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New Age

The Age of Love: acid house as a charismatic religious uprising

At the moment I’m researching the cultural practices of ecstasy in the 20th century, which has given me the excuse to read some fine books on the history of pop music. The latest is Matthew Collin’s Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House, first published way back in 1997 and since updated. It’s a bravura piece of historical journalism.

Collin begins by tracing the history of MDMA, from its first patenting by Merck in 1912 as a blood-clotting pharmaceutical, to its rediscovery by Russian emigre chemist Alexander Shulgin. Shulgin synthesised various psychedelic drugs in his home laboratory in California and tried them out with his friends. He tried MDMA in 1967, and introduced it to an elderly psychologist friend, Leo Zoff, a decade later. Zoff in turn introduced the drug to thousands of his fellow therapists over the course of the late 70s and 80s.

Collin writes: ‘The therapeutic community is estimated to have distributed in the region of half a million doses of the drug in a decade. Therapists would give their patients MDMA during their sessions to break down mental barriers and enhance communication and intimacy.’  It was initially known as Adam, a name ‘with subtle religious overtones’ (yes, very subtle), and then became known as Empathy or, sometimes, XTC.

Alexander Shulgin in his home laboratory

The fledgling E community tried to avoid the mistakes made with LSD in the 1960s, and to heed Aldous Huxley’s advice to keep it among the intelligentsia and away from the masses. Timothy Leary, who famously ignored Huxley’s advice in the 60s, was in agreement this time: ‘Let’s face it, we’re talking about an elitist experience [for] sophisticated people…We’re talking about dedicated searchers who are entitled, who’ve earned a bit of XTC.’  But something as fun as E was always going to be hard to keep a secret. Evangelical pill-heads started to distribute the drug more widely, complete with flight manuals explaining how to take it (‘this is a toll for reaching out and touching others in soul and spirit’). And then the more business-minded started to flog it across the US.

It proved particularly popular in gay discos, like the Paradise Garage in New York, where DJ Larry Levan created a heady mixture of the spiritual and the profane: ‘Under the spell of Levan’s narcotic mix, people seemed to transcend human limits’ wrote journalist Frank Own. ‘Men crawled around on their hands and knees howling like dogs, while others gyrated and leapt as if they could fly.’ In Chicago, Frankie Knuckles created a similarly euphoric vibe at the Warehouse. It was a church for the unchurched: ‘It was very soulful, very spiritual”, Knuckles tells Collin. ‘For most of the people that went there it was church for them.’

Knuckles helped to develop the mechanics of acid house ecstasy: he bought a Roland TR-909 drum computer, to create layers of pounding drum and piano. A trio calling themselves Phuture used another machine, the Roland TB-303, originally intended to generate basslines for guitarists to practice with, to create alien-sounding electronic squelches that would come to typify acid house. Meanwhile, in Detroit, three musicians inspired by Kraftwerk and Alvin Toffler’s futurology – Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson – developed a more robotic, emotionally-sparse electronic music, which they called techno.  If house music incorporated some of the soulful and uplifting vibe of gospel, techno was more transhumanist, imagining a dystopian future of man-as-machine. Here’s what is often considered the first ‘acid techno’ track: Phuture’s Acid Tracks.

The tension between house and techno is a fissure running through ecstasy culture. Is it transcendent spiritual music re-connecting us to some childlike golden age, or machine noise pounding us into an emotionless robot future? Is the high we feel an intimation of the divine, or merely a chemical rush? There weren’t always clear battle-lines between these two philosophies – at a club, you could find yourself dancing with a robot-man on one side and a Goa trance elf on the other.

The Summer of Love as a charismatic revival

E was criminalised in the US in 1985, but by that point the drug had already gone international, in large part thanks to the followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, or Osho, the controversial multi-millionaire Indian guru. Many of his followers took the drug, and one devotee, Hugh Milne, wrote in his book, Bhagwan – The God That Failed – that  ‘the euphoric mood-altering drug Ecstasy was discreetly slipped into rich sannyassins’ drinks just before fund-raising interviews’. By the mid-1980s, according to Arno Adellars, ‘the Dutch followers of Bhagwan were taking so much ecstasy that several supply lines were necessary to meet the demand’. E had come to Europe.

The early days of E in the UK, from 1987 to 1989, have some of the hallmarks of a charismatic religious revival, akin to, say, the Toronto Airport Blessing that would occur in Canada in 1994. In both movements, airport hangars full of devotees found themselves twitching, jerking, even barking with ecstasy. In both, there was an apocalyptic sense that the world was changing forever, that a new age of love was dawning. In both, the inhibitions and self-control of adulthood were thrown off and the innocence of infancy embraced: charismatic Christians spoke in tongues (babbling like babies in a pre-verbal Eden), while raver culture embraced teddy bears, lollipops, dummies, romper-suits, and danced to remixes of themes from kids TV shows.

