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What’s wrong with the Perennial Philosophy?

lrYoDsSIn my review of Sam Harris’ Waking Up two weeks ago, I wrote this sentence: “Spiritual experiences tell us something about the cosmos,…the experience of infinite loving-consciousness is a glimpse of the very ground of being, also sometimes called God, Brahman, Allah, the Logos, the Tao, the Buddha-realm.”

This sentence seemed to surprise some people – one reader asked what it was exactly I believed, while another reader who said reading my blog helped bring him back to Christianity promptly cancelled his subscription!

So what is behind that statement? Well, it’s a classic expression of something called the Perennial Philosophy, which is the belief that at the core of all the great religions and wisdom traditions is the same mystical experience of Ultimate Reality. All the surface disagreements, different names for Ultimate Reality, different myths etc are just window-dressing.

The Perennial Philosophy has its historical roots in the syncretism of Renaissance humanists like Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, who suggested that Plato, Jesus, Hermes Trismegistus and the Kabbalah were all pointing to the same God (they were almost excommunicated as a result). Leibniz also championed the philosophia perennis. You can see it flourishing in the transcendentalism of Emerson, Coleridge and Thoreau.

220px-PerennialPhilsophyThe idea then reached a mass-market through Aldous Huxley’s 1945 book, The Perennial Philosophy, and then in the 1960s it became almost the foundational idea of the New Age, spread through centres like Esalen, the California spiritual community that developed the ‘religion of no religion’.

I’d suggest the Perennial Philosophy is in some ways the ruling spiritual philosophy of our time, including in its ranks everyone from Sam Harris to Abraham Maslow to Ken Wilber to Prince Charles – yes, the future defender of the Anglican faith is a devotee of Perennialism (read this fascinating speech he gave about it).

‘One mountain, many paths.’ It’s the philosophy I grew up in, as did all of my friends. We loved the Upanishads, Rumi, the I-Ching, Walt Whitman, Carlos Castaneda, Chang-Tzu, Marcus Aurelius, the Dhammapada (we tended to give the Bible a wide berth, like an ex at a cocktail party).

The Perennial Philosophy is a much more natural attitude to me than the exclusivism and tribalism of Christianity, which I find strange and incredible. While my adventures in Christianity of the last two years introduced me for the first time to Christian wisdom and grace, I still have a deep sense of the richness of other traditions. And when I meet evangelical Christians who believe any other faith is demonic, I think they’re mental.

What I have been developing, this year, is something called the Wisdom Approach, which teaches ideas, practices and values from various different wisdom traditions. I think the idea of healing wisdom – Sophia – connects all the great wisdom traditions, including atheist ones like Epicureanism and Buddhism. The courses I run try to explore this common ground while also exploring the different destinations they attempt to reach.

What’s wrong with the Perennial Philosophy?

This week, I read a book which made some trenchant criticisms of the Perennial Philosophy. The book’s called Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality, by Jorge Ferrer, a professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies.

Ferrer makes three main criticisms of the Perennial Philosophy approach:

1) All religions are not the same

The Perennial Philosophy, by being so universalist and essentialist, ends up doing violence to the traditions it tries to cohere. The Tao is not the same as the Christian God (the Tao cares nothing for individuals, as Lao Tzu says), nor are either the same as Buddhist sunyata or emptiness. The eternal now of Buddhism or Stoicism is fundamentally different to Christianity’s radical hope for the future. The mystics themselves do not agree that all religions are talking about the same ultimate reality.

2) Perennialists tend to rank religions hierarchically

All religions are equal, but some are more equal than others. Perennialists tend to rank religions, and even sects within religions. Shamanism is the lowest, then monotheisms like Christianity, Judaism and Islam, then mystics within these traditions (Rumi is better than Mohammad, Meister Eckhart is better than Jesus), then Buddhism and Hinduism, and the peak of the mountain is non-dualist philosophies of emptiness like Advaita and Tibetan Buddhism’s Dzogchen.

All religions are equal, but some are more equal than others
All religions are equal, but some are more equal than others

Christianity is usually near or at the bottom – Sam Harris says it has basically nothing useful to say about the human condition, Aldous Huxley said the Bible was an obstacle to evolution – and Tibetan Buddhism is at the top. Look at the Contemplative Studies conference I’m going to in Boston this month – I’d estimate 90% of the speakers are western Buddhists, hardly any are Christians, and the key-note speaker is, obviously, the Dalai Lama.

Perennialists tend to be western and tend to have rejected their Judeo-Christian background, and therefore rank Christianity low in their wisdom rankings. And of course Christianity, like Islam and Judaism, fits uneasily within a Perennial framework, with their tribal eschatologies and their faith in their unique revelation.

