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Communitarianism

‘This is just a test’

Apologies for the delay in writing. I’ve been in California for the last three weeks, immersed in preparing for Burning Man, then going to Burning Man, then recovering from Burning Man. I have so many impressions from this month I can’t yet structure them into a neat essay, so consider this a postcard instead.

If I was going to sum up San Francisco, it would be the fact that in 24 hours, I met two separate people who firmly believed they were going to live forever, thanks to technological breakthroughs in the near future. Also within 24 hours, I saw two homeless people shooting up in the street. There’s a combination of evangelical optimism in the power of tech to save the world, and an anxious sense that everything could fall apart any moment – every day, an eery earthquake siren rings out over the city, followed by the words ‘this is just a test’.

I wanted to visit the Bay Area, and maybe even move here, because it’s a visionary place, a place of bold spiritual experiments. In the UK, talking about ecstatic experiences feels a bit weird. Here, halfway through a talk on ecstasy at Burning Man, I looked out over my small, stoned audience and realized they’d probably had more ecstatic experiences that morning than I’d had in the last five years.

Bay Area experimentalism goes back at least as far as the 1950s, when Alan Watts helped to kickstart the San Francisco Renaissance, infusing Zen and Daoism into American culture. Down the highway in Big Sur, Michael Murphy launched Esalen, an educational institution devoted to the ‘religion of no religion’ – I met him two weeks ago, friendly and still excited, and spoke to him for four hours about his memories of Watts, Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard.

Esalen was a hot-tub of new ideas – it helped to develop transpersonal psychology (a psychology open to the spiritual experiences and spiritual potential of human beings) as well as gestalt therapy, holotropic breathwork, somatic therapy, shamanic healing, encounter sessions, ecstatic dance, deep ecology, and many of the other approaches which are now mainstream in the ‘spiritual but not religious’ global culture.

Murphy struck me as, firstly, a great researcher and fine mind; and secondly, an amazing spiritual entrepreneur. At 31, he’d set up an institute that is still going, persuaded luminaries like Huxley and Abraham Maslow to help, worked out a working business model, and attracted grants for research projects with universities and organisations. Five separate research institutes have been spun out of Esalen, helping to influence everything from legislation on alternative health to new approaches to diplomacy.

The Bay Area has also long been a site for experimentation in new forms of living – Stewart Brand helped to inspire the back-to-earth commune movement with his Whole Earth Catalogue, Watts lived in his houseboat with other artists, where he ran a centre for comparative religion, and thousands flocked here in the summer of love to shack up in houses or sleep in the parks. You still meet many people living in intentional communities – I gave a talk at one, Kaleidoscope, visited another – a marvellously kooky house called Embassy, and met a designer living at an ‘intergenerational commune’ called Magic in Palo Alto. It made me sad to move back to my single-dweller existence back in London.

It’s a place where people devote themselves to lifelong learning and new forms of higher education mushroom up, like Esalen, like the California Institute of Integral Studies (which Alan Watts helped set up), or online learning platforms like Masterclass and Udemy. The San Francisco Free College provides free classes to everyone in the city.

It has been, and still is, a place of experimentalism in sex and drugs. It was down the road, at the Golden Gate Park in 1968, that Timothy Leary announced the world should ‘tune in, turn on, drop out’. It was also in the Bay Area that Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters organized their acid tests in the mid-60s. And psychedelics are still a BIG part of Bay Area culture – everyone seems to take them, from the AI engineers and venture capitalists down to the hippies on Haight Street. The California Institute of Integral Studies is the only educational institution in the world which has a masters in psychedelic therapy. At one commune dinner earlier this week, my fellow guests traded stories of their experiences on esoteric chemicals, like Londoners casually swapping suggestions for the next box-set.

Free love is also explored with the same earnest, slightly techno-engineering approach. I was told of a recent workshop in ‘relationship anarchy’ where people wore badges showing different shapes indicating the type of structures they were open to (dyads, triangles, dodecahedrons and so on). Michael Murphy also told me of a chart at Esalen, one year, called the ‘Fuck-O-Rama’, indicating all the participants in a retreat, with lines showing who fancied who and who had fucked who. A flow-chat for polyamory – how very Bay Area.

