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meditation

Literature and mental health

Jonathan Bate and Paula Byrne
Jonathan Bate and Paula Byrne

On Monday, a new free online course is starting, exploring the mental health benefits of literature (you can sign up here). It’s made by the author Paula Byrne and her husband, literary academic Jonathan Bate, and features interviews with Ian McKellen, Stephen Fry, Melveyn Bragg and others, about how poetry has helped them through difficult times. Paula and Jonathan have also launched a new book, Stressed, Unstressed: Classic Poems To Ease the Mind, and a bibliotherapy charity, Re:Lit. I headed to my alma mater, Worcester College at Oxford, where Jonathan is provost, to ask Paula about the project.

JE: What inspired you to do this?

PB: Our daughter sadly and unexpectedly lost her kidneys when she was five. She was rushed to hospital, and we had this awful conversation – ‘your daughter’s probably not going to survive the night’. What do you read when your world is completely and unexpectedly tilted. I was conscious that there was nothing to read when you’re on your own in such a terrible night. In fact, I had a poem in my bag, coincidentally. I read it and felt it very much got me and her through the night. I’d been fermenting the idea of what one reads in hospitals – having spent a lot of time in them, I don’t want to read Hello magazine, particularly not a back-dated one from two years ago. What is there to read when you’re worried, anxious, waiting for an operation, and feeling the dearth of nutritious literature.

What was the poem?

It was actually a prayer by Julian of Norwich – ‘all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well’. I just kept saying it as a sort of mantra. I felt there was something very important about holding on to words when there are no words, and someone else gives you the words you can’t find.

Is your daughter OK now?

Yes she pulled through, bless her. She then went on to have a transplant and she’s six foot now. Touch wood she’s doing very well. But we’ve obviously spent a lot of time in waiting rooms where there hasn’t been any literature, and it’s just been frazzled parents and frazzled children. Your stress levels go through the roof. The other thing that made me think of this project was that I had very bad stress, because of my daughter’s illness but also overwork, and it manifested itself as pain in my hands. Having ignored it for so long, I finally went along to my GP and said I have this terrible pain in my hands, I think it’s something horrible. He just said, it’s stress. I said, but it hurts. He said yeah, stress really can hurt. I said, so what do I do? He said, I’m going to give you a prescription. I’m going to prescribe you a book. And he prescribed me some haikus. The pain completely went away. And I thought, there’s something in this, and if more GPs and medical professionals had a creative approach to stress, maybe poetry could be something in the tool-kit that helps some people. I did research into bibliotherapy, and realized poetry has been used in eastern and western cultures for thousands of years – Aeschylus said ‘words are the physicians of a mind diseased’. So I decided to start a bibliotherapy charity.

How is poetry therapeutic?

How it works for me is a form of curious alchemy. I think it’s repetition, it’s very soothing, there’s something reassuring about repetition and rhyme. Coleridge said poetry is the best spoken words in the best order. Sometimes when you feel stressed you can’t find the words yourself, and you feel very alone. In all the research I’ve been doing for this online course, the refrain over and over again is ‘I thought it was just me, and then I read this poem, and felt oh, that’s exactly it’.’

Let me give you a specific example. As you know, we’re launching a poetry and mental health course on February 1st, we have 11,000 people signed up already. And each week we’re taking a different theme – heartbreak, trauma, and so on. I wanted to move trauma away from military-related PTSD, and include things like female trauma from miscarriages. I had a miscarriage with my first baby, and the only thing that made me feel better was a poem by Katherine Philips from the 1500s. This was a woman who lost 14 children, as you did in Tudor times. She finally gave birth to a beautiful boy, who died after two weeks. And she wrote a beautiful poem to her son Hector. And it’s so modern, resonant and contemporary, you feel she could have written in yesterday.

Twice forty months in wedlock I did stay,
Then had my vows crowned with a lovely boy.
And yet in forty days he dropped away;
O swift vicissitude of human joy!

