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‘Painting the heart': how to create inner worlds

There is an anecdote in the psychotherapist Stephen Grosz’ book, The Examined Life, about a client who is always talking fondly about the house he is renovating. Whenever he’s had a bad week, he lets off steam by talking about all the wonderful improvements he will make to this dream-house – the new conservatory, the bay windows, the rock garden, and so on. Then, at the end of the long course of therapy, he tells the therapist, ‘you know, of course, that the house doesn’t really exist’. It was just an inner construction, but no less real or therapeutic for its non-materiality.

I had a similar sort of experience, writing Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations. For the five years I was writing it, I had Raphael’s School of Athens on my wall, and it became a part of my inner architecture, with its beautifully-harmonious city-scape, filled with animated philosophers. Imagining that dream-school helped me, I’d suggest, almost as much as the ideas of the philosophers within it.

The ancient Christians were particularly skilled at this sort of inner architecture. St Augustine called it ‘painting the heart’ with images, symbols, metaphors, myths, in order to expand and beautify your inner psychic life. The fifth century monk Arnobius wrote:

Paint, paint before your eyes the various fabricated things, whenever you chant of these [the psalms]. Of what sort? Those which were seen with wonder by the apostles: paint the temples, paint the baths, paint the forums and the ramparts rising on the high summit.

The Renaissance refined these visualization and memorization techniques for painting the inner world. The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola, published in 1548, are a four-week course through which participants paint various evocative scenes in their mind – the fires of Hell, the sufferings of Jesus. Poetry helped to enhance these vivid inner worlds. Milton, who went blind in middle age, nevertheless said that the inner sight of poetic vision helped him to wander ‘where the Muses haunt / Clear spring, or shady grove, or sunny hill’. Until very recently, memorized poetry was part of the inner architecture of educated people.

One of the rooms in San Marco monastery, Florence

Art was also a means to this inner architecture – think of the stages of Christ’s story painted in each of the cubicles in the monastery of San Marco, in which the novice would go round, day by day, painting their soul with its sublime imagery. And architecture itself helped to paint the soul – who could sit among the great stone redwoods of Durham or Chartres without some of that Gothic grandeur imprinting itself on their soul?

To us, as liberal individualists, soul-painting seems like brain-washing. But it wasn’t entirely passive and top-down. Rather, the Christian world was a sort of massive multi-player open-source world made up of Scripture and fan-fiction. The medieval adept absorbed the words and imagery of the past into the deep sources of their imagination, and this led them to new encounters with Jesus, Mary, Gabriel, Michael, Sophia and others, which in turn became part of the open-source world.

Of course, the Christian world was blessed with some master-builders to help with the construction (today we’d call them master-programmers). Dante and Shakespeare, above all, helped to body forth spirits and to expand the inner landscape of the Renaissance soul. How lucky people were to have access to their great inner worlds, how lucky we are to still have their books of spells (even if we’ve more or less forgotten how to read them).

What we lost, in the Scientific Revolution, was a shared inner world. We also lost the sense of there being any point in trying to cultivate such worlds. What was the point in spending hours or even days contemplating a painting or poem? What was the use? Our minds became ever-more technocratic and focused on external, tangible results.

A few Romantic rebels still constructed beautiful inner worlds, but lacking a common open-source culture, they were often quite idiosyncratic and private, like the eccentric world of William Blake, who insisted ‘I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s.’

Last week, I met a lady who, in all honesty, had chosen a deity to worship from an app called Godpicker. She had picked a Turkish goddess, half-woman, half-fish. Things went well for her, she assured me, as long as she remained faithful to this goddess. Which is fine, but a rather lonely and private religious life (and who knows, if she has contacted something, whether it’s benign or not? What protection does she have, on her own, without teachers, outside of a community? It’s like meeting someone on Tinder and immediately inviting them to move in).

We still long for a collective inner landscape. This is what Star Wars and Lord of the Rings provided for my generation, to some limited extent. Their landscapes, characters and crises are imprinted on our souls. The multiverses of 20th century fantasy and science fiction are comparable to the medieval world of Christendom, with their massive, vivid, open-source universes, in which adepts become co-creators.

But most of these new myths lack the quality of Lord of the Rings. They are infantile fantasies of power, invulnerability and self-aggrandizement, while the greatest stories – of Jesus, Oedipus, even Frodo and Luke – are stories of anti-power, vulnerability and self-abnegation.

Still, even if we have forgotten the old method of ‘painting the heart’, we’re still doing it, unconsciously. The internet has made it far easier to create inner worlds. Where the medieval adept painted their heart with icons of the saints, today we paint our online walls with selfies. Where the Christian or Buddhist icon was a window beyond the self, today we wall ourselves in with our own reflection.

We also paint the soul with the hyper-real images of pornography. As a man / self-employed person, I’ve watched my share of online porn – how could I not, it’s so bright, so real, so immediately absorbing. Yet, a few years back, I had a series of dreams, where I was wandering through my inner world (it somewhat resembled Constantinople, if you’re wondering), and I’d find myself drawn down backstreets and alleyways until I was perusing the shelves in a porn shop. Porn had become a portico of my inner world. Which is fine but…well…it would have been more fun if I was making love to actual people in my dream-world rather than looking at images…

I find that computer games – again, so bright, so real, so immediately absorbing – also become part of one’s inner world. You close your eyes, and you’re still there, wandering the streets of San Andreas or Vice City, blowing things up. I happen to love gaming. Games masterfully create inner landscapes – think of the beautiful landscapes of Assassin’s Creed, Halo, Super Mario World, or Batman: Arkham Asylum. Some games let us co-create these worlds, as in Minecraft, Spore, The Sims or Second Life.

