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Three insights I gained from this weekend

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, hence no newsletter last week. I feel like I am spinning plates at the moment. Luckily I’m off to Cornwall tomorrow to take it easy with some good friends. In the meantime, here are three insights I have taken from this weekend’s wild adventure.

Bo3qukaCIAAVK7wThe weekend started with a flight to Madrid, on Thursday evening, for an AECOP conference – AECOP is the Spanish association of business coaches. I have never met a business coach before, but a member of AECOP, Winni Schindler, reads this blog and was kind enough to invite me to give a key-note. On Friday morning, I gave a talk about how we can use ancient Greek philosophy in modern life, to a room full of 150 business coaches. An interpreter translated my talk as I went along, but I was a bit over-caffeinated up so the poor lady was exhausted by the end of the hour!

The coaches really liked the talk, I think. For the last question, a lady asked me ‘how can we learn about your approach, where do you do courses, and how much do they cost?’ I replied ‘well…you can just read the books of ancient philosophy, they’re all free and easy to read!’ Then I sat down at my table, and this Israeli business coach shook her head at me in wonder and said ‘you just missed a huge opportunity’. It turns out I should have had a Philosophy for Life training workshop ready to pitch to the room of business coaches, and lots of them would have signed up. I realized then: I need a business coach to tell me how to make money!

I honestly hadn’t imagined that coaches offer coaching to other coaches! I wasn’t even sure what coaches did – do they offer one-on-one coaching lessons or do big workshops or what? It turns out that business coaches do all these things. You can hire them one-on-one, or go to a workshop of say 10 to 100 people, or sign up for one of their online courses. All of which I can do, and I could actually get paid decent money for it.

This is a remarkable discovery. I’m so used to giving book talks for free, in the hope I’ll sell perhaps 20 copies of my book, and get 7% royalties for each copy (which means perhaps 50p a book). It’s quite a slog, as any writer will tell you.

Yes, but…would it be selling out to offer philosophy life-coaching or business-coaching? Wouldn’t this be like Michael Sandel, who charges $30,000 to do talks about his book, What Money Can’t Buy? Perhaps one should offer this stuff for no money, simply in the service of humanity (while living in a cardboard box under the Hammersmith Flyover). I think it depends how you do it. Many is the philosopher who teaches life-wisdom but has absolutely no idea about how to make ends meet. It’s important to me that I can make a living, otherwise I end up asking for handouts from relatives or needing to churn out books every year. So I have no problem with making money for what I do.

Ryan Holiday, Stoic business guru
Ryan Holiday, Stoic author

On the other hand, it’s important to remember that ancient philosophies were not simply about ‘getting ahead’. They were counter-cultural spiritual philosophies.  An entrepreneur called Ryan Holiday has just brought out a ‘Stoicism for Entrepreneurs’ book called The Obstacle is the Way . He comes from PR – his last book was a Machiavellian guide to PR called Trust Me I’m Lying – and his latest book has been well-promoted and is selling great. Ryan’s success shows both the opportunity and the risk of taking Stoicism into business coaching –  Stoicism is not really about being successful in a conventional sense, it’s about being a good person. All of us doing ‘Stoicism for modern life’ need to be clear that the ancients didn’t think of this philosophy as a formula for conventional success.

So, here is the first of this weekend’s three insights:

I could do philosophy life-coaching for organisations and individuals, as long as I used the profits to subsidize work with less rich and more disadvantaged groups.

