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Stoicism

What the Stoic account of the emotions leaves out

socrates dionysusAt the end of Philosophy for Life, I asked what the Socratic-Stoic tradition of philosophy misses out, and suggested there is an alternate approach to life and to emotional healing, which I called the Dionysiac tradition:

The virtues of the Socratic tradition are self-control, rationality, self-consciousness and measure. The Socratic tradition typically puts forward a hierarchy of the psyche, in whcih the conscious, reasoning parts of the psyche are highest, and the intuitive, emotional and appetitive parts of the psyche are lowest. The Dionysiac tradition celebrates a very different way of life. Where Socrates preaches self-control, Dionysus urges us to lose ourselves in sex, music, dancing and ecstasy.

The Socratic approach uses conscious reasoning as the means to emotional healing and virtue. Our emotions are caused by – or in some sense are – our beliefs and judgements. Sometimes our beliefs are unwise or wrong, which causes us suffering. But we can use our reason to re-appraise, to think differently, believe and behave differently, and this will bring us healing and wisdom.

This is the idea at the heart of Socratic philosophy, and the Neo-Stoic or cognitive theory of the emotions which is found in cognitive psychology, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and in the philosophy of Martha Nussbaum and many other virtue ethicists.

It’s true to an extent, and it can bring people a lot of healing. But it’s not the whole story. It is a partial account of the truth. It misses stuff out. If that’s all you know about the psyche, your philosophy of life will be over-rationalistic, and less effective than it could be in helping people heal and flourish.

Emotions and the Autonomic Nervous System

What I call the Dionysiac approach has a different theory of the emotions. It suggests that some forms of emotion – we might prefer to call them moods or feelings – are not primarily forms of cognitive appraisal. Instead, they are non-cognitive and physiological.

The Autonomic Nervous System
The Autonomic Nervous System

Our body, our Autonomic Nervous System, our limbic system, reacts automatically to a stimulus with powerful physical reactions (gut feelings, skin tingling, heart palpitations, heavy or shallow breathing, involuntary limb movements and so on), which our neo-cortex may then appraise and turn into an emotion.

William James, the most famous defender of this theory, described it thus. We see a bear. Our heart starts pounding, our hair stands on end, our body is flooded with adrenaline, we jump out of our skin and start running away, and as we’re running, we think to ourselves ‘this is fear, I’m afraid of that bear’. The bodily reaction comes first, and then the mind recognizes the body’s reaction and categorizes it as an emotion. The emotion, James suggests, is the physiological response.

This more non-cognitive account of the emotions focuses particularly on the Autonomic Nervous System, also known as the visceral or involuntary nervous system, regulated by the hypothalamus and running through the ganglia to our pupils, hair, skin, heart, lungs, stomach, groin and limbs.

The ANS also seems to be involved in trance states or altered states of consciousness. Music, poetry or cinema, for example, appears to have the power to send us into trance states by operating directly on our ANS rather than through our conscious rational reasoning – we feel it in our gut, it makes our skin tingle, our pupils dilate, our heart pound, and before we know it we are crying or euphorically dancing, almost involuntarily (see particularly Judith Becker’s Deep Listeners: Music, Emotion and Trancing). Our cognitive rationality is suspended, we go into a trance state, and are absorbed in the moment and the feeling.

The Stoics were aware of involuntary physiological reactions to shocks – they called them ‘first movements’. For example, a Stoic philosopher might be on a ship in a storm, and might turn pale and start shivering from fear. However, the Stoics insist it’s only an emotion if the philosopher gives their conscious assent to their physical reactions and thinks ‘this really is a scary and terrible situation’.

Seneca writes:

Emotion does not consist in being moved by the impressions that are presented to the mind, but in surrendering to these and following up such a chance movement. For if anyone supposes that pallor, falling tears, sexual excitement or a deep sigh, a sudden brightening of the eyes, and the like, are evidence of an emotion and a manifestation of the mind, he is mistaken, and fails to understand that these are just disturbances of the body.

So according to the Stoics, our ANS system may react powerfully to things – our toe may start tapping, our teeth may chatter, our heart may pound, our skin may tingle, we may even go into some kind of trance state or dissociative fit. The Stoic may feel all these things, but as long as the neo-cortex does not give its assent to these physical disturbances, it’s not an emotion, it’s ‘just disturbances of the body’. It’s a strange dualist separation of mind and body for a supposedly materialist philosophy.

On the one side, then, are the Stoics and Neo-Stoics like Martha Nussbaum, who defend a rationalist and cognitive theory of the emotions, in which any emotion must involve an evaluation or judgement of value. On the other side – the side which Nussbaum calls ‘the Adversary’ – are James, Damasio, Joseph LeDoux, Jonathan Haidt, Pascal and other ‘intuitionists’, who challenge the cognitive theory of the emotions and insist that sometimes our moods, feelings and emotions don’t involve conscious rationality primarily or indeed at all. The ANS has its reasons of which the neo-cortex knows nothing, as Pascal almost put it.

Primary and secondary emotions

It’s a fault line that runs right through modern thinking about the emotions and the best way to heal them. Which is true?

It seems to me that both accounts are true, both capture something important about the emotions. Perhaps, as Antonio Damasio argues, there are two different ways we can feel emotions – primary and secondary. Primary emotions are mainly autonomic and physiological. These occur in all animals, and perhaps to some extent in plants too. Secondary emotions, by contrast, involve some cognitive evaluations or re-evaluations, both of our physical response and of the stimulus that prompted it. Secondary emotions involve the neo-cortex, the most recently evolved part of our brain.

The Stoic or Neo-Stoic account tends to focus entirely on secondary emotions. As a result, Stoic therapy, or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, tends to focus mainly on cognitive re-appraisal and re-thinking as the best method for emotional regulation and healing.

