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An encounter with the Mountain King

Right at the end of my book, I talk about a strange experience I had on a mountain in Norway a decade ago. It was, you might say, a religious or mystical experience. I tucked it away at the end of the book for a very important reason: I wrote the book for theists and atheists, and I didn’t want to put off any atheists (at least, not until the very end). Ancient Greek and Roman philosophies are a meeting ground for theists and atheists, a common drinking-spot in an acrimonious time, so I was tempted to leave my own God-thoughts right out of it.  In addition, I wasn’t sure whether to talk about such a private experience, and risk commodifying it. It fact, I only put the account into a very late draft, when my publisher said the book was too short…and I was still in two minds whether to do it.

When I was promoting the book in Holland last week, some interviewers asked me about that moment as their very first question, which showed at least that they’d read the whole book.  So, today, I’m going to talk briefly about what happened, and explain why I still haven’t joined a religion, why I remain ‘spiritual but not religious’, and why I think science is the friend of God and not the enemy.

Back in 2001, I had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder for roughly five years. It was caused by a couple of LSD bad trips when I was a teenager, which left me scarred, withdrawn, socially anxious and uncertain of reality. For five years, I became more and more lost and paranoid, a stranger to myself. Then, in February 2001, my family travelled to Norway, to the Peer Gynt region, where my great-great grandfather built a hytte. We share it with the extended family, and my family usually goes there once a winter, mainly for the cross-country skiing. Here is a photo of our hytte:

This year, we decided to do some downhill skiing on the first day. We also, for some stupid reason, decided to go down the black slope first. Oh fateful choice! It was snowing up there at the top of Valsfjel, visibility was poor. There was an ill wind from the north. The owls were restless in the trees. We set off down the slope, down the particularly steep slope at the beginning and….I smashed through a fence on the side of the slope and fell…








I fell 30 feet or so, broke my left femur, broke two vertebrae in my back, and knocked myself unconscious. Then, I’m not sure if it was while I was unconscious or after I had woken up, this happened: I saw a bright white light, something like this:

….and felt completely filled with love, and a knowledge or gnosis that there was something in me and all of us that cannot be broken, that cannot die.  Everything was OK.

I realised where I was and what had happened, and I immediately tried to wiggle the toes on my left foot, to see if I was paralysed. I could wiggle them. So I also knew that the worst that had happened was I’d broken my leg, and that, on a more terrestrial level, everything was OK. It was funny how calm and detached my mind was as it checked out the injury – I think that often happens in a bad accident, before the shock kicks in.

My uncle skied up and I heard him say ‘Oh God’. I tried to tell him that it was fine, that I’d had a remarkable experience, a peak experience (or should that be ‘off-peak’) but the words came out as gobbledy-gook, either because I was speaking in tongues, or I’d knocked myself silly. Then a motor-sledge came towing a stretcher, I was taken down to a hut at the bottom of the mountain, and put on a table while they staunched the bleeding. My father came in to the hut at that point. Here’s a picture of my father:

My father and I had not had a great relationship for the years immediately preceding the accident, because I was so uptight, anxious, and defensive towards the world, particularly the world of work. And, to a large extent, my father represented the world of work to me – the world of the office, the city, the career. My failure in that area of life (I was a business journalist, struggling with social anxiety, and very bad at getting on with co-workers and banker-contacts) felt to me like I was failing my father, who was very good at his city job and very charming with everyone he met. So I was quite defensive around him, which came across as hostility. It didn’t help that my father endlessly offered me advice on how to do things better, from clothing to shaving to even opening a tin of beans, which made me feel a Grade A Dufus. So, we had a somewhat strained and antagonistic relationship at that point.

Well, it was a strangely beautiful moment when he came into that shed – beautiful for me anyway, probably fairly horrifying for him. All that antagonism left, and I was simply his son, who had hurt himself. We’ve had a great relationship pretty much since then (we had a great relationship when I was growing up too, there was just four years in the middle which were a bit tricky…he had no idea I was internally miserable from drug-related trauma. None of my family or friends did. I was a master at hiding my feelings).

So, back to the story. A helicopter came and carried me away. I was taken to Lillehammer hospital, and went straight under the knife. I still have the metal pole in my leg that the surgeon put in that day. I spent a week in Lillehammer hospital, my father visiting me every day. I was very weak and whacked out. I remember I read Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, but to this day I can’t remember a single detail of the plot. Anyway, I felt fantastic – not physically, but spiritually. I felt like the crash had re-connected me to myself, to my heart and soul. For five years, I had felt completely detached from my feelings, or at least, from any good feelings. I hadn’t been able to love, or to relate to other people – all those pro-social feelings had been frazzled by the trauma. And now, for some reason, they came flooding back. I went from paranoia to eunoia. My inner Furies were transformed into the Eumenides. It was like spring after a long winter.

