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Spiritual materialism

Hello. Well, this is awkward. I stopped writing this newsletter two months ago, just before travelling to the Amazon jungle for an ayahuasca ceremony. The good news, back then, was that I’d been handed a philosophy column for the New Statesman magazine – the culmination of a dream I’d had for over a decade. I first pitched a philosophy column to the editor of the Times, back in 2007. Now, finally, out of nowhere, the dream had fallen into my lap. So I bowed a gracious goodbye to my newsletter subscribers, and headed off to Peru.

I emerged from the jungle, still extremely high, and checked my emails. It was amazing how few emails of any interest I’d received while I was away. You expect the world to be as altered as you are, and to be waiting for you to climb onboard like a dragon kneeling before Daenyrys. Instead, the internet was filled with strange news – a hurricane was about to hit the UK, Theresa May had lost her voice during the Tory conference, a fish had jumped down a man’s throat. No emails about exciting new opportunities. And no emails from the editor of the New Statesman. An ominous silence, of the sort freelance journalists know only too well.

Over the next few weeks, it gradually and painfully emerged that the column was not going to happen…Either the editor had changed his mind, or there was some internal obstacle, or I’d done something wrong. I don’t know. He emailed to say he was ‘still interested’ in the idea (which, to be clear, was his idea) and hoped to find a space for it next year.

I felt pretty sad about it, but still hope it might happen. Meanwhile, there were other freelance opportunities to pursue. The New Yorker responded positively to a pitch – another long-term dream of mine. But that also faded away. The Spectator liked an idea which I pitched last Friday, and asked me to write it for this Monday. I spent the weekend writing the piece, sent it off on Monday and….ominous silence. I haven’t heard back since.

This is the freelance life. I’d forgotten how irritating it is to deal with all-powerful commissioning editors, who you want to tell to f*ck off for their cavalier treatment of you, but can’t, because there are about five intelligent magazines in the UK, so you need to keep them sweet. But at least, in this day and age, you can still blog without needing anyone else’s approval. So I’ve decided to start up my newsletter once more. I can’t do it once a week, but will try to do it once a month. Thank you to those who support the costs of the newsletter on Patreon.

This issue I want to talk about spiritual materialism, a phrase coined by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a mad Tibetan monk who came over to the West in the 1970s, and inspired some of the greatest western Buddhist teachers, like Pema Chodron and Tara Brach. By ‘spiritual materialism’ I think he means the way we westerners smuggle our worldly ambitions into our spiritual quest.

Whenever I’ve had dramatic spiritual awakenings, I’ve expected it to convert rapidly into some sort of worldly success. I’ve expected it to shake up my external life and lead to sudden, radical improvements – I would suddenly meet the love of my life, for example, or be offered a new job, or a book deal, or something.

When I did the Alpha course, and had a heart awakening, I expected it to transform my external life for the better. I was told by the Alpha vicar, Nicky Gumbel: ‘Jesus has amazing plans for you’, and I thought, ‘Excellent! Bring it on, Jesus’. It didn’t quite happen like that.

When we begin to pursue the spiritual life, we want all the good things of a conventional life – a rich love life, a successful career, a happy family, a lovely home, a sexy body, delicious cocktails, wonderful holidays, fabulous dinner parties, and so on. We want all of that, plus soulfulness.  Like Rod Tidwell says in Jerry Maguire, we want the kwan: ‘it means love, respect, community… and the dollars too. The package. The kwan.’

You see this a lot in soulful hipsters in London or New York in their 30s and 40s. We pride ourselves on our spirituality and on being counter-cultural, but in some ways we’re just as hung up on conventional success as everyone else – we want the prestige, the prominence, the great love-life, the sexy body, the beautiful home, the glamorous holidays, the Instagram life. Like Bwyneth Paltrow, we want the gratification of our ego desires and soulfulness – what could be more gratifying than that!

A friend posted something recently on Facebook, an advert for a meditation and yoga retreat at a place called Tres Posh in Ibiza. It says: ‘We’re back at the tres posh, swanky pants yoga villa for five glorious days of Ibiza sun and shine in September. The days will begin with meditation, yoga and nidra folllowed by a magnificent brunch made by Pete’s fair hands. There will be massage, therapies, lounging by the dreamy pool, walking, resting, reading and snoozing before thai massage or a yoga practice in the evenings and an outrageously delicious dinner.’ They are cheap compared to some of the yoga retreats out there. 

