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God

The future is already here

I think a lot of emotional problems arise from the fact we’re both subjects and objects.

We’re universes of subjective consciousness.

And we’re also material objects – a body. A jumble of atoms thrown together, skin, bones, muscle, blood. And out of this briefly emerges a Me.

Weird. 

We’re also an object in the eyes of others. An image. Jules Evans. He exists out there, beyond Me, in your minds and words. 

Babies are initially pure subjective consciousness.

They don’t know what’s going on, they don’t know where they end and the world begins. It’s a massive trip.

And yet, before they attain language, before they learn their name, before they learn of themselves as a separate being in the world, they know they’re loved.

They feel held by their carers, stroked, and soothed. And they’re know they’re loved and OK.

That’s the basic source of our identity – the ground of our being – before language or self-identity. That basic feeling: ‘you’re OK, you’re loved’.

I was on the Tube this week, and this baby looked at me with its enormous wondering eyes. It was tripping out. And I smiled at it. And it looked at me for a bit, and then smiled back. It had received that response, that affirmation – ‘you’re OK, you’re loved’.

That’s an amazing thing. It’s the sunlight that enables the flower of our self to unfold into the world.

Then gradually children gain a sense of their body. They look at their hands in wonder, and realize they are ‘their’ hands, they can control them.

They learn their name, learn they are a thing in the world. My earliest memory, from when I was two or so, is spelling my name out in magnetic letters on our fridge, and being applauded by my parents. My first literary triumph!

Then we develop a sense of how others perceive us, how we are different to other children, how we stand in the order of things.

We might learn, for example, that our big sister is smarter than us, that our mother seems to prefer our brother. We might learn at school that we have a funny name, or a weird head, that our parents aren’t as rich as others. Some thing is wrong with us.

We embark on a lifelong struggle for love and acceptance, and a lifelong fear of rejection and failure. We rate ourselves against others and constantly try to get higher, to be more loved.

We start to ask ourselves: ‘Who am I? Why am I this self, this body? Why this hair colour, or skin colour, or gender, or sexuality?’

What’s the point of me?

Am I worthwhile? Am I loveable? Am I any good?

Seven and a half billion people on this planet, 7.5 billion universes of sparkling subjective consciousness, and every one of those points of light have asked themselves, at least once, ‘Who am I? What’s the point of me? Am I any good?’

When we feel we are, we can relax and feel ‘I’m OK, I’m alright’, like we’re in the arms of our mother and everything’s OK. Our body goes into a restful, relaxed and contended state.

But sometimes we feel ‘I’m not OK, I’m no good’, and we feel really alone and threatened. Our whole body reacts with stress, our immune system weakens, adrenalin floods our system, or our serotonin levels sink. Some people get stuck in that mode.

Things can go really wrong when we get caught in feedback loops between our subjective consciousness and ourselves as objects in others’ eyes.

Up to 18, I was a mild narcissist. I really enjoyed my reflection in others’ eyes, the feeling of being a pretty amazing human being, relatively speaking.

It led to a feedback loop – the more adulation I got, the more my self-esteem inflated, like an enormous orange balloon.

Then my pride got a knock, and my self-esteem rapidly deflated.

I started to get panic attacks. I would go to a party, and I would suddenly see myself as an imperfect object in others’ eyes.

I would wonder, what happens if I lose it now, if I fall apart mid-conversation. What would that do to my image? Then I would lose it. I was onto something genuine – our opportunities for love and success in this world depend on how others perceive us. That can be scary.

Our subjective consciousness and our body can go into spasms of fear and self-rejection. ‘I am me, and that’s not OK. That’s terrible!’ We close up and clench in fear and self-criticism.

We can be attacked by those dark twins, self-loathing and self-pity.

The sense that my self is basically unacceptable can lead to such a shitty experience of subjective consciousness, people choose to obliterate themselves with intoxicants, or kill themselves to take the pain away. 

Can we free ourselves of our egos and expand into that limitless sky of sparkling subjective consciousness?

