On altered states and medieval contemplative practices
I write this from York, where yesterday I went to the ‘Story of Chocolate’ museum, and was shown around by a delightful and learned historian, Alex Hutchinson, who is the world expert on the Rowntree family and thus able to tell me some fascinating family gossip. I learned, for example, that my great-grandfather, George Harris, who invented what is today the world’s best-selling chocolate bar (Kit-Kat) was fired as chairman of Rowntree’s for his refusal to pay a parking ticket! He died two years later, poor chap.
Before York, I was in the equally beautiful medieval town of Durham, for a workshop on medieval visionaries, organized by the Centre for Medical Humanities’ Hearing the Voice project.
I gave a rather half-baked presentation exploring the idea of the poet as shaman. I am interested in how poets like Ted Hughes developed ‘techniques of ecstasy’ (to use a phrase from the anthropologist Mircea Eliade) to get themselves into states of trance or reverie which they found conducive to creativity. As Robert Graves put it, ‘No poem is worth anything unless it starts from a poetic trance.’
Poets developed various ways of achieving this reverie - focused attention or absorption, meditation, drugs (De Quincey and Coleridge were both keen on opium as a means to poetic reverie), strenuous exercise (Rousseau, Wordsworth, Carlyle and others all used walking as a trance-inducer), visualisation, rhythm and chanting, mantras (Tennyson could put himself into 'a waking trance' by repeating his own name!) and so on.
And the fruits of these techniques of ecstasy were an unfolding of the self beyond ordinary consciousness, an uncovering of the sensitive deeper parts of the psyche to the spirit world, like a flower opening up its stamen. This can happen and then unhappen suddenly - our minds unfold, and then fold just as quickly, depending on, say, the way the dust plays in a sun-ray. Suddenly, the mind vibrates, the pupils dilate, and we are receiving visitations from the bees of the invisible.
Poets often believe this unfolding connects them to the spirit-world - they were and are far more likely to attribute their poetic inspiration to supernatural spirits rather than natural psychological processes. And who are we to disagree?
Having opened up to the Others (as Yeats called the spirits who spoke to him through his wife), the poet receives messages or, more typically, metaphors and symbols. ‘We have come to give you metaphors for your poems’, the Others told Yeats obligingly. The poet then takes these symbols back to their society or tribe, who can use them as vehicles to these threshold states themselves. They are ladders to the spirit-world, like Jack's beanstalk.
Poets connect the visible, material, political, external world to the invisible and interior spirit world. The poet, like the shaman, is socially important as a mediator or reconciler between these two worlds - in Joseph Campbell’s phrase they are the Master (or Mistress) of Both Worlds.
Ted Hughes, poet and anthropology student, put it best: “The character of great works is this: that in them, the full presence of the inner world combines with and is reconciled to the full presence of the outer world...these works seem to heal us...The faculty that makes the human being out of these two worlds is called divine.”
But Hughes and other modern shamans have been muttering for some time now that western men and women are losing our ‘susceptibility to the trance condition’ as Hughes put it. We’re also losing (perhaps have lost) our belief in the invisible spirit world. Some of us are still interested in altered states of consciousness, but have little idea how to get to them other than through chemical short-cuts or a very long jog. Others insist such states are pathological.
We are becoming denizens of Flat-land, and so many rooms in the mansions of our soul are hardly ever visited. In fact, we’ve pretty much forgotten the mansion and are squatting in the gate-keeper’s lodge.
Hughes thought perhaps we needed education or training in imaginative, contemplative practices to unlock the mansion's great halls- and interestingly (considering he was an out-and-out shamanic animist) he suggested St Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises is one example of this sort of training manual for the mind, the imagination, and the emotions.
This reminds me of that other modern shaman, David Lynch, who also suggests that contemplative practices are the best route to the magic and healing symbols of the unconscious. Hughes used fishing as a meditative practice. Lynch uses it as a metaphor: “Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper. ” And Lynch has tried to reintroduce contemplative practices into schools, to give children the capacity for interiority rather than leaving them in Flat-land.
