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Is there a taboo around spirituality in British culture?

Illustration from Neil Gaiman’s 1602, by Andy Kubert

There’s a strange disjuncture in our culture. On the one hand, the majority of people hold spiritual or religious beliefs. In a ComRes poll in 2013, 59% of British people said they believe in spiritual forces (God, spirits, demons and so on), and 52% believed they affected life on Earth. In another ComRes poll this year, 46% said they believe in life after death – the same number as those who don’t. So, although church attendance has declined steeply, we’re still a culture where a majority believe in the spiritual dimension of life, and where many follow forms of spiritual practice like yoga, meditation, prayer, psychedelics and so on.

Yet this aspect of people’s identity is not really covered in our media, particularly in the intelligent media, by which I mean broadsheets, magazines like The Economist or Prospect, Radio 4, book festivals and so on. In the upper echelons of our culture, I think religion is seen as a bit reactionary and bonkers, while spirituality is seen as flaky. At the height of the Enlightenment, the theologian Friedrich Schleiemacher wrote of religion’s ‘cultured despisers’. Today the spiritual side of existence is not so much despised as ignored.

If, like me, you’re spiritual or religious and you work in the intelligent media – or academia – you keep your beliefs to yourself. There’s a sense you’re in territory that is, not exactly hostile, but inhospitable to those beliefs. If you meet others interested in spirituality (you meditate? you go to church? you’ve tried ayahuasca??) you communicate your sympathy through private conversations and secret handshakes. Off-microphone, as it were.

Take the BBC, the closest thing we have to a national church. It helps create the culture that binds this country together, and more than any other institution it steers our national conversation. And I adore it. But you’d be hard-pressed to find much in its copious output that explores spirituality. There are still a handful of religious programmes, but one feels they’re more the product of weary box-ticking for the ageing faithful (Songs of Praise, Thought for the Day), rather than excited and enthusiastic exploration of spiritual reality. Radio 4 has Beyond Belief, which is great, but not much else. The Beeb produces wonderfully-inspiring nature programmes (Planet Earth) or science programmes (The Wonders of the Universe) but little that genuinely and sympathetically explores the spiritual dimension of life.  The one place that does unashamedly discuss spirituality as a positive force is Radio 6 – musicians are happier to talk about it.

Or take the Hay Festival, which I also love. This year, the theme is Reformations. There’s not a single talk covering spirituality, and of the six talks covering ‘religion’, five aren’t really about religion at all (have a look). The only talk at the festival exploring the religious or spiritual as a positive force in our lives is mine. God help us!

You notice the weird absence of the spiritual in our culture when you go abroad. I went to the Jaipur Literature Festival in January, which is the biggest book festival in Asia. The line-up there included the guru Sadhguru, talking on the main stage about his ecstatic experiences growing up. It was surreal for me, as a Brit, to hear someone on the main stage of a book festival talking about the spiritual life. Like someone openly talking about being gay in the 1950s.

Sadhguru speaking at the Jaipiur Literature Festival in January

Now I know it’s banal to say ‘oh India is so much more spiritual than the UK’. Secular Indians get exasperated with the spiritual exoticism Westerners project onto India. But it’s true that spirituality is far more mainstream in Indian culture. Many of the educated professionals I met on my travels spent time in an ashram, for example. One investment banker I met spent half the evening enthusing about Osho.

I’m not saying Indian culture is perfect – if anything, it’s perhaps too spiritual. There’s an over-credulous adoration of huckster gurus like Osho or quack ideas like astrology (few in India get married without consulting an astrologer). Religion spills over into the public sphere, with roaming Hindu ‘virtue squads’ attacking cattle traders or teenagers on dates. Spirituality can be used as an excuse not to fix things on the material dimension – this week, a leading guru claimed the spate of farmer suicides in Tamil Nadu was caused not just by drought but also because ‘the farmers aren’t spiritual enough‘.

But there must be a middle ground between India’s over-credulous embrace of the spiritual, and the UK’s cultural disregard of it. I feel there is a taboo around spiritual experience in our culture (and 75% of my blog readers agreed). The taboo feels particularly strong if you talk about God, higher intelligences, or life-after-death – anything that treads beyond metaphysical materialism immediately feels dangerous and slightly mad.