Of course the euphoria died away. But I retained an insight into my condition. I realised what caused my five years of suffering was not necessarily a drug-induced chemical imbalance in my brain, as I had feared. There was nothing permanently wrong with me. In fact, even if the drugs had triggered my trauma, what sustained it was my attitudes – specifically, my fear of others’ judgement of me, my fear of being labeled a failure or outcast. I looked to others’ judgements for self-validation, and this raised other people above me like a God, and made me permanently anxious and afraid of what that God might say. It also created a feedback loop between my idea of self and the reactions of other people. My defensive expectations became a self-fulfilling prophecy, like this: (I have spared no expense with this graph…)

And I realised, on that mountain, that I didn’t need to look to other people’s approval for self-worth. It seemed to me, in that moment, that we all have an immortal and invaluable soul within us, worth far more than any fleeting public approval. It’s always there, it never deserts us, its value does not rise or fall with the approval or disapproval of the world. The Gospel of St Thomas says: ‘The kingdom is like a man who had a hidden treasure in his field without knowing it.’ Rumi said: ‘Why are you so enchanted by this world, when a mine of gold lies within you?’ Experiencing that directly, and trusting in it, I could relax, and not see others as judges or executioners, but simply as fellow humans, as brothers and sisters.

When I relaxed and accepted myself, many of my ‘demons’ calmed down and became friends. By demons I mean parts of ourselves that we can’t accept, that we push away and demonize because they don’t fit our public image. If we learn to accept them, they become allies and give us strength – the Furies become Eumenides. But sometimes we have to let go of our false public images and stop trying to live up to worldly expectations, to accept and placate the demonic bits of the psyche (getting a bit mystical here, forgive me!)

Alas, even that insight faded after a while. I went back to work, hobbling on crutches, and before long I was depressed and anxious again ( I was in a job I disliked, after all). The bad old mental habits came back. And that’s when I discovered Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and recognised that it fit the insights I had gained on the mountain.  I realised the connection between CBT and Greek philosophy, and the Greeks’ idea of trusting in the God within. CBT gave me a systematic way to change my habitual beliefs and actions – that’s what I needed.

Why, you ask, did I not become a Christian after that experience?

Peer Gynt meeting the Mountain King

Well…I’m still not sure what happened on that mountain. It could have been my unconscious, engineering a situation in which I could be wounded and could go through the healing process I had denied myself. It could have been God…but which god? My own guardian-daemon? Some local mountain spirit? In fact, the mountain I injured myself on, Valsfjel, is famous in Norwegian mythology for being the home of the Mountain King in the myth of Peer Gynt. Peer knocks his head on a rock, goes to see the Mountain King, and learns the essence of the Troll way: “Be true to yourself and to hell with the world.'” Perhaps the Mountain King helped me!

To be honest, I do believe I was helped by something outside of me, and I do think there are benevolent non-human forces in the multiverse that sometimes help us when we need help. But alas, they don’t appear to be all-powerful. The universe is a messy, chaotic and imperfect place, closer perhaps to the Olympian universe than the monotheistic one, and in that universe people can suffer terribly, and unfairly. But I believe, as the Stoics did, that there is a higher law that roughly shepherds gods and men, and that law is connected to consciousness and compassion. It seems to me that humans’ idea of God has never stayed still, it is always evolving, as we discover more about the cosmos. We must be prepared to give up our definitions, and follow the discovery wherever it leads.

Of course, you may think it’s strange that my philosophy should be so much about control, and self-knowledge, and self-mastery, when it emerged from an experience beyond my control, beyond my knowledge, beyond my power. Well, such paradoxes are in Greek philosophy too – it emphasises reason and self-mastery, yet its word for happiness is eudaimonia, which literally means ‘having a kindly daemon within’.  The daemon within us appears to work hand-in-hand with reason. Perhaps in some ways it is reason, although it also talks to us in dreams and  visions.  I don’t know where those insights on the mountain came from – but they made sense to my reason long after the white light had faded from my memory. And you don’t need to believe in God to apply them. In that sense, I don’t see science and spiritual experience as enemies, I see them as allies in our exploration of reality.


