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Set your intention

In less than a month, I will be sitting in the Amazon jungle, tripping out on ayahuasca. I’m in the midst of my preparation for this nine-day retreat. I have to start the special diet – no pork, no alcohol, no drugs, and no masturbation. There goes my Friday night. 

The Temple of the Way of Light, the centre where I’m doing the retreat, tells participants to set their intention:

Your intention is your mantra, focus and thread to the material realm. It can help you keep focus while engaged with this deep work. Ayahuasca will show you many things, but you can also ask her what to show you. When trying to understand and make meaning of your experience with this medicine, you will find your original intention a helpful reference.

Consider: What do you need? Where are you stuck? What do you want to know about yourself? Are you in a relationship that is causing you to suffer? Are you looking for resolution with something? Do you need clarity? Do you want to believe in something bigger or love yourself more? Whatever your questions, find the ones that are the most deeply present for you and write them down.

This ties in with one of my main findings from The Art of Losing Control – when we’re opening ourselves to ecstatic experiences, the best way to make sure you don’t wipe out is to remember the advice of psychedelic researcher Timothy Leary: pay attention to ‘set and setting’.

‘Setting’ refers to the context in which you’re unselfing: the guides, the other participants, the music, the art, the ritual, the natural environment, the values of the community. Is it a safe space to unself? Does it have good healing support in place if people have difficult experiences? Does it have good values or is it exploitative, controlling and cultish?

Checking the setting is particularly important when you’re taking psychedelics, because they make you so suggestible. You can find dark stories on the internet of psychedelic tourists ending up abused or in sex cults (that’s pretty much what Charles Manson’s ‘Family’ was – check out this great podcast series on it). I wouldn’t do psychedelics again unless I was very sure that the Temple is a safe place with trained therapists and wise healers on hand.

‘Set’, meanwhile, refers to the intention or attitude that you bring to an experience or ritual. Again, this can be a crucial factor in determining if your experience is healing or harmful. You realize, when you’re in deep states of absorption or trance, quite how sensitive your mind, emotions and body are to the attitudes and values you bring.

There was one moment, on a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat, when I was sitting in absolute agony from the pain in my knees and thighs. Tears were rolling down my face. It was an hour-long meditation, I was about 40 minutes in, and I thought there was no way I could possibly get to 60 minutes without moving my legs. Then, somehow, I shifted my attitude to one of equanimity, and the pain totally transformed and disappeared.

So what’s my intention for the ayahuasca retreat? I’m not expecting a joy-ride. I’ve heard from enough people who’ve taken ayahuasca to expect it to be physically and emotionally hard at times. I’m prepared for moments of fear, pain, nausea, loneliness, disorientation, and so on. I have coping mechanisms for the darker moments: remind myself to trust the process, trust myself, follow the breath, don’t fight it, focus on love. Little maxims like that can help you steer on the big waves. 

But my main intention is to heal and open my heart, and improve my ability to trust myself and other people. This has been my mission throughout the last five years of researching and writing The Art of Losing Control. I wrote in one of the drafts:

Midway through my life, I decided to go beyond Stoicism and search for the ecstatic. As an introverted, cerebral, bachelor academic, I wanted to loosen up and learn to let go. Stoicism helped me create an ‘inner citadel’, a sense of detachment and personal control, which lowered my social anxiety. But I still felt lonely and disconnected. Safe in my citadel, I yearned for the surrender of love.

As Simon and Garfunkel put it, in a great critique of Stoicism:

I’ve built walls

A fortress, steep and mighty

That none may penetrate

I have no need of friendship

Friendship causes pain.

It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.

I am a rock

I am an island

I have my books

And my poetry to protect me

I am shielded in my armour

Hiding in my room

Safe within my womb

I touch no one and no one touches me

I realized Stoicism – itself a very individualist philosophy – was not the raft I needed on the next stage of my journey. I looked, in 2012 and 2013, to Christianity to give me a greater sense of connection and community, and it worked to some extent, but failed in others. I failed to meet either Jesus or my wife, or to find a church I felt at home in. Apart from that, a complete success.

