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Spiritual exercises

The spiritual experiences survey

One evening in the winter of 1969, the author Philip Pullman had a transcendent experience on the Charing Cross Road. He tells me:

Somewhere in the Middle East, some Palestinian activists had hijacked a plane and it was sitting on a runway surrounded by police, soldiers, fire engines, and so forth. I saw a photo of it on the front page of the Evening Standard, and then I walked past a busker who was surrounded by a circle of listeners, and I saw a sort of parallel. From then on for the rest of the journey [from Charing Cross to Barnes] I kept seeing things doubled: a thing and then another thing that was very like it. I was in a state of intense intellectual excitement throughout the whole journey. I thought it was a true picture of what the universe was like: a place not of isolated units of indifference, empty of meaning, but a place where everything was connected by similarities and correspondences and echoes. I was very interested at the time in such things as Frances Yates’s books about Hermeticism and Giordano Bruno. I think I was living in an imaginative world of Renaissance magic. In a way, what happened was not surprising, exactly: more the sort of thing that was only to be expected. What I think now is that my consciousness was temporarily altered (certainly not by drugs, but maybe by poetry) so that I was able to see things that are normally beyond the range of visible light, or routine everyday perception.

A scene from The Golden Compass, based on Pullman’s book

Pullman has rarely discussed the experience, although it left him with a conviction that the universe is ‘alive, conscious and full of purpose’. He tells me: ‘Everything I’ve written, even the lightest and simplest things, has been an attempt to bear witness to the truth of that statement.’

You could describe that moment as an ecstatic experience – Pullman felt suddenly shifted beyond his ordinary sense of self and reality, and connected to a cosmos alive with meaning and purpose. In his case, it was a spontaneous and unexpected experience, although he was evidently somewhat primed for it by his reading of Renaissance magic. I’m fascinated by such ecstatic experiences. How common are they in modern western culture? Have they become less common as our culture has become less religious and more rationalist? What triggers such experiences today? And how do we make sense of them, if not in a traditional Christian framework?

Spiritual experiences are becoming more common in UK and US, apparently

Research suggests such experiences are, surprisingly, becoming more common in western societies. The Religious Experience Research Centre set up in 1969 by Sir Alister Hardy asked British people: ‘Have you ever experienced a presence or power, whether you call it God or not, which is different from your everyday self?’. In 1978, 36% said yes, in 1987, that had risen to 48%. In 2000, over 75% of respondents to a UK survey conducted by David Hay said they were ‘aware of a spiritual dimension to their experience’. In the US, spiritual experiences are also apparently becoming more frequent – in 1962, when Gallup asked Americans if they’d ‘ever had a religious or mystical experience’, 22% said yes. That figure had risen to 33% by 1994, and 49% in 2009. The Pew Research Centre found last month that a ‘growing share of Americans regularly feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and a sense of wonder’, despite – or perhaps because of – the decline of religious affiliation in the US.

What’s going on? Several possible things. Hay suggested that a ‘deep cultural taboo’ existed against talking about spiritual experiences, because of the negative view of them held by mainstream psychology and psychiatry until recently. That taboo has lessened since the 1960s – psychiatry and psychology are becoming more open to ‘anomalous experience’ and aware they’re not usually pathological (quite the contrary). Culturally, we are becoming more OK about talking about them – one colleague dubs this ‘the Oprah effect’.  Both Christianity and spirituality have, since the 1960s, become much more experiential (see the work of Linda Woodhead on spirituality and Tanya Luhrmann on experiential Christianity). We are increasingly suspicious of external authorities – the church, the Bible – and more interested in our own spiritual experiences.

That goes for atheists too. While old-school atheists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett or Carl Sagan tended to be suspicious of spiritual experiences and to dismiss them as chemical side-effects, tricks or delusions of the brain, a growing number of atheists and humanists like Sam Harris, Barbara Ehrenreich or Philip Pullman are happy to talk about such experiences and insist on their importance for human flourishing. Indeed, Sanderson Jones, head of the Sunday Assembly (a network of humanist churches), describes his life-philosophy as ‘mystic humanism’.