Here’s some footage of the Toronto Blessing:

And here’s a Sunrise warehouse rave from the Summer of Love:

Certain clubs inspired particular religious fervour, like the Hacienda in Manchester, or Danny Rampling’s Shoom in Southwark. Collin writes: ‘One Shoomer gave away all his possessions and the following weekend was seen running naked down the Portobello Road. Others came to believe that there were supernatural forces of Good and Evil battling for the soul of the city…A few, lost in Shoom, convinced themselves that Danny Rampling was some kind of messiah: the master of the dance, the orchestrator of emotions.’

But there was one big difference between the Summer of Love and the charismatic Christian Revival. When people come down from the emotional high of the Charismatic revival, those who needed something more intellectually sound could find some support in the Bible, or social support in community groups, or a sense of civic purpose in social action. There was precious little philosophy beneath the Summer of Love, except for the music, and the chemicals.

And, as Alexander Shulgin noted, E follows the law of diminishing returns. The first times are incredible, the intensest surge of dopamine your nervous system has ever felt. The next few times are also great, but the body soon becomes accustomed to the drug. So clubbers searched for a way to get back to that peak experience, with cocktails of LSD, amphetamine, ketamine, cocaine, mushrooms, freebase. The collective euphoria of the dancefloor turned darker, uglier. People lost it, ended up in mental homes. Others ‘found solace in religion, joining the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Hare Krishnas, getting involved with Bahgwan Shree Rajneesh or other New Age cults.’

Many found solace in entrepreneurialism, making money from the business of secular collective ecstasy. In this, perhaps, rave culture is also akin to the mega-churches of the charismatic Christian revival. Except that, in the club scene, the business was rapidly taken over by criminal gangs, including some of the old football firms who’d by now come down from their initial high and realised they didn’t love everyone. From Sunrise raves in London to the Hacienda in Manchester, criminal gangs moved in, brandishing shotguns and machetes, giving club entrepreneurs the stark choice of either cutting them in, or being cut out. The country’s seemingly limitless demand for E and other drugs made fortunes for criminal networks, and it was this, Collin suggests, that inevitably provoked the Establishment into trying to control acid house.

The Jilted Generation

The Thatcher and Major governments’ various attempts at controlling and legislating the movement were clumsy, none more so than the Criminal Justice Bill of 1994, which outlawed ‘the emission of a succession of repetitive beats’ in outdoor ‘raves’. Collin notes: ‘Although other youth movements had inspired legal changes, never before, despite years of post-war moral panics about the activities of teddy boys, mods, hippies and punks, had a government considered young people’s music so subversive as to attempt to prohibit it.’

Playing Al-Qaeda to the Major government’s neo-cons were a techno-anarchist collective called Spiral Tribe, who travelled across England with their sound-system in the summer of 1991. For the members of Spiral Tribe, acid techno was not a weekend thrill, it was a hardcore lifestyle. The members showed their complete devotion to it by shaving their heads like monks or military recruits, and wearing black military fatigues. The Tribe’s charismatic spokesperson, Mark Harrison, says: ‘The unspoken rule or initiation with Spiral Tribe was that you had to live it, twenty-four hours a day.’

Spiral Tribe attempt to put the voodoo on Canary Wharf

Collin writes: ‘Spiral Tribe began to believe that techno was the new folk music…and for it to take proper physical and psychological effect it must be played as loud and for as long as possible; they started to imagine that the Spiral Tribe was in some way connected to prehistoric tribes of nomads…that free parties were shamanic rites which…could reconnect urban youth to the earth…thus averting imminent ecological crisis.’ Harrison would sound positively Pythagorean in his vision: ‘As legend would have it, there’s a musical note that will free the people..’ Their techno-pagan antics culminated in an abortive attempt to ‘zap’ Canary Wharf with techno, thereby stripping the evil pyramid of its dark power. ‘Even though it only lasted one hour, we had to do it’, explains Harrison. ‘It was a victory for us because that pyramid doesn’t work any more, it doesn’t have that power’.

Predictably, Spiral Tribe were soon closed down, although the techno-crustie resistance continues and elements of it survived into the Occupy movement, another somewhat millenarial uprising. Meanwhile, the Criminal Justice Bill did nothing to end the popularity of electronic music. While the illegal rave scene declined, clubs became professionalised, and a new breed of superclub rose up – Gatecrasher, Cream, Renaissance, Ministry of Sound. Dance music became like disco – a brief chemical holiday from the ennui of 9 to 5 office capitalism. The sounds and visuals of dance music became ubiquitous, heard and seen in every movie or advert. It became part of the establishment, with DJ Tiesto playing the 2004 Olympic opening ceremony, and Underworld playing the 2012 Ceremony. The nation’s drug-taking has not gone down, however, so criminal gangs must presumably still be making a killing…but the trade seems to have become more organised.

