8b322fda8683331fb9e4f87a39a330daI have a friend called Rob, who suffers from what is today called paranoid schizophrenia. He was diagnosed when he was 17 or so, after a psychotic breakdown on LSD. He and I had first taken LSD together when we were 15, and it messed us both up – I had social anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder for several years. But that’s nothing to what Rob has had to bear. For the last 20 years, he’s been very isolated by his delusions, in and out of NHS psychiatric facilities, unable to work, find a partner, or engage with society.

Sometimes he’s better, sometimes he’s worse, depending on his circumstances and his medication. Sometimes he is lost to this reality, too deep in the ocean of his own delusion and imagination. Sometimes he surfaces, and you can have a conversation with him, and your old friend is back from the depths.

At the moment he is better. I don’t know what happened, whether they changed his medication, but he’s suddenly more engaged with this reality, writing poetry, painting, reading, laughing. He’s come across CBT, and finds it fascinating. ‘You appear to me to be Lucifer’, he says to me, ‘but this may simply be a mental representation.’ Progress! Seneca thought people suffering from mania were incapable of philosophy, but what Rob is doing is, in fact, philosophy.

I suggested we get some food. What could be more normal and convivial than to go to a restaurant together. But the last time we’d been inside a pub, some months back,the landlord asked Rob to leave, because he said Rob’s behaviour were frightening for the other customers (it was really just frightening for him). Since then, we tended to sit at tables outside pubs, perched on the edge of polite society. But now Rob seemed and looked well enough for us to venture within. Rob said he knew a pizza place, so we went there.

Almost immediately, I regretted it. It was a very posh pizza place. The staff were posh. All the customers were posh. And I was embarrassed lest Rob said or did something weird. I suddenly felt acutely conscious of social niceties, as if I had to be doubly observant of them to make up for Rob’s obliviousness. I smiled extra sweetly to the waitress, exchanged some banter to show I was familiar with the social rules.

Rob picked up on my unease and, with uncanny psychic antennae, he clammed up and glowered at me. I tried to start a conversation – some sort of polite chit-chat like ‘so….er…..do you like this part of town?’ and Rob just stared at me bewilderedly. Our food arrived and Rob poured a huge amount of chili oil onto his pizza and devoured it, slice by slice, the oil dripping from his fingers, while ignoring my desperate attempts to make chit-chat. I was acutely conscious of the people sitting on our left and right. What must they think!

We finished our food, paid the bill and went outside. I have never been so happy to get out of a restaurant in my life. ‘What happened in there?’ Rob asked. ‘I’m very sorry’, I said. ‘It was a bad choice of restaurant.’ What had really happened in there was that my sense of social propriety and concern for the approval of strangers had trumped my sense of compassion and solidarity for Rob.

The mask and the shadow

Being an adult in a highly civilised society like ours is hard. It takes a lot of self-control, emotional inhibition and social tact. We have to learn, from the age of six or so, to read social situations – which can often be bewilderingly complex and nuanced – and out of the million possible ways of responding to ambiguous social cues, we have to select a good response.

Civilization is one long improv competition, on a stage watched by millions. To the best performers go wealth, status, power and sex. But those who miss their cues or disrupt the play end up isolated, unloved, ridiculed or ostracized.

s-l1000We have to learn to play a role, to ‘prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet’. And this takes a lot of effort, because it means controlling and hiding any aspects of our psyche which might be deemed primitive, uncouth, or shameful. Behind our masks there is in fact a whole jungle of psychic energy, and we have to police that jungle and make sure no wild beasts stray into view.

The polis (city in Greek) requires us to be polite and to police our inner selves and keep our daemons at bay. And the daemons of our nature resent this. Pan and his satyrs make faces at us from the wings and mutter ‘phony’. They try to put us off and trip us up, to get us to drop the facade and acknowledge them. We’re in a constant negotiation between the demands of civilisation and the demands of our inner lives.

When people become mentally ill, one of the things that can happen is that the polite mask starts to crumble. People’s ability to read social situations accurately and to respond appropriately diminishes. So does their ability to control their emotions and to hide their weaknesses. People lose the capacity to police the shame-barriers between their polite exterior and the jungle within, and our inner life starts to spill out into the outer world.

When I had PTSD, for example, I had a recurring nightmare where I was walking through a deserted zoo, and realized the cage-doors had been left open, and the wild animals had broken free. It was an expression of anxiety about my shadow-self bursting out and destroying my polite persona.

And my panic attacks and depression did in fact damage my ability to perform well socially. This was a blow to my social ambitions. It’s naff to admit it, but I was very socially ambitious, and had been since I was a child. I wanted to rise in society, as far as I could, and become a celebrated person surrounded by witty, glamorous people. And suddenly I developed mental illness, and it was humiliating. It brought me crashing back down to earth (humus in Latin). It was humbling.

To recover, I had to let go of my social ambitions, drop the mask, and try to accept myself ‘warts and all’. I had to accept my shadow, the jungle within, and all the wild animals which might emerge and upset my plans. I had to put humility and self-compassion before ambition and the approval of strangers.

One of the reasons mental illness is still stigmatized is that it is embarrassing. People with mental illness don’t always behave according to the unspoken rules of politeness. Indeed, often they crash right through those rules. This causes shame and anxiety in the people around them, because we have put enormous psychic energy into learning and obeying the rules. The mad upset the consensual fiction of social reality (unless they happen to be powerful, in which case everyone must go along with their fiction).

That’s why sometimes families in which someone is mentally ill would in the past (and sometimes still in the present) hide them away in the countryside, or in an attic, or in an asylum. To save face. To preserve the front of politeness and self-control that enables them to fulfill their social ambitions. They put the approval of strangers before compassion for their family member.

