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Our claustrophobic culture lacks transcendence

A drawing from Marvel 1602
A drawing from Marvel 1602

I’ve been working on a book provisionally entitled Modern Ecstasy for the last two years. I’m half-way through, and having a mid-season wobble. Turns out it’s difficult to write about transcendence. Who knew!

Why did I pick this topic? Why, I ask you, why?!

Here’s why. I owe much of my recovery from trauma to a near-death experience I had in 2001, when I encountered a shining white light filled with love for me and all humanity, which I think was what Meister Eckhart calls ‘the divine ground of our being’. That encounter healed me – that, along with several years of Greek philosophy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

Having written a book about Greek philosophy and CBT, I wanted to write the other half of the story, and look at ecstatic experiences – moments when we feel we go beyond our ordinary selves and connect with some higher transcendent reality, which you may or may not call God.

Greek philosophy and CBT is quite an easy sell in our culture – we like rational, technocratic quick fixes or ‘life-hacks’ that give us more control of our selves. Ecstatic experiences are a harder sell. We don’t talk much about ecstasy or transcendence any more. Mainstream culture has become quite resolutely this-world, naturalistic, scientific, focused on the tangible and measurable. The idea of surrendering control and being filled by a spirit or God no doubt seems bonkers to many.

Last year, I was asked to give a talk on transcendence to an informal gathering of Radio 4 producers called the Ideas Club. I think I bombed. Probably because I was incoherent, but also, I think, because Radio 4 producers, like most guardians of high-brow British culture (The Economist, the Guardian, Prospect, the London Review of Books, most of academia), are not really into transcendence, certainly not the religious variety. It makes them uncomfortable, like when a nutter starts talking to you on the bus. Name one BBC TV or radio programme that explored religious transcendence.

Now, you may find our culture’s lack of transcendent woo-woo refreshing. Personally, I find it claustrophobic. Transcendence is like oxygen. Without it we suffocate. In fact, in the stand-off between European secularism and Islam, I have some sympathy with the Muslims. They have a sense – quite accurate – that their supernatural world-view is under existential threat. In one generation they have moved from the collective sea of religious faith to the parched shore of the most secular culture in human history. They are flapping on the beach, gasping for breath.

I would like to dig a well or do a rain-dance to help to bring more transcendence into western culture, while still retaining all that is good about secular liberalism (gay rights, women rights, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and so on). No biggie.

Well, two years in, turns out it is a bit of a biggie. There are three main stumbling blocks in my Search for Transcendence.

1 The horcrux conundrum

You remember the horcruxes in Harry Potter, the scattered objects in which Voldemort had put part of his soul? Harry and the gang had to find them all. Well, that’s a bit what it’s like trying to track down transcendence in modern western society.

Before the Enlightenment, most transcendent experiences happened within the context of religion. Since the Enlightenment, there’s been what Charles Taylor called a ‘nova effect’ – and transcendence has spilled out into many different areas of life. Romantic poetry, for example, is a form of ‘spilt religion’ (in TE Hulme’s phrase). It’s a vessel for what remains of our impulse towards the transcendent. So is classical music. So is rock & roll. Drugs are some people’s main ‘avenue to transcendence’ these days. For others it’s sex. For others, it’s football. Or art. Or nature. Or love.

Like Harry, Ron and Hermione, I find these horcruxes of transcendence in so many different aspects of modern culture that it’s difficult to put them all together. I even see it in Fifty Shades of Grey, for God’s sake – instead of surrendering to an all-powerful God, the heroine makes a God of Christian Grey for her ‘inner goddess’ to surrender to.


This diversity is a challenge for the structure of the book, because many of these various avenues to transcendence weave together. How do you anatomize ecstasy into tidy categories?

2 Talking about the Ineffable is effing hard

It turns out it’s very difficult to discuss transcendence using words. We have no agreed terminology, nor a developed sense of the different types of consciousness we might be experiencing.

You can use the terminology of a particular religion – they have tried to talk about ecstatic experiences for millennia, so we might as well draw on their terminology and wisdom – ‘rapture’, ‘encounters with the Holy Spirit’, ‘divine ground of being’ and so on. Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism have just as rich vocabularies as Christianity for transcendent states of consciousness.

