John-Henry Carter is the most successful captain of Oxford rugby team ever, the only captain to lead the team to three successive victories in the Varsity match. The former flanker attributes that success not to his speed or his 6ft 3 frame, but to his training in psychodynamic therapy and existentialist philosophy.
After graduating, John played professional rugby at Sale Sharks in 2004, but his brief career was plagued with injury and he had to retire in 2007, after five operations. He was physically battered, but also morally disillusioned by ‘the primitive belief that meaning and consequence transpired through a scoreline’. He hadn’t found what he was looking for in professional sports.
He went to Oxford University to do a MSt in psychodynamic psychotherapy. While there, he got drawn back into rugby, and was invited to become manager of the team in 2011, at the age of 30. He became captain as well. At that point, although Oxford were winning games, the culture was “full of a misconceived idea of masculinity – sexism, homophobia.” He took on the challenge of leading the team because he thought he could change the culture and find that enigmatic thing he’d been looking for – spirit, being, soul.
At the same time, he worked on his PhD, about the mental struggles faced by professional rugby players when they retire. Based on in-depth interviews with six players, five of them internationals, it’s a fascinating insight into male identity and how it can find and lose itself in sports.
John uses the story of Peter Pan as an organizing myth for some of his insights in the PhD. He talks about how players live in ‘Neverland’ – a sort of dream-world of fantasy. The players he interviewed spoke of ‘living the dream’, ‘having to pinch myself’, ‘feeling high’, ‘like I’m on drugs’ when they’re playing at big matches. It sounds like ecstasy – or a sort of trance state. And in this dream-land, they will never lose, never get hurt, never got old.
They’re not just living out their own childhood dreams – they’re acting out the dreams of all the millions of spectators watching them too. The media like to say ‘the fans were in dreamland’. Well, that’s exactly right – fans use sport to enter trance-states, to regress to the fairy tale fantasies of childhood as they watch the game. The media feeds this fantasy, with language like ‘fairy tale’, ‘magic’, legend’, ‘talisman’, with every over-the-top slow-motion Wagnerian montage, and every ridiculously puffed-up publicity poster.
The spectators like to fetishize their sports’ heroes inner lives. ‘How are you feeling? This must be the best moment of your life, is it?’ The same thing happens when an actor wins an Oscar, and they go into dreamland – that ultimate valorisation of their external self. And the truth is, they might not know how they’re feeling. Winning – for all that we fetishize it as the ultimate goal in life – is more emotionally complex than we realize. Many Olympic gold-medallists, for example, speak of their ‘depression, mourning, emptiness’ after they win.
As in Hollywood, the immersion in dreamland leads to a sort of ego-splitting – on the one hand you have the external self, the persona, a fantasy-self of power, heroism and invincibility. But behind that, hidden from everyone else, is the shadow self, which is weak, afraid, hurt and confused. But that self can’t be shown, can’t even be admitted to oneself, amid a culture (John writes) ‘defined by positive thinking and positive action through omnipotent dreamlike beliefs and tag-lines such as ‘Just Do It’’.
One reason many men love team sports is for the male bonding it allows – it enables them to be with each other and express love and physical intimacy, whether you’re a player or a fan. But men are often terrible at expressing that, and at being vulnerable and authentic with each other. So the vulnerability gets hidden behind a mask of machismo, sexism, homophobia, binge-drinking, ‘banter’ and the autistic exchange of sport stats and punditry. And beneath it all is a terror of losing intimacy and being on one’s own.
How did John do it differently at Oxford? Firstly, he redefined what it meant to win. Victory was not primarily about the scoreline, he insisted. It was ‘a commitment to the potential experience of being’. He says: ‘This commitment to ‘being’ felt like a spiritual alchemy – We embarked upon a voyage to simultaneously create and discover our ‘spirit’.’ The team embraced honesty, authenticity, trust, relatedness, creativity and play – the conditions to allow this ‘spirit’ to emerge.