All of this utopian experimentalism flowed into Burning Man, a situationist happening in the desert that has morphed into an experiment in urban planning and communitarian living. For one week, Black Rock City rises out of the dust, with a population of 70,000, making it the third-biggest city in Nevada, with its own airport, ranger force, psychedelic harm reduction tent, orgy camp, vast desert art gallery, and everything else one could possibly dream of (except a library, natch). And then, after a week, it dissolves back into dust.

And the area is home to some of the young companies that have changed the world and defined all of our virtual lives – Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Uber, Twitter, Netflix, Tinder and so on. It’s exciting to be close to where reality is being re-made. It’s also alluring – there’s so much money sloshing around, surely some of it will find its way to me!

But any place with so much utopian optimism is also going to have a pretty massive shadow. Silicon Valley is going through a period of soul-searching. Bay Area residents always thought of themselves as the plucky outsiders, the rebels, the Burners. But from another perspective, they’re the 1%, the new global elite, dancing at the top of Maslow’s pyramid of needs while the rest of society struggles to adapt.

Suddenly, the rebels have the power, and they’re not used to it. Steve Jobs urged entrepreneurs to ‘make a dent in the universe’ – but what if the dent is in something important, like democracy, or civility, or job security, or our capacity to pay attention? It reminds me of the Mitchell and Webb sketch where they play two SS Nazis and Mitchell says: ‘Have you noticed our caps have got little skulls on them? Hans…are we the baddies?’

Alan Watts preached the ‘wisdom of insecurity’ when he moved here, and the Bay Area has, in fact, been exporting insecurity around the world, through disruptive algorithms that take away people’s livelihoods. I asked one venture capitalist how worried we should be about automation and AI replacing jobs. ‘Extremely’, he replied. He, like several other tech entrepreneurs, thinks the necessary response is some sort of universal basic income, to support people while their jobs are taken away.

The mash-up of spirituality and extreme wealth can leave a weird taste – you’re always networking, even at an orgy. Your latest incredible epiphany becomes a way to impress people and secure funding. You emerge from your 5meo-DMT trip convinced the universe wants you to launch your new app. You’re a superhero, a divine god– why shouldn’t you be a billionaire? I’ve met shamans who run ayahuasca ceremonies to consult the spirits about new business ventures, or retreats offering ‘sacred upgrades’. I can see a scene at the Pearly Gates, when Jesus asks ‘what did you do for the starving and the marginalized’ and they (or rather, we) say ‘well…I did go on this amazing ayahuasca retreat and really connected to my highest self’.

Gurus flutter around the millionaires like hummingbirds. They remind me of the court priests of Versailles, or Mr Collins, the oleaginous vicar in Pride and Prejudice. The gurus cater to the spiritual needs of their fabulously wealthy clients and assure them of their cosmic mandate. To be honest, it’s partly why I came here – I thought I could perhaps get rich selling philosophy to Silicon Valley. But I’m not sure I want to be Mr Collins.

Meanwhile, the rents are so high in San Francisco, I met one person who pays $1300 for a bunk-bed in a communal room; a trip to the doctor to check out an ear-infection reportedly costs you $10,000; gun crime is out of control – one of my uber drivers lost her cousin to a random shooting the week before;  and there are so many drugged-out or mentally ill homeless on the streets, it’s like walking into the zombie apocalypse.

Some entrepreneurs are already dreaming of the next escape, to new cities built at sea, or to New Zealand, or to Mars. They plan, after all, to live forever. ‘What do you want to do with forever?’ I asked one of the transhumanists I met. ‘Oh, solve human suffering, have fun, explore space.’ There can be a lack of humility in the spiritual culture here (we are gods), which stems partly from a disconnection to the earth – humus – and a gnostic desire to escape matter, Earth, death, to escape shit (there’s concern about the amount of human feces in the streets here, but luckily someone has invented an app to help navigate around it).

Meanwhile, the Bay Area itself is threatened by climate change, by rising sea levels, forest fires, and the drying up of arable land. But maybe, if humans do come up with an amazing idea to deal with climate change, it will emerge from here.