A western goddess of wealth and worldly power

I am not being scornful here. I have exactly the same aspirations. I want conventional success and comfort, plus soul. Which is why it hurt when I emerged from an ayahuasca retreat, wondering what wonderful gifts the universe had waiting for me, and I unwrapped the first package to discover – dada! your dream-job of having a column has just vanished!

I had it easy, in fact. One member of our group had to go home early, after the first two ceremonies, when his sister suddenly fell ill and was rushed to hospital. He’d travelled 48 hours to get to the retreat. Now he had to go and be in that family crisis, on an ayahuasca comedown.

The fact is, the rules of the spirit world are not the same as the rules of this world. We think they are, and we want to win at both. But they’re not the same at all. What looks like abject failure in this world might actually be incredible success in the spirit-world. And what looks like total victory in this world might actually be utter failure in the spirit-world.

We want to maintain our status as all-powerful superhero westerners who control our lives and get what we want. But that’s not surrender.

The wind bloweth where it listeth. The medicine does exactly what it wants to do. You have to trust it. It’s not predictable, and it won’t necessarily make it easy on you. But you have to trust that in every experience, however unpleasant (and losing a magazine column is not particularly unpleasant in the grand scheme of things), there is wisdom to be found in it.

We can’t necessarily tell what is good for us and what is bad for us. And perhaps we need to go beyond these instant judgements of good and bad.

One person in our random collection of ayahuasca-pilgrims, Vadim, was there partly because of a bereavement. He had a powerful awakening during the first ceremony. And he’s kept on awakening in the weeks since. Last week, he sent out emails every day to our group, with a YouTube video of him talking over some amazing graphics. He sent out nine of these videos, each around ten minutes long, in a series called Awakening. I’d wake up in the morning to find a new video from him in my inbox, and I’d watch it over breakfast, and listen to his voice.

In the third video, he says:

We constantly are judging, labelling things as good or bad, from the point of view of our personality.  In the present dream generated by our subjective consciousness, we have a tendency not to remember that everything that surrounds us physically, despite being amazingly designed, organically is made up of temporary forms. All and any of those forms at some point will change into a different form. The form will die, and be reborn, and possibly reborn into another form that may be very alien to us when we meet again, if ever. Why, one will ask. Because that is what life is made of. Life is made of constant change….How not to judge the moment of the event? Life-experiences are not given to us by the universe to make us endlessly suffer, nor to make us endlessly happy…Experiences are given to us simply to observe them. Observe the feeling, and that’s it. We should be ready to treat events that change our life-circumstances simply as epic moments of experience.

From the point of view of this world, what happened to Vadim was ‘the worst thing that can happen to someone’. That’s what we say, isn’t it? And yet even bereavement, even the loss of a child, can be a catalyst for a powerful spiritual awakening. Sharon Salzberg talks of her most important teacher (55 minutes in to the interview): ‘She’d had tremendous suffering in her life. She came to practice after losing two children and her husband, and was so struck with grief she couldn’t get out of bed. The doctor said ‘you’re going to die of a broken heart unless you learn how to meditate’. So she got up out of bed and went to learn. When she emerged, she was so compassionate and so loving. She’d found a way to translate that terrible pain into compassion.’

One of the most useful things I heard to prepare me for psychedelics was from Rick Doblin, the head of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). He said: ‘A difficult trip is not a bad trip.’ This is certainly true on ayahuasca – the first ceremonies I had were lovely, fun, confidence-boosting. But they were just preparatory. The third and fourth ceremonies were much harder, darker, scarier. But that’s where all the healing happened – when I got the opportunity to face difficult emotions and experiences, and to react with more courage, wisdom and love than I have in the past. Difficult does not mean bad.

I can’t expect, therefore, any spiritual awakening (however small) to translate naturally into worldly success. It doesn’t work like that. The spirit-world has different rules to this world. It’s not like western yoga – you do this many sessions, you’ll definitely get a sexy bum, and probably a better sex life. 

We confuse the two worlds. We think there is a correlation between how prominent a person is in this world, and how wise and gifted they are in the spirit-world. The Pope must be the most spiritually advanced person, right? Osho must be the most spiritually gifted person – look at his spiritual empire! Sadhguru must be the incarnation of Shiva – look how many Facebook followers he has!