Now, in the last two or three years, dance music has suddenly gone mainstream in the US. In the late noughties, people were amazed that top DJs like Paul Oakenfold could earn £750,000 a year. Now, thanks to the enormous US dance scene, DJ Tiesto earns a reported $250,000 a night, and an incredible $22 million a year. ‘Rave culture’, writes Rolling Stone this month, ‘has taken over this generation full bore’. Next month sees one of the biggest ever electronic dance festivals – the Electronic Daisy Chain in Las Vegas. To British retired ravers in their 30s and 40s, the new revival may seem garish and commercial. But to the kids on the dancefloor, on their first pill, it must seem like the Age of Love is finally dawning.

Zappos and the rise of the dot.commune

Yesterday I went to see a talk by the CEO of Zappos, Tony Hsieh. Tony is famous around the world for the ‘happy culture’ he has created at his billion-dollar shoe company. He sees his work as a mission to ‘deliver happiness’ to the world – not just shoes, but a way of thinking about how to get the most from life, which is very influenced by the ‘happiness science’ of Positive Psychology. He goes around the world giving talks on happiness, and has written a book called Delivering Happiness, which has now been turned into a comic book.

I was a bit sceptical of the idea of a ‘happy company’ – the cynical liberal individualist in me wondered if the staff went around with forced smiles, wearily putting on their party hats to fit in with the boss’ happy philosophy. But what Tony had to say was, at the least, very interesting.

After graduating from Harvard, Tony set up his first company, which sold click-through advertising technology. He initially set it up with friends and they all pretty much lived together in the office, sleeping under the desks, like a sort of dot.commune. But then the company grew bigger and ‘we ran out of friends’. So people they didn’t know started working there – and sadly they lost that culture of intimacy and friendship. The office became a cold, atomised collection of strangers. Tony started dreading going to work at his own company! He learnt a lesson from this – creating a shared culture of values is just as important as making profits.

He sold the company for $250 million (this was the late 1990s, a good time to sell a He and a friend started a venture capital fund, and their first investment was into a shoe company called Zappos, which would do for shoes what Amazon did for books: create a website and a big warehouse, deliver reliable customer service, and beat all those little mom-and-pop independent stores through sheer size and scale. Zappos didn’t do well at first, so Tony put more money in, and became the CEO.

This time around, he and his friends put a lot of thought into creating the right culture at Zappos. They created a list of core values, including things like Positivity, Creativity, Team-Playing and so on. They had a careful interview process to make sure new recruits shared their values. Tony says they put their values first: a person might make the company loads of money, but if they don’t share their values, they get fired. ‘It’s not about what people do, but who they are’. He says the key is to get rid of the 10% who don’t share those values.

This sounds less a corporation in the neo-liberal sense, and something closer to a spiritual commune. He says: ‘Some people were sceptical about the whole ‘values culture’ thing, but they really got into it and started using the language more than I did. If you tour the company now, you can feel it. It’s absolute magic when you have a workforce who really share your values.’

Like in that original dot.commune, Tony would ideally like all the staff to live together and hang out together as friends – or at least in the same neighbourhood. He says: ‘Initially, when we moved the company to Las Vegas, we were forced to hang out with each other after work because we didn’t know anyone else in Vegas. That took the culture to a whole other level. We’re moving to downtown Vegas now, and we hope a lot of our staff will start living downtown too, so we bump into each other a lot and are a real community.’ It’s a sort of anarchist utopianism very much born out of San Francisco, out of the post-liberal ‘rainbow tribe’ mentality of rave music (think Burning Man). Tony used to hold big raves at his loft and says he loved the spiritual feeling of being connected to a whole rave by an experience and common values – he seems to want to create that collective ecstatic culture, that tribal mentality, at Zappos.

It also reminds me of older movements in corporate well-being, like Robert Owen’s ‘happy factories’ in the early 19th century, where workers lived together, worked together, and were instilled with Owen’s Utopian values and culture. It also reminds me of Quaker companies like Cadbury’s and Rowntree’s. The Quakers were also all about creating ‘societies of friends’ in their communities and corporations, and would set up worker programmes and settlement houses to create good corporate cultures among their workers.

Henry Isaac Rowntree
Joseph Rowntree

This sort of initiative interests me partly because I’m from the Rowntree family myself. My great-great grandfather was Henry Isaac Rowntree, who set up the chocolate company. He actually wasn’t a very good Quaker – he was the black sheep of the family, who shocked his strict religious community with his worldly views and his expletive-shrieking parrot (no, really). So he left the family grocer business and set up the chocolate firm. It was his more religious brother, Joseph, who came and helped him run the firm, who really created the company’s whole ‘Quaker culture’ – my grandmother (Henry’s granddaughter) likes to tell stories of how Joseph would make the workers go on long, bracing walks over the Yorkshire moors, and how they’d all bunk off to go to the pub.

The liberal individualist in me thinks I wouldn’t last long at Zappos – I’d be one of the awkward 10% who found the whole thing too collectivist and culty. I wouldn’t be able to stop pointing out the flaws in Hsieh’s happy philosophy – like many utilitarians, he simply can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t be utilitarian. He says things like: ‘The evidence suggests it doesn’t matter what values a company has, as long as the employees really believe in them.’  Well, that doesn’t sound so great – The News of the World or Goldman Sachs had employees who deeply believed in their company’s values. The problem was the values were wack.