I did but see him, and he disappeared,
I did but touch the rosebud, and it fell;
A sorrow unforeseen and scarcely feared,
So ill can mortals their afflictions spell.

And now (sweet babe) what can my trembling heart
Suggest to right my doleful fate or thee?
Tears are my muse, and sorrow all my art,
So piercing groans must be thy elegy.

Thus whilst no eye is witness of my moan,
I grieve thy loss (ah, boy too dear to live!)
And let the unconcerned world alone,
Who neither will, nor can refreshment give.

An offering too for thy sad tomb I have,
Too just a tribute to thy early hearse;
Receive these gasping numbers to thy grave,
The last of thy unhappy mother’s verse.

I really like that. Woman to woman it spoke to me about what it feels like to lose a baby. And the power of words, the catharsis, making sense of it. It also shows there’s nothing really new under the sun. With all the advance of medicine, I still know how she feels. It’s not just me, but I couldn’t say it that well.

And I guess we’re a post-religious society, not everyone wants to turn to the Bible, but poems are sort of substitute for prayer-books, the Bible, rosaries etc?

I think that’s right. So often at funerals people recite poems. It seems there’s something about that art form.

Do you think poetry can do that more than prose?

I love prose too, but I do think there’s something about that particular art form, the concentrated language. It demands concentration in the way prose doesn’t always. You may not understand it, it doesn’t matter, you can just feel the rhythm and sense the symbols.

And it’s close to song, isn’t it, so it has an incantatory quality.

That’s right, and the rhythm can be like a heartbeat.

Do you usually read to yourself or out loud?

Usually to myself but I love hearing it being read out loud. We have Ian McKellen reading a Wordsworth sonnet in the course, and he has such a beautiful voice, hearing him read it took me to a completely different place, a different space.

Do you think academic literary studies tends to be a bit blind to the possible therapeutic benefits of literature?

I do. One journalist was quite critical of the project – he said poetry is high art, it’s not therapy. I thought, what a snobbish attitude. Bibliotherapy is a very ancient idea. In Chinese and Japanese culture, there was a tradition of getting away from the court, going to the country, and using poetry to get into a different headspace.

That’s interesting, the idea of poetry as an inner retreat – it can help one find a restorative depth, even in a hospital.

I really believe that. You could be in a high-rise flat, but feel like you’re in a garden, if you’re reading Wordsworth or Marvell. It enriches your inner life. Poems on the Underground was a really brilliant idea – on a busy tube, you read a poem and it transports you. You’re in a different space.

Harold Bloom talks about the importance of memorizing poetry, making it a part of your inner speech as it were.

Yes, my generation was taught to learn poems by heart. There’s all sorts of interesting studies, particularly with dementia, that people who learn poetry by rote can still remember them when they have dementia. I interviewed Melvyn Bragg for the course – his mother got dementia, and when nothing reached her, she’d still respond to Wordsworth’s Daffodils. One of the problems with dementia is that people are very frightened. Anything that stops people feeling so frightened is beneficial.I do. It’s an interesting expression – by heart. It goes in your heart. Then you can remember it in times when you don’t have a book to hand, and be comforted.

So you have launched a poetry for therapy book, a bibliotherapy charity, and this forthcoming FurtureLearn course on poetry and mental health. What is the long-term goal?

Definitely we want to raise awareness. We’re working with prisons and schools, using poetry for relaxation and well-being. My long-term plan is to get the anthology into hospitals and surgeries when they’re in stressful situations. It could be helpful for people to have access to nutritious literature. It’s food for the soul as opposed to fast food. Words have a particular power. They can give hope too.

I’m interested in the FutureLearn course and how one sets one up.

11,500 thousand have signed up for our course already. It’s the first time a mental health course has been launched, I think they’re quite staggered by the sign up rate. Around 2000 are already chatting to each other on the forum, sharing what poems they love. There’s some really interesting anecdotal evidence of people saying ‘this poem really helped’.

