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well-being technology

Spiritual technologies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Wellness Syndrome

How are you feeling? How well are you? Is your weight where you want it to be? Smoking too much? How happy are you on a scale of one to ten? Are you optimising your personal brand? How fast was your last five kilometre run? Would you like to share that via social media? Would you like a life-coach to help you overcome these challenges on a way to a better, happier, more awesome you?

If such questions fill you with dread, don’t worry, you’re not alone. We have become a culture of Bridget Joneses, anxiously pursuing an ever-retreating ideal of wellness. The ruling ideology of our time, argue Carl Cederstrom and Andre Spicer, is ‘the wellness syndrome’, which makes the urge to self-improvement a moral imperative, and our own bodies the battleground.

Cederstrom and Spicer thinks the wellness syndrome is a mistake and a trap, for three reasons. First, it is based on a foolish myth of the individual as ‘neoliberal agent’, able to exert perfect control of their body, their emotions and their life. If you’re poor or fat or unhappy, it’s your fault, and you need some life-coaching or military fitness boot-camp to get into shape. This is a convenient shifting of personal responsibility from the state onto us hapless Bridget Joneses.

Secondly, the constant search for personal authenticity and fulfillment is deeply narcissistic. Aristotle and Rousseau’s eudaimonic society was about fulfillment through civic activity. Rousseau would be ‘apalled’ by our culture’s ‘blind celebration of individual narcissism’ (really? Have you read his Confessions? But let’s press on.)

Thirdly, the dream of autonomy and authenticity we’re chasing is a mirage – in fact, the wellness syndrome is deeply conformist, and the ultimate aim of all this self-improvement is simply to make us more productive and sellable in the capitalist marketplace. We think we’re becoming more ourselves, when in fact we’re becoming more alienated.

The way to rebel against the wellness syndrome, the authors argue, is to embrace illness and impotence. Live like Sartre’s students, who existed on a diet of ‘cigarettes, coffee and hard liquor’. Take sick days. Over-eat. Go ‘barebacking’ – a culture in which ‘bug-chasers’ (people who want to get HIV) have unprotected sex with ‘gift-givers’ (people who have the illness).

Cederstrom and Spicer are professors of organizational theory and organizational behaviour, respectively. However, this book is basically a rant, like an extended Spectator column by Rod Liddle, moving effortlessly from anecdote to rumour, without ever troubling itself with scientific evidence.

We are told the anecdote of the two life-coaches who killed themselves in a suicide pact. Why did they kill themselves? We’re not informed, but it seems damning, and we move on. We’re told David Cameron is a fan of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret. Really? Well, a Guardian columnist said so, let’s move on. We’re told the Wellness Syndrome leads to an obsession with dieting and personal fitness. Then why, if this is the ruling ideology of our time, are 67% of men and 57% of women in the UK overweight or obese? And why is the sex addict in Steve McQueen’s Shame also an example of the Wellness Syndrome? We’re never told – move on to the next anecdote.

Epictetus, lifecoach to the Roman aristocracy

The core claim of the book – that we’re being sold a toxic idea of neoliberal personal autonomy – deserves more careful examination, because it has some validity. The roots of this model of personal autonomy lie not in neoliberalism, in fact, but in Stoicism, and particularly in Epictetus, who was a sort of life-coach for Roman aristocrats, urging them to take responsibility for their thoughts and beliefs in order to heal their emotions and improve their selves. ‘It’s not events which cause humans suffering, but our opinion about events’, he insisted. And our opinions are always in our control. ‘The robber of your free will does not exist’. This Stoic libertarian ethos fed into Enlightenment liberalism, into Victorian self-help, and into the modern wellbeing movement and the idea – at the heart of cognitive therapy and Positive Psychology – that our emotions are our choices, and that ‘there is nothing more tractable than the self’, as Epictetus put it.