I think, somehow, email and social media makes this situation worse. It’s another arena of politeness, one with new and confusing social rules. I remember, when I had PTSD, I would often completely misread those rules, and send out long strange emails to all and sundry, thinking they were masterpieces of wit, and then wondered with growing paranoia why no one responded. My sense of appropriateness and my social negotiation with the world was way off kilter, and email and social media only amplified and publicized that fact.

How, then, do we cope with mental illness in ourselves and in our friends and loved ones? The Greeks saw it as a challenge from the gods of nature – or (in Jungian terms) from the unruly jungle of our unconscious. Madness – and the mad – are reminders of the limit of our control, the artificiality of our social masks, and the sheer unruly power of the daemons of nature to sweep away our sand-castles of social ambition. It’s a moral challenge – will you let go of your mask and have compassion for yourself, your loved ones, or the stranger muttering next to you on the bus? Or will you react with fear, shame and disgust?

I recovered from my panic attacks when I stopped freaking out over what other people might think, and said to Pan, in effect, ‘OK, maybe some people will think I’m weird, so what?’ I had to learn to accept myself and put moral integrity before the false morality of social ambition. Only then, when I sat surrounded by the rubble of my social ambition, did Pan stop sending the earthquakes. I achieved a fragile truce between my social self and the unruly gods of my inner jungle.

That challenge continues, with friends and loved ones when they suffer from mental illness. Will I get embarrassed, will I try to control them and get them to behave nicely, will I dissociate myself from them, or will I stand by them with compassion and humility? I failed in that restaurant with Rob. I put the approval of strangers before compassion for my friend.

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I’m researching the history of ecstasy and ecstatic experiences in modern western culture, how spiritual ecstasy got pathologised from the Enlightenment to the present day, and how people found new ways to get out of their heads.

An important part of that story is rock & roll and other forms of pop and dance music, which became in the 20th century a sort of substitute religion and means to ekstasis for the masses. Thanks to rock & roll, white agnostic kids got a way to access the release of ecstatic religion, without any of the ethical or metaphysical dogma.

Someone who has thought about that deeply is David Byrne, the artist, musician, and former lead-singer of Talking Heads. In his music, art and documentaries, he’s explored the different ways humans get out of their heads and into their bodies, or the group, or the unconscious, or the spirit world. He’s also explored the relationship between popular music and various forms of ecstatic religion, from charismatic Christianity to Yoruba and Candomble.

What’s unusual about both him and occasional collaborator Brian Eno, among rockers, is that they combine a critical, intellectual and academic rigour (they once gave journalists a reading list of anthroplogy and cybernetics to try and improve their interviews) with a willingness for personal and group exploration of ecstatic states. That tension between the self-conscious / intellectual / critical / ironic and the ecstatic is one of the things that makes both their work so interesting – because we’re all longing for ecstasy, but we’re also struggling with our irony, our detachment, our rational skepticism and our emotional inhibition.

Anyway, I was lucky enough to get an email interview with him. Here it is.

To what extent would you say that African American-inspired pop music got Western culture out of a ‘dead end’ and gave it a way to find ecstatic release from the iron cage of rationalization?

Wow…that’s some heavy lifting for pop music! But yes, though there were always ecstatic cults in Europe and North America, it would seem the African influence – whether Latin music, Yoruba-inspired spirituality that seeped into world culture, jazz, funk, dancing from the waist down…the renewed appreciation of rhythm and repetition…changed not just Western culture but the whole world’s culture. And I don’t just mean the music.

To be convinced and seduced by ecstasy is to be won over to a new way of looking at the world and oneself. The groove, which in the last 200 years, since slavery, ultimately derives in this form at least, from Africa, is found almost everywhere around the globe now – it’s a species of globalization, but one of joy and integration of body and spirit….

The musical meme is carried by deep and profound work but just as often by hackney’d and cliched pop songs. Any carrier will do, there’s no discrimination.

Here’s Born Under Punches, the first song from the Eno-produced 1980 album Remain In Light, which was one of the first white rock albums to consciously draw on Afro-beat influences. I love the groove of it, the rhythmic guitar, the layers of chanting and Byrne’s nonsensical yelps over the top. Plus the incredibly weird guitar solo.

You’ve written that performing brings catharsis for you and the audience too. I’m fascinated by the idea of what classicists call the ‘Dionysiac cure’ and how everyone from Aristotle to Nietzsche say it brings healing. How is music cathartic for you?

As ER Dodds pointed out in The Greeks and the Irrational, ecstatic cults (with drumming!) were always around…but when did they lose acceptance? With the triumph of the Enlightenment? Perhaps it was during the Renaissance that the view of the workings of the universe changed – from a universe that obeyed and was structured according to musical harmony – to one in which music was a subset of other, possibly more inclusive physical laws. The universe as a song is more poetic, but science has its glories and beauty too…And maybe not surprisingly, those cosmic harmonies, or at least the idea behind them, might be re-emerging in crazy entangled sub atomic physics and in the cosmos.

How is music cathartic for me? In so many ways, and often simultaneously. Psychologically, physically…music engages so many parts of the brain (and body) all at once that no one part is central- which is a key to it’s power I suppose. It integrates. It may be a spandrel, or mental cheesecake as Steven Pinker says, but it’s pretty potent.

For the listener that catharsis has always been there – everyone has heard the “music saved my life” story or “music got me through high school” and it’s true…and that’s just listening, not even making it!

When I was younger and more socially uncomfortable music was my outlet- my way of communicating and announcing my existence. It was cathartic, therapeutic, but hardly ecstatic. It was even painful at times- but completely necessary.