Then again, the Quaker in me is aware that I’ve worked at the normal neo-liberal kind of corporation, where the only culture is ‘make the shareholders more money’, and that wasn’t much fun either. So I’m a freelancer now, in a company of one. Typical ambivalent liberal.

But let me just give the Zappos culture a bit of a poke, if you don’t mind. First of all, one of the company’s core values is ‘Be Humble’. But humility is not the word that comes to mind about Tony Hsieh. He told us he saw his role as a leader as partly ‘to get out of the way’ and let things happen. But when I read Delivering Happiness, he’s there in every single drawing.

Maybe it’s a difference between British and American cultures, but the guy is not shy about sharing his successes: the first box shows him delivering a speech to a hall of cheering employees. We see him setting up his first company at school, then getting into Harvard, we see his friends tell him at graduation that they are sure he will be a millionaire – and then see him making $250 million before he’s 30.

This leads to a typical sort of TED / Silicon Valley / Law of Attraction messiah complex. It’s just so damn easy to make millions of dollars, as long as you think positive! You can make a billion, and still be a cool guy with great ethics, right? Like Google, like Facebook, like LinkedIn. Everybody wins.

But not everybody wins. These big 90s-era Silicon Valley companies succeeded because they were disruptive technologies. They undermined existing business patterns and took market share from more traditional competitors – newspapers, high street book-stores, high-street shoe companies. ‘It’s good if they do that’, Tony told me, ‘because some of these bricks-and-mortar retailers haven’t changed their culture in 25 years.’ OK, but the culture of restless innovation is a young person’s culture. Zappos, judging by the comic book at least, seems to be very much a young person’s game.

I’m suspicious of the TED / Silicon Valley Messiah complex, because it suggests that dot.coms succeed because of the genius / spiritual power of individual entrepreneurs – the gospel according to Steve Jobs. It’s a view-point born out of incredible privilege and entitlement – sort of the corporate version of Esalen, the 1960s spiritual commune outside of San Francisco. But it ignores the historical and economic factors behind the individuals’ success (they are rich young kids who got to go to Harvard and never really lost in life) and behind the company’s success (once the internet was invented, there would always be new internet companies who reacted quickest and beat more traditional companies). And it ignores the losers in the new economic paradigm. Silicon Valley may be a ‘happy valley’ but it’s not that easy for the rest of the planet to achieve incredible wealth and personal fulfillment.

It’s an elitist model of happiness – Tony invokes Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, appropriately, because Maslow was a key figure in the ‘human potential’ movement which influenced Esalen and fed into Silicon Valley’s happy culture. But whenever anyone invokes Maslow’s pyramid of needs, you can bet they think they are at the top of it – the elite, the chosen ones, the beautiful people, the TED superheroes.

Zappos was bought two years ago by Amazon. Tony sold the company to preserve its unique happy culture. Amazon follows a similar economic model – the warehouse and website, without any stores or face-to-face customer interaction – but it does it without any of the happy evangelism. It is, in fact, a ruthless company. It made £3bn in profits in the UK last year, and didn’t pay any corporate tax. That’s at least partly how it beats the competition and drives bookstores out of business. Tony talks about the importance of aligning the company’s values with its shareholders – but he says: ‘Amazon has a completely different culture to us. A Zappos employee wouldn’t do well at Amazon, and vice versa.’

Few of the Zappos employees got a say in whether the company should be sold to Amazon. For all the happy culture, it’s still run by its biggest shareholders. It’s still a power structure, where you can be fired if you don’t fit in with the boss’s utilitarian values. And the model of happiness it’s delivering is still, basically, happiness through consumption, status, wealth and power. Isn’t it?  That model works fine if you’re young, beautiful, entrepreneurial and incredibly rich – but what if you’re not?

Anyway, thank you to the lovely people of the new economics foundation for organising the event, which was really interesting (sorry I’m so cynical, I’m on board in general just a bit of a backseat complainer!) nef are launching a new ‘happiness at work’ survey, and have a consulting arm to advise companies on how to become happier, which I believe works with Zappos’ own consultancy arm, Delivering Happiness At Work.

How can we make sense of revelatory experiences?

Yesterday I went to an excellent conference on revelatory experiences at the Institute of Psychiatry, which brought together neuroscientists, psychiatrists, psychologists, historians, theologians and members of the public (many of whom had revelatory experiences – turns out they’re pretty common!)

The conference tried to approach and talk about revelatory experiences from two main directions: history and neuroscience. So, first of all, we heard from two research teams – one led by Dr Quinton Deeley at KCL, the other by Professor David Oakley at UCL – who are studying the brain-imaging of hyponotised people. They’re trying to understand the phenomenon of ‘automatic writing’ – the feeling of some external being controlling one’s hand or even guiding one’s thoughts, as in the Caravaggio drawing of St Mark and the angel, on the right.

