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Wisdom

Spiritual materialism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A western goddess of wealth and worldly power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the third video, he says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What UK universities can learn from the US about promoting well-being

A diagram from Donald Harward on the purposes of higher education

 

As regular readers will know, I’ve begun a new research focus, looking at well-being in higher education. British universities have started to focus on this issue a lot more, spurred by worrying headlines about an ‘epidemic of mental illness on campus’. But, judging by the events I’ve attended so far, universities don’t yet get the complexity of this issue, and see it simply in terms of increasing funding for counselling.

This last week, I came across a collection of essays – Well-Being and Higher Education: A Strategy for Change and the Realization of Education’s Greater Purposes – by a group of American academics. It suggests to me that the US is way beyond the UK in its thinking on this topic.

First, the authors take well-being seriously as a core purpose of higher education, rather than something one farms out to counselling services at the campus periphery. Secondly, they understand the importance of knowing the history of higher education as you try to re-frame its purpose. Third, they recognize the philosophical complexity of defining and measuring well-being. And fourth, they’re prepared to try out innovative interventions. British universities are way behind on all four of these issues.

  1. Taking well-being seriously as a core purpose of higher education

The collection begins with an essay by the editor, Donald Harward, a philosopher who was president of Bates College and now heads up an institute called Bringing Theory to Practice. He called for American higher education to ‘recognize well-being as an inextricable, but not sole, dimension of higher education’s greater purpose’. 

Other American universities have embraced well-being as part of their mission. In 2013, Georgetown University President John DeGioia described the university’s responsibility to our students as the following: “Our explicit way of supporting young people engaged in the most important work in which they can be engaged: learning to know themselves and identifying the conditions that will provide for an authentic, flourishing life.”

The same year, George Mason University included well-being as one of twelve strategic goals in its 2015-2025 strategic plan. Nance Lucas and Paul Rogers from George Mason write: ‘Our vision at George Mason University is to become a model “well-being university”—a place at which students, faculty, and staff learn what it means to have lives well-lived and how to respond well to a full range of emotions and challenges.’ Note that George Mason seeks to promote not just student well-being, but the well-being of faculty, staff and the wider community. 

Several other senior American academics put forward well-being, flourishing or virtue as a core purpose of higher education in the collection. In British universities, by contrast, one rarely hears well-being, flourishing, purpose or virtue mentioned as a central purpose of higher education.

2. It’s important to know the history of higher education if you want to re-frame its purpose

The authors in the collection understand the importance of knowing the history of higher education if you want to re-frame its purpose. As Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, writes: ‘Lacking historical perspective, one cannot even be sure whether “new” proposals are truly new or merely nostrums that have been trotted out before with disappointing results.’

It’s important to understand that universities’ focus on well-being is not an entirely new thing, that universities have focused on character and well-being before in their 2500-year history. In fact, the primary aim of universities until the mid-19th century was explicitly to ‘discipline the mind and build the character of students’ (Bok again). But it wasn’t exactly a golden age of education. Bok writes

Until the Civil War, colleges in the United States were linked to religious bodies and resembled finishing schools more closely than institutions of advanced education. Student behavior was closely regulated both inside and outside the classroom, and teachers spent much of their time enforcing regulations and punishing transgressors. Rules of behavior were written in exquisite detail. Columbia’s officials took two full pages merely to describe the proper forms of behavior during compulsory chapel. Yale turned “Sabbath Profanation, active disbelief in the authenticity of the Bible, and extravagant [personal] expenditures” into campus crimes…

Most courses were prescribed in a curriculum that usually included mathematics, logic, English, and classics, with a heavy dose of Latin and Greek. In a typical class, students recited passages from an ancient text under the critical eye of the instructor. Although many colleges offered courses in the sciences, such as astronomy or botany, classes were taught more often by invoking Aristotle and other authorities than by describing experiments and the scientific method. By most accounts, the formal education was sterile.

As a culminating experience, most colleges prior to the Civil War offered a mandatory course for seniors on issues of moral philosophy, often taught by the president himself. Ranging over ethical principles, history, politics, and such issues of the day as immigration, slavery, and freedom of the press, this capstone course served multiple objectives. It set forth precepts of ethical behavior, it prepared students for civic responsibility, and it brought together knowledge from several fields of learning. For many students, it was the high point of an otherwise dull and stultifying education.