3) Perennialism often tends to the tyranny of empiricism and Cartesian reductionism

Perennialists like Huxley, Maslow, Wilber or Sam Harris tend to describe the Perennial Philosophy as a ‘science of consciousness’, providing empirical certainty for some of the claims of the mystics. Your mind is the laboratory, in which you can go and check these facts for yourself. This attitude, while understandable in its attempt to validate spiritual experiences within a hostile scientific materialist environment, tends to reduce such experiences to subjective occurrences in the individual brain.

Towards a participatory spirituality

So what is Ferrer’s alternative? He suggests that Perennialism often succumbs to an outdated ‘mental representation’ model of cognition: Divine Reality exists out there, and we experience it in our minds, like a camera taking a photo. Instead, he suggests a more participatory form of knowing. Our consciousness and imagination helps to create the reality we experience.

solaris-movie-poster-1020293406This is a somewhat trippy idea, but I’ve come across it in the last year through the writings of two interesting religious scholars – Tanya Luhrmann and Jeffrey Kripal. Both suggest that our relationship with Being is reciprocal, it responds to how we relate to it, manifesting in the attitudes or stories we project, playing with them, making them real. This reminds me a bit of Andrei Tarkovsky’s idea of Solaris or The Zone – the magical force that projects our dreams back to us.

Kripal calls the intermediary between us and Being  ‘the Imaginal’ – an idea with its roots in Plato, in Sufism, in the creative transcendentalism of Coleridge and the Inklings (CS Lewis, Tolkien, Barfield), and more explicitly in the psychology of Frederick Myers. Being responds to the stories we project onto it – this is why Kripal believes the humanities are fundamental to the study of consciousness (here’s a video of him talking about the Imaginal at Queen Mary, University of London earlier this year).

Ferrer’s ‘participatory knowing’ can be both individual or collective – we bring forth a special manifestation of Being collectively. We open a portal together, as the apostles did at the Pentecost. It’s not an individual experience so much as an event in which we participate.

Rather than the ‘one mountain many paths’ metaphor, Ferrer suggests ‘one ocean many shores’. The ocean is the starting point, which most great wisdom traditions share – the belief that we can liberate ourselves from our ego and connect to a more expanded consciousness and reality. However, from that ocean, we can reach many different shores. These will involve different spiritual experiences, and even (Ferrer suggests) different metaphysical realities.

Jodi Foster exploring the Multiverse in Contact
Jodi Foster exploring the Multiverse in Contact

That metaphor doesn’t quite work for me, because we tend to think of the ocean as the end-point, not the starting-point. Let me suggest this – one rocket launch-pad, many different destinations. The rocket launch-pad of spiritual traditions tend to be similar ethical practices to go beyond the ego. However, spiritual astronauts then reach different planets, different space stations, different universes, where perhaps they encounter different beings (or manifestations of Being).

This seems to be more or less the position that William James reached – he coined the term ‘multiverse’ and suggested a ‘pluralist mysticism’ in an essay on the 19th-century psychonaut Benjamin Blood, who wrote: “Variety, not uniformity, is more likely to be the key to progress. The genius of being is whimsical rather than consistent.” Through spiritual practice we reach ‘new worlds’, new manifestations of Being – and they may be places that humans have not yet reached. The Spirit is dynamic, ever-changing, playful.

portalI wonder if this idea of the multiverse is there in the multiple worlds of science fiction writers like CS Lewis or Philip Pullman, both of whom describe portals through which one can reach other worlds or universes, in which the Spirit will take different forms.

I wonder even if this is what the Bishop of London meant, when I asked him if one could get to God through other faiths. He replied:

You can’t to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s not to say there are other ways to different destinations. There is only one Way to God as Jesus Christ has revealed Him, and that way is by feeding on His word and as part of His community and His sacraments. When you come into the presence of God, by this portal – there are other portals which may take you to different places – you come through a passage of self-sacrifice and giving oneself away, which paradoxically does not result in obliteration, but in the most extreme ecstasy and joy at the discovery which lies at the end of all this – that one is fearfully and wonderfully made, one is a unique and beloved child of God.

There are other portals which may take you to different places…

But here are my questions for Ferrer’s spiritual pluralism, which perhaps Professor Ferrer can respond to, if he has the time.