Yesterday I met another Brit who’d moved here 20 years ago, and who works in a network dedicated to ‘restorative economics’, trying to find a better model for humanity to live in harmony with the planet. That sort of deep ecology also emerged here, in the work of Bay Area thinkers like Joanna Macy. The Brit told me he was inspired to move here partly by Alan Watts, and his insistence that humans are just one part of the natural ecosystem and shouldn’t think of ourselves as separate.

I asked him what he thought would happen to the Earth this century. ‘Well, the arctic is releasing methane, which is not good news. The IPCC’s predictions seem overly optimistic, so I expect sea levels to rise over the next few decades. That will lead to serious geo-political instability in response to mass migration, and potentially nuclear wars.’ I imagined seeing a mushroom cloud in the distance, as I kayaked down Piccadilly Circus. ‘And what about the longer-term?’ I asked hopefully. ‘Hopefully some humans will survive.’ And the strange thing was, I still enjoyed the rest of the day.

What can we learn from Benedictine monks about sticking to New Year’s resolutions

FullSizeRenderIt’s that time of year again, when people all over Britain go off for the traditional New Year’s Vipassana retreat. But not me – this year, I decided to keep it old school. I went on a Benedictine retreat.

Last Sunday, I traveled down to the Isle of Wight, to stay at Quarr Abbey (it’s pronounced Kor). It was set up as a Carthusian monastery in 1132, before being dissolved by Henry VIII. Then, in the late 19th century, the aggressively secular French government started attacking religious orders, so the abbot of the Benedictine monastery at Solesmes sent a small group of monks to set up a religious house on the Isle of Wight.

They established a house at what remained of Quarr Abbey, and built a beautiful abbey there, designed by one of the monks and finished in 1912. It’s still a working Benedictine monastery, and any man or woman can go and stay there, and eat there, for free (or for a voluntary donation). This hospitality is inspired by Jesus’ command in the Gospel of Matthew, to see God in the stranger: ‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.’

I arrived after two weeks of over-eating, over-drinking, over-smoking, over-everything. It was a sharp change of gear. When I got to the Abbey, it was locked, so I waited in the cold chapel for a while, where a small mechanical Joseph and Mary bent eerily over a plastic crib. Finally one of the guests appeared, let me in, and introduced me to the guestmaster, Father Nicholas, who I’d emailed to arrange my stay the previous week.

He showed me to my room, where a laminated handout explained the set-up. The monastery follows the Rule of St Benedict, the father of western monasticism. Benedict (480 – 543) was a young Roman ascetic who wanted to emulate the spiritual exercises and communal living of the Egyptian Desert Fathers and Mothers of the third century. To that end, he created a ‘little rule’ – a handbook for monks to follow, with 73 brief chapters outlining the basics of the monastic life.

With that little book, he laid the foundation for one of the oldest and most successful organizations in human history, which inspired later monastic orders such as the Carthusians, Dominicans, Carmelites and Franciscans, as well as lay orders like the Brethren of the Common Life.

Monks take a vow of obedience, stability and communal living to a particular abbey, where they spend the rest of their life. The monks make a vow to obey their abbott, yet they also elect the abbott from among themselves, who then serves for eight years. The abbott reports to a ‘general chapter’ of the Order every four years, and the Order itself is under the authority of the Vatican.

St BenedictThe rhythm of the day is marked out by the ‘Liturgy of the Hours’ – Matins (at midnight), Lauds or Dawn Prayer at 3am, Prime at 6am, Terce at 9am, Sext at 12, None at 3pm, Vespers at 6 and Compline at 9. All the services are voluntary for guests. The main activity in the services is Gregorian chanting of the Psalms – the monks sing all 150 psalms every week.

The rest of the day is taken up by two hours work in the morning, two hours work in the afternoon, one hour communal conversation (the day is mainly spent in silence), and meals, eaten in silence with someone reading a text. At Quarr, where the meals were delicious by the way, dinner was eaten in silence, while at lunch a monk read a chapter of the Rule of St Benedict and then turned on an audio-book – while I was there it was a novel about Octavius Caesar. Apparently the week before it was a history of MI6.

How can you transcend without 3G?

And that’s it. No mantras. No yoga postures. No diamond sutras. You’re pretty much left to your own devices. You can chat to other guests in the common room. There were only three other guests when I arrived: a French teenager sent there to learn English (who sends their son to a monastery to learn English?), and two middle-aged Northern men, who got into a long conversation about which bus company was better, National Express or Megabus. So I went to my room.

