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Spiritual exercises

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.

Mind Palaces: the art of psycho-technics, or soul-craft

42be11b56059d244f573bac445e722aaThis week, I’ve been researching an ancient mnemonic technique called ‘the mind palace’, where people imprint a real or imagined building onto their memory – a palace, a mansion, a church, even a whole street – and then fill it with striking images, to which they attach bits of information they want to remember.

The Greek poet Simonides is supposed to have come upon the technique in around 400 BC and used it to memorize poems. It became popular with Greek and Roman orators including Cicero, who used it to memorize speeches and to remember evidence for cases. It flourished in the Renaissance, when magi like Giordano Bruno and Ramon Lull memorized incredibly complex systems of words, symbols and hieroglyphs in an attempt to become a sort of World Wide Web of occult knowledge. And it survives today: Derren Brown and other memory-prodigies use it, as does Sherlock Holmes in the BBC series. [So does, er, Hannibal Lecter, a reader informs me!]

Daniel Levitin, in his new book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, suggests that the technique works because our memory-system for images and places is older and more reliable than our memory-system for names and words. So if you want to remember something, convert it into an image and store it in a familiar place in your mind.

How does this memory-technique fit into my research into transcendence?

Well, in my research I’ve noticed certain metaphors of the mind re-appearing in the literature on transcendence. And one of the most persistent is the metaphor of the mind as a palace, castle, or ‘many-roomed mansion’. Explorers of transcendence, from St Augustine to St Teresa to Thomas Traherne to Keats, often use this image to suggest the awesome vastness of the soul, and to urge the reader to journey within.

The metaphor isn’t just suggestive, it’s also creative. As Julian Jaynes noted, we construct the soul through the metaphors we use to describe it – so the metaphor of the soul as mansion is a form of soul-craft or psycho-technics, a way of structuring and expanding the psyche.

So here’s the question: how did an ancient memory-technique become a mystical exercise?

The key is Pythagoras, the magician-philosopher of the sixth century BC. His followers believed that Memory was the mother of all the muses, including philosophy. They memorized maxims, incantations, poems and emblems or symbols as a way to fill their souls with wisdom and connect them to the Divine.

A similar idea appears in Plato and in the Stoics (although the Stoics tend to be more verbal than symbolic): the soul is malleable, or plastic, and we can train the memory by repeating certain ideas. In Plato, a more mystical note is introduced – the reincarnated soul already knows everything, if it could but wake up from its slumber, so new insights are really a form of recollection of Who We Really Are. If we wake up, he says in the Phaedo, then our soul will return to the mansion of its divinity.

commandingcosmosorigIt is Aristotle, however, who sees the imagination as key to soul-craft. In some elliptic remarks in De Anima, he says that it’s impossible to think without images. So the imagination, or phantasia, is crucial to all forms of thinking. The imagination is a two-way ladder – it takes sensory information from the material world and spiritualizes it into the ideas of the spiritual or intelligible world. It also takes ideas from the spiritual realm and materializes them into symbols and stories which rouse our emotions. Memory is central to this spiritual alchemy – it is the storehouse from which the imagination constructs its stories or movies. Aristotle’s conception of the imagination would be hugely influential on Christian and Sufi mysticism.

The mystical visualization of the Mind Palace

St Augustine, who’d studied the mind-palace memory technique when he was an orator, develops the mystic metaphor of the soul as mansion in his Confessions . ‘Narrow is the mansion of my soul, oh Lord’, he declares. ‘Enlarge it, that you may enter it.’ He is connecting, of course, the Greek tradition of soul-as-mansion with the beautiful image of Jesus: ‘In my father’s house are many mansions’ (John 14:2).

For Augustine, the interior journey into memory is central to this expansion of the soul-mansion. In Book X of his Confessions, which I think is one of the most beautiful things in all western culture, he writes this – it makes me think of Morpheus and Neo in their white room:

I come to the fields and spacious palaces of my memory, where are the treasures of innumerable images, brought into it from things perceived by the senses…When I enter there, I require what I will to be brought forth, and something instantly comes; others must be longer sought after, which are fetched, as it were, out of some inner receptacle; others rush out in troops, and while one thing is desired and required, they start forth, as if to say, “Is it perchance I?” These I drive away with the hand of my heart, from the face of my remembrance; until what I wish for is unveiled, and appears in sight, out of its secret place.

This is a wonderful description of the mind-palace as used by Greek orators (Augustine was trained as an orator). Man is the curator of his soul-mansion, which he fills with priceless images. But this could lead to pride – we are the lords of our self-made mansions, we are the masters of interior design! But St Augustine warns us not to be proud – we didn’t make the mansion, we’re a guest in our own souls. We need to seek the Lord in our minds and memories, which is not easy, because He is transcendent to our human imagining.

And our soul-mansion is not in great shape, in Augustine’s imagination. It’s ruined, locked up, covered with cobwebs, filled with trash, crawling with vermin. In his memory-journey, Augustine goes back generations to Adam’s original fall, when humans were expelled from the Edenic central courtyard of the mansion. We need to repair the mansion and tidy it up to make it an abode fit for its maker once again. But attempts at DIY are not sufficient, says Augustine. We need Jesus to repair our wonky mansions.