We mistake prominence for spiritual power. But they’re not the same. I’ve met a handful of people in my life who struck me as people of genuine spiritual power. And they were pretty much all obscure and uncelebrated. The shamans I met in the jungle, for example, have never written any books, they don’t have Facebook pages or ITunes podcasts. No one knows their names. I barely know their names. But they have huge amounts of spiritual power.

Maybe this is all an elaborate rationalization of my disappointment at not getting my magazine column. It does piss me off, and it’s OK that it pisses me off. I guess what I’m trying to say is this: when we embark on the spiritual life we think it will be more or less like the worldly life, just with a bit more soul. We’re like Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin when they’ve just left the Shire, thinking they’re on a fun little adventure. They have no idea what they’re getting in to, or what it will cost them…not less than everything.

The unpredictability of the spiritual life can scare us. We don’t want to lose what we have in this world – the success, the comfort, the status, the security. We may read articles about the risks of meditation, the dangers of psychedelics, the damage from gurus or religious communities, and think, screw that, I’ll just stay in the worldly life. But is it any safer here? Are we on solid ground? We’re still going to suffer and die, over and over and over. Why not gather up our courage, and get going?

Is there a taboo around spirituality in British culture?

Illustration from Neil Gaiman’s 1602, by Andy Kubert

There’s a strange disjuncture in our culture. On the one hand, the majority of people hold spiritual or religious beliefs. In a ComRes poll in 2013, 59% of British people said they believe in spiritual forces (God, spirits, demons and so on), and 52% believed they affected life on Earth. In another ComRes poll this year, 46% said they believe in life after death – the same number as those who don’t. So, although church attendance has declined steeply, we’re still a culture where a majority believe in the spiritual dimension of life, and where many follow forms of spiritual practice like yoga, meditation, prayer, psychedelics and so on.

Yet this aspect of people’s identity is not really covered in our media, particularly in the intelligent media, by which I mean broadsheets, magazines like The Economist or Prospect, Radio 4, book festivals and so on. In the upper echelons of our culture, I think religion is seen as a bit reactionary and bonkers, while spirituality is seen as flaky. At the height of the Enlightenment, the theologian Friedrich Schleiemacher wrote of religion’s ‘cultured despisers’. Today the spiritual side of existence is not so much despised as ignored.

If, like me, you’re spiritual or religious and you work in the intelligent media – or academia – you keep your beliefs to yourself. There’s a sense you’re in territory that is, not exactly hostile, but inhospitable to those beliefs. If you meet others interested in spirituality (you meditate? you go to church? you’ve tried ayahuasca??) you communicate your sympathy through private conversations and secret handshakes. Off-microphone, as it were.

Take the BBC, the closest thing we have to a national church. It helps create the culture that binds this country together, and more than any other institution it steers our national conversation. And I adore it. But you’d be hard-pressed to find much in its copious output that explores spirituality. There are still a handful of religious programmes, but one feels they’re more the product of weary box-ticking for the ageing faithful (Songs of Praise, Thought for the Day), rather than excited and enthusiastic exploration of spiritual reality. Radio 4 has Beyond Belief, which is great, but not much else. The Beeb produces wonderfully-inspiring nature programmes (Planet Earth) or science programmes (The Wonders of the Universe) but little that genuinely and sympathetically explores the spiritual dimension of life.  The one place that does unashamedly discuss spirituality as a positive force is Radio 6 – musicians are happier to talk about it.

Or take the Hay Festival, which I also love. This year, the theme is Reformations. There’s not a single talk covering spirituality, and of the six talks covering ‘religion’, five aren’t really about religion at all (have a look). The only talk at the festival exploring the religious or spiritual as a positive force in our lives is mine. God help us!

You notice the weird absence of the spiritual in our culture when you go abroad. I went to the Jaipur Literature Festival in January, which is the biggest book festival in Asia. The line-up there included the guru Sadhguru, talking on the main stage about his ecstatic experiences growing up. It was surreal for me, as a Brit, to hear someone on the main stage of a book festival talking about the spiritual life. Like someone openly talking about being gay in the 1950s.

Sadhguru speaking at the Jaipiur Literature Festival in January

Now I know it’s banal to say ‘oh India is so much more spiritual than the UK’. Secular Indians get exasperated with the spiritual exoticism Westerners project onto India. But it’s true that spirituality is far more mainstream in Indian culture. Many of the educated professionals I met on my travels spent time in an ashram, for example. One investment banker I met spent half the evening enthusing about Osho.