Of course, Epictetus’ philosophy can be taken too far. The Stoics focused entirely on the individual, and ignored society. They thought a wise individual could be free and happy even in the midst of a toxic and unequal society (Epictetus himself was a slave). Most of us are not such citadels of serenity. That’s why there’s a strong correlation between poverty and depression. Shit gets us down. So it’s unfair and unwise to make people’s emotional or behavioural problems entirely their responsibility – our personal agency is weak, at best. Most of us are to some extent the creatures – Epictetus would say the slave – of our circumstances.

And yet Epictetus was not entirely wrong. Overcoming problems like depression, or alcoholism, or obesity, or injustice, or even poverty does involve personal agency. Humans do have a capacity not just to be determined by our circumstances, but to determine our own attitude to them, and through that self-determination we can get the inner strength to change our external circumstances. We don’t always have to resort to pill-popping to feel better (oddly, despite its cover, the book doesn’t ever look at our growing dependence on mood-altering pills, perhaps because that doesn’t fit with their rant against ‘the myth of neoliberal agency’).

Our powers of self-determination don’t necessarily have to be in the service of neoliberal capitalist conformity. Look at Gandhi, practicing swaraj or ‘self-governance’ in his personal life order to prove to the British Empire that Indians are not irresponsible children. Look at Nelson Mandela, reading the Stoic poem Invictus to himself while practicing ascetic self-government in Robben Island prison, to prove that black South Africans can govern themselves with dignity.

Of course, the strength or weakness of our personal agency, the extent to which it is tied up with determining factors like our environment or genes, is a very difficult question. I recently saw the documentary Amy, and was moved by the story of Amy Winehouse’s rapid self-destruction. Whose fault was it? Whose responsibility? Was it the father, for not being there when Amy was growing up, and then trying to cash in when she was famous? Was it her boyfriend, latching on and encouraging her drug dependence? Was it our celebrity-obsessed media and culture? Yes, perhaps, all of these things. But it was also Amy’s doing.

But can you say an addict ‘chooses’ to destroy themselves? To what extent does a person with mental illness really make choices? To some extent. As that famous sex-addict, St Augustine, explored in his Confessions, we make choices, which then harden into the chains of habit and addiction. Those chains are very difficult to break. It’s even harder today, when the internet remembers our habits and reflects them back to us. But change is possible. And personal choice is an important part of that liberation.

Our degree of personal agency, then, our capacity to determine our course in life, is a very complicated area, but it is one that psychology has spent decades trying to explore, through cognitive behavioural therapy, social psychology, behavioural economics, self-determination theory, and the psychology of self-control. And psychologists have begun to build up evidence that personal autonomy is limited but nonetheless real – Epictetus was, to some extent, right.

Yet Cederstrom and Spicer don’t cite a single piece of scientific evidence in their rant against personal autonomy. The closest we get is an appeal to authority: ‘We know from Freud’, ‘we know from psychoanalysis’. Do we? At one point they write: ‘As pointed out in a Huffington Post article, mindfulness advocates often make unsubstantiated claims.’ Oh the irony.

Because the authors set out to write a polemic, they make broad and usually damning generalizations, and ignore the good aspects of the phenomena they dismiss. For example, one of their favourite targets is the self-tracking movement, in which people use self-tracking devices to measure various aspects of their life, to improve them. This, the authors say, is just neoliberal alienation. Well, it can be, but not always. Self-tracking can be a way for people to empower themselves and become experts in their own health, rather than relying on the authority of external experts. One well-known self-tracking app is MoodScope, which Jon Cousins invented to help himself track his depressive episodes to see what helped him get better. He then made it freely available to other people. This seems to me worth applauding.

Finally, I’m not convinced that the moral ideology of wellness and health is a new thing. Health has always been ideological. Look at Plato’s Republic, with its diagnosis of the sick society and the healthy society. Look at the Middle Ages, with its public performances of the Seven Deadly Sins, including Gluttony. Every ideology involves some positive model of human flourishing, including Neoliberalism and Marxism. If the best model of flourishing you can offer is sick days and barebacking, why should we follow you?