Results of the survey

I thought it would be fun to do a little amateur survey of my own, using SurveyMonkey. As with my dream survey, there was a great response, with 309 people filling in my questionnaire. As with the dream survey, this is obviously a rather selective sample, i.e those who either read my blog, are connected to me on Twitter and Facebook, or are members of London Philosophy Club. Mainly British middle class people, in other words. But the survey attracted a good cross-section in terms of philosophical and religious view points – 25% Christian, 14% agnostic, 24% atheist / humanist, 30% spiritual but not religious. So what did the survey reveal? You can dig into the results for yourself here, but here’s a summary.

Firstly, I asked if people had ‘ever had an experience where you went beyond your ordinary sense of self and felt connected to something bigger than you’. 84% of you had, with 46% of you having such experiences less than 10 times, and a lucky 37% having them quite often. Only 16% said they’d never had such experiences – that rose to 22% for agnostics, 31% for humanists, and 43% for atheists. Those calling themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’ were the most likely to report such experiences, closely followed by Christians. So spiritual experiences seem very common – although there is obviously a self-selecting bias here, as those who aren’t interested in such experiences are less likely to bother with the survey.

I then asked if such experiences happened to you alone or with others, or both. William James and other researchers of ecstasy have thought such experiences usually or always happen to us alone. That’s not the case – only 37% of you say you’ve only had such an experience alone, with 63% saying they’ve had them with others. Ecstatic experiences are often collective.

Burning Man
A love-connection at Burning Man

What are such experiences like? People described all kinds of experiences, but the most common word they used was ‘connection’ and similar words like ‘unity’, ‘at one’, ‘merging’, ‘dissolving’- such words appeared in 37% of people’s descriptions. This tallies with what Dr Cheryl Hunt, editor of the Journal for the Study of Spirituality, told me yesterday at a conference: ‘Connection is the word people use most often to describe such experiences’.

Connection to what? Lots of things. People reported feeling connected to God, to Jesus, the Holy Spirit, angels, to the spirit of deceased loved ones, to the cosmos, to the energy of all things, to nature, to all beings, to humanity, to a loved one, to a group of people, to an animal…or to all of these things. Some examples:

Feeling this deep connection to the earth and to life and to God

feeling of warmth and connectedness with the earth and with other people

I’d taken acid in my 20s. I felt connected to the universe, as though I could understand all of the atoms in the far stretches of the galaxy

Feeling of being surrounded by joyful singing Angels

an overwhelming sense of ‘oneness’

I was in Bangkok surrounded by strange sounds and smells. Bells were ringing. It was quite hot, I was in a rickshaw. Momentarily I felt as though my own spirit had left my body and I became part of everything.

i was on the sofa [on ketamine] with a cat on my lap and stroked him endlessly until we became part of the same then both bodies seemed to rush in a tunnel of lights until we were in an open white space where we were suspended and part of everything.

a euphoric sense of loving everyone around me

Feeling at one with the universe, blissful

Standing on the tip of a mountain, watching the snow fall and suddenly feeling a strange sense of expansion and contraction where I became aware of an underlying ‘sameness’ between me, the snow and the mountain

on public transport, surrounded by people I have no connection with, I suddenly get an overwhelming feeling of love for them all

an immense empathy for anyone I met (including animals)

Watching the starry sky, and totally relaxing and feeling this amazingly huge universe is actually home…

When I spend time in deep conversation with one of my children it feels like we move to a higher level of consciousness. Often we will lose track of time and I feel connected to an unknown greater power.