However, it’s not clear that one religion’s terminology point to the same state or encounter as another’s. The Christian God that runs to meet us is not the same as Advaita’s Pure Consciousness, or Buddhism’s emptiness. All of these traditions are incredibly complex and sophisticated, and I’m not an expert on any of them. And the great religious teachers warn of the extreme difficulty of putting the transcendent into words. It’s the transcendent, after all. It transcends human language.

You could try to use more secular psychological terminology – Abraham Maslow’s ‘peak experiences’, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘flow’, or the new psychology of ‘awe’, ‘uplift’ and ‘self-transcendence’. There’s important and interesting experimental work being done in this field. But an entirely secularized version of ecstasy seems inadequate to me – it lacks the sense of mystery and surrender, the sense of going beyond the self, being filled with love, healing and inspiration, and not knowing Who or What you are encountering. The attempt to incorporate transcendence into a rational science can end up clipping its wings.

You can do the sort of dance William James did, and speak of ‘religious experience’, leaving open the question of whether that experience is ontologically ‘real’ or not. But reducing transcendence to transcendent experience makes it something that occurs in an individual’s personal psychology, rather than something collective, or something in which a deeper reality or Being is genuinely encountered.

I personally think William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience is still the best secular book written on this area – it has a wonderful openness to the supernatural which is lacking in most modern psychology of transcendence. James makes the connection between religious experience and altered states of consciousness, like hypnagogic or trance states, which I find fascinating and fruitful. But talking about transcendence in terms of trance or altered states does not necessarily shed more light: after a century of psychology and 40 years of brain imaging, we still know very little about these states. Never mind ‘altered states of consciousness’, we still don’t know what ordinary states of consciousness are.

So it’s very difficult to talk about ecstatic experiences. You end up feeling some sympathy with Wittgenstein’s position: ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one should be silent’.

3 Who am I to talk?

The final challenge is working out what I personally believe and how I should live. If you’re writing a book about transcendence, you preferably have some sense of what it means to you. Most of the time we don’t really define what our religious beliefs are. Writing this book has led me to try and define what I believe that near-death experience was. And that’s been bewildering.

In 2013, I flung myself ecstatically into charismatic Anglicanism, which interested me as a modern culture unusually steeped in ecstasy. I found it emotionally stirring and communally very strong, but intellectually stifling. So I turned to more contemplative practices – including both eastern practices and Christian contemplation. My life now is a gallimaufry of spiritual practices (including going to church), through which I try to centre my being and meet God. I wonder if I have made any spiritual progress at all in the last two years.

The more I write about transcendence, the more I have a sense of my personal inadequacy to speak of such matters. To speak of God. To speak of mystical states attained by people who devoted their entire lives to spiritual practice. My life-style is somewhat different to St Teresa’s. I am spiritually mediocre. I live weighed down by compulsions, addictions and distractions. How can I presume to blunder into this sacred realm?

What I say to myself, when I think such thoughts, is this: if transcendence is going to mean something today, if it is not going to be a minority pursuit for the spiritual elite, then it should mean something and be in some measure ‘attainable’ even for a confused, self-absorbed, hedonist slacker like me. If this topic challenges me to improve my life, that’s good. And these are desperate times. All hands to the deck. Even you.


In other news this week:

If you’re in New York, go and see ‘Losing Ground’ at the Lincoln Centre, it’s a movie about a philosophy professor researching and searching for ecstatic experiences! Although she is a black American woman. And an actual professor. It’s part of a season of black independent movies. Sounds brilliant.

And if you’re in London, go and see Kim Noble’s extraordinary one-man comedy show.

Here are the results of the Stoic Week online course trial , done by Tim LeBon. Positive results again!

8-bit philosophy – ideas done in the style of 80s computer games. This one on Nietzsche.

Good Newsweek article on the Hearing Voices Network.

An article about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: ‘why psychological flexibility will be a key leadership skill of the future’.