Here are some other links, back on planet Earth:

If you live in the North of England and are interested in community philosophy, the charity SAPERE is looking to train some people in community philosophy facilitation in a course this January. Details here. 

This Tuesday in London, Natalie Banner of Kings College London is giving a talk at Pub Psychology on mental illness. Details here.

Here’s a good Slate piece on Petr Kropotkin, anarchist prince, prison-escapee, and prophet of the evolution of cooperation.

I chaired an event at the RSA earlier this week, where I met the film-maker Stephen Trombley and one of the RSA’s delightful events people – Mairi Ryan. Mairi told me about a competition the RSA organised for young animators to animate their talks. Here’s one of the winners, animating Susan Cain’s talk on introversion.

Well done Obama.  For the Republicans, however, it was a rude collision between faith-based politics and evidence-based politics. A clash, if you will, between the geeks and the bible-bashers. And the geeks (ie Nate Silver) won. Here’s Jon Stewart failing to hide his glee.

I gave a talk today at the British Arts Festivals Association, on philosophy at festivals. Here are the slides.

The School of Life is opening in Australia!

Here’s a nice Guardian piece by Alok Jha (journalist and one of the presenters on the Science Club on BBC 2) on how science became entertaining and grass-rootsy.

Here is a sweet letter from William James to his 13-year-old daughter when she was suffering from low spirits, as he often did (thanks to Francesca Elston for sharing this one).

See you next week – and thanks to the person who did the 24th review on Amazon, I was stuck on 23 for ages! The more the better. Not that it matters, at a cosmic level.


PoW: Make Hay while the rain falls

I’m writing this from the Hay-On-Wye book festival, where the rain is coming down piteously, maintaining a steady rhumba on the roofs of the marquees. There are actually two festivals here – the main one, sponsored by the Telegraph, which is rather blue-rinse; and How The Light Gets In, which is a philosophy festival. The main event is huge – a whole mini-city of walkways and pavilions. HTLGI feels more like a village fete, with the speakers and audience all mixed in together.

HTLGI started five years ago, and has done well to establish itself and to get media attention. The Guardian had an editorial this week, suggesting that it showed a ‘new confidence and expansiveness’ in British philosophy, and indicating that philosophy and ethics still had one or two interesting things to say to science. Amen to that. I think the festival could have more audience participation, and younger speakers – the youngest I’ve seen so far is in their mid-40s. I don’t see how you’re really going to have new and edgy ideas from people in the last third of their careers, which is the stage where most thinkers simply churn out the same stuff for bigger advances.

I spoke at the main festival on Tuesday – it was the biggest audience I’ve ever spoken to. I’m sure the majority had never heard of me and turned up on a whim (or because it was one of the few events not sold out in advance). Anyway, it went well, I think – the audience seemed warm and appreciative, except for one fellow who said he’d read the book and decided I was a charlatan! He obviously felt so strongly about this he was willing to come to Hay and sit through my talk just to tell me. The crowd booed him down, but personally I consider him a loyal reader.

The real discovery of the festival for me is Tobias Jones, a 40-something writer who was speaking here yesterday (that’s him on the right). I missed the talk but happened to pick up his book, Utopian Dreams, in the festival bookstore. It’s absolutely brilliant. He goes on a search, with his wife and child, for true alternative communities, and writes six chapters about his time in six religious communities – a Catholic village in Italy where there is no money; a Quaker retirement village, a New Age community in the Alps, and so on.

What makes the book so good is partly his intelligence and ability to weave together journalist accounts of his time in the communities with more philosophical reflection on what sustains and destroys communities. But above all it’s his voice, his sincerity. He’s really searching for community and for a good life, not just doing freaky tourism (which I think is an accusation that could be directed at Jon Ronson) or self-regarding self-parody (which could be directed at Geoff Dyer). Tobias Jones is genuinely searching, not just writing a book. It comes as no surprise to read on the internet that he’s since set up his own commune in the woods of Somerset, where people in crisis can go and stay for free. He finances it from his earnings writing murder-mysteries!

That impresses me – he actually sets up a community, rather than simply preaching community from the safety of the lecture-circuit (as do, say, Jonathan Haidt or Alain de Botton). There’s a giving up of ego there, a willingness to engage with the messy reality of human life.

