Our claustrophobic culture lacks transcendence
I’ve been working on a book provisionally entitled Modern Ecstasy for the last two years. I’m half-way through, and having a mid-season wobble. Turns out it’s difficult to write about transcendence. Who knew!
Why did I pick this topic? Why, I ask you, why?!
Here's why. I owe much of my recovery from trauma to a near-death experience I had in 2001, when I encountered a shining white light filled with love for me and all humanity, which I think was what Meister Eckhart calls 'the divine ground of our being'. That encounter healed me - that, along with several years of Greek philosophy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
Having written a book about Greek philosophy and CBT, I wanted to write the other half of the story, and look at ecstatic experiences - moments when we feel we go beyond our ordinary selves and connect with some higher transcendent reality, which you may or may not call God.
Greek philosophy and CBT is quite an easy sell in our culture - we like rational, technocratic quick fixes or ‘life-hacks’ that give us more control of our selves. Ecstatic experiences are a harder sell. We don’t talk much about ecstasy or transcendence any more. Mainstream culture has become quite resolutely this-world, naturalistic, scientific, focused on the tangible and measurable. The idea of surrendering control and being filled by a spirit or God no doubt seems bonkers to many.
Last year, I was asked to give a talk on transcendence to an informal gathering of Radio 4 producers called the Ideas Club. I think I bombed. Probably because I was incoherent, but also, I think, because Radio 4 producers, like most guardians of high-brow British culture (The Economist, the Guardian, Prospect, the London Review of Books, most of academia), are not really into transcendence, certainly not the religious variety. It makes them uncomfortable, like when a nutter starts talking to you on the bus. Name one BBC TV or radio programme that explored religious transcendence.
Now, you may find our culture’s lack of transcendent woo-woo refreshing. Personally, I find it claustrophobic. Transcendence is like oxygen. Without it we suffocate. In fact, in the stand-off between European secularism and Islam, I have some sympathy with the Muslims. They have a sense - quite accurate - that their supernatural world-view is under existential threat. In one generation they have moved from the collective sea of religious faith to the parched shore of the most secular culture in human history. They are flapping on the beach, gasping for breath.
I would like to dig a well or do a rain-dance to help to bring more transcendence into western culture, while still retaining all that is good about secular liberalism (gay rights, women rights, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and so on). No biggie.
Well, two years in, turns out it is a bit of a biggie. There are three main stumbling blocks in my Search for Transcendence.
1 The horcrux conundrum
You remember the horcruxes in Harry Potter, the scattered objects in which Voldemort had put part of his soul? Harry and the gang had to find them all. Well, that’s a bit what it’s like trying to track down transcendence in modern western society.
Before the Enlightenment, most transcendent experiences happened within the context of religion. Since the Enlightenment, there’s been what Charles Taylor called a ‘nova effect’ - and transcendence has spilled out into many different areas of life. Romantic poetry, for example, is a form of ‘spilt religion’ (in TE Hulme’s phrase). It’s a vessel for what remains of our impulse towards the transcendent. So is classical music. So is rock & roll. Drugs are some people’s main ‘avenue to transcendence’ these days. For others it’s sex. For others, it’s football. Or art. Or nature. Or love.
Like Harry, Ron and Hermione, I find these horcruxes of transcendence in so many different aspects of modern culture that it’s difficult to put them all together. I even see it in Fifty Shades of Grey, for God’s sake - instead of surrendering to an all-powerful God, the heroine makes a God of Christian Grey for her ‘inner goddess’ to surrender to.
This diversity is a challenge for the structure of the book, because many of these various avenues to transcendence weave together. How do you anatomize ecstasy into tidy categories?
2 Talking about the Ineffable is effing hard
It turns out it’s very difficult to discuss transcendence using words. We have no agreed terminology, nor a developed sense of the different types of consciousness we might be experiencing.
You can use the terminology of a particular religion - they have tried to talk about ecstatic experiences for millennia, so we might as well draw on their terminology and wisdom - ‘rapture’, ‘encounters with the Holy Spirit’, ‘divine ground of being’ and so on. Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism have just as rich vocabularies as Christianity for transcendent states of consciousness.