Most religions say we can transcend our selves. We can shift beyond ‘me’ and find a Something More – God, Buddha-mind, the Logos, Atman, Gaia, cosmic consciousness, humanitarianism, the happiness of all sentient beings. Something More.

But here’s the rub. We can seek to transcend ourselves in ways that are self-hating and self-negating.

When I was at university, and fairly miserable, I attended meditation classes. But it did me no good. I was trying to meditate myself out of existence.

My ego-mind was so painful, like a floor scattered with broken glass, that I thought if I kept really really still, I would feel no pain, because ‘I’ would disappear.

It would work for a few minutes, then something would happen and I would step on broken glass again.

Any form of transcendence can really be an attempt to obliterate the hated self. You can throw yourself into humanitarianism, a good cause which you pursue in a desperate way, because you’re not OK, you’re not alright, you don’t deserve to exist. So you try to prove you’re worthwhile human being. 

This elderly Zen monk gave a talk in February, where he said if you want to open up to the limitless experience of consciousness, the way to do it is not to try to deny or obliterate yourself, but to open to the limitless experience of consciousness through self-acceptance and self-compassion.

Yes, even you, with all your flaws. Even crap old you, with your stained teeth, your fat bum, your flabby arms, your crappy clothes, your rubbish job, your disastrous romantic life. Even you mate. Even you!

This old monk – I swear to you, he exists – this monk who had spent his whole life meditating and studying, summed up all he’d learnt with the words: ‘You’re OK. You’re alright. You’re loved.’

Loved by who or what?

Some people feel they are loved by God. The love of God is the ground of their being.

There are religious traditions and practices dedicated to developing this sense of love – Sufism, Methodism, metta meditation in Buddhism, bhakti traditions like Hari Krishna in Hinduism.

The essence of God is love, focus on that image, that experience, and let your soul be transformed in its warm light.

That’s pretty nice, I like those religions of the heart. But not everyone can believe in some higher loving power.

Your partner loves you. Your family loves you. The love of the family has become more and more important as belief in God has declined. We look for The One who will accept us and complete us. Finally! 

That’s what these recent match.com adverts promised us – self-acceptance through the other. 

(These adverts have been widely mocked and pastiched by the way – here are some examples)

It’s a pretty big ask to expect someone us to completely and unconditionally love you all through your life. You change, your partner changes, there will be times they don’t even like you, let alone love you. Your kids leave home. Your parents have their own stuff going on.

But it’s OK. Your therapist loves you. You can turn to your therapist for unconditional love.

But they don’t really, do they? Their love costs by the minute.

The most important thing, the one thing that will definitely be with you through your entire life, is your subjective consciousness. Your attitude to yourself.

If there is a God, you experience IT through your subjective consciousness. If the love of another person changes you, it is through your subjective consciousness. It’s all right there, in you, now.

We can practice being kind to ourselves. Right now, we can try to accept ourselves in our all rubbishness. 

I try and end my morning meditation saying to myself ‘I’m OK, I’m alright, even with all my flaws and imperfections. I’m fine as I am. I’ll continue to grow and hopefully become a better person, but I’m also fine as I am.’

I can be very self-critical and unkind to myself, so this is a good practice. In physical terms, it switches me from threat-mode to soothing-relaxing-mode. My consciousness doesn’t shut up in fear, it relaxes and opens up.

And I try to direct my compassion out too. ‘I vow to be kind to myself and to others. To help all beings be free from suffering and realize our true natures’.

There are other compassion practices one can do – I’ve put some links below.

We are imperfect, limited beings, and we are limitless universes of sparkling consciousness. That’s what Buddhism teaches – and other religions are not far off. We are imperfect wounded egos in imperfect mortal bodies. But we’re also enlightened and perfect already!

Isn’t that weird? You’re already divine! On some dimension of reality, you’re already there. We’re already there. This is a great day! Our higher future selves are up there looking down on us in compassion, applauding us, and cheering us on. Reach up and give the future enlightened you a high five. The future is already here.