If he believes there are different metaphysical realities, does that mean there are different destinies after death? That a Buddhist experiences reincarnation, while the Christian gets physical resurrection? Does he believe there are multiple eschatologies – in some realities Christ comes back, in others Valhalla burns, and so on? Are there multiple Gods, or is it rather that Spirit / Being is One but responds differently according to our different approaches? Is there one sort of ethical law or Logos for all the metaphysical realities, or might they have radically different ethical laws??

While Ferrer hopes spiritual pluralism will allow a more fruitful and respectful dialogue between faiths (and he may well be right), I wonder if Tanya Luhrmann has a point, when she suggests the real conclusion of this view is rather melancholy – we’re not just living in different belief-systems, we’re actually living in different universes.

But – more optimistically – these realities, these universes, aren’t discrete. They’re not hermetically sealed off from each other. They interconnect. They overlap. Perhaps in some way they connect together into a grand symphony. This is one reason not everyone in the west should become a Buddhist – it would be like everyone singing the same part in the symphony. We need some singing bass, some singing alto, and Richard Dawkins on kazoo.

Mindfulness, therapy and the Church

2012124132breath_1I sent out a tweet last week asking to interview someone who’d found mindfulness useful for coping with depression. Mary got in touch and told me her story, which was fascinating. I thought I’d share it for this week’s newsletter.

Mary is a 25-year-old ordinand-vicar, who uses mindfulness to cope with the Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder that developed after a car crash last year.

She tells me she had a sense of a vocation to be a vicar from the age of 19. ‘But I really didn’t want to do it. It wasn’t on my agenda.’ Instead, she studied physics at St Andrews and then trained to be a teacher at Cambridge. The priest of her college insisted she think about her vocation, and gave her a book by Michael Ramsey, The Christian Priest Today. ‘There wasn’t any mention of women priests in it.’

Finally, after three years of wrestling with her soul, she decided to give her life to God. ‘I was scared of doing it. I was giving up a good job and decent salary. My parents are still getting used to it. They think I’m a bit mad. It’s making a big statement. It’s not what most people do. It’s hard these days to be and do what you believe in – there’s always someone to knock you and mock you. Is it acceptable to be a Christian these days, to give your life to God?’

She went through the ‘discernment process’ by which the Church of England decides if you’re suitable to be a priest. This involved a 48-hour ‘residential interview’ (‘a bit like the Big Brother house’) in which you are interviewed by three different people, observed as you interact with your fellow wannabe-priests, and asked to fill in a ‘personal inventory’ with questions like ‘what would you have on your headstone?’

She passed the process, and won a place at a seminary college at Oxford for her priest-training. One week before she was due to begin the training, the car crash happened.

Angry at God

She was driving down an A-road into Harrowgate, when she had a head-on collision with another car. Her car was then hit again, and spent spinning across the A-road. She was rushed to hospital for surgery.

She says: ‘I thought I was going to die. And I wasn’t scared, I was annoyed. I was annoyed at all I had been through to commit myself to God, and now it was all going to be over before I had even begun.’

She was operated on for a perforated bowel and intestine. She spent the first two weeks of her ordination course recovering in hospital. ‘I wanted to be dead for quite a long time, in a way I felt rejected by God because He clearly didn’t want me in Heaven with Him!  It felt like I was being tested, in fact the whole year feels a bit like a test, a bit like Job.’

She says: ‘When I was in hospital I went to chapel, which was empty, and I shouted at Him and questioned what on earth was going on.  I then broke down in tears and could feel His presence and I knew I had to stay close, because He was all I had to get through the next phase. Initially, and I suppose for a few months I could not really engage with worship services, which was awful, because they and the Eucharist were what had sustained me through previous difficulties.  God felt rather far away, so I had to stay close and wait, regardless of how I felt.’

Then, in her first term, the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder emerged, like a bruise swelling. ‘I’d get flashbacks of the impact. I was very anxious, nervous a lot of the time. Any loud noise, I got palpitations. It led to me having very low self-esteem. I couldn’t really see beyond each day. My short-term memory was damaged – people would tell me their name and I’d forget it straight away. I felt hugely guilty, but couldn’t talk to anyone about it. I thought it would take less time to get better. My self-talk was like ‘come on, pull yourself together, you shouldn’t feel like this.’ It was like I had a noisy devil on one shoulder and a very quiet angel on the other. It seemed like an on-going torture.’

Mindfulness for depression

In January this year, she went to see a university counsellor, Dr Ruth Collins, who prescribed her anti-depressants, and also suggested she try mindfulness-CBT. She gave her a copy of The Mindful Way Through Depression, co-written by Mark Williams, the founder of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre.