The purposes of higher education then gradually changed. In the mid-19th century, American universities followed German counterparts in focusing more on research and PhDs, and launching institutions like Johns Hopkins that were purely research-focused. By the early 20th century, most Protestant universities no longer had enforced chapel or Bible study. But many still tried to form the character of their students through compulsory courses in moral education or Great Books. That idea – of giving students a taste of the best of western culture, giving them an opportunity to form a life-philosophy – has never entirely gone away in American universities, and many still offer courses in Great Books.

However, the popularity of this sort of liberal education has been eroded by three things. Firstly, since the 1960s, the percentage of the population going to college has risen from around 5% to around 40%. University populations have become much more diverse – attracting more women, ethnic minorities and international students. And it’s become more expensive. Students have become more pragmatic in what they want from a college education – Derek Bok notes that ‘since 1970, the percentage of freshmen who rate “being very well off financially” as an “essential” or “very important” goal has risen from 36.2 to 73.6%, while the percentage who attach similar importance to “acquiring a meaningful philosophy of life” has fallen from 79 to 39.6%.’  With a much more diverse student body, a ‘wisdom curriculum’ mainly or entirely constituted of Dead White Men has come to be seen as problematic.

3) Defining and measuring well-being is philosophically complex

Because of growing concerns about the value of mass higher education, university bosses have increasingly looked for ways to define and measure success, to prove they’re succeeding. Bok notes:

The more objective and measurable the goals, the more attractive they will seem to those in charge. As a result, presidents and trustees frequently look to such tangible signs of progress as growth in the size of the endowment, or gains in the average SAT or ACT scores, or new buildings built and new programs begun. Such achievements do not necessarily reflect genuine improvement in teaching, learning and research. But in the absence of better measures, they seem to offer concrete evidence of forward movement and success.

For example, a commission set up by President Obama defined success based on graduation rates and the earnings of graduates. In the UK, notoriously, Gordon Brown’s government tried to measure universities’ success at achieving ‘impact’ on society, while the present government is attempting to measure teaching excellence. None of these measurements are entirely satisfactory, and the Research Excellence Framework introduced by Brown seems to be actively harmful. As Bok notes: ‘Some of the essential aspects of academic institutions – in particular, the quality of the education they provide – are largely intangible and their results are difficult to measure.The result is that much of what is most important to the work of colleges and universities may be neglected, undervalued or laid aside in the pursuit of more visible goals.’

If well-being is embraced as a core purpose by universities, how will it be defined, and can it be measured? This is not a simple question. In the UK, for example, the debate (one might say furore) over campus well-being is driven by frightening but somewhat meaningless statistics, like the NUS survey that showed 78% of students experienced mental health issues. That sounds terrifying, but those issues could be everything from a panic attack to a hangover to a full-blown psychotic episode.

The authors of Well-Being in Higher Education at least seem to understand this is not a simple issue. In fact, several different definitions of well-being are put forward – hedonic well-being (ie feeling good); eudaimonic well-being (defined by Carol Ryff as ‘purpose in life, environment mastery, positive relationships, autonomy, personal growth and self-acceptance); thriving (defined as ‘engaged learning, social connectedness, diverse citizenship and positive perspective’.

There is a recognition that well-being – if defined in an Aristotelian or eudaimonic sense – will probably involve teaching character virtues. Derek Bok suggests developing character is one of the central roles of a university. Barry Schwartz suggests universities should teach the ‘intellectual virtues’: love of truth, honesty, fair-mindedness, humility, perseverance, courage, good listening, perspective taking, empathy, and above all, wisdom, which Schwartz suggests is the ‘master-virtue’. (By the by, the Oxford philosopher Nigel Biggar has also suggested that a central purpose of universities is to teach intellectual and social virtues). Alexander Astin notes that university seems to improve students’ spirituality, and in particular their capacity for the virtue of equanimity – a key virtue in Buddhism and Stoicism. He notes: 

As part a recent national study of college students’ spiritual development, we devised measures of five spiritual qualities, one of which seems especially pertinent to well-being. We call it equanimity. Students with high equanimity scores say they are able to and meaning in times of hardship, feel at peace, see each day as a gift, and feel good about the direction of their lives. Equanimity actually shows positive growth during the college years. Equanimity is most likely to show positive growth when students participate in charitable activities (service learning, donating money to charity, helping friends with personal problems) or when they engage in contemplative practices (meditation, prayer, reflective writing, reading sacred texts). 

