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Mind Palaces: the art of psycho-technics, or soul-craft

42be11b56059d244f573bac445e722aaThis week, I’ve been researching an ancient mnemonic technique called ‘the mind palace’, where people imprint a real or imagined building onto their memory – a palace, a mansion, a church, even a whole street – and then fill it with striking images, to which they attach bits of information they want to remember.

The Greek poet Simonides is supposed to have come upon the technique in around 400 BC and used it to memorize poems. It became popular with Greek and Roman orators including Cicero, who used it to memorize speeches and to remember evidence for cases. It flourished in the Renaissance, when magi like Giordano Bruno and Ramon Lull memorized incredibly complex systems of words, symbols and hieroglyphs in an attempt to become a sort of World Wide Web of occult knowledge. And it survives today: Derren Brown and other memory-prodigies use it, as does Sherlock Holmes in the BBC series. [So does, er, Hannibal Lecter, a reader informs me!]

Daniel Levitin, in his new book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, suggests that the technique works because our memory-system for images and places is older and more reliable than our memory-system for names and words. So if you want to remember something, convert it into an image and store it in a familiar place in your mind.

How does this memory-technique fit into my research into transcendence?

Well, in my research I’ve noticed certain metaphors of the mind re-appearing in the literature on transcendence. And one of the most persistent is the metaphor of the mind as a palace, castle, or ‘many-roomed mansion’. Explorers of transcendence, from St Augustine to St Teresa to Thomas Traherne to Keats, often use this image to suggest the awesome vastness of the soul, and to urge the reader to journey within.

The metaphor isn’t just suggestive, it’s also creative. As Julian Jaynes noted, we construct the soul through the metaphors we use to describe it – so the metaphor of the soul as mansion is a form of soul-craft or psycho-technics, a way of structuring and expanding the psyche.

So here’s the question: how did an ancient memory-technique become a mystical exercise?

The key is Pythagoras, the magician-philosopher of the sixth century BC. His followers believed that Memory was the mother of all the muses, including philosophy. They memorized maxims, incantations, poems and emblems or symbols as a way to fill their souls with wisdom and connect them to the Divine.

A similar idea appears in Plato and in the Stoics (although the Stoics tend to be more verbal than symbolic): the soul is malleable, or plastic, and we can train the memory by repeating certain ideas. In Plato, a more mystical note is introduced – the reincarnated soul already knows everything, if it could but wake up from its slumber, so new insights are really a form of recollection of Who We Really Are. If we wake up, he says in the Phaedo, then our soul will return to the mansion of its divinity.

commandingcosmosorigIt is Aristotle, however, who sees the imagination as key to soul-craft. In some elliptic remarks in De Anima, he says that it’s impossible to think without images. So the imagination, or phantasia, is crucial to all forms of thinking. The imagination is a two-way ladder – it takes sensory information from the material world and spiritualizes it into the ideas of the spiritual or intelligible world. It also takes ideas from the spiritual realm and materializes them into symbols and stories which rouse our emotions. Memory is central to this spiritual alchemy – it is the storehouse from which the imagination constructs its stories or movies. Aristotle’s conception of the imagination would be hugely influential on Christian and Sufi mysticism.

The mystical visualization of the Mind Palace

St Augustine, who’d studied the mind-palace memory technique when he was an orator, develops the mystic metaphor of the soul as mansion in his Confessions . ‘Narrow is the mansion of my soul, oh Lord’, he declares. ‘Enlarge it, that you may enter it.’ He is connecting, of course, the Greek tradition of soul-as-mansion with the beautiful image of Jesus: ‘In my father’s house are many mansions’ (John 14:2).

