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Set your intention

In less than a month, I will be sitting in the Amazon jungle, tripping out on ayahuasca. I’m in the midst of my preparation for this nine-day retreat. I have to start the special diet – no pork, no alcohol, no drugs, and no masturbation. There goes my Friday night. 

The Temple of the Way of Light, the centre where I’m doing the retreat, tells participants to set their intention:

Your intention is your mantra, focus and thread to the material realm. It can help you keep focus while engaged with this deep work. Ayahuasca will show you many things, but you can also ask her what to show you. When trying to understand and make meaning of your experience with this medicine, you will find your original intention a helpful reference.

Consider: What do you need? Where are you stuck? What do you want to know about yourself? Are you in a relationship that is causing you to suffer? Are you looking for resolution with something? Do you need clarity? Do you want to believe in something bigger or love yourself more? Whatever your questions, find the ones that are the most deeply present for you and write them down.

This ties in with one of my main findings from The Art of Losing Control – when we’re opening ourselves to ecstatic experiences, the best way to make sure you don’t wipe out is to remember the advice of psychedelic researcher Timothy Leary: pay attention to ‘set and setting’.

‘Setting’ refers to the context in which you’re unselfing: the guides, the other participants, the music, the art, the ritual, the natural environment, the values of the community. Is it a safe space to unself? Does it have good healing support in place if people have difficult experiences? Does it have good values or is it exploitative, controlling and cultish?

Checking the setting is particularly important when you’re taking psychedelics, because they make you so suggestible. You can find dark stories on the internet of psychedelic tourists ending up abused or in sex cults (that’s pretty much what Charles Manson’s ‘Family’ was – check out this great podcast series on it). I wouldn’t do psychedelics again unless I was very sure that the Temple is a safe place with trained therapists and wise healers on hand.

‘Set’, meanwhile, refers to the intention or attitude that you bring to an experience or ritual. Again, this can be a crucial factor in determining if your experience is healing or harmful. You realize, when you’re in deep states of absorption or trance, quite how sensitive your mind, emotions and body are to the attitudes and values you bring.

There was one moment, on a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat, when I was sitting in absolute agony from the pain in my knees and thighs. Tears were rolling down my face. It was an hour-long meditation, I was about 40 minutes in, and I thought there was no way I could possibly get to 60 minutes without moving my legs. Then, somehow, I shifted my attitude to one of equanimity, and the pain totally transformed and disappeared.

So what’s my intention for the ayahuasca retreat? I’m not expecting a joy-ride. I’ve heard from enough people who’ve taken ayahuasca to expect it to be physically and emotionally hard at times. I’m prepared for moments of fear, pain, nausea, loneliness, disorientation, and so on. I have coping mechanisms for the darker moments: remind myself to trust the process, trust myself, follow the breath, don’t fight it, focus on love. Little maxims like that can help you steer on the big waves. 

But my main intention is to heal and open my heart, and improve my ability to trust myself and other people. This has been my mission throughout the last five years of researching and writing The Art of Losing Control. I wrote in one of the drafts:

Midway through my life, I decided to go beyond Stoicism and search for the ecstatic. As an introverted, cerebral, bachelor academic, I wanted to loosen up and learn to let go. Stoicism helped me create an ‘inner citadel’, a sense of detachment and personal control, which lowered my social anxiety. But I still felt lonely and disconnected. Safe in my citadel, I yearned for the surrender of love.

As Simon and Garfunkel put it, in a great critique of Stoicism:

I’ve built walls

A fortress, steep and mighty

That none may penetrate

I have no need of friendship

Friendship causes pain.

It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.

I am a rock

I am an island

I have my books

And my poetry to protect me

I am shielded in my armour

Hiding in my room

Safe within my womb

I touch no one and no one touches me

I realized Stoicism – itself a very individualist philosophy – was not the raft I needed on the next stage of my journey. I looked, in 2012 and 2013, to Christianity to give me a greater sense of connection and community, and it worked to some extent, but failed in others. I failed to meet either Jesus or my wife, or to find a church I felt at home in. Apart from that, a complete success.