How is it structured?

It’s a six week course, with six themes and six videos. Most of the videos are 10 minutes long but some of them were so good – Stephen Fry was so good talking about Keats for an hour, we couldn’t cut it. We have a medical expert talking about each theme, like heartbreak, for example. We get the medical angle. And then we might look at Sense & Sensibility, and how the two sisters deal with heartbreak in different ways. Each week, we look at two or three ppems, and passages from novels. We also give lots of recommendations for extra reading. Then people can also discuss the poems or any other questions on the forum. Jonathan and I are giving feedback each week. We’re very much supporting the learners.

Is this the first online course you’ve done?

Jonathan has done a Shakespeare course which did very well, so he has thousands of MOOC [Massive Open Online Course] followers. It’s very global – people right across the world have done the course.

How easy is it to make a MOOC?

I’m a creative fellow at Warwick. They’re very forward thinking, they realize MOOCs are the way forward. The main platform is FutureLearn, which is part of the Open University. Each university signs up via the FutureLearn platform. Warwick is very professional, very good at filming and editing. I think they’re really at the forefront, and it’s very good for their impact and outreach.

On mysticism and metaphor

02003_hiresLast weekend I went to Wilderness festival and gave a couple of talks. It was a magical festival – the musical acts weren’t that stunning, but there was lots of marvelous, weird, dreamy stuff happening that I wandered into, like a Mardi Gras parade and a mock fertility ritual with a man dressed as a penis and a woman dressed as a vagina. It was all very Dionysian.

I was there at the invitation of Sunday Assembly, the ‘atheist church’, and gave a talk in their Sunday service  to around 1200 people – on the benefits of spiritual ecstasy! It felt an unusual topic for a humanist church, but good on Sunday Assembly for inviting me and embracing what I said, and even asking me back! The only time I’ve ever been invited to speak by a Christian church was to say how amazing the Alpha course is (I went down like a sausage at a bat-mitzvah when I started talking about Greek philosophy).

After that high-point, I went to do a talk at the Now mindfulness tent, which was full of people mindful-meditating, mindful-dancing, mindful-running, mindful-knitting, mindful-colouring, mindful-sleeping, and so on.

In my talk I asked whether there’s such a thing as western contemplation, and if it’s worth reviving. I noted that when I went to the International Symposium of Contemplative Studies last year, there were over 100 presentations, but only one on Greek philosophy, and one on Christian contemplation (and that was cancelled). All the other presentations were on non-Christian contemplation – probably 70% Buddhist, 20% yoga, and the rest Taoist and Sufi. Is it not odd, at a western conference, to so completely ignore the 2500-year-old indigenous traditions of western contemplation? Is that not a regrettable act of cultural forgetting?

In my talk, I tried to paint a brief history of western contemplation, starting with the Greeks – Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the NeoPlatonists – and then looking at Christian contemplation, and how it played a central role in the thought of the Church fathers (Augustine, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and others) and then in later mystical thinkers such as Meister Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa, St Theresa, and so on. It wasn’t a great talk at all – the material is too new to me, plus my practice is woeful – but you have to start somewhere.

51bKLoudTdL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_My knowledge of Christian contemplation (or mysticism) is not very advanced, but it’s been hugely helped by two books. Firstly, Olivier Clement’s The Roots of Christian Mysticism (1995), which is a wonderful collection of writings by the Church Fathers from the late fourth and early fifth century AD. Their writing is so beautiful, poetic and radiant with love and spirit, it’s been a revelation to read it. For example:

In the house of God there is never-ending festival; the angel choir makes eternal holiday; the presence of God’s face gives joy that never fails.

So sings that well-known raver, St Augustine. And here’s Gregory of Nyssa – another of the greatest theologians of the church:

The soul then says: ‘Bring me into the banqueting house. Spread over me the banner of love’ (Song of Songs 2.4)…Her thirst has become so strong that she is no longer satisfied with the ‘cup of wisdom’ (Proverbs 9.2). The whole content of the cup poured into her mouth no longer seems able to quench her thirst. She asks to be taken into the cellar itself and apply her mouth to the rim of the vats themselves that are overflowing with intoxicating wine. She wants to see the grapes squeezed into the vats and the vine that produces these grapes, and the vinedresser of the true vine who has cultivated these grapes…That is why she wants to enter the cellar where the mystery of the wine is performed. Once she has entered she aspires still more highly. She asks to be put under the banner of love.

Who knew those old Church Fathers could dance with such abandon! But then, they did invent the concept of perichoreisis, or the cosmic dance of love.

I particularly liked the excerpts from Origen and St Isaac of Nineveh. Origen was never canonized, because he believed in reincarnation and was therefore a Bad Thing, but he’s acknowledged as one of the most influential thinkers on Christian theology. Interestingly, both Origen and Isaac had great faith in God’s mercy and love, so much so, they believed it was possible that all would be saved, even Lucifer!  ‘As a handful of sand in the boundless ocean, so are the sins of the flesh in comparison with God’s providence and mercy’, writes Isaac. Origen agreed: ‘For the Almighty nothing is impossible, nor is anything beyond the reach of cure’. And Gregory of Nyssa wrote: ‘Our Lord…heals the inventor of evil himself’. Odd that the God of those stern Church Fathers should be so much more merciful and loving than the God of the modern church.

The other book that’s been really helpful and enjoyable is Bernard McGinn’s Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism. It’s like Clemont’s book – a collection of extracts, organized by themes like ‘rapture’, ‘dereliction’, ‘mystical itineraries’ and so on. But McGinn’s book goes from the Church fathers all the way to modern contemplatives like Thomas Merton. It’s been very helpful for giving me an overview of the history of mysticism, something McGinn has explored at length in his seven-part history of mysticism (he’s written five parts so far). He makes the convincing case that mysticism / contemplation, far from being something on the dodgy fringes of Christianity, is or should be a central part of it.

51etjs4EaCL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The book is full of treasures, but a particular treat has been discovering the mystic philosophy of Nicholas de Cusa, a 15th century humanist and papal envoy whose scientific discoveries included the idea of measuring the pulse as an indicator of health, and also the idea (before Galileo and  Copernicus) that the earth is not the centre of the universe, that it is likely that intelligent life exists on other planets, and that planets do not move in perfect circles. He saw no contradiction between his scientific and his mystical investigations, writing such Zen-like wonders as ‘What surpasses all reason involves a contradiction…the opposite of opposites is an opposite without opposite just as the end of things finite is the end without end.’

I’ve already written too long, so let me make three quick observations from my research so far.

First, the more one reads of the mystics, the more one realizes how deeply Christianity is influenced by Greek philosophy – the Stoics, Aristotle, and particularly Plato and the Neo-Platonists. As a lover of Greek philosophy, I feel much more at home in the writings of the early church than with modern Protestant theology, because there’s so much more Greek philosophy in the Church Fathers and in medieval mystics like Eckhart. Nietzsche went as far as to suggest Christianity was Platonism for the masses, but I’d rather put it like this: Christian culture is like a 2000-year-old musical improvisation, a fusion of Judaism and Greek philosophy, in which successive musicians explore different themes – the nature of Christ, identity, the  Feminine, God’s unity and trinity, the problem of evil, and so on – and perform calls and responses to each other over the centuries. That improvisation is ongoing – McGinn suggests one of the ‘new themes’ in modern mysticism is the body and sexuality, and their incorporation into the mystic life, as seen in Donne, Shakespeare, Swedenborg, Blake, DH Lawrence or Pentecostalism.