Spiritual exercises in ancient and medieval Christianity
This brings us back to the seminar in Durham. After my tray of half-baked idea-cookies, I had the pleasure of listening to some world experts on medieval mysticism - Vincent Gillespie and Sarah Salih on Julian of Norwich, Barry Windeatt on Margary Kempe, and others on Bonaventura, Gregory of Nyssa, Marguerite Porete, the Cloud of Unknowing....none of which I’ve read. This is one of the benefits of ignorance - you’re constantly dazzled by unexpected riches.
Talking briefly to Vincent Gillespie of Oxford University, I was fascinated to learn how rich the tradition of contemplative practices is in medieval Christianity. When I think of Christian meditation, I think of people like Father Lawrence Freeman, who as far as I’m aware is mainly inspired by Eastern practices. But there’s an incredibly rich tradition right here in the west - millennia-old practices of reading, contemplation, visualization, memory, fasting and chanting.
The later contemplative manuals like St Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, are (Gillespie told me) actually rather over-systematic and military compared to earlier contemplative handbooks by the likes of Bonaventura or Richard of St Victor, which are more open to the unpredictability of God - the sudden 'showings', or the patient waiting through the dry patches.
As most of you know, I am very interested in the work of Pierre Hadot on ‘spiritual exercises’ in ancient Greek philosophy. Philosophy for Life is about how people use these exercises today, which is what I and colleagues like Donald Robertson are working on at the Stoicism Today project.
What was so fascinating about this Durham seminar was finding out more about the spiritual exercises of medieval Christianity - things like ‘painting the heart’, lectio divina (spiritual reading), art of memory techniques, and the 'affective meditation' techniques they used to cultivate emotional identification with Christ and others. These methods would expand and enrich practitioners' inner lives. 'Narrow is the mansion of my soul', St Augustine wrote. 'Enlarge it, that Thou may enter.'
Reading about, say, the contemplative practices of Richard of St Victor, and then reading this neuroscience paper on altered states of consciousness, it strikes me that we know far less than our medieval ancestors about ASC and how to access them. Could we not draw on their wisdom?
It would be amazing if there was a centre in the UK, perhaps at somewhere like Durham, York or Canterbury, to research and practice some of these ancient, medieval and modern contemplative techniques - and to study them using the ideas and tools of psychology and neuroscience. I wonder if virtual reality technology could be used - imagine building a virtual reality version of Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle! >
A number of these sorts of contemplative research-and-practice institutes exist in the US for Eastern meditation, such as the Mind and Life Institute and the Mindfulness Awareness and Research Centre at UCLA. In the UK, there is the Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice at Bangor and a mindfulness network at Exeter. But I am not sure what exists to research and practice ancient Christian contemplative practices - do any of you know of such centres?
Such a centre could also research and compare contemplative practices from other traditions - Sufi, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Platonic, shamanic -how these traditions fed into each other, and how they feed into non-theological fields like poetic or scientific inspiration. The Christian contemplative tradition also drew heavily on virtue ethics, and so it links up with the contemporary revival of Aristotelian and Stoic ideas and practices.
Universities were born from just this sort of wisdom centre - the school at the Abbey of St Victor, near Paris. In the early 12th century, the school developed its own ‘liberal arts’ programme, teaching students liberal arts, mechanical arts like hunting and farming, and also contemplative practices - the school was home to Hugo of St Victor and Richard of St Victor, two pioneering mystics whose work helped to inspire many later medieval contemplatives. Hugo of St Victor’s mandala-esque painting, The Mystic Ark, hung above the school-room to inspire meditation (here's a modern reproduction of it).
Hugo of St Victor insisted that the purpose of the school should be wisdom. It should feed not just the intellect but the whole person. Somewhere, universities lost sight of that, so that the poet and mystic Thomas Traherne could complain about Oxford in the 17th century: ‘there was never a tutor that did professly teach Felicity....We studied to inform our knowledge, but knew not for what end we so studied.’
The end should be wisdom. ‘Wisdom is the principal thing, yet all neglect her’, Traherne wrote. Wisdom is the heart of the sciences, the arts and the humanities. The wisdom of contemplative practices opens up our minds to inspiration for all these fields. How great it would be if every university had a centre, a mini-school of St Victor, to bring together researchers and practitioners in wisdom, and to provide courses and workshops for staff, students and the wider community.
By the way, the closest existing thing to virtual reality mysticism (VRM) is the Oculus Rift game, Xing, soon-to-be-released, which explores the afterlife: