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Spiritual tourism

Spiritual technologies

Three manifestations of sacred geometry – a page from the 9th century Book of Kells, a Tibetan Buddhist mandala, and a Shipibo ayahuasca-inspired weaving

Our psyches are deeply connected to the material and symbolic worlds we weave around us. The habitat of our daily lives re-inforces our habits, for good and ill. All our stuff – our apartments, our clothes, our books, our TV, our online activity, our food, our relationships – helps make us who we are, in a powerful feedback loop.

We saw the dark side of that last week, when Robert Bowers killed eleven people in a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Bowers was an avid user of a right-wing social media site called Gab, which fed him toxic conspiracy theories like the idea Jewish oligarchs finance mass migration to try and destroy white America. He sought belonging, identity and meaning through the online church of Gab, just as many young British men and women are radicalized into extremism and terrorism through a daily diet of xenophobic videos, blogs and tweets.

We can say ‘how could this monster commit such evil?’ But let’s look at ourselves. We know social media worsens people’s moods, and brings out anti-social behaviour. And yet we’re all still addicts.

Six months ago, I deleted my Twitter account, because I realized it was feeding my inner jerk. Twitter is a hellish party in which everyone is a bad version of themselves. It fosters narcissism, polarization, virtue-signalling, competitive outrage and mindless reactivity. I wanted to leave, but was addicted to its dopamine-fuelled distraction and ego-amplification. After I deleted my own account, I started tweeting from my university centre’s account instead. When I found myself, one morning, swearing at a complete stranger for giving away the ending of Murder on the Orient Express, on my centre’s Twitter account, I realized I had to take desperate measures. I told my centre administrator to change the password for the Twitter account and not tell me.

But there’s a silver lining to the dark narrative of how the internet poisons our psyches.  It shows the extent to which our behaviour is modifiable. It shows how malleable our psyches are. If we can be conditioned to hate, we can also be conditioned to love.

Over the last two years, the practice that has changed me the most is loving-kindness meditation. Every morning, I practice mindfulness of breathing for 30 minutes, because I have a very scattered and over-busy mind. Then I end with five minutes of loving-kindness.

I wish myself happiness, freedom from suffering, great joy, and great equanimity. I bring to mind someone I love, and wish them the same. Then I bring to mind someone I feel neutral about, and wish them the same, then someone I have difficulties with. Then I imagine us all sitting together – this can be a very strange group of people, like, my mother, my neighbour, and Donald Trump, all holding hands. I imagine us wishing each other happiness, freedom from suffering, great joy and great equanimity. Then I imagine us spreading this loving-kindness to all beings in all dimensions.

That regular imaginative practice has changed my habitual mood, I’m sure of it. I notice myself smiling at strangers more often in the street or on the Tube. I am also kinder to myself, less likely to take a dump on myself for being single, or not earning much money.

The loving-kindness script is a very old and successful technology for behaviour modification. I also use external technologies – props for the construction of my better self. I’ve made a little shrine where I meditate, and put up pictures of my favourite teachers – Pema Chodron, Epictetus, Thomas Traherne, Ram Dass, Tenzin Palmo and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. I like sitting down in the morning and bowing to them, and then opening my eyes to see them smiling down on me. I also light candles and a joss stick while meditating – another technology for the alteration of consciousness.

Around my apartment, I have various other props to remind me of the wisdom I am trying to embody. I have a Buddhist thangka that I bought in Sarnath, where the Buddha first taught. It’s the last thing I see when I leave the apartment, and the first thing I see when I come home. I have a string of Tibetan prayer flags hanging on my balcony – I love to see them flapping in the wind, releasing blessings.

I also use some apps on my phone for my spiritual practice. I use Insight Timer, a free meditation app which I recommend. I use the Shambhala app to watch videos of Pema Chodron’s lectures. And I use an app she recommended – WeCroak – which sends me a message five times a day saying ‘Remember you’re going to die.’ According to a Bhutanese Buddhist tradition, the way to happiness is to remember you’re going to die five times a day. And then there’s old-school technologies like my books, my journal, my writing. I have written intentions stuck to my wall. And I have this blog. This is also a spiritual technology, for me and hopefully for you.

There is some excitement around ‘spirit-tech’ at the moment. Yuval Harari thinks the next religion might use virtual reality to immerse us in alternate worlds and fill us with a sense of presence. Virtual reality is already used as a form of distraction therapy, to reduce pain in burn victims, and it’s being developed as a technology for calming meditation. ‘Take a holiday, wherever you are’ is the slogan for a company called Guided Meditation VR.