The researchers have done interesting work in finding the neural correlates of hypnotised and dissociative states. But I think there’s a difference between being hypnotised and having a revelatory experience. People who are easy to hypnotise are typically easily suggestible and socially conditioned, while people who have revelations are (to generalise) often quite socially dysfunctional, stubborn misfits. And of course, in the UCL and KCL experiments, we know where the suggestions are coming from – from the scientists. We don’t know where the external suggestions are coming from in revelatory experiences.

We then heard a fascinating presentation by a young neuroscientist called Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, who is working with Professor David Nutt at Imperial on the well-publicised research into the neural imaging of psychedelic experience (you can watch a video of Robin presenting his work here). Robin said the imaging suggests a decrease in filtering or connecting activity in the brain when people are on psychedelics – not opening the mind, so much as closing down some parts of it so that other parts of it can be released.

And his team also noticed an unusual relationship between the default brain network (DBN) – the system we are in usually, where our consciousness free roams inside our head, day-dreaming and introspecting – and the task-positive network (TPN), which we use more occasionally to focus on external stimuli. Usually these two systems are anti-correlated. But during psychedelic experiences, they appear to become correlated, aligned and synchronised – we are both externally focused and day-dreaming, so that the outer and inner worlds become fused. The ego boundaries are dissolved. We return to a state of infant wonder, projecting the shadows of our dreams onto the cave-walls of external reality.

Robin noted that, for many participants in the Imperial study, and in another project running now at John Hopkins, the psychedelic experience in the laboratory is one of the most meaningful and spiritual experiences of their lives. In the John Hopkins study being run by Roland Griffiths, for example, 70% of participants report mystical experiences, and 60% describe it as the most spiritually meaningful experience of their lives. That’s pretty remarkable.

We then had some historical perspectives on revelatory experience. Dr Jane Shaw, Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, presented her work on the Panacea Society – a religious community that sprang up in Bedford during World War I around the figure of Mabel Bartlerop, who announced one day she was Octavia, daughter of God, and who claimed to receive dictation from God every afternoon at 5.30.

And then Dr Phil Lockley, part of the same ‘Prophecy Project’ at Oxford as Dr Shaw, gave a useful talk outlining how recent historians have tried to contextualise revelatory experiences, in works like Barbara Taylor’s Eve and the New Jerusalem (1983), Phyllis Mack’s Visionary Women (1992), Diane Watt’s Secretaries of God (1997), and (going back a bit) Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957).

Dr Lockley showed that historians can tell us interesting things about how revelatory experiences are culturally constructed and influenced by their time. For example, Dr Shaw told us how the language of inspiration in the Panacea Society was inspired by the invention of the wireless – the mediums talked of ‘tuning in’ to God – a phrase which was subsequently taken up and popularised by Timothy Leary and the LSD counterculture. The movement was also part of the ferment during World War I – it was fiercely patriotic, and members of it lobbied the Archbishop of Canterbury to open the ‘sealed box of prophecies’ left by the 18th century visionary Joanna Southcott, which she said should be opened in a time of national crisis by the 24 bishops of the nation (here’s the box on the left). I personally think the opening of the box should be the climax of the Olympics inauguration ceremony.

Both these approaches – the neuroscientific and the historical – tell us some fascinating stuff about revelations. But it seems to me that both approaches leave something out. There is the important question of the quality of the revelatory experience. Academia often leaves out such qualitative questions – for example, academics are so busy contextualising a novel, say, or a therapy, they won’t ask if it’s any good, which is really the most important question. They say it’s ‘interesting’, by which they mean it is useful for their particular line of research.

There’s a value judgement we have to make about revelatory experiences – both other people’s, and our own.

I come from a Quaker family, and I remember my great-grandmother telling a story about a woman standing up during a Quaker meeting, moved by the Holy Spirit, and proclaiming: ‘Raspberry ripple with a cherry on top’. Well, yes, I mean, absolutely, I’m all for raspberry ripples, particularly with a cherry on top, but that’s not a revelation I will spend much time studying or following, because of my own value judgement about its quality or meaningfulness.

I asked Dr Shaw why, if Mabel’s inspired poetry wasn’t much good in her estimation, had she spent years studying it. Did she think it was actually from God? She said she was a historian, so couldn’t answer that. But later on, she came back to the question, and said she thought Mabel did have a ‘spiritual authority’, which was apparent in her letters to her flock more than in her inspired writing. Dr Shaw made a value judgement about the quality of Mabel’s work – which involved an evaluation of Mabel’s relationship to God. That was at the foundation of her enduring interest in the Panacea Society.

So in general, can we make value judgements about revelatory experiences? I mean, besides going and asking God if he really did send this message or if we should put it in the spam folder.

Yes, I think we can.

Firstly, we can make judgements about truth-claims that prophets make. For example, Mabel of the Panacea Society claimed that members of the Society would never die. Turns out she was wrong. That, to my mind, reduces her authority and the authority of her experience. There’s that amazing scene in The Brothers Karamazov where the dead body of the inspired priest starts to decompose and smell, thereby conflicting with the spiritual tradition that the bodies of the inspired don’t decompose. Well, that undermines the spiritual authority of that charismatic tradition. It shouldn’t have made those claims.