This month, I turn 40, and I’m as single as ever. I know I’m not alone in that, and that many of you are single and happy with it, finding meaning in your friendships, work, creativity and spirituality. I also have much to be grateful for. It may be that I haven’t ‘settled down’, got married and started a family for external, objective reasons – I haven’t met the right person yet, or I’m just a natural loner.

But I wonder if there are internal, subjective barriers, which I can shift. I was almost permanently single in my 20s, when I was recovering from social anxiety and PTSD, and only really started having relationships in my 30s. I was still pretty jumpy then. I think I may not trust that I’m capable of family life, or that I can be with others that much. When you’ve had trauma in your life, you expect things to go wrong – you expect people to die, relationships to collapse. That’s why Stoicism helps – it teaches you to be detached. But I think I need to trust myself and accept myself as an imperfect, vulnerable person who needs other people (a very un-Stoic idea), and to accept the other person too, with all their imperfections. I am far too critical both of myself and others.

Of course, there is something paradoxical in this search of mine over the past few years. In search of connection and ecstasy, I spent four years largely alone, reading and writing. Now, in search of relationships and community, I head off into the jungle, alone. Doh!

It may be that Ayahuasca tells me to learn to love and accept myself, whether I’m single or in a relationship. It may tell me, you are always in relationships, and you are always alone, and you need to accept and appreciate both these states. It may be that neither Jehovah nor Ayahuasca are into being treated as a cosmic dating app.  It may be she has something completely different to tell me.

It may be I am utterly crazy to try psychedelics again, considering my bad trips when I was 18. I wouldn’t take this step unless I felt it was necessary, and that I had done what I could to prepare myself and manage the risks.

I’m very lucky, of course, to have the time and money to invest in my personal growth. Lucky, privileged, self-absorbed, white, bourgeois, cis-man me with my white middle-class problems! I know, it’s kind of bullshit. But I don’t expect this to be particularly fun. And I am focused mainly on trying to help other people, by sharing whatever wisdom I come across. That’s the most important intention one can set. Without the intention outwards, it’s really just a journey up one’s own arse.

If you enjoy this blog, please support it on Patreon. Then you get to request what I write about and research! This week, Patron Alex asked me to describe the bad LSD trips I mentioned above, the sadistic f*ck. OK Alex, here goes. The main thing I struggled with, both times, is I couldn’t think of anything to say! I had an identity, at that time, that was very focused on performance and approval, and suddenly I felt totally blocked, and negated. I then became paranoid that I was somehow letting everyone down by being so silent. I think I had both introverted and extraverted states in my personality, but the extraverted states had been much more affirmed and approved of – a new study found that mothers would prefer their babies be extravert to a host of other, more moral, characteristics.

The second bad trip – the worse time – I was at a clubbing after-party, on LSD, and didn’t know anyone well. I sat in the corner feeling incredibly afraid and self-conscious, so afraid I couldn’t move – it was a complete body-freeze situation. Eventually I left the room, lay down in another room, and imagined I could hear everyone else in the room talking about me. I then didn’t talk about the experience, to anyone, for years. Genius. So really, the LSD exposed a flaw, or crack, in my character – an identity over-weighted towards pleasing and impressing others. I hope, this time, I will be able to deal with that particular monster if it arises, firstly because you don’t really need to chit-chat on an ayahuasca ritual, secondly because I’m now much better at expressing my emotions and asking for help, and thirdly, I’ve learned to care less what others think of me. We’ll see.

Derren Brown on hypnosis, faith-healing and religious experience

22578_fullI’ve been exploring the history of ecstasy in modern culture. One of the ways the Enlightenment tried to naturalize ecstasy was by developing the concept of hypnosis. In the 18th century, Franz Mesmer showed that he could achieve just as miraculous healings as a priest through his own rituals, the success of which he attributed to ‘magnetic fluids’. Then, in the late-19th century, psychologists like Pierre Janet and William James thought that Mesmerism – or hypnosis, as it was then known – tapped into a ‘subconscious’ or ‘subliminal self’ beyond our rational control, the existence of which explained many religious and paranormal phenomena, like faith-healing, visions, and trances. Like Mesmer, they thought that hypnotic states could often be profoundly healing, and could perhaps connect us to God.