I got the chance to try out meditation VR earlier this week, when I took part in a one-day retreat designed by Jose Montemayor, founder of the Cyberdelic Society, together with mindfulness teacher Tamara Russell. A group of ten of us meditated together, then listened to a lady talk about her near-death experience. Then we took turns to plug into a VR near-death experience Jose designed, in which your avatar is hit by a car, and its soul leaves the body, flies into space, and goes into various heavenly realms, before returning to Earth. I sat next to the lady who’d had a near-death experience, and she had tears in her eyes when she removed the headset. ‘How did you know what I had gone through?’ she asked.

VR has wonderful potential as an aesthetic and spiritual technology, but this is not new. Humans have always used spiritual technologies to alter consciousness. The cave paintings at Lascaux, which are around 20,000 years old, conjured up a virtual reality in which our ancestors immersed themselves to alter their consciousness. The 72-foot-long Egyptian Book of the Dead in the Metropolitan Museum in New York is an extraordinary textual and visual technology designed to guide the soul on its final journey. Plato’s Phaedo described a near-death experience, and was sometimes read to Greeks and Romans in their final moments. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is another spiritual technology, designed to train the mind and the imaginative memory, so we’re not too confused in the afterlife.

One of the scrolls of the Met Museum’s Egyptian Book of the Dead

While the written text is an incredibly powerful technology for self-modification, pictures are even more powerful, because, as Aristotle said, ‘we think in images’.  Medieval illuminated manuscripts are technologies for altering consciousness and transforming the self. So are illuminated books of hours. So are rosaries, icons, statues, shrine rooms, stained glass windows, zen gardens, cathedrals. So are psalms, hymns, oratorios, symphonies. The song is perhaps the greatest technology humans have discovered for altering consciousness.

And then there’s plant medicines like ayahuasca. Imagine an intelligent virtual reality machine, which manages to penetrate deep into your subconscious and detect your most toxic beliefs and painful memories – not over years of therapy, but instantly. Imagine it somehow intuits what you need to learn in order to grow, then conjures the idea or experience in front of you with all the skill of a genius theatre director, and helps you confront it, feel it intensely, learn from it and then purge it. Imagine the intelligent machine somehow responds in real-time to your mind, so that a terrifying monster instantly transforms into an ally if you can bring to mind the appropriate intention. Imagine, all around you, members of your group are plugged into the same intelligent machine, and sometimes your virtual realities overlap, so you appear in each other’s visions, help each other and purge for each other. The intelligent machine gives you a glimpse of a reality beyond the individual self, beyond the body, even beyond death. Now imagine that this incredible technology grows wild, can be picked for free, and connects you to the ancient and awesome intelligence of nature.

The habitual use of any of these technologies alters the self. Habitual exposure to a beautiful garden or a sublime landscape soaks into the memory, and gives one an inner reservoir of peace and joy that one can draw on in difficult times – this is Wordsworth’s great creed. One of the advantages the rich have over the rest of us is they can frame their habitat to reinforce serenity, confidence and joy. They have access to better spiritual technologies – gardens, chapels, libraries, works of art, retreats, gurus, drugs – although every technology can become an escape from reality, which leaves the self weaker, less resilient, more proud. Anyway, with a bit of ingenuity, we can cobble together our own technologies, like a spiritual MacGyver. The quality of the intention matters more than the sophistication of the technology – a devoted peasant with a wooden crucifix may go deeper than a distracted billionaire with his own chapel.

What technologies and props are you plugging your self into? What is the quality of the content in your mind-stream? What filters have you set up to protect you from toxic ideas and habits? Does your habitat reinforce habits of kindness, open-heartedness, peace and courage? What prop could you install, this weekend, to strengthen your better self?

Perennialism and fascism

Aldous Huxley and Rene Guenon

While I was in San Francisco, I got the chance to meet Michael Murphy, one of the founders of the Esalen Institute. It’s a cross between a spiritual retreat centre and an adult education college, perched on the cliffs of Big Sur next to some hot springs. It’s been very influential on transpersonal psychology and American spirituality.

Murphy and I discussed the cultural influence of the ‘mystical expats’ – Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard, Alan Watts and Christopher Isherwood – on the vision of Esalen and on American culture in general. They helped to popularise the idea of the ‘perennial philosophy’ – the idea there is a common core of wisdom at the heart of all the great religious traditions, and one can use spiritual practices from various traditions. That idea is now at the centre of American culture – being ‘spiritual but not religious’ is the fastest-growing demographic in American religion.