I really encourage you to watch HBO’s miniseries Olive Kettridge – it’s got an amazing cast led by Frances McDormand, it’s funny and very deft in its observations, and it covers mental illness without sentimentality. Here’s the trailer.

Every language has a ‘positivity bias’ according to a new study.

Great Jon Ronson piece on Twitter and public shaming.  God he’s a good writer!

This Start the Week was good, on the rise of Islamic State, and especially Katherine Brown on why young Muslims get radicalized by the lure of a more virtuous life.

And finally, here are some motivational posters using quotes from Werner Herzog.

See you next week. If you enjoyed this sign up for the newsletter on the right.


What can we learn from Benedictine monks about sticking to New Year’s resolutions

FullSizeRenderIt’s that time of year again, when people all over Britain go off for the traditional New Year’s Vipassana retreat. But not me – this year, I decided to keep it old school. I went on a Benedictine retreat.

Last Sunday, I traveled down to the Isle of Wight, to stay at Quarr Abbey (it’s pronounced Kor). It was set up as a Carthusian monastery in 1132, before being dissolved by Henry VIII. Then, in the late 19th century, the aggressively secular French government started attacking religious orders, so the abbot of the Benedictine monastery at Solesmes sent a small group of monks to set up a religious house on the Isle of Wight.

They established a house at what remained of Quarr Abbey, and built a beautiful abbey there, designed by one of the monks and finished in 1912. It’s still a working Benedictine monastery, and any man or woman can go and stay there, and eat there, for free (or for a voluntary donation). This hospitality is inspired by Jesus’ command in the Gospel of Matthew, to see God in the stranger: ‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.’

I arrived after two weeks of over-eating, over-drinking, over-smoking, over-everything. It was a sharp change of gear. When I got to the Abbey, it was locked, so I waited in the cold chapel for a while, where a small mechanical Joseph and Mary bent eerily over a plastic crib. Finally one of the guests appeared, let me in, and introduced me to the guestmaster, Father Nicholas, who I’d emailed to arrange my stay the previous week.

He showed me to my room, where a laminated handout explained the set-up. The monastery follows the Rule of St Benedict, the father of western monasticism. Benedict (480 – 543) was a young Roman ascetic who wanted to emulate the spiritual exercises and communal living of the Egyptian Desert Fathers and Mothers of the third century. To that end, he created a ‘little rule’ – a handbook for monks to follow, with 73 brief chapters outlining the basics of the monastic life.

With that little book, he laid the foundation for one of the oldest and most successful organizations in human history, which inspired later monastic orders such as the Carthusians, Dominicans, Carmelites and Franciscans, as well as lay orders like the Brethren of the Common Life.

Monks take a vow of obedience, stability and communal living to a particular abbey, where they spend the rest of their life. The monks make a vow to obey their abbott, yet they also elect the abbott from among themselves, who then serves for eight years. The abbott reports to a ‘general chapter’ of the Order every four years, and the Order itself is under the authority of the Vatican.

St BenedictThe rhythm of the day is marked out by the ‘Liturgy of the Hours’ – Matins (at midnight), Lauds or Dawn Prayer at 3am, Prime at 6am, Terce at 9am, Sext at 12, None at 3pm, Vespers at 6 and Compline at 9. All the services are voluntary for guests. The main activity in the services is Gregorian chanting of the Psalms – the monks sing all 150 psalms every week.

The rest of the day is taken up by two hours work in the morning, two hours work in the afternoon, one hour communal conversation (the day is mainly spent in silence), and meals, eaten in silence with someone reading a text. At Quarr, where the meals were delicious by the way, dinner was eaten in silence, while at lunch a monk read a chapter of the Rule of St Benedict and then turned on an audio-book – while I was there it was a novel about Octavius Caesar. Apparently the week before it was a history of MI6.

How can you transcend without 3G?

And that’s it. No mantras. No yoga postures. No diamond sutras. You’re pretty much left to your own devices. You can chat to other guests in the common room. There were only three other guests when I arrived: a French teenager sent there to learn English (who sends their son to a monastery to learn English?), and two middle-aged Northern men, who got into a long conversation about which bus company was better, National Express or Megabus. So I went to my room.

