wires, radiators, phones and plug sockets that seem to channel spirits….It’s all very unheimliche.

And then, in Twin Peaks, there are the spiritual visions and dream-sequences, which were so utterly weird in 1991 but which have become more normal in TV drama since, through shows like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under or Stranger Things.

Lynch, like Kubrick and Hitckcock, brought the weird world of surrealism into mainstream American culture. Like the 1920s surrealists, he used techniques of ecstasy to take himself into trance states and plumb his subconscious for creativity. The surrealists of the 1920s used techniques like auto-hypnosis, drugs and automatic writing, while Lynch uses Transcendental Meditation and also an openness to the random, spontaneous and accidental – he cast Frank Silva as the daemonic villain Bob in Twin Peaks when he happened to witness him working on the set as a carpenter.

Above all, I love Twin Peaks because it summons up an enchanted place in a disenchanted age.

Freud wrote that the Uncanny works on us emotionally because it reconnects us to our pre-modern animist beliefs. The uncanny, he writes, connects us to

the old animistic conception of the universe, which was characterized by the idea that the world was peopled by the spirits of human beings, and by the narcissistic over-estimation of subjective mental processes (such as the belief in the omnipotence of thoughts…the carefully proportioned distribution of magical powers)…It would seem as though each one of us has been through a phase of individual development corresponding to that animistic stage of primitive man, that none of us has traversed it without preserving certain traces which can be re-activated.

Freud can’t write about animism without distaste – it’s infantile and regressive in his view. Kubrick and Lynch, by contrast, are more optimistic in their exploration of the spirit world. The Shining and Twin Peaks are actually optimistic. How? Because they suggest we’re not just matter, we’re also spirit. They suggest we’re in a world filled with demons and darkness, but also with transcendent forces of goodness and light. We’re not alone – there are greater forces out there, which can possess us for good or ill. And we’re in a universe where the soul doesn’t necessarily end at death – the journey is longer and stranger, as Agent Cooper discovers on his journey through various bardos. It’s not a flattened world. It’s a world thick with spirit.

That is a hopeful vision, to me, and a more exciting vision than the End of History we supposedly arrived at in the 1990s (when Twin Peaks first aired), with the triumph of secular neoliberal democracy. I love liberal democracy – I would die for it – but it can feel technocratic, self-absorbed, hyper-individualist, trivial, materialist, consumerist, spiritually flat, and utterly lacking in transcendence.  In some ways, our culture is anti-transcendent – our highest value is the individual, and death is definitely the end. Compared to that, the world of Twin Peaks was Romantic, exciting, mysterious, transpersonal. The self is porous, the owls are not what they seem. A small town in America could be a portal to multiple universes.

Now of course, a world of demons, angels and magic can easily be infantile, dangerous, completely irrational. ISIS terrorists live in a more enchanted world, in which they are the God-fuelled superheroes, and anyone who opposes them is a demon who needs to be exterminated. Sub-Saharan African villagers live in a more enchanted world, and are not above sacrificing the occasional child to placate the nature spirits. The more stupid supporters of Trump live in an enchanted world – the conspiracy-nut world of X Files, where a shadowy cabal headed by Hilary Clinton and the Illuminati run the world from behind the scenes

I think there is a third choice, between a culture of mad fundamentalist transcendence, and a culture that is anti-transcendent. And that’s a culture of mature, skeptical transcendence.

A society with a mature vision of transcendence helps us to go beyond our ego while recognizing the darkness in our subconscious, so we don’t project our darkness outwards onto outsiders. A culture of mature transcendence has resources – the arts, religion, spirituality, psychology – that help us consciously navigate the dreamworld within us, and to confront and integrate the darkness in our souls on our journey to wholeness. They help us find transcendence without insisting their route is the only route, and any one else’s route is evil. David Lynch’s work has that psychological and spiritual maturity. We need more art like that, if we’re to evolve from an anti-transcendent culture into a culture of mature transcendence.