It was a treat to hear Mike’s fond reminiscences about them – how he and Esalen co-founder Dick Price were turned on by hearing Huxley lecture on ‘human potentialities’, how they went to meet Gerald Heard in LA and came away mesmerized and burning with the desire to found Esalen, how Huxley and his wife Laura came to meet them in Big Sur and insisted on seeing the local butterflies, how they first dropped acid with Laura, how Alan Watts was the greatest spontaneous speaker Murphy ever heard.

I was particularly interested to hear Murphy make the connection between the San Francisco Renaissance – the cultural movement ranging from the Beats to the Hippies and arguably still ongoing in Silicon Valley – to the Bengal Renaissance of the late 19th and early 20th century.

The Bengal Renaissance was a cultural flowering involving creative thinking in politics, science, the arts and religion. One of its chief ideas was the perennial philosophy.  One finds perennialism in the religious movement called ‘Brahmoism’, which was started by the great Bengali thinker and reformer Ram Mohan Roy in around 1850, and which suggests that all religions are partial formulations of the transcendent divinity within us. One also finds perennialism in the teachings of Vivekananda, dashing Bengali prophet of Vedanta, who caused a sensation when he visited the Parliament of Religions in Chicago and declared that all religions are true.

I often encountered the same cheerful perennialism while travelling in India last year – in the Theosophical Society’s headquarters in Chennai (which has temples to all the major religions), in the integral philosophy of Sri Aurobindo, in the teachings of Ramana Maharshi. I spent two weeks in a Zen / Jesuit retreat in Tamil Nadu, where we bowed to both Christ and the Buddha. This perennialism was a breath of fresh air after a period of desperately trying to be a Proper Christian.

Murphy pointed out to me that the ‘mystical expats’ helped to transmit the perennialist fire from Bengal to California. Heard, Huxley and Isherwood popularised Vedanta, the Hindu mysticism brought to the West by Vivekananda; while the evolutionary spirituality of Sri Aurobindo was transmitted into the Bay Area through the American Academy of Asian Studies – a small college that Alan Watts helped to found, which evolved into the California Institute of Integral Studies (Murphy was a student there). Watts also helped to transmit Zen and Daoist thinking into San Francisco, inspiring everyone from Jack Kerouac to John Cage. The perennialist spark caught fire in American culture, and now it’s widely accepted.

Perennialism and renaissances

It’s interesting that the ‘perennial philosophy’ was transmitted from one famous cultural renaissance to another. It got me thinking about perennialism and renaissances. If one looks back at the ‘American Renaissance’ – the sudden flowering of American literature led by Ralph Waldo Emerson and including Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville and others – one also encounters the perennial philosophy, particularly in Emerson and Thoreau. The stern Puritan soul of America suddenly relaxes, expands, and sees its smiling reflection in other cultures – in Platonism, in Hinduism, in a blade of grass.

One also finds the hot spring of the perennial philosophy bubbling up in the Romantic era, in Coleridge and Blake (‘all religions are one’) and, earlier, in the Italian Renaissance, at the Platonic Academy of Marsilio Ficino, who translated the works of Plato and ‘Hermes Trismegistus’, and sought to find a harmony between Christianity, Greek philosophy and Kabbalah. The optimism and creativity of this movement sings in the ‘Oration on the Dignity of Man’ of Pico della Mirandola, and shines in the radiance of Botticelli and Raphael.

The perennialist stream bubbles up yet again in the Islamic Renaissance (more usually known as the Islamic Golden Age), which is usually connected by scholars to the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, where scholars translated the works of Greek and Roman philosophers and scientists.  One can trace the connection between the perennial philosophy and cultural flowerings all the way back to the Athenian Golden Age of the fifth century BC, when again, the human soul looks up from narrow tribalism, and smiles. Socrates declares: ‘I am a citizen of the universe’, leading the Stoics to suggest that all humans have a spark of the divine logos within them.

These are important moments of collective epiphany and cultural evolution in the story of homo sapiens. What they seem to have in common is a strong sense of cultural self-confidence – ‘we are Indians!’, ‘we are Americans!’, ‘we are Athenians!’ etc – with an openness to other cultures and the best they have to teach. And there’s a sense of optimism in progress, a sense of humans rising up and realizing their inner divinity – you see this in Pico Della Mirandola’s Oration, in Emerson’s great sermon on self-reliance, in Huxley’s lectures on human potential.

The varieties of Perennialism

But then I thought, perennialism isn’t always optimistic and hopeful. While researching the perennial philosophy, you can’t help but come across a movement called Traditionalism. It was started by a French thinker called René Guénon in around 1920. Like the mystical expats, he was initially inspired by Vedanta, then he flirted with Catholicism, got into Taoism, before moving to Egypt and becoming initiated into a Sufi order. He inspired other traditionalists including Fritjof Schuon, Julius Evola and Mircea Eliade.