*****

Here are some links about compassion-focused therapy.

Here is the website of the Compassionate Mind foundation, set up by the psychologist Paul Gilbert.

Here’s a good introductory article about compassion-focused therapy.

Here’s an interview with Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg, who’s made loving-kindness meditation the centre of her work.

Here’s a video about how compassion-focused therapy can help people hearing voices or experiencing psychosis.

Is self-compassion the same as self-esteem? And will compassion therapy make the same mistakes as the self-esteem movement in the 1990s? This piece in the Atlantic explores the differences. And this Guardian feature by Will Storr looks at the cult of self-esteem in the 1990s, and how it was oversold.

The war on pop

100 years ago, the French sociologist Emile Durkheim was worried. He had just finished his epic study of the function of religion, which was published in 1912 as The Elementary Forms of Religion.

Religion, Durkheim decided, had a crucial role to play in society. It created spaces of ‘collective effervescence’ – mass transcendence and ecstasy – which lifted people from their separate individual selves and binded them together into a community.

But where would mass western societies find collective effervescence today, when people’s belief in Christianity was declining? Without an alternative, Durkheim worried that people in the West would end up lonely, atomised and miserable.

He looked around for new forms of religion, and wondered if the state could become a new God. 

France was a good example. It had shoved Christianity aside during the French Revolution, but established a new religion in the worship of the revolutionary state.

The historian Alexis de Tocqueville, looking back on the Revolution a few decades later, decided the French revolution ‘assumed all the aspects of a religious revival…it developed into a species of religion, albeit a singularly imperfect one’.  This new religion had its own rituals, anthems, festivals, martyrs, apostles.

The religious enthusiasm of the French Revolution

The worship of the state took a new, more toxic form in the 19th and 20th century, with the worship of strong men and women – the cult of Napoleon, the cult of Victoria, the cult of Hitler, Stalin and Mao.

It became apparent that, while the Enlightenment knocked down the old God of Abrahamic faiths, it had raised up a new God in natiionalism, and this new God was just as blood-thirsty.

The ecstatic worship of the Emperor or Fuhrer was fuelled through sacrifices, wars, purges, and the exploitation or extermination of those deemed racially inferior. It was an enforced religion – if you weren’t singing along, you were a heretic.

For a while it looked like the cult of imperialism / fascism would be the new religion of the 20th century, but that ended with World War II.

Instead, two new cults emerged. Firstly, mass consumerism. People didn’t need to forget themselves in mass ecstasy anymore, because life was suddenly more comfortable. People could get TVs, cars, washing machines, go on holiday. Who wanted to throw themselves on the altar of ecstatic nationalism when you could watch I Love Lucy?

Secondly, in the late 1950s, the cult of rock & roll took off.

Rock & roll was the bastard love-child of Pentecostalism, an ecstatic form of Christianity that had flourished in America among poor whites and blacks. Pentecostalism was highly emotional and  rhythmic – congregants worked themselves into a trance (known as ‘getting happy’) by rocking back and forth, singing call-and-response rhythms over and over, and then opening themselves to the Holy Spirit. The preacher was a performer – building the audience up to a peak of ecstasy, teasing them, and then letting them loose with a scream and a wail (this was known as ‘housewrecking’). When the ecstasy came upon them, congregants were encouraged to break loose, run around, jump up or dance in a frenzy while other congregants urged them on.

It was what Aldous Huxley rather sniffily called ‘Corybantic Christianity’ – the Corybantic rites were a sort of ecstatic dance cult in ancient Greece.

The pioneers of rock & roll came, on the whole, from Pentecostalism. Little Richard sang in a Pentecostal choir (and later briefly renounced rock & roll to become a preacher). His trademark high-pitched squeals were straight out of the Pentecostal sermon. Jerry Lee Lewis was another Pentecostal worshipper, so were the Isley Brothers, James Brown, BB King, Ray Charles, Solomon Burke. Elvis and Tina Turner were Baptists, but they both learned their style of performing at Pentecostal church.