Today, few academic psychologists explore this fascinating terrain, but one person who does is Derren Brown, the mentalist and stage-magician. I went to Derren’s extraordinary house, the interior decoration for which includes a stuffed giraffe and a fish-tank with moray eels, to ask him what he thinks is the relationship between hypnosis and religious experience, and how his new show, Miracle, explores faith-healing.

You were Christian when you were a child?

Yes. I went to a Crusaders Class when I was six or seven. A teacher who I really liked said ‘do you want to come along?’, and I was too young to think that was weird, I thought that was what everyone did. My family wasn’t religious, and I had one Christian friend, so there was never any cultural pressure. As a teenager, I went to church called the New Life Christian Centre in Croydon, a big happy-clappy church. I became more skeptical while I was at Bristol University, partly because I became fascinated by hypnosis, which my church friends deeply disapproved of. They thought it was from the Devil. I thought ‘if the human mind is the pinnacle of God’s creation, why is exploring it bad?’ I also became more skeptical of New Age things like Tarot or psychics, which my church literally demonized, so that made me skeptical of the church too. And I went on a ‘Christian gay cure’ course  – sort of a basic psychology course – and it didn’t work. So all this made me more skeptical.

Did you ever have a ‘Holy Spirit encounter’?

A photo from a New Life church service
A Pentecostal church service

No not really. I had a lot of skepticism towards those kinds of charismatic services. I think this is quite common among people who attend those services. Talking in tongues, for example – it was quite evident, if you were at all intelligent and not just hyper-suggestible and caught up in the whole thing, that there was a lot of crowd manipulation going on. There would be a point in the service when the Holy Spirit was moving through everybody, and every week the same woman stood up and talked in tongues. And then someone else stood up and offered an interpretation, which was largely a series of general statements, you know ‘the door is open…revival is coming’. It was always the same people, and the tongues always sounded the same. It became a bit comical. One time, we were told we were all going to be given the gift of tongues, so we all stood up, and the pastor said, ‘just start making a noise. That’s tongues. If a little voice tells you this is stupid, that’s the Devil.’ It seemed so blatantly manipulative.

Do you think charismatic churches are doing some form of hypnotic suggestion?

Channel-4-Upfronts-Conference-2010-Derren-BrownYes, I do. But it’s complicated. It’s difficult to pin down what hypnosis is. In a show, for example, you have a wide range of experiences in the audience. At the end of my shows, I used to make myself invisible [to hypnotized participants on stage], then I’d move a chair through the air. And the participants would all react, jump back, and so on. Later in the show, I’d often get those people back up, and say ‘what were you experiencing?’ And you’d get a range of experiences. Perhaps a third would say ‘I could see you were there, but it was very easy to go along with it and sort of play-act’. Then you’d get a middle third who would say ‘looking back on it, of course you were moving it, but at the time, I really believed you weren’t there, and was just focusing on the chair’. And then you get people at the upper extreme saying ‘no idea what you’re talking about, I assumed you moved the chair with wires’. They couldn’t believe I was there at all. And you never quite know if they’re just saying that, to appear the most hypnotized.

It’s so difficult to tie down what hypnosis is – there’s a lot of work asking if hypnosis is just role-playing. A famous example is that you can hypnotise people to eat an onion as if it was a juicy apple. It looks very impressive. But I was talking about this to Andy, the director of my stage shows, and he said ‘I bet I can do that without being hypnotized’. And he went to a fridge, took out an onion and took a big bite. And all that is, is another motivating factor, another story you’re telling yourself.

He enjoyed it? He didn’t wince?

No, he was fine. He was trying to prove a point, and that gave him a different motivating story. Even the things that look terribly impressive – people being operated on, for example – it looks amazing, but when you break it down to what layer of skin actually feels pain, actually, once you’re removing organs, it’s a bit uncomfortable but not actually painful.

So in a religious meeting, there might be that whole range – people who are completely swept up, and people who are sort of going along with it, ‘as if’ it was true. As a sort of co-created fantasy.

Yes. You’re there, you’re having a really good time, you’re with a bunch of like-minded people…

And the Holy Spirit is after all a sign of God’s love and favour.