One of Hildegard of Bingen's illuminations
One of Hildegard of Bingen’s illuminations

Secondly, many of the classic Christian mystical texts are by women. This is in contrast to Buddhism and Hinduism, where almost all the classic texts are by men. In Sufism there are some great female saints, but I think Christian mysticism is more female-dominated. Christian mystic women were cultural pioneers – the first book in English by a woman was by Julian of Norwich, the 14th century English nun; the first autobiography in English was by Margary Kempe, a 14th century lay-woman. Hildegard of Bingen, a 12-century German nun, is particularly remarkable, as one of the earliest-surviving female composers and female artists in Europe. They were also politically active, establishing and running nunneries, reforming movements.

Does this mean mysticism is gendered, that it’s a particularly feminine capacity to surrender one’s soul into ecstatic union with Christ? That was certainly argued by 19th century psychiatrists looking to pathologize ecstasy as ‘feminine hysteria’. I’ve sometimes wondered if perhaps women and gays are more into visualzing ‘the kiss of the mouth’ from Jesus than heterosexual men. But in fact, what strikes me about mystical experience is that it’s gender-bending. Look at Tiresias, the Greek prophet, with both male and female genitalia. Look at Dionysus, the cross-dresser, how he made King Pentheus dress up as a woman. Or the followers of Cybele, also cross-dressers. Look, in medieval mysticism, at the gender-bending, where the soul is now described as the female bride awaiting the bridegroom, and now as male suckling at the breast of Jesus the mother or embracing Lady Wisdom.

This suggests to me that our soul –  our fundamental identity – is not essentially male or female, but rather both, or neither…a dancing flickering fire of Being. It doesn’t surprise me that one of the proponents of mystical cinema – Larry Wachowski, director of The Matrix and Cloud Atlas – recently changed sex and became Lana. My soul is not male or female, introvert or extrovert, intellectual or emotional. It is all these things and more.

Third, and finally, what strikes me about Christian mystical books is their use of metaphor. They offer a dazzling array of metaphors for the soul and its transformation: the soul as mountain, the soul as mansion or castle, the soul as garden, the soul as mirror, the soul as ladder, the soul as ark, the soul as bride.

Mysticism is a collection of metaphor-maps to memorize information, structure thought and emotion, and explore and expand consciousness.
Mysticism is a collection of metaphor-maps to memorize information, structure thought and emotion, and explore and expand consciousness.

This makes me think that metaphor is crucial to consciousness-exploration and inner work. We live in such a rational, empirical and literal era, when metaphor is seen as something slippery and suspicious. And there are those, like Sam Harris, who want the science of altered states to deal only in ‘empirical facts’, stripped of all ritual and metaphor. Harris writes: ‘Mysticism requires explicit instructions, [with] no more ambiguity in their exposition than we find in a manual for operating a lawn mower.’

This is ultra-Protestantism: do away with all metaphors and symbols, leave just the facts! But, as the great consciousness-researchers Julian Jaynes and Owen Barfield both explored, it is very difficult to talk about consciousness except through metaphor. And the metaphors we use for consciousness are not just descriptive, they are creative. They create new ways of thinking, new realities, new worlds. Among Jesus’ greatest gifts to us were new metaphors for the soul – it’s like a mustard seed, it’s like buried treasure. These were not just descriptions but creations. In the beginning was the metaphor!

The mystics likewise used metaphors as ways of remembering information, structuring thought and emotion, and exploring and expanding consciousness. Metaphor-maps play a crucial role in guiding the soul to new forms and realizations.  One could think of mysticism as a forge where new metaphors are created, new ways of experiencing the inexhaustible play of Being. And the clash between the institutional and the mystic wings of religion is in part a clash over metaphor – the institutional wing wants to fix God into particular metaphors and insist they are true forever, rather than a way of putting it.

The central role of metaphor in experiencing and shaping consciousness is one reason why religious studies scholar Jeffrey Kripal is right that the humanities have a central role to play in consciousness-research – they help us to explore the metaphors and stories by which we structure and expand consciousness. Neuroscience is also very helpful in that process, but the metaphor of ‘brain as computer’ can only get us so far.