But that is not enough. It does not give an adequate account of our powerful emotional and visceral responses to, say, the arts, or sex, or nature, or drugs, or some forms of meditation or ecstatic religious experience. It gives an account of rational consciousness (probably involving the neo-cortex), but not of other states of consciousness which are more hypnagogic or trance.

Stoics and Neo-Stoics are suspicious of these sorts of visceral emotional states because they are so powerful, and because they seem to by-pass or over-throw our rationality (which they insist is the sovereign or divine part of us). That’s why Plato is so suspicious of poetry – it creates a form of ecstasy in which we are no longer master of our self, and Plato’s philosophy is all about becoming master of your self.

Dilated pupils: one of the classic somatic responses of the ANS

But here’s the key point. Our Autonomic Nervous System is not entirely Autonomic. We can consciously engage in practices which operate through the route of ‘primary emotions’, that’s to say, directly into our ANS. This can be very healing, helping us to alter the ‘milieu’ or baseline of our daily moods in a way that the cognitive appraisal of CBT does not always do.

And such ANS-targeted practices transform our consciousness, giving us different ways of being and knowing beyond rationality. These different ways of being and knowing can sometimes give us the sense of connecting with the sacred or the divine. So they’re not necessarily ‘lower’ or more ‘bestial’ than conscious rationality, as philosophers have sometimes insisted. They are important parts of our psyche, which philosophy often leaves out.

ANS-targeted practices

What sorts of practices work directly on our ANS system?

Certain forms of meditation, like Transcendental Meditation or mindfulness, work not with our conscious rationality or logic, but instead work on our ANS to alter our consciousness and our emotions. That can be tremendously healing, as the evidence from 40 years of research into meditation shows. The repeated practice of meditation alters our baseline emotional state and our automatic reaction to potentially stressful stimuli. It alters our heart rate, our immune system, our breathing – and that all feeds into our thinking style, making us less likely to make anxious or depressed appraisals of events.

Likewise, we can consciously engage with the arts as a form of healing and emotional release. That’s precisely why dance is so important to human beings – it gives us a form of emotional catharsis that is more direct, more primary and non-cognitive than conscious rational deliberation. Philosophers (not traditionally the greatest dancers) have singularly failed to appreciate the power of dance to heal us, beyond a few brief statements in Plato or Rousseau.

J.M.W. Turner
We don’t calmly process Turner’s Snow-Storm, we’re astonished by it

The emotional impact of the beauty of nature and art cannot be adequately explained by the Stoic or Socratic account of the emotions – this is why Nussbaum’s attempts at aesthetics are so tepid. As Burke understood, the sublime and the beautiful operate not on our reason, but on our nerves, our stomach, our guts. Burke wrote: ‘In every one of its modifications the sense of the sublime has its nervous basis, due to changes which are in some degree painful, and an analogous nervous basis may be discovered for the sense of the beautiful.’We don’t calmly and rationally process sublime scenes. On the contrary, we’re astonished by them – they overwhelm us, defy our ability to process them.

DH Lawrence and other Dionysiacs would also say, quite rightly, that sex is a powerful form of emotional catharsis, one unfairly denigrated by Stoics as ‘a rubbing together of bellies’ in Marcus Aurelius’ unhappy phrase. Erotic love gives us a form of knowing deeper and more visceral than conscious rationality. Our bodies, our ANS systems, intertwine. That can also be very healing.

And collective religious experiences are also a way of consciously manipulating and altering the Autonomic Nervous System. The music, the incense, the dancing, the singing, the prayer, the wine, the invocation of a Higher Power – all this by-passes our rationality and works directly on our primary emotions. And that can be tremendously healing and transformative. Of all philosophers, William James understood best how healing the altered states of consciousness attained through stimulation of the ANS could be. His classic book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, challenges the Stoic idea that healing only comes about through conscious reasoning. Sometimes people are healed and released from their old emotional habits through profound visceral or trance experiences.

Of course, we may get a temporary healing or release through a night of passion, or dancing, or religious ecstasy, or ayahuasca. Still, I think the Stoics were right that if this temporary release is going to become permanent transformation, it also needs to involve our conscious rationality. A spiritual life that is all about feelings and not at all about rational beliefs will not have very deep roots. Nor would a spiritual life that is entirely based on rational beliefs and not at all on bodily feelings. There needs to be a connection between the mind and the heart, in popular parlance.

It would be unfair to say Stoic therapy is entirely rational and that it misses out completely the non-cognitive and the non-rational aspects of emotions. A defender of Stoicism would point to the role of visualization meditations in their therapy, and their sense of awe in nature – both of which are rational but also non-rational / visceral. Certainly, Pythagoras and his follower Plato understood the power of music, dance, poetry and incantation to transform and heal our emotions.

sacred_heart_byzantineBut in general, Greek philosophy is rather suspicious of non-rational or Dionysiac approaches to the emotions. I think Christianity has a greater sense of the healing and transformative power of music, architecture, poetry, liturgy, dance and trance states (although of course it steered well clear of any drugs besides incense and wine). Judeo-Christianity speaks not just of reason or logic, but of knowing God through the heart or even the bowels – we are often told in the New Testament that Jesus reacts to suffering in his splagchnon, his bowels. How different to a Stoic, who would dismiss such visceral reactions as ‘just disturbances of the body’.

At its best, I think, Christianity can sometimes combine the rational ethical wisdom of Stoicism with the more non-rational, sublime or Numinous emotional experiences we have discussed. Though, I’m sure like a lot of you, I find my reason and my heart aren’t always in agreement.

There’s a difference between making noise and making change

seebohmIt is quite easy to make noise in our culture. The internet and online media are like a giant echo chamber, and within a few days one angry tweet can turn into an ear-splitting feedback scream of indignation. Because of that, we can become entirely focused on making noise in our culture – getting retweeted, getting on the news, getting publicity somehow or other. Anything to get the public’s attention for a moment. But making noise is not necessarily the same as making change.

Let me compare two revolutionaries: Seebohm Rowntree, and Russell Brand.