If a writer puts so much effort into publicity, into marketing, into sales, then they’re probably seeking fame and status rather than real community (I write this to myself – as a person attracted to fame and status). But fame and status are the enemy of community – they turn you into an object to be applauded on the stage, a commodity, a reflection in a mirror, rather than helping you meet other humans and connect with them. De Botton said he wanted to set up the School of Life in the manner of Epicurus’ garden. But is he ever there? Does he make himself available to the people who come there looking for answers? Tobias Jones lives in the same house as the people who come looking for help – he actually pays for them to stay there. That’s making yourself available. That’s serving others.

Reading his book makes me feel a bit immature, to be honest, and makes me question my own values and goals, as a searcher for the good life. Are my own goals, in fact, very conventional and bourgeois: a job I enjoy and for which I get recognition and status, a happy family, a nice home? Should I be giving more of myself, as Jones does? Am I writing about the good life without really taking the risks to find it? But then, another part of me reads Jones’ account of the challenges of running a commune for the emotionally and spiritually broken, and thinks, God, that sounds hard.

Anyway, at the moment my plan is still to develop philosophy courses for the general public in the UK. Not very radical perhaps, but it’s a start. Hopefully I’ll be working with Tim LeBon, the cognitive therapist and philosophical counsellor, to develop a course that combines Positive Psychology with ethics and philosophy. Tim writes here on the need for this balance in this excellent piece.

Talking of Positive Psychology, here’s a piece from two American psychologists criticizing the US Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness programme (the resilience-training programme designed by Martin Seligman, the inventor of Positive Psychology). The authors say that the programme evaluation failed to test if it had managed to reduce incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression – which surely was the whole point of it.

I also discussed the rise of Positive Psychology, and the danger of an over-instrumentalised and over-automated attitude to the Good Life, in this long essay in American magazine The New Inquiry.

This piece from the Journal of Mental Health, by two academics from the School of Sociology at University of Nottingham, criticises the happiness / mental health initiatives of Lord Richard Layard. The paper argues:

firstly, that Layard’s approach does little to tackle the structural inequalities within society, which are known to be prime indicators of mental ill health. The second critique is that Layard’s proposals form a misguided attempt to use therapy as a way of compensating for a breakdown in community. The third and related critique is that Layard’s proposals suggest a medicalization of social issues in ways that individualize social problems.

Fair enough. As Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan recently noted, the best predictor of depression is poverty. But are the authors saying that people with depression / anxiety / panic attacks need to wait for the complete overhaul of capitalist society before they can hope to stop having panic attacks? They are, it seems to me, making the inner / outer fallacy – either overcoming mental health problems is entirely an inner process (as perhaps CBT seems to suggest) or it’s entirely an external and social process (as the authors seem to suggest). Surely it’s both – you need to do inner work to strengthen yourself and make your self more autonomous and less prey to each compulsion or fixation, in order that you can engage effectively with society and change it. To challenge society, you need an anchored self. When I was emotionally disturbed, I was a passive victim, stuck in a job I hated, precisely because I couldn’t govern myself. Only when I learnt to govern myself more was I able to begin pushing against the conventions I was stuck in.

Nonetheless, the politics of well-being can certainly become too focused on inner work, ignoring social conditions – like housing for example. Happiness gurus often say ‘money doesn’t make you happy’. Perhaps not – but a nice home surely does? A garden does, doesn’t it? A beautiful view from your bedroom window does, doesn’t it? These are things that money buys.  The link between housing and well-being needs to be much more researched, as this article argues – because I think it is, potentially, the really revolutionary part of the politics of well-being.

Ed Milliband has appointed Jon Cruddas MP as his head of policy. Cruddas (that’s him on the left) is a philosopher-MP, who’s very into Aristotle, Thomas Paine, and other thinkers, and who wants to revive a form of Leftist communitarianism. He spoke about the politics of the good life here, and apparently wrote Milliband’s recent speech about the need for a more English sense of national identity, as opposed to Blairite jet-set neo-liberal cosmopolitanism.

Here’s a decent piece in the NY Times’ excellent philosophy blog, on overcoming philosophy’s western bias. Talking of which – do any of you know anything about philosophy in Brazil? I am interested in finding out more, to write a piece on it. It seems to me a country where practical philosophy is really flourishing.

Here’s another piece I did this week, in Wired UK magazine, on why we need to stop automatically pathologising religious or revelatory experiences, and try to find a more pragmatic way of understanding them and helping people to integrate them and find meaning in them.

Finally, I’d like to hear more from you, to hear your stories of whether or how you’ve been helped by philosophy and / or psychotherapy. I’d like to write some of them up, so we can share ideas and strategies for leading good lives. Get in touch if you’d be willing to help with that- your stories can be anonymous or not, as you prefer.

See you next week,