I’m not saying Indian culture is perfect – if anything, it’s perhaps too spiritual. There’s an over-credulous adoration of huckster gurus like Osho or quack ideas like astrology (few in India get married without consulting an astrologer). Religion spills over into the public sphere, with roaming Hindu ‘virtue squads’ attacking cattle traders or teenagers on dates. Spirituality can be used as an excuse not to fix things on the material dimension – this week, a leading guru claimed the spate of farmer suicides in Tamil Nadu was caused not just by drought but also because ‘the farmers aren’t spiritual enough‘.

But there must be a middle ground between India’s over-credulous embrace of the spiritual, and the UK’s cultural disregard of it. I feel there is a taboo around spiritual experience in our culture (and 75% of my blog readers agreed). The taboo feels particularly strong if you talk about God, higher intelligences, or life-after-death – anything that treads beyond metaphysical materialism immediately feels dangerous and slightly mad.

But let’s look at it from the point-of-view of producers and commissioning editors. Let’s say you’re sympathetic to spirituality. How exactly are you going to cover it? Who would you try to get on to your show? There are very few spiritual leaders in our culture who are able to talk to a general audience rather than a New Age workshop – few well-known and articulate spokespeople like Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley or Terence McKenna. There are few ashrams, and hardly any renunciates who’ve dedicated their life to spiritual development. So who would you get on?

Also, the media tend to cover things when they’re new. What’s new about spirituality? The way to attain spiritual peace is by transcending attachment and aversion. Well, hold the front page.

What tends to happen is the media tries to tap our yearning for transcendence through science, and the latest scientific trial. Then you can have an excited headline like ‘scientists discover the happiest man in the world is a Buddhist monk!’ Or ‘Psychedelic scientists discover higher state of consciousness!’

For example, there are two aspects of contemporary spirituality that get a huge amount of media publicity  – contemplation (ie mindfulness and yoga) and psychedelics. In both cases, it’s thanks to scientific research in these fields, which dress spirituality in the respectable white coat of science.  Brain scans give a material basis to spiritual experiences, which makes them more tangible and credible to our era of Doubting Thomases.

Look, proof!

‘People tend to associate phrases like ‘a higher state of consciousness’ with hippy speak and mystical nonsense’, psychedelic researcher Robin Carhart-Harris told the Guardian after one such trial last week. ‘This is potentially the beginning of the demystification, showing its physiological and biological underpinnings.’  The assumption is that neuro-imaging shows what is actually happening. The material dimension is real, everything else is mystical nonsense.

I welcome the emergence of a more critical, scientific spirituality. But it tends to be carefully policed – don’t talk about the soul, spirits or the afterlife. Don’t let any of the hairier bits of spirituality protrude from that respectable white coat. The psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihayli showed the efficacy of this approach – he took the experience of ecstasy, stripped it of anything to do with God or a spiritual dimension, re-branded it as ‘flow’, then sold it as a management technique.  But what about a spirituality beyond the self, beyond this life?

We need to find space in our culture – and particularly in intelligent culture – for an ‘intelligent spirituality’, a spirituality that is both scientifically literate but also aware of the limits of quantitative empiricism, and which is open to the range of metaphysical positions an intelligent person might take. We don’t yet fully understand the relationship between consciousness and matter, so we don’t yet know if consciousness can survive death, nor if there are more intelligent beings out there (or a supreme intelligence or source of intelligence). We need to keep searching without being ashamed or afraid of looking ridiculous – I don’t think we’ve reached the final page of homo sapiens‘ spiritual quest just yet.

If there isn’t a British magazine that explores these topics intelligently and sympathetically, should someone set one up? In the meantime, I recommend Mark Vernon and Rupert Sheldrake’s podcast, Russell Brand’s podcast, the Scientific and Medical Network, Aeon (although it’s mainly materialist in its metaphysics), and the US podcast On Being. You might disagree with some of the statements in this essay – perhaps I’ve over-emphasized the taboo? My friend Dr Oliver Robinson, for example, thinks the media and academia have become much more open to spiritual experience in the last few years. Feel free to comment below!

If you like this topic, check out my new book, The Art of Losing Control, about how people in western culture find ecstatic experiences today.