The room itself was bare and a bit draughty. I sat in bed, reading the Bible, disliking it. I felt my mind craving some stimulation or sedation, missing the distraction of the internet. I tried desperately to get 3G but it wouldn’t work. The old man in the room next to me could get it, though. Every time he got an email his computer would ping really annoyingly. Eventually I said loudly ‘would you please switch your computer onto silent?’ in my most peevish voice. That showed him.

I lay in bed, fuming. I imagined the guests at Alain de Botton’s Hotel for the Soul. They were all well-dressed, successful, amusing. It was probably cocktail hour. I wished I was there.

I woke up at 7am, hearing the bell for the morning service, and stayed in bed. We ate breakfast in silence. I retreated back to my room, and tried to write some of my book on transcendence. But there was no 3G, just the purgatorial GPRS. How can you transcend without 3G? I went to the morning service. I didn’t like the reading from the Letter of St John – if a spirit doesn’t lead you to Jesus, it’s a demonic spirit…what paranoid nonsense! Afterwards, I went back to my room. What else was there to do?

The main meditative practice in Benedict’s Rule is reading, or lectio divina. Whenever Benedict talks of ‘meditation’, it’s in connection with reading. It’s a spiritual activity, a slow absorption of the words, a reflection on the various levels of meaning and connection to your life, and ultimately a move into wordless contemplation of God. In theory. But I spend my whole life reading already. I sat in bed, speed-reading St Teresa’s Interior Castle. Each page she got higher and higher, more and more lost in ‘divine favours’. Bully for her.

I decided to leave, packed my bag, and began to walk downstairs. Then I thought, this is pathetic, I must be able to stay at least a few nights. So I went back to my room. I decided to interview Father Nicholas, to at least get some good material for a blog post. ‘Can I interview you?’ I asked bluntly. ‘Er…we can talk’, he said.

side-image_3He’d become a monk at the Abbey 22 years ago. Back then, there were 21 monks and 10 novices. Now there are 6 monks, no novices and a prior leant from another monastery. If they didn’t find some new novices, the monastery would eventually close. It’s not easy attracting new novices: ‘No one in our society is into lifelong commitments these days’, said Father Nicholas. ‘And no one wants to stay in one place.’ Monasteries all over Europe are facing closure, while yoga and mindfulness drop-in centres proliferate, like grey squirrels or Canada geese. This is spiritual Darwinism.

My fourth day, I decided, would be my last.  The evening before, I told Father Nicholas. He seemed rather surprised (I’d arranged to stay a week), but I explained there was something in London I just had to get back to (Wi-Fi).

A new guest arrived on the third day, called Matthew. I got into conversation with him. It turned out he had escaped from the local high-security prison, Parkhurst, exactly 20 years ago, and gone on the run for five days with two other prisoners. They’d made a key and a 30 foot ladder in the prison metal-work room (‘why are you making a 30ft ladder, Williams?’ ‘It’s…er…conceptual art, sir’. They escaped, took a taxi to a nearby airport and tried to steal a plane, but they couldn’t start it, so they hid in someone’s shed for five nights. It sounded far-fetched, but it turned out to be true.

He was wearing the very clothes he’d escaped in, and was following in his own footsteps – a sort of personal pilgrimage. It was clearly the high-point of his life. ‘I felt such a rush of freedom and power’, he said, ‘like my life had opened up again.‘ The prison service didn’t forgive him for escaping, and made sure he served 22 years of his sentence. ‘You’re at their mercy – and they don’t have any’, he says. ‘It’s been really hard since I got out, like being let out into a different planet.’

It was an unusual coincidence to meet Matthew, as I’m hoping, this year, to get funding to make a guidebook for prison inmates, to help them cope with life inside. So it was fascinating and serendipitous to talk to him. Then Father Nicholas said the prior, Father Xavier, would like to have a chat before I left.

A Rule to live by

After dinner, I followed Father Xavier into his quarters. He’s maybe 40, and has been a monk since he was 22. What wisdom, I asked him, could a busy skeptic like me take from the Benedictine Order? He thought for a bit. ‘Well…the importance of a daily rhythm of practice, of a rule of life, of habits.’