But let’s look at it from the point-of-view of producers and commissioning editors. Let’s say you’re sympathetic to spirituality. How exactly are you going to cover it? Who would you try to get on to your show? There are very few spiritual leaders in our culture who are able to talk to a general audience rather than a New Age workshop – few well-known and articulate spokespeople like Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley or Terence McKenna. There are few ashrams, and hardly any renunciates who’ve dedicated their life to spiritual development. So who would you get on?

Also, the media tend to cover things when they’re new. What’s new about spirituality? The way to attain spiritual peace is by transcending attachment and aversion. Well, hold the front page.

What tends to happen is the media tries to tap our yearning for transcendence through science, and the latest scientific trial. Then you can have an excited headline like ‘scientists discover the happiest man in the world is a Buddhist monk!’ Or ‘Psychedelic scientists discover higher state of consciousness!’

For example, there are two aspects of contemporary spirituality that get a huge amount of media publicity  – contemplation (ie mindfulness and yoga) and psychedelics. In both cases, it’s thanks to scientific research in these fields, which dress spirituality in the respectable white coat of science.  Brain scans give a material basis to spiritual experiences, which makes them more tangible and credible to our era of Doubting Thomases.

Look, proof!

‘People tend to associate phrases like ‘a higher state of consciousness’ with hippy speak and mystical nonsense’, psychedelic researcher Robin Carhart-Harris told the Guardian after one such trial last week. ‘This is potentially the beginning of the demystification, showing its physiological and biological underpinnings.’  The assumption is that neuro-imaging shows what is actually happening. The material dimension is real, everything else is mystical nonsense.

I welcome the emergence of a more critical, scientific spirituality. But it tends to be carefully policed – don’t talk about the soul, spirits or the afterlife. Don’t let any of the hairier bits of spirituality protrude from that respectable white coat. The psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihayli showed the efficacy of this approach – he took the experience of ecstasy, stripped it of anything to do with God or a spiritual dimension, re-branded it as ‘flow’, then sold it as a management technique.  But what about a spirituality beyond the self, beyond this life?

We need to find space in our culture – and particularly in intelligent culture – for an ‘intelligent spirituality’, a spirituality that is both scientifically literate but also aware of the limits of quantitative empiricism, and which is open to the range of metaphysical positions an intelligent person might take. We don’t yet fully understand the relationship between consciousness and matter, so we don’t yet know if consciousness can survive death, nor if there are more intelligent beings out there (or a supreme intelligence or source of intelligence). We need to keep searching without being ashamed or afraid of looking ridiculous – I don’t think we’ve reached the final page of homo sapiens‘ spiritual quest just yet.

If there isn’t a British magazine that explores these topics intelligently and sympathetically, should someone set one up? In the meantime, I recommend Mark Vernon and Rupert Sheldrake’s podcast, Russell Brand’s podcast, the Scientific and Medical Network, Aeon (although it’s mainly materialist in its metaphysics), and the US podcast On Being. You might disagree with some of the statements in this essay – perhaps I’ve over-emphasized the taboo? My friend Dr Oliver Robinson, for example, thinks the media and academia have become much more open to spiritual experience in the last few years. Feel free to comment below!

If you like this topic, check out my new book, The Art of Losing Control, about how people in western culture find ecstatic experiences today.


Beyond the fear barrier

A barrel sponge surrounded by fish at Dixon’s Pinnacle in the Andaman Islands

I decided to learn scuba-diving while I was travelling in India. I took a flight from Chennai to the Andaman Islands, an archipelago off the coast of Burma. I stayed on Havelock Island, the most popular island for tourists. It has one incredible beach, soft white sand with barely anyone on it, and also some great diving sites off its coast with living coral –  sadly, a rare thing these days. The island is increasingly popular with middle-class Indian tourists, even though many can’t swim – some sign up for a ‘sea walk’, where they walk around on the bottom of the sea wearing a diving helmet, or a ‘dive experience’ where they are carried around underwater by a professional diver. There are occasional accidents – a young Indian drowned while snorkelling the day I arrived. Another tourist was eaten by a crocodile back in 2010, but I was assured that was extremely rare.

I signed up with one of the many diving companies to do a PADI Open Water and Advanced Diving course – five days in all. The first day was just learning theory. There was a lot to learn, about all the equipment one relies on, the hand signals one uses to communicate underwater, and the danger of nitrogen blood poisoning or of air expanding in your lungs if you ascend too quickly. You had to fill out a questionnaire, which asked lots of questions like was I subject to anxiety or panic attacks. I put no, although I have in fact had panic attacks many years ago.