Clearly, there are multiple ways universities can define and measure well-being: happiness, freedom from anxiety, purpose in life, equanimity, belonging, connectedness, social conscience and so on. Not all of these are measurable, and those that are might not always be a good guide to success: a university might have a high sense of student belonging because it does not have a very diverse student body. It may be worth measuring multiple factors – as the Healthy Minds survey does – and then using them as helpful tools rather than rigid benchmarks.

4) Innovative interventions 

Finally, the authors in the collection suggest several innovative ways to enhance well-being in universities. In the UK, universities tend to see well-being just as a mental health issue, to be approached through counselling, peer-to-peer training or technology. That’s such a narrow and instrumental way to view it. American universities, perhaps because of their history of liberal arts education, have a much broader and more intellectually-interesting way of approaching it. Several universities offer courses in Positive Psychology, for example, or contemplative studies, or Great Books courses, or courses in moral philosophy or ‘the art of living’ – such general curriculum courses barely exist in UK universities.

Other interventions discussed in the book include:

Engelhard courses at Georgetown University: as part of its commitment to well-being, the university seeks to include modules related to well-being in several different curricula, from biology to history. Riley and Elmendorf write: ‘In foundations of biology, students are required to write a research paper in which students explore the genetic and environmental bases of a mental families and friends directly, so in our predominantly 18–19 year-old population, we often see papers on addiction, depression, anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity literature and leverage their nascent knowledge of foundational molecular, genetic, and during face-to-face time in the course and in an online environment. Collectively, the Engelhard project has reached 15,126 students in 358 courses over the ten-year period of 2005 to 2015. More than one-third of our first year students take Engelhard courses

Well-being courses involving the sciences and humanities: James Pawelski, a professor in Positive Psychology at Penn University, notes that well-being can be explored and promoted using both the social sciences and the humanities. He notes, for example, that CBT techniques could be taught with reference to Stoic philosophy (something I’ve taught for the last few years), and that flourishing could be taught through literary studies (he co-authored a book on the ‘eudaimonic turn’ in literary studies). Courses in contemplation can also combine both the sciences (the science of mindfulness) with the humanities (the culture and ethics of Buddhism, for example)

Contemplative studies: Mark Edmundson suggests higher education should promote the virtues of ‘courage, contemplation and compassion’, through such contemplative practices as reflective writing, deep reading, quietness, meditation and poetry.

Volunteering and social work: the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU) has a programme called LEAP, which aims to help students’ development through initiatives like ‘service and community-based learning’. I’ll write in the next few days about a similar project in some UK universities, called ‘Open Minds’, where medical and psychology students deliver mental health education in local schools.

Focus on mentoring and relationships: the key finding of a recent study, How College Works by Daniel Chambliss and Christopher Takacs, is that relationships matter more to student thriving than curricula:

At a liberal arts college in New York, the authors followed a cluster of nearly one hundred students over a span of eight years. The curricular and technological innovations beloved by administrators mattered much less than the professors and peers whom students met, especially early on. At every turning point in students’ undergraduate lives, it was the people, not the programs, that proved critical. Great teachers were more important than the topics studied, and even a small number of good friendships—two or three—made a significant difference academically as well as socially.

Barry Schwartz also thinks the intellectual virtues are best passed on to students through relationships, particularly through emulation and modelling: ‘We are always modeling. And the students are always watching. We need to do it better. A good start would be to do it deliberately and not by accident.’

There is so much more one could consider if well-being is taken seriously by universities: the importance of sports, of the aesthetics of a campus, of having places of beauty and quiet to enhance reflection, of marking development with rites of passage. Not to mention the fierce debates over feelings of belonging and safety for women, ethnic minorities, trans students, or white working-class male students (a minority particularly badly-served by British universities).

But this collection shows, encouragingly, that American universities are taking well-being seriously, understanding the historical and philosophical complexity of the issue, and thinking about constructive ways to promote it. We in British universities can learn a lot from their experiences.