Being very impressed by the sheer fucking scale of the universe and how I was super connected to all of it while at a jazz gig when I was 18 stoned and excited to popping point by the music

Being with a group where people take turns to speak and share authentically and are listened and responded to from the heart….there’s a feeling of surrender to the group

It was in a park. A windy day, and I cut through these magical woods on route and passed a natural pond which was absolutely alive. The wind was in such a direction that it was inspiring all kinds of amazing patterns in the pond. I was mesmerized looking at this and felt in a trance. I felt part of the pond, the wind, the patterns, my thoughts and feelings, the trees, wildlife, and was laughing out in joy.

Sometimes, we get a sense of a cosmic pattern through some strange coincidence, as when Volkonsky finds himself next to his nemesis Kuragin on a field-hospital bed in War and Peace, and ‘ecstatic pity and love for that man overflowed his happy heart’.

Bolkonsly and Kuragin in the BBC's adaptation of War and Peace - a moment of 'ecstatic pity'
Bolkonsly and Kuragin in the BBC’s adaptation of War and Peace

Check out this amazing story from the survey:

A month ago in a market in Myanmar I spotted across the vegetable sellers someone who I had tried to avoid meeting in London a city we both live in. This ex girlfriend who had been my ‘best friend’ since childhood betrayed our friendship by having an affair with my husband. She broke up my family and her own and although my husband was also culpable, the misery and guilt killed him prematurely, he had a massive heart attack and died at 55. So I have hated her, and forgiveness was not possible. I spotted her crouching to take a photograph and hid myself, whilst I looked at her. When I went back to my hotel that evening after having a wonderful evening watching the sun setting over the stupas, she was in the foyer with two friends I totally panicked and hid myself again. I watched them take her luggage to a room four doors down from mine. This event shook me coming as it did after a trip across se Asia where I had spent much time contemplating Buddhist teachings and in discussion with monks had thought about forgiveness and anger and attachment. I think this episode was in some way part of a transformative process forcing me to face my demons and let go of my hatred. The next day at breakfast I went down fully prepared to meet her and felt no fear or need to express anything, I felt nothing. She wasn’t there and I didn’t see her again.

You could call these experiences moments of love-connection. People feel expanded beyond their individual ego, ecstatically connected to someone, something, all things, in a way that is joyful, blissful, and loving. Ecstasy seems closely connected to empathy – both are a movement beyond the ego, a love-connection.

I asked what triggered such experiences. The most common triggers were nature, the arts (particularly doing or participating in creative practices), and contemplation / meditation. Drugs, romantic love / sex, and proximity to death (yours or someone else’s) were also common triggers. People also gave a lot of their own personal triggers, from cocoa ceremonies to dreams to conversations to dancing the tango.

It’s effing hard to talk about the ineffable

Connecting to God / Cosmos / energy / Logos / higher consciousness...er....what was the question again? Did I already say that? Hello? Echo!
What’s the question again?

How do people make sense of such experiences? It’s complicated! Only two thirds of you answered this question (it required people to think and write rather than just tick a box) and as a rough categorisation, 24% thought it was God or the Logos (though I didn’t ask what exactly people meant by God), 15% thought it was higher consciousness, 11% thought it was a mystery, 10% thought it was the energy of all things, 9% thought it was neural chemistry, and 3% thought all of the above. But these are very rough categorisations – quite often, people used multiple explanations – God, the energy of all things, nature, all life. People who defined themselves as atheists would still speak of ‘a raised state of consciousness…also perhaps some kind of brief connection to nature / logos’, or ‘a complete ecstatic feeling of oneness with the universe and that everything and I were interconnected’ or ‘a very real connection with the Cosmos’ or ‘Logos / chemical reaction’ or ‘all my atoms responding and resonating with a natural frequency’.