The next morning, we went snorkelling in the morning, just a few metres out from one of the beaches. I’d never even been snorkelling before, and it was extraordinary, seeing these colourful, weird fish swimming around me without any fear. In the afternoon, we put on the diving equipment for the first time, and swam down to perhaps 10 metres or so. It felt weird at first. You’re aware you’re in an alien environment, surrounded by water, yet breathing. Initially, I breathed too hard, because I didn’t really trust the procedure. I could hear my own breathing, sucking in rather desperately, as if it was my last breath. But if ever I started to feel anxious, I could just look up and see the surface above me – it wasn’t that far away. So that counterbalanced the claustrophobia or sense of being trapped. We swam around a reef which alas had bleached (ie died), but there were still plenty of interesting fish around – clown fish, angel fish, sea-horses, lion fish, sting-rays, enormous napoleon, and even a sea-snake, which thankfully kept its distance.

On the third day of the course, we went for a deeper dive. I had a new instructor. She talked a lot, nervously, and it made me nervous. We took a boat out to deeper water, and put on our equipment. While we waited to go in, another group of divers surfaced. ‘How is it?’ my instructor asked. ‘Bloody awful!’ one of the divers said. ‘There’s a strong current, and terrible visibility.’ My instructor looked at us and grimaced.

We jumped in the water, and immediately you could feel the current pulling you back. We grabbed hold of a rope and tugged ourselves along to the descent rope. Then we started to pull ourselves down. I had to kick hard to go against the current. The sea was murky with little bits of white floating around. We pulled down deeper and deeper, to 15 metres. I was out of breath, and sucked harder on the air regulator. It didn’t seem to be working properly. I breathed harder, with desperation. ‘I’m panicking’, I thought. ‘I’m freaking out’. This realization made me panic more. What happens when you panic at 15 metres? I couldn’t just go up to the surface. I was trapped. Is this how I would die?

The instructor could see I wasn’t going forward anymore. She came up and gave me the thumbs up sign. I shook my head and pointed to the surface. She told me later she could see by my eyes I was panicking. She nodded and looked around for the other diver in our group. I managed to slow my breathing down somewhat, and the regulator worked better. I realized I was OK, I was not going to drown, and told the instructor I was OK. She gave me a long hug.

That hug was actually hugely helpful. We don’t touch enough in western culture. There is a touch-deficit, which is pretty toxic for mammals like us. We’ve privatized touch, so we pay strangers to give us massages, or even to give us hugs. I think back to the bad LSD trip I had when I was 18, which traumatized me for several years. That could have turned into a good trip, if I’d just got a hug. And the trauma could have lasted a lot less long, if I’d told my loved ones and got some hugs. I think touch is often more healing than talk.

A very interesting guy I met in India, Anthony Fidler, is giving a London Philosophy Club talk next Wednesday on using mindfulness and touch practices as a way of dealing with psychosis. Anthony had a psychotic breakdown when he was 23 or so, and working as an accountant for PWC. He spent several years in the terrifying underworld of psychosis, and taught himself to stay centred even in the midst of terrifying visions, partly through staying in touch. I met him on a Zen retreat in the hills of Tamil Nadu, which I’ll write about in a few weeks. He seemed a very calm, collected person, the epitome of no-drama spirituality. I’d have never guessed he’s been though several psychotic episodes over the years.

Anyway, back to the Andaman Sea. We carried on with the dive, though I was still about two notches away from panic all the time. And because of my anxiety, my breathing was erratic, meaning I raced through my air really quickly. If you’re calm and relaxed, your air can last, say, an hour or more on a deeper dive. My air only lasted 18 minutes that dive. Diving is one long breathing meditation.

We went back to the boat and climbed on board. We didn’t really talk about what happened, but I was embarrassed and frightened. Had I nearly died? I was due to start the Advanced Diving course the next day, going down to 30 metres. Bad idea?

I spoke to another instructor that evening, and told her what happened. I asked if people could die from panicking underwater. She told me there were stages of panic. The really dangerous stage was when people lost it completely, and rejected their equipment, literally taking the regulator from their mouth. That was when they drowned. I hadn’t got to that stage, I’d just been over-breathing, started to panic, then calmed down again. She thought I would be OK and said ‘it would be a pity to end your diving on that experience’.