I think it’s OK to offer workshops on wisdom and philosophy within organizations – in fact, there’s a noble tradition of adult education within companies, like my ancestors the Rowntrees used to do. But philosophers have a moral obligation not just to cater to the affluent or the elite. And we need to be clear about the end or goal of the education. We should never teach wisdom with the end of ‘getting rich’ or ‘being a success’ – that would be misusing the ancients’ advice. We should only use it with the end they had in mind, of helping people build good characters. Even at Saracens rugby club, even the week before a big final, we still focused not on ‘winning at all costs’, but on building good characters. Which brings me to my next insight.

rugby_2927613bAfter the conference in Madrid, I went to the Premiership final at Twickenham, where the Northampton Saints were playing Saracens. I’ve been running a philosophy club at Saracens this month, which the Saracens coaches were kind enough to big up in a piece in the Telegraph last week. Alas, the team lost the final in the last second of extra time, having put their bodies through a brutal ordeal for 80 minutes. And this was just a week after they lost a similarly brutal European cup final. So having led the Premiership league for the entire season, and won the most points, they came away with nothing for the second consecutive season.

The players coped with the defeat with great integrity, applauding the fans and shaking the hands of the opposition. They didn’t even complain to the referee, although he awarded the match-winning try despite not being able to see if the ball had touched the ground. That’s admirable – to show character in the face of galling defeat. They had done everything right, all season, and they still lost. This gave me my second insight of the weekend:

Sport is cruel.

Unlike pretty much every other profession, there is a tiny margin between victory and euphoria, and defeat and heartbreak. All season, we have been practicing philosophy and the idea that it’s not just about externals, it’s about integrity, values and character. Which it is. But in sport, it’s also, inevitably, about externals – the external of winning or losing. This makes me glad I’m not a professional sportsperson – though I hugely admire these people who can take such a physical and emotional battering, and get up and do it again a few days later.

BpDBCXMIMAI6YS6-1OK, final insight. On Sunday I did a talk at Sunday Assembly, the ‘atheist church’, on ancient philosophy and how wisdom can help us transform our emotions and improve our lives. It went well – in general I think humanism can be a bit shiny happy optimistic, and philosophies like Stoicism offer it something a bit grittier, which is all to the good. I wanted to offer a similar talk in the church I sometimes go to in Kings Cross, but the vicar basically stymied the idea. I’m not sure if he (a) doesn’t trust me (sensible fellow) or (b) doesn’t trust Greek philosophy because he sees it as a rival to Christ and St Paul. What a pity if Christianity has become so existentially threatened, like modern Islam, that it sees every other philosophy as a threat, even one that did so much to influence Christian culture. If that’s the case, it’s destined to become a cultural ghetto, and to disappear entirely.

After the Sunday Assembly, I went to a Christian service at a church in West London. The sermon was by a visiting New York pastor called Pete Scazzero, about how he had set up a church in Queens, only to suffer a breakdown. He’d decided that he was utterly emotionally illiterate, and it was holding back his church. So he read widely, from Thomas Merton to Henri Nouwen (two psychologically-literate Christian writers), and studied contemplation techniques from Christian monasticism. And he eventually wrote a book, Emotionally Intelligent Spirituality, summing up some of his ideas. It is ancient wisdom served up for evangelicals – and is precisely what born-again Christianity needs.

the-emotionally-healthy-churchIt seems to me that evangelical / charismatic Christianity does some things well. It does worship and music well – although its music tends to be really upbeat, unlike the Psalms, which are two-thirds lament. It does community well, although its communities tend to be full of people saying ‘amazing!’ and ‘awesome!’ and ‘Jesus!’ rather than honestly talking about their difficulties. It does evangelism and mission well, although it focuses intently on the ‘moment I came to Christ and everything got better’ rather than talking honestly about the continued difficulties of the spiritual life after finding Christ. And it does passion / ecstasy / encounters with the Holy Spirit well, but unfortunately ends up over-relying on such full-on encounters, and desperately imploring the Holy Spirit to do more, more, more.

Well, we have our reason as well, don’t we? That’s a gift too! And we have the centuries of tradition of Christian prayer and contemplation. That’s a gift too. So why not use them, instead of relying totally on outpourings of the Holy Spirit to do all your healing needs.

So this is my third insight of the weekend:

The extravert thrills and spills of charismatic Christianity needs to be balanced by a revival of the interior stillness and silence of contemplative Christianity.