Secondly, we can make aesthetic judgements about the quality of inspiration. Is it complete gibberish? Or is it incredibly beautiful? Rosemary Brown, an uneducated housewife from Balham, claimed in the 1960s to be a medium in touch with the spirit of Liszt and various other composers. The BBC went to interview her and asked ‘Liszt’ to come up with a composition. And eventually s/he did – and, according to a psychiatrist who was at the conference, the piece she wrote was incredibly complex, with the left hand playing in 5/4 and the right in 3/2 – far beyond Rosemary’s technical ability to play, and the sort of thing that scholars say Liszt might have written. The aesthetic quality of the composition makes her claims to inspiration more credible, in my view. Or at least, more interesting (there’s that academic word again).

Thirdly, can the person make sense of their vision, can they articulate it, can they defend it? Think of the young Jesus holding his own in the Temple against the elder authorities. Think of Socrates – inspired by his daemon, yet capable of rationally articulating his beliefs. I know Kierkegaard would argue that revelation is irrational, that the whole point of it is you can’t articulate it, you can’t make sense of it or defend it. Well, I think part of the challenge for someone who has a revelatory experience is to try and make sense of it and communicate it, to carry it down from the mountain. That also means you need to be able to defend its ideas, without simply saying ‘an angel told me’.

Fourthly, does it lead to human flourishing – your own, and other people’s. One of my friends is schizophrenic, and is sure the voices he hears are angelic. But the voices are very mean to him, they block his flourishing. Of course, he would say to me ‘how do you know? How can you tell the state of my soul or your soul?’ I’m not sure how to answer that question. But we can test out what the voices say and show they don’t always tell the truth, for example. In which case we grant them less authority.

And we can see if they cause us distress and suffering, or if they help us. Professor Philippa Geraty of the Institute of Psychiatry, who works with people experiencing psychotic episodes, presented some fascinating research (a lot of which was done by Dr Emanuelle Peters of KCL), which showed how common psychotic experiences are. Yet they’re not always distressing. In particular, research has shown people in new religious / evangelical communities are more likely to experience psychotic symptoms and beliefs than the general population, but less likely to see them as problematic or distressing than isolated individuals. In the words of Dr Quinton Deeley of KCL, they have constructed ‘a shared context and a shared meaning’. They have socially framed a psychotic experience in such a way as to recover from it, find meaning in it and even draw strength and joy from it. (On that subject, check out this support organisation – the spiritual crisis network.)

Both Geraty and Deeley spoke of helping people find meaning in their psychotic experiences, which apparently is central to the ‘recovery movement’ in psychosis treatment. One of the delegates told me about the work of Rufus May, a clinical psychologist in Bradford who was sectioned in the 1980s. Check out his website – it’s absolutely fascinating about how social support networks like Hearing Voices help people find meaning in psychotic experience. He writes: ‘Being given a diagnosis of schizophrenia was not helpful for me. It created a learned hopelessness in me and my family who resigned themselves to the established belief I would always be ill, unable to work and always need antipsychotic medication. There is a deeply held assumption that schizophrenia is a disease-like degenerative process. Thus the category of schizophrenia is associated with a failure to recover and a gradual deterioration in social functioning. It is more helpful to see each individual’s mental health as a unique and evolving story, which is importantly influenced by social and relational experiences.’

Perhaps it doesn’t matter where revelatory experiences come from, it’s what you do with them and what they lead to. What is the quality of the work you go on to do? How much does it help people? How much does it help you? It is difficult to evaluate this, in the absence of a scientific measurement device that measures godliness (a sort of spiritual Geiger counter). Yet as humans we do evaluate the quality of various revelations, and our evaluations decide what revelations we use to guide our life. I’m not into the Panacea Society, for example, while I am interested in Plato, Rumi, the Buddha and other inspired writings, because of my own qualitative evaluations about the writing and the organisations they inspired, evaluations which I am prepared to defend rationally.

Take Alcoholics Anonymous. It was inspired by a religious vision experienced by Bill W. when he was on belladonna, which he took as part of a radical psychedelic cure for alcoholism. OK, that’s interesting. But it’s more interesting what he did with it, the work he did, the movement he constructed, which I think is one of the most interesting and successful movements of the 20th century, in terms of the human suffering it reduced and the flourishing it increased. You can qualitatively evaluate the work without having to evaluate if Bill’s vision ‘really was’ from God.

The world is full of people who claim to have received messages from God. They often think they have been uniquely blessed with this message and get rather grandiose about it. Well, you’re not that special – many people have such experiences. Some of those messages seem useful, others less so. We need some kind of spam filter, and a way of evaluating the quality of the message without relying solely on the purported address of the sender (

How Aldous Huxley inspired the human potential movement

Sorry I haven’t been posting much – I’m on holiday, reading a lot and taking it easy. I’ve been reading a fascinating history of adult education in the US, which has given me much to think on. One of the things I found out was that the human potential movement – ie Esalen, erhard seminars training, Landmark, large group training sessions and all that jazz – was inspired by Aldous Huxley and some of his lectures on ‘human potentials’ in 1960. Have a read of this article on the origins of the Esalen project.