Seebohm Rowntree was Joseph Rowntree’s son, and eventually succeeded him as chairman of Rowntree’s chocolate company. Like his father, he was also a passionate campaigner for social justice. He wanted to improve the lives of British workers. He did this by quietly and pain-stakingly building an evidence base for higher wages.

He and a small team of researchers focused on working conditions in York. They investigated how many calories a person needed to eat to avoid malnutrition, and how much it cost to get those calories, as well as the basic fuel, clothing and household items necessary for survival. Anyone who could not afford these basics lived below the Poverty Line.

18.htm99His team then visited every working class family in York – 11,560 families, or 46, 754 individuals in all –  and interviewed them about their living conditions and income. His team discovered that 27.84% of the working class lived below the Poverty Line – they were not paid enough to avoid malnutrition. He also showed how many working-class people fell below the Poverty Line at the beginning and end of their lives – the so-called Poverty Cycle.

Rowntree published his results in a 1901 book, Poverty, in which he argued that employers should raise their wages and give sick pay and health insurance, while the state should provide unemployment insurance – otherwise, as soon as adversity struck, a family was plunged below the poverty line (if it wasn’t there already).

Andrew Marr, in his History of Modern Britain, writes:

Rowntree’s book arrived like a bomb in British politics. It showed that at the heart of the Empire, with all its pomp, wealth, and self-satisfaction, around a third of people were so poor they often did not have enough to eat, and many were sunk in utter poverty as bad as that of the Czar’s empire against which the communists raged. It did this clinically and statistically, in a way that was impossible to refute.

Rowntree’s work changed things. He worked closely with the Liberal government of David Lloyd George (1906-1914), which introduced many of the welfare provisions which Rowntree advocated. It also inspired (or shamed) many companies around the world to follow the example of Rowntree’s and introduce higher wages, sick pay, health insurance, free medical and dental consultations, employee pension schemes, and councils for consulting employees on management decisions.

Russell Brand has just as good intentions as Seebohm Rowntree, although I suspect he is more of a narcissist than the shy Seebohm was. Brand doesn’t just want social change, he also likes revolution as a pose, a look. He was calling for revolution on his radio show a decade ago, long before he had any idea what it would involve. It just sounded good, it felt cool, it felt naughty. Calling for revolution on Radio 2, fancy that!

517EhMdH-SLThen, last year, he published a manifesto in the New Statesman calling for ‘total revolution of consciousness’, for a ‘spiritual revolution’. This year, he expanded it into a book. Sounding like Thomas Traherne in Doc Martens, he declared that greed, power, capitalism, time itself were just ideas in the mind, and as ideas, they could be changed in an instant. We should ‘meditate, direct our love indiscriminately and our condemnation exclusively at those with power. Revolt in whatever way we want, with the spontaneity of the London rioters, with the certainty and willingness to die of religious fundamentalists or with the twinkling mischief of the trickster.’

Well, OK. But why ‘focus our condemnation exclusively at those with power’, as if all the evils of the world come from the Illuminati? Isn’t that letting us, the public, massively off the hook? Who is perpetuating a culture of shallow narcissism? We are! Who is perpetuating a female-denigrating patriarchy? We are! Who is putting our short-term consumer demands above the long-term survival of us and every other species? We are! But it feels so good to demonize ‘those with power’ and project our guilt onto them – it makes us into the heroic warriors of light, truth, justice and righteousness, just like those righteous ISIS dudes.

And saying ‘money is just an idea’ is not necessarily going to free us from that idea. Consciousness-change can happen in an instant, but usually it takes a lot longer. It takes strong evidence to make your argument the consensus rather than just a passing gesture. But when Brand went on Newsnight, he angrily waved away any contrary evidence or data: ‘I ain’t got time for a bloody graph!’

Brand doesn’t know the difference between making noise and making change. Imagine Seebohm Rowntree saying ‘I ain’t got time for a bloody graph’. Without evidence, you merely have rhetoric, gesture, charisma, warm sentiment and good intentions. And that can help you make noise, but not real worthwhile change.

I’m thinking about this because I’m wondering how those of us working to revive Greco-Roman philosophy (and ancient wisdom in general)  can not just make noise, but make change.

It’s relatively easy to make noise, as a practical philosopher. Sometimes if you’re lucky you can get on the media for a few minutes, write some articles, visit some schools, sell some books, do some cool stuff, make an OK living. But how do you really make a long-term difference rather than short-term noise?

My visit to Boston last month, for the Mind & Life Institute’s International Symposium of Contemplative Studies, was a real wake-up call. It seems to me that the people involved with Mind and Life – scientists and philosophers like Jon Kabat-Zinn and Richard Davidson – have over the last 30 years made genuine change. They have established mindfulness as a serious and evidence-based intervention, widely used now in medical schools, in higher education, in schools, in prisons, in mental healthcare, in business.

I’m particularly struck by the success of Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course. Kabat-Zinn established a course that was easy to follow, and easy to replicate. He started to build up an evidence base for its success in lowering stress. He let other people use the course and test it out – he put the promotion of the intervention above the promotion of his personal brand.

600_400453522He leveraged the credibility of his institution – UMass medical school – to help bring his research into the mainstream. He built up alliances with other key change-makers in his field, through the Mind and Life and other organizations and networks. He wrote both journal articles to make his case in academia, and popular books to make his case to the public.

That’s how to do it.

I feel that those of us working in practical philosophy (such as the Stoicism Today team) are at the beginning of that process. Like the mindfulness people 30 years ago, we’re trying to marry ancient wisdom practices with modern evidence-based psychology, and then take that out into different contexts – schools, prisons, mental healthcare, companies. We’re doing well – next week, Stoic Week is happening for the third year, with over 1000 people taking part in the online course (you can read the handbook in preparation for next week here). And we’re just about to sell out all the 300 tickets for the modern Stoicism event in London, so this will be the largest Stoic event…er…ever!