The room itself was bare and a bit draughty. I sat in bed, reading the Bible, disliking it. I felt my mind craving some stimulation or sedation, missing the distraction of the internet. I tried desperately to get 3G but it wouldn’t work. The old man in the room next to me could get it, though. Every time he got an email his computer would ping really annoyingly. Eventually I said loudly ‘would you please switch your computer onto silent?’ in my most peevish voice. That showed him.

I lay in bed, fuming. I imagined the guests at Alain de Botton’s Hotel for the Soul. They were all well-dressed, successful, amusing. It was probably cocktail hour. I wished I was there.

I woke up at 7am, hearing the bell for the morning service, and stayed in bed. We ate breakfast in silence. I retreated back to my room, and tried to write some of my book on transcendence. But there was no 3G, just the purgatorial GPRS. How can you transcend without 3G? I went to the morning service. I didn’t like the reading from the Letter of St John – if a spirit doesn’t lead you to Jesus, it’s a demonic spirit…what paranoid nonsense! Afterwards, I went back to my room. What else was there to do?

The main meditative practice in Benedict’s Rule is reading, or lectio divina. Whenever Benedict talks of ‘meditation’, it’s in connection with reading. It’s a spiritual activity, a slow absorption of the words, a reflection on the various levels of meaning and connection to your life, and ultimately a move into wordless contemplation of God. In theory. But I spend my whole life reading already. I sat in bed, speed-reading St Teresa’s Interior Castle. Each page she got higher and higher, more and more lost in ‘divine favours’. Bully for her.

I decided to leave, packed my bag, and began to walk downstairs. Then I thought, this is pathetic, I must be able to stay at least a few nights. So I went back to my room. I decided to interview Father Nicholas, to at least get some good material for a blog post. ‘Can I interview you?’ I asked bluntly. ‘Er…we can talk’, he said.

side-image_3He’d become a monk at the Abbey 22 years ago. Back then, there were 21 monks and 10 novices. Now there are 6 monks, no novices and a prior leant from another monastery. If they didn’t find some new novices, the monastery would eventually close. It’s not easy attracting new novices: ‘No one in our society is into lifelong commitments these days’, said Father Nicholas. ‘And no one wants to stay in one place.’ Monasteries all over Europe are facing closure, while yoga and mindfulness drop-in centres proliferate, like grey squirrels or Canada geese. This is spiritual Darwinism.

My fourth day, I decided, would be my last.  The evening before, I told Father Nicholas. He seemed rather surprised (I’d arranged to stay a week), but I explained there was something in London I just had to get back to (Wi-Fi).

A new guest arrived on the third day, called Matthew. I got into conversation with him. It turned out he had escaped from the local high-security prison, Parkhurst, exactly 20 years ago, and gone on the run for five days with two other prisoners. They’d made a key and a 30 foot ladder in the prison metal-work room (‘why are you making a 30ft ladder, Williams?’ ‘It’s…er…conceptual art, sir’. They escaped, took a taxi to a nearby airport and tried to steal a plane, but they couldn’t start it, so they hid in someone’s shed for five nights. It sounded far-fetched, but it turned out to be true.

He was wearing the very clothes he’d escaped in, and was following in his own footsteps – a sort of personal pilgrimage. It was clearly the high-point of his life. ‘I felt such a rush of freedom and power’, he said, ‘like my life had opened up again.‘ The prison service didn’t forgive him for escaping, and made sure he served 22 years of his sentence. ‘You’re at their mercy – and they don’t have any’, he says. ‘It’s been really hard since I got out, like being let out into a different planet.’

It was an unusual coincidence to meet Matthew, as I’m hoping, this year, to get funding to make a guidebook for prison inmates, to help them cope with life inside. So it was fascinating and serendipitous to talk to him. Then Father Nicholas said the prior, Father Xavier, would like to have a chat before I left.

A Rule to live by

After dinner, I followed Father Xavier into his quarters. He’s maybe 40, and has been a monk since he was 22. What wisdom, I asked him, could a busy skeptic like me take from the Benedictine Order? He thought for a bit. ‘Well…the importance of a daily rhythm of practice, of a rule of life, of habits.’