In practical terms, this meant being ‘player-led’ rather than led by top-down diktat. It also meant John spent a lot of time talking to the players one-on-one, and in group conversations, in which all 30 of the team would take part and learn to be open, trusting and vulnerable with each other. ‘The consequence of it was much greater than I could have ever imagined. It was a really ethereal sense of being. I got to taste that sense of being.’
Again, this may sound unlikely, but it’s exactly what I do with Saracens, where it’s incredibly refreshing to hear players express their fear of failure, or death, and to be able also to express their feelings of joy, hope and love. It’s a mature model of male identity, of male strength and courage. John says: ‘It takes more courage than anything I’ve experienced to look at the parts of yourself you don’t want to see and to let other people see your vulnerability. That’s ultimate courage.’
I imagine some of you might be groaning and thinking this is the ultimate triumph of the therapised, feminised male – but John’s leadership made the team stronger, not weaker. If you think it made them weak, watch the highlights of their routs of Cambridge.
John’s now retired from rugby, for the second time. It is not easy to retire from rugby, because you’re losing your surrogate family. He describes retired players as ‘lost boys’. Of the six players he interviewed for his PhD, all of them said they felt depressed after retiring, and a third of them felt suicidal. Team sports allow men to recreate the small tribe in which humans have existed for most of their existence. And then, at retirement, suddenly you are in the lonely atomised world of modern neoliberalism.
But, after a period of grief and mourning, John’s enjoying his new life as a psychodynamic therapist, working both with sports teams, and with schools and individuals. What I personally admire in his work is his ability to describe and live a better sort of male identity than we sometimes fall for – more complex, more open to love and to suffering. Imagine if sportsmen went from being poster-boys for infantile fantasies of invincibility, to becoming ambassadors for the messy and sometimes wonderful experience of being human.
Here is the brief radio 4 thing I did on Aristotle and the politics of flourishing. And here is something I wrote on Neo-Aristotelianism in politics for the New Statesman, complete with an embedded animation about Aristotle made by the BBC and narrated by Stephen Fry!
It’s election season in the UK, and many politicians are making the right noises about mental health. But where’s the action, asks psychiatrist Simon Wessely.
Eurostat publishes new figures on European happiness – the Scandinavians are still the happiest!
Is studying philosophy a good protection against religious extremism? Interesting case-study of two brothers from Tunisia in the New York Times.
Wired magazine reports on Panoply, a new social network to improve mental health.
And here’s an article on a new headband you can buy for $300, that monitors your brain waves during meditation.
Julian Baggini has a new book out on free will, reviewed here by Terry Eagleton.
Here’s a talk by my friend the psychologist Oliver Robinson, on why science and spirituality are friends, not enemies.
Finally, it’s Easter, a festival devoted to the idea that death is not the end for humans – an idea I happen to believe. Here’s a long and good article on the science of near-death experiences from the Atlantic magazine. Why, it asks, if NDEs are ‘just’ chemical, do they so often follow ancient mythical narrative structures of darkness and rebirth?
Earlier this week, my girlfriend and I toured around Yorkshire and Northumberland, once the stronghold of English medieval monasticism. We visited the beautiful ruins of Rievaulx Abbey, which once boasted the biggest church in England. As we wandered around the ruins, I wondered what we lost, when Henry VIII dissolved more than 1000 monasteries in five years.
We lost our indigenous contemplative tradition. If you mention meditation to westerners, they assume you are talking about something from Asia. Last year, I went to an ‘International Symposium on Contemplative Studies’ in Boston, attended by over 1600 people. Of the 200 or so presentations, there was just one on Christian contemplation, by a sociologist who had not actually tried it.
The common view, expressed recently by Sam Harris, is that Christianity does not have a contemplative tradition. It has a few rare mystics, like Meister Eckhart and St Teresa of Avila, who operated as lone beacons of wisdom within a religion that was quick to suppress them. The very word ‘mystic’ makes contemplation seem something hidden and occult. Even contemporary Christians tend to view contemplation as something either Buddhist or New Age, and therefore deeply suspect.