However, it’s not clear that one religion’s terminology point to the same state or encounter as another’s. The Christian God that runs to meet us is not the same as Advaita’s Pure Consciousness, or Buddhism’s emptiness. All of these traditions are incredibly complex and sophisticated, and I’m not an expert on any of them. And the great religious teachers warn of the extreme difficulty of putting the transcendent into words. It’s the transcendent, after all. It transcends human language.
You could try to use more secular psychological terminology - Abraham Maslow’s ‘peak experiences’, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘flow’, or the new psychology of ‘awe’, ‘uplift’ and ‘self-transcendence’. There's important and interesting experimental work being done in this field. But an entirely secularized version of ecstasy seems inadequate to me - it lacks the sense of mystery and surrender, the sense of going beyond the self, being filled with love, healing and inspiration, and not knowing Who or What you are encountering. The attempt to incorporate transcendence into a rational science can end up clipping its wings.
You can do the sort of dance William James did, and speak of ‘religious experience’, leaving open the question of whether that experience is ontologically ‘real’ or not. But reducing transcendence to transcendent experience makes it something that occurs in an individual’s personal psychology, rather than something collective, or something in which a deeper reality or Being is genuinely encountered.
I personally think William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience is still the best secular book written on this area - it has a wonderful openness to the supernatural which is lacking in most modern psychology of transcendence. James makes the connection between religious experience and altered states of consciousness, like hypnagogic or trance states, which I find fascinating and fruitful. But talking about transcendence in terms of trance or altered states does not necessarily shed more light: after a century of psychology and 40 years of brain imaging, we still know very little about these states. Never mind ‘altered states of consciousness’, we still don’t know what ordinary states of consciousness are.
So it’s very difficult to talk about ecstatic experiences. You end up feeling some sympathy with Wittgenstein’s position: ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one should be silent’.
3 Who am I to talk?
The final challenge is working out what I personally believe and how I should live. If you’re writing a book about transcendence, you preferably have some sense of what it means to you. Most of the time we don’t really define what our religious beliefs are. Writing this book has led me to try and define what I believe that near-death experience was. And that’s been bewildering.
In 2013, I flung myself ecstatically into charismatic Anglicanism, which interested me as a modern culture unusually steeped in ecstasy. I found it emotionally stirring and communally very strong, but intellectually stifling. So I turned to more contemplative practices - including both eastern practices and Christian contemplation. My life now is a gallimaufry of spiritual practices (including going to church), through which I try to centre my being and meet God. I wonder if I have made any spiritual progress at all in the last two years.
The more I write about transcendence, the more I have a sense of my personal inadequacy to speak of such matters. To speak of God. To speak of mystical states attained by people who devoted their entire lives to spiritual practice. My life-style is somewhat different to St Teresa’s. I am spiritually mediocre. I live weighed down by compulsions, addictions and distractions. How can I presume to blunder into this sacred realm?
What I say to myself, when I think such thoughts, is this: if transcendence is going to mean something today, if it is not going to be a minority pursuit for the spiritual elite, then it should mean something and be in some measure ‘attainable’ even for a confused, self-absorbed, hedonist slacker like me. If this topic challenges me to improve my life, that’s good. And these are desperate times. All hands to the deck. Even you.
In other news this week:
If you're in New York, go and see 'Losing Ground' at the Lincoln Centre, it's a movie about a philosophy professor researching and searching for ecstatic experiences! Although she is a black American woman. And an actual professor. It's part of a season of black independent movies. Sounds brilliant.
And if you're in London, go and see Kim Noble's extraordinary one-man comedy show.
Here are the results of the Stoic Week online course trial , done by Tim LeBon. Positive results again!
8-bit philosophy - ideas done in the style of 80s computer games. This one on Nietzsche.
Good Newsweek article on the Hearing Voices Network.
An article about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: 'why psychological flexibility will be a key leadership skill of the future'.
I really encourage you to watch HBO's miniseries Olive Kettridge - it's got an amazing cast led by Frances McDormand, it's funny and very deft in its observations, and it covers mental illness without sentimentality. Here's the trailer.
Every language has a 'positivity bias' according to a new study.
Great Jon Ronson piece on Twitter and public shaming. God he's a good writer!
This Start the Week was good, on the rise of Islamic State, and especially Katherine Brown on why young Muslims get radicalized by the lure of a more virtuous life.
And finally, here are some motivational posters using quotes from Werner Herzog.
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