Later, and little by little, something in me began to change, and I began to sense that rhythmic and repetitive music could do something more that just be an outlet for my unspoken unheard self- it could gradually change that self….and it seemed to be most effective in music rooted in a something that had been repressed or cast aside by western culture….

I found myself more open to trance-rooted music – whether via dance or funk grooves (which I always loved) to the Pentecostal church, voudun, gamelan, salsa, samba etc etc…and the music I and others were making began to partake of some weird white-man version of all that African-rooted culture.

I sensed that as opposed to much of what I had done before – which amplified the individual or one’s persona – this swallowed the individual whole. And it was in that loss of identity that the ecstasy lay. In some ways this seemed counter intuitive….wasn’t the individual what we and our culture are about? Why would we ever want to let go of that?

Surely most of us have a some point, in sports, music or some other group activity, found ourselves lost, subsumed in the group, in the team or larger community – and we have experienced how wonderful that can be. Well, some kinds of music are a machine for making that happen- and happen reliably.

One senses a commonality with a lot of religious and spiritual practices – the surrender to something greater than oneself…and how good that feels. One realizes that the pleasure one derives and the seductiveness of the communal feeling can be manipulated to all sorts of ends. It can be directed towards Jesus or Jihad, whatever. So one has to be careful. I attribute this phenomena to innate human/social/neurological tendencies and structures- not to an outside agency like God or something like that….

Here’s a clip from the 1982 Channel 4 documentary The Name of This Programme is Talking Heads, which combined concert footage with interviews and anthropological clips of ecstatic religions – which Byrne helped to select.

Being a little analytical I also noticed that this music that induced trances and ecstatic states was made up of simple modular parts…and these parts are useless alone, they don’t work, without all or most of the others. No one instrument or beat in this world carries the entire groove/texture (unlike much western music where the melody played by the loudest instrument is king).

Each module here has its role to play, and only when all do their discrete parts does the emergent thing come into being and the floor drops away. It is, in this way, a model of a new, more perfectly functioning society one might say – where all are essential, all are needed and there is a great reward when all work together. A glimpse of utopia, for an instant- and a glimpse that is felt – felt unconsciously. There is a reason the feeling happens, but the impact does not come from reason.

Byrne has written of how the Stop Making Sense tour gave Talking Heads a sense of ‘mystical communion’ , ego release, and even a glimpse of a new utopian community. You can see some of  the sheer infectious fun of playing in a group in their performance of ecstatic anthem Burning Down The House:

Your work can be critically detached / ironic / conceptual and also ecstatic / surrendering. Do you find a creative tension between those two urges – wanting to surrender but also analyzing, detaching, thinking?

They’re not mutually exclusive- but they don’t happen simultaneously! One can have a completely immersive transporting experience and then later ask why did that happen. Knowing, or trying to know, why a thing works does not stop it from working or diminish the experience in any way- if anything it makes it even more marvelous.

When you have drawn on Christian evangelical ecstasy in your work (like in the song Once In A Lifetime and the video of it) it tends to be somewhat ironic and detached. But when you have explored Brazilian or African animist religion you seem to leave the irony and go with it. Why is that? Is it something about leaving the iron cage of the west and feeling one can finally ‘let go’ in other cultures? Is it harder for us to do that in Christian culture?

You hit the nail on the head there- one has to leave one’s home to be able to turn around and see it and appreciate it for the first time. (that’s a paraphrase of whom?) [TS Eliot]

Here’s a performance of Once In A Lifetime, in which Byrne performs an ironic version of an evangelical preacher, cut with anthropological footage of charismatic Christians (from the Channel 4 documentary):

If pop music became a kind of surrogate religion for many people (including me) – what would an ethnographer from Mars make of it? How successful a surrogate religion was / is it?

What religions do is codify and formalize existing experiences – they provide a safe context and support system for what could be frightening or uncontrolled experiences and thoughts, but at the same time they impose their own narratives and values onto what is a naturally occurring social/ neurological/physical phenomena. They tell a story about it, but it came before the story. The formalization can help it occur regularly, on demand, but the formalization doesn’t create it – or does it?

Now I’m wondering if at some level it’s like DNA-maybe the form, the structure, IS the thing itself. If the form and structure are present, then the phenomena has to happen? Certain musical structures reliably generate specific emotions. Now we’re back to the universe being musical – as harmonic (in the cosmic sense) structures come into being what follows is inevitable. The God behind the universe, in this view, is a song.

The ‘priests’ of pop music tended to be people in their teens or early 20s who were often quite unprepared for the mass Dionysiac adulation that gets projected onto them (as well as the commercial opportunism). in that sense, was it quite a dangerous sort of cult (for the priests and the followers?)

One is somewhat vulnerable in these states- as you mention, there is an opportunity for all sorts of exploitation. Commercial, religious, political.

I’m fascinated by how the sacred and secular have fed off each other in 20th century music – it’s been two way traffic. But a priest might say that rock and roll gave agnostic and atheist white kids a ‘taste’ of religious surrender but with none of the ethical or metaphysical commitments (including the belief in the afterlife and soul which has been a crucial part of ecstasy in most cultures). In that sense, is rock and roll selling ecstatic surrender on the cheap, as it were – as a no-strings weekend experience rather than a lifetime ethical commitment?

I don’t know about the afterlife or the soul- but this experience does give a sense that one can inhabit a larger body- the social body, something greater than oneself as an individual in a way that is visceral, not intellectual- – the Cartesian split heals and it’s wonderful.

Is there then an obligation to make ethical and metaphysical commitments? That sounds as if, after such pleasure, one is made to feel guilty and obliged to “pay” for one’s pleasure. I think, OK maybe in an ideal world, the social and moral inferences, at least some of then, happen organically- without need of an organization. I’m being very optimistic here, obviously a formal structure helps guide a realization. But maybe, just maybe, once one loses oneself, one is in some way forever bonded to that group. To everyone that was at a rave, or experiences the same thing in the same place. A tiny brotherhood emerges- unfortunately it isn’t made of all humanity, just the others in the room.

Do you think there is a ‘formula’ for ecstasy in musical performance? (I guess musicians are always searching for it, like alchemists.) Or does it depend on shifting cultural expectations and technological innovations?

Yeah, there are techniques – just like the Swedes know how to construct a pop song – but once you’ve seen the DJ drop the bass over and over it gets pretty tired – the effect doesn’t work any more. But it will work in the next town maybe.

You’ve spoken of how rock can become an mass ecstatic surrender to the band or the charismatic guru (or even Fuhrer!) of the front-man. That’s something some artists have explored and played with – David Bowie, for example, or Kanye West today. What do you think of that sort of exploration of the rockstar-cult? Is it a dangerous game?

I think it is a little dangerous- performers who play these roles often seem to forget that it’s an act- they loose themselves alright, but in an unfortunate way – the character they are playing swallows them. Rather than loosing oneself in a communal moment, it is an enlargement of an individual.- and a made up one at that! One becomes the mask.

One way that rock and roll is different from traditional religion is that, like modernism, it’s obsessed with the new, so there’s a pressure for endless new styles and innovations – ever louder bass lines and drops. And music is also everywhere now, as background music and on our iPhones. Are we becoming numbed to it, and thereby slowly reducing its magical power over our bodies and souls?

Biologically it can never lose that power. Do we get over-saturated? Maybe. But I still hear from folks how some music they heard recently affected them deeply, so it can happen- but yes, a lot of music is wallpaper now. But occasionally something cuts through.

One final bonus question- I think my favourite Talking Heads lyric is ‘there’s a city in my mind, come along and take a ride…they can tell you what to do but they’ll make a fool of you’ – you sound like a utopian preacher who is very unsure of mass movements! Where does the beautiful image of ‘city in my mind’ come from?

That’s straight out of preaching…. The City on the Hill from the Sermon on the Mount. It’s been overused, but its familiarity also makes it a potent image and phrase.

Here’s Byrne performing Road to Nowhere with St Vincent in 2013. It’s a typically ambiguous song – it sounds uplifting and hopeful, yet the words suggest they are going ‘nowhere’ . Is nowhere somewhere good, a utopia (which literally means ‘no place’ in Greek), somewhere beyond our present imagining? Or is he leading them straight off a cliff?  It’s that kind of tension between ecstatic hope and ironic ambiguity that is typical of Byrne’s work, and which makes it different to more corny rock ecstasy.

If you want to read more on this topic, here’s an interview I did with Brian Eno, who’s often worked with Byrne, about music, ecstasy and surrender. And Byrne is curating the Meltdown festival in London in August, which will no doubt feature some ecstatic moments!

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As most of you know, I’m working on a book about the place of ecstatic experiences and altered states of consciousness in post-religious / secular / rationalist society.

My broad thesis is that (1) western culture pathologised and marginalized ecstatic experiences from around the 17th century on but (2) humans kept on seeking ecstatic experiences through new and non-orthodox routes – new religious movements like Methodism and Pentecostalism; Romantic poetry and music; and then, from the 1960s on, sex, psychedelic drugs, rock and roll, and Eastern and new age spirituality.

Today I want to talk briefly about perhaps the most unlikely form of ecstasy in our post-religious society – ecstasy through business.

I know, weird right? What could be less likely!

The sociologist Max Weber said that business was part of the iron cage of rationalist bureaucracy in which we’re imprisoned. Europe is disenchanted, the spirit has evaporated, and we’re stuck in our little cubicles of Protestant work ethics, trying to earn the approval of a God we no longer believe in.

I think of the financial publishing company where I began my career, and I can’t think of anywhere less ecstatic – it felt emotionally inhibited, paranoid, meaningless, atomized and amoral. This is one of the reasons I love Fight Club and its ecstatic hatred of the emotional flatness and moral emptiness of corporate – consumer culture. Burn it all down!

And yet….

At some point in the 20th century, for some people, business itself became a means to ecstatic experience.

I think it began in the US, where the line between revivalist preacher and business motivational speaker became blurred. So you find someone like Dale Carnegie preaching in YMCAs about how to be the best salesman, with a strange mixture of Protestant work-ethic and Protestant ecstasy. You get someone like Zig Ziglar, one of the most successful business coaches of the last 50 yars, whose seminars were a mixture of self-help advice and southern Baptist ecstasy – listen to the trembling cadre of his voice, and how it reminds one of the greatest Baptist preacher, Martin Luther King.

Things got weirder in the 1970s, as baby-boomers like Steve Jobs joined the work-force, and brought with them their appetite for mind-altering drugs and altered states of consciousness, for eastern and new age spirituality, for authenticity and expressive individuality.

The baby-boomer ethos blossomed in the Human Potential Movement, inspired by figures like Abraham Maslow and Aldous Huxley, who believed ecstatic experiences needed to be re-integrated into western culture. That idea got mass produced through Large Group Awareness Training programmes like erhard seminars training (est) and Landmark Education. Organizations like est would run ‘mass marathon’ coaching sessions over a weekend, where 100 people would be encouraged to share, open up, break down, and allow themselves to be remade. Watch this clip from Adam Curtis’ century of the Self, 30 minutes in, with some amazing footage from an est seminar.