We’ve got Stoicism into the cultural conversation again, which is great. And I think a great deal of Stoicism Today’s success, perhaps all of it, has been because of partnerships – putting the movement before the promotion of our personal brands. That’s how to make change.

But we need to think about how to make more long-term change. Speaking personally, this year has been great fun, but everything has felt quite ad hoc – working with a rugby club one month, then a school the next, then a prison, then an accountancy firm. I personally feel the need for more of a coherent long-term strategy.

We need, I suspect, to establish a centre, within a university or several universities. There are mindfulness centres in many different universities and medical schools, but as far as I know, only one centre dedicated to the revival of ancient Greco-Roman philosophy (at the University of Warsaw). We need more partnerships with clinical psychologists and neuroscientists. We need more simplicity and replicability in our course materials, so it’s not just about our personality. And above all, we need to build up a stronger evidence base, so the case for learning wisdom practices becomes ‘impossible to refute’.

Why I love Thomas Traherne

thomas-traherne-stained-glass-1

I  had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from 1995 until 2001. Seven years of fear, anxiety, depression and paranoia, which I feared would last forever. But I got better, thanks to a near-death experience.

Your heart may sink when people start recounting near-death experiences. As a bishop once said to the Methodist John Wesley: ‘Pretending to special revelations of the Holy Spirit is a horrid thing.’ I don’t think my ‘revelation’ was in any way unique or unusual. A lot of people have these kinds of experiences, including as many as one fifth of people who suffer cardiac arrests. In themselves, they’re not necessarily significant or sanctifying. But sometimes, whatever they are and wherever they come from, they teach us useful things.

In 2001, I fell off a mountain while skiing, broke various bones, and knocked myself unconscious. When I came to, I saw a white light and felt completely filled with an infinite love, for myself and for everyone else. I felt that light was our souls, and they were perfect and immortal.

For some reason we had lost touch with this treasure within us, and allowed ourselves to become imprisoned by false beliefs, false opinions. I, for example, was imprisoned by the belief: ‘I am permanently damaged and therefore unlovable’. This made me very anxious about whether others still liked or loved me. In that moment, I realized I was lovable, we all are, and we just need to trust in the treasure of love within us, rather than anxiously trying to prove ourselves to other people.

For several weeks, I felt completely healed, not just healed, more than healed, I felt in love with the world. Music sounded better, life felt better, everything was illuminated. But then gradually the insight faded, the old mental habits came back, and I found myself becoming imprisoned by depression and anxiety again.

So I went to do a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, knowing that it was based on the same wisdom I had accessed in my accident – that what hurts us is our own beliefs, and we need to learn to free ourselves from them. I practiced and practiced and gradually turned my insight into habits.

Then I wrote a book about how CBT came from Greek philosophy, and spent several years working to communicate the benefits of Greek philosophy to people – particularly non-believers, for whom Stoicism is a very useful resource.

But I started to feel both Stoicism and CBT left something out. I still wondered: what was that experience on the mountain? What was that ecstasy? What is that infinite love that can so transfigure and transform us? How do we access it?

Traherne’s ecstatic wisdom

This brings me to Thomas Traherne. He was a 17th century Anglican parson (his dates are roughly 1636 to 1674), who lived in Hereford. He wrote some poetry and some religious prose. He was never famous or well-connected, like John Donne or George Herbert. He was not some radical outsider, like William Blake. He died young and uncelebrated, and remained almost completely unknown until 1896, when some of his manuscripts were discovered in a wheelbarrow outside a London antiques bookstore, including a book called Centuries of Meditation, which is a contemplative guide made up of 400 brief meditations. It was first published in 1908.

Since then, Centuries has been recognized by a handful of people as a classic. CS Lewis called it ‘almost the most beautiful book in the English language’. Aldous Huxley quoted from it liberally in his Perennial Philosophy. Northrop Frye thought it one of the great works of western literature. Traherne is loved by Thomas Merton, NT Wright,  the Bishop of London. Yet he’s still largely unknown, even among Christians, even among Anglicans.

51lROa35LNL._SY445_There is no major edition of Centuries available, none by a major publisher, none for under £20. Is that not extraordinary, for a spiritual classic of the first order? Thankfully some scholars are working to bring his glory to light, including Denise Inge, the wife of the Bishop of Hereford, who sadly died earlier this year. She published several books on Traherne, including Happiness and Holiness.

Traherne and Greek wisdom

Here’s why I love Traherne. First of all, like all Anglicans of that era, he really knows and loves Greek philosophy. Would that were so today, when Christians are intellectually threatened by anything beyond CS Lewis.

Traherne gets the essence of Stoic wisdom. First, we are imprisoned by our beliefs – he writes: ‘our misery proceedeth ten thousand times more from the outward bondage of opinion and custom, than from any inward corruption or depravation of Nature’. False opinions ‘alienate men from the Life of God’. As Rousseau realized a century later, we are particularly alienated (or enslaved) by our need for others’ approval:

An ambition to please, a desire to gratify, a great desire to delight others being the greatest snare in the world. Hence it is that all hypocrisies and honours arise, I mean esteem of honours…For men being mistaken in the nature of Felicity, and we by a strong inclination prone to please them, follow a multitude to do evil. We naturally desire to approve ourselves to them, and above all things covet to be excellent, to be greatly beloved, to be esteemed, and magnified, and therefore endeavour what they endeavour, prize what they prize, magnify what they desire, desire what they magnify.

This is straight out of Seneca, and also taps into the tradition of Cynic wisdom: humans are ‘grown mad with customary folly’, writes Traherne, echoing Erasmus and before that Diogenes the Cynic.

What can free us from what Blake called our ‘mind-forged manacles’? Wisdom.