This is a huge historical error. My research in this area is very raw, but from my initial reading it seems clear that from the 10th century until the Reformation, medieval culture was centred around contemplation. It was a visionary culture, ‘an age of the imagination’ as Michelle Karnes puts it. And contemplation was not an activity confined to the 2% of the population in monastic orders. Similar to today, the affluent laity were hungry for contemplative practices which they could carry out within their busy secular lives.
This contemplative culture gave rise to a rich treasury of contemplative practices. There was the contemplative lyric – visionary or dream poems like The Pearl or Piers Ploughman, designed to teach the reader virtues and guide them to transcendent experiences. There were contemplative miracle plays, which were a sort of mass visualization exercise for the laity. There was contemplative architecture – the abbey and cathedral, vivified with candles, incense, stained glass windows, statues and relics, were walk-through contemplative exercises in awe and piety. There were contemplative maps and travel accounts, designed to take the reader on mental journeys to wondrous lands. There were actual pilgrimages as walking contemplative exercises. There were contemplative objects – relics, prayer-beads, even contemplative needlework.
Above all, there were contemplative books. ‘The prosperous literate laity wanted guidebooks to the mount of contemplation (or at least usable maps to its foothills)’, writes Oxford’s Vincent Gillespie. The monasteries helped to translate, copy and distribute contemplative classics by visionaries like Julian of Norwich, St Bonaventure, St Richard of Victor, the Cloud of Unknowing author, and Richard Rolle. The laity could also access these writings through ‘contemplative compilations’.
These books offered people meditative and devotional programmes. Like self-help books today, they were not always shy about trumpeting their miraculous benefits. The author of the 14th century Meditations on the Life of Christ declares that Christ Himself could appear to the reader ‘on any day…if you would prepare yourself for it with an uncompromised mind with meditations on the Lord’s passion every Friday and Saturday.’
The imagination as a bridge to God
At the heart of medieval contemplative culture was a belief in the power of the imagination to connect us to God. The exalted role of the imagination was built on the philosophy of Aristotle, for whom imagination was a key cognitive capacity that connects the sensory data of the material world to the emotions and the spiritual world of the intellect. For St Augustine, St Bernard, St Richard of Victor, St Bonaventure and others, the affective imagination takes us places where reason alone cannot go, lifting us from the material to the spiritual.
Reading was the main way the aspiring contemplative trained their imagination and guided their emotions to God. The key contemplative technique was called lectio divina, or ‘divine reading’. Guigo II, a 12th century Carthusian monk, outlines the four stages of the practice in his Scala Claustralium: first comes lectio, or a reading of a holy text; then meditatio, thinking about it and perhaps imagining oneself into its scenes; then oratio, or prayer to God; and finally contemplatio, when the mind is no longer striving, no longer imagining, but is rather taken up in rapture by God into the apex mentis, the throne-room, the Holy of Holies within one’s own mind.
Richard of the Abbey of St Victor (a school and contemplative centre in Paris), writes: “If the mind after a long time of searching finally finds the truth, then it usually happens that it receives the new insight with appetite, gazes at it with wonder and jubilation and stays in this amazement for a longer time.’
Many popular medieval contemplative works were guided imaginative meditations, particularly on the life and sufferings of Christ (a technique later adapted by St Ignatius for his Spiritual Exercises). By imagining oneself into Christ’s life, one actually went there, and could connect to Christ, and receive healing, wisdom and grace from him. Christ is God drawn close and made imaginable, palpable, embraceable. From the 11th century on, contemplative practices try to make him more and more real and present, to connect to him in love and sensual imagery.
The more vivid your imagining of Christ, the better – the author of Meditations on the Life of Christ has no worries about meditators basically inventing their own details to add to the Gospels. Christ’s life becomes a sort of fan-fiction universe – you don’t just passively consume the scenes, you enter them, see them, touch them, embellish them. Christ comes to life through such exercises and speaks to you, perhaps literally – it’s fairly common in medieval culture for Christ to appear to people and speak to them, in dreams, visions, trances.