PoW: The rise and rise of Alcoholics Anonymous

My name’s Jules, and I’m not an alcoholic. But I did meet a friend of mine last night who is a recovering alcoholic, and talking to him about Alcoholics Anonymous made me think about this fascinating movement, and the key role its played in the history of self-help and mental health over the last 75 years.

AA came out of a Protestant movement in the 1920s called the Oxford Group, which was very popular and influential for a couple of decades. The Oxford Group (actually nothing to do with Oxford) was a form of Protestant self-help, which encouraged self-examination, sharing or confessing your faults to your local group, and then spreading the word to others. In true Protestant fashion, the Oxford Group stripped Christianity down to its bare essentials and adapted it for the 20th century. The ‘group confessional’ was a particular innovation, and led, apparently, to weekend orgies of self-revelation among the affluent and pious, competing to reveal the most salacious sins. The Group also seemed designed for modern mass media, with its simple messages, slogans and mnemonics (one of its slogans was ‘a spiritual radiophone in every home’, which sounds quite Huxlerian). And it tapped in to the modern urge – perhaps the narcissistic urge – to tell your story to a group, to share the inmost core of your being, and receive the group’s acceptance for your most shameful secrets.

Later new religious movements like the Landmark Forum, the Work, or Erhard Seminar Training would take these basic dynamics of introspection and group confessional, and strip them even further of their religious trappings, by taking away any mention of God or Jesus. But they kept the idea of the sudden conversion, the instant liberation from bad habits, which also appeals to the modern hurried sensibility: a new you, in just 24 hours!

Like Scientology today, the Oxford Group made a big thing of its connections to the wealthy and successful – the implication being that membership of the Group could give you an intro to attractive social and business connections (rather like some middle managers are attracted to Freemasonry or the Rotary Club for the networking opportunities they seem to promise).

But despite its rapid success, the Oxford Group had obvious flaws. It was corrupted by power and money. It had a charismatic and very visible leader, the Lutheran pastor Frank Buchman (pictured right), who often seemed to be on an ego trip, and who made serious errors of judgement like flirting with the Nazi Party and imagining what it would be like if Hitler or Mussolini converted to the Oxford Group and established a ‘dictatorship of God’ with the Group’s slogans blaring from every home’s radio. And the Group had an odious ethos of social climbing and donation-seeking – Buchman encouraged Group members to travel first class, in order to network, and public talks would sometimes end with solicitation for funds – although none of this money was ever spent on the poor or the needy.

The birth of AA

One Oxford group in the US helped an alcoholic called Ebby Thacher, in the early 1930s, who in turn tried to bring religion to a drinking buddy, Bill Wilson. Bill also converted, but still occasionally relapsed into alcoholism. He managed to finally kick the habit at a rehab centre when he had a religious experience after being given the hallucinogenic Atropa Belladonna, or deadly nightshade (research into using hallucinogenics to cure addictions is only now coming back into the mainstream of respectable science – see this article.)

Bill then travelled to Akron, Ohio in 1935, where he stayed with an Oxford Group member and alcoholic called Bob Smith. Bill worked with Bob for a month, and he too managed to kick the habit. Over the next few years, the two developed the format of Alcoholics Anonymous: first the 12 Steps, then the 12 Traditions. AA members say the 12 steps stop them from killing themselves, and the 12 traditions stop them from killing each other. They’re really interesting principles, which have stood the test of time without any major revisions.

The first and second steps involve the Lutheran admission that ‘we are powerless and our lives have become unmanageable’ and therefore need help from ‘a Power greater than ourselves’. This is very different from the Stoic idea, for example, that the power and responsibility to help yourself is always yours alone. In AA, the alcoholic’s first step is admitting they have a disease which they on their own can’t solve – they need the help of a Higher Power. It’s not self-help, so much as other-help.

Who or what is this Higher Power? The 12 Steps define it as ‘a God of your own understanding’. Bob Wilson noticed more alcoholics were attracted to and helped by AA if it didn’t make a big thing of religious dogma, but allowed people to bring their own definitions of God – which could simply be the Higher Power of the group or movement (some AA members define God as Group Of Drunks, implying that ‘God’ is really human consciousness organizing itself to heal itself).

What was most important was the idea of people helping each other up, and sharing their stories – AA took the group confessional format of the Oxford Group, and added the idea of having a sponsor who could guide the new recruit through the 12 steps. They also added the idea of ‘making amends’ – going round apologizing to those you’ve done wrong in the past (this is the conceit behind the sitcom My Name Is Earl). And, importantly, they focused on one key sin or disease – alcoholism. They gave their members a sense of collective identity through their battle with their illness. They took something that was private and shameful, and made it into a collective struggle and source of group pride: ‘It’s been ten years since I had a drink’ etc.