For Augustine, the interior journey into memory is central to this expansion of the soul-mansion. In Book X of his Confessions, which I think is one of the most beautiful things in all western culture, he writes this – it makes me think of Morpheus and Neo in their white room:

I come to the fields and spacious palaces of my memory, where are the treasures of innumerable images, brought into it from things perceived by the senses…When I enter there, I require what I will to be brought forth, and something instantly comes; others must be longer sought after, which are fetched, as it were, out of some inner receptacle; others rush out in troops, and while one thing is desired and required, they start forth, as if to say, “Is it perchance I?” These I drive away with the hand of my heart, from the face of my remembrance; until what I wish for is unveiled, and appears in sight, out of its secret place.

This is a wonderful description of the mind-palace as used by Greek orators (Augustine was trained as an orator). Man is the curator of his soul-mansion, which he fills with priceless images. But this could lead to pride – we are the lords of our self-made mansions, we are the masters of interior design! But St Augustine warns us not to be proud – we didn’t make the mansion, we’re a guest in our own souls. We need to seek the Lord in our minds and memories, which is not easy, because He is transcendent to our human imagining.

And our soul-mansion is not in great shape, in Augustine’s imagination. It’s ruined, locked up, covered with cobwebs, filled with trash, crawling with vermin. In his memory-journey, Augustine goes back generations to Adam’s original fall, when humans were expelled from the Edenic central courtyard of the mansion. We need to repair the mansion and tidy it up to make it an abode fit for its maker once again. But attempts at DIY are not sufficient, says Augustine. We need Jesus to repair our wonky mansions.

Around this time, Jewish mystics begin to use the metaphor of a journey through mansions as a form of occult visualization. There’s a whole body of Jewish mystical literature from the first century AD (when the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed by the Roman Army), called hekhalot or mansions, in which the mystic imagines an inner temple, and journeys through seven mansions until they come to the throne-room, the deepest part of the soul. This method is passed down into the medieval tradition of Kabbalah – the Zohar, for example, is a visualized journey through the seven palaces of heaven and the seven palaces of hell.

A similar method appears in Sufi visualizations, in the mystical treatises of Ibn Arabi and others, who picture heaven as a garden with seven courtyards. Ibn Arabi, following Averroes and Aristotle, sees the imagination as a spiritualizing faculty which converts the memory of sensory data into ideas and symbols. Sometimes that alchemy happens passively and involuntarily, as in dreams (I don’t know about you, but I often find myself wandering through a dream-city in my sleep). But we can develop an ‘active imagination’, learn how to dream consciously, as it were, using visualization.

This technique and the metaphor of the mansion passes into Christian mysticism, where its most beautiful expression is St Teresa’s Interior Castle, in which the reader moves through seven mansions before meeting the Lord and uniting with Him in ecstasy. For a Renaissance magi like Giordano Bruno or Ramon Lull, meanwhile, the ‘mind palace’ is both a memory-technique and an occult method for connecting the soul to God (Frances Yates’ The Art Of Memory is a useful resource for this).

Soul-craft in the arts

Now, you recall that the ‘mind palace’ technique is first associated with a poet, Simonides. His genius, it was said, united the arts of philosophy, poetry and painting, because he painted the soul with poetic images, in a way that ethical philosophers would find useful as a means of character-building. From the Middle Ages onwards, we find the idea of crafting the soul with imagination and symbolism appearing in poetry, painting and architecture.

As the historian Frances Yates puts it, this idea is the key to so much of the greatest western culture. Dante’s Divine Comedy, for example, could be seen as a form of soul-craft – a visualized journey through the nine circles of Hell, the seven terraces of Purgatory and the nine circles of Heaven, with various striking emblems of vice and virtue to memorize along the way. To read it is to expand and encode one’s soul. The poem is what Ted Hughes called a ‘big dream’ – psycho-technics for the tribe.

The Divine Comedy is the greatest example of this sort of soul-craft, but there are many others, like the Pearl poem, where the poet, in a dream, travels to see the New Jerusalem, and connects his tribe to that vision.