Around this time, Jewish mystics begin to use the metaphor of a journey through mansions as a form of occult visualization. There’s a whole body of Jewish mystical literature from the first century AD (when the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed by the Roman Army), called hekhalot or mansions, in which the mystic imagines an inner temple, and journeys through seven mansions until they come to the throne-room, the deepest part of the soul. This method is passed down into the medieval tradition of Kabbalah – the Zohar, for example, is a visualized journey through the seven palaces of heaven and the seven palaces of hell.

A similar method appears in Sufi visualizations, in the mystical treatises of Ibn Arabi and others, who picture heaven as a garden with seven courtyards. Ibn Arabi, following Averroes and Aristotle, sees the imagination as a spiritualizing faculty which converts the memory of sensory data into ideas and symbols. Sometimes that alchemy happens passively and involuntarily, as in dreams (I don’t know about you, but I often find myself wandering through a dream-city in my sleep). But we can develop an ‘active imagination’, learn how to dream consciously, as it were, using visualization.

This technique and the metaphor of the mansion passes into Christian mysticism, where its most beautiful expression is St Teresa’s Interior Castle, in which the reader moves through seven mansions before meeting the Lord and uniting with Him in ecstasy. For a Renaissance magi like Giordano Bruno or Ramon Lull, meanwhile, the ‘mind palace’ is both a memory-technique and an occult method for connecting the soul to God (Frances Yates’ The Art Of Memory is a useful resource for this).

Soul-craft in the arts

Now, you recall that the ‘mind palace’ technique is first associated with a poet, Simonides. His genius, it was said, united the arts of philosophy, poetry and painting, because he painted the soul with poetic images, in a way that ethical philosophers would find useful as a means of character-building. From the Middle Ages onwards, we find the idea of crafting the soul with imagination and symbolism appearing in poetry, painting and architecture.

As the historian Frances Yates puts it, this idea is the key to so much of the greatest western culture. Dante’s Divine Comedy, for example, could be seen as a form of soul-craft – a visualized journey through the nine circles of Hell, the seven terraces of Purgatory and the nine circles of Heaven, with various striking emblems of vice and virtue to memorize along the way. To read it is to expand and encode one’s soul. The poem is what Ted Hughes called a ‘big dream’ – psycho-technics for the tribe.

The Divine Comedy is the greatest example of this sort of soul-craft, but there are many others, like the Pearl poem, where the poet, in a dream, travels to see the New Jerusalem, and connects his tribe to that vision.

Many of the greatest Medieval and Renaissance paintings can also be seen as a form of imaginative soul-craft. Raphael’s School of Athens, for example, is imprinted on my soul (through endless gawping at the poster of it on my wall). It’s a portal between the sensory and the spiritual world, connecting us to Raphael’s ideal city, where the philosophers stay in our memory as emblems of virtue. My favourite paintings of the Renaissance are pictures of ideal cities in which angels descend to communicate with us – this is a symbol of the imagination itself, the daemonic messenger between the sensory and the spiritual realms.

The Seven Virtues, from the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence

Medieval and Renaissance architecture is also a form of psycho-technics. The Venerable Bede speaks of how a saint travelled to Italy, sees a beautiful church filled with images, imprints it on her memory, and then gets masons to build a copy in England, painted with colorful images of the saints and Passion. ‘Thus all who entered the church, even those who could not read, were able to contemplate the dear face of Christ and His saints, even if only in a picture’. It’s not surprising there is an association between masons and magic: churches and cathedrals expand the souls of those who frequent them.

Psycho-technics in the modern era

In the early modern era, I’d suggest, we lost the ancient concept of phantasia as a key cognitive capacity. Fantasy became delusion, the enemy both of Scripture and the scientific method. But the idea of the soul as mansion survived in some poetry, in the Metaphysicals for example, like Thomas Traherne, who describes the soul as ‘a cabinet of infinite value’; or Keats, who compared the soul to a ‘mansion of many rooms’, and who suggested the universe is a ‘vale of soul-making’; or Blake, who spoke of cleansing the ‘doors of perception’, and who devised his own unique graphic poetry to engrave on his audience’s souls.

The idea of the close link between imagination and memory is particularly rich in Wordsworth’s Prelude. Where in the Middle Ages people would imprint the memory of palaces or cathedrals onto their soul, Wordsworth imprints the memory of peaks and vales, and creates an inner Lake District which he can visit.

743913More recently, Ted Hughes strived to preserve the ancient tradition. He wrote, in his essay Poetry in the Making, ‘In our brains there are many mansions, and most of the doors are locked, with the keys inside’. Imagination unlocks these doors, connecting the outer world of sense with the inner world of spirit. Hughes spoke (in an essay on Keats) of poetry as a form of medicine, a ‘healing energy’, which acts on the auto-immune system. He’s quite right – what science calls ‘the placebo response’ is really the imagination, it connects the mental or spiritual world with our nervous and auto-immune system, and it can cure or kill us.

