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meditation

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.

Anthony Seldon on venturing beyond happiness

Dr Anthony Seldon Sept 2006Sir Anthony Seldon is the former headmaster of Wellington College, one of the first schools to introduce well-being classes into its curriculum. He’s also a co-founder of Action for Happiness. In his new book, Beyond Happiness, he suggests we need to look beyond ‘workaday happiness’ to find something more non-rational and spiritual, which he calls joy or bliss. I interviewed him about this, as well as his thoughts on the ‘politics of well-being’ and his plans to create the first ‘positive university’.

Did you start out to write a book on happiness, and at some point decided you wanted to write one called Beyond Happiness?

Yes. I’d been quite prominent in Action for Happiness, and it occurred to me that we need to move beyond workaday happiness. Obviously that’s wonderful, particularly if you’ve had depression, but there are higher levels of being.

The book starts with a quote attributed to Edith Wharton: ‘If only we’d stop trying to be happy, we could have a pretty good time.’ That’s an unusual quote to begin a book on happiness by one of the founders of Action for Happiness!

Well, I just like that quote and find it funny. And the key word is ‘trying’. Trying too hard gets in the way, or rather, the ego gets in the way. Whenever I screw up my life, it’s because I’m trying too hard. I’m always trying. And then there are moments when you wake up from that. What I mean by ‘beyond happiness’ is going beyond the striving to gratify of the ego, to a place where there is a sublime effortlessness.

I have a theory that people interested in ethics and character education in later life were often quite rebellious and bad at school. It sounds like you were.

If_British_posterI was. In 1971, when I was studying at Tonbridge school, I was one of the ring-leaders of a rebellion against the Combined Cadet Force. We stormed onto the parade ground shouting about the Vietnam War, which in fact did finish shortly afterwards, although the Tonbridge CCF kept existing. The International Times covered it with a headline saying ‘A whiff of If’ – referring to the film about a rebellion at a private school made by a former Tonbridge pupil, Lindsay Anderson. All the ring-leaders were sent down, though I was allowed back to take my exams. So yes, I was rebellious, but I also had a sense of kindness and duty.

We have in common the fact that we both had a bad experience of drugs in our teens and then went to Worcester College, Oxford. Could you tell me about your bad drug experience.

It was in 1972, on a holiday in the Norfolk Broads. I smoked some dope and had a really frightening experience, I felt my mind was changing. It was so frightening I never tried a drug again, and developed a lifelong dislike of drugs.

Were you quite anxious as a teenager?

Very. I once made a list of all the things I was afraid of and it came to 29 things. I was afraid I might become anorexic, for example, or agoraphobic. One of my biggest fears is the fear of going to sleep, which I think is the fear of extinction. I’d have a huge panic attack to keep myself awake, and then I’d stay awake and be even more frightened the next night. It’s not a nice fear to have. That’s why I became so domineering – it was a way of trying to control my world.

Then you had some sort of depressive collapse in your mid-20s.

Yes. I think it was the amount of effort I spent trying to control my world. Also, two girlfriends had chucked me, and I felt abandoned by them. Then I was writing my doctorate at the LSE, which was a very lonely experience. After the collapse, I started to meditate, which helped me through. And I started going out with Joanna [now his wife], and she’s very centred and calm. And I knew she would never leave me, which miraculously she hasn’t.

You say that you moved from a personality based on restless hedonism, achievement and glamour to a more spiritual life based on acceptance. But you’re still a restless achiever – you’ve finished three books since Christmas!

I am two people, at least. There is a more spiritual or philosophical side to me, which is at peace with the world, and that side is more dominant now. But there is also a part of me which feels I need to make my mark in the world, which worries that I’ve never written anything that will survive, that whatever I’ve done in education will fade. There’s a bit of me that is highly self-critical, which trashes my previous experiences. Therefore I constantly need to keep going. I now find myself running a small university, for example.

And that restless desire to achieve and get recognized might come from being short – I say that as a 5 foot 7 anxious achiever!

I’d have given anything to be 5 foot 7! Yes, I’m sure our physical self-perception is a powerful force, and if we’re outliers, it gives us an impetus to want to compensate. I notice still that when I’m around other people I’m edging up on my heels.

So the new book brings together wisdom from Positive Psychology but also from religious mystics like Meister Eckhart or Sri Ramana Maharshi. Do you think Positive Psychology can be a secular substitute for religion?

51t8uL9MMvL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I’m sure for Alain de Botton and others it is. I’m sure some would like it to take the place of religion, which of course it won’t. But there are similar adjuncts. But when I talk about going beyond happiness, I’m talking about moving beyond workaday happiness to find joy, which is spiritual. For me, that’s about the divine, a blending of the ego into the Atman or Soul. It’s not about the vindication of the ego but the elimination of it. The ego is constantly interpreting and evaluating – only that which is beyond the ego is really awake, conscious, and in love with the whole of creation. But it has to be experienced, it can’t be debated or argued over.

So that means going beyond reason, I guess.

Reason has its place, but it only gets you so far – as far as Richard Dawkins or AC Grayling. We can go beyond reason, without abandoning it, and reach a much bigger view.  The ego tends to use rationality for its own goals.

A key part of transcendence in most religious traditions involves realizing that death is not the end, that something in us survives. Do you believe in an afterlife?

I don’t know. I want to move beyond belief. What I know is that when I’m still after meditating, I change. I’m more aware, more present. And then I come out of that state and I’m back in the world of ego-rationalizing. You know when you’re awake, but you don’t when you’re not. For much of my life, I’m egotistic, rationalistic, self-centred, and driven by external stimuli.

The idea of teaching well-being and character has tended to be championed by private school headmasters like you and Eton headmaster John Lewis. Does that give it a class problem – it can seem like private-school teachers bemoaning the lack of character education in state schools.

Well, class can be a problem. But if we go back to Aristotle and the virtues, he was around even before Eton College. There are eternal character values – honesty, kindness, perseverance, which I think schools should emphasize more. But many schools vacate that space because they’re afraid of it or because it’s not recognized by Ofsted. Many people who run education are quite immature and think it’s only about passing exams. I agree with Aristotle – it should be about flourishing.

Aristotle was tutor to Alexander the Great, and thought leaders should be educated in virtue so that they could encourage eudaimonia (or flourishing) in the citizens. You’ve written several political biographies, and have one about David Cameron coming out soon. Having seen political leaders up close, how virtuous would you say they are, and how capable of leading their societies to eudaimonia?

51Oz+FkMd5L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The leaders I have met and written about have mainly been extraordinarily capable and intelligent. The biggest thing they need is more solitary time in stillness, to get to know themselves and integrate themselves. Gordon Brown was an admirable person, but his greatest problem was he was very unintegrated. His self-image of himself was at variance with his very self-centred ego-driven approach. He needed to calm down and be more integrated. Blair too – he got carried away off himself. Both were good people, but in different ways they got carried away.

And finally, your next job is as vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, the first private university in the UK. How useful could well-being education be in higher education?

Very. I want to make the first positive university. That will include introducing mindfulness classes for all trainee doctors, to help them be more in the present moment in their dealing with patients.