Rowan Williams: Mental health, mysticism and spirituality

Meditators at the Extinction Rebellion protests

Meditators at the Extinction Rebellion protests

This week I saw Rowan Williams give a talk on ‘mental health, mysticism and spirituality’ at the National Spirituality and Mental Health Forum. He was so impressive – he spoke for an hour without notes, in sentences that were more articulate than I could write, let alone ad lib. Here’s an edited version of his remarks.

He began by raising some problems with the words ‘health’ and ‘mental health’ as they’re commonly used today.

‘Health’ is now a major industry – that penumbra of activities and support mechanisms and practices and courses and all the rest of it, which are designed to make you the perfect agent, in control of your body and circumstances, resilient, long-lived, and above all, happy.

The problem with this definition, he said, is this:

Our health, our well-being, is not simply a state of ideal equilibrium in this organism. Our health in the wider sense is bound up to the attunement we have to other agents, other bodies, and to a material environment which nourishes us and supports us, and which we effect in turn.

When we have, as we currently have, a monumentally dysfunctional relationship between the human race and its overall environment, we can’t abstract ideas of human health from that global unhealthiness […]

When we think of health of any sort, we need to think of an entire ecology, a system of interconnection, and a balance…we need to be speaking about what kind of relationships are life-giving.

The same obviously applies to mental health.

We can’t divorce the question of mental health from the psychic well-being of the human race, at a time of spiraling injustice, inequality, violence and prejudice.

He then brought in a fourth century Christian monk called Evagrius of Pontius, who wrote a treatise called On Thoughts. Evagrius suggests the human mind is prey to all sorts of fantasies and ruminations, and yet beneath all that, there is a yearning for truth and reality.

If the mind is hungry for the real, a mind that we can call healthy is a mind that is open to the real. And the mind that is not healthy is a mind whose contact with the real is disturbed or damaged in some way. That may cover a very wide range of disorders and dysfunctions.

Our problem is that we seem to live in a social and cultural environment globally where unrealism is systematically promoted and rewarded.

At the most extreme we have the levels of denial and unreality which refuse to face the seriousness of our environmental crisis.

But at many other levels we are encouraged and seduced towards the unreal. Eg the systematic unrealism of transhumanism and posthumanism, or the unreal supposition that economic growth can be infinite.

Delusive goals, and delusive models of the self, pressure us towards unreality, and therefore towards damaged health. That’s why I insist that in speaking about mental health, we keep in view that unhealthy, irrational, ultimately subhuman attitude which is so culturally dominant.


“When we have, as we currently have, a monumentally dysfunctional relationship between the human race and its overall environment, we can’t abstract ideas of human health from that global unhealthiness.”

Then he moved to the second of his two terms, ‘mysticism’. He also had problems with this word.

The word can suggest either a vague or misty state of mind, or it can suggest is people having very funny things happen to them – visions, voices, Mystical Experiences.

I want to rescue the word from both those perceptions, and to say what we’re really concerned with in mystical understanding is in fact an exceptionally acute realism, a seeing more clearly.

Evagrius doesn’t think advancing in the life of the spirit makes your perception misty, but clearer. The essence of the mystical life is to see what’s there – the connections, the flow of life between things.

It’s there in Christian mysticism, and it’s something for many more associated with Zen. The point of growing into spiritual maturity is that you live in the moment and see what’s there.

The old Zen saying: ‘Before enlightenment, a mountain is a mountain and a river is a river. In the moment of enlightenment, a mountain stops being a mountain and a river stops being a river. For the enlightened person, the mountain is a mountain again, and the river is a river.’

You go through this deeply disorientating moment, which knocks your busy ego off its centre, and you don’t quite know how to cope with it. But when you re-emerge from that disorientating moment, you see what’s there, in its harmony and grace. That’s the mystical. A lot of talk about mysticism and spirituality can be heard as giving you an escape route. Life is difficult but let’s take our glasses off so things look a bit more vague. But the proper definition of mysticism means we can see the nature of suffering more clearly, not less. It doesn’t make it easier, it makes it clearer.