Hughes also understood that myth, metaphor and symbolism are ways of organizing the psyche’s otherwise inchoate energy – psycho-technics, in other words. The Big Dreamers, like Dante and Shakespeare, are psycho-tects who expand human consciousness, creating vast mythical structures to give our souls shape. Yet we are losing the myths, Hughes warns, and our inner lives are becoming impoverished as a result. The doors are closing. We’ve become overly-reliant on empiricism and rationalism, we equate the material with the real, and the invisible with the unreal.

Perhaps, though, one still sees signs of the spiritual conception of phantasia in pop culture (intelligent culture is far too intellectual and contemptuous of the spiritual). I see glimmers of it in fantasy and comic book culture, particularly the work of Allan Moore, whose series Promethea is a comic book exploration of Kabbalah, in which stories, ideas and archetypes exist in a spiritual realm called the Immateria. When we read or imagine a story, Moore suggests, we connect to this realm and channel the archetypes. Art is a form of magic, bringing down ideas and symbols from the Immateria and actualizing them in the material realm.

Promethea

I see the idea of the soul as a memory-mansion or memory-theatre in cinema too, particularly the films of Christopher Nolan like Inception, or Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Birdman, and particularly What Dreams May Come. I see it in some of the incredibly immersive virtual cities found in games like GTA V and Assassin’s Call, and the virtual palaces of Minecraft.  And in general, the internet seems to me an enormous virtual city,  a Psychopolis or Infopolis, in which we construct vast memory-palaces of information and dreams.

The Utopian Imaginary, or Castles in the Sky

Finally (well done for getting this far), let me just talk briefly about phantasia and politics. What we’ve been discussing, this art of mnemo-technics and psycho-technics, has a political dimension too. It’s not just an interior exercise – some magi attempt to bridge the interior and exterior, the spiritual and the political.

You remember how the mind palace technique was originally used by poets and orators to memorize poems and speeches? Well, a similar sort of visualization-technique is at the heart of Utopian rhetoric – the prophet visualizes an image of an ideal city, and then inspires people to build it. In this sense, rhetoric is a sort of mysticism turned outward. This is the Utopian Imaginary, the use of phantasia in politics.

There is a close connection between the mind palace memory technique, and Utopian political philosophy. The poet-philosopher imagines an ideal city, a ‘castle in the air’ as Ernst Bloch put it – Plato imagines the Republic, for example, or Jesus imagines his New Jerusalem, or St Augustine imagines his City of God, or Tomasso Campanella imagines his City of the Sun, or Martin Luther King imagines his multicultural future-city. And then they describe this city in speech, paint a picture of it, plant the seed of it in the febrile imaginations of their followers, so they sacrifice themselves to make it real. ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, as Christians put it.

It can have beautiful results, but it can also be horrific – because people get so entranced by their vision of the future, they lose all reason, and all compassion for those in their way. We only have to look to Syria to see how murderous the Utopian Imaginary can be.

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Here’s my newsletter round-up of interesting links (you can sign up in the box on the top right of the homepage)

Last newsletter I moaned that the BBC never has any programmes about religious ecstasy. Well, the cosmos loves to laugh at us – two days later, radio 4 broadcast this excellent programme on, yes,  ecstatic experiences. It was made by John McCarthy, the journalist who spent several years in captivity in Lebanon, and who had an ecstatic experience while imprisoned. He interviews psychiatrists, ecstatic joggers, and considers the near-death experience of the lead-singer of Spiritualized. Fantastic stuff.
Last week’s guest on Desert Island Discs was the incredibly gifted actor Mark Rylance, who turns out to be a Jungian animist with a fondness for the I-Ching.
John Gray is speaking on freedom at the LSE on Wednesday, if you’re in London.
Poignant article from Oliver Sacks, facing terminal cancer, and still working on ‘several books’. He’s written five since he was diaognosed. What a lovely, lovely human being. Here he is as a wild young biker.
Should first-world humanitarian agencies bring in therapy services for crisis-hit populations in developing countries who might be suffering from PTSD, or is that an inappropriate export of a western medical construct? The Guardian considers.
Alex Ross, the New Yorker’s music critic, considers the avant garde influences on Bjork.
Also on the music tip, here’s a marvellous documentary about Carole King.
Here is a Radio 3 Free Thinking programme about mindfulness and Zen, with Mark Vernon and Chris Harding among the guests.

Has psychiatry silenced God? Here’s a discussion from Edinburgh’s book festival, including members of the ‘Hearing the Voice’ research project at Durham’s Centre for the Medical Humanities.

Adult suicides in the UK in 2013 were their highest level for 10 years.  And a new report looks at hundreds of suicides by mentally ill people confined in prisons or mental health facilities, and concludes most were easily avoidable if staff were better trained in mental health.
And finally, best moment of the Oscars last night – Graham Moore, who won best adapted screenplay for the Imitation Game, used his speech to talk about how he tried to kill himself when he was 16, and to reassure those teenagers watching, if they also feel weird and like they don’t belong, that they do.
See you next time,

Jules