Many of the greatest Medieval and Renaissance paintings can also be seen as a form of imaginative soul-craft. Raphael’s School of Athens, for example, is imprinted on my soul (through endless gawping at the poster of it on my wall). It’s a portal between the sensory and the spiritual world, connecting us to Raphael’s ideal city, where the philosophers stay in our memory as emblems of virtue. My favourite paintings of the Renaissance are pictures of ideal cities in which angels descend to communicate with us – this is a symbol of the imagination itself, the daemonic messenger between the sensory and the spiritual realms.

The Seven Virtues, from the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence

Medieval and Renaissance architecture is also a form of psycho-technics. The Venerable Bede speaks of how a saint travelled to Italy, sees a beautiful church filled with images, imprints it on her memory, and then gets masons to build a copy in England, painted with colorful images of the saints and Passion. ‘Thus all who entered the church, even those who could not read, were able to contemplate the dear face of Christ and His saints, even if only in a picture’. It’s not surprising there is an association between masons and magic: churches and cathedrals expand the souls of those who frequent them.

Psycho-technics in the modern era

In the early modern era, I’d suggest, we lost the ancient concept of phantasia as a key cognitive capacity. Fantasy became delusion, the enemy both of Scripture and the scientific method. But the idea of the soul as mansion survived in some poetry, in the Metaphysicals for example, like Thomas Traherne, who describes the soul as ‘a cabinet of infinite value’; or Keats, who compared the soul to a ‘mansion of many rooms’, and who suggested the universe is a ‘vale of soul-making’; or Blake, who spoke of cleansing the ‘doors of perception’, and who devised his own unique graphic poetry to engrave on his audience’s souls.

The idea of the close link between imagination and memory is particularly rich in Wordsworth’s Prelude. Where in the Middle Ages people would imprint the memory of palaces or cathedrals onto their soul, Wordsworth imprints the memory of peaks and vales, and creates an inner Lake District which he can visit.

743913More recently, Ted Hughes strived to preserve the ancient tradition. He wrote, in his essay Poetry in the Making, ‘In our brains there are many mansions, and most of the doors are locked, with the keys inside’. Imagination unlocks these doors, connecting the outer world of sense with the inner world of spirit. Hughes spoke (in an essay on Keats) of poetry as a form of medicine, a ‘healing energy’, which acts on the auto-immune system. He’s quite right – what science calls ‘the placebo response’ is really the imagination, it connects the mental or spiritual world with our nervous and auto-immune system, and it can cure or kill us.

Hughes also understood that myth, metaphor and symbolism are ways of organizing the psyche’s otherwise inchoate energy – psycho-technics, in other words. The Big Dreamers, like Dante and Shakespeare, are psycho-tects who expand human consciousness, creating vast mythical structures to give our souls shape. Yet we are losing the myths, Hughes warns, and our inner lives are becoming impoverished as a result. The doors are closing. We’ve become overly-reliant on empiricism and rationalism, we equate the material with the real, and the invisible with the unreal.

Perhaps, though, one still sees signs of the spiritual conception of phantasia in pop culture (intelligent culture is far too intellectual and contemptuous of the spiritual). I see glimmers of it in fantasy and comic book culture, particularly the work of Allan Moore, whose series Promethea is a comic book exploration of Kabbalah, in which stories, ideas and archetypes exist in a spiritual realm called the Immateria. When we read or imagine a story, Moore suggests, we connect to this realm and channel the archetypes. Art is a form of magic, bringing down ideas and symbols from the Immateria and actualizing them in the material realm.


I see the idea of the soul as a memory-mansion or memory-theatre in cinema too, particularly the films of Christopher Nolan like Inception, or Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Birdman, and particularly What Dreams May Come. I see it in some of the incredibly immersive virtual cities found in games like GTA V and Assassin’s Call, and the virtual palaces of Minecraft.  And in general, the internet seems to me an enormous virtual city,  a Psychopolis or Infopolis, in which we construct vast memory-palaces of information and dreams.