How we interpret such experiences may define whether we call ourselves a humanist, or a Christian, or pantheist, or materialist, and so on. But it is quite a fuzzy area – hard to know, hard to conceptualize, hard to explain. Sometimes people’s interpretations have changed over time. If they are ‘peak experiences’, we meet on the peak, but then streams run down and become separate rivers, valleys, landscapes. But up on the peak, the experiences are often quite similar. And it’s apparent, from the survey, that you don’t like labels, you don’t like being boxed into categories like ‘Christian’ or ‘atheist’. Over a quarter of you refused all such labels, including ‘spiritual but not religious’, and wrote your own ‘other’ down, including: Pyrrhonic sceptic, ‘bit of everything with strong Buddhist and shamanic strains’, ‘bit of Buddhist and Christian but not’, Stoic with Christian roots’, ‘pagan atheist’, ‘goddess feminist’, and my favourite: ‘Christian-Buddhist, Neo-Platonic, Universal agnostic even though I’m a traditional Anglo-Catholic Priest’. Surveys are useful but blunt, their categories don’t always capture the fluxiness of spiritual moments and the cultural identities we incorporate them into.

The fruit

OK, so we’re having more and more groovy spiritual experiences, and we’re not entirely sure what they mean. So what? What are the fruits? I asked how these experiences changed you. Of those who responded (226 of you) the most common way it changed you was to make you feel more connected, to feel ‘the world is my home’, ‘I am a grain of sand in the desert’; to feel more connection and empathy to other beings, a greater sense of compassion and love for them, and also to feel more loved yourself. The second most common way it changed you was to make you more open to a ‘wider sense of life’, it ‘made me open to other ways of looking at things’, it ‘opened the door to wider meanings’, it ‘made me less skeptical, less quick to judge, more compassionate’. It made some of you sense that we are not ‘just’ our brains, bodies or egos. Several of you reported feeling calmer, more ‘centred’, more ‘true to myself’, ‘more me’. It made some of you ‘seek more’, deepen your search, and in some cases led to major behaviour change (‘it pushes me to be a better person…to stay away from alcohol, womanizing and lying’) and major emotional change (‘they allow me to relinquish my desperate control over my negative feelings, either physical pain or mental depression or spiritual guilt. It’s like my well has run dry, but the very last bit of digging uncovered the spring that fills and refills the well of my soul.’) For several of you, such experiences strengthened your commitment to a particular practice – going to church, meditating, praying or, in one case, starting your own spiritual movement (the Sunday Assembly).

For me, the survey gives a fascinating snapshot of a culture that may be abandoning traditional religious affiliation but is still deeply interested in spiritual experiences and religious practices. Although 72% of you agree that ‘there is a taboo against talking about such experiences in western culture’, 80% say they’re happy to talk about them to friends and family, and only 2% say they’d be worried people might think they were crazy – the stigma attached to such experiences is much less than it was 50 years ago.

There is a risk, of course, of spirituality and Christianity becoming too obsessed with experiences – we can fetishize them, become thrill seekers, even addicted to them. Philip Pullman says: ‘Seeking this sort of thing doesn’t work. Seeking it is far too self-centred. It’s like ‘the pursuit of happiness’, which I’ve always thought an absolutely fatuous idea. Things like my experience (and other similar ones) are by-products, not goals. To make them the aim of your life is an act of monumental and self-deceiving egotism. YOU ARE NOT THAT IMPORTANT, but your work might be.’

Alas, most of us haven’t written His Dark Materials. And surely it’s not all about what we produce, is it? I think these moments of deep connection do something important for us and to us. They point beyond the isolated ego, make us feel ‘at home in the world’, and connect us in empathy and love to other beings – so they’re not just good for us, but also for others. And they are not an alternative to commitment, community and practice – they grow out of commitment, community and practice.

But are they just a feeling, or do such experiences give us insights into an actual physical connection between our minds / souls, other beings and the cosmos? Philip Pullman certainly thinks so – he’s one of a growing number of advocates for ‘pan-psychism’, which is the theory that consciousness is a fundamental feature of matter. At the least, we can say that, given how little we understand the nature of consciousness and matter, it’s possible such moments point to something real about the extended mind and its connection to others and to the cosmos. Meanwhile, the real challenge is to take such unusual experiences, and integrate them into ordinary life. To make the extraordinary ordinary and the ordinary extraordinary. In the words of Jack Kornfield, ‘after the ecstasy, the laundry’.