Traherne writes: ‘Wisdom is the principal thing, yet all men neglect her.’ True philosophy is a love of wisdom, and this will direct us to happiness, or Felicity. We should strain every sinew to learn ‘the way to perfect happiness’. Yet philosophy and learning has become spiritually dead, pursuing only knowledge:

There never was a tutor that did professly teach Felicity, though that be the mistress of all other sciences…[At university] we studied to inform our knowledge, but knew not for what end we so studied. And for lack of aiming at a certain end we erred in the manner.

Wisdom involves learning to change your ‘frame’, as Traherne puts it. Your perspective, your life-philosophy – what you see, notice and value – is all-important, determining whether you live in Hell or Paradise. We must learn to ‘see aright’, to ‘enjoy aright’, otherwise, the ‘foundation’ of our reality is ‘out of course’ and we will be miserable.

The entire Centuries is really a contemplative manual, a therapeutic course, to try and help us see aright, value aright, and enjoy aright.

True wisdom involves not just theory but practice – this too is very much a Stoic insight. Philosophers ‘are not only those that contemplate happiness, but practice virtue.’ We must take wisdom and turn it into habits through repetitive meditation: ‘Having once studied these principles you are eternally to practice them. You are to warm yourself at these fires and to have recourse to them every day.’

Desire and yearning

So far, so Stoic. But Traherne goes beyond Stoic wisdom, towards more Platonic wisdom. Stoics, like Buddhists, believe desires and passions are basically bad. We should learn not to want. Plato, by contrast, thought that desire, love, wanting, yearning, was a good thing, it just needed to be steered to its proper goal. Desire is actually a yearning for our spiritual home – for God. We just need to follow this yearning and be true to it rather than narcotizing it with worldly comforts.

'I want! by William Blake
‘I want! by William Blake

Wants are good. Wants are ‘the bands and cements between God and us’. ‘Want is the foundation of all His Fulness’. Want is ‘a treasure in heaven’. ‘You must want like a God, that you may be satisfied by God’. We are lifted to God on the wings of desire. ‘The Desire satisfied is a Tree of Life.’

So we must follow the yearning of our soul, rediscover our heritage, rediscover the treasure within, and realize how blessed, how rich we are. We often feel like homeless exiles in this world, lonely, deprived, cut-off, scrabbling for a living, begging for approval, desperate for love.

If we could just learn to ‘see aright’, we could realize we are the heirs of God, we are inheritors of the kingdom, we have God within us – an infinite consciousness filled with infinite love. We have forgotten how rich we are.

Traherne recognizes that the key problem, the key false idea that is poisoning our reality, is a lack of self-esteem. We feel unloved, and unworthy of love, and this poisons our relationship with God and brings us to a depressed atheism. So what he does in Centuries is to try and teach us self-love, that we may learn to love others and to love God. ‘Self-love is the basis of all love…That pool must first be filled that shall me made to overflow.’

The way to self-love is to realize we are special. We are not mere machines in perpetual struggle with one another, as Traherne’s contemporary Thomas Hobbes insisted. We are the heirs of God.

All the World is yours…Though art the sole object of His eye, and the end of all His endeavours…the heavens are the canopy, and the earth is the footstool of your throne.

Enjoying aright

God created ourselves and the world solely that we should enjoy it. That’s the main purpose of life, according to Traherne. That should be at the top of our to-do list every morning: enjoy existence, enjoy creation. That’s the main thing God wants of us, that’s all we really need to do to live well. Everything else is secondary.

There’s a kind of mystical Epicureanism to Traherne – we have perfected the art of making ourselves miserable through our beliefs, now we can choose to give ourselves up to the pleasure of communion with God and nature. We can choose to be happy by seeing the richness of the moment, rather than choosing to be miserable by chasing after false goods:

Your enjoyment of the world is never right, til every morning you awake in Heaven; see yourself in your Father’s Palace; and look upon the skies, the earth, and the air as Celestial Joys: having such a reverend esteem of all, as if you were among the Angels….You never enjoy the world aright, til the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world.

God and the infinity of our souls

The evidence for God’s existence and for His love of us is, firstly, the wonder of nature, including ourselves, our bodies – ‘the greatest treasures of all’. We must learn to prize the things of nature rightly, to give thanks for them, treat them justly. But beyond that, the greatest evidence for God’s bountifulness is our infinite souls.

Traherne is part of a mystic tradition of English metaphysical poets, that stretches from Shakespeare to Donne, Herbert, Vaughan and Blake, all of whom had the ability to use language and metaphor as catapults to propel themselves beyond language,  beyond rationality, beyond the little walls of the self, towards the infinite.

Like these poets, and like Whitman later, Traherne sees God illuminated in nature. ‘The infinity of God…magnifieth all things.’ ‘Every spire of grass is the work of His hand.’ ‘An Ant is a great Miracle’, the ‘sweetness and unusual beauty’ of trees makes his soul ‘almost mad with ecstasy’.

When we’re children, we have a capacity to be ravished by the wonder, beauty and liveliness of the natural world, but then we lose our amazement through custom and familiarity. Poetry and philosophy help us to wonder like children again – here Traherne anticipates Rousseau, Blake, Wordsworth, CS Lewis and the Romantic (and very English) idea that children’s souls are closer to God than those of adults, and that imagination can bring us back to that secret garden we lost.

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Chief among the wonders of nature are our own souls, the infinite dimensions of which are proof to Traherne of God’s existence and our inheritance: ”I will in the light of my soul show you the Universe.’

here the dimensions of innumerable worlds are shut, up in a centre. Where it should lodge such innumerable objects, as it doth by knowing, whence it should derive such infinite streams as flow from it by Loving, how it should be a mirror of all Eternity, being made of nothing, how it should be a fountain or a sun of Eternity out of which such abundant rivers of affection flow, it is impossible to declare. But above all, having no material or bodily existence, its substance, though invisible, should be so rich and precious. The consideration of one Soul is sufficient to convince all the Atheists in the whole world.