These sessions were secular versions of 18th or 19th century revival meetings, where people would experience highly emotional breakdowns and breakthroughs. But where in the past converts would surrender to Jesus, at est or Landmark today they surrender to the Leader and to the group, and accept the Landmark dogma that they can do and be anything they want.

0ea590148e19feb31e7d0c10024d93d8The cannier coaches – like Anthony Robbins – soon realized that their customers were seeking a sort of religious substitute, and they thought about how to bring in music, dancing, and rites of passage to symbolize the death of the old self and the birth of the new liberated and authentic Power-Self. Robbins’ seminars, for example, became famous for incorporating fire-walking, which originated as a religious ritual in the Meditarranean. Testimonials are also a powerful ritual for people to share their storis with the group and affirm their incredible breakthroughs – both in church, and in the business coaching seminar.

Then, in the 90s, with the rise of Silicon Valley, things got really weird. Start-up culture embraced the baby-boomer ethos of authenticity and expressive individualism (and a willingness to do ayahuasca every now and then to improve executive insight), and combined it with a techno-evangelical faith that we can change the world. Our app / social network / software design is going to liberate humanity and perhaps help us transcend to the next level of consciousness. Woo hoo!

The long hours, intense corporate loyalty and cult of the leader at tech firms like Microsoft or Google led to weird scenes like the famous clip of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer going ape at a Microsoft employee conference: ‘Give it up for meeeeeee!’ Check out that corporate ego unleashed.

Even the CEO of a shoe company, Zappos, started to get something of a Messiah complex – Tony Hsieh wrote his own comic book to tell the story of his journey and how he helped all his employees find meaning, happiness and transcendence working for his online shoe company. Yeah! You’re amazing Tony! You’re some kind of SUPERMAN!

No he didn’t. He was hired to be CEO at someone else’s company.

Today it’s very common to use the language of spiritual ecstasy when talking about your career – people speak of ‘vocation’, ‘mission’, ‘revolution’, ‘business heretics’, ‘free spirits’, ‘passion projects’, ‘epiphanies’, ‘breakthroughs’ and so on.

Maybe this seems weird to you. I find it a bit weird too. But here’s the thing: people want it. People crave it. People yearn for authenticity, emotional expressiveness, deep sharing and bonding, meaning, and – yes – ecstasy and altered states of consciousness. And most people these days aren’t religious, so some end up getting these things through business and personal development courses both within their companies and outside of them.

And people might be surprised by themselves – they may go in to these sorts of sessions with all their Enlightenment skepticism and emotional inhbition intact, and suddenly find themselves letting go and letting it all hang out…

Some people find real breakthroughs via business coaching or personal development courses. But there are risks too.

Any ecstatic experience can be dangerous, because it involves a move beyond one’s usual ego-constructions to a new form of being. This can involve some form of temporary regression to a childhood state, and it can involve trauma coming up from one’s past – abuse, rape, or just parents who didn’t love us enough. If people already have unstable egos, a challenge to one’s ego might lead to temporary psychosis, like a bad trip. At the least, it involves people suspending their critical faculties and their emotional reserve and moving into a hypnotic state where they’re highly suggestible (and exploitable).

Corporate culture or business-coaching culture is not always a safe vessel for this type of intense experience. Within businesses, it can lead to a cultish absorption in The Company and devotion to the Leader. People within the Company lose critical distance, lose the ability to say ‘this isn’t right’. Look at The Wolf of Wall Street, for example – the charismatic leader inspired his employees, but also led them (and their customers) off an ethical cliff.

Within business coaching seminars, the organization – Landmark or whoever – might not have the training or the willingness to cope with the emotional trauma that might come up in participants. I wrote about this in Philosophy for Life, telling the story of a friend, Adam, who had a psychotic episode during a Landmark course, and didn’t feel he was given any sort of proper care.

People can also get caught up in the emotional contagion of the group dynamic. Within a church context, that might mean they suddenly find themselves converting to Christianity. Wthin a business-coaching context, it might mean they suddenly find themselves quitting their job. Both might not be fully conscious decisions (Christians might say ‘so what, any route to Jesus is good’).

I think the biggest risk is that, in the words of the Vatican, places like Landmark ‘marry counter-cultural values with the mainstream need to succeed’. I would like to believe that God doesn’t need me to be a material success, and the proof of His love for me is not in my earnings. I would like to believe He lets me be broken and lost, while business ecstasy sometimes requires me to be superpowered and superoptimistic. I’d like to believe I can part of His family for free – I don’t need to pay for membership like I would at Landmark.

And can you imagine having an ecstatic experience – a movement beyond your ego – and all you end up reaching is Microsoft? That’s not transcending very far.

Then again, organized religion is not always the safest vessel for ecstatic experience either, and it can be just as corporate and money-grubbing. Think of the massive global popularity of Pentecostalism, with its Gospel of Prosperity and its tele-evangelists with their pay-per-prayer business model. Organized religion can be just as exploitative, just as damaging, just as unregulated, just as willing to promise Incredible Benefits to the faithful. And God doesn’t always seem to be there, while career achievement is more…er….tangible.

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John Carter - Oxford University v Cambridge UniversityJohn-Henry Carter is the most successful captain of Oxford rugby team ever, the only captain to lead the team to three successive victories in the Varsity match. The former flanker attributes that success not to his speed or his 6ft 3 frame, but to his training in psychodynamic therapy and existentialist philosophy.