That laid a template for self-organized mental health support groups for depression, anxiety, eating disorders, drug addiction, sex addiction, really every kind of personal problem (there’s even a 12-step programme for online gaming addiction, called OLGA). Even if these groups don’t all use the 12-step programme, they still use the idea of a group self-organized to combat a particular problem, who share their stories with each other and encourage each other on.

Personally, I found that group dynamic very helpful when I was struggling to overcome social anxiety, which I did after joining a CBT-based social anxiety support group, that met once a week in the Royal Festival Hall. When you share your stories and listen to others’ stories, you realize your problems are not unique, that you’re not a uniquely dysfunctional freak (as you secretly feared), that many others have similar problems. It de-personalizes the problem, makes you less attached to it, makes you able to see it as a collective battle with an external enemy (alcoholism, depression, social anxiety etc) to be fought with intelligence and organization. In some ways, this is like Christians sharing stories of the Devil and self-help tips on how to resist his evil snares – except that, while AA kept the idea of the Higher Power, it turned the Enemy of alcoholism into a disease, rather than a supernatural evil force. They also abandoned any mention of Hell or damnation – if you fall, you just get up, and try again.

Behind the Christian roots of AA, there are older, Socratic ideas: the idea of examining yourself to find any defects or vices, and also the Serenity Prayer, which was introduced into AA in the 1940s, and is now read at the end of every meeting: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.” Bill Wilson wrote that this prayer summed up the ethos of AA, though to me it seems a bit different from the Lutheran idea of being powerless to help yourself without the intercession of a Higher Power. It’s interesting, though, the way someone came across the Serenity Prayer and it was then introduced into the ‘ritual’ of the AA meeting. That’s how religions are created – objects and ideas are found, then bolted on, and you can see different ideas and traditions stuck together.

Like every vibrant young spiritual movement, within a few years AA found itself immersed in internal arguments over how the movement should develop. At that point, in 1946, Bill Wilson wrote and published the 12 Traditions (somewhat reminiscent of the 12 foundations of the New Jerusalem mentioned in Revelations). These 12 traditions fixed AA into a system that Wilson called ‘benign anarchy’. As my AA friend put it, “it’s like a terrorist organization: each cell is separate and they don’t know much about each other”. There’s little central authority, no requirement for membership other than the desire to stop drinking, and a group could be just two people, like the original group.

Wilson obviously learnt from the mistakes of the Oxford Group – first of all, he protected AA from the corrupting influence of money. Every AA group is self-supporting, with no outside financial contributions, so it hasn’t become a machine for making money, as the Oxford Group did and other groups like Landmark and Scientology have done. No AA member is allowed to lend its name to other causes, and it avoids the temptation to seek political influence through its success, as the Oxford Group did. And because it’s anonymous, no member can use the movement as a platform for self-promotion, as Frank Buchman arguably used the Oxford Group. As the 12th tradition puts it: ‘Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.’

The 12 traditions are a masterpiece of organizational design, and have kept AA preserved from the corrupting influences that have brought down so many other spiritual movements: all of which follow a sadly predictable arc of hype, wealth and power followed by disintegration (think of, say, EST, or the Secret, or Landmark and so on). Today, the movement has over two million members, with over 100,000 groups meeting worldwide. I’m told you can find a meeting happening at any hour of the day in New York. And on some flights, you might even hear an announcement on the intercom inquiring if there is a ‘friend of Bill’ on-board. From an outsider’s perspective, AA seems to me to be one of the more successful new spiritual movement of the 20th century. But, as I said at the beginning, I haven’t tried it myself, so would be interested to hear if some of you have more first-hand impressions of it.

A few interesting things I came across in the last week:

Waterstones is launching its own e-reader. Good idea:

David Cameron got a bit Neo-Aristotelian in his latest speech on education, declaring: ‘education doesn’t just give people the tools to make a good living – it gives them the character to live a good life, to be good citizens’.

Here’s the first episode of Radio 4’s new pub philosophy show, The Philosophy Arms. It’s about the ‘happiness machine’, and features another Neo-Aristotelian, universities minister David Willets, defending an Aristotelian conception of happiness.

Here’s yet another Neo-Aristotelian, Martha Nussbaum, talking about her new book, and how she was inspired to become a philosopher when she was sent on an exchange to live with some Welsh factory workers near Swansea and became depressed and outraged by the poverty of their lives, and “the lack of protest”.

Here’s Geoff Dyer giving a recent lecture at Queen Mary University about the essay (skip to five hours in!)

Here’s a Stephen Pinker review of Roy Baumeister’s new book, Willpower – he’s doing a talk at the Manhattan Institute on September 22nd, for any New Yorkers out there.

And finally, here’s a story about a drunken elk getting stuck in a tree in Sweden. Clearly misinterpreted the whole ‘higher Power’ thing.

See you next week,