0Williams, a psychiatrist and Anglican priest, is one of the developers of mindfulness-CBT, and has done more than anyone to bring mindfulness into the mainstream of British society – another of his books, Mindfulness, has been in the top 20 of Amazon for the last three years, selling thousands of copies a week.

His Oxford Mindfulness Centre has brought mindfulness into the heart of psychotherapy and healthcare, and also into public policy (there’s now an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness), business, schools and higher education – in fact, Ruth Collins spoke at a conference on mindfulness in HE this week, arguing that university students should be offered free introductory courses.

Oxford already provides such free courses, and Mary went along to one earlier this year. ‘I was the only person there who said they had depression, so I wondered if it would work. But I found it interesting. We started with a counting exercise – you sit and count to ten breaths. Some could only get to 2 or 3 and they’d get distracted, but I could go further.’

She developed a daily practice, meditating for 10-30 minutes each day, sometimes counting the breath, sometimes doing a ‘body-scan’. She says: ‘It’s been very helpful with the depression. For one thing, I realized how important the body is to the mind. I realized how much tenseness was inside me, and I try to breathe through it. I’m now more aware of the signals from the body to the head. When things get stressful and I feel like I’m teetering on the edge of feeling bad, I try to go back into myself and keep saying ‘breathe, here and now’, and accept what I’m feeling, and try to deal with it or just support myself.’

She thinks this will ultimately make her a better priest: ‘I’m very good at looking after others, not so good at looking after myself. I now try to be kind to myself and say that it’s OK to be where I am. Mindfulness is something in the tool-box to support myself when I stop taking the anti-depressants in a few weeks.’

Mindfulness and the Christian way

How does she reconcile a Buddhist practice with her Christian vocation? ‘I’m quite flexible, I believe in using and learning from other traditions. I enjoy reading the Tao Te Ching, for example. I don’t see any conflict between mindfulness and Christianity – it also has the idea of the connection between the soul and breath [they’re the same word in Greek – pneuma].’

‘And of course there is a long contemplative tradition in Christianity – Jesus did go off to the mountains on his own, then the Desert Fathers developed forms of meditation, and St Ignatius and the Jesuits created a strong contemplative practice.’

19 DORE JESUS VISITS MARTHA AND MARY DETAILThere’s also the story of the two sisters, Mary and Martha, in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus visits their house, and Martha busies herself with the preparations, while complaining that her sister sits at Jesus’ feet, absorbed in adoration. Jesus replies: ‘You are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.’ This verse has been taken by Christian contemplatives as a justification for the contemplative life versus the active life of ‘good works’. Still, it’s only one verse – not much of a foundation for a contemplative tradition.

Jesus has many more mystical sayings in the Gospel of St Thomas but, alas, that was excluded from the New Testament canon. Since then, the idea of bringing your mind and heart into union with God was often seen as heretically Gnostic or Platonic – and still is by some Christians.

I put it to Mary that contemplatives, monks and mystics always seem on the periphery of Christianity, suspected, cast out, and sometimes killed – much like the Sufis in Islam. There’s more of a mainstream contemplative tradition in the Orthodox Church, but even there it’s been controversial – witness the bitter fight in the 14th-century Byzantine church over whether the ‘hesychast prayer’ technique was heretical or not.  And the Protestant church seems particularly lacking in contemplative traditions and practices, beyond poets like George Herbert, William Blake and Emily Dickinson, forging their lonely furrow.

‘Yes, perhaps it’s not mainstream. The Church of Scotland is more Protestant than the C of E, and I’ve never witnessed any sort of meditation there. But perhaps it’s becoming more mainstream. Lucy Winkett [vicar of St James Piccadilly] is a big one for contemplative prayer, for example – she did a month-long Jesuit silent retreat. Even the Queen spoke of contemplative prayer in her Christmas message this year.’

Would Mary go on a mindfulness retreat? ‘I’d love to – there’s one in Snowdonia I want to go to.’ Would she say a prayer to the Buddha? ‘Well, no, I’d say a prayer to God. Like St Paul said, it’s what’s in your heart that counts, not the outer rituals.’

In two years, she finishes the ordination and becomes a curate in a church in her diocese. She says: ‘What am I most looking forward to about being a priest? Being able to try and reach out to people, to live the Gospel through my actions and allow God to work through me in ways I won’t understand. Also, being there for people at some of their most difficult times, and the most joyous.  I would hope to promote a greater sense of the need for spirituality of some sort (preferably Christian…!) What am I dreading?  Paper work, red tape and bureaucracy!  They will be the things that will prevent me from my ministry I fear…so I will just have to work hard to limit the impact.’

Good luck Mary! We think you will be a brilliant priest.