After graduating, John played professional rugby at Sale Sharks in 2004, but his brief career was plagued with injury and he had to retire in 2007, after five operations. He was physically battered, but also morally disillusioned by ‘the primitive belief that meaning and consequence transpired through a scoreline’. He hadn’t found what he was looking for in professional sports.

He went to Oxford University to do a MSt in psychodynamic psychotherapy. While there, he got drawn back into rugby, and was invited to become manager of the team in 2011, at the age of 30. He became captain as well. At that point, although Oxford were winning games, the culture was “full of a misconceived idea of masculinity – sexism, homophobia.” He took on the challenge of leading the team because he thought he could change the culture and find that enigmatic thing he’d been looking for – spirit, being, soul.

At the same time, he worked on his PhD, about the mental struggles faced by professional rugby players when they retire. Based on in-depth interviews with six players, five of them internationals, it’s a fascinating insight into male identity and how it can find and lose itself in sports.

John uses the story of Peter Pan as an organizing myth for some of his insights in the PhD. He talks about how players live in ‘Neverland’ – a sort of dream-world of fantasy. The players he interviewed spoke of ‘living the dream’, ‘having to pinch myself’, ‘feeling high’, ‘like I’m on drugs’ when they’re playing at big matches. It sounds like ecstasy – or a sort of trance state. And in this dream-land, they will never lose, never get hurt, never got old.

They’re not just living out their own childhood dreams – they’re acting out the dreams of all the millions of spectators watching them too. The media like to say ‘the fans were in dreamland’. Well, that’s exactly right – fans use sport to enter trance-states, to regress to the fairy tale fantasies of childhood as they watch the game. The media feeds this fantasy, with language like ‘fairy tale’, ‘magic’, legend’, ‘talisman’, with every over-the-top slow-motion Wagnerian montage, and every ridiculously puffed-up publicity poster.

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Bring on the World

The spectators like to fetishize their sports’ heroes inner lives. ‘How are you feeling? This must be the best moment of your life, is it?’ The same thing happens when an actor wins an Oscar, and they go into dreamland – that ultimate valorisation of their external self. And the truth is, they might not know how they’re feeling. Winning – for all that we fetishize it as the ultimate goal in life – is more emotionally complex than we realize. Many Olympic gold-medallists, for example, speak of their ‘depression, mourning, emptiness’ after they win.

As in Hollywood, the immersion in dreamland leads to a sort of ego-splitting – on the one hand you have the external self, the persona, a fantasy-self of power, heroism and invincibility. But behind that, hidden from everyone else, is the shadow self, which is weak, afraid, hurt and confused. But that self can’t be shown, can’t even be admitted to oneself, amid a culture (John writes) ‘defined by positive thinking and positive action through omnipotent dreamlike beliefs and tag-lines such as ‘Just Do It’’.

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One reason many men love team sports is for the male bonding it allows – it enables them to be with each other and express love and physical intimacy, whether you’re a player or a fan. But men are often terrible at expressing that, and at being vulnerable and authentic with each other. So the vulnerability gets hidden behind a mask of machismo, sexism, homophobia, binge-drinking, ‘banter’ and the autistic exchange of sport stats and punditry. And beneath it all is a terror of losing intimacy and being on one’s own.

How did John do it differently at Oxford? Firstly, he redefined what it meant to win. Victory was not primarily about the scoreline, he insisted. It was ‘a commitment to the potential experience of being’. He says: ‘This commitment to ‘being’ felt like a spiritual alchemy – We embarked upon a voyage to simultaneously create and discover our ‘spirit’.’ The team embraced honesty, authenticity, trust, relatedness, creativity and play – the conditions to allow this ‘spirit’ to emerge.

In practical terms, this meant being ‘player-led’ rather than led by top-down diktat. It also meant John spent a lot of time talking to the players one-on-one, and in group conversations, in which all 30 of the team would take part and learn to be open, trusting and vulnerable with each other. ‘The consequence of it was much greater than I could have ever imagined. It was a really ethereal sense of being. I got to taste that sense of being.’

Again, this may sound unlikely, but it’s exactly what I do with Saracens, where it’s incredibly refreshing to hear players express their fear of failure, or death, and to be able also to express their feelings of joy, hope and love. It’s a mature model of male identity, of male strength and courage. John says: ‘It takes more courage than anything I’ve experienced to look at the parts of yourself you don’t want to see and to let other people see your vulnerability. That’s ultimate courage.’

The Saracens philosophy club (I'm the slightly smaller one in the middle)

The Saracens philosophy club (I’m the slightly smaller one in the middle)

I imagine some of you might be groaning and thinking this is the ultimate triumph of the therapised, feminised male – but John’s leadership made the team stronger, not weaker. If you think it made them weak, watch the highlights of their routs of Cambridge.

John’s now retired from rugby, for the second time. It is not easy to retire from rugby, because you’re losing your surrogate family. He describes retired players as ‘lost boys’. Of the six players he interviewed for his PhD, all of them said they felt depressed after retiring, and a third of them felt suicidal. Team sports allow men to recreate the small tribe in which humans have existed for most of their existence. And then, at retirement, suddenly you are in the lonely atomised world of modern neoliberalism.

But, after a period of grief and mourning, John’s enjoying his new life as a psychodynamic therapist, working both with sports teams, and with schools and individuals. What I personally admire in his work is his ability to describe and live a better sort of male identity than we sometimes fall for – more complex, more open to love and to suffering. Imagine if sportsmen went from being poster-boys for infantile fantasies of invincibility, to becoming ambassadors for the messy and sometimes wonderful experience of being human.

If you enjoyed this, read this piece on my first visit to Saracens, and this Telegraph article about my work with them. And here is a great journal article John wrote about his work.