The big, messy tent of modern Stoicism

The modern Stoic movement, which brings together atheists and theists, is one example of a new friendship and alliance between people for whom metaphysical disagreements are less important than friendship and spiritual practice. The New Atheism wars are over, and a new messy spirituality has emerged.

Massimo Pigliucci converted to Stoicism last year. A prominent atheist philosopher living in New York, he felt stuck in a rut, lacking in purpose and worried by death. Secular humanism, he decided, was more of a ‘patchwork of liberal progressive positions than a coherent philosophy of life’. He didn’t want to go back to the Catholicism of his youth, but explored virtue ethics as a western alternative to Buddhism.

That’s when he came across Stoicism Today, a project that’s been running for the last three years, involving a group of British classicists, psychotherapists and philosophers (including me) who are interested in exploring Stoicism in modern life. Massimo was persuaded, and announced his conversion in a New York Times article, which went viral. He even got a Stoic tattoo. Last Saturday, he joined us, along with 300 other Stoics from around the world, for our annual gathering, Stoicon.

Stoicism, the ancient Greek philosophy that first appeared in Athens in around 300 BC, is enjoying a modern revival. As Christianity recedes in western societies, people are discovering they still need a life-philosophy to help them through life’s inescapable suffering. Many have turned to eastern philosophies – indeed, an all-party parliamentary group on mindfulness last month more or less anointed secular Buddhism as the UK’s official religion. But others are looking for something a bit closer to home, and Stoicism is in some ways a homegrown alternative to Buddhism, offering similar practical advice in how to control one’s thoughts, guide one’s value judgements and heal one’s negative emotions.

At Stoicon, we had presentations on Stoic virtue, Stoic friendship, Stoic therapy, Stoic visualization, and also critiques of Stoicism. One of the hits of the festival was a talk by Derren Brown, the stage magician, who proved to be deeply versed in the intricacies of ancient philosophy (he’s writing a book on it). For me, the highlight was meeting Stoics from around the world – some had travelled from as far afield as Hong Kong – and hearing how philosophy has helped them through adversity. ‘I owe my life to philosophy’ wrote Seneca, over two millennia ago. That’s still true for many people today.

The attempt to create a modern community of Stoics is relatively new, and somewhat paradoxical – there was no Stoic community in the ancient world, no collective worship or festivals, except for the ‘virtual community’ of rational souls. There have always been people drawn to Stoicism, from Montaigne to Frederick the Great to the novelist Tom Wolfe. But they tended not to congregate, or even know about each other.

That changed in the late 1990s, thanks to the internet. Fans of Stoicism started to connect, particularly via an organisation called NewStoa.com, and subsequently via Facebook and Reddit. Personally, I got into Stoicism in my mid-20s, through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. I discovered CBT was directly inspired by Stoicism, and decided to embrace it as a life-philosophy. I joined NewStoa and also got a Stoic tattoo (of the Stoic emblem designed by DT Strain). It seemed like the right thing to do.

We tried a first gathering in 2010, meeting in San Diego for a weekend of sun, sand, surfing and Socratic self-examination. It was not an entirely auspicious start. There were only 14 of us, yet we still managed to have our first schism, between those who embraced Stoicism as a theistic religion, and those who detested the very word ‘religion’.

Still, the grassroots revival of Stoicism continued, on the internet, in philosophy clubs, and in bookstores, thanks to books by Alain de Botton, William Irvine, Oliver Burkeman and Ryan Holiday. It proved particularly popular with US military officers, with entrepreneurs like Tim Ferriss, with comedians like Adrian Edmondson and John Lloyd, and with sportspeople. I run an occasional philosophy club for the players and coaches at Saracens, winners of the rugby Premiership last year, while Ryan Holiday’s book was widely circulated among the Patriots, winners of last year’s Super Bowl.