Would that it were so. Instead, we have come to deny consciousness as an embarrassing outlier in the mechanistic model. Either it doesn’t exist, or it doesn’t do much. Not so, says Traherne. It shows us our true divine nature: ‘The true exemplar of God’s infinity is that of your understanding, which is a lively pattern and idea of it…The WORLD is but a little centre in comparison with you…Souls are God’s jewels, every one of which is worth many worlds.’

Next time you’re on a bus, look at the people round you. Each one is a miracle of consciousness. Each one is a universe. Yet we have forgotten this, and feel small and worthless, and God feels like an old and fanciful idea. We Measure GOD by our selves’, when we should measure our selves by God. ‘Every man is alone the centre and circumference of it. It is all his own, and so glorious, that it is the eternal and incomprehensible essence of the Deity. A cabinet of infinite value, equal in beauty, lustre and perfection to all its treasures.’

supramental

Infinite Love

When we think of something, our minds stretch towards it, and transform it into apprehension. But even more so when we Love something. Love is a reaching, an attending, a stretching of the boundaries of the self. In love we discover the infinite nature of the soul, which can reach towards and take into itself even the infinity of God.  ‘By Loving a Soul does propagate and beget itself. By Loving it does dilate and magnify itself. By Loving it does enlarge and delight itself…But above all by Loving it does attain itself.’

‘Love is deeper than at first it can be thought. It never ceaseth but in endless things. It ever multiplies.’ ‘God is Love, and my Soul is lovely!’ ‘By Love alone is God enjoyed, by Love alone delighted in, by Love alone approached or admired. His Nature requires Love, thy nature requires Love.’

God’s Love is infinity multiplying itself in the souls of all beings. This Love spreads not just through all the beings in this world, but perhaps through infinite worlds: ‘The Earth is too poor a cottage, too small a centre, to be the Single and Solitary object of his care and love’, Traherne writes in Kingdom of God. ‘What if beyond the Heavens there were Infinite Numbers of Worlds at vast unspeakable distances. And all Those worlds full of Glorious Kingdoms? and all those Kingdoms full of the most Noble and Glorious Creatures…Would this Abolish Heavens? Verily in my Conceit, it Enricheth it.’

Occasionally, Traherne attains a vision of God’s plan completed, when all beings are realized and filled with love for God and for each other, and the universes have become a network of conscious souls blazing with light. All are connected to God, and become God: ‘All are happy in each other. All are like Deities. Every one the end of all things, everyone supreme, every one a treasure, and the joy of all, and every one most infinitely delighted in being so.’

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Grace and Jesus’ Love

This sounds great. How lovely for Traherne to have such an ecstatic nature. But the rest of us find it a little harder to tune our souls into Love FM. We are a little more insecure, a little more distracted by worldly cares, more besieged by adversity, more trapped in ugliness and cruelty, more imprisoned in our need for material consolations.

And yet sometimes we have experiences where something helps us, beyond our own efforts. Love picks us up. That was my experience – I had messed up my own life, I had become lost in a labyrinth of false beliefs. And Love lifted me out of it. Strange but true. The Stoics say nothing of such experiences. Nor does CBT. Yet they happen. So what are they?

Perhaps they are our souls revealing themselves to us. Perhaps in moments of heightened consciousness – including life-threatening accidents – we get glimpses of the Atman within us.

For Traherne, such moments are gifts from God, and the ultimate gift was his own Son, giving himself for Love of us. Jesus’ love and sacrifice, Traherne believes, opened up a new connection between God and humans, that can break through our prisons. The Cross is a ‘Jacob’s Ladder by which we ascend to the highest Heavens’. It is a spear piercing time and space: ‘Had the Cross been twenty millions of ages further, it had still been equally near.’

road_to_the_cross_jekelThe Cross is ‘the abyss of wonders, the centre of desires, the school of virtues, the house of wisdom, the throne of love, the theatre of joys, and the place of sorrows; It is the root of happiness and the gate of Heaven’. It teaches us the way to the kingdom within us, by giving ourselves up to Love: ‘Teach me, O Lord, these mysterious ascensions. By descending into Hell for the sake of others, let me ascend into the glory of the Highest Heavens.’

Non-Christians may struggle with the Christology of this. Is Traherne saying the only way to God is through Christ, because Christ paid the debt of Original Sin? Anglicans would argue that he does say this – certainly in other books he is more dogmatic, less ecstatic. But I’m not sure Centuries argues this. It makes no mention of the Devil, nor much mention of Adam and Original Sin.

For Traherne, our fall comes after childhood, when we take on the opinions of the world. And we are freed from that fall when we become as children again and learn how much we are loved by God, and reciprocate that love. But Christ’s sacrifice made that liberation much easier. I don’t think I would necessarily have got better if Love had not lifted me out of the pit.

Does that mean The Only Way to God is through the worship of Christ? Traherne writes, intriguingly: ‘There are exceeding few such Heavenly Lovers as Jesus was, who imparted His own soul unto us. Yet some may doubtlessly be found.’ So perhaps there are, in other cultures and other worlds, such Heavenly Lovers as Jesus was, who beat a path through our folly back to God.

Giving praise

When we see aright, when we enjoy aright, when we discover the fountain of infinite love in our souls, and see it in others too, then we give praise and thanks, and sing like King David: ‘Are not praises the very end for which the world was created?’

‘Praises are the breathings of interior love, the marks and symptoms of a happy life, overflowing gratitude, returning benefits, an oblation of the soul, and the heart ascending upon the wings of divine affection to the Throne of God.’

Traherne was an extraordinary writer. He uses prose as a sort of poetic incantation, spilling clause after clause, image after image, until we are astonished. He repeats certain words like ‘frame’, ‘foundation’, ‘magnified’, ‘prized’, and certain images – the eye cleansed, the throne of God – until by frequent repetition they become fixed in the reader’s mind.