The Utopian Imaginary, or Castles in the Sky

Finally (well done for getting this far), let me just talk briefly about phantasia and politics. What we’ve been discussing, this art of mnemo-technics and psycho-technics, has a political dimension too. It’s not just an interior exercise – some magi attempt to bridge the interior and exterior, the spiritual and the political.

You remember how the mind palace technique was originally used by poets and orators to memorize poems and speeches? Well, a similar sort of visualization-technique is at the heart of Utopian rhetoric – the prophet visualizes an image of an ideal city, and then inspires people to build it. In this sense, rhetoric is a sort of mysticism turned outward. This is the Utopian Imaginary, the use of phantasia in politics.

There is a close connection between the mind palace memory technique, and Utopian political philosophy. The poet-philosopher imagines an ideal city, a ‘castle in the air’ as Ernst Bloch put it – Plato imagines the Republic, for example, or Jesus imagines his New Jerusalem, or St Augustine imagines his City of God, or Tomasso Campanella imagines his City of the Sun, or Martin Luther King imagines his multicultural future-city. And then they describe this city in speech, paint a picture of it, plant the seed of it in the febrile imaginations of their followers, so they sacrifice themselves to make it real. ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, as Christians put it.

It can have beautiful results, but it can also be horrific – because people get so entranced by their vision of the future, they lose all reason, and all compassion for those in their way. We only have to look to Syria to see how murderous the Utopian Imaginary can be.



Here’s my newsletter round-up of interesting links (you can sign up in the box on the top right of the homepage)

Last newsletter I moaned that the BBC never has any programmes about religious ecstasy. Well, the cosmos loves to laugh at us – two days later, radio 4 broadcast this excellent programme on, yes,  ecstatic experiences. It was made by John McCarthy, the journalist who spent several years in captivity in Lebanon, and who had an ecstatic experience while imprisoned. He interviews psychiatrists, ecstatic joggers, and considers the near-death experience of the lead-singer of Spiritualized. Fantastic stuff.
Last week’s guest on Desert Island Discs was the incredibly gifted actor Mark Rylance, who turns out to be a Jungian animist with a fondness for the I-Ching.
John Gray is speaking on freedom at the LSE on Wednesday, if you’re in London.
Poignant article from Oliver Sacks, facing terminal cancer, and still working on ‘several books’. He’s written five since he was diaognosed. What a lovely, lovely human being. Here he is as a wild young biker.
Should first-world humanitarian agencies bring in therapy services for crisis-hit populations in developing countries who might be suffering from PTSD, or is that an inappropriate export of a western medical construct? The Guardian considers.
Alex Ross, the New Yorker’s music critic, considers the avant garde influences on Bjork.
Also on the music tip, here’s a marvellous documentary about Carole King.
Here is a Radio 3 Free Thinking programme about mindfulness and Zen, with Mark Vernon and Chris Harding among the guests.

Has psychiatry silenced God? Here’s a discussion from Edinburgh’s book festival, including members of the ‘Hearing the Voice’ research project at Durham’s Centre for the Medical Humanities.

Adult suicides in the UK in 2013 were their highest level for 10 years.  And a new report looks at hundreds of suicides by mentally ill people confined in prisons or mental health facilities, and concludes most were easily avoidable if staff were better trained in mental health.
And finally, best moment of the Oscars last night – Graham Moore, who won best adapted screenplay for the Imitation Game, used his speech to talk about how he tried to kill himself when he was 16, and to reassure those teenagers watching, if they also feel weird and like they don’t belong, that they do.
See you next time,


Aldous Huxley on upwards and downwards self-transcendence

Museo_del_Prado_-_Goya_-_Caprichos_-_No._43_-_El_sueño_de_la_razon_produce_monstruosLast week, I went to an exhibition on Goya, in Boston. It was filled with his bizarre and fantastic dream-drawings, exploring the strange manias and nightmares that fill humans’ minds when their reason is switched off – as in the classic engraving, the Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.