*****

In other news:

Here is the brief radio 4 thing I did on Aristotle and the politics of flourishing. And here is something I wrote on Neo-Aristotelianism in politics for the New Statesman, complete with an embedded animation about Aristotle made by the BBC and narrated by Stephen Fry!

It’s election season in the UK, and many politicians are making the right noises about mental health. But where’s the action, asks psychiatrist Simon Wessely.

Eurostat publishes new figures on European happiness – the Scandinavians are still the happiest!

Is studying philosophy a good protection against religious extremism? Interesting case-study of two brothers from Tunisia in the New York Times.

Wired magazine reports on Panoply, a new social network to improve mental health.

And here’s an article on a new headband you can buy for $300, that monitors your brain waves during meditation.

Julian Baggini has a new book out on free will, reviewed here by Terry Eagleton.

Something called ‘the Society for Atheistic Spirituality‘ has a $500 million donation to build a cenotaph for Newton. Hang on – was he an atheist?? Oh well.

Here’s a talk by my friend the psychologist Oliver Robinson, on why science and spirituality are friends, not enemies.

Finally, it’s Easter, a festival devoted to the idea that death is not the end for humans – an idea I happen to believe. Here’s a long and good article on the science of near-death experiences from the Atlantic magazine. Why, it asks, if NDEs are ‘just’ chemical, do they so often follow ancient mythical narrative structures of darkness and rebirth?

See you next week,

Jules

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Extase_Iconographie-e1369328952903One of the things I want to argue in my next book is that ecstatic experiences have been pathologised in the secular west, to our detriment. People still experience ecstasy – by which I mean moments where we go beyond the self and feel connected to something bigger than us, usually a spirit but also sometimes another individual or group – but we lack the framework to make sense of such experiences. And, as Aldous Huxley said, ‘if you have these experiences, you keep your mouth shut for fear of being told to go to a psychoanalyst’ – or, in our day, a psychiatrist.

The medicalisation and pathologisation of ecstasy happened slowly over the last four centuries – it is a key shift in the emergence of secular society. Before the 17th century, if you had an ecstatic experience, you might either be canonized or demonized. Either way your experience was carefully defined and controlled by the Church, which has always been wary of unbridled ecstasy, particularly in women (see Monsignor Ronald Knox’s misogynistic Enthusiasm (1950) for a recent example – Knox writes ‘the history of enthusiasm is largely the history of female emancipation…and it is not a reassuring one’).

Then, from the 17th century on, cases of both ecstasy and possession were viewed not as spiritual encounters but as disorders of our mechanical body, the product of diseased nerves, or an over-heated brain, or ‘animal spirits’, or ‘the vapours’. In the 19th century, unstable women were increasingly diagnosed with ‘hysteria’, a disease which Egyptians suggested, back in 1900 BC, was caused by a ‘wandering womb’ (supposedly the womb could be lured back to its proper position by holding scented objects near the affected woman’s vagina).

220px-Jean-Martin_CharcotThe understanding of hysteria didn’t advance much in the 4000 years to 1856, when Charcot was made head of the Salpetriere hospital in Paris. Salpetriere was the biggest hospital for women in Europe, and a ‘grand asylum of human misery’, as Charcot put it. He and his team carried out ground-breaking research into several neurological conditions – Parkinson’s, Tourette’s, Multiple Sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s syndrome – but it was his work on hysteria that made Charcot globally famous.

Hysteria was a notoriously loose and imprecise diagnosis, so Charcot attempted to classify it, and discover the physical cause of it. He insisted that hysterical fits followed four clearly-defined stages – 1) epileptoid fits, 2) ‘the period of contortions and grand movements’, 3) ‘passionate attitudes’, and 4) final delirium.

He claimed that, although hysteria was a physical disease caused by a lesion on the brain, one could artificially induce these four stages through hypnosis. To prove this, he used photography to capture the four stages of hysteria, and circulated the evidence through the Iconographie Photographique de la Salpetriere. Photography was still a new, somewhat magical science – rather like neuro-imaging today – and these photos ‘did much to fix the image of hysteria in the public mind’, according to the medical historian Andrew Scull.

Augustine vogue-ing in the Iconographie

Augustine vogue-ing in the Iconographie

Charcot also put on public displays, every Thursday, where he hypnotized female patients and provoked hysterical fits for the fascinated male public, which included everyone from Sigmund Freud to Emile Durkheim. Both in the photographs and in the public displays, Charcot had ‘star patients’ who were particularly good at performing the four stages of hysteria, including a pretty teenager called Augustine, and a devout woman called Genevieve.

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These ladies expertly performed religious poses which Charcot’s team defined as ‘ecstasy’. And the team insisted that their work proved that all the religious ecstatics and demoniacs of yesteryear were suffering from hysteria. Joan of Arc, St Theresa, St Paul, Jesus himself were all evidently hysterics. By a happy coincidence, Genevieve – who suffered from particularly violent fits – came from Loudun, the scene of a mass demonic possession of nuns in the 17th century. Charcot had an extensive gallery of religious art, and displayed the drawings and photos of his hysterics next to this art – were they not one and the same condition?

An illustration of a fit of Genevieve's (right) next to an illustration by Rubens

An illustration of a fit of Genevieve’s (right) next to an illustration by Rubens

This equation of ecstasy with degenerative hysteria served a political purpose. Charcot and his disciples (particularly his main disciple, Desire-Magloire Bourneville) were closely affiliated with the Third Republic, which was virulently anti-monarchist and anti-clerical. Charcot and Bourneville were involved in the campaign to secularize medicine, and to replace nun-nurses with secular nurses. Each proof of the hysterical pathology of religious ecstasy was a broadside in this wider war.