Academia has until recently been snooty about the idea that ancient philosophy can actually help people (it smacks of the Bottonisation of the humanities). But in 2012, academia got into the revival, when the Stoicism Today research project launched at Exeter University under the leadership of Professor Chris Gill. We ran a public engagement project called Stoic Week, in which people could download a free handbook and follow Stoic exercises for a week. We asked participants to fill in well-being questionnaires before and after the week, so we could assess the well-being impact of Stoic exercises (in brief, there is one). To our surprise, the project caught the public imagination, and this year 3,300 people from all over the world enrolled in the online course.

So what is modern Stoicism, and how does it differ from the ancient philosophy? Firstly, not everyone into modern Stoicism necessarily identifies as a full-blown Stoic – many of us are, like Cicero, eclectic in our approach to wisdom traditions. But we all agree that Stoicism has some wise and therapeutic insights into human nature and how to heal suffering, which were mistakenly neglected by academia for a century or so. Martha Nussbaum, the leading philosopher of emotions, says Stoic thinking on the emotions have ‘a subtlety and cogency that is unsurpassed in the history of western philosophy’.

Modern Stoics agree on the core therapeutic insight of Stoicism – ‘it’s not events, but our opinion about events, that cause us suffering’, as the philosopher Epictetus put it. We can’t always control or change external events, but we can control our opinion or attitude, and that gives humans a measure of self-determination. We also agree that the most important foundation for a good and happy life is not money, fame, power or pleasure, but a good character.

What of the Logos, the universal soul that ancient Stoics believed connected and guided all things? Modern Stoics agree to disagree about the Logos. Some embrace it as a sort of pantheistic God, others accept the idea that the cosmos obeys rational laws, others don’t give it much thought. Rather like mindfulness, modern Stoicism has flourished partly by parking the metaphysics and focusing on the ethics. Perhaps in the future, modern Stoics will engage deeper with physics, and with the Stoics’ intriguing idea that the universe is a web of interconnected consciousness.

So why a revival now? Perhaps Stoicism tends to flourish in times of global upheaval, when people lose faith in governments and look to self-reliance instead. As the psychotherapist Vincent Deary noted, taken to an extreme, modern Stoicism could become a toxic political ideology of ‘sucking it up’ when the government or company makes cuts.  But there is also a long tradition of Stoic resistance to power, from Cato to Nelson Mandela, who was inspired by the Stoic poem Invictus while in prison.

Personally, I no longer consider myself a card-carrying Stoic. Yes, every time I strip off at the beach, a part of me regrets the giant Stoic tattoo on my shoulder. But as Seneca almost said, life is too short for regrets.

There’s a lot that Stoicism misses out – music, dancing, imagination, sexual love, ritual, spiritual ecstasy, a loving relationship with God. I find it somewhat over-rationalistic, over-individualistic, and lacking in hope for the after-life. But I still owe it big time for helping me through the toughest period of my life.

And I love that Stoicon brings together people from many different cultural and religious traditions – this ecumenicism is a relief after the bitter fights of New Atheism. Stoicon featured theists like me, and atheists like Massimo and Derren Brown. It also welcomed Christian Stoics, Buddhist Stoics, Islamic Stoics, Aristotelians, Platonists and one lady into ‘vibro-acoustics’, who told me Seneca had appeared to her in a dream. We came together to celebrate our common love of wisdom. The eclecticism reminds me of the humanist circles of the Renaissance, back when ‘humanism’ meant ‘love of wisdom’.

Perhaps modern Stoicism is a big messy tent, typical of what David Bentley Hart calls the ‘incoherent bricolage’ of contemporary ethics. But I’ll take friendly messiness over fierce ideological coherence any day. And perhaps this very messiness illustrates a new sort of friendship between theists and atheists, who are less interested in doctrinal purity and denunciations, and more interested in friendship and practice.

I see this new spirit in places like the RSA’s Spirituality project, in the Sunday Assembly, in the How We Gather project, and in the rise of contemplative studies in academia. Friendship and practice first, doctrinal difference second. Hooray for the new messy spirituality.