The museum bookstore had an excellent selection of books exploring this theme, including Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun, which I picked up on a whim. It’s a non-fiction book about a famous case of mass demonic possession among a group of nuns in 16th century France (the book was the inspiration for Ken Russell’s 1971 film, The Devils.)

Huxley uses the incident to explore our urge for self-transcendence, and how this can lead us not upwards but downwards, into the irrational and unhealthy parts of the subconscious. Humans, he says, have a ‘deep-seated urge for self-transcendence’. They ‘long to get out of themselves, to pass beyond the limits of that tiny island universe, within which every individual finds himself confined.’

This urge comes from our sense of boredom, claustrophobia, loneliness and cosmic smallness when we’re stuck in the closed and repetitive loop of the ego. But also, more positively, ‘if we experience an urge to self-transcendence, it is because, in some obscure way, we know who we really are. We know (or to be more accurate something within us knows) that the ground of our individual knowing is identical with the Ground of all knowing and all being…When the phenomenal ego transcends itself, the essential Self is free to realize the fact of its own eternity…This is liberation, this is enlightenment, this is the beatific vision.”

That’s putting it in quite Christian / Hindu terms. An atheist like Sam Harris would put it slightly differently – the urge to self-transcendence is the urge to go beyond our painful self-absorption, self-pity and ceaseless craving, so we realize the blissful non-existence of self and interdependence of all things.

Devils-of-Loudun-06However, here’s the risk, according to Huxley: ‘Self-transcendence is by no means invariably upwards. Indeed, in most cases, it is an escape either downward into a state below that of personality, or else horizontally into something wider than the ego, but not higher, not essentially other [like art, science, politics, a hobby or job]. Needless to say, these substitutes for upward self-transcendence, these escapes into subhuman or merely human surrogates for Grace, are unsatisfactory at the best, and at the worst, disastrous.’

In the epilogue to The Devils, Huxley lists some of these ‘Grace-substitutes’ or varieties of downward self-transcendence.

First, narcotics and alcohol: ‘millions upon millions of civilized men and women continue to pay their devotions, not to the liberating and transfiguring Spirit, but to alcohol, to hashish, to opium and its derivatives, to the barbituates, and other synthetic additions to the age-old catalogue of poisons capable of causing self-transcendence. In every case, of course, what seems a god is actually a devil, what seems a liberation is in fact an enslavement.’

Then there is self-transcendence through sex, ‘the perennial attraction of debauchery’, the delicious sense of surrender to an other, a la 50 Shades of Grey. Worst of all, in Huxley’s opinion, is self-transcendence through ‘crowd-delirium’.

He writes:

The fact of being one of a multitude delivers a man from his consciousness of being an insulated self and carries him down into a less than personal realm, where there are no responsibilities, no right or wrong – only a strong vague sense of togetherness, only a shared excitement…Drugged by the mysterious poison which every excited herd secretes [eh?], they fall into a state of heightened suggestibility.

Authority figures in politics often recognize the danger of drugs and debauchery, but are dangerously seduced by the lure of controlling crowds through forms of mass hypnosis: ‘Pilgrimages and political rallies, corybantic revivals and patriotic parades – these things are ethically right so long as they are our pilgrimages, our revivals and our parades.’

The Devils of Woodstock

Related to these downward self-transcendences through sex, drugs and crowd-intoxication is the downward self-transcendence through ‘rhythmic movement’ and ‘rhythmic sound’, ‘for the purpose of inducing a state of infra-personal and sub-human ecstasy’. History ‘records many sporadic outbreaks of involuntary and uncontrollable jigging, swaying and head-wagging’, which are involuntary means of escaping from ‘insulated selfhood into a state in which there are no responsibilities, no guilt-laden past or haunting future, only the present, blissful consciousness of being someone else’. Huxley was writing in 1951, just before rock and roll would burst onto the scene.