Yet the irony, as several historians of hysteria have noted, is that in many ways the secular diagnosis of hysteria recalled the medieval Inquisition. Of course, none of the hysterics were burned – although they could be subject to physical punishments including mustard baths and ‘ovarian compression’. But they were made to follow and perform a cultural script defined and directed by a male power system, for the prurient consumption of a fascinated male public.

Again and again, the women would be made to perform hysteria, just as the poor nuns of Loudun were wheeled out, over and over, to go through their demonic antics. They would literally be fixed into poses, like ‘automatons’ or ‘statues’ as Charcot’s disciples put it, and then the poses were used as evidence for the pathology of ecstasy. This script advanced the career ambitions and political agenda of the men in charge, as it did in the Inquisition.

As with the Inquisition, it sounds like a form of pornographic cabaret masquerading as a public service. The Iconographie looks like a porn catalogue, with the photos of the sexy teenager Augustine interspersed with accounts of her sexual reveries. And the Thursday shows sound like something from the Moulin Rouge – the women are hypnotized by a gong or a tom-tom drum, the approach of the hysterical fit announced by the shaking of the feathers in their hats, before they fall to the floor clutching their vaginas as the male audience applaud.

Jane_Avril_by_Toulouse-LautrecIndeed, one of the star-hysterics of the Salpetriere went on to become Jane Avril, a lead-dancer at the Moulin Rouge who was painted by Toulouse-Latrec. She claimed she was cured when she learned to dance, which goes back to the ancient Greek idea that the best cure for anxiety and phobia, particularly in women, is the ‘Dionysiac cure’ of dancing. Augustine, meanwhile, finally escaped from Salpetriere, dressed as a man, while Genevieve was offended one day by Charcot and refused to be hypnotized anymore.

Was this the diagnosis of hysteria or, as Charcot’s critics insisted, its cultivation? Was this merely an ‘absurd farce’? It didn’t help that something like 500 hypnosis vaudeville shows sprang up around Paris in the 1880s, some featuring women fresh from their debut at the Salpetriere.

Charcot’s search for a materialist cause for hysteria ultimately failed, and the consensus grew that his fantastic shows were merely the result of suggestion. But a few in the audience – including Sigmund Freud and Frederick Myers – still thought he had hit on something important.

If nothing else, Charcot’s use of hypnosis showed the profound connection between mind and body – his hypnotized patients felt no pain, and their physical symptoms could sometimes be cured by hypnosis and suggestion. His work suggested the existence of what Myers called a ‘subliminal self’, which could be brought to the surface under hypnosis. And it suggested a connection between spirituality, sexuality and subliminal or hypnotic states.

However, Charcot – and, later, Freud – defined hysteria purely as a symptom of female sexual disorder, when it could be argued it was just as much a product of male sexual disorder. Many of the hysterics had been raped as children or teenagers, and were struggling in a society dominated by men with few opportunities for female liberty. Performing sexual hysteria for a titillated male public was one opportunity for approval, expression and a sort of fame.

Frederick Myers, founder of the Society of Psychical Research and gifted writer on psychology (alas all his works are now out-of-print)

Frederick Myers, founder of the Society of Psychical Research and gifted writer on psychology (alas all his works are now out-of-print)

Frederick Myers and William James, meanwhile, accepted the idea that spirituality might be connected to sexuality, to hypnotic or subliminal states, and to nervous instability. But they insisted it wasn’t necessarily pathological or degenerative – many of the geniuses of human culture were ecstatics, much of our culture is the product of ecstasy. Perhaps, wrote Myers, ‘ecstasy is to hysteria somewhat as genius is to insanity’.

In fact, as Asti Hustvedt argues in her excellent Medical Muses: Hysteria in 19th Century Paris, in seeking to pathologize ecstasy, Charcot ended up spiritualizing medicine. He used the language of religion – ecstasy, stigmata, possession – and also some of the ritual and performance of religion. He and his disciples explored how hypnotized women seemed to exhibit miraculous powers of telepathy (a word Myers later coined).

By the end of his career, Charcot, like William James, came to recognize that religious ritual could be powerfully healing, even if the mechanism that healed was really ‘just’ suggestion. His last work, an article on ‘the faith cure’, suggests the miracle cures at Lourdes and elsewhere are real, but simply the result of suggestion. James and Myers went further, speculating that the hypnotized self might also be more open to spiritual forces.

We still don’t know. Hustvedt notes that, while ‘the hysterics of yesteryear’ have disappeared, a new batch of poorly-understood and possibly psychosomatic illnesses have proliferated – chronic fatigue syndrome, ME, post-viral fatigue, cutting, anorexia, conversion disorder, depression, psychogenic non-epileptic seizures, mass psychogenic illness – the prevalence of which is higher, sometimes much higher, in women than in men.

Are these real or invented? Physical or mental? Pathological or spiritual or both? We still don’t know. We don’t yet understand the relationship between mind and body, between mind and gender, between your mind and my mind, and between our minds and nature / God / Super-consciousness.

One last item in this bizarre and fascinating history: the vibrator was invented in the late 19th century as a result of the ancient theory that female orgasm (or ‘paroxysms’) helped to cure hysteria. Doctors would bring patients to paroxysm by manipulation, but complained their hands got cramp, so one bright spark invented an electric dildo. Meanwhile the first electrically-vibrating bed was actually developed as part of an 18th-century sexual-religious-health show called the Temple of Health and Hymen – where the star-performer was the delectable Emma Hamilton.

Don’t you think this would all make a brilliant musical?

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