Yes, I thought. My life has become irregular. I need to make a Rule of Jules, to follow every day for the rest of the year. Just like Gerhard Groote, the founder of the Brethren of the Common Life. He’d make a list of resolutions, and spend a moment each day going over them. Yes! What else? What, I asked, were the most difficult things about being a monk?

‘Of course, the vow of obedience can be hard. The vow of chastity. And faith. One can have moments where one thinks, ‘what am I doing in this church every day?’ And getting on with your brothers can be very hard. We can have enemies. I remember there was one novice who I really detested. I really hoped he would not join the order, but he did. And we get on fine. There was another novice, and I thought we would become great friends, and in fact we had a lot of trouble. We need enemies, because they remind us we are not perfect and lovable saints.’

I imagined the enmities that could fester in a monastery, and briefly imagined one monk murdering another because he always sang flat in church (such things are not unheard of). I also thought of the old man in the room next to me, his noisy internet, his burps and farts. I realized I actually detested this man. And that the reason I was rushing away was not silence or God or anything like that. It was the inescapable proximity of other people. I find community really, really difficult. I dislike all my neighbours, but at least in London I can ignore them.

‘St Bernard called monasteries ‘schools of love’’, said Father Xavier. We learn that we are loved by God, and we learn to love one another. We learn mercy for each other’s weaknesses. Humans are so very weak, and needy. Me too. When I joined the monastery, I thought I was being very good. And then eventually, I realized it was untrue, I am just as needy and weak as everyone else. We have to show mercy to one another.’

The Rule is soaked in this attitude of mercy for human weakness. The first psalm of the day, Benedict writes, should be sung slowly, to give late-rising monks time to get to the chapel. ‘If a brother falls asleep during prayer’, writes one desert father, ‘ I cradle his head in my lap’. Another desert father left his monastery when it harshly reprimanded an errant monk, with the words ‘I too am a sinner’.

‘This can be the problem with Stoicism’, said Father Xavier. ‘You try to construct a castle of strength and power. But it will fall down, because your neediness and weakness will come out. We need to build bridges and doorways to other people.’  The Latin word for priest – pontifex – actually means ‘bridge-builder’. For some reason I remember hearing Alain de Botton once pejoratively describe someone as ‘needy’. But that’s not a put-down, that’s a fact of human existence. The fear of neediness is a greater error than neediness itself.

The next morning, I sat in the common room, and for the first time in four days, I felt at peace. I felt my consciousness begin to settle and expand. I am 38 this year. I wondered if this was the middle-point of my life, and what I should do with the rest of it. I remembered Xavier’s words: ‘I hope people will come away from the monastery with a sense of God’s love. It takes time to grow into an awareness of that love.’

He said: ‘Of course there are similarities between Buddhist and Christian contemplation. But also big differences. Christianity believes in revelation – in a God who loves you and wants to be known by you.’ Ultimately, I believe in that, even if I have major issues with 90% of the rest of Christianity. I believe the foundation of human existence is God’s love, and that we can discover that love.

I left my voluntary donation on my bedside table – £25 per night. Not bad for board, food and free spiritual guidance. Compare that to, say, the $1300 you have to spend for a week at Esalen, the New Age retreat in California.

My enduring memory will be my conversations with Father Nicholas and Father Xavier, how human, unsaintly, unrigid they are, like a sonnet where the formal rules actually enable the lyric to come alive. I will remember also the psalm-chanting, the slow absorption and emanation of these beautiful poems, round the clock, every day, for the last 1500 years:

‘You have searched me, Lord and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
You perceive my thoughts from afar
You discern my going out and my lying down…
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
If I settle on the far side of the sea,
Even there your hand will guide me,
Your right hand will hold me fast…’

I wish I had stayed longer, but I’d already said I was leaving. The night before I left, I read St Benedict warning of ‘gyrovagues’, ‘who spend their entire lives drifting from region to region,  staying as guests for three or four days in different monasteries.’ Yes, I am definitely a gryovague. I find it difficult to be close to others. I find it difficult to love and be loved. I find it difficult to stay in one place, one community, one relationship. But maybe I can learn it.