Any idea of mental health or spiritual fulfilment that suggests the point of it all is to make it easier, becomes really a way of seeing less than there is to see. I hope that our growth is towards seeing suffering more clearly, and feeling some of the ache and the wound of it, while not being driven into a reactive, over-busy, over-anxious response. 

It’s what the Buddha means by compassion lying on the far side of enlightenment. It’s what Evagrius means by freedom from compulsion, which he says is the same as love.

Finally he moved on to the third term, spirituality, which also has its problems.

Spirituality has become for many people a pleasingly undemanding alternative to religion. Religion is all to do with people in black suits telling you what to do, spirituality is all about discovering your own genius.

What I’m suspicious of in the spiritual is not the lack of structure and authority, but sometimes the lack of community, shared perspective, and intelligent interaction. Spiritual well-being, like other kinds of health, is about life-giving relationships.

The word ‘spirit’ in Christian scripture is almost always used in connection with connection, communion, koinonia – the common enterprise. The spirit unites us in understanding and compassion.

Any notion of spirituality other than that might risk pushing us back towards that idea of health and well-being which I began dismantling – a purely individual state of equilibrium rather than an ecology of life-giving relationships.

Spiritual well-being will have something to do with finding those contexts, those communities, those disciplines, that are capable of challenging the fantasies and myths that are pushed at us.

The spiritual is always going to be about challenging idols and images. Evagrius says the whole process of growing to maturity involves pushing through images to something deeper, whether that’s images of yourself or God.

A very significant part of that is finding communities where those practices are shared and you can be held to account, and people can push back in regard to your goals, your aims and self-image.

For example in monasteries – you expose your thoughts and anxieties to an experienced colleague. ‘This is what’s going on, these are the fantasies and obsessions’.

The spiritual life has something to do with iconoclasm – making sure we have a critical edge towards the fantasies we have, so we end up seeing without compulsive, craving, greedy seeing.

That challenging of images and idols has a good deal to with the way we can challenge the images and idols of society… the connection between the spiritual and the political is a real one.  

Three terms. Mental health, mysticism, spirituality.  Framed around the central question of life-giving sustaining relationships. The mystical and the spiritual is the key to understanding what well-being is. Not a protected calmness and unnatural detachment, but having sufficient freedom to look clearly at what’s there, inside and outside, to resist some of the imprisoning models pushed at us, to resist some of the systems of power in which we live, so that, by being more deeply open, passive and receptive to truth and the real, we become more genuinely active, capable of living from an active centre of our being, not the periphery, not just reactive.

He concluded by suggesting we need a culture that nourishes our capacity to face reality, and to find nourishing relationships, a society that is not more ‘healthy’ but more integrated.

In the Q&A, I asked him if, in the face of climate change and mass extinction, mysticism can offer people a sort of cosmic hope, along the lines of St Julian’s ‘all will be well’?

He replied:

Let’s be very careful about telling ourselves a cheery story. Because the future may not turn out very cheery. There is no guarantee whatsoever that things will turn out well in the ordinary sense. But we can live, day by day, out of a sense of the worthwhileness of our being, and therefore of our decisions. And to live with that sense of worthwhileness of who we are, that’s where hope resides. In the next five or ten minutes there will be choices I can make which are more or less in accord with the well-being of the universe, and my self. That doesn’t mean in fifty years time, that action, or anyone’s, will have stopped rising water in Bangladesh. But I like to think (a) it won’t have done any harm and (b) there will be no answers at all unless I have that confidence here and now.

I don’t think British culture is overly blessed with spiritual teachers, but he is one of them. You can watch a video of the full lecture by becoming a member of the Spirituality and Mental Health Forum. And you can read his thoughts on why GDP is a bad measure of progress here. Here he is on St Theresa and whether one can divorce ‘mystical experiences’ from their religious context. Here’s an interview I did with the former Bishop of London, Richard Charteris, on the practice of contemplation. And here, below, is Rowan leading a meditation outside St Paul’s as part of Extinction Rebellion – mystic activism at its best.