The next day, in fact, did not involve a deep dive. We went back to the shallower water and practiced buoyancy control and various other manoeuvres, including taking off our masks and changing regulators at 10 metres depth. I was back with my original instructor, in whom I had more faith, and I did the manoeuvres fine. That evening, we went for a night dive, illuminating the water with small torches. Occasionally we’d see other groups of divers emerge from the dark and we’d turn off the torches so as not to confuse them, then sit hiding out as they swam obliviously past. The instructor told me to wave my hands around, and the dark water lit up with luminous plankton. We walked out back onto the beach under the stars.

The next morning, it was time for the deep dive. We took a boat out to a site called Dixon’s Pinnacle, discovered by a local diver a few years before – all the diving sites have only been discovered 10 or 15 years ago, and there are still hundreds of sites waiting to be discovered. I was fairly nervous, but I told my instructor about my previous anxiety attack and explained that I wanted to take it very slow, and might abort at any time. He was fine with that. This meant I felt more in control of the experience.

The conditions were better, the current not too bad. We swam out to the descent line and started to go down. This time, I went feet first, and took my time, careful to keep my breathing slow and regular. My instructor asked me if I was OK every five metres or so. I was OK. I repeated a mantra to myself sometimes: ‘Trust your equipment, trust your instructor, keep breathing’.

We went down, down, descending to 30 metres through this clear blue sea all around us, stretching out like some giant cathedral. Down, down, down. Finally we saw a reef beneath us, and we let go of the rope and swam towards it.

There were so many fish it almost took my breath away. Thousands and thousands of them. Everywhere I looked, there was some new, weird species –  beautiful, ugly, stub-nosed, round-nosed, short and flat, long and thin, yellow, gold, silver, red, orange, green, purple, striped, polka-dot, rippling with extraordinary colours, thousands of tiny fish like a cloud of butterflies, shoals of silver fish that curved like a flamenco dancer as they were hunted by trevally. Not to mention the glorious colours of the coral itself. Our instructor had amazingly sharp eyes – he pointed out a giant lobster, its antennae poking out from a hole. We saw a moray eel, grumpy and cantankerous; and an octopus, shy and intelligent. At one point, I looked above me, and a shoal of barracuda had appeared out of nowhere – they were completely still, staring grimly ahead, like infantry preparing for battle. We swam up the reef and let the current carry us over it. It was a glorious feeling to float over the rainforest and look down at the life teeming beneath me. The fish were so clear, so colourful, so pixellated, somehow it was like the most extraordinary virtual reality trip, and I moved my hands towards the fish just to remind myself they were real. Occasionally a fish would swim up and peer at me. I’d laugh and wave back.

Barracuda off Dixon’s Pinnacle, Andaman Islands – photo by Adam Jadhav

If ever I felt a twinge of anxiety, I focused outward and become absorbed in wonder. I felt a deep sense of gratitude to this place, where I didn’t belong, for letting me visit. The closest experience I could compare it to was visiting the Masai Mara in Kenya – in both environments, you didn’t know what wildlife you would stumble upon next. You were on their turf.

We kept checking our air, and after about 40 minutes it was time to go back up. I’d controlled my breathing well and hadn’t used my air quickly. I felt full of joy and lightness at having gone through the fear barrier and seen that extraordinary world. That’s the reward for facing fear, isn’t it? A bigger world. An expanded reality. We were all in a good mood on the boat home, including a lady in her 70s who’d been diving for the last 40 years. It had been a good dive, we agreed. And I learned three things. Keep breathing. Keep in touch. And if you feel anxious, look out, and wonder.

Humans have only been scuba-diving for around 50 years. And, just as we discover this incredible underwater world, we discover we’re killing it. Two thirds of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is apparently now bleached, and unrecoverable. And that must have been one of the most extraordinary sights in all of nature. And I contributed to the damage, through all the flights I took on my travels. Still, one other thing I learned from India is it’s much easier to be vegetarian than I imagined. So I now eat much less meat, as my small effort to mitigate climate change and protect the incredible, bizarre, funny and wondrous life-forms that live all around us.

For more on ecstatic or sublime experiences in nature, check out my new book, The Art of Losing Control, out this week! And you can sign up for weekly articles like this, along with links to interesting stories from the net, at the newsletter box in the right-hand column.