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Spirituality

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.

 

Why getting out of our head is good for us

At the end of last year, an unusual article appeared in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. A single dose of a drug appeared to dramatically reduce anxiety and depression in those suffering from life-threatening cancer, far better than any other treatment. The drug was psilocybin, the psychedelic found in magic mushrooms.

The two trials, by NYU medical school and Johns Hopkins medical school, are the latest in a series of recent studies which claim psychedelics have remarkable therapeutic powers, helping people overcome chronic emotional disorders and addictions. So how exactly does a single dose of a psychedelic drug create such radical personality changes?

The Johns Hopkins study wrote: ‘This finding suggests a potential psycho-spiritual mechanism of action: the mystical state of consciousness.’

Come again?

For over three centuries, western science – and in particular, psychiatry – has tended to pathologize ‘mystical experience’, to reduce it to a delusion or mental illness. In the Enlightenment, natural philosophers called it ‘enthusiasm’, and blamed on an over-active imagination or an over-warm brain. In the late 19th century, psychiatrists labelled it ‘hysteria’. In the 20th century, spiritual experiences were (and still are) reduced to brain disorders like schizophrenia or epilepsy.

The consequence of this long pathologization of ecstasy is that there’s a taboo around such experiences. As Aldous Huxley put it: ‘If you have an experience like this, you keep your mouth shut, for fear of being told to go to a psychoanalyst’, or, in our day, a psychiatrist. And the result of that taboo is that western culture has become spiritually flat, afraid to let go, stuck in our heads and our egos, lacking a window to transcendence.

In the last few years, however, a consensus has begun to emerge in psychology and psychiatry that ecstatic experiences – moments when we go beyond our ordinary ego and feel a connection to something bigger than us – are often good for us.

Scientists can’t agree on what to call this sort of experience – it’s variously studied as self-transcendence; flow; mystical, religious, spiritual or anomalous experience; altered states of consciousness; or (my preferred term) ecstasy. But scientists do agree that it’s an important human experience that can be very healing. This is a big shift for western science, and western culture.

Breaking the mental loop

Ecstasy is good for us because it gets us out of our head. Emotional disorders like depression, anxiety and addiction are perpetuated by rigid and repetitive patterns of thinking, feeling and acting. We get stuck in loops of negative rumination, endlessly thinking about ourselves and our imperfections. We can free ourselves from these rigid mental habits by using rationality to unpick our beliefs – this is what Cognitive Behavioural Therapy does.

But we can also get out of these loops by shifting our consciousness. To use the terminology of the New Testament, we can have sudden epiphanies which break us out of the tomb of our egos, giving us the experience of being born again. Being reborn – suddenly reconfiguring the self – is a fundamental human capacity, not found only in followers of Jesus.

There are shallower and deeper forms of ego-loss. At the lighter end of the spectrum, there are the sort of ‘flow’ states which we might find each day or week, where we lose ourselves in reading a good book, or walking in the park, or going for a run. These activities settle and absorb our consciousness, taking us out of the loop of rumination, helping us forget ourselves in the moment (here’s an interview I did with flow psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi on flow and ecstasy).

Iris Murdoch called it ‘unselfing’. She wrote:

We are anxiety-ridden animals. Our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, usually self-preoccupied, often falsifying veil which partially conceals our world…The most obvious thing in our surroundings which is an occasion for ‘unselfing’ is what is popularly called beauty…I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind…Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel.

Nature is the most reliable route to this sort of ego-dissolving wonder. When we go for a walk, run, ride or swim in nature, we might discover what Wordsworth called ‘the quiet stream of self-forgetfulness’. We get into the ‘reverie’ that Rousseau wrote about when he went walking, feel a mind-expansion at the beauty of the landscape, and this breaks the loop of rumination. Here’s a 2015 study on how a 90-minute walk in nature reduces rumination.

The arts can do something similar – absorb our consciousness so that we lose ourselves in the moment, in the book, poem, play, painting, song, cathedral etc – and this shift in consciousness breaks the loop of rumination and takes us somewhere quieter, better, more spacious. A 2016 mass survey by Durham University found reading and nature were our favourite ways to rest – and  switching off the restless ego-mind is an important part of that. Likewise, meditation and prayer can help us find the space between our ruminating thoughts. Many of us use sport as a way to get out of the noise of our head and into our bodies.

Such moments of absorption can be very socially connecting. Suddenly, we’re taken out of our ego-loops and joined in what social psychologist Jonathan Haidt called ‘the hive mind’. That’s a great antidote to the chronic western affliction of loneliness. We might get that experience singing, dancing, marching or playing music together, which studies shows helps to synchronize people’s breathing and even heart-beat. We might get collective flow from playing or watching sport together, or participating in a concert or political rally. Or – the oldest route – we might get it by worshipping the divine in some form or other.

The deep end of absorption

And then there are deeper moments of self-transcendence, which the mystics call ‘ecstasy’, in which one becomes so absorbed in a moment or activity that one’s identity and conception of reality are radically altered, perhaps permanently. Such moments are rare, but they can be life-changing. At this deeper end of what I call the ‘continuum of absorption’, one finds experiences like strong psychedelic trips, moments of deep contemplation, spontaneous spiritual experiences, and near-death experiences.

Take spontaneous spiritual experiences. In surveys, between 50% and 80% of people say they have experienced a moment of ecstasy, where they’ve gone beyond their normal sense of identity and felt a deep connection to something greater than them. Here’s one example:

During my late 20s and early 30s I had a good deal of depression. I felt shut up in a cocoon of complete isolation and could not get in touch with anyone…things came to such a pass and I was so tired of fighting that I said one day, ‘I can do no more. Let nature, or whatever is behind the universe, look after me now.’ Within a few days I passed from a hell to a heaven. It was as if the cocoon had burst and my eyes were opened and I saw. Everything was alive and God was present in all things….Psychologically and for my own peace of mind, the effect has been of the greatest importance.

In a survey I did, agnostics and atheists also reported moments where they felt a deep connection between themselves and all things – indeed, arch-rationalist Bertrand Russell had a mystical moment where he suddenly felt profoundly connected to everyone in the street. He said that experience turned him into a pacifist. We might make sense of such moments of connection differently, but they seem very common, and on the whole good for us.

Psychedelics are similarly effective at giving people a sense of spiritual connection and oneness. Comedian Simon Amstell has spoken of how a psychedelic brew called ayahuasca, found in the Amazon jungle, helped him overcome depression: ‘Before I left I felt broken. After I came back, I didn’t feel broken anymore…I felt like I was part of the world, not disconnected from it.’

After 40 years in the wilderness, psychedelics are rapidly returning to the mainstream of western medicine. Just this month, the Lancet published a trial showing the effectiveness of ketamine at treating chronic depression, while BBC One’s main daytime TV show, Victoria, had a segment on the benefits of LSD microdosing in managing emotional problems. Other trials have found psychedelics effective at treating depression and addiction.

One of the most powerful forms of ecstatic experience is the ‘near-death experience’. Thanks to improved resuscitation procedures, NDEs are increasingly common and there are several academic research units studying them. They seem to share common features, particularly an encounter with a white light and a sense of being profoundly loved. People typically return from NDEs less afraid of death, because they no longer think it’s the end. I had an NDE myself when I was 21 – that’s how I became interested in this topic – and it helped me recover from PTSD. After five years of feeling my ego was permanently broken, I realized there was something within me bigger than my ego, which was loved and OK.

Other forms of ecstatic experience seem to work in a similar way – they take people beyond their constructed ego and give them a sense of love-connection to some greater whole. In the trials I mentioned at the start of this article, psilocybin seemed to give the participants an NDE-type experience. Here’s the report of one participant in the NYU study:

For the first time in my life, I felt like there was a creator of the universe, a force greater than myself, and that I should be kind and loving. I experienced a profound psychic shift that made me realize all my anxieties, defences and insecurities weren’t something to worry about.

Now, this poses a challenge for western science. It appears that moments of ecstasy or ‘mystical experiences’ can be very therapeutic. But are they true? Are we really connected to all beings and the universe in some kind of psychic love-connection? Is there really a loving God beyond our ego? Tucked away in the formal language of the Johns Hopkins study is the comment that one psychedelic trip increased people’s belief in the afterlife (see the passage below), and this was one of the factors in the reduction of death-anxiety:

Remarkable: a material that makes us believe in the immaterial. But is that just a placebo-delusion?

We don’t know. Maybe such experiences give people an insight into a genuine connection between our consciousness and all things, a connection that materialist physics doesn’t yet understand but might in the future. Or maybe the experience of oneness is really in our head – recent studies appear to show that both LSD and meditation improve brain connectivity, so parts of the brain that don’t normally talk to each other come online and connect. Maybe that’s what the blissful feeling of oneness ‘is’. We don’t know. But we do know such experiences are often healing.

However, there are risks to ecstasy as well. Ego-dissolution is a form of radical surgery, as it were, which shakes people out of their usual habits of thinking and feeling and allows them to press re-set. That can be dangerous if it’s not done with proper therapeutic support. It can release buried trauma, or latent psychosis. It can be difficult to go back to one’s previous life.

I’ve had personal experience of the negative effects of psychedelics, for example, after I had a bad LSD trip when I was 18 which left me struggling with paranoia and post-traumatic stress for several years. Scientists have also studied frightening experiences of ego-loss that emerge from meditation. Spontaneous spiritual experiences can be terrifying and hard to integrate or explain to other people, particularly in a highly secular and ecstasy-averse culture like Europe.

Even some communities which put a positive value on ecstasy can be harmful. New Age or charismatic Christian communities are one of the few places in western culture where we still have permission to trance out and dissolve our egos. But such communities can put a rigidly dogmatic interpretation on ecstatic experiences – either they’re Jesus, or the Devil. They may foster an ecstatic sense of togetherness, but at the cost of demonising outsiders. They may lead to the toxic worship of a guru-figure who triggers the ecstasy. They may cash in on people’s craving for exaltation.

Having studied ecstasy over the last five years, I’ve come to two conclusions. Firstly, we need a more balanced relationship with ecstasy. We shouldn’t be averse to it or embarrassed to talk about it. Ego-transcendence is not bonkers, it’s natural and good for us. But we shouldn’t get hung up on it either, and start thinking we’re incredibly special for having a spiritual experience (we’re not). They’re just part of the long journey towards awakening.

I feel like western culture is a bit like a balloon – because there’s such a flattening of the ecstatic in the mainstream of our culture, it bulges out in other areas (the New Age, charismatic Christianity), in which there’s too strong an emphasis on it.

Secondly, we need to develop controlled spaces to lose control. That’s what religious rituals have provided humans for millennia, and what the West lost in the Reformation and Enlightenment. Since then, we’ve improvised many new places for transcendence – from cinema to New Age cults to acid house to football hooliganism. But not all of these new places are healthy.

One new place for ecstasy is therapy and medicine. Ecstasy is returning to the mainstream of western culture thanks to medical research in fields like psychedelic science and contemplative science, which shows ecstasy is healing. The benefits are potentially huge, but the risk is that scientists become priests, and the Gospel of Mindfulness or Psychedelics becomes the new dogma.

A second new ‘space’ for ecstasy is the internet, where people come together to share their ecstatic experiences online. We’re in an era of mass experimentation in ecstasy – rather than look to priests or gurus, we self-experiment, then sharing our results with others through online and offline communities like www.erowid.com, where users share their trip experiences; or meditation sites like reddit.com/r/Meditation; or in self-help groups like the Hearing Voices network.

Such communities are an example of a new, wired spiritual democracy: no one is in charge, everyone is an expert. I imagine virtual reality will take this online mass ecstasy one stage further – though here the replacement for the church will be the corporation (Facebook etc) which manages and monetizes the online communion. And there’s a risk that, in our desperation to share our ecstasy online, it ends up being just another selfie.

Alongside these new spaces for ecstasy, I think we in the West need to find a way to re-engage with existing religious traditions, particularly our inherited tradition of Christianity, which we mock in public while endlessly stealing from the backdoor. Christianity, for all its flaws, teaches us how to embed ecstasy in an ethical context of humility, charity and surrender to Something More than the self.

Some modern forms of ecstasy – the New Age, the occult, the human potential movement, transhumanism – often encourage humans to get pumped up on ecstasy to try and become super-powered gods. This seems like dangerous ego-inflation to me. We have something godlike within us, but the way to connect to it is not by flying off into ungrounded superhero fantasies, but by sitting down quietly and accepting our weakness and imperfection. ‘We descend by self-exaltation’, said St Benedict, 1500 years ago, ‘and ascend through humility.’

This article summarises some points from my new book, The Art of Losing Control, which explores how people find ecstasy in modern western culture. You can buy the book here (it’s also available in Kindle and paperback).