Yes, but I think plenty of people are a bit skepticial about some of that. I find that most intelligent people who also happen to be Christian probably sense that a lot of it is a bit of a scam, stage-craft, crowd manipulation. But it’s sort of ingrained and difficult to object to.

Do you think hypnotism or suggestibility plays a big role in religion in general?

Audiences at rock concerts can exhibit some of the trance or mania aspects of religious revivals, as in this example of 'Beatle-mania'
Audiences at rock concerts can exhibit some of the trance or mania aspects of religious revivals, as in this example of ‘Beatle-mania’

It depends. There is a range of human experiences clustered around belief, suggestion, the stories we tell ourselves. Those experiences might include hypnosis in alternative therapy, or placebo responses, or religious experiences, or charismatic revivals, or rock concerts – it’s just a range. The trouble with going ‘is that just hypnosis?’ is that it’s difficult to define what hypnosis is. It’s like defining a magic trick. I think of magic as a short-hand for an experience you have, and you know the magician isn’t actually doing magic but the magician gives you an experience, and you know what to call it, and that makes sense and gives him a role. With hypnosis, there’s a similar thing going on – there’s a certain context, with a guy who’s called a hypnotist, and it’s done with the familiar tropes of hypnotism, and it’s recognized as such. But actually it’s a short-hand for quite different things – if you go to a hypnotist to stop smoking, if you’re trying to get on top of your unconscious processes, that’s quite different to going to on stage and being persuaded to dance like a ballerina. If someone’s hyper-suggestible, they may respond to both, but it’s difficult to lump the experiences together.

Can one really provoke a religious experience in an atheist with an NLP session? I mean, can one brainwash people to do or believe things almost against their will?

Well, I did that in a show. I found a highly suggestible person. It’s not like you can just walk down the road and make that happen. A TV show like that is a specific context, it doesn’t necessarily reflect the conditions of real life.

Tell me about your experiences with faith healing in your latest show, Miracle.

In the second half of the show, I say ‘we’re going to do some faith healing, and I will heal you’. This is a skeptical audience, but I say ‘you’ve just got to go with it, you’re obviously not the right audience for this, you’re not primed for it, and it’s OK to be skeptical and even repulsed by it, but beneath all that, there are some aspects that are useful, so if you go with me on this, it has the power to profoundly change how you feel, emotionally and physically’. And the show progresses in the way that those healings do – I offer out the Holy Spirit, as it were, but I don’t talk about it in religious language initially, it starts off secular. So I throw out this adrenalin experience – adrenalin heals pain. That’s why faith-healing only ever heals functional conditions that respond to pain relief, no one’s arm ever grows back.

Does it work?

The first shock was that it worked at all. Not only does the healing work, but I’ve also ‘slayed’ people, so they’re falling down [when people pass out in charismatic churches it’s called being ‘slain in the Holy Spirit’]. Some shows are better than others, but essentially it’s working as a mechanism even with a skeptical audience. It’s difficult to quantify the effect. But I’ve had a couple of tweets, people jokingly saying ‘well, my condition is back again, so much for that haha’. I tell people, this will stick with some of you, and for others it won’t. But also I’ve had letters from people saying ‘I don’t know what you did, I understand it isn’t faith-healing, but this condition is still gone and I feel amazing’. Someone on stage had a series of strokes when she was very young and had never been able to feel the left-side of her body. And now she could. One guy said he had terrible cirrhosis, his arm was covered with it, and within five minutes, that was gone. One of the stage-crew has a teenage daughter who suffered from depression, and she’s been really helped by it. So sometimes it’s been quite transformative.



You can watch a  clip of Derren ‘curing’ a woman of blindness in the show here.

How does it work?

The way I see it is that William James thing, acting ‘as if’. You give yourself permission to act ‘as if’ a thing isn’t a problem. There’s this story you tell yourself every day – ‘I’ve got a bad back and it’s a thing I live with’. The healing stops that story in its tracks, makes you stop and question it.

Like a religious conversion?

Yeah, a bit. There’s an adrenalin lift as you get on stage, and there are other people around you talking about it. Even if it is only a temporary thing, it’s a glimpse out of that story.