Perhaps we just need to dream up better worlds. Imagine an online world, a dream city, where we could absorb the best of our culture, where we could witness the great events of our common story, where we could speak with prophets and philosophers, where we could expand our soul and come back to the outer world prepared for the next level. Perhaps some monastic coders are making that world, even as we speak.

One of the player-constructed landscapes in Minecraft
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Are we slaves to our online selves?

Public anger over revelations that governments snoop on our internet activity comes partly from a sense that our online selves are not entirely in our control. The more networked we are, the more our selves are ‘out there’, online, made public and transparent to a million eyes.

On the one hand the global interconnectedness of the internet gives us a feeling of euphoria – we are joined to humanity! We are Liked! On the other hand, we get sudden pangs of paranoia – what if all these online strangers don’t wish us well, what if they are stalkers or con-men or bullies or spies? How are we coming across? Are we over-exposed? Does our bum look big in this?

Growing up in today’s online world must be difficult, because every adolescent experiment, every awkward mistake, is preserved online, perhaps forever. This makes me glad that I was a teenager in the 1990s, before the internet could capture my adolescent fuck-wittery for posterity. Depressingly often these days, we read about a teenager who has taken their own life because someone posted an unflattering photo or video of them online. They feel publicly shamed, desecrated, permanently damaged.

There is a word for what the internet and social media have done to us: alienation. It means, literally, selling yourself into slavery, from the Latin alienus, meaning another person’s possession. The concept has its roots in ancient Greek philosophy, particularly in Plato and the Stoics, who warned that if you place too much value on your reputation or image, you enslave yourself to the fickle opinion of the public. You raise the public above you, turn it into a god, then cower before it and beg for its approval. You become dispossessed, your self-esteem soaring or crashing depending on how the public views you. This is a recipe for emotional sickness.

You can end up caring more about your image or reflection than your actual self. You replace actual loving human relations with the fickle adoration of the public. How many times do we see people sitting with friends or family at a pub or a restaurant, ignoring them while they anxiously check on their online selves? Our actual selves end up shriveled and unwell, while our unreal mirror selves sucks up more and more of our attention. We can even turn our loved ones into props for public approval. Your fiance proposed? Share it! Everything is done for the public, for strangers, for people who don’t really care about you at all.

I remember seeing a family at the beach, in Venezuela last year. The mother was a rather curvaceous lady in a bikini, and she insisted the father take endless photos of her, standing by the sea in various outlandish poses. He took literally hundreds of photos. They completely ignored their little daughter, who gazed on her mother in confusion. Occasionally the daughter would come up to get the mother’s attention, and she would be given a little shove to get out of the shot. It was like some grotesque fairy-tale. The mother was so obsessed with her online self, yet so palpably ugly inside.

The internet has become a vast pool, into which we gaze like Narcissus, bewitched by our own reflection. Our smart-phones are little pocket-mirrors, with which we’re constantly snapping ‘selfies’, trying to manage how the public perceives us. It’s like we have a profound fear of insignificance and nothingness, so we check the pocket-mirror every few minutes to re-assure ourselves that we exist, that we are loved. We mistake Likes for love. We look to celebrities with a million followers, and beg them to follow us. Because then we’d be real! Celebrities do this too, tweeting about the other celebrities they hang out with, to create a sort of Hello! magazine existence for the public to gape at. Everything becomes a pose, a selfie.

One’s whole life becomes a selfie

I’m probably worse than the lot of you. I worry that extensive use of social media over the last decade has re-wired the way I think, so that I now have ‘share’ buttons installed in my hypothalamus. No sooner do I have a thought than I want to share it. In the old days, perhaps individuals quietly spoke to God in their hearts. Now I find my thoughts instantly forming themselves into 140-character epigrams. Sublime sunset? Share it. New baby? Share it. Terminal cancer? Share it. Let’s live-blog death, find eternity in re-tweets.

How much of our selves we offer up to the god of Public Opinion. How devotedly we serve it. How utterly we make ourselves transparent to its thousand-eyed stare, until we suddenly feel over-exposed and try to cover ourselves up.

What is the antidote to alienation? The Greeks thought the cure was simple: don’t put too much value on your reputation or image. Recognise that it is out of your control. Remind yourself that there is not a direct correlation between a person’s image and their actual value, that the public is not a perfect mirror, that it distorts like a circus mirror. And try not to gaze into the mirror too often. Instead, tend to the garden within, to your deeper and better self, even if it doesn’t get a hundred Likes on Facebook.

This is not an easy thing to do. No sooner did I think of this, than I immediately thought, good idea: share it! Pin it! Reddit! My over-networked self needs to be reminded of the value of disconnection, of silence and contemplation, to let deeper thoughts rise up. With that in mind, I’m off on a retreat this week in the Welsh countryside (not a re-tweet, a retreat), in search of a deeper way to connect, a better Cloud to sit on. I just hope they don’t have Wi-Fi…