This month, I turn 40, and I’m as single as ever. I know I’m not alone in that, and that many of you are single and happy with it, finding meaning in your friendships, work, creativity and spirituality. I also have much to be grateful for. It may be that I haven’t ‘settled down’, got married and started a family for external, objective reasons – I haven’t met the right person yet, or I’m just a natural loner.

But I wonder if there are internal, subjective barriers, which I can shift. I was almost permanently single in my 20s, when I was recovering from social anxiety and PTSD, and only really started having relationships in my 30s. I was still pretty jumpy then. I think I may not trust that I’m capable of family life, or that I can be with others that much. When you’ve had trauma in your life, you expect things to go wrong – you expect people to die, relationships to collapse. That’s why Stoicism helps – it teaches you to be detached. But I think I need to trust myself and accept myself as an imperfect, vulnerable person who needs other people (a very un-Stoic idea), and to accept the other person too, with all their imperfections. I am far too critical both of myself and others.

Of course, there is something paradoxical in this search of mine over the past few years. In search of connection and ecstasy, I spent four years largely alone, reading and writing. Now, in search of relationships and community, I head off into the jungle, alone. Doh!

It may be that Ayahuasca tells me to learn to love and accept myself, whether I’m single or in a relationship. It may tell me, you are always in relationships, and you are always alone, and you need to accept and appreciate both these states. It may be that neither Jehovah nor Ayahuasca are into being treated as a cosmic dating app.  It may be she has something completely different to tell me.

It may be I am utterly crazy to try psychedelics again, considering my bad trips when I was 18. I wouldn’t take this step unless I felt it was necessary, and that I had done what I could to prepare myself and manage the risks.

I’m very lucky, of course, to have the time and money to invest in my personal growth. Lucky, privileged, self-absorbed, white, bourgeois, cis-man me with my white middle-class problems! I know, it’s kind of bullshit. But I don’t expect this to be particularly fun. And I am focused mainly on trying to help other people, by sharing whatever wisdom I come across. That’s the most important intention one can set. Without the intention outwards, it’s really just a journey up one’s own arse.

If you enjoy this blog, please support it on Patreon. Then you get to request what I write about and research! This week, Patron Alex asked me to describe the bad LSD trips I mentioned above, the sadistic f*ck. OK Alex, here goes. The main thing I struggled with, both times, is I couldn’t think of anything to say! I had an identity, at that time, that was very focused on performance and approval, and suddenly I felt totally blocked, and negated. I then became paranoid that I was somehow letting everyone down by being so silent. I think I had both introverted and extraverted states in my personality, but the extraverted states had been much more affirmed and approved of – a new study found that mothers would prefer their babies be extravert to a host of other, more moral, characteristics.

The second bad trip – the worse time – I was at a clubbing after-party, on LSD, and didn’t know anyone well. I sat in the corner feeling incredibly afraid and self-conscious, so afraid I couldn’t move – it was a complete body-freeze situation. Eventually I left the room, lay down in another room, and imagined I could hear everyone else in the room talking about me. I then didn’t talk about the experience, to anyone, for years. Genius. So really, the LSD exposed a flaw, or crack, in my character – an identity over-weighted towards pleasing and impressing others. I hope, this time, I will be able to deal with that particular monster if it arises, firstly because you don’t really need to chit-chat on an ayahuasca ritual, secondly because I’m now much better at expressing my emotions and asking for help, and thirdly, I’ve learned to care less what others think of me. We’ll see.

Gay Pride shows how Christian our culture still is

It was when I took the escalator in Tottenham Court Road station that I realized quite how much Gay Pride has been embraced as a national festival. The entire tube station was festooned in rainbow colours, like a SuperMarioKart racetrack. Outside, a huge sign read Love is Love.

Can you imagine a tube station blaring out any other social or ethical message to the same extent? Equal pay for women? Care for the environment? Love of God? I realized that Gay Pride / LGBTQ rights has gone in 50 years from being a very marginal and unpopular issue, to being a foundational dogma of our secular, liberal society.

It’s no longer one view among many views which a reasonable person might hold (like being a carnivore or supporting prison reform). It has been taken out of the forum of debate, and become part of the main code of our culture, un-editable.