When going to a New Age orgy, be careful who you take home

Last weekend I had a glimpse of the future. I spoke at a New Age festival in Holland, a country where just 39% of people belong to a religion. According to the British Social Attitudes Survey released this week, that’s where we’re heading too. Thirty years ago, 68% of Brits said they belonged to a religion. Now it’s just 52%, of which less than half are Anglican. We are about to become a post-religious society. So what does that look like?

Well, a post-religious society is not the same as a secular materialist society. The festival I went to was run by Happinez magazine, which caters to the ‘spiritual but not religious / wellness / Mind Body Spirit’ market. That demographic is apparently booming in Holland – Happinez magazine is doing very well, and the festival attracted thousands.

It was held in a disused armoury in the fields outside of Utrecht. You crossed a bridge, passed the barbed wire and cannons, and suddenly you’re in a New Age Disneyland. Initially, the festival seems very Buddhist – you walk through a tunnel lined with Buddha statues, and there’s a Buddha on every stage behind me when I speak. Yet I don’t think many people there would call themselves Buddhist (only 1% of the Dutch population does).

Instead, alongside the forest of Buddhas, you can find many different spiritual philosophies- there is a yoga stage above a lake, there are talks on guardian angels, there is crystal healing, Reiki, astrology, NLP, vegetarianism, aura photography, gong healing. The thinking here is not ‘either / or’ but ‘both / and’. Everything is thrown in together.

It’s easy to criticize the New Age from a Christian perspective, and many Christians do. It’s just a spiritual pick n’ mix buffet, some might say. Maybe so. But if there is a free market in spirituality, that, surely, is a consequence of the Protestant Reformation. It was Luther who challenged the central authority of the Church and turned instead to his own inner conscience. Luther invented the New Age, and no sooner had he done so than a bewildering forest of different churches sprouted (there are now 30,000 Christian denominations).

Another Christian criticism of the New Age is that it’s selfish. It’s obsessed with wellness, happiness, personal flourishing. It ends up in one long pampering session, with scented candles and healing oils. A far cry from St Simeon the Stylite and the other ascetics of Christianity, who understood that this life is a vale of tears and happiness is only possible in the after-life.

And yet…modern Christianity is not so far from the New Age in its focus on health and wellness. Today the fastest-growing denomination in global Christianity is Pentecostalism and neo-Pentecostalism, which arose in the early 20th century in the US, out of a culture that was generally obsessed with wellness and the healing power of the mind. This obsession led to late-19th-century Christian healing movements like Christian Science and the Seventh-Day Adventists (including John Harvey Kellogg, wonderfully depicted in The Road to Wellville), and also to more New Age movements like Mind Cure and New Thought. Pentecostalism, with its belief in hands-on healing, arose around the same time as a similar wellness movement, and has a similarly positive attitude to the body. For all these movements, closeness to God is expected to lead to success, happiness and wellness here on Earth, as well as in the afterlife.

Another Christian criticism of the New Age is that it’s self-absorbed. It’s an expression of Romantic individualism, which began as the philosophy of a few Bohemian intellectuals in the 19th and early 20th centuries before becoming the ruling philosophy of an entire generation in the 1960s. According to this philosophy, life is a search for the ‘real me’, for personal authenticity and creativity, which comes before anything else – family, community, tradition, God.

Yet, again, modern Christianity is not so separate from this wider culture of expressive individualism. It’s also often a search for self-acceptance (through the acceptance of God), an attempt to free oneself from the baggage of the past, to free your creative spirit. Notice to what extent young Christians are into the ‘authentic folk’ of bands like Mumford & Sons, or the Lumineers. It’s a sort of hipster Christianity, all about finding the real, true, creative, fulfilled you. There’s a similar sense that personal experience always trumps rules and written authorities. It’s all about what ‘resonates’.