Rock & roll adapted the script of Pentecostalism

Rock & roll took the script of Pentecostalism – the music, rhythm, emotion, metaphors and mannerisms – and adapted it. It took the sexuality bubbling under the surface of Pentecostalism – and brought it to the surface. Ray Charles, for example, turned the gospel anthem ‘I got a friend in Jesus’, and turned it into ‘I got a woman’. Jerry Lee Lewis took an image of the Pentecost – Great Balls of Fire – and turned it into a celebration of sexual delirium. Elvis took the shaking and jittering of Pentecostal ecstasy, and turned it into a highly sexual wiggle.

This ‘secular ecstasy’, as the writer Peter Guralnick calls it, set the world on fire. No one could have predicted the impact from those early scratchy recordings by dirt-poor Southerners in tiny recording studios in Memphis and Nashville. But it would sweep across the world through the new technology of radio, TV and cinema, and infect the world’s youth like a medieval dancing plague.

Rock & roll was a strange cocktail – blending the spiritual and the sexual (think of Prince), celebrating male sexual conquest, but also male gender-bending and female empowerment. It expressed a yearning for escape and transcendence, but was also deeply consumerist. It offered a collective transcendence through singing and dancing, but was also utterly individualist – be whoever you want to be, it said, as long as you’re entertaining.

Where ecstatic imperialism had celebrated the superiority of a particular race (Anglo-Saxon, German, Japanese), rock & roll, like Pentecostalism, was joyfully mixed-race and internationalist. Instead of worshipping the Emperor or Fuhrer, we worshipped the King, Queen, Prince, Madonna, the Godfather, the Thin White Duke.

Instead of worshipping the Emperor, we worshipped the King, Queen, Prince or Madonna

The new cult was quickly condemned by governments and churches. But by the time of Beatlemania in the early 60s, it had more or less been accepted, part of the new freedoms, the new consumerism. Rock and roll helped created the new democratic hedonic state which we’re in now, which is so abhorrent to religious puritans. 

David Byrne, lead-singer of Talking Heads and a keen anthropologist of ecstasy, says he thinks rock & roll saved the West from arid Enlightenment rationalism. It ‘changed not just Western culture but the whole world’s culture…The groove is found almost everywhere around the globe now – it’s a species of globalization, but one of joy and integration of body and spirit.’

His friend and collaborator, Brian Eno – another keen student of ecstasy – thinks rock & roll gives people the experience of ecstatic surrender, without the dogma of religion.

At times, in the last 50 years, it’s seemed like rock & roll became a religion itself – or rather, a bewildering array of different cults, from soul to country to disco to punk to metal to grime, each with its churches and acolytes. Concerts and festivals have become one of our favoured places for collective effervescence.

This is why the Islamic State targets pop concerts. It’s why the Taliban banned pop music. It’s why fundamentalist muslim terrorists attack Sufism, a type of Islam that celebrates singing and dancing as a way to divine ecstasy. 

Islamic fundamentalists are Puritans, and Puritans want everyone to follow their avenue to ecstasy.  They want to police how people find ecstasy, so seek to control and shut down alternative sources – theatre, cinema, sport, sexuality, intoxicants, alternative religions. There is something noble in Puritanism – reverence, a seriousness about the spiritual life – but it easily turns into a resentment of anyone having more fun than you, and a fanatic insistence that everyone follows your ascetic path. 

For Islamic fundamentalists – as for early Christians – music is particularly dangerous because it encourages women to let go, to let their hair down, to  forget their place and celebrate their sexuality.  Sexuality reduces us to beasts, and women are the tempters – the ‘slags’. This is not so far from the misogynist views of early Christian saints like St Kevin, the patron saint of domestic violence – a woman flirted with him when he was praying on a cliff, and he pushed her off the cliff.

Actually, let’s be clear. ISIS is not against male sexuality  – they have no problem forcing women into sex slavery. They’re against female sexual freedom, the freedom for women to make their own life-choices and sex-choices.