Yes, I thought. My life has become irregular. I need to make a Rule of Jules, to follow every day for the rest of the year. Just like Gerhard Groote, the founder of the Brethren of the Common Life. He’d make a list of resolutions, and spend a moment each day going over them. Yes! What else? What, I asked, were the most difficult things about being a monk?

‘Of course, the vow of obedience can be hard. The vow of chastity. And faith. One can have moments where one thinks, ‘what am I doing in this church every day?’ And getting on with your brothers can be very hard. We can have enemies. I remember there was one novice who I really detested. I really hoped he would not join the order, but he did. And we get on fine. There was another novice, and I thought we would become great friends, and in fact we had a lot of trouble. We need enemies, because they remind us we are not perfect and lovable saints.’

I imagined the enmities that could fester in a monastery, and briefly imagined one monk murdering another because he always sang flat in church (such things are not unheard of). I also thought of the old man in the room next to me, his noisy internet, his burps and farts. I realized I actually detested this man. And that the reason I was rushing away was not silence or God or anything like that. It was the inescapable proximity of other people. I find community really, really difficult. I dislike all my neighbours, but at least in London I can ignore them.

‘St Bernard called monasteries ‘schools of love’’, said Father Xavier. We learn that we are loved by God, and we learn to love one another. We learn mercy for each other’s weaknesses. Humans are so very weak, and needy. Me too. When I joined the monastery, I thought I was being very good. And then eventually, I realized it was untrue, I am just as needy and weak as everyone else. We have to show mercy to one another.’

The Rule is soaked in this attitude of mercy for human weakness. The first psalm of the day, Benedict writes, should be sung slowly, to give late-rising monks time to get to the chapel. ‘If a brother falls asleep during prayer’, writes one desert father, ‘ I cradle his head in my lap’. Another desert father left his monastery when it harshly reprimanded an errant monk, with the words ‘I too am a sinner’.

‘This can be the problem with Stoicism’, said Father Xavier. ‘You try to construct a castle of strength and power. But it will fall down, because your neediness and weakness will come out. We need to build bridges and doorways to other people.’  The Latin word for priest – pontifex – actually means ‘bridge-builder’. For some reason I remember hearing Alain de Botton once pejoratively describe someone as ‘needy’. But that’s not a put-down, that’s a fact of human existence. The fear of neediness is a greater error than neediness itself.

The next morning, I sat in the common room, and for the first time in four days, I felt at peace. I felt my consciousness begin to settle and expand. I am 38 this year. I wondered if this was the middle-point of my life, and what I should do with the rest of it. I remembered Xavier’s words: ‘I hope people will come away from the monastery with a sense of God’s love. It takes time to grow into an awareness of that love.’

He said: ‘Of course there are similarities between Buddhist and Christian contemplation. But also big differences. Christianity believes in revelation – in a God who loves you and wants to be known by you.’ Ultimately, I believe in that, even if I have major issues with 90% of the rest of Christianity. I believe the foundation of human existence is God’s love, and that we can discover that love.

I left my voluntary donation on my bedside table – £25 per night. Not bad for board, food and free spiritual guidance. Compare that to, say, the $1300 you have to spend for a week at Esalen, the New Age retreat in California.

My enduring memory will be my conversations with Father Nicholas and Father Xavier, how human, unsaintly, unrigid they are, like a sonnet where the formal rules actually enable the lyric to come alive. I will remember also the psalm-chanting, the slow absorption and emanation of these beautiful poems, round the clock, every day, for the last 1500 years:

‘You have searched me, Lord and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
You perceive my thoughts from afar
You discern my going out and my lying down…
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
If I settle on the far side of the sea,
Even there your hand will guide me,
Your right hand will hold me fast…’

I wish I had stayed longer, but I’d already said I was leaving. The night before I left, I read St Benedict warning of ‘gyrovagues’, ‘who spend their entire lives drifting from region to region,  staying as guests for three or four days in different monasteries.’ Yes, I am definitely a gryovague. I find it difficult to be close to others. I find it difficult to love and be loved. I find it difficult to stay in one place, one community, one relationship. But maybe I can learn it.