There’s a lot of similarities between Huxley et al’s Perennial Philosophy, and Guénon et al’s Traditionalism – they share the idea that western civilization has lost its soul in mechanical materialism, and that only a return to the core of wisdom at the heart of the great religious traditions will save civilization from collapse.

And yet Traditionalism is a much more pessimistic movement. Guénon and his successors, like the followers of Gurdjieff, thought wisdom could only ever be esoteric, reserved for the initiated elite. The masses would never get it. Traditionalists were constantly joining or creating esoteric secret societies, like the Gnostic Church, the Masons, the Maryamiya, the ‘Fraternity of the Cavalier of the Divine Paraclete’, or the ‘Legion of the Archangel Michael’.

They typically despaired of democratic politics, and flirted with the far-right – in Julius Evola’s case, this flirtation was quite explicit, as he tried to ingratiate himself first with Italian fascism and then with the Nazis. Mircea Eliade also had connections to the Romanian far-right. Where Huxley et al became cheery prophets of human potential, the Traditionalists were doom-mongers of the Apocalypse – they insisted we’re in Kali Yuga, a Hindu dark age of conflict and spiritual mediocrity. Humans aren’t ascending, we’re on the down-elevator, so the elite should withdraw and prepare for the deluge, or possibly seize power.

Reading about the Traditionalists yesterday, it struck me how human destinies can flow in such different directions from similar plateaus. I can well imagine Huxley et al becoming authoritarian Traditionalists. Huxley, like many modernists of his generation, was an aristocratic elitist – whenever he writes about bourgeois or proletarian mass culture, he invariably uses the word ‘squalid’. He and Gerald Heard often wondered if the perennial philosophy was suitable for the many, or just the initiated few. They pondered this in the 1950s and 60s with regard to psychedelics (Huxley decided they should just be for the intelligentsia). Heard, who in his last years became a guru to wealthy libertarian CEOs, suggested that spiritual education should focus on an elite – whom he called the ‘neo-brahmins’ – who could then rise to power. Particularly during World War 2, one finds the same note of deep cultural pessimism in Huxley and Heard’s writings as one finds in Guénon and Evola.

Why, then, did the mystical expats not become gloomy quasi-fascist Traditionalists? One reason is surely California. While Guénon was fulminating in a Cairo bedsit, Huxley and his gang were picnicking with Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin in the Hollywood Hills. They were living in gorgeous pads in Santa Monica. They were having too much fun to be fascist. Maybe the LA weather made them cheerier. Or maybe they found a culture more hospitable to their ideas – they were on the radio, on TV, lecturing away on campuses and at places like Esalen. Perhaps that gave them an optimism in human potential.

Another reason is Huxley and Heard had more faith in scientific progress than Guénon, who thought the urge to quantify everything was a symptom of the Kali Yuga. Huxley and Heard thought psychology could shed new light on the human psyche, that new psycho-spiritual methods could be discovered and disseminated, new drugs discovered. They may be right, although quantified spirituality has all kinds of risks – both Huxley and Heard can be over-credulous in their faith in new research.

Whatever the many causes, their lives ran in a different direction, and they took a bet on democratic mysticism – mysticism for the many, not the few.

Today, more and more of us are perennialists – a quarter of adult Americans are ‘spiritual but not religious’, and 35% of American millennials. Yet we can still see how many different directions a tide can break. We can see that Bay Area spirituality can easily become elitist – we the 1% are the spiritual supermen, the rest of society is screwed, let’s move to New Zealand, or space. We see that the perennial philosophy can still become deeply pessimistic and quasi-fascist – Steve Bannon and other alt-righters sing the praises of Julius Evola (my dark namesake) and argue that western civilization needs to re-embrace spiritual wisdom before it is over-run by immigrants.

I feel a strain of cultural pessimism in me too. Are we in an age of cultural ascent, or cultural decline? I’d probably go with Guénon and say we’re in the Kali Yuga. Thanks to people like Watts and Huxley, we have a very wide spirituality, with more and more people practicing wisdom techniques from Stoicism / Buddhism / Hinduism etc. But the width of participation seems to come at the cost of the height of attainment – where are the saints? Where are the masters? Every guru turns out to be a sex-pest. And, like Huxley, I worry about over-population and the damage we are doing to the ecosystem. It seems more likely to me that this century will be one of cultural collapse than spiritual ascent.

Clearly, I need to move to California and cheer up. Anyway, width of participation in spirituality is probably more important than height of practice. If several million people learn a bit of wisdom and suffer a bit less, that seems good to me. The ascent of humanity is very slow, but we’re getting there, together.