Huxley suggests that the demonic possession of the nuns of Loudun was really an outbreak of these forms of downward self-transcendence. The head nun became sexually obsessed with a hot priest, the contents of her unconscious started to spill out and haunt her consciousness, and then the other nuns gave in to a sort of crowd-intoxication, letting all of the contents of their inhibited sexual fantasies out under the guise of being possessed by demons. This collective orgy was actively encouraged by the exorcist priests, keen to put on a show for the glorification of the Church and the destruction of its enemies (the hot priest was accused of being a sorcerer and eventually burnt).

Here’s the trailer for Russell’s film, which seems to suggest that the excesses of the 60s counter-culture was comparable to an outbreak of mass hysteria:

The way up is also the way down?

The book gives you a vivid sense of the irrational and dangerous power of religion. But what of upward self-transcendence?

Huxley speaks much less of upward self-transcendence in this book, but he explores it at length in The Perennial Philosophy, written six years earlier. He appears to believe this path is only open to a handful of mystics and contemplatives, who use meditative techniques to liberate themselves from their many selves (the ego, the subconscious) until they finally reach the Ground of Being. It’s an individualist, intellectualist and elitist vision of spirituality. He sees all crowds as ‘the social equivalent of a cancer’ – an extreme if understandable position in a world recovering from fascism.

Here’s the Big Question: ‘To what extent, and in what circumstances, is it possible for a man to make use of a descending road as a way to spiritual self-transcendence?’

Huxley admits that ‘a downward movement may sometimes be made the beginning of an ascent.’ He writes:

When the shell of the ego has been cracked and there begins to be a consciousness of the subliminal and physiological othernesses underlying personality, it sometimes happens that we catch a glimpse, fleeting but apocalyptic, of that other Otherness, which is the Ground of all being. So long as we are confined within our insulated selfhood, we remain unaware of the various non-selves with which we are associated – the organic non-self, the collective not-self of the psychic medium…and the immanent and transcendent not-self of the Spirit. Any escape, even by a descending road, out of insulated selfhood makes possible at least a momentary awareness of the not-self on every level, including the highest.

So all these downward paths out of the ego may become upward paths to the Spirit – people can become awakened through drug experiences (Huxley would of course write a lot more positively about this later in The Doors of Perception, published three years later), through sex (he is a fan of DH Lawrence’s exploration of sex-mysticism) and through crowd-intoxication: ‘Some good may sometimes come out of even the most corybantic of revival meetings’, he says rather condescendingly.

His idea of upward and downward transcendence reminds me of the transpersonal psychologist Ken Wilber’s concept of the ‘pre-trans fallacy’: we can mistakenly believe that any journey beyond rationality or beyond the ego is spiritual. However, often these journeys are a reversion to earlier, primitive irrationality – speaking in tongues or uncontrollable giggling could be seen as a reversion to infantile baby-talk rather than spiritual transcendence. We’re not going forwards, we’re going backwards.

This is why the spiritual path is so difficult. I wonder if the way up doesn’t inevitably involve the way down too – to reach the ‘heart’, or the ‘ground of Being’, you journey through the mist of the psychic realm, through the swamp of your unconscious with all its fantasies, resentments and longings. And at every step, your ego can reappear and try to assert its fantasies of self-glorification.

In our skeptical era, we tend to write off both upward and downward transcendence as childish flights into irrationality. But that doesn’t work, because the human urge for self-transcendence does not go away. And there are profoundly positive things we can get from self-transcendence – healing, creativity, group-bonding, self-actualization.

The negative vision shown in Goya’s Sleep of Reason is not the whole story. In fact, the original for the engraving was called The Vision of the Artist, and is arguably a more positive vision. The full title is ‘Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels’. We shouldn’t simply ignore the subliminal self and its gifts, rather, we should learn how to balance them with our critical rationality.