But there are obvious differences between Christianity and the New Age too. The New Age is much more Romantic about sex, much less uptight about sexual experimentation, sex before marriage, same-sex relationships. It’s also more Romantic about drugs, more hip to the idea that some drugs can induce spiritual or at least creative experiences. It’s more Romantic in its veneration for nature, for environmental justice, for the welfare of other animals. There’s not much concern for animal welfare in the Bible. And it’s more Romantic – more Rousseau-esque – in its rejection of western traditions and veneration of developing-world cultures, whether that be Native American chiefs or Amazonian shamans.

A shamanic workshop run by Moonfeather:

Perhaps the defining characteristic of the New Age is its hatred of authority. This may be a product of the Reformation, but the New Age has taken it to an extreme. Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials is a perfect expression of the New Age spirit – the central Authority of the church is evil, and is opposed by a loose alliance of witches and shamans. Shamanism is particularly popular with New Agers, because it has no organization, no hierarchy, no authorities or even scriptures, nothing to which you must submit your will.

Yet sometimes the naive rejection of western power structures (ie churches) can lead to people becoming even more subjected under new religious movements. Nothing a white European male tells you could possibly be true, yet somehow, if an Indian guru like Osho tells you not to think but to obey his commands unquestioningly, that’s perfectly acceptable.

And the flipside of this Baby-Boomer horror of authority, this refusal to submit your will to any power structures, is loneliness. You are out there on your own, trying to figure everything out for yourself, with no comrades committed to the same path to encourage you on. And this lack of organizational structure perhaps explains the New Age movement’s lack of philanthropy and charitable activity. Any philanthropic activity – like opposing slavery, for example – takes organization. But organization means power structures, and power structures are corrupt.

Perhaps the old Christian criticism that the New Age is a spiritual marketplace is not so far from the truth. The most striking thing about the Happinez festival is the sea of stands selling endless trinkets, candles, crystals, water-purifiers, icons, statues, birth-charts, yoga mats, prayer-beads, weekend retreats. And what are the ‘heroes’ of the New Age – Deepak Chopra, Eckhart Tolle, Anthony Robbins, Rhonda Byrne – if not multi-million-dollar corporations? You can hear the cash-tills ring with each new spiritual insight. The 11 truths of the Celestine Prophecy. Ka-ching! The 12th insight of the Celestine Prophecy. Ka-Ching again! Conversations with God. Ka-ching! Further Conversations with God. Ka-ching again! Keep talking, God, this is a profitable conversation.

One of the many stands selling trinkets at the Happinez festival

One big thing, perhaps, the New Age got right. And that is the sense that there is beauty and wisdom in other spiritual traditions, Christianity does not have a monopoly on God and (shock horror) not all non-Christians are necessarily going to Hell. I know that saying this means I’m not a proper Christian, and yet I find hope in the words of Pope Francis, in his letter to atheists published this week, where he says ‘each of us finds the truth and expresses it from our own history and culture , from the situation in which we live…The truth being ultimately one with love, it requires humility and openness to be sought, welcomed and expressed’. I believe Christ embodied that love, and to follow Christ is to try to love God and one another. That, to me, means some Muslims, Jews, Hindus and atheists might be better followers of Christ than a particularly fulminating Christian.

Nonetheless, the risk of seeing the wisdom in every spiritual tradition is that you end up committing to none of them. The New Age can become like a swingers’ orgy, where you have a fling with everyone but never commit to anyone. As a result, you never reach the intimacy and love that comes from long-term commitment.

And, like at any orgy, you need to be careful who you go home with. The Christian warning against spiritual experimentation and dabbling in the occult might seem particularly paranoid and primitive to us. What’s a bit of Ouija between friends! You only had to look at the assorted peddlers of the occult to realise they were not in possession of great demonic power. Yet let us speculate, for a moment, that we’re not alone in the multiverses, that there are many other beings out there, not all of which necessarily wish us well. If that’s the case, there’s something to be said for being a little careful about who we go home with at the orgy.