Meditations on Christ, or Mary, or God, or a particular saint, were exercises in ‘affective meditation’ – they took the contemplative beyond mere reason, and connected them to God through love. Medieval contemplative texts are far from the cold rationality of Plato or the Stoics. They burn with love and sensuality. They often use the Song of Songs as inspiration, and the soul’s ecstatic union with Christ or God is described in startlingly sensual terms – the contemplative kisses Christ, enters his wounds, feels Christ within her, feels penetrated by the darts of his love. The word rapture comes from the Latin raptus, which also meant rape – God’s union with the soul is a ravishing, a quasi-sexual union, and the sweetness one feels is comparable to orgasm (and perhaps actually was, on occasion, an orgasm).
That kind of meditation might seem a bit weird to a modern secular audience (it does to me). But there were other imaginative exercises – meditating on the tree of life, for example, on the ‘mystical ark’, or Jacob’s ladder, or a visionary poem like The Pearl. A particularly popular technique, similar to the ancient ‘memory palace’ technique, guided the contemplative through an imaginary palace or cathedral, with each room representing a deeper level of consciousness (this is the technique used by St Teresa of Avila in her Interior Citadel, after a crystal castle appeared to her in a vision).
I think there was a profound connection between the inner architecture of contemplative practice, and the outer architecture of cathedrals and abbeys – in this sense it doesn’t surprise me that freemasonry was considered a sacred and occult culture. The visionary has an idea of a perfect building, which expresses the grandeur of God and the mansion of our soul. They then turn that idea into a reality, with the help of masons. Then others come to worship there, and the idea is impressed onto their souls too. And some of them go elsewhere and pass the idea on.
And it wasn’t just buildings filled with murals and stained glass windows that were contemplative and imaginative aids. Contemplative books likewise combined words and images – the bestsellers of medieval literature were the Books of Hours, which were beautifully illuminated compendiums of prayers and meditations.
The aim of all this guided imagination was a sort of inner architecture. ‘To think’, wrote Aristotle, ‘is necessarily to use images’. Imagination is at the heart of much of our cognition. The inner stream of our consciousness and memory is filled with images, usually involuntary and unconscious. An image of a beer comes to our mind, for example, and we are helplessly drawn to the pub. Luckily, we can consciously guide our imagination and impress our memory with images of the good, the beautiful, the divine. We can open the doors of the mansion of our mind (as Augustine put it) and fill it with good images. This will affect what we think, what we do, how we suffer adversity, how we treat others. It will connect us to God, who will shine through our imagination like sun through a stained-glass window. It will help us in the after-life too – contemplation is a preparation for death and purgatory, just as it was for Plato. Indeed, supposedly-true accounts of near-death experiences became popular in the 14th century.
The forgotten city of Atlantis
And then, in five years, Henry VIII and his enforcer, Thomas Cromwell, pulled the plug on that imaginative culture. It dissolved like a rainbow in the mist. Over 1000 monasteries, nunneries and abbeys were closed. Countless contemplative books were lost and destroyed. Abbeys were deserted, statues and relics vandalized. A centuries-old contemplative tradition disappeared, like Atlantis, and western society turned away from the vita contemplativa and embraces the vita activa.
The Reformation and the Counter-Reformation both became deeply suspicious of ‘enthusiasm’, of people ‘who boast that they have the spirit apart from and before contact with the word’, as Martin Luther put it. For Protestants, there is the authority of Scripture, for Catholics, the authority of the church. Women, in particular, should know their place. Many of the greatest medieval visionaries were women – St Brigitte, St Edith, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Margary Kempe. They made huge contributions to medieval culture, but are dismissed as ‘fond women’ by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer.
The Enlightenment continued this attack on the ‘enthusiasm’ of the contemplative life. The monastic life is a life of idleness, nuttiness, hypocrisy and sexual deviancy. Imagination falls from its exalted position as a bridge between God and man. It becomes ‘phantasy’, something that misleads and deludes.
The English contemplative tradition passes from monasteries to poetry. It’s no accident, perhaps, that the decades and centuries after the Dissolution lead to the great flowering of metaphysical poetry, to the contemplative wonders of Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert, Vaughn, Traherne, Milton, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Blake (no women however). But the English poets are imagining within a culture that is losing its religious faith, that increasingly doubts the value of what cannot be scientifically proven. By the late 20th century, Ted Hughes worries that we are losing our capacity to dream dreams – he suggests we need to train our imagination using imaginative meditations like St Loyola’s exercises.