And Traherne was an extraordinary soul. The rest of us have our ups and downs, our good days and bad days. Traherne seemed peculiarly in touch with the Divine, and saw our ‘customary folly’ peculiary clearly. He is a prime example of what William James called ‘the once-born soul’, brimming with an almost bumptious optimism and certainty that he is loved by God, and through his certainty making us wonder if (could it really be?) we are also loved by God too.

I can barely remember what it was like to see that light on the mountainside and to feel connected to an infinite love. Fifteen years on, I remain the same lazy, petulant, misanthropic and egotistical person as ever. But when I read Traherne, very briefly, I seem to remember what I felt. This unknown country parson was, you could say, the richest man in the world, and he left his inheritance to all of us.

Here are some beautiful Traherne quotes I gathered together. And here is a very good speech by the Bishop of London about why Traherne is so vital for our own times.

Christianity, Stoicism and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

I’m doing a very brief talk this evening exploring the relationship between Christianity, Stoicism and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. This essay ‘unpacks’ the ideas I’ll speed through this evening. 

As regular readers will know (and might be getting bored of me repeating)  I suffered from a period of depression, social anxiety and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in my late teens and early 20s. These were brought on by a couple of bad LSD trips, which shook the foundations of my identity. I was terrified my emotional problems were chemical-neurological in origin, and therefore there was nothing I could do about it – I’d be permanently damaged for the rest of my life. I was also very ashamed at having messed myself up, so I tried to hide my wounds, and became more and more socially avoidant and distrustful of others. It felt like a personal version of the Fall, except I was hiding from other people rather than God!

I was saved via a near-death experience when I was 21. I fell off a mountain when I was skiing, broke my leg and knocked myself out, and when I came to, I saw a bright white light and felt filled with love and insight. I took four things from this unusual experience;

  • We are deeply loved by God.
  • There is something in us which cannot be harmed or die.
  • My own thoughts were the cause of my suffering. In particular, I was overly-dependent on others’ approval.
  • We should trust in the eternal Kingdom within us rather than desperately needing others’ fleeting approval

This experience radically transformed and healed me. For several weeks, I felt restored to myself, like a child welcomed home after being lost in the darkness. However, the old bad habits of thinking and feeling came back. So I went and did a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), because I thought it would help me habituate these insights, and to some extent it did.

CBT and the importance of beliefs

CBT is a very successful therapy for emotional problems, which you can now get free on the NHS in IAPT centres. It’s based on the idea that what makes us suffer is often our own thoughts and beliefs. The founders of CBT took this idea from Stoic philosophy, although it’s also at the centre of Christianity (and Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and other wisdom traditions).

the-power-of-wordsBoth Stoicism and Christianity tell us that words, beliefs and ideas are extremely powerful – they can either kill us or heal us. We are not simply neuro-chemical machines. We have been given free will and the capacity for reason and wisdom. We construct our experience of the world through our beliefs. Our emotions are connected to our beliefs, and the importance and value we assign to things.

Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher of the first century AD, said: ‘Men are disturbed not by events but by their opinion about events.’ Martin Luther likewise said: ‘a thing has only such meaning and value for a man as he assigns to it in his thought’.

Mind-forged manacles

Thinking unwisely can make us suffer and even kill us. We often cause ourselves suffering by misreading the world, and putting too much emphasis on the wrong things. As the poet William Blake put it, we construct ‘mind-forged manacles’ for ourselves. Luckily we can also de-construct these manacles using God’s wisdom and love.

CBT has identified certain ways that people with depression or anxiety typically misread reality. There’s a longer list here, but some of these ‘cognitive biases’ include:

– The Mind-Reader’s Bias: ‘I just know that person hates me’

– The Fortune-Teller Bias: ‘I’m never going to get married’

– Catastrophizing / generalizing: ‘This party has been a complete disaster’

– Maximizing the blessings in others’ life / minimizing the blessings in yours: ‘Everyone else at church have such successful and organized lives, it’s only me who is really struggling’

– Labeling: ‘I’m terrible at relating to others’

What these biases have in common is they are examples of over-confident, over-dogmatic thinking. Our minds are jumping to conclusions, and insisting that these negative automatic thoughts are definitely and absolutely true. We need to accept the limit of our wisdom – is it possible we don’t know everything, that we can’t read minds or predict the future?

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!

(Job 38, 4: 11)

Focus on what we can control and leave the rest to God / the Logos / the Cosmos

We should focus on what we can control, and trust in God regarding what is beyond our control. Our emotional problems often come from obsessing over external things – health, beauty, money, popularity, love – which are to some extent beyond our control. We also sometimes fail to take responsibility for what is in our control – our own thoughts and beliefs.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

(Serenity Prayer, from the theologian Roland Niebuhr)

This idea is very strong in both Christianity and Stoic philosophy. Epictetus said the key to resilience is knowing the difference between what you control and what you don’t. ‘Focus on what you control and leave the rest to God’, says Epicteus. We can’t expect to control the universe, to ‘give orders to the morning’, as God says to Job.

Only God / Wisdom is eternal. Everything else passes away.

Therefore, we shouldn’t tie our self-worth too strongly to anything external (approval, fame, money, beauty, power), and make a false idol of it, because everything external is subject to change.

A medieval image of the Wheel of Fortune – everything changes except God

‘Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal’(Matthew 6: 19). Wisdom ‘is a treasure unto men that never faileth’ (Book of Solomon 7:14). We should ‘seek her as silver and search for her as hidden treasure’ (Proverbs 2: 4).

Our problems often come about because we feel empty or broken within, so we look to externals for good feelings or for approval. We have forgotten who we are – we’re like kings and queens in exile, begging for money when we have a fortune within us.

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We built this house on rock (and roll)

It’s unwise to rely too much on the conditional approval of other people (particularly strangers) compared to the unconditional love of God. Public approval is fickle and often wrong (look how many saints and prophets ended up sentenced to death). Fame is fleeting: ‘our name shall be forgotten in time, and no man shall have our works in remembrance’ (Book of Solomon 2: 4). We should be careful we’re not doing good just to look good to others (Matthew 6:2).