50 years ago, a handful of brave politicians stuck their neck out to campaign for the de-criminalization of homosexuality, and did so only by insisting sick deviants deserved pity rather than prison.

Today, Gay Pride has official government support – a friend from Number 10 told me the prime minister must make a supportive speech on Pride, as she must on Eid, Easter, Diwali and Chanukah. If an MP or councillor suggests homosexuality is not natural or acceptable then, like Tim Farron, they’re unlikely to be in frontline politics for long.

Other pillars of the establishment hoist the rainbow flag: the foreign office, the police force, the fire service, the army, the NHS, the British Museum, the National Trust. The BBC commissioned a series of programmes, Gay Britannia. I’m surprised we don’t drop rainbow bombs on ISIS.

If you’re one of the 12-25% of the population who still believe homosexuality should not be accepted, or who disapprove of gay marriage, you may be miffed. You may think the secular, liberal state isn’t really neutral, that your opinion has been declared invalid and illegal.

Well…that’s the way it goes. This issue has been taken up by our society as a way we define ourselves, it’s become part of the story we tell ourselves about who we are. Myth-making is a strange, non-rational process, and for this round you’re on the wrong side of it.

Why have LGBTQ right become such a foundational myth for our society, when LGBTQ people are only 10% of our society? Why are transgender rights given so much airtime when transgender people constitute roughly 0.1% of the population?

Perhaps it’s because championing LGBTQ rights is a way for post-religious societies to reassure themselves they’re still morally good, even though they’re post-religious. We can congratulate ourselves that we’re better than old, homophobic, Christian Europe or nasty, Islamic fundamentalist cultures – we let love rule! We voted a drag queen the winner of Eurovision! Fuck you, traditional religious societies: we’re secular Europe and we’re fabulous. Seen this way, Gay Pride is a way for secularists to celebrate Europe coming out of the closet of Christianity.

It’s true that Christianity has attacked homosexuality for millennia, and that societies become more accepting of homosexuality as they become less Christian (see the Pew Research chart below). And I also believe (as you probably do too) that LGBTQ liberation is something to celebrate – it’s a moral achievement, part of humans’ millennia-long expansion of love and respect, a step forward that happened despite the church, not because of it.


Seen another way, however, the festival of Gay Pride shows that post-religious societies are not post-sacred. Gay pride is a sacred festival – a celebration of love, pride and dignity as sacred values (complete with anthems, costumes, bunting and unicorns). Pride also shows that post-Christian societies are still very Christian in their ideals and emotional narratives. Yes, Gay Pride is a very Christian festival. It shows that secular liberal culture is still improvising its sacred rituals out of the Christian fancy-dress box.

Why Gay Pride is such a Christian festival

The message of Pride – social liberation from fear and oppression – is an improvisation of the old standard from Exodus. One day my people will be free. It’s a riff from an earlier improvisation by the civil rights movement of the 1960s. When you listen to gay house music of the late 1980s, made at the height of the AIDS epidemic, it sounds like Martin Luther King with an 808 beat. So many of the early gay house anthems are soaring gospel epics, singing of The Promised Land, praying for Freedom, longing for Some Day when Your Love will lift us up and we will Finally be Free.

The message of Pride is also one of personal liberation – the individual’s journey through alienation and oppression until they find the True Me. We in post-60s liberal society love that story and tell it over and over.

It’s originally a Christian story. Jesus finds himself and becomes Christ. Saul becomes Paul. Augustine finally gets together with God. How early Christians must have shocked their parents and scandalized their society. ‘Mum, Dad, I’ve got something to tell you. I’m a Christian.’ You’re a what?? Are you sure it’s not just a phase?

The drama of the Christian personal revelation – the first love, the inner wrestling, being born-again, then coming out despite the risk – is something new in antiquity. It’s not Greek or Roman at all. Compare Augustine’s Confessions to Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.