The medieval marriage of sacred words and imagery also declines after the Reformation, with the exception of William Blake’s illuminated poems, or the engravings of Gustave Dore. The word is sundered from the image. The image becomes ever more colonized by the word – look, today, at conceptual art. The ‘sacred marriage’ of word and image survives in a somewhat bastardized form perhaps in comic book culture – tales of marvels and wonders somewhat comparable to the medieval lives of saints, though not always with much ethical purpose.
Guided imaginative meditation is not really a mainstream practice today. It’s used in a very simple manner by professional sportspeople – imagine the goal-posts, that sort of thing. And it is quite popular in self-help, ever since Napoleon Hill, author of Think and Grow Rich, described how he imagined a counsel of ‘Invisible Counselors’, including Emerson, Darwin and Napoleon, who would appear to him each night and offer him advice on how to grow richer. The New Age, and particularly shamanism, also draws heavily on guided imaginative journeys – although medieval contemplatives would warn that imagination unconnected to reason can easily end up in delusion, and even in demonic possession.
While Buddhist contemplation is hugely popular in the West today, it tends to be a very Protestant ‘imageless meditation’ – concentrate on your breath, or a word – although there is of course also a rich tradition of Buddhist, Hindu and Daoist visualization practices, including meditations in which one imagines walking through a palace or being pierced by the loving rays of a God or spiritual being.
What should we imagine?
I wonder if, slowly, we are returning to a more positive idea of the imagination. Perhaps fantasy literature – the capacity to imagine other cities, other worlds, other beings – is becoming more respectable and mainstream. It’s not just escapism – it’s a profoundly human activity, to imagine something ideal, to bring back one’s imagination repeatedly to that ideal, and to draw energy and power from it. Imagination is prophetic – uniquely among animals, we can imagine reality to be other than it is, and then make our dream real.
Today, however, we no longer have a common imaginative storehouse of images which we can visit. Europeans don’t typically believe Christ was the only son of God, and so that image, that bridge to the Divine, has lost much of its sacred power for us skeptics. After two centuries of imagining, we still haven’t really come up with much to replace Him – not Gandalf or Luke Skywalker or Batman or Aslan or Mickey Mouse, as interesting and rich as these figures are.
Speaking personally, I am not sure that Christ was quite such an exalted figure as the Bible claims he was. I don’t think he was God, though he may have connected to the God we all have within us more than anyone before or since. I think many of the details in the Gospels, particularly the Nativity, were fan-fiction rather than accurate history. Given my skepticism, I wonder if meditating on Christ can still connect me to God? Why would I meditate on his wounds, if I don’t think his death actually redeemed the human race? Then again, perhaps meditating on his suffering and his love is still redemptive, even if you don’t think it was the cosmic lynchpin that Christians say it was?
Well, these are questions for me to work out. Let’s imagine ahead. As the laity’s appetite for contemplation grows, is it possible that we create new contemplative centres in our society, that new contemplative orders start to appear? Over the coming centuries, will contemplation and the imagination once again assume a more central place in our outward-focused culture?
A key part of any potential contemplative revival, it seems to me, involves building a contemplative culture within universities. In the Middle Ages, universities and monastic orders supported each other. But eventually, it became more of a zero-sum tussle for power and money. When Henry dissolved the monasteries, many of their assets ended up being grabbed by universities. The universities gradually put forward an instrumental model of knowledge which was sadly divorced from the ideals of contemplation, virtue and wisdom. That’s partly why universities are in crisis today, in my opinion.
But things are beginning to change – the mindfulness movement in the US is being spear-headed by some contemplative centres, particularly at medical schools but also at places like Brown and Virginia. There are also mindfulness centres here in Oxford, Exeter and Bangor. I wonder if there could be contemplative centres which also explore and research the west’s own contemplative practices, to see what we can recover for our post-religious age. Because personally, I think it would be a great pity if we cast aside so many centuries of indigenous contemplative culture and all became secular Buddhists.