Build your house on rock, not on sand. Trust in the kingdom of heaven, within, rather than building your house on the ever-changing approval of other people.

Wisdom gets stronger through practice

We’re forgetful beings who tend to fall asleep, like the disciples in Gethsemane. That’s why we need to be watchful (gregorios in Greek). There’s a whole tradition of exercises to train ourselves in watchfulness in Orthodox Christianity.

Because we’re forgetful, it helps to repeat and go over certain ideas again and again, to train our minds to remember. Often, ancient wisdom is compacted into brief and easy to remember insights, proverbs, parables: ‘My son, keep my words…write them upon the tablet of thine heart’. (Proverbs 7: 3)

When we repeat an idea or a practice we turn it into a habit and a rule of life.  This idea is very important to the monastic life (they even wear habits!)

Monasticism is all about getting into good habits

We can arm ourselves against our old bad habits with good ideas, good proverbs, good arguments. ‘arm yourself with the same attitude as Christ’ (1 Peter 4: 1), ‘Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist’ (Ephesians 6: 14), Martin Luther: ‘Let us equip ourselves against the accusations of Satan with this and similar passages of Holy Scripture.’

Wisdom can’t just be theoretical, we need to practice in real-life situations: the Greeks called this askesis, which influenced the early Christian idea of asceticism. Thomas a Kempis: ‘For what would it profit us to know the principles of all the philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God?’

We get stronger through askesis or training – that’s partly why we do things like Lent, to develop our strength at resisting bad habits. The best way to strengthen habits is to practice them together and encourage each other. The emphasis on community and communal practice is one way Christianity is much stronger than Stoicism.

Hopefully, then, we can use wisdom to ‘learn contentment’ (Philippians 4: 11), although bad habits may never entirely go away and everyone has bad days – we always have a ‘thorn in the flesh’ (2 Corinthians 12: 7). Finally,

Some things that CBT / Stoicism misses out, but which Christianity (and to some extent Platonism) gets

– The importance of imagination to our psyches – music, stories, art, ritual – and how these can transform our beliefs and our emotions. Many Christian spiritual exercises use the imagination, eg St Loyola’s visualization exercises. Narrative plays a much stronger role in Christian wisdom and in Christians’ identity – although this can be dangerous too (‘I was lost, now I’m saved…so I mustn’t be depressed’).

In Christianity, God is not an abstract intellectual principle but a loving Father (this painting is The Prodigal Son by Charlie Mackesy)

– CBT, being secular and evidence-based, lacks the transformative faith in a loving God or the Kingdom of Heaven within. Why are we valuable and loveable? We just are, according to CBT. It also lacks the idea of divine forgiveness. Guilt is simply ‘irrational’. In that sense, it can be less powerfully transformative than Christianity.

– Plato and the Stoics did believe in God (or the Logos), but their Logos is a cold and impersonal intellectual energy. In Christianity, God suffers too – Jesus is the Logos made flesh. God is not some distant principle – he is a Father who runs to meet us. There is more emphasis on God helping us rather than us helping ourselves.

– CBT encourages evidence-based rational thinking. But what about revelations, dreams, words of prophecy? Even Socrates had an ‘inner voice’ that he took to be God…When should we trust our intuition and when suspect it?

Wormwood: more of an annoying imp than an all-powerful Lord of Darkness

– Christianity suggests that the origin of many of our negative thoughts is the Devil. I’m not sure if this is always a helpful idea for people suffering from emotional disorders. Sometimes the best way to get a negative intrusive thought to go away is to accept it and recognize that it’s just a thought, with no substance or power to hurt you, if you don’t let it. The ‘Devil’ only has the power you give him – more of an annoying junior devil (let’s call him Wormwood) than an all-powerful evil angel. The less you listen to him, the less power he has.

– A big difference between Stoicism and Christianity, as Timothy Keller has explored (in Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering) is that Stoicism is about conquering hope and fear. Christianity is much more about hope – hope that we can pray to God and he will answer our prayers; hope that in the afterlife we will go to heaven with all our loved ones for eternity. Stoics would say they do the right thing for the sake of it, not in expectation of any eternal reward.

– Finally, a major difference between Judeo-Christianity and Greek philosophy is the former’s emphasis on humility and dying to the self. Although there is a lot in Greek philosophy about not trusting in externals, I don’t think there is nearly as much about this idea of dying to the self to be re-born in God – although that idea was strong in the Greek mystery cult of Eleusis and in Sophocles’ tragedy. There is also much more of a contemplative tradition of emptying the mind of thought in Christianity (and Buddhism).

Those are some brief thoughts – what have I got wrong or left out?  Perhaps there is a risk of turning Christianity into ‘therapeutic deism‘, where it becomes all about me and my personal well-being. At the same time, there is a deep tradition in the Bible of respecting and venerating wisdom, and recognizing that wisdom brings healing. The Logos, the Word, heals and gives life. 

But why did we become mentally ill?  We can’t always know why mental illness happened to us – there is probably a genetic component, it’s something weaved into the story of our family, perhaps for generations. But we can learn from our struggles and others can benefit from our experience. That’s something we can try to leave behind to those who come after us. Archbishop Justin Welby said last week: ‘Dealing with mental illness is a heroic struggle, and that makes one of my eldest daughters one of my heroes’. Carl Jung and Henri Nouwen both talked about the ‘wounded healer’ – sometimes in the darkness we can find the treasure, the gift, which can help to heal others as well.

Suggested further reading (for me!): Henri Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society.

Stoicism for Everyday Life panel discussion

This panel was part of an event in November called Stoicism for Everyday Life, which was funded by the AHRC. The videoing of this event was funded by the Centre for the History of the Emotions. I love the philosophical expressions assumed by me and the other participants when we’re not speaking. Very pensive!