Marcus is not really interested in himself as an individual. He’s a collection of beliefs illuminated by reason. He uses his journal to analyze his beliefs and habits, and bring them into accord with the cosmic rationality of the Logos. Not much drama there. Augustine’s Confessions, by contrast, is an intensely emotional journey of transformation in which Augustine encounters a loving God, resists Him, surrenders to Him, becomes a new person, and then comes out of the closet as a Christian in the Roman empire. It is a highly dramatic, highly emotional story of personal liberation. Very Gay Pride.

It’s customary today for Christians to condemn the individualism of secular liberal society, but as Larry Siedentrop and others point out, Christianity invented the individual and bequeathed us secular individualism. In Christianity, the individual person is a unique soul, loved and desired by a personal God, and they remain a person even in the afterlife. The individual soul and its personal choices are more sacred than the social order. This shocking idea is implicit in Greek philosophy but only really developed in Christianity. Any person is sacred? Even a woman? Even a slave? Even a black man? Even a homosexual? Yes, all are sacred, unique, fabulous, loved by God.

This idea immediately creates a tension between the individual and the community. Jesus tells his mother, I know you not. He abandons his family, abandons carpentry, he and his disciples drop out of society and hit the road to find the Real Me, the Kingdom of Heaven within. Christian pastors condemned baby-boomers’ restless search for personal authenticity, but if you want to find the roots of Easy Rider, look in the Gospels.

Of course, early Christianity was both radically individualist (my personal journey to God is more important than the social order) and radically communitarian. The born-again Christian is welcomed into the new family of the loving Christ, they celebrate in the love-feast, there’s lots of hugs, tears, kissing and so on. They stand in front of the community and tell their testimony. I was lost but now I’m found. I’m coming out. Cue wild applause. Very Gay Pride.

Secular liberalism, and particularly the expressive individualism of the last few decades, did not abandon this Christian narrative of personal liberation, it just secularized it.

Our favourite trope, repeated in endless movies, is the awkward outsider who eventually learns to love themselves, and then, in the climax of the movie, they reveal their new, authentic, fabulous self to the public, through a speech, a song, a dance or something. At first the public isn’t sure how to react, but then they react with wild applause. The new authentic identity of the hero is publicly affirmed. The ugly duckling is confirmed as a swan.

I’ve found the Real Me and it’s fabulous. Now love me

This trope is repeated, with variations, in films including Napoleon Dynamite, Dirty Dancing, Little Miss Sunshine, Mean Girls, About a Boy, Wedding Crashers, Jerry McGuire, Billy Elliott, Silver Linings, The Full Monty. It’s also endlessly repeated in reality TV talent shows like Britain’s Got Talent: Susan Boyle waddles on stage and then reveals herself as a nightingale.

I think that’s something of the ethos of Gay Pride. I used to be bullied at school but now here I am, I’m out and fabulous! It’s post-Christian – but the part of Loving God is now played by the Public.

Perhaps there is a tension in that recasting. God loves us no matter how rubbish we are (so Jesus says anyway). But the Public? They love us if we’re entertaining and personable. And if we’re not? Will they tire of us if our performance drags, if our make-up runs, if our jokes fall flat, if the lines start to show on our face?

Can the public’s love pick us up when we are broken? We hope so. That’s why we pour our hearts out on social media – I have depression, I have bulimia, I self-harm. This is the real, inner me, now love me. Is internet love reliable? Not entirely.

Love is Love…But as Haddaway asked, what is love? Is it something we can give ourselves? Yes, but sometimes we can’t. Is it something we get from our parents? Ideally, but not always. Is it something the public can give us? Yes, but sometimes they don’t. Is it something that genuinely transcends the social order and the fickleness of public opinion, something that transcends how well we perform, how well we strut our stuff on the catwalk of life?

I hope so. I still think there is something in you and me that is more than me and you – a spark of the infinite loving I AM which some call God – and it is this spark which makes us all both worthy of love and capable of giving love. It is the sparkling glitter of consciousness. which exists in men, women, children, slaves, Jews, Gentiles, atheists, homosexuals, and other animals.

So, Christians, if the Gay Liberation movement annoys you, blame St Augustine. Blame Jesus. Or, alternatively, celebrate Pride as the latest riff in a long history of Christian and post-Christian improvisation. I wonder in what unimaginable manger the Holy Spirit will turn up next?

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