Some of the victims of the Manchester bombing

Pop music, as a cult, is so much better than Puritanism, or the worship of empire (and Islamic State is a toxic mixture of those two things). It’s joyful, it’s integrative, it’s inclusive, it celebrates sexuality rather than abhorring it, and – on a good day – it celebrates gender and racial equality.

But it’s not perfect as a religion. Not by any means. As Timothy Leary noted, it turns pop stars into the new priests. And they’re utterly unqualified to play that role, as Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Mick Jagger all insisted in the 1960s. Look at Dylan’s bewilderment when he was being treated as the ‘voice of a generation’. Looking back, he comments: ‘the press thought performers had the answers to all the problems of society. What can you say to something like that? It’s just absurd.’

The rock star becomes the new God. That’s deeply unhealthy for the artist – Chris Cornell is just the latest in a long line of rock and roll self-destruction – and it’s not very good for the audience either. ‘Don’t expect John Lennon or Bob Dylan or Jesus Christ to do it for you’, Lennon said in his final interview. ‘I can’t cure you. You can cure you.’

Rock & roll can offer genuine moments of transcendence and togetherness. But it’s often basically a celebration of the self, of the cult of expressive individualism. And the self is a dead end. As the Arcade Fire put it: ‘thought you were praying to the resurrector, turned out to be just a reflector’.

Let’s face it, it was never appropriate to try and make rock & roll a substitute for Christianity. It’s insufficient on its own. But for a while it was an expression of the human spirit on its continual evolution – a breaking free, a cry, a yearning.                                                   

A transcendent future

Today, rock & roll is a fading cult. It’s been undercut and overtaken by the internet. Before the net, pop music was how young people asserted our tribal identities, how we expressed our emotions, how we re-invented ourselves through the masks of the pop star.

In the internet age, we don’t need the band as a medium. We can re-invent ourselves endlessly through Facebook and Snapchat, we can express our emotions directly, we can assert our tribal identities through online groups. And yet, even more than rock and roll, the new cult of the internet turns out to be a hall of reflecting mirrors. We’re even more stuck in our selves.

We’re waiting for something new to bring us transcendence.

Europe desperately needs a transcendent vision of the future, otherwise we’re basically just a frightened retirement home, surrounded by dusty antiques, looking fearfully through our lace curtains at the brown people who moved in next door. Europe has tried to make ‘well-being’ its transcendent goal, but that’s not enough, because this century is going to be rocky and not always happy. When you have a transcendent vision of the future to work towards, you can bear the inevitable trouble and suffering that life brings. I’m afraid it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better, so we need to spiritually strengthen ourselves and focus on a vision of the future. 

What should this transcendent future be? The revival of Christianity? The triumph of Islam? The victory of atheist materialism? Psychedelic pantheism? What strange new cult is being born in a manger somewhere in the world?

Personally, I think the future of religion is not secularism or monotheism but an intelligent spiritual pluralism. And I think liberal democracy is the best form for that. I believe there are many routes to God, not one, and we should have sympathy and respect for other people’s and other cultures’ avenues to transcendence.

I used to think spiritual pluralism was wishy-washy, but it’s not – it’s the humane, intelligent, cultured position. God is greater than all our religions, and to think your formulation is the only right answer is arrogant, ignorant and idolatrous.

I hope – and pray – that the future of religion in the West is not the body-hating, sexuality-hating, enforced Puritanism of ISIS. I hope we can discover a better form of spirituality, which celebrates human freedom, human rights, animal rights, sexuality, racial and gender equality, joy and pleasure  – in other words, all that is holy about liberal democracy – as well as celebrating the freedom to sin and be forgiven, the freedom to choose higher joy over addictions and compulsions, the freedom to discover our souls in self-transcendence, the freedom to connect to the infinite love within us. 

Liberal democracy + transcendence, that’s what I hope the future holds. That for me is a future worth suffering for and dying for.