What about people getting ‘slain in the spirit’?

victorian postural sway - CopyIt’s not with quite the vigour and hysteria you see at revival services. Sometimes people are just complying with it. But sometimes their eyes roll back, they start shaking a bit. Sometimes people can’t stop shaking. I always imagine that people are sort of playing along, it’s just a sort of unconscious playing along. But then you see things that people wouldn’t know to play along to do. Sometimes people pass out and are out for the whole of the second half of the show.

Given some of these remarkable results, do you think hypnosis should be used more in the NHS?

I think what we need is a more people-oriented medicine – finding a softer, more caring middle-ground, without endorsing treatments that are claiming to do something they’re not. Let’s say you see your GP for your allocated six minutes, and he says ‘relax and take it easy’, you’ll feel ignored. If you have an hour with an alternative therapist, they’re taking an interest in you, sympathizing with you, there’s a ritual to it. Even if they’re essentially still saying ‘relax and take it easy’, it’s more likely to work. You feel like you’ve had attention paid to you. That’s what’s key: the bed-side manner. I never really recommend people see a hypnotist for smoking. If they are suggestible, it’s amazing, it’s like a magic pill. But for 50% of people it’s a waste of time.

OK, on a different note, how did you get into Stoic philosophy, and how have you found it helpful?

It started with Montaigne, who kept mentioning Stoic writers. So that made me pursue the Stoics, and I discovered a love of the Hellenistic philosophical world, and the Stoics in particular. I realized that it chimed with what I already felt was important and true. For example, when I was at university and afterwards, I had zero ambition. I was doing hypnosis and magic because it was a fun way to spend the day. I had no desire to get on TV or anything. It was a very ‘in the moment’ thing. So that chimed with the Stoic idea of focusing on the present moment and not getting attached to ambition or reputation. Then I gradually discovered new things in Stoicism, and it shaped my character in new ways. That led to me wanting to write a book on these things, it’s such a different voice to mainstream culture. [He’s just finishing a book on happiness, to be published in the next few months].

What’s the best thing you’ve learned about happiness in your research?

I think it’s the clarity of Epictetus’ maxim that you’re only in control of your thoughts and actions, and everything else you can let go. For me, that’s become a mantra. If something is frustrating you, what side of the line is it on? Obviously, it’s always on the side of things I can’t control. And then you can go, ‘it’s fine’ and let go. It makes me feel like a kid when it’s Saturday and you realize you don’t have to go to school. It’s just a very visceral feeling of relief. For example, things that your partner does that annoy you or get under your skin, you realize it’s actually fine, you don’t have to try and change them.

Do fame and wealth really not make you happy?

Well, we know there’s a watershed moment at around £40K where you’re comfortable and money is not a trouble, after that you don’t get much happier with more money. The people who aren’t happy with fame and wealth are the ones who are always chasing the next big thing and who have quite addictive personalities. There’s not a moment when you become successful. And it’s never permanent. Your goal just moves a bit further on. As for the fame thing…everything gets more extreme. The nice things become nicer – you get to travel first class, you can book tables in nice restaurants more easily. But the horrible stuff becomes much worse – you might have stuff about your private life written in newspapers, and you think everyone is thinking about it. You get stalkers, or people who just hate you, or mentally disturbed people who are out to destroy you. So I think it balances out.

You seem to have a very strong work ethic. What motivates you?

I never feel particularly motivated. Motivation is one of those words which people use when they feel they don’t have it and they sense it in others. I’m actually very lazy. I love it when there’s nothing in my diary. I go on tour because I love doing it, and it lets me live like I did in Bristol – I get my days free, so I can sit, read and write in coffee shops, and in the evenings I go out and do a show which makes me feel amazing even if I’ve had a bad day. If I’m sitting and writing, that feels very good to me. And going and doing a show is also hugely enjoyable, and there’s a lot of adrenalin. So all in all, that’s a lovely day, who wouldn’t want to do that.

You can watch the Channel 4 screening of Miracle here.

Here is a link for Derren’s book on happiness.

For an alternative perspective, here’s an interview I did with Nicky Gumbel, head of the evangelical Alpha course, where he gives his take on religious experiences.

Here is another interview about hypnosis, faith and healing, with the medical professor Paul Dieppe

My interview with Derren features in my new book, The Art of Losing Control, which is published by Canongate in May 2017.